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

A short, sharp shockA 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 through a mysterious world starts, a story filled with adventure and meetings with odd and intriguing characters. Saying much more would spoil it, since it has to be read and experienced first hand, as if immersed in a dream.

It’s probably not science fiction, but it could be, if you think the protagonist is a space traveler stranded on another planet. Calling it fantasy is also a bit of a stretch, but there sure are fantastical elements to be found. 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 are 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, it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But if you like Gene Wolfe and want to discover an entirely different side of KSR, please give it a try. It really is a short, sharp shock.

My other Kim Stanley Robinson reviews are here: The Wild Shore (1984)Icehenge (1984) – The Memory Of Whiteness (1985) – The Gold Coast (1988) – Pacific Edge (1990) – The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) – 2312 (2012) – Shaman (2013) – Aurora (2015) – Green Earth (2015, the revised Science In The Capital trilogy (2004-2007)) – New York 2140 (2017) – The Ministry For The Future (2020) – The High Sierra: A Love Story (2022).

Consult the author index for all my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews, and here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature.

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