The Other Side of Tomorrow by Roger Elwood
Published by Pyramid Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Many years ago I went to a new school and discovered the library a whole shelf of anthologies of short science fiction. At the time I wasn't much to notice titles or authors. I just wanted fun stuff to read, so I went through those books as fast as I could read them. Some of the stories I found boring or confusing, and it's quite probable I just didn't have the life experience to understand them yet, rather than them being badly written. But others stuck hard in my memory, coloring my dreams and helping to shape my own development as a writer.
Imagine my surprise when I recently came across a book and started recognizing stories. Yes, this was one of those anthologies I'd read so many years ago -- I'd just been confused because this copy was a paperback, whereas the one I'd read from the library had been hardcover. But there could be no doubt it had been the same anthology, because I was recognizing too many of the stories.
It's interesting to re-read them with the perspective of another three decades of life and the responsibilities of adulthood. So many of the things I found so disturbing when I first read them now fall into recognizable science fiction tropes that I've seen enough times to become familiar with them. Others have become dated, even quaint, with the passing of time. Still, the visions we see in these stories remind us that the future won't automatically become better just because the years are passing, and that if we as a society make poor choices, things can go very badly as a result.
After the brief introduction, which I skipped right over the first time, we have Leigh Brackett's "Come Sing Down the Moons of Moravenn," the story of settlers who come to a new world with such bright hopes, only to see them dashed on the ugly facts of a new world's astrophysics. When I first read it, I was drawn by the choice the protagonists had to make, whether to stay and live within harsh limits on their ability to develop any sort of material culture, or to leave and hope to find a more suitable world elsewhere. It really made me do a lot of thinking about what makes a place home and the sacrifices we make to be and stay at home.
Now, looking back at it after extensive reading on Primary World space exploration, both crewed and robotic, it seems odd that our protagonists should have completely missed the tidal implications of the world's three moons during the orbital approach. Shouldn't the computers that would be necessary for calculating the orbital mechanics of their approach also be able to run simulations of the system? On reflection, this weakness of the story seems to be a combination of projection of Age of Exploration patterns of settlement, in which people did go into new lands with little or no information about the conditions they'd find, onto future space travel (closely related to the Space Is an Ocean trope), and a real failure to anticipate and extrapolate the effects of developments in information technology on the ability to gather and correlate large amounts of data from orbit.
The next story, George Eklund's "Examination Day," takes place in a dystopian near future that remains far too relevant today. In the near future a series of disasters leads the US to turn to a Leader, the mysterious Mr. Nathan whose system is neither communist nor fascist -- or so we are told. The protagonist's father is a survivor of one of the "re-education camps" created to deal with those who didn't fit in Mr. Nathan's new order. As a result, our protagonist is uneasy to discover that he's been trained to run such a camp, and today is his final exam to determine whether he's learned what he needs to know to fulfill his role.
The hypnopedic schools that reprogram students' minds so they give the right responses in spite of their own wills remains science fiction, although how much of that is the result of ethical qualms against the necessary research rather than actual technological limits is hard to say. But the recent growth of the national security state reminds us that we can lose our freedoms if we don't defend them, and such a future America remains a very real possibility.
In "The Speeders," Arthur Tofte gives us a new twist on joyriding that seemed very futuristic when I first read it -- daredevils who hack the controls of self-driving cars and go racing through traffic at deadly speeds. But now that Google is pioneering robotic cars, it seems frighteningly prescient -- how long will it be before everybody lets the computer drive for them, and some teenager hacking the controls becomes a real threat for the simple reason that robotic cars can't cope with the movements of car that's not on the grid? And the solution Tofte's imagined society has settled upon for dealing with such miscreants is even more chilling.
In "Let My People Go," Joseph Green tells us the story of those left behind by a medical advance that greatly increases people's intelligence. Except it doesn't always work, and those with "normal" intelligence are terribly handicapped, not just directly by their merely ordinary intelligence in a society of geniuses, but also by the limits society places upon them in an effort to prevent the development of a permanent intergenerational underclass of the intellectually deprived. But they have a dream of a place of their own, a world where they can live since humanity had for ages before the treatment -- if only they can persuade the su-norms that they should have a world of their own.
