Thursday, August 25, 2005

Title: The Planet On The Table
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Orbit

The Planet On The Table is a collection of short stories by the writer Kim Stanley Robinson. Published in 1986, gathering a range of material covering a period of a decade or so. As a collection of some of his earliest material it is particularly interesting to see how the themes he was working with then went on to feature so centrally in the novels that he made his name with - The Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars), Antarctica and Years Of Rice And Salt.

The book starts with an introduction by Robinson, who was living in Zurich at the time of publication. He advises that for best effect the reader should perhaps only read one story per day. Before describing a strange encounter with the statue of James Joyce in that city, and the conversation that resulted. From Zurich he takes us to Venice with his first story - Venice Drowned. Which as the title suggests is about a future where Venice has become submerged. Following a local diver as it takes tourists round the once great landmarks. They remove treasures, they feel it is preservation, he feels it is looting. Thematically Mercurial has similarities, an amateur detective becoming involved in a case of murder on Mercury. The white cliffs of Dover and famous paintings have been relocated to the planet, but when a recent arrival from Earth is murdered it would appear that things aren't as they seem.

Ridge Running is a more down to earth story for the most part, three old friends go ridge running. One is keen for action and to keep moving, one hasn't been running for years and is feeling the strain, and the third isn't what he used to be. Having been rebuilt after a car crash. In typical Robinson mode, the aspect of a man rebuilt is a background detail, the story really being about the people and how they get on, and how an event can change someone. The Disguise again picks up the themes of Venice Drowned and Mercurial, as actors perform recovered Jacobean plays in the year 2052, with the benefit of implants. But one actor has become stuck in character, becoming urban legend it is suggested he goes from tragic play to tragic play, and fiction becomes reality in his wake.

Lucky Strike is the first of a couple of stories that actually goes back in time, rather than dealing with artefacts from the past. The Lucky Strike is a bomber in World War II, the bomber chosen to drop a new weapon on the Japanese. Frank January is the man responsible for dropping the weapon, and he is not happy at all with this experimental device that will end the war. A story of emotional and conscientious struggle in a difficult situation. For me this was a particularly striking piece, though the fact that I coincidentally read it on the 60th anniversary of the events described certainly contributed to my reading.

From the past to the future and Coming Back To Dixieland, a group of bottom rung asteroid miners embrace the rediscovery of Jazz. Entering a music contest that could change their lives, and going up against all kinds of weird and wonderful instruments and genres with their retro style. This is followed by the Twilight Zone style Stone Eggs, about a man who has hit bottom and travels around America on a greyhound bus. Some strange and terrifying experiences resulting when he manages to get stuck at an isolated desert service station. The book finishes with Black Air, which apparently won a fantasy award at the time - the second trip backwards in time. Black Air follows a young orphan boy recruited from a monastery to help replace crew on an armada setting out to attack the English. A terrible trip ensues, with strange miracles along the way.

The stories here cover a range of topics, but the recurring theme is clearly that of the past and preservation. Over half the stories relating to aspects of this in one way or another - preservation, looting, cultural influence, how it shapes who we are and the necessity of keeping in touch with where we came from. The Planet On The Table is an interesting read for fans of Kim Stanley Robinson, though one that is likely to prove difficult to find - I came across a beat up old copy second hand.

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