by Robert Reed

Published by Tor

351 pages, 2000 

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A Novel Question

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière


People love novels. It's a nice word that: novel. It comes from the Italian, novella, meaning, well, hmm, short story. Ironic, isn't it? Especially considering the sad fate of the short story in the English language.

In the United States, science fiction, mystery, horror and romance were all popularized by the pulp magazines that published a wealth of stories in each genre month after month. Readers of all ages bought these magazines in huge numbers. Popular classics both in and out of genre fiction that are short story collections include The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle, Foundation by Isaac Asimov, Dubliners by James Joyce, Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote, The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling and Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe. Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," J.D. Salinger's "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," and O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" are only a handful of the many short stories that have remained popular over the years. Everyone I know reads short stories and novels indiscriminately. Publishers big and small such as Golden Gryphon Press, Arkham House, Penguin and Four Walls Eight Windows regularly publish story collections. And yet....

Fiction magazines are now labors of love with ever-dwindling circulations. During the 13 years I spent as a bookseller, I heard -- more times than I care to count -- shoppers emphatically declare, "I hate short stories!" Book reps tell me that booksellers don't like to stock story collections. Magazine editors prefer to run reviews of novels. And many publishers are so leery of story collections that on the rare occasions when they still do publish them they often try to pass them off as novels. For example, two recent collections -- The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick and Back in the USSA by Eugene Byrne and Kim Newman -- have the words "a novel" emblazoned on the front cover even though these books are nothing of the kind.

Why the strange stigma? Could it be the name? Certainly the form deserves a better English name than "short story," an expression that makes it sound like a reduced, unimportant version of something. Perhaps an elegant one-word expression like the French nouvelle or the Italian novella would help matters. In any case, it's not a problem I can expect to solve here and -- you may ask -- what the hell does all of this have to do with Robert Reed's new novel, Marrow?

This: Marrow should not have been a novel. By squeezing his creation into the structural requirements of the novel, Reed sucked the (ahem) marrow out of it, leaving a dry skeleton with only residual traces of the wondrous life it could have had.

In the far future, humans genetically altered to be near-immortal have taken over a gigantic derelict spaceship, larger by far than even giant planets such as Jupiter. Although it is too vast and complex for precise mapping and there is much that is yet unknown or not understood about the ship (for example, its origins), they have turned it into a pleasure-cruise ship, hosting a variety of alien species. Time and space are managed on a scale barely imaginable to planet-bound people who, like the readers, live barely 100 years. And, in the hidden heart of the ship, there lies a mysterious planet: Marrow. This is an ambitious creation filled with equally ambitious concepts. In the hands of a phenomenal talent such as Robert Reed, it could have been one of science fiction's most memorable works.

Before this novel's release, Reed had explored this particular universe at least three times. There was the 1997 tale "Marrow" (incorporated in the novel) and the earlier "The Remoras" and "Aeon's Child" (both collected in The Dragons of Springplace). Although the two earlier tales feature characters who return in Marrow and their events are certainly pertinent to the novel they are not incorporated into it. "The Remoras" and "Aeon's Child" are two of the finest stories by one of science fiction's finest writers. They are self-contained pieces of an enormous puzzle filled with pathways for readers' imaginations to wander and revisit. With the novel Marrow, Reed attempts to solve the puzzle for the reader, to force the pieces together, whether or not they really fit, in order to form the expected shape; in this case, a novel.

The novel is the rather convoluted and not very convincing tale of a mutiny millennia in the making that -- even less convincingly -- unveils certain of the ship's secrets. There are great moments in Marrow. In particular, the childhood flashbacks of several of the ship's captains are very involving. Childhood -- from his brilliant novel Black Milk to stories such as "The Dragons of Springplace" and "The Shape of Everything" -- has always been of one Reed's fortes. But great moments do not a great novel make. The material must lend itself to the form. Not all stories can be adequately told in this manner. The novel is not the ne plus ultra of narrative prose. It is, however, the most popular and Reed's Marrow is not the first occurrence of a potentially great work marred by the attempt to force it to conform to the novel form. (Another that comes quickly to mind is Pat Cadigan's Mindplayers, in which a string of excellent stories were trivialized when transformed into chapters of a no-more-than-adequate novel.)

This need to force a plot upon Reed's creation destroyed much of its evocative beauty and spoiled its awesome mysteries. In spinning a novel out of this material, Reed laid out the connections between the diverse elements that make up the epic of his nameless ship, reducing the near-ineffable to an unintended banality. By giving his story a beginning, a middle and an end, Reed mapped out concepts that were presented as too vast for such an endeavor. He undermined the very grandeur he set out to evoke.

Reed's grand creation would have been better served, I think, by taking the shape of a mosaic of interrelated but self-contained stories, in the manner of Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles or Cordwainer Smith's The Instrumentality of Mankind. He could have written stories from a variety of perspectives, set any time during the ship's seemingly eternal timeline and told in a diversity of voices. He wouldn't have had to limit his imagination with the contrivance of a plot. The canvas of such a mosaic would have been deeper and grander than the prepackaged shape of a novel. Assembled, the stories could have conjured a beautiful and complex universe filled with wondrous happenings, peculiar histories, intricate mysteries and epiphanies both small and grandiose -- instead of, as in this novel, streamlining all these concepts and ideas to fit the commercial demands of a plot-driven novel. Alas, writers are required to come up with new novels on a regular basis, lest their names vanish from bookshop shelves. A mosaic of stories simply will not do. Or so insists the publishing industry.

I'm probably being too harsh. By most standards, Marrow is a fine if unexceptional book. But, as Reed had shown in the previous stories set on his giant, nameless ship, the material called for much more lyrical and subtle touch than what it was afforded by this novel. And Robert Reed, who has time and again proved himself to be one of science fiction's greatest artists, can only be judged by the highest of standards. | September 2000


Claude Lalumière is a freelance writer, editor, translator and publishing consultant. He's the founder and former owner of Montreal's Nebula Bookshop. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.