Edward D. Hoch gives us "Night of the Millennium," a story of a young man making his career decisions on the eve of the year 2000. Here we have the problem inherent in setting a story in a specified future time -- it will become painfully dated when that date is reached. We didn't see casual acceptance of the use of recreational drugs in 2000 -- if anything, attitudes toward mind-altering chemicals had become more negative than the time in which the story was written. However, terrorism would become an increasing part of our lives not long after the turn of the millennium.
"A Bowlful of Biskies Makes a Growing Boy" by Raymond F Jones was one of the stories that really gave me the creeps when I read it the first time. The image of the young man who discovered the ugly secrets that underlay the pretty surface of his society, and who was secretly destroyed by that society in a way that could be presented to his loved ones as the workings of a horrible disorder, left me very frightened about authority, especially government. But then I first came to political awareness in Watergate, and the idea that our President could be a crook, could seek to subvert the democratic process, was a huge blow to my child's confidence in the goodness and rightness of adult authority.
Thomas N. Scortia's "Final Exam" was probably one of the least dark of a very dystopian anthology, but I still found it rather confusing. Now that I reread it, I can see the layers of ambiguity, particularly relating to the notion of an organization of Galactic watchers who monitor worlds for their own good, but without any transparency or accountability for the people being watched.
In "The Others" J. Hunter Holly gives us the story of Emelen, whose world consists of four metal-walled rooms populated by his fifty friends. And the Voice, which resides in a wall of the Commons and directs their lives. Emelen knows there's something wrong with his world and struggles to make sense of it, but every time he asks questions, the Voice scolds him that curiosity is a fault, and his friends become upset with him.
Then comes the day when one of the mechanical Servants encounters trouble in the Sleeping Room. Although the Voice directs everyone to stay in the Commons with it, Emelen sneaks into the Sleeping Room to find out what's going on. There he finds not only two strange men who shouldn't even exist, but a gateway to a whole new world.
Excited at the possibilities, he tells his friends, who join him on an expedition to explore this new world and find new friends. Except their grand adventure turns into a nightmare when the first people they encounter respond not with friendship, but with horror and disgust, attacking them.
Emelen awakens back in the Commons, but only some of his friends are there, and all of them now blame him for what they experienced. Even as he's moping, the Voice orders him to go to the Sleeping Room.
There he meets Anthony Curtiss, who explains about the larger world of which Emelen's four-room world is but one tiny part. An now Emelen has a choice, a whole world of opportunities to explore -- but at the price of leaving his friends behind.
When I first read it, I found it one of the least grim. For all the evidence of reproductive rationing and infanticide, the powerful friendships and hopes of the major characters were such a bright light of hope, and Emelen's choice to chart his own way with his own people, were such a bright shaft of light that the story stuck with me in vivid imagery for all these years. And I still enjoy reading it and going back yet again to Emelen and his friends, and wondering what kind of world Emelen was able to create for all his people.
The final story, Gail Kimberly's "Peace, Love, and Food for the Hungry," was another of the ones that left me confused the first time I read it. Now that I'm more familiar with the trope of the energy vampire, it makes a lot more sense to me. Not to mention the real questions about whether forbidding oneself to feel negative emotions can really get rid of conflict, or just paper it over.
On the whole, I'm happy to find that the stories in this anthology have held up to a second reading three decades after I originally encountered it. And I think it's still worth reading, even if some of the particulars of several of them have become dated in the years since they were written.
Table of Contents
- "Come Sing Down the Moons of Moravenn" by Leigh Brackett
- "Examination Day" by George Eklund
- "The Speeders" by Arthue Tofte
- "Let My People Go" by Joseph Green
- "Night of the Millennium" by Edward D. Hoch
- "A Bowl of Biskies Makes a Growing Boy" by Ratmond F. Jones
- "Final Exam" by Thomas N. Scortia
- "The Others" by J. Hunter Holly
- "Peace, Love, and Food For the Hungry" by Gail Kimberly
Review posted December 14, 2012.
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