PARADISE TALES by Geoff Ryman

“This is what books aimed to do and never could. Give you the glint of someone else’s sunrise, what living is really like, you get old and it hurts to bend your elbow; your friends start to die, you can’t get fresh fruit in the shops.”

“This is what books aimed to do and never could. Give you the glint of someone else’s sunrise, what living is really like, you get old and it hurts to bend your elbow; your friends start to die, you can’t get fresh fruit in the shops.”

This passage, from one of the stories in Geoff Ryman’s Sunburst-nominated collection, struck me as interesting enough to note at the time I read it. Not because I thought it hit the mark. Rather, I found myself wondering aloud at such musings on the immersive limitations of the written word, from the self-same author who had been so successful at drawing me into the worlds of his stories, the headspaces of his characters.

Sometimes books can and do transport the reader (if not bodily) to another time and place. Sometimes even a story of a few thousand words can do the same, as Ryman demonstrates repeatedly in Paradise Tales.

With a few exceptions, the sixteen stories in this collection exemplify well-grounded, character-driven fiction. While some of the stories fall squarely within the realm of speculative fiction, others could wear labels such as “slipstream” or “magical realism” just as comfortably.

Stories like “VAO,” “You,” and “Talk is Cheap” showcase Ryman’s ability to examine real human concerns in plausible future societies. But my favourite story along these lines (narrowly) may be “Warmth.” Its protagonist recounts a lonely boyhood with an emotionally distant mother and a surrogate in the form of a leased robotic babysitter, BETsi. Ryman intensifies the emotional punch of the story through the extremely tight first-person narrative and a focus on just two characters.

Stories with limited fantasy elements are similarly rooted in the human condition. “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter” features an introduction somewhat in the manner of a tall tale, but soon becomes almost painfully real. The setting is modern Cambodia; Ryman takes a country haunted by a tragic recent history and makes the metaphor explicit. The ghosts in the story represent the real-world victims of a horrendous political period while the story’s title character represents both the denial and callowness of the same country’s modern youth. The result is as poignant as it is thought-provoking.

Other stories are much further removed from the familiar. “Days of Wonder” follows a herd of intelligent, talking Horses, who are being hunted by equally intelligent Cats. Members of both species (and many others, mentioned only in passing) embody separate pieces of what sounds like a creation myth but may be something more. In fact, though it reads initially like an African folktale, we soon discover we are in a post-human future, set after some type of environmental collapse. Ungulates or not, our concern for the characters drives the story forward just as much as the mystery of humanity’s ancient fall.

In fact, the only stories that didn’t work for me are the ones where Ryman seemed to have gotten too interested in the science fictional ideas and forgotten about the human factor. “Omnisexual,” for example, is vivid and weird and abstract. Written for Ellen Datlow’s Alien Sex anthology, it describes love and lovemaking as a transmutative and confusing whirlwind of reality-bending events. The story brings to mind the alien imagery and emotions in Tiptree’s classic, “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death,” but falls short of the original.

But these disappointments were a tiny minority in a book of mostly very good or excellent stories. I would rank Paradise Tales amongst the best modern single-author collections I’ve read, alongside Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others and Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners. Short-form speculative fiction doesn’t get much better than this.


J.J.S. Boyce is a writer, educator, and semi-pro omelette chef. He can frequently be found writing at the Green Man Review, Library Journal, and Care2. He also maintains a meta-narrative at his blog, The Back of the Envelope.

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