The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures by Mike Resnick
The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures by Mike Resnick (Subterranean Press, 2012) is a very pleasing collection with one or two outstanding stories all rather beautifully bundled together by the good folk at Subterranean.
We start off with an African story, “Seven Views of Orduvai Gorge”, which poses two interesting questions. Suppose we have a race that develops intelligence and tool-handling ability. In due course, it develops the capacity to travel to the stars and builds an Empire. Later, when it has died away, a team comes to its planet of origin, Earth, to examine the historical record. What can six random snapshots of the past tell us about the history of such a race. Second, as the one with the power to interpret the evidence and inform the team of his findings, what duty does He Who Views have to pass on what he sees? Is it the role of a “historian” to filter what is communicated? Should he impose his own moral standards in deciding how much to tell those in the team? “Barnaby in Exile” is a rather thin story about a chimp that’s reared in a lab and encouraged to think and communicate by signing. When the funding for the experiment is lost, he’s sent out into the jungle, the unsympathetic humans assuming he’s somehow genetically aware how to survive in such an environment. Continuing with animals, “The Last Dog” just about avoids sentimentality as the last man befriends the last dog and then loses out to the alien that’s been going round killing everyone. As a story, it actually makes little sense. Is this alien one of these dedicated, do-it-the-hard-way types that wants to track down the last man without the benefit of his advanced technology? If it knows this is the last man, it must have a way of scanning the Earth and finding no other human alive. Why does the last man seem to know the alien? I could go on but you should understand from this that it’s not very good.
“Article of Faith” makes a serious attempt at a difficult subject. For those who believe in the practical reality of souls, it would come as a shock if it were to be suggested that robots could have one. Mike Resnick is to be commended on having the intellectual honesty to describe the outrage the evangelicals might feel, particularly if high rates of unemployment were caused by their arrival in local factories. Unfortunately, I find the result competent but unexciting. But “The Big Guy” turns that round neatly. One of the other rather clichéd robot plots is the problem of the “emotion” chip. Machines can’t be programmed to feel although they can simulate the more obvious emotions in their behaviour if this is required. This story produces a very ingenious way of looking at the phenomenon of free will and investigates how a robot might go about learning how to feel. “The Boy Who Yelled Dragon” is a rather slight fantasy story written for the YA market.
“Alistair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders” is the best story I’ve read so far this year. Admittedly the year is only a few days old but it’s going to take something outstanding to beat it. In tone, it reminds me of Peter Beagle as two old men set off on a final trip down memory lane before taking the fast elevator to the Pearly Gates. On the way, there’s just enough magic to make their final days less painful. “Distant Replay” is another old fogey story but it doesn’t work quite as well. There’s a sense of wonder about the set-up but the pay-off is just too pulpy to be satisfying. “The Bridge of Frankenstein” continues in this slightly sentimental sequence of stories, this time avoiding mawkishness by creatively engaging with the problems of Mrs Frankenstein as she learns to accommodate Igor and accept the monster as a marriage guidance counsellor. This has a delightfully wry sense of humour about it. And talking about humour, “The One That Got Away” explains why the howls of some coyotes are just a little bit more frustrated than you might realise.
“All the Things You Are” is a wonderful set-up but it fails to deliver because Mike Resnick does not follow the logic of the story. If we have a telepathic alien who can read everything in the target mind, it knows exactly why the hero has come to this planet. For it then to say that our hero has caught on more quickly than those who went before is absurd. His forerunners were innocent victims and might never understand what had happened. I also find it less than satisfying that our hero is not immune or less addicted. He’s gone into this situation with his eyes open. There’s no reason for him to follow the pattern. More interestingly, why does he not kill the pilot and leave himself on the planet but with a lifeline? I could go on but you should understand my frustration from these sample thoughts.
“The Incarceration of Captain Nebula” is a rather pleasing story in which everyone tells the truth as they perceive it within their own terms of reference yet, paradoxically, the man calling himself Captain Nebula is as crazy as a loon (or not as the case may be). And, finally, “Six Blind Men and an Alien” presents us with a rather elegant version of the old story of the elephant and the sample “feels” taken by each man. One of the most difficult of all choices made by an author is the length of the finished product. This is a very clever idea and each of the “feels” is interesting. Fortunately, the author has the good sense to stop before the interest runs out. Put all this together and you have one of the better collections of the year.