Friday, November 6, 2020

Review of The Visible Man by Gardner Dozois

Say the name Gardner Dozois in 2020, and most are likely to tell you: that guy who edited decades of Year's Best science fiction anthologies. Indeed an editor of dozens upon dozens upon dozens of anthologies and collections, he will likely be remembered as one of the great editors of science fiction. But what most readers today are likely unaware of, including myself until recently, is that Dozois was a damn good writer of short fiction himself. The Visible Man (1977), Dozois' first collection of shorts, is an overlooked powerhouse of subtle speculative fiction.

The collection kicks off with the titular story. A classical sf premise if ever there were (not a familiar, derivative premise rather one that feels classic but retains its uniqueness), “The Visible Man” finds a convicted criminal being transported to a new location at the outset. Having paid a high price for his crimes, he has been given medication which renders him unable to see humans. Stuck in the backseat of a small space like a car, everything is ok. But when he escapes, the limits of his condition come to the forefront. While the resolution may not be as substantive as could have been, the manner in which Dozois puts the reader in the shoes of a person who cannot see people is interesting.

A brilliant story perfectly capturing the angst, anxiety of being trapped while free, “Horse of Air” tells of an urban, middle-class city dweller living high in his skyscraper, looking out at the world from his vantage point, and grinding his teeth over mistakes made and advantages not had. Freedom the most relative concept in existence, Dozois’ version is dark, but makes for a a hauntingly good story. A tale which wonderfully juxtaposes the seemingly irrational desire some humans have to die with the equally irrational concept all humans should be kept alive, “Machines of Loving Grace” posits a society and technology that may be saving, but saving grace? A short but powerful story.

Dream” is a story of growing up, of discovering the opposite sex, and of learning a big chunk of the value of life. Written in stream-of-consciousness, REAL style, its message is painted across the sky one last, bittersweet time. To say the story is anti-______ is to spoil and simplify it (you will have to fill in the blank yourself), but suffice to say the gravitas tugs at the heartstrings in 3D. “Kingdom by the Sea” is a heavy, very dark, deeply unsettling and visceral story of a slaughterhouse worker, and the day-in, day-out toll on life the job has. The story Dostoevskian, it builds up to a final, climactic page that has the heart fluttering, then adrift.

Understatement of the century, “The Man Who Waved Hello “ feels extremely Gibsonian (before the Sprawl) existed, bringing that pervasive corporate setting to life, including the egomorphic drug. Rich commentary, here. An absolutely fascinating, seat-of-your-pants vignette that begs—begs—for more, “Where No Sun Shines” tells of a man on the run, and the checkpoint encounter he has. Though I had not heard much of Dozois' fictional output prior to reading this collection, I had heard of “Chains of the Sea”. Having now read the story, I can see why. Something of Ted Chiang's “Story of Your Life” decades before that story appeared, it tells of a mysterious group of alien ships landing on Earth, the young boy who can communicate with them, and the other behind-the-scenes forces at work. While the ending is to be fully lauded for its willingness to pull no punches, the material and story are more core science fiction than the majority of the collection is, which in turn likely explains why I had heard of the story prior.

Perhaps the longest piece in the collection, “A Special Kind of Morning” tells of a dystopian planet where human life has been mechanized to the point of no longer being recognizably human, and the sub-human revolution that arises in response. Told in essence backwards, it opens on a lot of horrific imagery of futuristic war and destruction, all of which finds an oddly poignant counter point in the final pages that illustrates the underlying commentary. A very oddly fascinating story with more meat than the militaristic facade would have.

Thus, while Dozois will indeed likely go down in history foremost as the editor of Year's Best sf anthologies, his own personal output of fiction in The Visible Man is of a higher quality. Caught somewhere in the Bermuda triangle of Robert Sheckley, J.G. Ballard, Algis Budrys, Christopher Priest, and Robert Silverberg, readers of those writers will likley find something highly engaging in the collection. Very dark and very heavy, Dozois excavates the deeper recesses of the human condition—he tells the truth, laying it bare in story form for those who dare.

The following are the twelve stories collected in The Vanishing Man:

Introduction by Robert Silverberg

The Visible Man

Flash Point

Horse of Air

The Last Day of July

Machines of Loving Grace

A Dream at Noonday

A Kingdom by the Sea

The Man Who Waved Hello

The Storm

Where No Sun Shines

A Special Kind of Morning

Chains of the Sea

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