A SHORT, SHARP SHOCK – Kim Stanley Robinson (1990)

A short, sharp shockReading A Short, Sharp Shock confirmed my impression that Robinson is a writer with a tremendous range. It is a novella of about 100 pages that is hard to categorize because of its bizarre, surreal content. The story is about a man who wakes up, washed ashore on an unknown beach, not remembering who he is or how he got there. Next to him is an unknown woman, and very soon a story of travel throughout a mysterious world, filled with adventure and meetings with odd and intriguing characters, starts. Saying much more would spoil the experience of reading, since it has to be read and experienced first hand, as if immersed in a dream.

It’s probably not science fiction (it could be, if you think the protagonist is a space traveler stranded on another planet), and calling it fantasy is also a bit of a stretch, but there sure are fantastical elements to be found. Lets just leave it at speculative literature… 

This novella made me think first and foremost of Gene Wolfe, it’s not too different from the middle story that filled The Fifth Head of Cerberus. There’s mythological stories told by the characters, there are musings on dreams and time, and there’s the uncanny. There’s talk of “quasi-Freudian overtones” and “Jungian implications” on the dust jacket too. This intellectual posturing of the publisher shouldn’t scare anyone off, since A Short, Sharp Shock can be read and enjoyed without knowledge of Freud or Jung – the book is not about understanding, and explicitly makes this clear. It is a lyrical trip.

On the wet strand a troop of birds ran back and forth. They seemed a kind of sandpiper, except their feathers were a dark metallic read. They stabbed way at dead grunion rolling in the wrack, and dashed madly up the strand chased by waves, their stick legs pumping over blurred reflections of themselves.

The themes of the book are rich & diverse, and have to do with companionship, sexual attraction, the nature of time, memory, the inherent miscommunication between individuals, aesthetics, geology, the animalistic nature of man, the freedom of waves, and being determined by one’s surroundings. The novella’s setting – a ridge among the equator of an ocean world, circling it like a spine – determines the narrative structure too: there’s nowhere to go but forth, following the path along the ridge. Or not?

The beautiful black and white drawings in my edition were made by Arnie Fenner and really enhance the story, so it’s worth searching for an illustrated edition.

Kim Stanley Robinson is a master writer. I can understand some readers not liking this novella, it will not be everyone’s cup of tea. But if you like Gene Wolfe, or some of KSR’s other novels and want to discover an entirely different side of his, please give it a try. It really is a short, sharp shock.

 

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