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Far Horizons edited by Robert Silverberg
(Orbit, £10.99, 482 pages, trade paperback; first published in hardcover edition 3 June 1999, this edition published 1 November 1999.)

In dealing with a book of this (rather rare) kind, the reviewer is at a disadvantage: first, because any original anthology will be inconsistent in quality, making general summation difficult; and second, because in dealing with an original anthology which requires that its contributors "return to their legendary worlds" - produce stories set in locales they have famously visited before - proper judgement will depend on a good pre-existing knowledge of those prior visits. Robert Silverberg, himself a legendary editor as well as SF writer, has persuaded ten major SF writers, as well as himself (which can't have been too hard), to produce for Far Horizons novelettes or novellas memorious of past triumphs; and because the present reviewer is an aficionado of the work of only six of the eleven worthies represented, this will, by admission from the start, be a partial review: not in the sense of bias, but, rather, focused on the six tales he is qualified to assess.

Three of these six are well below par. Silverberg's own "Getting to Know the Dragon" is an odd inclusion in Far Horizons, in that the "Roma Eterna" series to which it belongs is hardly legendary, consisting of five none-too prominent stories published over the past decade; clearly, Silverberg wanted in, but had no science-fictional equivalent of Majipoor to exploit, so his Rome-that-never-fell had to do. And a rather mediocre "historian's view" of an Emperor who plays Magellan (only much more successfully and bloodthirstily) also had to do. Another decidedly ho-hum effort is Orson Scott Card's "Investment Counselor", which explains how the famous and infamous Ender Wiggin first met Jane, his friendly deus-ex-machina AI helper from three previous novels; Card's increasingly in-your-face small-town religiose banter makes of an inherently dull interlude something even duller. At least these stories are not too long.

A different problem besets David Brin's "Temptation", a sidebar to his second "Uplift" Trilogy. Against the backdrop of desperate galactic pursuit and a cataclysmic "Time of Changes", a few sapient dolphins wander the seas of the planet Jijo, and discover just what that world's past alien colonists were planning so inscrutably in the main sequence of novels. As usual, Brin renders the dolphin's culture and psychology very well; the secret revealed in "Temptation" has fascinating implications; but Brin spoils his show by turning his narrative into a clumsy sermon on the importance of the real over the magical and virtual, reinforced by an equally preachy Afterword. Vividness shades ineluctably into tedium…

But three other novellas on their own make Far Horizons a worthwhile enterprise. Ursula K. Le Guin, Dan Simmons, and Greg Bear take their tasks very seriously, appending new and surprising riders to their established masterpieces. Le Guin's latest "Ekumen" tale, "Old Music and the Slave Women" (also reviewed elsewhere on this site by Peter D Tillman), adds a fifth panel to the moral narratives in Four Ways to Forgiveness (1995); but diverges from them much as Tehanu (1990) did from the previous Earthsea novels. "Old Music…" returns to Werel, a human-inhabited planet torn by the revolts of white slaves against black masters, and relates the climactic, or rather anti-climactic, event of the career of the Hainish intelligence master Esdardon Aya, who played a supporting role in earlier stories. He is a highly sympathetic idealist and man of action, who, kidnapped and held captive by competing Werelian factions, discovers just how helplessness - an enforced inability to act - can beset even one like himself. Le Guin, an often overly didactic utopian writer, does more in "Old Music" to acknowledge the practical difficulties of realizing utopia than ever before, and this novella acts as a skilful and salutary corrective to some of her own too-easy generalizations of the past, such as the facile reconciliations in Four Ways to Forgiveness.

"Orphans of the Helix", a coda by Dan Simmons to his quartet of "Hyperion" novels, also injects doubt into a triumph that seemed certain. The Rise of Endymion (1997) dealt with the defeat of the AI Technocore and its Pax puppets by the redemptive creed of Aenea, whose death showed where evil truly lay, and whose blood acted as a sacrament unleashing godlike abilities in those who partook of it. But now it emerges that, centuries later, minorities are fleeing Aenean space to preserve their ways of life. A spinship carrying such migrants has to reconcile civilizations far out in the galaxy, in a plot disconcertingly (and misleadingly) reminiscent of the Star Trek formula; but while this might seem positive, a reflection of the benignity of Aenea's Plan, its resolution leaves nagging impressions of the Aeneans as manipulators immersed too far in godhood, in the hubris that corrupted the Hegemony and the Pax before them.

"The Way of All Ghosts" by Greg Bear occurs in the same universe as the "Eon" sequence, taking up the life of Olmy in the wake of his agonizing experiences in Legacy (1995). Here it is disillusionment that has to be dispelled; Olmy, desiring only death rather than the resurrection inflicted on him by his culture, is sent on a mission that brings him face to face with the apotheosis of his own suicidal egotism, and so with the necessity to live. There is strong surrealism in the novella's later chapters, as Olmy and his companions enter a perverse heart of darkness; Bear's direct homage to the bizarre Gothicism of William Hope Hodgson makes this quest all the stranger. It may be that "The Way of All Ghosts" takes metaphysical intensity to excess; but there is a rare and striking ambition here, and a profound point powerfully made.

And so Far Horizons justifies its existence in the end, offering very likely the three best SF novellas of the year. Silverberg's efforts have not been in vain.

Review by Nick Gevers.
More of Nick's reviews are online at Parsec.

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© Nick Gevers 4 December 1999