The Perseids and Other Stories

by Robert Charles Wilson

Published by Tor

224 pages, 2000

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Toronto Unplugged

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière


Robert Charles Wilson is best known as a science-fiction novelist. His new book, The Perseids and Other Stories, comes as a surprise for at least two reasons. First, it showcases Wilson's infrequently seen gift for short-story writing. Second, it shows him venturing beyond his usual science-fictional territory and into the lands of fantasy, horror and CanLit.

All of this collection's stories share a setting: a 20th-century Toronto subtly imbued with the supernatural and also with natural manifestations not yet grasped by modern science. The Perseids and Other Stories is a nexus where the mundane and the strange intersect and mingle, each enriching the other. Although there is no über-narrative linking these stories, they are all related in some fashion: characters from one story sometimes appear in another and most of the stories feature, more or less prominently, a secondhand bookshop called Finders.

In the opening story, "The Fields of Abraham," newly written for this book and set in 1911, a young Jewish immigrant, Jacob, must fend not only for himself but also for his schizophrenic sister. At the heart of this tale is Jacob's friendship with Oscar Ziegler, owner of Finders. This story not only introduces Finders and the ambiguous Ziegler but, more than any of the others, it allows a glimpse of the mysteries that lurk within Finders and, consequently, within the hidden heart of Toronto. It warns the reader that at any moment the fantastic may turn horrific and the horrific magical, that scientific speculation may lead to the supernatural and superstition to scientific revelation. It also sets the tone for the whole book: intimate tales peopled with fragile characters who must cope with debilitating loss.

The bulk of the other stories are contemporary or near-contemporary, and Finders is rarely far from the action. The narrator of "The Perseids" works at Finders stocking shelves. In "Ulysses Sees the Moon in the Bedroom Window" a seemingly ordinary piece of rock bought at Finders reveals the future (or does it?). The magical mirror of "Plato's Mirror" was purchased at Finders. The late wife of the grieving protagonist from "Divided by Infinity" used to work at Finders and his decision to visit the shop changes his life forever -- literally. The closing tale, "Pearl Baby," is set at Finders, now owned by the oft-recurring character Deirdre.

As can be expected in a set of tales revolving around a bookshop, books themselves play an important role. In "The Fields of Abraham," Ziegler introduces the young Jacob to the works of H.G. Wells. The protagonist of "Plato's Mirror" is a cynical writer of fiction/New Age hybrids à la Carlos Castaneda. The widower from "Divided by Infinity" rediscovers his youthful passion for science fiction and comes across (at Finders, of course) science fiction books that could not exist.

Besides its sensitive and moving depiction of a diverse array of characters, one of this book's most appealing qualities is its loving evocation of Toronto. In Wilson's hands the city acquires a mysterious aura that invites exploration. In stark contrast to the car-heavy environment of the concrete-and-asphalt Toronto, the Toronto of The Perseids and Other Stories becomes a tactile ecology. Many of Wilson's characters are dedicated pedestrians who breathe and live their city with an immediacy and sensuality denied drivers trapped in their noisy little metal boxes. The historical "The Fields of Abraham" and the contemporary "The Inner Inner City" are especially vivid in their depiction of Toronto, the city itself becoming a character of sorts.

In his afterword, referring to the book's most often seen character, the author states "Deirdre's love for the strange represents, I think, a real and legitimate esthetic impulse, though one not held in much esteem." I, for one, share Deirdre's (and Wilson's) "love for the strange." This beautiful, subtle, penetrating book certainly vindicates that sentiment. | August 2000


Claude Lalumière -- a January Magazine contributing editor -- 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.