If you had to sort Robert Charles Wilson's The Perseids and Other Stories into a bookseller's bucket, you'd probably reach for the one marked "urban fantasy." It's clear from the first that the book is primarily set in a fantastic Toronto, and you don't even have to recognize the skyline on the cover to get that, because the initial paragraph on the book's jacket mentions it directly. But Wilson doesn't quite fit snugly alongside the feypunk set. His speculative territory is vast and impersonal and often chilling; far closer to Lovecraft than to de Lint.
This fierce imaginative power -- and the skill with which it's communicated -- are Perseids' chief strengths. Wilson loves the Big Idea, the world-shaking concept hidden just beyond the peripheral view of the average citizen. For example, in "The Perseids," he explains away the entirety of human culture as a breeding ground for Oort aliens. It's a tough idea to get across, but his silky prose and keen metaphors are equal to the task. Wilson also exhibits a blessed lack of coyness when it comes to his ideas; if he needs you to understand something in order to proceed, he will grab a learned character and that character will tell you exactly what you need to know -- and they'll do so in such an entertaining way that the story's energy does not drop during the telling.
And though they do yeoman service in that regard, Wilson's characters are more than just mouthpieces for the fantastic. His cast includes divorcees, estranged lovers, widows, counterculture burnouts, and newly-arrived immigrants. All of them are at a crossroads of one kind or another, all of them ripe for transformation, and all of them are instantly accessible to the reader. Some of the characters, and one particular location, appear in multiple stories, though these reappearances seem to be strictly an authorial indulgence; Wilson makes only a slight attempt to create continuity from these elements.
Of Perseids' nine stories, two are unequivocal winners. The first, "Protocols of Consumption," draws frightening connections between human neurochemistry and the pheromonal conversations of ants. The protagonist, a lithium-gobbling manic-depressive, has a fascinating stake in the proceedings, and the narrative's awesome turns between bitter acidity and poignant regret make this story a joy to read aloud. The other winner is the splendid "Divided by Infinity," a terrifying tale of a man's journey towards complete improbability. Anyone who has ever had even a momentary brush with death will instantly connect with the story and will hang for dear life as it roars to its fabulous conclusion. Also highly recommended are the title story, "The Perseids," which was a Nebula finalist, and "Plato's Mirror," a story of unmaskings that is in some ways reminiscent of the classic Jim Kelly story, "Monsters."
Unfortunately, there are disappointments, too, most notably the never before-published "The Fields of Abraham," which starts out as a wrenching evocation of immigrant poverty in turn-of-the-century Toronto and dissolves into a muddy, unfocused, passing-the-torch horror story. In fact, all of the stories identified as original to this collection seem weaker than their reprinted counterparts. "Ulysses Sees The Moon in the Bedroom Window" is a lightweight cats-as-gods story not quite fully rescued by Wilson's speculative thunder, while the closing story, "Pearl Baby," seems rather like a first draft: full of superfluous characters and scenes, with an ending that is arbitrary rather than organic.
Aside from the weaker first-run material, there are a couple of other issues preventing me from unreservedly recommending The Perseids and Other Stories. First, when the fantastic manifests itself in a Wilson story, it usually does so in a noisy fashion that can clash with the careful, almost literary tones of his characterization and scene-setting. Secondly, and more troubling, is the fact that five of the first six stories in Perseids are built on the exact same bones: A male protagonist is menaced by a male antagonist, one who has been inducted into the story's mystery. The antagonist's attack typically takes advantage of some weakness of the primary female character, with whom the protagonist is emotionally involved. Tensions between the protagonist and antagonist rise until the fantastic fully reveals itself and intervenes to settle things, with the cost of that settlement typically being the protagonist's relationship with the female lead. Though Wilson makes terrific use of this formula in "Protocols of Consumption" and "The Perseids," it wears thin in stories such as "Ulysses" or "The Inner Inner City."
That quibbling aside, Perseids' top two attractions are alone worth the price of admission, and even the weakest story of the collection has some stellar moments. It's a solid buy now in hardback, and will be even better when its paperback edition comes out this summer.
John Aegard lives in Seattle, and has fiction forthcoming in ON SPEC. He previously reviewed Iain M. Banks's Look to Windward for Strange Horizons.