Seeking the summit: Dan Simmons offers five short science-fiction tales in ‘Worlds Enough and Time’

July 5, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 5, 2015

Worlds Enough and Time, the 2002 anthology by virtuoso author Dan Simmons, contains five short stories. (A few, in truth, are somewhat longish.) Two of the pieces are excellent; the other three are flawed but interesting.

The stories are presented in chronological order beginning with the oldest, “Looking for Kelly Dahl,” which was originally published in 1995. It begins as a cat-and-mouse tale about a dissolute former public school teacher named Roland Jakes who is hunting, and being hunted by, one of his former students.

Kelly Dahl was a largely unremarkable child when Jakes taught her; now, however, by some unknown process, she’s acquired godlike powers. You can get a sense of them by reading the story’s opening:

I awoke in camp that morning to find the highway to Boulder gone, the sky empty of contrails, and the aspen leaves a bright autumn gold despite what should have been a midsummer day, but after bouncing the Jeep across four miles of forest and rocky ridgeline to the back of the Flatirons, it was the sight of the Inland Sea that stopped me cold.

“Damn,” I muttered, getting out of the Jeep and walking to the edge of the cliff.

Where the foothills and plains should have been, the great sea stretched away east to the horizon and beyond. Torpid waves lapped up against the muddy shores below. Where the stone-box towers of NCAR, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, had risen below the sandstone slabs of the Flatirons, now there were only shrub-stippled swamps and muddy inlets. Of Boulder, there was no sign — neither of its oasis of trees nor of its low buildings. Highway 36 did not cut its accustomed swath over the hillside southeast to Denver. No roads were visible. The high rises of Denver were gone. All of Denver was gone. Only the Inland Sea stretched east and north and south as far as I could see, its color the gray-blue I remembered from Lake Michigan in my youth, its wave action desultory, its sound more the halfhearted lapping of a large lake than the surf crash of a real ocean.

Each morning when Jakes awakens, he finds himself somewhere and somewhen around central Colorado. There’s never anyone else around except, sometimes, Dahl; the time period ranges from what Jakes used to perceive as the present — sometime in the 1980s, it seems — to the distant past.

Jakes is a broken man; his alcoholism helped cost the life of his son in a traffic collision, which in turn led to the breakup of his marriage, a process that was accompanied by ever-intensified drinking. But for all her powers, Dahl is broken, too — this young adult, who was neglected and abused as a child, mainly yearns for annihilation.

The characters’ pas de deux is creepy on multiple levels, in part because Dahl’s universe-manipulating powers first became evident after she thwarted his attempt to commit suicide. Dahl also, to some extent, becomes an object of desire for her former teacher, a development that left me somewhat uncomfortable. The story’s resolution is perhaps too pat, but I found the journey there to be quite rewarding.

The book’s second entry, “Orphans of the Helix,” is an extension of Simmons’s Hyperion cycle, a collection of four massive science fiction novels. The main characters here are humans who are fleeing civilization in a sophisticated sleeper ship called Helix.

When the vessel stumbles upon a colony of Ousters, a group of genetically engineered, machine-enhanced humans whose bodies are capable of sailing through space, Helix’s crew must make a difficult decision. Should they intervene in local affairs by destroying a mysterious machine that ravages the Ousters’ habitat once every century? The voyagers’ course of action is unclear because the intentions of the Ousters are nearly as opaque as those of the destructive machine.

The setup is wonderful, but I found it difficult to identify with any of the characters. This is partly because I either haven’t read or don’t remember the books in which some of them originated, but it’s also because the characters belong to a society with intricate, rigid practices and caste structures.

Later, “Orphans of the Helix” changes focus as the voyagers and the Ousters must make a series of decisions about what amounts to a genetic and religious matter that could forever change the colonists’ society. Again, my lack of familiarity with the source material made it difficult for me to understand fully what was going on here; this was even more true with the story’s short coda, which I found almost entirely incomprehensible.

The middle story, “The Ninth of Av,” is a puzzling look ahead to the eve of the third millennium. Fewer than 10,000 of “old-styles” — what we would think of as normal humans — still live. The rest of Earth’s population consists of “posts,” which are post-humans who inhabit mechanical shells, and silent, mysterious creatures known as voynix.

