Robert Reed made his debut in 1986, winning the second Writers of the Future contest, and became one of the dominant practitioners of the short form in the 1990s, racking up appearances in almost every Year's Best Science Fiction anthology of the decade and averaging four or five appearances a year in both Asimov's and Fantasy and Science Fiction. A Nebula finalist in 1997 for the novella form of Chrysalis and five times a contender for the Hugo, he has yet to truly break through to the front rank of writers—he is more admired by fellow pros and fans than adored in the manner of, say, Larry Niven or Terry Pratchett.
His new novella, Flavors of My Genius, covers several common SF themes—enhanced intelligence, the unreliability of perception, the difficulty of living in a world where struggle has been rendered unnecessary, the question of whether humanity is alone in the universe—but he approaches the combination from a typically unique perspective.
Long after SETI has received proof of extraterrestrial life in the form of not one but hundreds of identical messages from other stars, Damian Veer, like the rest of humanity, struggles to live meaningfully in a world where, with the information gleaned from the messages, everyone has been augmented to hyperintelligence. In Reed's future world, everyone has access to an internal universe at least as interesting as the external; it's a place where someone's genius can render him catatonic with overstimulation at the sight of the commonplace (whether a flower or his neighbour hammering nails into her roof) and where work has become meaningless. Cloaks made from the material Veer originally designed for solar sails can be used to turn the wearer invisible, so reality can be distorted further. No one knows whether the voice they hear is within their head or belongs to someone wearing a privacy cloak, necessitating identification rituals far more complex than any log-on. Food has become, in that hoariest of SF traditions, paste and pills, but each mouthful can be imagined, with the strength of reality, as being a meal in itself.
Within this setting, we are given the backstory of the unraveling of Veer's marriage under the pressure of his working on a project in a race to the stars while the first of the SETI messages are found on an obscure wavelength, and the story of Veer's earthily attractive new neighbour. We share in the slow, stately unfolding of an autumnal romance between two grown-ups:
“Are you hiding from me?”
I rise up through the elderberry branches.
“You’re still hiding from me,” she observes. Then she adds with a scornful laugh, “I don’t care for those poncho things.”
But I leave it on.
“Dot,” she says.
What is that?
“My name is. Dot.” (27)
“. . . if my lover happened to be in bed with another woman . . . ”
I listen to the silence, then ask, “What would you do?”
“Join them,” she says.
And laughs, a big hearty cackling telling me that she is teasing. I think. (41)
The next paragraph contains spoilers, so to echo James Patrick Kelly's introduction, if you don't want to know the outcome of the story, skip it.
Within this dazzling novella there are stories within stories; Veer is an unreliable narrator, and many of these tales are untrue, but we only start to learn this as we fall through trapdoor after trapdoor, posing the question "what is real?" First Veer believes that Dot is not augmented at all, then that she was enhanced after the others while she was at sea in the Pacific, next that she is the avatar of a starship, and finally that she is his long-lost wife but they are not on Earth and instead have been traveling not for decades, which is the timescale first posited in the story, but for thousands of years. And then, in a dazzling final chapter, which, of course, may simply be concealing another trapdoor for the reader to fall through, that they have never left Earth, never needed to leave Earth, for within each person’s head is an entire universe to explore.
There are two fairly consistent criticisms of Reed's work, and I tend to agree with them—to an extent.
The first is that he often simply reworks earlier stories—"Hero" in Asimov's (May 2001) springs to mind as simply transposing Moby Dick to the Jovian setting of Arthur C. Clarke's Meeting with Medusa. In his defence, Kelly's introduction states that since Reed is a relative newcomer, he is underread in the genre, and assumptions that he is simply ransacking SF's back catalogue are overly paranoid.
Kelly name-checks Flowers for Algernon, Charles Stross, and Vernor Vinge because of Flavors of My Genius's similarity to singularity stories, but although there are overlaps, together with a passing resemblance to Jack Williamson's The Humanoids, the stories that really spring to mind are Robert Silverberg's "Sundance," with its continual shifts of narrative reality, and its contemporary, James Tiptree Jr.'s Nebula-nominated "The Last Flight of Doctor Ain,” although—given his comparative lack of reading of the field—it's unclear whether Reed is familiar with any or all of them.
The second criticism—which I agree with much more—is that Reed's work can be clinical to the point of frigidity. This may be because his stories often take the reader into the realm of posthumanity, where the effort of conveying even meaning leaves little room for feelings. Reason may be assumed to have supplanted emotion (how understanding would we be of a Cro-Magnon's emotional responses?), but Reed's prose style seems to be naturally cool, in the manner of James Blish, rather than exhibiting the heated emotion of, say, Harlan Ellison.
Given these criticisms, perhaps the greatest surprise and certainly the joy to be found in reading Flavors of My Genius is not simply the fresh examination of several common SF tropes, nor the trapdoor plotting, but the depth of Veer's characterization and the warmth with which he and Dot are drawn.
If there's any justice, Flavors of My Genius will feature in various recommended reading lists of 2006 stories. It's quite simply the best of many I've read by a very talented writer.
Colin Harvey is the author of the novels Vengeance and Lightning Days as well as the prize-winning story "The Bloodhound." His novel The Silk Palace will be published by Swimming Kangaroo Books in September 2007; read about it here.