Geoff Ryman is known for exploring exotic locales in his fiction—Cambodia, Central Asia, even places near Somewhere Over the Rainbow—but in this first collection of his short stories, he promises to take his readers all the way to paradise. Yet the stories gathered here from across Ryman's career narrate paradise and its stories in ways that are far from conventionally utopian. Rather, Ryman's paradises are not only largely intangible but often built on and out of loss. Reading his quasi-fairytales and other flights of passionate fantasy, we will always be reminded that these paradises, like all paradises, are places that can never be—except in fiction. For Ryman, however, this is an essential exception, as the power of story to heal and repair across time and across cultures becomes a recurrent theme in the collection. This theme will already be familiar to readers of the most widely known story in Paradise Tales, "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter," but its 15 lesser-known companions here also demonstrate Ryman's ability to excel at the short form, and not only in the novels and novellas that have earned him greater recognition. Indeed, his recent story, "What We Found," published after this collection, has earned a Hugo nomination and a Nebula win in the shorter novelette category, and perhaps Paradise Tales also signals that we may be seeing a larger amount of short fiction from Ryman in the near future, as most of the stories gathered here were first published in the past few years.
The first three stories in the collection nicely showcase the spectrum of styles and modes within which Ryman comfortably ranges. We open with "The Film-makers of Mars," a story based on the familiar gimmick of the lost document, and specifically a lost document that reveals a counterfactual secret history—in this case, a possible basis in reality for the creatures and civilizations of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom. Ryman's lost film reels of an uncannily realistic John Carter project do not simply serve to generate some Lovecraftian frisson of terror, as he puts the lost document convention to sophisticated use here, even engaging with the racial trauma buried in early twentieth century cultural expressions, an obsession that will be familiar to readers of Was (1992). The story appears to have originated in a wistful regret that, for a long time, we had never seen a John Carter movie when Tarzan, Burroughs's other major property, became an instant cinematic icon in the very earliest days of film. As such, this dimension of the fantasy may lose a little of its force now that the old Pixar project alluded to in the text has come to completion in the form of Disney's mediocrity from earlier this year, John Carter.
After the alternate present of "The Film-makers of Mars," we travel to an alternate past in "The Last Ten Years in the Life of Hero Kai," a story in which Ryman also shifts styles to adopt the self-consciously formal cadences of a fantastic folk epic. After introducing "The Ten Rules of Heroism," the narrator appears to provide a formulaic outline for the story he will tell: "The last ten years of Hero Kai's life are considered a perfect act of Heroism. One rule is exampled by each of his last ten years" (p. 12). As the story progresses, however, the correspondence between the rules and the plot becomes more abstract, and the narrative becomes more about the concept of rules than the rules it names themselves; it is also a story about magic going out of the world, and something else coming in. By contrast, the next story, "Birth Days," is pure extrapolative science fiction, although, as is common in Ryman's harder SF, it remains just as concerned with extrapolating social and cultural change as scientific progress itself. The narrative is broken into sections spaced out over ten-year intervals, beginning with the narrator's sixteenth birthday, on which he inadvertently comes out to his mother. Even this first section is set in the future, as the narrator's mother is a pro-Darwinian "NeoChristian"—"about the only people who don't abort homosexual fetuses" (p. 48)—and humanity has apparently discovered mysterious alien artifacts, connected in the popular imagination with the now-identified genes for homosexuality. As we move farther into the future, homosexuals have become "an endangered species everywhere" (p. 51) due to a culturally acceptable embryo-screening process. Strangely, the narrator finds himself working on a scientific "cure" for adult homosexuals, though not for his own use—he's happy. Ten years later, he's not only happy, but pregnant, and the paradise in this tale is literally named Eden, an isolated place in the wilds of Brazil that just might be the new cradle of life. At the same time, "you do not want to have a miscarriage in Eden" (p. 59), he warns, an et in Arcadia ego moment that grounds this fascinating meditation on the direction of human evolution and the place of homosexuality in it.
Unconventional speculations on the future of human evolution also drive "Days of Wonder," in which the central characters are not humans but horses, although horses that conceal genetic secrets. Impressively, Ryman manages to tell just as compelling and substantial a story about human biological and social evolution without any human characters, and in a sense each story in this collection comes as a complete surprise. For example, Ryman glides easily from the high surrealism of "Omnisexual" into the black humor of "No Bad Thing," this latter a rather different take on the vampire romance, and lighter than most of the stories in the collection. The premise is simple: the (male) director of a biology lab hires the vampiric revenant of Albert Einstein, and then falls in love with him. (Later, undead embryos go rampaging through town.) Despite the tremendous differences in the styles and settings of the stories in this colection, we will notice some recurring motifs: male pregnancy, technologies originally designed for convenience sliding into Orwellian nightmare; the elderly outliving a world that they can comprehend; and a persistent longing for paradise, even when, as in the phantasmagoric fugue of "Omnisexual," this is only the general arcing movement from a "paradise of politesse" (p. 116) to "paradise of reciprocity" (p. 122).
