VIRTUAL UNREALITIESA short story collection by Alfred Bester
(1997, Random House)
Short stories involving time travel, nuclear war, and a couple of wizard-like people.
-- First reading (hardcover)
I was impressed by this collection. I had decided that I don't enjoy short stories anymore, and then along comes this book. Although no stories stood out as being excellent, not a single one of them made me want to skip it. I am also considering reading Bester's two "classic" novels.
I have to admit that I picked this book up simply because Bester was the favourite author of Babylon 5's creator. I wanted to know why he would call one of his greatest characters after this man. I think I see the appeal.
I think Bester was obsessed with nuclear war, and mankind's ideal fantasies: being the last person on Earth, making money predicting the future while in the past, and so on. Even so, the stories rarely got tiring. In the forward, Robert Silverberg states the Bester has a certain energy that is unique to his style. I have to agree. When I finished a story, or took a break from one, I felt energetic, restless, even if I wasn't interested in the story.
Nuclear war, or some sort of war, is the backdrop to the story Disappearing Act, where patients at a mental hospital disappear into realities that they make for themselves, a side effect from some type of weapon. The irony is that the nation had become so efficiently technical that it no longer has the poet necessary to interpret the results.
A person who has incredibly good luck, so that the universe actually rearranges itself for his unconscious wish takes place in Oddy and Id. Unfortunately, the people who harness him create a monster, because his subconscious is a malevolent child.
A child has a special wishing talent that makes people disappear, and his teacher wants to harness it, in Star Light, Star Bright. His friends have subconsciously created transporters, matter disolvers and other technological wonders with their minds. But he knows people are searching for him, and ends up sending so many of them on a long road to nowhere.
In 5,271,009, a warlock cures an insane painter from insanity, by crumbling his dreams one by one, first by being the last man on an Earth full of woman, then single-handedly saving Earth from an alien invasion, and so forth. All it costs is thirty years of his life.
A robot goes murderous above a certain temperature in Fondly Fahrenheit, but it takes several murders and relocations to discover this. Unfortunately, by then the master begins to act like the robot, and the cycle continues with his next robot.
Hobson's Choice details an immigration to central Kansas for time travelers. Apparently there are time travel stations all through the centuries, but it is only because of the great nuclear war, which has declined birth rates so much that it is noticeable. People travel to the time period where they think they will fit in best, but discover that they only belong in their own time period.
An almanac from the future accidentally arrives in a bookstore in Of Time and Third Avenue, and a time traveler bargains to get it back.
Time is the Traitor details how a genius was created by the sudden and violent death of his fiancée. During business hours, he charges exorbitant fees to make incredibly accurate decisions. But at night he accosts just about every woman who even barely resembles his love. When a friend has his love cloned, thirty years later, they think he will lose his gift. But she finds him to be so old that he rejects her, anyway.
In The Men who Murdered Mohammed, a professor comes home to discover his wife in the arms of another man, so he instantly invents a time machine and goes back to kill the man's grandfather. Unfortunately, time is subjective, and there exists one reality per person. But the more he time travels, the less real he becomes in his own world.
The Pi Man is someone who needs to balance everything in order to survive. He must have symmetric change when he buys things. He must be violent when there is too much good locally. It is uncontrollable. For this reason, he cannot bring himself to love anybody, but one woman is determined, and he'll just have to live with the consequences.
They Don't Make Life Like they Used To is a strange tale of a woman who survived a nuclear war, and the man who wanders into town asking for directions. She is obsessed with creating the ideal house, with grand piano and everything. He is obsessed with finding a TV repairman. They don't seem to notice that they are the only people left on Earth. Only when the insects are about to over-run the city do they seem to notice that they could propagate the human race again. Very strange.
Will You Wait is a short story about the time it takes to sign your life away to the devil. By the time the contract is finalized, it has expired, and your soul is his. But the final decision is in arbitration, and that could take years.
The future can be a strange place also. Five hundred years after a nuclear war, only Hollywood is left. So that's what the world is molded after. The uses of things are completely misunderstood, and items such as toasters can go for millions of dollars. Unfortunately, a man and a woman from five hundred years ago were mysteriously transported here, and they can't stand it. So they steal items, including The Flowered Thundermug. But the police catch up to them, and they all end up in a big explosion that sends them back in time by a thousand years.
After a new propulsion technology for a spaceship turns all the iron on Earth into something else, the astronaut who launched on that ship searches for the sea. He arrives just in time to die, but his molecules will live on, giving rise to new life.
And 3 1/2 to go is a story fragment that seems to be about people who have strange physical problems that transform themselves into psychic and mental problems.
Galatea Galante is the story of a genetic roboticist, who creates the most exquisite works of sentient art. A perfect woman is requisitioned, but the artist knows that the man will get bored with that, so he adds a random twist into her generation. He hates the product, but everybody she meets is completely enchanted with her. But it turns out that her twist is even stranger than her creator thought: he impregnates her while they are both dreaming. Naturally, he can't sell her now. He is horrified, but realizes that he can only keep her under control if he marries her. Good luck! A very enjoyable, if strangely set, story.
In The Devil Without Glasses, a man dreams that he is being fought over by two factions. He gets suspicious when one of the parties appears in real life, and then takes off into hiding when everybody seems to laugh like the person who seems to be the devil. But they catch up with him. His fiancée is the only hope for the human race now. This story resembles The Matrix, if I interpret it correctly. Humanity is enslaved, but doesn't know it. Someone is trying to make them aware of this fact, but cannot seem to get through. One person after another succumbs. It was really neat, but I wanted more.
So, some of the stories were fun, some were a little dull, but none were standouts either good or bad. All had one property in common, though. The energy level left me exhausted!
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