Since winning the John W. Campbell for Best New Writer in 1997, Michael A. Burstein has received multiple nominations for some of SF’s most prestigious awards, but has yet to take home either a Hugo or Nebula. Sure, on the surface this may seem like an “always the bridesmaid never the bride” situation but, truth be told, the fact that he has amassed so many nominations is an achievement in itself. And, while it’s unlikely that bridesmaid will show up at her friend’s wedding and end up getting married herself, it’s more than likely that, given Michael’s track record, he will, in time, score those elusive Hugos and Nebulas. He’s a “big idea” guy with a solid Physics background to draw from and a writing style reminiscent of SF’s Golden Age (specifically, Asimov comes to mind). I Remember the Future collects his award-nominated stories in one handy volume.
When it comes to anthologies, you always want to start strong, and we do just that with “Kaddish for the Last Survivor”. As the last Holocaust survivor faces his final hours, media outlets and Holocaust deniers descend on his home to mark the event. The dying man’s grand-daughter, Sarah, visits him for the last time and, following a heart-rending farewell, takes it upon herself to keep the memories of her people’s struggles alive. A wonderful story made all the more intriguing by the afterword in which the author offers up his original ending. In this early version, rather than choose to have the 110290 tattooed on her forearm, the number “slowly appeared on her arm, in the exact same position as it had been on her grandfather’s”. The decision was made to go with the alternate ending because it was argued that the original made the protagonist too passive. Initially, I agreed, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked that original ending for just that – the suggestion that Sarah innately bears the memories and history of her predecessors. Above all else, she is a part of her people and her people are a part of her.
In the second story, TeleAbsence, a boy from the inner city discovers hope and happiness in a virtual school environment after stealing the identity of one of the students. Although, stylistically, it reads like YA, it posits some very tough questions about our educational system, the ever-present line between the haves and the have-nots, and whether advancements in the field of education may only further the divide. Memorable characters in our eager protagonist Tony and his well-intentioned teacher Miss Ellis in a well-told and touching tale.
The third story, TelePresence, picks up many years later when Tony, now an adult, must solve a murder that has taken place in the virtual reality school setting. Again, some difficult questions are posited about the role of education in our society but, after the emotional strengths of the story preceding it, this one actually felt comparatively lightweight despite the murder mystery elements.
The next four stories – “Broken Symmetry”, “Absent Friends”, “Reality Check”, and “Empty Spaces” – form a series about the creation of a breach between parallel worlds and the effects it has on several individuals. This is a great example of the “big ideas” I referred to earlier as the author roots the story’s strange happenings firmly in the world of theoretical physics. Fascinating stuff although, like TelePresence, this series lacks the emotional resonance that typified the first two stories. Even though we’re told that Jack has been impacted by the loss of his friend and takes steps to recapture echoes of that friendship by risking all to travel to the alternate Earth, I was never wholly convinced. I think the big bump for me came in the second story, “Absent Friends”, when Jack (visitor to this alternate reality) meets Paula, almost passes out, quickly glosses over the incident, and then is asked out for dinner. The two meat at a restaurant and only then do we learn that she is suspicious of him. My initial reaction was: If you’re suspicious of this guy (and I certainly would be), why go to dinner with him? I had a tough time accepting her motivation and, as a result, never really got onboard.
Next up was “Spaceships” and this was one of my favorites. In a future where humanity has evolved past physical form, an entity known as Kel lives an isolated existence among his collection of spaceships – until he’s paid a visit by Ria, a mysterious being with a hidden agenda. More than any other, this entry had the feel of those SF classics I used to read. Great stuff.
“Decisions” was another solid entry, focusing on the cautious response of an advanced alien civilization to humanity’s burgeoning galactic presence. Another story pleasantly reminiscent of the grandmasters.
Clearly, Michael Burstein is a big fan of time-travel as evidenced by the next story, “Times Ablaze”, which focuses on one man’s journey back to turn of the century New York to make a record of a tragedy in which 1 021 victims perished aboard the steamship General Slocum. Of course, as is often the case when you dabble in time travel, the rules of non-interference become mere suggestions – especially when love comes into play. A solemn tale made all the more sobering by the fact that our protagonist journeys back in time to keep alive the memories of the victims of a tragedy all but forgotten today.
In “Seventy-five Year”, census information holds a surprising secret about one man’s past. Really. It turns out to be a subtle but effective critique of corporate copyright.
“Sanctuary” is a heavy-hitter, a story that tackles some huge contemporary hot-button issues by transplanting them to a near-future setting. In the story, an alien seeks sanctuary at a church to avoid giving up her unborn child. The priest caught in the center of a cultural dispute soon realizes that all is not as it seems and that he may well be a pawn in a much greater moral conflict.
In “I Remember the Future”, a dying writer discovers that there is an afterlife, one engendered by his own imagination, when characters from his fictions breach the wall between alternate realities to rescue him. Love the idea of creations brought to life, especially because, in the back of my mind, I’ve often imagined a similar scenario playing out (except instead of death it’s an extra-long notes session that Baron Destructo and the League of Aliens and Mutants for Evil are rescuing me from). Great story.
A return to theme of time travel in “Cosmic Corkscrew”, a tale in which our protagonist travels back to 1938 to meet his boyhood idol Isaac Asimov. Again, a wonderful premise, but the story hit a major bump for me halfway through and never really righted itself. Given everything our protagonist knows about the inherent dangers of time travel, he is incredibly sloppy in his conversation with the young Asimov, blundering into a critique of the Golden Age author’s theory of time travel that forces him to come clean about who he really is. This linchpin moment felt a little too narratively convenient and, thus, tough to dismiss.
Finally, the collection concludes with one of its strongest stories “Paying It Forward” in which a dying writer happens across the webpage of a deceased author and, on a lark, clicks on the email link and leaves a message. The next morning, he receives a response – seemingly from beyond the grave. Like “I Remember the Future”, this one resonated with me on a personal level, reminding me of the day I came across the webpage of Thomas M. Disch only days after his passing.
Overall, a solid collection with Michael A. Burstein’s story-telling skills and creativity on full display. That Nebula and/or Hugo is just around the corner.
So what did everyone else think? If you have questions or comments, I know that author Michael A. Burstein – who not only happens to be a big Stargate fan but a frequent visitor to this blog – would love to see them. So start posting!