Getting Near the End, Andrew Weiner

Robert J. Sawyer Books, 2004, 268 pages, C$26.95 hc, ISBN 0-88995-307-4

In his introduction to this novel, writer/editor Robert J. Sawyer mentions that Andrew Weiner’s “favorite writers are J.G.Ballard, Barry Malzberg, and Philip K. Dick.” As a set of reference, this more or less represents the key to the entire novel that follows. Three paragons of seventies SF slipping toward mainstream nihilism; can you guess where Getting Near the End is going?

Heck, the title alone nearly says it all. In the decaying wreckage of a collapsing society, mega-star singer Martha Nova is a seer and a guide. Her visions of the future inform her songs, and her songs are taking the world by storm. Getting Near the End begins on The Final Night Of Something, and through flashbacks we come to understand how The End is shaped.

Adapted from a 1981 short story of the same title, Getting Near the End may take place twenty-three years later (the original story took place, of course, on December 31st 1999), but it doesn’t really add much meat to its original material. The story beats are roughly similar, the characters are essentially the same and the ending is identical down to the final lines. There are a lot more flashbacks explaining the background of the story, but otherwise it’s more or less the same content.

How you feel about the novel will depend on how you feel about those seventies SF stories that promised doom and gloom for everyone. Getting Near the End does a faithful job at recreating the kind of future that seemed so inevitable thirty years ago. Ballard, Malzberg and Dick indeed: You don’t have to look any further than the title to know that the only suspense here is if this will be The End, or just An End leading to a new beginning. (Even then, would you be surprised to find an ambiguous ending?)

The above may suggest that I was less than impressed by the book, but that’s not quite the case. Weiner is a fantastic short story writer (have a look at his collections Distant Signals and This is Year Zero for proof) and his clear prose style does much to propel the reader forward even if the story advances only by fits and spurts. If you want the plot, read the short story. If you want the atmosphere and the characters, have a look at the novel. Weiner’s technique is superb, his understated prose works well and if one can quibble about the extended flashbacks, the overall impact of the novel is strong and distinctive. Getting Near the End is, simply put, a pleasure to read despite the depressing content. Readers looking for more of “that seventies groove” will certainly find it here: One can easily imagine this book escaping from 1975 and time-travelling intact to the present.

Robert J. Sawyer Books (which I constantly want to write as “RJS Books”) was created, in part, to give a chance to novels that may not find favour with today’s corporate-driven mass-market publishers. Getting Near the End is a near-perfect example of that kind of novel: Well-written, but a bit depressing and without a definitive ending. The kind of novel that could be well-received three decades ago at the end of the New Wave movement, but would be a hard sell today. Perhaps best of all is the idea that this publication may cause Weiner to write some more material: He’s been absent from the scene for too long, and it’s been a long time since This is Year Zero.

Briefly: You will have to haunt used bookstores for a long time before finding copies of Andrew Weiner’s Distant Signals, but the results will be more than worth it. A severely underrated short story writer, Weiner has an amazing ability to come up with one worthwhile story after another. Collections are usually hit-and-miss affairs, but save for Weiner’s earliest story (“Empire of the Sun”, originally published in 1972’s Again, Dangerous Visions!), all of Distant Signals is delicious reading. Weiner writes with a sly sarcastic voice, and his talent doesn’t lie in his ability to generate original ideas (although one story, “The News from D Street”, anticipates the whole MATRIX craze by a dozen years) as much as his skill in telling stories. His prose is a model of clarity and accessibility. It’s hard to pick favourites, though “The Man Who Was Lucky” has undeniable charm and “Fake-Out” manages to go to the logical conclusion of its premise. Also included: “Getting Near the End”, the short story that would later be expanded in a novel of the same name.)

[January 1999: I have rarely read a short story by Andrew Weiner that I didn’t like, and this statement remains true after This is Year Zero, his second anthology of his short stories. Short (192 pages) but packing 13 stories, this collection is a constant delight. Each story is short, to the point and usually enjoyable even despite the impression that some of them are jokes without punchline (The is Year Zero) or punchlines without jokes (The Alien in the Lake). Weiner obviously has a fascination for the alien, but his aliens are far closer to us (or representations of us) that otherwise. The iconoclastic sense of Weiner is also evident in his perversion of the usual unwritten SF assumptions. An alien is gunned down in matrimonial dispute—and there’s no further repercussions. Humans are conquered by aliens—and stay conquered. A man has to choose between boring, ordinary life and space colonization—and makes the boring choice. Few writer could get away with this kind of constant genre perversion, but Weiner’s prose style is such that is stories are so readable you won’t mind at all. One of my leading choices for the 1999 Aurora awards.]

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