Horrors of Science
By Cheryl Morgan
Michael Crichton has made a living out of writing books in which science is portrayed as something intrinsically horrible, but in his short fiction Robert Reed manages something much more worthwhile. A lot of Reed’s short stories are quite disturbing, but they almost all have a strong science fiction setting.
I’m reading Reed because Golden Gryphon have produced a very nice collection of his short fiction called The Cuckoo’s Boys. The opening story is a good example of what I mean. "On the Brink of That Bright New World" is told by a man who got away with murder because he committed his crime on a night when the whole world was busy watching TV coverage of the first discovery of alien life. It is followed by "The Children’s Crusade", which is about a cult that encourages kids to volunteer for a mission into space, told from the point of view of a man whose daughter gets caught up in the cult. Then there is "She Sees My Monsters Now", in which a psychopath corrupts a naïve woman as part of an argument with his AI warden about the nature of mental illness.
The title story, "The Cuckoo’s Boys", is also disturbing in its own way. It concerns an eccentric billionaire called Philip Stevens who sponsors the creation of a plague that makes thousands of women pregnant with clones of himself. The story focuses on three of the boys and their tutor as they go through high school. It does an excellent job of envisaging how bad life will be for these kids, both because of the paranoia that will have developed around their origins and the pressure they feel from being just one of many supposedly identical children.
Not all of the stories in the collection are horrific. Two are set in the world of Marrow, and have appropriately Marrow-ish themes. The first, "Night of Time", is about the origins of life in the universe, and features a new character who may get his own Marrow novel soon. The other, "River of the Queen", sees Quee Lee and Perri get involved with a species of aliens who have brought their entire ecosystem on board the giant spaceship.
The oddest story in the collection is "Coelacanths", in which Reed tries to imagine what it would be like to live in a world in which we humans live alongside creatures to whom we are little more than dumb animals. It is an interesting idea, but I suspect that the complex structure will put most readers off.
"One Last Game" is a classic time travel story in which a group of adults challenge their kids to come back in time and visit them when they find themselves in that great science-fictional future we all dream of. Of course the kids do come back, with predictably upsetting results. The central character, a sulky 14-year-old boy, is very nicely drawn. Equally mal-adjusted is the hero of "Abducted Souls", a college boy who uses the fact that he was supposedly abducted by aliens as a child as a means of getting girlfriends. If you assume that he’s making it all up for effect, it isn’t an SF story at all.
Finally there are three stories with political themes. "Savior" is about how decisions made in the heat of battle can come back to haunt soldiers who were only trying to save the world as best they knew how. "Winemaster" is about how a terrified American government tries to wipe out those of its citizens who have chosen to upload their minds. And "First Tuesday" features a world in which the US president sends a virtual avatar to visit every household in the country once a month to get a sense of the mood of the people.
That’s it. Twelve stories, all of them worth reading, though "Coelacanths" was hard going. All of which goes to confirm that Robert Reed is a fine writer whose work I shall continue to seek out in future.