Sunday, October 10, 2010

Book Review: 'New Dimensions 12', edited by Marta Randall and Robert Silverberg

 
1 / 5 Stars

From 1976 to 1983, SF was a genre in the doldrums. The New Wave movement was dying out, but many authors - lacking the ability to come up with an alternative approach to their fiction - continued to produce New Wave content, albeit even more contrived and self-indulgent than its predecessors.

Even as the New Wave style succumbed, the runaway success of Star Wars in 1977, followed by that of Close Encounters and Alien, reignited ‘traditional’ SF as a commercial venture and publishers increasingly looked for works that were plot-driven, as opposed to the character- and mood- driven approach of the New Wave scene.

Some writers successfully adapted to the change in the landscape of SF. For example, Robert Silverberg abandoned the introspective style that had characterized much of his output during the 60s and 70s and released in 1980 one of his best, and best-selling, novels with ‘Lord Valentine’s Castle’.

But much of the rest of the field simply dithered, unsure of where to go, lost and aimlessly seeking a new direction, a new direction that wouldn’t arrive until 1984 and the publication of ‘Neuromancer’ and the advent of the Cyberpunks.

 ‘New Dimensions 12’ (1981; 223 pp., Pocket Books / Timescape, cover artist unknown) provides a rather depressing snapshot of the efforts to prop up the corpse of the New Wave movement even when it was clear that its time had come and gone.

The anthology leads off with Michael Swanwick’s ‘Walden Three’, about an L5 colony where all 10,000 inhabitants are required to be outfitted with an implant that guarantees happy behavior. A clown / standup comic / mime tries to rebel. This is the most ‘hard’ SF tale in the collection, but it’s pretty weak. Better things were to come from Swanwick as the decade progressed.

Gregory Benford contributes ‘Cadenza’, which deals with the familiar near-future scenario of the terminally ill person seeking Death with Dignity. It’s sentimental and predictable.

Newcomer Richard Grant provides ‘Drode’s Equations’, in which a man riding a train in a quasi-Victorian world ponders the Meaning of Life. What little plot exists is suffocated by a belabored prose style (this is the first time I’ve ever seen the verb ‘effulges’ in print ?!). No other story in the collection displays as severe a New Wave hangover as this entry.

Elizabeth Lynn’s entry, ‘The Woman in the Phone Booth’ is a story dealing – half-humorously – with alien abductions. It’s a sign of how slim the pickings were that this slight tale made it into the anthology.

‘Elfleda’, by Vonda McIntyre, is set on a planet where a hapless race of humans have been genetically engineered to resemble the centaurs, satyrs, and nymphs of Greek mythology. Their masters periodically visit with rather… lubricious… designs in mind. There is angst about this state of affairs on the part of the first-person narrator, a centaur named Achilleus. This story certainly has a provocative theme, but at the same time it carries with it a sticky, grubby sensibility. I finished ‘Elfleda’ thinking that someone like Joe R. Lansdale could take the concept and do something much more intriguing (and gruesome) with it….

‘Pain and Glory’, by Gordon Eklund, deals with a Jewish family gifted (or cursed) with the ability to draw upon themselves the physical and emotional pain of others. There is much angst about the psychological burden of employing this ability. There is an obligatory Holocaust flashback. Another ‘speculative fiction’ entry with little in the way of true SF content.

‘Parables of Art’ by Dann and Malzburg is a short-short tale dealing with the antics of two unhappy artists. Another bottom-of-the-barrel selection.

Michael Ward’s ‘Delta D and She’ is a cutesy tale of a young woman struggling to regain her identity with the assistance of AIs, which manifest as holograms beamed from kiosks scattered throughout the city. Over the course of the story the woman acquires the name ‘Pitspipple’. This entry is…really lame.

Tony Sarowitz contributes ‘A Manner of Speaking’, which places another young woman, this one named Elinor, in a dystopian, near- future setting. Elinor provides an unusual service to her clients, at some cost to her own personality. The story tries to evoke a sense of pathos and anomie, but instead comes across as one giant cliché of New Wave prose; for example, the story ends with this sentence: ’Silence like a pair of vacant eyes.’
  
Juleen Brantingham provides ‘The Satyrs’ and Dryads’ Cotillion’, in which a group of jaded aesthetes bicker and connive in preparation for a stylish costume ball. Unremarkable.

‘The Last Concert of Pierre Valdemar’, by Carter Scholz, is a short-short story that provides a satirical examination of the limits to which Artistry may go.

Peter Santiago C. (no, the single-letter surname is not a typo, but a stylish affectation) contributes ‘The Celebrants’, set on a far-future Earth in the aftermath of an invasion by an alien race called the tiiyn. Peace has been arranged between the tiiyn and the Earth’s surviving humans; an elaborate artistic ceremony is planned to consummate the treaty. Of all the stories in the anthology this one seems most like a New Wave piece written in 1971, so overloaded with figurative, empurpled prose that navigating even a single page induces fatigue in the reader.

In summary, even die-hard New Wave aficionados will find little to hold their attention among the contents of this volume of ‘New Dimensions’.

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Will Errickson said...

"A clown / standup comic / mime tries to rebel."

Hmm, sounds like a certain Harlan Ellison story...