Have you read this book?
Sometimes I toy with the question What academic discipline provides the best grounding for an SF writer? The conventional answers might be Physics, or Astronomy, or even English Literature or Computer Science. But I’ve come to believe that History is the most valuable such discipline. A knowledge of History provides insight into other societies, into different technologies and different ways of thought, into the effect of geography on culture (very useful for “world-building”), all insights which illuminate the core of much of the best SF. And of course, History is itself a story, a grand sweeping story with a scope greater even than almost any SF story.
R. Garcia y Robertson is an historian, and the benefits of his particular training shine through in his stories. Most obviously, he loves to write historical fantasies, as with his novel The Spiral Dance (set on the Scottish-English border in the 15th Century), or with several stories in the collection at hand, set in a wide range of historical milieus. He also likes time-travel stories, most famously in The Virgin and the Dinosaur, but also in “Gypsy Trade” included here.
The title story is one of the most “Fantastic” of the historical stories included. “The Moon Maid” is an Amazon, one of an historical group of women warriors, located near the Don (or Amazon) River in what is now Russia. Her “tribe” honors lions, and when a nomad Hetman’s son is killed by a lion, she must capture and destroy the animal, or risk having her whole tribe exterminated by the nomads. Her tracking of the lion is a mixture of realistic animal tracking, and rather wildly fantastic events, such as a meeting with Hercules, described in hilarious detail.
The place of women in historical societies is a recurring theme in these stories (and strong women characters occur in almost all the stories, including the futuristic ones). “The Other Magpie” features real historical figures at the Battle of Little Big Horn. The title character is a very independent Crow woman, mourning her brother’s death at the hands of the Sioux. Partly as a result, she and her transvestite friend end up joining Custer’s army. The Magpie and her friend are historical characters, though the specifics of the Magpie’s dealings with her dead brother, and of her attempts to save Captain Reno from the coming disaster, are a bit more speculative. “Four Kings and an Ace”, perhaps the best story here, features Boy Toy, a young Chinese girl, a Christian and the adopted daughter of missionaries, abandoned on the docks in San Francisco after her parents’ deaths. She falls into the hands of a gang which tries to sell her into slavery as a whore, but is fortunate to encounter a clever lawyer, who sees a way to use her beauty in a battle against a crooked railroad man. The story climaxes with a suspenseful poker game, and a predictable ending which still surprises, in the best way.
The fourth “historical fantasy” is “The Wagon God’s Wife”, set in medieval Sweden, featuring a Norwegian Christian convert who has been banished to pagan Sweden. Saved from freezing by the title character, he finds himself in a battle with a pagan God. Colorful, sexy, and a fascinating look at a culture quite different from ours.
Robertson is also a first-rate writer of science fiction adventure. “Cast on a Distant Shore”, one of his earliest stories, is set on an ocean world, where economically marginalized humans live on floating islands and earn subsistence money by diving for seastones. This setup is rather old hat, and the plot is a bit familiar as well, involving a diver in desperate straits who agrees to help an alien scientist fish for a particularly dangerous sea animal, but the story is very engagingly told, with a nice twist or two, and the main characters are interesting people.
“Gone to Glory” is also set on an alien planet, this one in the middle of terraformation. The dirty work of preparing the new planet for human colonization is being done by “retrobred” Neanderthals, and the daughter of a highly-placed human has been lost, apparently captured or killed by a tribe of escaped Neanderthals. Defoe, a skilled pilot with experience dealing with the wild Neanderthals, is called away from a cushy vacation to look for the missing woman. The setting is somewhat unconvincing (the economics of the colonization efforts, including the “retrobreeding” as well as the use of “Super-Chimps”, don’t seem to add up), but the story itself is very exciting, with a colorful balloon flight across the half-terraformed planet, and a serious, believable, ecological motivation behind things.
Another straight SF story in the collection (all three future-set stories seem to be fit vaguely into the same loose “Future History”) is “Werewolves of Luna”, a pure romp, and great fun. A Scottish tourist runs into spacesuit trouble, and is on the point of suffocating on the Moon. His rescuers cheerfully abstract his credit, and shanghai him into joining (and financing) their team for an upcoming Virtual Reality adventure game. (Fortunately, one of the rescuers is a beautiful woman.) The first part of the story is nice straight SF, and the finish, set inside the adventure environment, is more like fantasy, involving a quest for a jewel in Dracula’s castle. As with some of the other stories, pulling too strongly on the plot threads might cause the whole thing to unravel, but, if you just go along for the ride, it’s a wonderful ride.
Robertson writes that “Gypsy Trade” has been optioned for a movie. It’s a strong story, with a plot element that movie makers understand (Nazis), and I think it could be a good movie. The story opens with Dieter, dressed in the uniform of a Waffen SS officer, entering a gypsy camp in 1591 with a plan to rescue three gypsy women from the local witch-hunting priest. The story is an interestingly different take on time travel, with a nice plot involving rescuing art treasures from the ravages of war, and incidentally rescuing some humans as well. The background gives us a look at the horrible treatment of gypsies in the 16th century, and again under the Nazis.
A very fine collection. The most compelling feature of these stories is that they are just that: stories. Indeed, as the title of this collection reads, “Fantastic Adventures”. Rife with color, full of action and romance, every story included is pure fun to read. (And Robertson has a real knack of knowing when a story ends.) Indeed, if I had a gripe, it might be that serious thematic concerns are left in the dust as the action races by. (Though it should be noted, even as his protagonists strive and (usually) succeed, the background details are often darker: slavery in late-19th Century San Francisco, ecological disaster on an alien planet, the sometimes bloody history of Christianity, are all displayed here.)