A Science-Fiction Omnibus
Editor: Brian Aldiss, 2007
A collection of short stories from 1941 to 2006. Most of my favourites in here are ones I've already read before: Asimov's Nightfall, Bear's Blood Music, Aldiss' own Poor Little Warrior!
Of the ones that are new to me, not many seemed to have much appeal. A few nicely crafted exceptions are worthy of special mention: Ward Moore's Lot, a tale of a family 's departure from home in the station wagon as civilisation ends around them; James Tiptree's And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side, a tragic and visceral vision of humanity's emotional and charismatic failings amongst the sleek, sophisticated races of the galaxy.
Amongst the others, there are instances where the collection's vintage lets it down, ideas that were once exciting and cutting edge, which have been dulled by the passage of time and events, to expose the lackluster writing beneath. Multiple tales of supreme computers achieving godhood, for better or for worse. Tales of malfunctioning machinery that barely held my interest.
Great Work of Time
Imagine, then, my surprise, when the final story of the collection, John Crowley's Great Work of Time, of which I have never heard until now, turned out to be an absolute triumph. 75 pages of beautifully crafted prose, all by itself it is easily worth the cost of this collection, and a more than worthy reward for the time and effort of reading all the other stories in it.
This final story is yet-another-novel-take on time-travel - at once bold and understated, a nostalgic and wistful story of alternate histories and the motives of the people charged with affecting the critical junctures of human civilisation. An exquisitely crafted scene lies embedded within the story's amber perfection, in which Cecil Rhodes' 23 year-old would-be assassin is recruited for the job by none other than his elderly self, who persuades with a moving and cathartic retelling of how the events in question went for him. The reader at this point is already steeped in the bitter-sweet consequences that the outcome will have for each of their lives, for the mysterious organisation under who's auspices they act, for the British Empire's fading hopes of uniting the world under a single banner versus the looming spectre of future World Wars - it is so poignant and well constructed and performed that I immediately went back and read the whole story over again. Absolutely bloody marvellous.
Rating 9/10, if you only read the last story in the book. Diluted otherwise.
Update: A Great Work of Time is available as a stand-alone 75 page book on Amazon Kindle for £2.99, and Calibre with the DeDRM plugin will convert this into an epub which can be read on any device.