Geoffrey Landis is a working physicist (with NASA) and, according to the back flap of this book (I confess I haven't gone a-counting), the author of "over sixty published short stories and novelettes" plus one novel, Mars Crossing. Since his stories have been appearing since at least the mid-1980s and the novel was published as recently as 2000, it is evident that he's a member of one of that rare (although not excessively so) breed of sf writers distinguished in the short form but for some reason unwilling to do much with the long form. A collection of his short stories is therefore of particular interest, its publication an event worthy of some excitement.
Golden Gryphon have done him proud with Impact Parameter. This is an exceptionally nicely produced book, with a good, albeit somewhat untypical, Bob Eggleton cover, with attractive typography (that is unfortunately not quite matched by the standard of proofreading). It is a very handsome piece of publishing.
And what of the stories themselves?
Although he is reasonably versatile, Landis has the reputation of being primarily a hard sf writer, and the stories in this volume reflect that. In fact, it's probably a good idea to list the stories, since some are quite well known:
(There are also a Foreword by Joe Haldeman, who is as always entertaining, generous and informative, and a very enjoyable Afterword by Landis himself giving some background info on the genesis of each story.)
That might seem like a uniformly impressive line-up of stories, kicking off proceedings with a Hugo-winning short, to boot. But in fact the standard varies quite widely, not just conceptually but also in terms of stylistic ease, of credibility and of the stylistic ease of telling. "Elemental", for example, is a piece of (relative) juvenilia that might better have been excluded from this volume, and the same could be said of "What We Really Do Here at NASA", which is less a story than a squib that probably seems immensely funny to the author. That leaves us with fourteen stories that are worthy of serious consideration.
Almost all of the fourteen would normally be classified as hard sf. This is a subgenre that traditionally (rightly or wrongly) concerns itself less with character and subjectivity than with the scientific and/or technological ideas that drive the plot. That statement should not be misinterpreted: many hard sf stories include excellent character work and are deeply enriched by philosophical and/or emotional subtexts, or whatever, while many soft sf stories lack such graces. The point is that a hard sf story can get by without them.
And on occasion Landis is satisfied with this situation. In the hands of, say, Christopher Priest a story like "Rorvik's War" -- in which technological illusion persuades a man he is fighting in a horrific mechanized war -- would be a deeply moody, reflective and affecting piece. In Landis's hands there is no real characterization at all: he is much more concerned with the pyrotechnics of the tale. It still stands up as a good tale: as just noted, hard sf can get by without the refinements.
In other tales Landis is obviously much dissatisfied with the notion that hard sf must abjure the responsibilities of most other forms of fiction, and one can see him struggling to do something about it. Here he has greater and lesser success, depending on the story. In "A Walk in the Sun" (a woman is stranded on the Moon for a few weeks; reliant on her solar cells to survive, she walks right around the Moon so as to keep constantly in sunlight) the protagonist is heckled onward by visions of her dead sister; one applauds the effort to give the character depth, while at the same time shiftily feeling that this is somewhat Creative Writing 101.
A much more interesting emotional/psychological setup is presented in "Into the Blue Abyss". In this story, which is somewhat reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke's "A Meeting with Medusa" but arguably a lot better, two astronauts are sent plunging into the "seas" of Uranus. When they discover primordial life, it becomes in the strong political interest of one of the venturers to kill the other, the narrator, so that this finding will never be reported. The narrator's constant awareness of this is well handled. In fact all that happens is that the other explorer decides not to kill her and probably never had any intention of doing so, so that all the emotional build-up leads to no crisis: there is no onstage struggle of conscience on the part of the politically motivated explorer, no resolution of the interesting emotional situation but instead just a dissipation.
Another emotional/psychological setup that has great potential for interest comes in "Approaching Perimelasma". Here a miniaturized (to minimize tidal effects) human clone is sent into a black hole to observe all the wacky consequences of the laws of physics. The contents of the clone's mind are a necessarily simplified version -- to save space in the miniature brain -- of the mind of a full-size human principal, downloaded into it. The clone bears considerable resentment towards the full-size version of himself, who possesses memories and mental/emotional capabilities which he himself does not. The problem here is that the reader never quite believes in that resentment, or at least that it would be experienced by this particular protagonist.
It would be unkind and unjust to describe Landis's handling of the psychological situations in any of these three stories as clumsy -- although it most certainly is in tales like "Elemental", which is a bit of an embarrassment despite having been nominated for a Hugo (Landis himself notes: "I have mixed feelings about it [the story] now"), and the title story, "Impact Parameter". Rather, it is somewhat rudimentary, as if Landis were making a very creditable stab at working out the art of characterization from first principles.
Yet this is not the case. Although "A Walk in the Sun" dates from 1991, "Into the Blue Abyss" is a 1999 story and "Approaching Perimelasma" a 1998 story -- in other words, both are relatively recent. Of the two finest stories in the collection one, "Snow" dates from 1998 and is thus again quite recent in Landis's career, but the other, "Across the Darkness", is from 1995 -- and both, especially the former, derive their impetus almost entirely from their exquisite handling of characterization, emotion, atmosphere and, in the latter case, the dynamics of human relationships. Another fine piece of character work, "Dark Lady", comes from 1995. So it is very evident that Landis does indeed know how to do it, and can do it superbly; where for some reason he has difficulty is in matching this depth to hard sf -- because none of these three is essentially a hard sf story.
(A special mention should be made of "Snow". Less than five pages long, it is one of the finest sf stories this reviewer has read in a long time. Why this brilliantly beautiful miniature hasn't been showered with every award imaginable is a matter beyond understanding.)
To say it once again, hard sf can get by without many of the elements demanded of other genres and subgenres of fiction: the ideas are the thing, and assuming they take wing then the rest becomes merely ancillary. In that context, Impact Parameter is an excellent collection, and certainly it makes highly enjoyable reading. Landis is currently a very good writer; the impetus for much of the criticism expressed above is that the stories in this book show how exceptionally, how spectacularly good he very nearly is, how very close he comes to transcending the self-imposed limitations of hard sf. We await his future works with great eagerness.
(Impact Parameter is available from: Golden Gryphon Press, 3002 Perkins Road, Urbana, IL 61802, USA, or visit www.goldengryphon.com)
Review by John Grant.
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© John Grant 16 March 2002