Geoff Ryman’s short fiction has seemed so distinctive, and has been so often award nominated over the past couple of decades, that it comes as something of a surprise to realize there’s so little of it, or that the sixteen stories in his new collection Paradise Tales – his first since the four novellas gathered in Unconquered Countries way back in 1994 – comprise all but a handful of the stories he’s published since. Some of Ryman’s high profile may come from his generous presence at conventions, and some may derive from his association with movements such as Mundane SF or the genre’s growing multicultural sensibility (a trend he shares with writers as diverse as Ian McDonald and Nnedi Okorafor), but for the most part, as these stories make evident, what is most distinctive is the passionate, lyrical, sometimes sardonic voice of one of the most deeply committed writers the field has seen in a generation.
Ryman’s reputation as a multiculturalist – one of the first SF writers to persistently remind us that futures are not confined to the familiar Anglo-American axis – is most often associated with Cambodia, a recurrent inspiration for his fiction from the early The Unconquered Country (1986) to his most recent novel The King’s Last Song (2006), and Cambodia inevitably shows up here as well, most notably in the masterful (if somewhat controversial) ghost story ‘‘Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter’’ – here retitled from its original appearance as ‘‘Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy)’’, which re-imagines the real-life daughter (a rather sad figure, by most accounts) as a glamorous party girl determinedly oblivious of her father’s crimes until her computer printer begins spewing out images of his myriad victims. While the narrator repeatedly reminds us that ‘‘This is a completely untrue story about someone who must exist’’ (rendering that parenthesis in the original title a bit redundant), the story disturbed some for its apparent appropriation of an actual life, although that didn’t prevent its Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy nominations. The more elliptical ‘‘Blocked’’, which more directly links the experience of Cambodia with a familiar SF theme, is also introduced by an odd disclaimer in which the first-person narrator tells us it’s all a dream, in which he is a wealthy casino owner in a Sihanoukville threatened by a vaguely described alien invasion which drives the population into underground bunkers. Though more narratively adventurous, it doesn’t quite achieve the haunting power of ‘‘Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter’’. More successful is the folktale-like ‘‘The Last Ten Years in the Life of Hero Kai’’, which is not specifically set in Cambodia but in an invented land called Kamba, where an aging monk becomes a samurai-like hero by embodying the ‘‘ten rules of heroism’’ from a sacred text. Even further removed from Cambodia, but reflecting some of the same moral anguish, is the collection’s one new story, ‘‘K is for Kosovo (or, Massimo’s Career)’’, in which an investigator tries to verify the stories of a Gypsy family multiply raped by the Kosovo Liberation Army. Though slight on plot, the tale turns into a disturbing and powerful meditation on weaponized rape.
Ryman isn’t always so grim. The opening tale, ‘‘The Film-Makers of Mars’’, involves the discovery of ancient films, mostly featuring Herman Blix (only slightly altered from the real-life early Tarzan star Herman Brix), which suggests that Burroughs’s Martian tales may not have been entirely fictional. Along the way it makes some telling comments about the racism of early SF, but is generally more successful than the waggish ‘‘The Future of Science Fiction’’, which involves some clever parody, but seems a bit dated since its original 1992 appearance. In ‘‘No Bad Thing’’, a vampire, who may be a revenant Einstein, discovers a method to clone the undead. Ryman’s skill as a satirist and humorist is easy to overlook, but the most thoroughy enjoyable tale here is ‘‘V.A.O.’’, set in an all-too-near future in which the narrator can only afford his nursing home care by hacking various accounts, and in which society at large is plagued by an increasing wave of ‘‘Age Rage,’’ crimes masterminded by a supervillain known only as Silhouette, a kind of geriatric amalgam of Harlan Ellison’s Harlequin and Alan Moore’s V.
Aging, in fact, is another concern that is seldom addressed by SF, but shows up regularly in Ryman’s fiction. ‘‘Home’’ describes the fearful plight of an aging narrator in a brutal future in which the homeless are casually murdered, in sometimes gruesome ways, and the elderly are almost as easily victimized. ‘‘Everywhere’’ is a touching and somewhat sentimental tale involving the death of a grandfather, while ‘‘You’’ – though based on the intriguing conceit of living in other people’s blogs – basically centers around a retired professor whose life is altered by the discovery of possible alien artifacts on Mars. It’s not the only time Ryman combines a believable portrait of aging with a information-dominated, environmentally threatened future; in ‘‘Talk is Cheap’’, the narrator tries to maintain his relevance by working as a low-status ‘‘Walker’’, whose task is to walk around and determine that ‘‘reality matches our models.’’ Almost incidentally, the story features one of the most richly imagined futures in the collection.
Sexuality is another theme that Ryman explores in distinctive ways, from the rather experimental narrative of ‘‘Omnisexual’’ to the satirical ‘‘Birth Days’’, ingeniously organized around successive birthdays of its protagonist, in which the threatened extinction of gays through a medical discovery that permits parents to choose gender orientation is countered by another that enables gay men to become pregnant. But some of Ryman’s stories are nearly unclassifiable: one of the most surprisingly powerful tales, ‘‘Days of Wonder’’, begins as an almost lyrical celebration of the lives of intelligent horses in a posthuman world – until we realize that the horses have been altered in partly human ways, that they are capable of remarkable cruelty against their natural predators the cats, and that, in fact, all the remaining animal species have been implanted with ‘‘seeds’’ of specific human characteristics (bears have writing, for example, and dolphins know astronomy). The drama that unfolds after one of the horses, having suffered the loss of her foal, captures and tortures a cat, leads to some provocative discussions about the nature of and need for predators. As in the best of Ryman’s fiction, the world unfolds in ways that are at once astonishing and thoroughly thought out, both radically disorienting and emotionally powerful. Even a fairly familiar tale like ‘‘Warmth’’, about the bond that develops between a boy and his robot surrogate-mother, evokes this feeling of deep sentiment and loss. It may be Ryman’s most characteristic move, and it’s part of what makes his imagination not quite like anyone else’s.