Peter Crowther has done a more than respectable job with his anthology, Forbidden Planets, in commemorating one of the cinematic high points of the 1950s, Forbidden Planet.
Given the lurid concepts behind many movies of the time, people first seeing that film in 1956 might have hoped for a racy adventure on a Venus where the jungles were steamy for more than one reason. Had the title appeared on a Lion paperback at the time it probably would have been that very story. Instead, the film turned out to be an interesting and intelligent drama told in a visually effective manner, with its several odd characters including a talking robot . . . so perhaps it was not the perfect thing for the thrills-and-chills crowd that supported science fiction cinema at the time.
Forbidden Planet tells the story of United Planets space cruiser C57-D's visit to the planet Altair IV in search of the lost ship Bellerophon. Commander Adams and his crew find two survivors: Dr. Morbius and his teenage daughter, Altaira, accompanied by their impressively talented robot, Robby. After Morbius warns Adams of the planet's dangers, the crew is attacked by some unseen force that becomes visible to them only when it throws itself against the camp's perimeter shield. Morbius soon admits having activated the immense machinery left behind by the planet's prior inhabitants, the Krell. This machinery allows thoughts to become tangible and "real"—both conscious and, unfortunately, unconscious thoughts. The machine caused the downfall of the Krell.
Forbidden Planet's debt to William Shakespeare's The Tempest has often been noted. The more contemporaneous connection between the 1956 movie and the later TV serial Star Trek has also been recognized.
While it smashed no box-office records, the film did turn a few heads, particularly in the field of written science fiction, where a disdain for Hollywood was more the norm than the exception. That it is still turning heads Crowther convincingly proves here. The original stories he has gathered are intelligent ones; as a group, they have none of the feel of those watery theme anthologies so common in the 1980s or '90s, which might have reduced the famous movie to some paltry shared world. Yet miscellaneous strands from Forbidden Planet keep showing up in story after story loosely tying them to each other and to the original inspiration.
Crowther apparently had a canny way of getting the stories he wanted, a few of which pay quite direct homage. He gave their authors the broadest of themes to explore. He wanted stories that would go to "places where humans should not venture but do." That thematic statement appears on the back cover of this November 2006 DAW paperback and nowhere else, not even in Crowther's own brief note at the end of the book. But it seems an apt statement, whether from a paperback blurb or not. It describes the stories well. There is something about the expansive strength and simplicity of that film that would be hard to convey in your average written-to-order short story, but the theme of unwisely venturing into new places seems to have taken these writers to nearly the same place. The stories are each original in setting, and the level of their writing is fairly high. In a few cases it is quite high.
Perhaps the most brilliant performance in direct homage comes from Alastair Reynolds. In "Tiger, Burning" he manages to concoct an absorbing high-concept story that brings both Forbidden Planet and The Tempest into the heart of the tale as intrinsic elements: the references to the earlier works are absolutely necessary.
Reynolds's hero, governmental agent Adam Fernando, takes a series of jumps between the layered universes—also known as "realities" or "branes"—as far as their physical laws are compatible with human survival. At the very outskirts of these human-inhabitable regions, a study is being undertaken by a Dr. Meranda Austvro of an alien machine. Dr. Austvro is attended by an aerial robot—a felicitous nod to Shakespeare.
The government of these many-layered realities has a stake in Dr. Austvro's research and has detected strange security breaches. Although Fernando is there to investigate the leaks, the story expands to include both a murder investigation and an exploration of the structure behind the multilayered realities—which is relevant to the nature and purpose of the ancient and immense alien artifact.
Reynolds's story at times seems a bit rushed and abrupt, perhaps because it tries to encompass so much within the length of a novelette. But what seems to be of essence in "Tiger, Burning" is the rush of ideas, which are sparkling and vivid right to the finale; I have barely begun enumerating them. If the story has any particular weakness, it lies within the character interactions. These may seem a bit wooden due to the shortness of the story, which yearns toward a greater length. The writerly device of having the aerial robot be initially catty and unfriendly, for instance, while useful for keeping events suspenseful, has a false feeling to it and works against the pell-mell progress of the story's opening scenes. Similarly, Meranda's conversations seem just words on paper and not the utterances of a living and deeply machinating person. Fortunately, in the breezy sleekness of the telling, done by a first-person narrator who manifests in this reality as a large, furry cat, there is enough vigor that readers will be carried right past those shaky dialogues with brio. Come to think of it, this is much akin to the experience of many movies: unconvincing dialogue on the oblivious ear while the eye stares enraptured. If this is intended, then bravo.
Similarly striking is Paul McAuley's "Dust," another fast-paced tale, although here the ideas are trotted out at a more moderate pace and characters come slightly more to the fore. Like Reynolds's story, this one evokes a space-spanning civilization of great scale—showing the advantage, I suppose, to being a novelist slumming in the shorter lengths—while focusing on a brief sequence of events.
