The Dragons of Springplace

by Robert Reed

Published by Golden Gryphon Press

312 pages, 1999


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An Overdue Collection

 

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière

 

In 1985, Robert Reed won the first Writers of the Future Award, a prize given to new writers for an outstanding short story. He has since published several novels and a prodigious quantity of short fiction. Every year, his byline appears in some "Year's Best" anthology or other, usually in several. For example, in the 1999 crop of roundup anthologies, one can find his "Whiptail" in Year's Best SF 4 and his "The Cuckoo's Boys" in The Year's Best Science Fiction: Sixteenth Annual Collection. In addition, the latter lists four Reed stories in its "Honorable Mentions." Most months, his name appears on the cover of at least one major US genre magazine. And in all these years, despite Reed's wealth of excellent critically acclaimed short fiction, there has never been a Robert Reed collection... never until this year, that is, when Golden Gryphon Press released The Dragons of Springplace.

This 312-page, 11-story volume aptly showcases Reed's particular talents. Reed writes of people's dreams, hopes, and aspirations. He tells stories of how these are too often frustrated, perverted, forgotten, or exploited but can also be attained, validated, or transcended. He sets his tales in fully imagined far- or near-future worlds, and sometimes in a present where he injects ideas that imply possible futures. He will only rarely revisit the same fictional creation. Each new tale is a fresh vista. More often than not, childhood plays an important, even essential, part in Reed's fictions, recalling science fiction's oft-repeated axiom that "the golden age of science fiction is ten." For example, in the final story, "The Shape of Everything," a famous old man, hiding from an evening's festivities, reminisces to an uncomfortable young woman about an outwardly commonplace childhood event that has nevertheless shaped and fueled his entire life and inspired the insight that led to his celebrated scientific breakthrough.

Despite its fantasy-ish title, "The Dragons of Springplace," which opens the collection, has no fantasy elements at all; it's quintessential Robert Reed science fiction. It opens with a snapshot of a statue: a dragon-tattooed man battling a many-headed monster. It then segues into its story-within-a-story. Young Daniel encounters his first dragon. Dragons are deadly genetically engineered creatures who guard Springplace, a shielded "sarcophagus" of humanity's nuclear waste, reactor cores, and dismantled atomic bombs. The story then follows the rest of Daniel's life, showing how the lasting impression of his youthful meeting with a dragon has permeated not only his imagination but his entire life, for good and ill. At the end the story returns to the statue. Now the reader can decipher the statue's meaning, understand its metaphors, and experience the emotions it evokes.

"Waging Good" is a righteous vengeance story, emphasizing the seemingly permanent human condition of the privileged living off the misery of others. I liked most of this tale (e.g., its deft portrayal of unsympathetic characters and its all-too-plausible socio-economic speculations), but must admit that I was utterly baffled by the protagonist's change of heart at the conclusion. If it was foreshadowed in any way, or if anything was meant to explain her transformation, I missed all the clues. It was the only disappointment in the collection.

Some of Reed's stories deal with issues surrounding humanity's first contact with aliens. "The Utility Man" is a painful portrait of a self-important, misanthropic UFO geek who imagines a secret bond with aliens. "Decency," my favorite story here, is again a portrait: this time of a man who is neither attracted nor repulsed by the story's aliens. To him, they are living creatures like any other. His strong convictions of right and wrong lead him to unquestioningly defy authority and live with difficult consequences. His integrity is unshakable and nothing can shatter his sense of self. However, we never get too close to him or too much inside his thoughts. It is what the reader brings to the tale that will determine if this is a heartbreakingly lonely story, or the vindication of a life well lived -- or bit of both.

"The Remoras" and "Aeon's Child" share the same setting (a rare occurrence in Reed's fiction): a staggeringly gigantic, once-derelict alien spaceship, refitted and commandeered by genetically engineered near-immortal Terrans, on a five-hundred-thousand-year trip around the Milky Way. These stories are classic, high-concept, sense-of-wonder, picturesque science fiction. And yet, they are imbued with that subtle Reed touch: deceptively easy prose and ambiguous characters haunted by their own dreams (a bored, rich woman who romanticizes and envies the crew's lifestyle; a seemingly self-reliant and unambitious captain who harbors a fantastic secret; an alien child fleeing from a past of its own making). In these carefully structured stories, sadness, deceit, revenge, pettiness, and beauty all intermingle to create unexpected emotions and surprising scenarios. Their potent interlocking juxtaposition of speculative setting, scientific extrapolation, exuberant imagination, and human drama exemplify what science fiction does better than anything else -- and what Robert Reed pulls off with artful finesse.

Fifteen years of prolific output distilled into a 312-page, 11-story collection? It's not nearly enough. I want more. Much more. There are dozens of Robert Reed stories that scream to be collected. Hopefully, this book of wonders will enjoy sufficient success, and more Robert Reed collections will follow... and then one of my dreams will be fulfilled. | November 1999

 

Claude Lalumière -- a freelance writer, editor and translator -- is the founder and former owner of Montreal's Nebula Bookshop. His book reviews, essays, and articles can be found on his Web site.