Robert Sawyer is primarily a novelist, and until a few days ago, I don’t know that I’d read a single of his short stories, which seem to be entirely covered by two slim collections. The first, 2002’s Iterations, contains 22 stories written over 22 years, including Sawyer’s very first, a 1978 story called “The Contest” which he wrote during his senior year in high school.
That’s quite a swath of the man’s career that this collection covers. We see his love of dinosaurs, space opera, the shift to near-future character-driven stuff in the later ’90s and early ’00s. There are a few good mysteries. Sawyer even dabbles in both fantasy and horror on a few occasions, something he’s never touched in his novel-length works.
With so much variety, it’s difficult to sum it all up, though that’s true of most any collection. There were a few impressions that jumped out at me, though. Sawyer, it seems, realized very early that the notorious difficulty in making a living at short fiction is not exaggerated. He turned first to non-fiction, then novel-length fiction, writing only a handful of short pieces on spec in his first decade and then refusing to do it again.
As a result, the majority of the pieces in this book were commissioned after he’d become somewhat established (or was just beginning to make waves) as a novelist. Were this not the case, I don’t know if Sawyer ever would have decided to write, for example, a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, or a highly unique take on Dracula, or at least one of his stories about the Devil.
Another note: Sawyer typically does not write overlong novels. They frequently fall at around the 300 page mark, much as this collection does. Once upon a time, that was the standard, but it’s crept up over the years, and it’s on the short side today. You’ll see it’s likewise with his short stories. There are no novellas, no novelettes. At a guess, I’d say he doesn’t exceed 5000 words more than once or twice in this collection, and he’s often under 3000 or even 1000 (a couple short-shorts are well under).
One last observation: Sawyer can’t seem to stop winning awards. A solid majority of the works here have been nominated for or won at least one major award, including Auroras, Nebulae, Hugos, Seiuns, and other genre awards too, like the Bram Stoker and Edgar. Considering both the completist and stylistically broad nature of Iterations, the consistently high level of quality is quite impressive. There’s very little filler. It reads almost like a “best-of” even though no such picking and choosing occurred.
That doesn’t mean he always hits the mark. Though he dabbles in other genres, there are few, if any, stylistic risks. Sawyer is primarily interested in ideas and content rather than prose, which in this collection is of his usual Asimovian straightforwardness. There are only one or two weak stories, but many of the stronger ones are enjoyable without bringing anything new to the table.
Then again, sometimes he does bring something new to the table. The mind-bending ideas which would later be explored in Calculating God appear here first, in “The Abdication of Pope Mary III”. His cleverly- but obscurely-titled “Stream of Consciousness” (I just got the pun as I was writing this sentence, in fact) may have been written as part of a project to teach science through fiction, but it’s not just edutainment; the core idea really is quite clever.
And there are a couple stories that I would describe as truly great exemplars of short form speculative fiction, legitimate classics in their own right: “Star Light, Star Bright”, which is about future citizens of a Dyson sphere after a civilization-wide technical collapse, manages to be both poignant and thought-provoking. “The Shoulders of Giants”, about humanity’s first ever generation ship finishing a 1200-year journey to Tau Ceti only to find that later, sleeker ships had passed them by centuries before, reads like a newly-discovered Golden Age classic.
Now these set the bar pretty high and it would be hard to hit those heights every time. Short story–writing is its own beast, and there are fewer masters of the form than there are masterful novelists. Consider that one has to basically put out a new masterpiece every few thousand words instead of every 100,000, and you can probably imagine why.
So we have here a pretty solid collection, if not a must-have. Sawyer is a great novelist, and a pretty good short story writer. If you were already a fan of his and enjoyed short fiction, I could definitely recommend Iterations. For a first introduction to him, however, his novels would be a better place to start.
J.J.S. Boyce is a writer, educator, and semi-pro omelette chef. He can frequently be found writing at the Winnipeg Free Press, Care2 Causes, and, naturally, AE. He maintains a meta-narrative at his blog, The Back of the Envelope.