The piece most deeply focused on old age is "VAO"—an acronym we learn stands for "Victim Activated Ordnance"—and the story is not so much belated cyberpunk as a narrative of young cyberpunks all grown up. Geriatric hackers are not terribly common even in science fiction, but perhaps we'll be seeing more of them as the Internet continues to age—and perhaps that's part of the point of this story of "Age Rage" and the meaning(s) of personal security. "Home" approaches some of the same issues from a less satirical angle: an elderly man endures the inimical social conditions and technologies of the future, but paradoxically one of those technologies is also just sufficiently advanced to allow a complete escape into a virtual past, his only consolation. Similar in tone is "Warmth," a smart if still sentimental update of Asimov's inaugural robot story, which of course featured the titular mechanical caregiver Robbie. Ryman's story is precisely not the sort of update we got in the blockbuster version of I, Robot (2004), in which a revolt of the machines undoes Asimov's staunch resistance to this common narrative. In fact, Ryman does invoke Jurassic Park as an intertext several times in the story, but it is finally the narrator's executive mother and not his robot caregiver BETsi who is at once more robotic and more out of control. The story turns on a surprisingly powerful image of loss in a wiped disk, but also shares its own vision of heaven in the Great Unwiping.
A story titled "The Future of Science Fiction," as one might expect, takes a more metafictional turn. While ostensibly about SF as it might be practiced in some possible future, the story also naturally remains applicable to present practice: the sensoria of future SF are made up exclusively of "samples" of other multimedia compositions. Intercut with one of the author-character's macho science fantasies are his struggles to innovate, to overcome the inaccessibility of the future except as patchwork of known pasts: "The future could not be sampled. It was not there to be sampled. The future would not be, could not be, a patchwork quilt of things that were past, stale whimsy and other people's books. The future would be truly new" (p. 108). Also inevitably metafictional is the aptly titled "You," probably the best science fiction story I've yet read to make use of second person narration. The central concept of the "lifeblog" makes the story vaguely reminiscent of several previous science fictional examinations of vicarious living, like Tiptree's classic story "The Girl Who Was Plugged In," but Ryman gives a new and intelligent twist to the idea in the era of social media. At one point in the story, for instance, "you" are looking at a blog looking at the user's own earlier blog looking at someone else's blog, and, as "you" navigate through "layers of other people's lives" (p. 227), you recognize how memory and archives make us palimpsests, to ourselves and to each other: "In a sense who you are has always been a story that you told to yourself. Now yourself is a story that you tell to others" (p. 225). This story is also a perfect example of Ryman's continual emphasis on the power of writing, broadly defined, and helps to explain why, for all of the tragedy in these stories, they can also feel so optimistic, just as long as a watcher, a writer, a recorder, hovers above the tragedy to preserve its memory: "The definition of writing is that which preserves information across both space and time" (p. 246).
Ironically, this inspiring affirmation of the power of fiction becomes more complicated the closer Ryman gets to reality, and may seem potentially disingenuous in the face of the real historical traumas with which Ryman loves to grapple in his work. Of the stories collected in Paradise Tales, "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter" is probably the most notorious offender in this regard, a real test of the power of fiction to heal full-fledged atrocities like those of Pol Pot's genocidal regime. For reasons like this one and others, the story, though popular, generated a considerable amount of argument after it was first published in 2006; see, for example, Matthew Cheney's ambivalent review of the story on this very site. Ryman frequently reminds us that this "completely untrue story about someone who must exist" (p. 259) is not only a story but a lie, but what then are we to make of it? The story is undeniably powerful, but can be difficult to accept as achieving the resolution and healing it promises through the title character's penance of remembering the unremembered, finally putting her father's many, many ghosts to rest. We might also ask for whom the story promises this resolution and healing: Cambodians, living or dead, or simply contemporary Anglophone science fiction readers far from such conflicts? It's troubling but perhaps inevitable that a more persuasive affirmation of the value of fiction comes in what is probably the least political story in Paradise Tales, "Everywhere." In it, a future sage has discovered that the universe exists in eleven dimensions, with the implication that "everything we do gets laid down in the other dimensions like train tracks. It's like a story, and it doesn't end until we die, and that does the job for us. That's our soul, that story" (p. 155). Like the majority of the paradises in Paradise Tales—many of which we might not even understand as such without the title as our guide—this is a subtle, fragile paradise. But in this vision of heaven, Ryman shows us the promise of SF, the ability to witness the stories of infinite lives, recorded in dimensions unseen but tangible, maybe even accessible someday. The narrator's grandfather refers to these dimensions of eternal memory-in-story as "Everywhere," and the story concludes with hints of a possible technological innovation that would reveal these dimensions: "They're making a new kind of watch. It's going to show us Everywhere, too." By the end of Paradise Tales, however, the reader will understand that Ryman has already invented such a device: whether it is fantasy, science fiction, or some fiction in-between, the utopian, revelatory tool for Ryman is simply fiction itself.
T. S. Miller is currently completing his Ph.D. in medieval literature at the University of Notre Dame. Of course, an interest in science fiction and fantasy has been the "secret vice" of many a medievalist before him, and his articles have appeared or are forthcoming in genre journals like Science Fiction Studies, Extrapolation, and The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts.
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