Superficially, Earth seems to be placid; the old-styles can transport or “fax” themselves to any location on the planet instantaneously and suffer from no hardship or deprivation. But the old-style main characters — Savi, a historian, and her friends, Pinchas and Petra — have become suspicious about the posts’ stated intention to suspend the consciousness of the old-styles while they repair environmental damage to the planet. They end up discovering a plot that represents the culmination of millennia of anti-semitism.

Which is all fine and good. However, I was baffled by the plot thread involving Savi, who inadvertently cuts herself off from civilization and finds herself accidentally re-enacting a (real-life) historical episode that fascinates her: Robert Scott’s ill-starred 1912 expedition to the South Pole. Is Savi hallucinating, or has she somehow stumbled upon the actual corpses of Scott and his companions — remnants which even she admits should have been obliterated by the ice centuries ago?

The book’s fourth piece, “On K2 with Kanakaredes,” is one I’d previously read. As I wrote last year about 2001’s edition of The Year’s Best Science Fiction:

The great Dan Simmons contributes “On K2 with Kanakaredes,” the story of three mountaineers who unexpectedly gain the opportunity to climb K2, one of Earth’s most treacherous peaks, with a most unusual companion. That creature is Kanakaredes, a buglike mantispid alien. A traveler on a generation ship that arrived on Earth a few years previously, Kanakaredes says that his race is visiting Earth in order to help its inhabitants learn to listen. As the unlikely quartet ascends the Himalayan peak, they begin to bond.

Simmons’ story is mostly satisfying, but it’s marred by the flat character of a bureaucrat who arranges the excursion’s alien element. This figure features prominently in the story’s all-too-pat final scene.

I generally stand by my this description, although I’d like to amend that last sentence — the closing scene is OK, I suppose, but the last paragraph is just obnoxious.

Still, this is a great story, which reflects Simmons’s passion for mountaineering. Take this passage from early in the climb:

For the last hours, whoever had been in the lead had probed ahead with his ice axe to make sure that the footing ahead was real and not just a skim of snow over a deep crevasse. Gary had taken two steps without doing this. And the crevasse got him.

One instant he was there, red parka glowing against the shadowed ice and the white snow on the ridge now so close ahead of us, and the next instant he was gone.

And then Paul disappeared as well.

No one screamed or reacted poorly. Kanakaredes instantly braced himself in full-belay posture, slammed his ice axe deep into the ice beneath him, and wrapped the line around it twice before the thirty feet or so of slack between him and Paul had played out. I did the same, digging crampons in as hard as I could, fully expecting the crevasse to pull the bug in and then me.

I found “The End of Gravity,” the final story in Worlds Enough and Time, to be the collection’s least satisfying. It follows Norman Roth, a prominent but ailing American novelist whom The New York Times Magazine has assigned to assess the future of manned space flight. In what feels too much like wish fulfillment, Roth and his liaison to the Russian space program fall in love.

Roth himself remains a bit of a cipher, but I did enjoy some of the contrasts the story shows between Russia and America. When Roth asks why cats are allowed in the Russian mission control facility, Vasilisa, the liaison, asks in return: “How else to control the mice?” Simmons portrays sexism as much more endemic in the Soviet and Russian space program than in the American one; per “The End of Gravity,” only three Russian women have flown in space, compared to 32 American ones. And one character tells of a malfunction that Russian space officials stubbornly ignore, to their mortal peril, in an anecdote that deftly captures the worst aspects of the Soviet regime.

I also loved the character of Tom Esterhazy, a millionaire mathematician turned stock-picker with pretensions of godhood, and an argument among three cosmonauts about the experience of being launched into space. (One compares it to birth; another, to sex; the third, to death.)

But the tale’s ending descends into cliché — at a party on the evening of Dec. 31, there’s a medical emergency, and the countdown to the new year commingles with a hallucinated launch into space. The attempt to merge metaphor and reality falls flat, in my view.

There’s one other aspect to Worlds Enough and Time I should take note of, which is that Simmons has penned introductions for each of the stories, as well as one for the volume as a whole. The prefaces to three of the stories describe various aspects of Simmons’s life in Colorado; in combination with “Looking for Kelly Dahl,” the book offers something of interest to those who live in or around Denver and Boulder. The introductions also provide some insight into the different professional experiences of a successful writer.

This book will hold relatively little appeal for the general-interest reader, especially those without ties to Colorado. But Worlds Enough and Time is a volume that science fiction enthusiasts should find enjoyable and rewarding.

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