Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #93 of 107: “Before I Wake” Kim Stanley Robinson

Once again the VanderMeers give us a science fiction horror story.

Kim Stanley Robinson came up with a neat setup for “Before I Wake,” where humanity is trapped in uncontrolled sleep cycles with confusing dreams after the solar system moved into an interstellar dust cloud. Something in the dust put people to sleep and they struggle to stay awake for short moments. Civilization is collapsing and cities are burning.

In the story, Fred Abernathy, a scientist, and Winston, his lab administrator struggle to keep a group of a dozen researchers awake long enough to study the problem and seek a way to counter the dust’s effects. Their efforts are thwarted because they can’t tell reality from dreaming. Fred and Winston use amphetamines and the pain of acid drops on their skin to keep themselves awake to work on a helmet that magnetically repels the dust.

Of course, this plot reminds me of the classic 1954 Poul Anderson novel, Brain Wave, where the solar system moves out of a dust cloud and people and animals all become smarter. That was a bright take on the idea. The dust had been hindering all intellectual development on earth for thousands of years, and moving out of the cloud allowed all animal life to be smarter. Robinson takes the horror side of the idea, moving into the dust that ruins our natural sleep patterns.

Lately, I’ve been reading the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction twice to make sure I get everything. For some of the stories, I need to read them twice because the intent of the story is unclear from a single reading. Robinson’s tale was easy enough to understand in one reading even though Fred goes in and out of dreams and Robinson expects his readers to feel like their experiencing a bad LSD trip. There were a couple of places in the story that did confuse me. I don’t know if they’re actual mistakes or intentional points to confuse us. For example, Fred goes to rescue Jill. At one point we’re told Jill is his wife, and another she’s his sister. In Fred’s confused state Jill could be neither.

I read “Before I Wake” the first time, and listened to it the second. I so much prefer the audio version.

“Before I Wake” is a fun read based on a neat idea however it has a bummer of an ending. Reading this story reminds me just how much I prefer happy endings and dislike horror. Because there are so many science fiction horror stories, satires, literary works of cleverness in this volume, its overall vibe is cynical. The nightmare ending of “Before I Wake” left me with a sense of hopelessness.

There are stories in the anthology that are uplifting and left me feeling good, such as “A Martian Odyssey,” “Desertion,” “Surface Tension,” “The Last Question,” “Rachel in Love,” and so on, but many did not. Now, some of the somber, even horror stories were philosophically uplifting, and quite brilliant, like “Snow,” “Bloodchild,” “When It Changed,” etc. But many of the stories were only intellectually interesting, or clever, like “Before I Wake.” I can admire them for the inspiration and execution of a creative idea, but they leave me emotionally wanting more.

I suppose it is childish of me to always want stories that leave me feeling good. But think about it, how many people take drugs to feel bad? Fiction is a drug to me. I read fiction for uplift. I have nonfiction for teaching me about reality. Great fiction needs great conflicts to move the story along, but in the end, I want epiphanies that make me feel good.

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James Wallace Harris, 2/20/22

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