Unusual for a non-retrospective or non-best-of collection, the ten stories contained within George Zebrowski’s In the Distance, and Ahead in Time (2002, re-released by Open Road Media in 2015) appeared over a twenty-five year period. Opening with the first he ever published, the moody “The Water Sculptor,” and closing with one of the last stories he published prior to the assemblage of the collection, “Between the Winds,” it is in some ways, however, a style retrospective. Covering a variety of the author’s themes and motifs and revisiting the settings of some of his novels, it serves as a reminder, overview, or introduction to Zebrowski.
The collection is divided into three sections: Near Futures, The Middle Distance, and Far Futures. And the stories begin brief, almost vignettes hinting at larger concepts, and move to novelette length, digging ever deeper into character, setting, and the ideas inherent. Colonization, post-humanism, aliens, mobile worlds, post-apocalypse—a number of typical sf tropes permeate the stories, some with more than one. Similar to Brian Aldiss, however, they always possess Zebrowski’s controlled, probing voice, attempting to go further into the artifice to get at the human implications beneath.
Variation observable throughout, Zebrowski tailors his prose to strike at certain moods and atmospheres. Often successful, the opening story “The Water Sculptor” creates the tone of isolation. A weather control engineer, Christian Praeger, drifts alone in the atmosphere above Earth (a la PKD’s Dr. Bloodmoney) with an artist in fixed orbit as his only communiqué. As much art as a reflection on the environment, mankind in space, etc, it transcends the page. (And I suppose any piece that utilizes Mahler must by default be somewhat melancholy.) The second and third stories likewise featuring Praeger, in “Parks of Rest in Culture” the drifting engineer now lives on the plague-riddled Earth, working a lackluster job in a plant and contemplating his life’s direction, while in “Assassins of the Air”—a story champing at the bit to be extended—the man confronts gangs scavenging through the remains of the catastrophe that destroyed much of civilization.
Shifting away from Praeger, the fourth Near Future story “The Soft Terrible Music” is about a wealthy man living in a futuristic castle who has everything except the woman he loves. Fooling her into being his lover, in the end discovers he was not the one doing the fooling—his past much more than he could imagine. (Also very Dickian.) Seguing into The Middle Distance, “The Sea of Evening” moves beyond Earth in catastrophe to something more alien. I daresay, however, his later story in the Paradox anthology, “Fermi’s Doubts,” is a more successful interaction with the concept.
Kicking The Middle Distance into full gear, “Heathen God” sees mankind traveling the galaxy and encountering other sentient beings. One alien too much for mankind, they put it in exile on the planet Antares. Each with their own designs, however, the story opens with an entourage of Earthlings making contact with the exile again—and discovering more than their designs would have. Perhaps the most dramatic story of the collection, “Wayside World” revisits Zebrowski’s Macrolife setting to tell the story of Ishbok, a thoughtful young man caught in a savage world. With echoes of Le Guin, Zebrowski transforms the decayed civilization around Ishbok, but can he handle it?
In his introduction to the collection, Zebrowski states “Design, language, and the thoughts and emotions expressed by people. These are the ingredients of true science fiction stories, with thoughts being the distinctive characteristic, like musical structures balanced against actions.” And perhaps the seventh story in the collection, the title story, represents this statement best. “In the Distance, and Ahead in Time” is about a human colony living on a wayward planet on a high plateau that is crumbling around them. Life in the forests below surpassing their knowledge of virology and biology, they have put off searching for ways to survive when inevitably the plateau disintegrates. Offworlders arrving at the outset, the colony is thrown off-balance by the ideology they bring in tow. Working nicely with ideas from Aldiss’ The Malacia Tapestry, Le Guin (again), and any other social science fiction that looks at the pain and pleasure of choosing not to develop scientifically, it’s a thought provoking story—exactly as Zebrowski would have it, it seems.
The opening line of the first story, “Transfigured Night” in Far Futures suits the final section perfectly: “Thrushcross watched the birth of his father.” A post-human story if ever there were, it describes a possible fate of mankind. Likewise post-human, the final story in the collection, “Between the Winds,” returns to both the Macrolife story setting and Ishbok. Switching between micro and macro settings, it also balances micro and macro perspectives of existence in the context of human evolution (and possibly, just maybe, has the feel of a capstone to the Macrolife stories?). Along with the ideas raised, the zooming in and out is intriguing.
In the end, In the Distance, and Ahead in Time is a good, solid collection from one of the field’s quiet yet important voices. Focusing on the humane aspects of genre, the stories will not satisfy the reader looking for unending (melo)drama and flashy visuals. Zebrowski’s product is a more subdued, thoughtful brand of sf that rewards upon rumination. The Macrolife stories contains many layers and the Praeger stories linger for mood, culminating in a welcome re-print of one of science fiction under-appreciated voices.
Published between 1970 and 1995 (and not collected until 2002), the following are the ten stories contained within In the Distance, and Ahead in Time:
Introduction (by George Zebrowski)
Part I – Near Future
“The Water Sculptor”
“Parks of Rest and Culture”
“Assassins of Air”
“The Soft Terrible Music”
“The Sea of Evening”
Part II – The Middle Distance
“In the Distance, and Ahead in Time”
Part III – Far Futures
“Between the Winds”