Non-Parallel Universes, by Bud Sparhawk (Fantastic Books 978-1-5154-1020-1, $14.99, 268pp) May 2017
Publisher and editor Ian Randal Strock is a friendly and energetic indie-press presence at many conventions, hawking his suite of novels and collections under the imprint of Fantastic Books. You might very well have seen his table full of great books in one huckster room or another. If so, you should snatch up any titles you want right then and there (or order from the website of Fantastic Books).
One of their 2017 offerings is this collection of Bud Sparhawk’s short fiction, nineteen stories deriving from 2007 to 2015. His third such assemblage, after his short-story debut in 1976, the book illustrates Sparhawk’s talent and tenacity in equal measures. Congratulations on forty-plus years of entertaining his readers! I won’t be able to give details on all of the nearly twenty stories in this space, but will simply highlight my favorites that convey a sense of his work.
The book kicks off with a story both brainy and heart-tugging, “Astronomic Distance/Geologic Time.” Belying its somewhat bland title, the story succeeds on both the microcosmic level–a boy, his dog, a family–and the macrocosmic level: a fleet of interstellar probes that travels for millions of years on a quest for knowledge. Sparhawk’s yoking of the visceral with the intellectual is indicative of his deep SF lineage.
“The Suit” is a droll look at the Internet of Things, worthy of Sheckley or Tenn: “YOU SHOULD NOT INDULGE IN ICE CREAM, my underwear informed me.” Here we see Sparhawk’s penchant for not taking things too seriously all the time, while yet dealing with matters of true import to the human condition. He returns to this same future in “The Snack,” this time with an emphasis on advances in medicine.
“Encounter in a Yellow Wood” blends a love story with a discourse on the rivalry between biotech and hardware, as our protagonist–the biotech patron–has to confront the limits of his own remediation techniques in a world rife with trouble spots and hot zones. Sparhawk here is careful not to weight the controversy one way or another.
Next up is “The Old Man’s Best,” which has a lot of fun examining the trials of some thirsty space workers out around Jupiter who seek to brew their own booze. It reads like a missing vital episode out of Ben Bova’s Sam Gunn universe. Both “True Friends” and “Tommy and the Beast” conflate warfare with mankind’s love of their companion animals, producing tragic yet well-earned and unsentimental heartbreak. The short-short “Delivery” (there are several good flash fictions in this volume) ends with a quiet zinger that Fredric Brown would have been proud of.
Take a veteran who’s been mind-wiped of his wartime activities in the name of easing his return to civilian society. Add in a lonely woman who falls for him. Finally insert a local lawman who had been the woman’s prior lover, and who resents the “Amnesty vets.” That’s “Forgiveness,” a love triangle infused with real technological riffs, representing what Sturgeon defined as the true essence of SF: “A science fiction story is a story built around human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its scientific content.”
Two stories here seem allied, and account for my two favorite reading experiences of this book. Both attempt to survey a posthuman universe. The first, “Ten Winks to Forever,” starts with a hero who hails essentially from our condition. He becomes a “wink” pilot, making larger and larger relativistic hops across the cosmos, until he is alienated from the galactic culture that has outpaced him by developing in slower realtime. This story stands in the great tradition of “Scanners Live in Vain” and “Aye, and Gomorrah.” Its cousin piece is “Pilgrim,” which rather inverts the scenario of its companion tale. We start with a posthuman protagonist who journeys further and further backward into the archaeological past, until at last he confronts a talisman of all that has changed, an ancient robot.
Lastly, “Slider” again exemplifies the Sturgeon approach, delving deep into family dynamics which are warped by the introduction of a kind of body-mod tech that will allow the family’s son to enjoy a glorious life, but a brief one, in the world of sports.
The fact that the majority of these stories appeared in Analog magazine offer us a useful way to think about Sparhawk and his career. If the term “Analog writer” means anything anymore, long after John W. Campbell’s death, the description has to encompass and be enshrined in the person of Bud Sparhawk. Like Christopher Anvil and Eric Frank Russell, like James Schmitz and Tom Purdom, Sparhawk offers us unflashy, solid tales which nonetheless often extend SF’s remit. He never neglects either real technological novums nor humanistic story-telling values. He does not privilege message over entertainment, nor vice versa, but rather tries to keep both in balance. And in the end, he’s all about the art and the history and traditions of the genre, not self-aggrandizing grandstanding.
I call that a valuable gift to the community of readers and a proud and honorable legacy.