Friday, June 18, 2021

Review of Anticipations ed. by Christopher Priest

Garth Brooks may have sung it’s good to have friends in low places, but if you are a writer of more literary-minded science fiction, then it’s also good to have friends in similar places—especially when looking to edit an anthology of short fiction. I’m not sure whether Christopher Priest, Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, Thomas Disch, Bob Shaw, Ian Watson, Robert Sheckley, and Harry Harrison ever sat down in a lounge for a glass or two of brandy, but certainly their anthology Anticipations (1978) reflects the manner in which that group is set apart from a lot of mainstream sf.

Kicking things off with what is not only the best story in the collection, but perhaps one of sf’s all-time great shorts altogether, “The Very Slow Time Machine” by Ian Watson tells of humanity’s encounter with a certain, very specific, very unique time traveler. Appearing one day in a capsule, the time traveler initially seems a mad man. But slowly, he comes to his senses, and begins telling a slingshot tale of time travel—backwards then forwards, until both present days arrive. Highly re-readable, the story, while initially seeming scientific, reveals its true, humanist colors in peacock (i.e. intellectually satisfying) fashion.

For the voyeur in all of us, “Is That What People Do?” by Robert Sheckley tells of a young man who buys a pair of binoculars with the hopes of spying on the young ladies who live in the apartment building on the other side of the street. The young ladies unfortunately away for the day, the young man instead gets a view to several other apartments. And the things he sees… Striking an excellent balance between realism and fantasy, Sheckley makes the reader wonder, then think—something that fifteen pages stories rarely do. Further commentary on the human condition, “Amphitheatre” by Bob Shaw sees two anthropologists on an alien planet studying the local fauna. Cameras set up to capture one particularly unique predator’s feeding habits, the couple discover, in the most dire of circumstances, they may not be the only anthropologists. While the ultimate message of the story is delivered in overt, ham-fisted fashion, the method of delivery does not diminish the idea.

A most transcendent story, “The Negation” by Priest himself tells of a young conscript sent to guard a distant, mountainous border against the enemy. The freezing, snowy village where he barracks is not entirely disconnected, however. The ruling power, in an effort to offset its oppression with effusiveness, has commissioned a well-known writer to travel to the village and write a patriotic story. Said author having penned the young man’s favorite novel, The Affirmation, he is ecstatic to meet her before she arrives but nervous when actually standing face to face. The two having a good conversation, but the realities of war, nevertheless, interfere. In one of the rare moments Priest plays with intertextuality, The Affirmation is, of course, the next novel Priest himself would publish, resulting in an a fictional situation being bolstered by its metafictional reality.

Something of Kafka in more satirical form, “The Greening of the Green” by Harry Harrison sees a young man doing spy work in Italy. Trouble is, code words may not be handled in the same way by every agent. A story that blurs the line between reality and imagination without being fantastical, “One Afternoon at Utah Beach” by J. G. Ballard tells of a man’s visit to a D-Day location years after the Allies’ landing, and the “war scene” which springs to his mind while there. That scene balancing Hollywood and quotidian urban reality, Ballard’s indirect commentary, as typical, is deft.

A novella closing the collection, “A Chinese Perspective” by Brian W. Aldiss contrasts East and West in a future where humanity has colonized multiple systems. Perhaps more specifically a clash of economic philosophies which spring from deeper seated cultural perspectives, the story features an ambitious businessman living on a planet far from Earth, looking to push a particular business model with a Chinese conglomerate. Not the most subtle story in the collection, it likewise doesn’t seem to account for the malleability of cultural perspective. China today is not the same as China in the story.

In the end, Anticipations is an anthology that punches far above its weight. Containing only eight stories, each nevertheless distinguishes itself from the other through insight and intelligent commentary. Looking for sf sensawunda, go elsewhere. Watson, Priest, and Ballard would rather have you take a look at the human soul from a perspective beyond gadgets and alien adventure. Aside from the Aldiss story, most of these have aged very well, meaning the anthology can be picked up today without the need to retune the brain’s senses.

The following are the eight stories contained in Anticipations:

The Very Slow Time Machine by Ian Watson

Is That What People Do? by Robert Sheckley

Amphitheatre by Bob Shaw

The Negation by Christopher Priest

The Greening of the Green by Harry Harrison

Mutability by Thomas M. Disch

One Afternoon at Utah Beach by J. G. Ballard

A Chinese Perspective by Brian W. Aldiss

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