Drive my dead thoughts over the universe,
Like wither'd leaves, to quicken a new birth;
--Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Ode to the West Wind"
There is an image in George Zebrowski's short story "In the Distance, and Ahead in Time" (November 1993) of an egg-shaped vehicle in the womb of space that captures at once the bliss of Shelley's procreative potential, and the melancholy of ambition addressed in each of the twenty-four stories collected in Swift Thoughts, Golden Gryphon Press's fantastic Zebrowski anthology. Obsessed with the idea that the separation between mind and fundament will eventually incite a civil war in the body politic, Zebrowski presents an ambitious variety of cautionary tales about the dangers and morality of artificial intelligence; the impossibility of communication with alien intelligence; and most importantly, the essential existential confusion between the limitless ambition of thought and the biological hardwire of the flesh. What Swift Thoughts manages with a profusion of eloquence is to illustrate a very basic truth about the breadth of imagination bound to the limitations of the body, and the cruel crucibles of aspiration in which we burn.
Words made vital are primary in the author's thought process in the first story of the collection, "The Word Sweep," concerning a world in which words manifest themselves, leading to speaking bans and "silence police." The theme expands in "The Idea Trap," a story set in a future divided between hunters and dreamers where fantasies come to life to be harvested for food. In both stories, Zebrowski hints at not only the proximate revelation of thought having weight, but the ultimate observation that ideas have the heft to change perception. In Zebrowski's most well known work, "Godel's Doom" similar in ways to Arthur C. Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God" before it), an artificial intelligence is put to work to prove or disprove Godel's Theorem once and for all. When it's suddenly determined that Godel was wrong, the results address the debunking of a core concept as the key to upsetting reality. Zebrowski is aggressive and disrespectful of dogma -- his coda is grounded in logic and the truisms of human behavior, locating the author as one of our canniest chroniclers of the theoretical cultural evolution. Often compared (and self-compared) to authors like Stanislaw Lem and Olaf Stapledon, Zebrowski's fierce prose most resembles Harlan Ellison's.
"Godel's Doom" subtlely introduces the dangers that artificial intelligence poses to humanity's hubristic need to keep pace with his created beings. The collection's titular tale, likewise, details the struggle of man to push this brain into the realm of "swift thought" -- a forced mental evolution with a Daedalean ambition, but a predictable, Icarean (and fittingly Zebrowskian) result. Intentionally or not, the tales in Swift Thoughts are ferociously humanist even when the worst of humanity (the lingering madness of Vietnam in "Lesser Beasts," the lurking lizard brain in "Bridge of Silence") is on display. For as certain as Zebrowski is that mankind will touch the sun, he is just as certain that we will be restrained by our mortal shell. To support this hypothesis, the author provides expert alternate histories ("Lenin in Odessa," "The Number of the Sand," "Let Time Shape") that examine the multitude of quantum possibilities that each end in the same eventuality. The message of Zebrowski's alternate histories and, in its sneaky way, "Godel's Doom" -- is that man is not prepared for a non-structured universe so, therefore, man's universe is structured. He locates cosmology in the heart of man and it is here that the comparisons to Shelley (the quickening thoughts), Keats (dream made real from "The Eve of St. Agnes"), and now William Blake ("Thus we forget that God was born in the breast of man" --The Marriage of Heaven and Hell) become clearer -- Zebrowski is a Romanticist with a post-modernist's perspective.
As a humanist, Zebrowski reserves his harshest trials for human relationships. "The Eichmann Variations," a brilliant alternate history tale, has WWII ended by a nuclear attack on Germany, thus sparing countless Jewish lives that subsequently create a technological nirvana in the Holy Land. After capturing Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi hunters clone the criminal and execute the replicas -- recognizing the barbarity of eye-for-an-eye, but seeing no other recourse but to equal the loss of Jewish life with the repeated taking of Eichmann's life. The morality of creating innocent beings to be sacrificed to the grist mill of Eichmann's projected guilt and the victims' principles for existence is combed over with a surgeon's precision and a satirist's wit.
"Augie" addresses the question of our responsibility to our created beings from a different perspective, as a couple contemplates the destruction of their artificial intelligence "son." "Stooges" (a story which reveals Zebrowski's exploration of the gulf between human and alien consciousness) sees an alien visitation as it manifests itself in a product purely of our popular unconscious: the Three Stooges' Curly. Part and parcel with Zebrowski's histories and his fixation on relational morality is a recurrence of a father/son rift ("Augie" again, and "Sacred Fire," "This Life and Later Ones," "Wound the Wind," and "In the Distance, and Ahead in Time") appearing in his work as both a literal iteration of the classic Boomer concern and a figurative struggle between old traditions and new. Boiled down, we return again to the idea that man is of two states: the ascendant and the base (mind and body), where suddenly the father becomes the mind to the carnal impulse of the child. Tight and thematically shrewd, Zebrowski's work taken as a whole appears as immaculate as his individual fictions.
With the focus on the headiness of Zebrowski's many ideas, one might overlook the sadness and nostalgia of his best, most personal work. "Rope of Glass," featuring the most dystopian of his future societies, follows an Orwellian/Logan's Run-like struggle of a man to evade euthanasia patrols (at fifty-three and stricken with disease, he is on the edge of obsolescence, thus fulfilling a portion of Zebrowski's signature concerns of thought vs. mortality). At its heart of hearts, "Rope of Glass" is about the search for love and connection. The question of love arises in more bestial fashion in the erotic "Starcrossed" (that nonetheless manages to strike a poignant chord in technology's demand of a sacrifice of humanity), and recurs in Zebrowski's friendships and affairs. For all the focus on the author's intellect, Zebrowski's masterful sculpting of his characters and the depth of their interaction wicks his best ideas and the bulk of his power.
Swift Thoughts documents the struggle between the life of the mind and the desires of the body. It speaks to our yearning to deny the basest parts of ourselves and our histories; to accumulate knowledge and drink deep from the well of collective thought; our need for progeny in the creation of beings in our own image; and of the ways in which we compromise our essential humanity when we reject our limitations. Zebrowski is a rare talent and Swift Thoughts is an invaluable collection for the longtime fan and the neophyte -- a work of surpassing insight into our individual natures and our possible futures that, more often than not, rings with a Bradburyian poetry and that nameless, wistful, reflective dread sprung from a recognition of the collective self offered by an insightful stranger.
The twenty-four stories of Swift Thoughts are as provocative as they are organically crafted -- each a stage for Zebrowski to give voice to the pitfalls of man's will to power in an exponentially evolving technocracy. In his recognition of the limitations of our mortal coils, Zebrowski demonstrates a humanism that is as affectionate as it is melancholy and Swift Thoughts is alive with his intelligence and compassion.
Walter Chaw trained in British Romanticism and Critical Theory, and is now the chief film critic for FilmFreakCentral.net. Syndicated weekly in 32 small print journals, he is a nationally accredited member of the Online Film Critics Society. His previous review in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.
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