(I’ve decided to review each of the stories in Gateways — a collection edited by Elizabeth Anne Hull in honor of Frederik Pohl — individually. I will collect my thoughts about the anthology as a whole later. I’m doing this as a kind of experiment, as I find reviewing collections enormously difficult.)
David Brin’s contribution to Gateways is an amusing 90+ page novella set in a post-global-warming China. Wer is a poor man trying to make a life for his wife and child by salvaging “valuable items” from the submerged ruins of old Shanghai in order to build a suitable habitat on the carcass of an old mansion. Understandably, things haven’t been going so well — that is until Wer discovers a secret basement full of unusual stones, one of which turns out to be an alien artifact sent thousands of years ago as part of an endless chain message to the stars. And Wer isn’t the only one surprised by the find: soon private groups intrude upon his life, pulling him away
from his family and making him wonder if he’ll ever see them again.
“Shoresteading” was a welcome shift from the fantasy novels I usually read for review. Purely science fiction, Brin’s tale is filled with exciting ideas. Brin fuses technology and slum-life seamlessly (in top-notch worldbuilding fashion). His world feels all-too-real, even while the narrative plays on stories we’ve read or seen before (alien contact/alien probe tales). And I think that’s what sets Brin’s story above other kinds of alien contact narratives: the alien contact is secondary, in a way, precisely because Brin’s main character is not an upper class everybody, but a lower class nobody who knows how he can be used and manipulated by the upper class and yet still must navigate that upper class world and the decimated planet around him. Wer’s struggle, to put it simply, is wonderfully human and wonderfully three dimensional.
One of the other unique things about the “Shoresteading” is how Brin attempts to authenticate his Chinese vision. While I profess an ignorance about Chinese culture, Brin’s new Shanghai and his Chinese characters feel real, from their interaction with the decimated world around them to the ways in which Brin describes the new China. There are even hints at Chinese mythology in this story, with giant serpents and other animalistic robots making appearances (though some might apply the Jonah and the Whale story to “Shoresteading” as an allegorical comparative).
While Brin’s vision is enjoyable, the story itself does suffer from some minor pacing issues. Brin shifts his focus more than once in the story in a slightly noticeable way. This produces a multi-tiered narrative which I knew couldn’t be fulfilled by the end and which gives the ending an incomplete feel, as if Brin meant for it to be part of a larger narrative and simply cut it off to fit it into a novella. The end doesn’t resolve the original conflict set up in the first ten to twenty pages, though it does hint that Wer will play a more active role in the future (a slow development that has show Wer going from helpless “toy” to empowered individual). In some ways, I wanted more of a resolution precisely because I cared about Wer and what happened to him. Perhaps the intention wasn’t to “complete” Wer’s narrative, but rather to provide an ambiguous close to reflect the initial perpetual struggle produced in the beginning.
But despite feeling incomplete, I still quite enjoyed “Shoresteading.” Placing this story at the start of Gateways was a smart move. Anything less entertaining would make continuing with the anthology less-than-appealing. Instead, I, as a reader, want to know what other fascinating stories have been included. So far, things are looking up.
Here are the other reviews (more as they are written):