November 06, 2008


Icarus at the Edge of Time. By Brian Greene. Knopf. $19.95.

Dreaming Again: Thirty-Five New Stories Celebrating the Wild Side of Australian Fiction. Edited by Jack Dann. Eos. $16.95.

     Couple the magnificence of NASA photos of the universe with the ancient tale of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, and you have the basic idea of Icarus at the Edge of Time. But only through seeing the book will you have a sense of its impact. Brian Greene takes old science-fiction ideas and twists them in a new way, producing a graphic display book (not really a graphic novel) that is gorgeous to see, elucidates a major scientific concept, and tells a story well updated from Greek myth – in which a spacefaring Icarus is lost to the world as surely as if his wax wings had melted. This Icarus is on a generational ship, the only kind that (as far as anyone knows) can possibly make a journey to the tremendously distant stars. It is a ship on which whole generations are born and die without ever seeing anything but the ship itself; for faster-than-light travel, although the darling of space opera, remains pure myth to modern science. Icarus, young and highly inventive, devises a way during the journey to use a small ship to take a very close look at a black hole, approaching its event horizon (the point beyond which everything is sucked in). Convinced of the accuracy of his calculations, he dismisses his family’s warnings and sets out – and is successful in approaching the black hole and returning safely from it. But he loses everything when he does return – for it is now thousands of years in the future. Icarus at the Edge of Time explains why, using much-simplified Einsteinian science: a black hole’s gravity results in the slowing of time near the event horizon, so that someone near the black hole experiences time normally but (in terms of relativity) is living at a tremendously slow rate. An hour near a black hole may equal thousands of years of time away from it. This is a tough concept to understand, and Greene makes no attempt to explain it in depth – he simply illustrates the consequences. And what illustrations! The black hole looms ever larger as Icarus approaches it, against astonishingly detailed and beautifully colored two-full-page Hubble Telescope images of the Orion, Swan, Cone, Lagoon and Eagle Nebulas and other amazing-looking celestial objects (each actually made up of uncountably large numbers of smaller objects, including suns and planets). The book is a mere 32 oversize thick-cardboard pages in length, but its haunting story is the stuff of legend, and its illustrations will pull readers in again and again.

     There is much that is haunting in Dreaming Again, too – some of it science-fictional, but even more from the realm of fantasy. This is a sequel of sorts – a decade later – to Dreaming Down-Under, an outstanding 1998 collection of short stories by Australian writers. But Dreaming Again stands entirely on its own, and many of the tales – although not so many of the science-fictional ones – are really excellent. The SF elements are cleverly handled in Sean McMullen’s “The Constant Past” (how does one stop a serial killer who travels through time?) and Simon Brown’s “Empire” (an interesting rethinking of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds); but they are handled in ordinary-to-fairly-silly ways in such stories as Ben Francisco and Chris Lynch’s “This Is My Blood” (First Contact involving religious missionaries, a very old theme) and Adam Browne’s “Neverland Blues” (Michael Jackson transformed into a spaceship, still hunting young boys). Some of the stories are new takes on fairy tales, and they are much more effective: Angela Slatter’s “The Jacaranda Wife” is both odd and moving, while Kim Wilkins’ “The Forest” neatly and scarily rethinks “Hansel and Gretel.” There are fantasy tales that are out-and-out spooky, such as Terry Dowling’s “The Fooly” and Richard Harland’s Lovecraftian “A Guided Tour in the Kingdom of the Dead”; others that are simply weird (Christopher Green’s “Lakeside”); and still others that are too overdone to be fully effective (Aaron Sterns’ “The Rest Is Silence,” which takes its title from Hamlet – as does Isobelle Carmody’s far more successful “Perchance to Dream,” which is vivid, beautifully imagined and thoroughly involving). There are a couple of detective stories: Stephen Dedman’s “Lost Arts,” whose solution is distinctly Asimovian, and Trent Jamieson’s “The New Deal,” which takes the noir concept to extremes. There are even a few instances of humor – dark humor, to be sure: it creeps into Jason Fischer’s wonderfully titled “Undead Camels Ate Their Flesh” and is pervasive in Rosaleen Love’s “Riding on the Q-Ball,” a particularly silly journey to just about everywhere and everywhen that involves a rogue fax machine threatening the existence of the universe and includes such scintillating dialogue as “Arwwkk Orrkk Warrkkk” and “Uh Uh Uh Urk.” There is also one “rediscovered” and previously unpublished story here: “Grimes and the Gaijin Daimyo” by A. Bertram Chandler (1912-1984); but it is minor Chandler and, in truth, lacks the stylistic punch of many of the newer tales by younger writers. Dreaming Again is a particularly fine anthology – even the less-than-successful stories usually have their intriguing moments – and serves as a reminder that the Dreamtime, the Aboriginal creation myth, has about it not only many wonders but also its share of nightmares.

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