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Worlds Enough & Time: Five Tales of Speculative Fiction

by Dan Simmons

(Eos, $14.95, 262 pages, paperback; December 2002.)

Dan Simmons is such a fine writer that it's unthinkable that any collection of his stories would be anything less than OK. But, cover scanby the same token, one expects a Simmons collection to be a bit more than OK, and I'm not too sure this one is.

The five long stories are "Looking for Kelly Dahl" (1995), "Orphans of the Helix" (1999), "The Ninth of Av" (2000), "On K2 With Kanakaredes" (2001) and "The End of Gravity" (2002; original to this collection). The first of these is fantasy; the next three are science fiction; and the final piece is less a story than an edited movie treatment that has touches of quasi-magic realism but is really a straightforward fiction concerned with the roughly contemporary Russian space program.

"Looking for Kelly Dahl" is the story that you're likely to want this book for. Its narrator is a reformed-alcoholic ex-schoolteacher who, in a fit of depression, commits suicide by driving into a disused pit only to discover that, rather than dead, he is in a world created by one of his old pupils, Kelly Dahl, an obviously troubled, intelligent, sexually abused girl who oddly fascinated him while he taught her but of whom he has long ago lost track. He and Kelly are the only occupants of this world, which is composed of tracts of Colorado drawn from different epochs of historical and geological time. Kelly spells the rules out to him on his arrival: the game is that they are to hunt each other, most likely to the death. At the end of the hunt he returns to his original reality -- but to discover that there's been a slight change: now there never was a Kelly Dahl under his tutelage; she has existed only in his memory.

A lesser writer would have tied all this together with some neat explanation -- some explication of a mechanism that would make all the pieces of the story make sense. Wisely, Simmons doesn't do this: such a reduction would detract from the tale. The piece is beautifully written in a slow leisurely style that adds to the feel of its strangeness.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book is a bit of a downhill slide, and matters aren't helped by the somewhat overblown and certainly overlong introductory material scattered through the book. (I'm a great fan of authors' introductions to their stories, but I several times grew impatient with these.) In his introduction to "Orphans of the Helix" Simmons tells us how he dickered over making it a Star Trek screenplay rather than a story, and was pleased that he chose the latter option. Unfortunately, it still reads like a Star Trek scenario with the names and details changed a bit; it also seems more than a little derivative of Larry Niven's The Integral Trees (1984), among others.

"The Ninth of Av" has much of the feel of Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time tales, although its far-future decadence plays out against a more "realistic" backdrop -- sciencefictional rather than fully fantasticated. In his prefatory remarks Simmons tells how the piece was commissioned for an anthology of tales set in 3001; racking his brains for something that wouldn't so have changed in the course of a millennium as to be unimaginable today, he came up with the notion that one permanent element of the human condition was antisemitism. Well, ho hum. A potentially fairly strong story is wrecked by this conceit.

Far closer in the future is the setting of "On K2 With Kanakaredes". The Kanakaredes of the title is a young member of a party of alien visitors who have arrived on Earth to observe us from their allocated settlement in the Antarctic. Kanakaredes wishes to experience mountain-climbing, and a somewhat amateurish trio of human mountaineers is dragooned into taking him along on an alpine-style assault up K2. Although somewhat longer than its paradigms, this is really just a straightforward sf tale of the type found aplenty in the US magazines thirty or so years ago -- complete with the cheesy denouement. It's not boring, but neither is it especially interesting; it'd help pass a train journey, but that's about it.

The final piece is just plain annoying. The place for movie treatments is, in almost every case, on the desk of a potential movie producer, not in a story collection. It has a plot (of sorts) that might work on the screen but doesn't on the printed page; the characters never materialize because they would require actors to make them complete. There are some nice moments, but...

By book's end one has the feeling that this whole effort has been rather half-hearted -- an impression not one whit dispelled by the sloppy proofreading throughout. Neither is one cheered by the fact that this title was used for a Joe Haldeman novel only a decade ago; surely Simmons and his publisher must have been aware of this, so it's as if they couldn't be bothered looking around for something a tad more original. (It wasn't, to be honest, among Haldeman's more inspired titles to begin with.) One superb story, three acceptable ones and a swiz do not a collection make. We can only hope that Dan Simmons -- the real Dan Simmons, one's tempted to say -- is back putting his whole heart and soul into his next book.

Review by John Grant.

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