One of my favorite science fiction novels of the past ten years is Geoff Ryman’s Air, a rich, vivid tale of a future China transformed by world-changing technology. His collection Paradise Tales (2011) proves to be similarly rich, a diverse selection of intriguing genre stories. I came away finding I prefer Ryman at longer lengths; this volume’s novelettes and novellas made stronger impressions on me, providing more time to sink into the writing style and immerse oneself in the exotic, inventive world-building.
Which isn’t to say that Ryman’s work is predictable; in fact, the diversity of approaches is part of what makes Paradise Tales an interesting read. For me, this meant a few stories didn’t quite connect: I couldn’t quite get into the distancing literary fantasy “The Last Ten Years in the Life of Hero Kai,” for example, and I bounced off the shorter, more experimental SF tales “The Future of Science Fiction” and “Omnisexual.”
But there’s still plenty of wonder, here, starting with the leadoff story, one of a handful of playful, comedic pieces. “The Film-makers of Mars” is a nostalgically entertaining tale of old, unearthed films that hint at a secret history to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ body of work. Tonally similar is “No Bad Thing,” a smoothly written and amusing mashup of vampire fiction and hard SF. There’s also plenty of Ryman’s Mundane SF on display. “Birth Days” speculates interestingly on the future of reproduction and sexuality. Then there’s “VAO,” one of the longer pieces, a lively and engaging look at the perils of aging — this one involves computer hacking, mind control, and powerful mechanical exoskeletons. “Warmth” is a charming, well executed story about child-rearing robots and how they impact their charges.
The collection’s latter stages provide some of the longer, stronger pieces in my view. These include “You,” a fascinating and complex story of immersive, virtual “lifeblogs,” which spins in and out of viewpoints and across time periods; “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter,” a haunting and evocative contemporary fantasy about the fictional offspring of the notorious Cambodian dictator; “Blocked,” a beautifully melancholic future story about refugees seeking shelter from an imminent alien invasion, a story which strikes me perhaps as a crystallization of the Mundane SF debate; and my favorite, “Days of Wonder,” a novella of the far future about human-animal hybrids bioengineered to survive in the wild, but who still hold the keys to their more technological, civilized past.
All told, a strong, unique, and admirably fearless collection of genre stories — not always immediately accessible, but always thought-provoking.