Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Review: Insistence of Vision: Stories

Insistence of Vision: Stories Insistence of Vision: Stories by David Brin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Insistence of vision" describes David Brin well - he's a contrarian and a controversialist, vigorous in his promotion of his vision of the world (and of himself, I might add). I assume the title also references the phenomenon of "persistence of vision", and possibly the famous John Varley story by that name. In Varley's story, a drifter encounters a community of people who are deaf and blind and must adapt his perceptions to their world; in Brin's, augmented reality creates artificial deafness and blindness to other people's existence.

I'd read a couple of Brin's novels and enjoyed them, and more recently one of his short stories -which I thought was OK, if a bit handwavy in places - and I follow his rants on Google+, so when this came up on Netgalley I asked for a review copy.

Brin's fiction tends towards hard SF, as befits a scientist, and this can sometimes mean that the proportion of science to fiction is higher than I prefer. Like much hard SF, Brin's fiction is often about ideas more than it is about people (something he freely admits in his commentary on some of the stories). The emphasis therefore becomes delineating and (at length) explaining the world, more than developing the characters. There are exceptions, such as the story of Venusian colonists in this volume, which made it into a Year's Best anthology. The characters are still not deep, but their struggle is much more front-and-centre than the worldbuilding, and that's to the story's advantage. At the other end of the spectrum, another story is filled with the biology of life stages, and very short on characterisation or plot.

As in his nonfiction, Brin's fiction has an unfortunate tendency to employ the exclamation mark when it is only Brin, the narrator, who is exclaiming (not a character in dialog) - an old-fashioned style of author intrusion. He also falls prey, in this unedited, pre-release version, to the occasional homonym error, "let's eat grandma" omitted comma, or misplaced apostrophe. He hyphenates phrases which ought not to be hyphenated, and places commas where they have no business being (between a number and a following adjective, for example). I hope a good copy editor will remove most of these tics and stumbles before publication.

Several of the stories here are collaborations with Gregory Benford, and there's a clear contrast in the style: much smoother and more fluent, highlighting how clunky Brin's normal prose sounds.

His ideas are interesting, though, and although this is far from the best fiction I've read lately, Brin's thinking is often thought-provoking, and this makes the book worthwhile.

A number of different possible futures are explored here. Some are only touched on for a single story that plays with one idea; others are more fully realised, such as the several stories in which the alien Coss have invaded and taken over the solar system, reducing humans to servitude. I was also delighted to find a longer story set in the continuity of his popular Uplift universe, and featuring enhanced dolphins. Brin does alien perspectives well (perhaps it's part of his contrarian outlook on life), and the story also highlights an important philosophical question; it's Brin at, I think, his best, and certainly his most appealing.

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