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Dear Abbey

by Terry Bisson

introduction by Brian W Aldiss

(PS Publishing, £10.00, 108 pages, signed, limited edition paperback, published August 2003.)

cover scanCole is an American Studies Associate at a community college in Connecticut, and shares his small office, including its desk and chair, with Lee, a Texan Chinaman and Distinguished Professor of Higher Mathematics. Cole is surprised when Lee reveals himself to be part of the same radical environmental movement Cole once associated with, the group responsible for devising Dear Abbey, a hypothetical doomsday scheme to save the planet by sabotaging humanity's genome. He is even more surprised to discover that Lee has a plan to realise Dear Abbey by travelling into the future, to a time when the genetic formula needed to put the plan into action will be readily available. Most surprising of all, Lee plans to do this using only a palm-held computer and an advanced knowledge of quantum mathematics.

The result is Stapledonian fancy with a human face and extremist green sensibilities, as Cole and Lee cavort through the future ages of Man, drawn towards the end of time by "the Old Ones". Along the way they start to question the necessity of Dear Abbey; what's one apocalypse more or less in a timescale of billions of years? They even get to meet Gaia, or a close approximation in the form of ARD, and discover that the planet really wouldn't be bothered either way. To compensate, humanity has created RVR, an omnipresent sentience that actually cares. Appearing as a small fold in space over every human's shoulder, RVR provides companionship for the people of the future, and responds favourably to petting. In other words, it's a kind of cosmic dog. ("RoVeR" -- geddit?) It also provides a handy running translation facility for Cole and Lee.

One aspect of Dear Abbey rankles with me, and that is the prose's frequent "authorial" moments. Bisson establishes the story and wraps it up in the first person, as Cole; the bulk of the novella is narrated in the third person from Cole's perspective, but is peppered with references to "us", "our planet", "our 'present'", etc. It's possible, even plausible, that these are phrases overlooked in a rewrite of the text that saw all bar the first two and final chapters shifted from first to third person. I hope not; the change of voice nicely separates the journey through time from the main flow of the two leads' lives, and I'd like to think this effect was intentional from the start. But then that means the direct asides between author and reader would be intentional too. Another possibility suggests itself: that Bisson is presenting himself in the role of RVR, "translating" the story into the reader's ear through these stage whispers. Well, whatever. It bugs me even more, now that I've got the mental image of Terry Bisson perched on my shoulder, expecting to be fondled.

Overall, though, a fine novella, with easy-on-the-eye characterisation, some well-presented ideas, and a provocative philosophical core.

Review by John Toon.

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