Iterations, Robert J. Sawyer

Quarry Press, 2002, 303 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 1-55082-295-0

Whenever possible, I try to preface reviews of authors I’ve met with a short but pointed disclaimer. In this case, the disclaimer might be more necessary than usual. I know Robert J. Sawyer, I’ve interviewed him, and I’ve met him at local conventions and SF bookstores. Chances are that he even remembers me, which sorts of ruins the whole author/reader chasm that’s one of the underlying assumptions of my reviews.

Do understand that while I can recognize several annoying deficiencies in Sawyer’s work, I really do -generally- like what he writes. Despite the repeated themes and characters, mechanistic writing techniques and occasional cookie-cutter plotting, Sawyer strikes me as a professional’s professional, a career-minded writer who happens to understand and love the genre like few others. I could quibble endlessly about the repetitive and unoriginal nature of some of his books, but keep in mind that I’d do so even as I own most of his books in first edition, usually in hardcover.

Buying Iterations, his first short story collection, was a must. But enjoying it, well, that was another matter. Some writers are best suited to short story lengths. Others thrive in the extra space allowed in a novel. Sawyer definitely falls in the second category, and Iterations demonstrates it.

The principal problem is Sawyer’s quasi-mechanical approach to writing. In a novel, this works well given that the characters, ideas and overall narrative drive can sustain our attention even though the writing doesn’t. At the very least, one can say that the writing doesn’t interfere with our reading. But things don’t work like that in a short story, where the strings of mechanical writing are too obvious. While I wasn’t overly bothered by this, I’m usually tone-deaf to this kind of stylistic issues, and yet I noticed it in the course of the book.

Okay, this being out of the way, on to the blow-by-blow account: The book begins with the strong “The Hand You’re Dealt”, a formulaic but interesting murder-mystery set against a libertarian background. Sawyer loves mysteries and you can feel the fun he’s having doing a hybrid story. Other standout stories in the volume include the title-story “Iteration” (despite a horrid “I Wish” plot device), the whimsical “Lost in the Mail”, “Just Like Old Times”, and the closing story “On The Shoulders of Giants”. I could “but…” most of these stories, but they’re the best the volume has to offer.

There are more “eh?” stories whose point seems too lame to discuss. “The Peking Man” reads as the first chapter of a longer novel; all setup, no resolution. “The Blue Planet” is one of the most useless short stories I’ve ever read, even on a second read. It might have been best-written with an explicitly humorous story, but Sawyer’s track record as a writer of droll stories isn’t particularly better: “The Contest” will have you looking for a punchline, and that’s an impression shared by a few of the other stories in the volume, as readers collectively ask “Is that it?” There are quite a few duds here; not disasters, but stories that never build up to something interesting. “Where the Heart Is” strikes me as a perfect example of a short story about three times as long as it should be, a story driven mostly by the obvious authorial manipulation of a protagonist who should know better.

Again, please remember that all of the above comments are coming from a tone-deaf Hard-SF fan who does actually like Sawyer’s fiction. I’m so certain that your mileage will vary that I actually hesitate to recommend the book to you even though I found it, overall, worth my while.

Sawyer writes on page 156 that “since 1992, I haven’t written any short fiction without a specific commission; I just don’t seem to find the time for short work otherwise.” You may infer what you want from that statement, but I think that it illuminates the rest of the book.

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