The story is that of Captain Bea Edvard, who has been hired along with her ship to take the scion of a wealthy family to a planet named Hades, where his brother has disappeared. In an anthology such as this, the name Hades triggers the old "Aha!" reaction, which McAuley apparently expects from the reader. He plays with it over the course of the story as events on the hellish surface turn from bad to worse and then to something altogether different. "Dust" ends up recalling Clifford Simak's early story, included in City, in which an earthman finds satisfaction in physical transformation into an unearthly being, one capable of survival under conditions that would kill the normal earthling.
The story that leaps out as most triumphantly accomplished in the collection is the one that seems to sit furthest from the collection's source matter: Ian McDonald's "Kyle Meets the River," a story that projects itself into the life of a privileged child, a Westerner living within the segregated confines of a Green Zone, not in the Iraq of our day but in an under-reconstruction India of the future. The breathlessness of narration and the simple pleasures and fears felt by the young main character, Kyle Rubin, carry the reader easily into events that seem at first fantastically and somewhat amusingly exaggerated despite often being dire in their nature. From there the reader willingly dips into the games of children, into the petty rivalries and real friendships of that age, and then out into the realm beyond the Green Zone, which the boy and the reader together discover is too thrillingly real for comfort.
The pleasure of this tale comes as much from the flow of images and ideas as from the energy created by its clashing cultures, inner and outer, Western and subcontinental. Perhaps the details of car-bomb assaults and the political divides that result from racial and religious ones will appear less hectically lit in some hoped-for, more peaceful time, but certainly at the moment many passages in McDonald's tale have a feeling of striking immediacy. While the story ventures far from the themes and notions of the movie—in fact, reading "Kyle Meets the River" helps one realize how much homage to Forbidden Planet is taking place in many of the other stories—the tale does embody the anthology's theme powerfully.
Perhaps the most strangely successful story here is Adam Roberts's "Me-Topia." I say strangely because the ingredients of the story seem at first so unlikely and the characters so simpleminded that its success seems in doubt from the first. But it is a narrative that moves forward with a secure pace and gradually wins over the reader. The doubtful ingredients grow to seem more likely, while the characters, simple as they are, end up demonstrating a winning intelligence.
These characters are Neanderthals. As the reader learns soon enough, they were "uplifted" by humans before those superior creatures abandoned their wrecked planet Earth. A crew of these Neanderthals is out exploring the solar system when their craft crash-lands on a planet utterly mysterious to them. It is also peacefully beautiful, and the story follows their daily progress—from inactive contentment at their lot through the discovery of their predicament to their meeting and dealing with a human. While the author, in his notes afterwards, states that this is more a homage to an episode in Homer than one in Shakespeare, the human versus Neanderthal relationship is perhaps the strongest echo of Prospero versus Caliban to be found in Crowther's collection.
The anthology overall is surprisingly strong and easy to like. Many of the stories explore the direction suggested by the huge machinery, with its strange effects, that was so central to the 1956 movie, including Chris Roberson's "Eventide," Paul Di Filippo's "The Singularity Needs Women!," Alex Irvine's "This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine," Michael Moorcock's "Forebearing Planet," Scott Edelman's "What We Still Talk About," and Jay Lake's "Lehr, Rex." The notion of the machine of planetary scale or larger or its equivalent plays into them all. McCauley's and Reynolds's stories rely heavily upon this element as well.
This perhaps makes it more surprising that a few of the stories lean in a different direction. The collection's opener, Matthew Hughes's "Passion Ploy," moves the id-monster element from the realm of the huge to that of the tiny in describing an item of alien origin that has a seductive effect upon humans. Stephen Baxter's "Dreamers' Lake" too is a smaller-focus first-contact story, which chronicles the discovery of intelligence in a place about as unlikely as one can imagine—within stromatolitic mats, which are shallow-water algal and bacterial constructions.
One element of Crowther's collection that seems to be homage I hope is accidental. Like the crew of the ship in the movie Forbidden Planet, the crew of the anthology Forbidden Planets is all male. One almost gets the impression that the authors are the restless crew members gathered around winsome young Altaira—only in this case Altaira is the movie Forbidden Planet itself, whom these males court with confessions of enraptured fascination and repeated viewings in their author notes at the end of the book.
Which raises an odd question: is this literary commemoration of the movie superb—or too superb?
Being so untrue to the movie as to include female writers in the anthology's crew is a flaw that I and no doubt other readers would have welcomed.
Mark Rich has written criticism and reviews for the New York Review of Science Fiction, Salem Press, and Tangent, among other publications, as well as fiction for Analog, Amazing Stories, and SF Age. He has also illustrated his own collection of stories (Foreigners, and Other Familiar Faces, Small Beer Press) and the new collection of Ezra Pines stories (The Sense of Falling, Spilt Milk Press). He lives in Cashton, Wisconsin, with bandmate Martha Borchardt.