Wednesday, 3 July 2002

Ric Alexander: Cyber-Killers (1997)

Edition: Orion, 1998
Review number: 1103

In terms of plot, most science fiction - at least when of novel length - is some form of thriller or romance. In recent years, there has been something of a vogue for the futuristic whodunit, but there is a much longer history of cross-genre science/crime fiction including short stories as well as Isaac Asimov's pioneering Elijah Baley novels. This is particularly the case with plots involving computers and murder - computers investigating, preventing or committing crime, or being the objects of murderous impulses themselves.

The short story is a major part of science fiction history, which (because of its pulp associations) was the major form of the genre for about forty years, particularly in the U.S.A. So it might well seem that a short story collection would be an ideal way to showcase some of the ideas that science fiction writers have had about computer related crime. However, there is a serious problem for an editor seeking to select stories around the theme: computers have come to play a more important and more realistic role in science fiction as or after the short story went into a steep decline (as a result of changes in principally American reading habits). Budgets for this kind of book are unlikely to pay for wholesale commissioning of new, up to date, stories, and anyway many of today's authors are less keen to write short stories, demanding as they are in altogether different ways to novels.

Alexander as a result has chosen a selection of mainly older stories by well-known authors. (The reader gets a particularly strong impression that they are old because three of the most recent come right at the end of the collection.) There is actually one which uses punched card technology; as the story, Sam Hall by Poul Anderson, was written as long ago as 1953, this is understandable but jogs the modern reader somewhat. (As a story, it is one of the best in the collection.) It is interesting to read some of the visions of the uses of computers which go back fifty years, particularly when they bring up concerns that are now mainstream. (Sam Hall, for example, is about the use of computers by governments to monitor and control the lives of citizens.) For readers who want to see some of the more current ideas about the future of computing crime (which is after all what the cover synopsis of the anthology claims it is about), this is a bit of a disappointment.

This old fashioned feel is not really the fault of the editor (except for the way that the ordering of the stories contributes to it), and he has certainly chosen some really good stories. (The best, and longest, is Zelazny's Home is the Hangman.) There are two faults which are presumably to be laid at Alexander's door, however. The less serious of these is that the stories do not entirely fit within the parameters the collection sets for itself: not all of them can be said to involve killing, and not all involve computers. He has arranged the stories into three sections, and it is also not clear in some cases why particular stories are placed where they are.

A more serious problem, one which has aspects that might really annoy a reader, is that Alexander's introductions to each story are poor. They take a standard form which, apart from a certain irritating typographical cuteness, describes the career of the writer and summarises the story. The potted biographies are impersonal and nothing special - they read like paragraphs taken straight from a reference book like The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction - but the summaries tend to give away important details that I for one would far sooner garner by reading the actual story. (Science fiction short stories often depend on a small detail for their effect, and the attention of the reader is frequently drawn to this in the introductions.) There is no pleasure in discovering something or working it out when you have just been told it, nor do you tend to find unsettling something you have been informed will make you feel this way. The story really ruined by this is Alfred Bester's Fondly Fahrenheit.

Cyber-Killers is a collection of good stories which nevertheless does not add up to delivering what is promised, and which are best read without the editorials.

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