The Perseids and Other Stories, Robert Charles Wilson

Tor, 2000, 224 pages, C$17.95 tpb, ISBN 0-312-87524-X

From a sequence of unremarkable early novels re-using the traditional tropes of Science Fiction in indifferent fashions, Robert Charles Wilson has matured in a far more interesting SF writer. Staring from The Harvest, continuing with Mysterium and then on to his “Tor books” (Bios, Darwinia, The Chronoliths), Wilson has become steadily more ambitious and the impact of his novels has increased along with the author’s improving skills.

Now, Tor has confirmed their faith in Wilson by publishing this collection of his short stories. The surprise isn’t that the book is a good one (any Wilson fan could have predicted this), but how much, even as Wilson sets out to write science-fiction, the cumulative impact of these stories is much, much closer to horror.

There are nine stories in The Perseids, three of them written specially for this collection and the other spanning a a publication period running from 1995 to 1999. For American readers, this collection fulfils an essential purpose in bringing together stories that hadn’t previously been available south of the border: Four stories had previously appeared in Canadian SF/Horror anthologies whose American distribution was, at best, lacking. There is one Aurora-winning short story in the bunch, along with the Hugo and Nebula-nominated “Divided by Infinity”.

While Wilson claims that all the stories are loosely related by a common link (the presence, explicit or not, of a used bookstore called “Finders”), the links are very loose, with a multiplicity of dark, strange creatures inhabiting the crevices of our reality. You could make a better case that the stories are united by their chilling impact; while billed as SF, The Perseids is closer to a horror anthology, as every story has an uneasy edge to it, usually topped by a glimpse behind the comfortable illusion of our reality. There are other similitudes, mind you: most stories feature lonely, unapproachable protagonists (usually men, usually bouncing back from failed relationships), a fascination for the esoteric and frequent acknowledgements to science-fiction itself. As acknowledged by the ominous cover montage, the city Toronto itself usually prefigures as a constant background to the stories.

Of the nine stories, the best may very well be the Hugo-nominated “Divided by Infinity”, which could previously be found in the original Tor anthology Starlight 2. It offers a nifty literary “what if?”, follows it up with a Big Catastrophe and concludes with a cute SF twist that pushes quite a few assumptions to the limit. Also very strong is the Aurora-nominated title story, which mixes occult knowledge with, again, a bit of SFictional existential horror to memorable impact.

Conversely, I wasn’t so taken with either “The Observer” (an alien abduction story with some neat historical cameos) or the concluding “Pearl Baby” (which didn’t have much of a point despite tying together many of the sub-threads of the book), but it’s worth noting that either of those stories remained far more interesting and accessible than most of the stories on this year’s Hugo ballot.

Another of The Perseids‘s wonders is that, even despite the dour protagonists and the spine-chilling conclusions, it’s never a depressing book. The horrors are offset by the magnitude of their revelations, almost as if SF’s sense of wonder could compensate for the terror of the unknown forces. It also helps that Wilson’s style is never less than limpid, with just enough style to add to the prose without distracting from the story itself.

In short, there’s a lot to like in The Perseids regardless of whether you’re already a fan of Wilson’s fiction or not. It’s certainly one of his strongest books, free of the curious structural problems that plagued books like Darwinia and Bios. The stories all pack an interesting wonder or two, while acknowledging their debt to previous science-fiction (essentially; playing to the crowd). Torontonians should be more pleased than most to see how their city prefigures in the collection (sometimes as a part of the story itself, such as in “The Inner Inner City”) while everyone else, regardless of their origins, should get a kick out of a snappy, solid anthology.

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