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Short, Sharp Shock by Kim Stanley Robinson (HarperCollins Voyager, 5.99, 180 pages, paperback; first published 1990, this edition 5 June 2000.)

A man drowning, dragged under the waves repeatedly until he thinks he must surely die... and then, with one final cover scaneffort, he reaches land. In the surf he collides with a female companion - he manages to drag her ashore and they collapse on the sand.

When he wakes, the woman has gone and he learns from native fisherpeople that she has been sold to the Spine Kings. He sets out to track her down, and so begins the tale of his journey along a narrow peninsula that cuts across the ocean of a sea-world that is, in many ways, an inversion of all he knows: "Through mirrors we see things right way round at last."

The man, who takes the name of Thel, has lost his memory: of the time before his near-drowning he can recall nothing. All that he has is a growing certainty that this world is not his own, an understanding that the peninsula is some kind of geological freak:

"In places they walked on a strip of level granite no wider than a person, and on each side the cliffs plunged some five thousand feet into white foam tapestries that shifted back and forth over deep water, as if something below the blue were lightly breathing: it disturbed one's balance to look down at it, and though the strip was wide enough to walk on comfortably, the sheer airiness of it gave Thel vertigo."

Short, Sharp Shock is a fabulation of life, love and beauty transplanted into the alien; a dreamy picaresque, as Thel journeys ever-onward, living always in the present, with no sense of the past (naturally: he has no memory) but equally none of the future - he simply travels.

A strange and hallucinatory short fantasy with occasional sharp insights into human natures and loves, Short, Sharp Shock may prove a surprise for those familiar only with the Mars or California trilogies, but not for fans of Robinson's short fiction, who will be aware of his great range and the power he can pack into shorter lengths. A story that will haunt you, long after you finish reading.

Review by Nick Gifford.

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© Nick Gifford 1 July 2000