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Swift Thoughts

by George Zebrowski

(Golden Gryphon Press, $24.95, 311 pages, hardcover; 2002)

George Zebrowski takes answering the question 'What if?' to another level, throwing abstract drama and surrealism into the cover scanequation, making readers feel as if they have stepped outside of their own mind. Each story is a carefully developed, intricately designed acid trip.

'Thought-provoking' hardly describes the experience of reading these stories. The evocative language, used in tight, concise diction, draws the reader in, and even after you put the book down to take a deep breath (which I recommend after each story -- this anthology is not designed for reading in one sitting!) you still find yourself looking at the world through distorted eyes.

Zebrowski creates this atmosphere of surrealism by narrowing the focus of each story to a single character that doesn't really interact with the larger world. His opening story, "The Word Sweep" (available elsewhere on this site), takes us into the mind of a man whose entire purpose is to police the amount people are allowed to speak -- after all, every word, every sound created (except music), is now turned into solid matter that isn't easy or safe to dispose of. It just accumulates and builds into enormous piles that sit and exist, taking up space. It's hard to describe here the immensity of the problem, although Zebrowski captures the desperation and hopelessness plaguing the world in a way that reminds me poignantly of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. The main character, too, fits Bradbury's classic, in that his job is to police words but something in him eventually snaps and he runs off to find a friend of his, a thinker/scholar/philosopher who has discovered the cause behind the plague of solid words. It wouldn't be fair to spoil the ending of this story (again, very reminiscent of Bradbury); it is a startling and understated moment that leaves your head spinning every time you think about it.

Although Zebrowski never really surpasses this opening story, he does keep pace with it and holds to the same high level of writing and storytelling as he leads you through the minds of a disembodied, half-organic computer that was once a man and a woman and a psychologically and spiritually alternate-universe re-telling of Hannah Ardent's Eichmann in Jerusalem. In the latter story Zebrowski takes you on a historical and literary journey that can satisfy the appetite of most literature professors and beginning sf readers.

Throughout the anthology, Zebrowski plays with history and historical figures, causing you to rethink what you thought you knew about history and the motivations behind some of the most confusing, emotional, and spiritually powerful events in history. He tends to hint at occultism in several stories, but never explores this, any more than he explores the technology in any of his stories. Each hint of occult and technological power is a rich and fully developed and integrated part of the story, but isn't truly part of the story -- just like barely tasting an extraordinarily fine wine might leave you wanting another sip but knowing it could ruin the rest of the meal.

By the time you reach the title story, "Swift Thoughts" your head is full of half-seen dream images, and you're left wondering just what was going on during moments in human history -- and just how precariously balanced every 'turning point' really is. But Zebrowski doesn't leave you alone to deal with what he's throwing at you. He prefaces each story with at least a paragraph talking about the story, almost like that deep breath I recommended earlier.

"Swift Thoughts" is a tale of intellectual and evolutionary cold war between us and our misguided childers, the artificial intelligences (he never does say "sentience") that are designing and creating themselves at a pace far above and beyond what humanity can do through simple evolution. So, in order to keep ourselves from being subordinated to AIs, humanity forces a transcendental evolution that would leave Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau thoroughly impressed -- at least, that is, once that forced evolutionary leap forced us back to the roots of ourselves. Zebrowski, in this story more than any other, explores how emotions and impulsive reactions make us human and not machines or animals -- the very core of what most of his stories explore.

Near the end of the book there are two stories called the "The Last Science Fiction Story of the 20th Century" and "The First Science Fiction Story of the 21st Century". I'm not sure if these designations are really correct, but read the stories and find out what you think. As always, Zebrowski makes you think about what a thing is called and what that title really means.

Reading this anthology might be a little hard to understand if you don't have a fairly comprehensive knowledge of history, especially the World War II and Cold War eras. Swift Thoughts is anything but a swift read -- this is a book to sit down and sink your mental teeth into.

Review by Alan M Rogers.

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