This is a collection of short speculative fiction stories that deal with complex concepts–the existence of God, the nature of reality, human relationships–as approached by everyday people. Goats has a knack for writing characters who are instantly relatable. Although this is in many ways a stylistic departure from his earlier books, which are primarily comic novels and crime thrillers, the thing they all have in common is the intelligent and humane voice of the narrator.
Even in “Snowlight,” which is one of my favorite short stories ever, and is probably the darkest one in the collection, the protagonist has a basic decency and pathos to him that makes the reader sympathetic, even when he does something that is objectively quite shocking. The characters always feel like humans–even when they’re not. There is a religious robot in one story, and a man who thinks everybody is a robot in another. Philosophy and humor are mixed frequently; as in the case of Zetoxis the philosopher, of whom it is said, “the wise man and the fool reside in the same body.”
Many of the stories suggest a moral or logical question for the reader to ponder. Some of them just let you look at the world in a different way through revolutionary technology, as in “Sentenced to Hard Empathy,” or “The Big Punch-Out,” the latter of which creates a dystopian world reminiscent of the imaginings of early 20th-century futurists. Sometimes this is blended with satire, most notably in “The Obscurators.”
The longest stories, “Alone” and “Fact of Existence” present concepts that could fill whole novels. “Alone” reminded me of John Brunner’s novel Total Eclipse with its depiction of being stranded on a desolate alien world. “Fact of Existence” is a fascinating exploration of consciousness and religion, in the context of a science-fiction mystery. This is everything that science fiction should be–a great story that gives the reader something to ponder. The whole collection is like that, as Goats riffs on the same themes from a variety of different perspectives.
The only problem I have with this book is a purely technical one specific to the Kindle version. It has no table of contents. That’s not a big deal in a novel or novella, but in an ebook of short stories, it’s a hassle to have to scroll through it to find the one you want. As a workaround, I bookmarked the start of each story. Yes, I’m lazy. What can I say?
Still, it’s a small price for being able to read these stories. And we are lucky to be able to read them, for as Goats explains in his afterword, all but “The Big Punch-Out” were rejected for publication. This lack of taste on the part of literary website editors is to our advantage, as these tales might have ended up scattered behind a Balkanized array of paywalls. But you can get them all, now, for $0.99. (Or if you don’t want to deal with the ToC issue alluded to above, it’s worth it to spring for the paperback version.)
I highly recommend this book. I could go on about all the reasons why, but it’s really best if you just go check it out and lose yourself in a world of madmen, robots, wanderers and philosophers, all with different ways of looking at the universe and its mysteries.