Saturday, December 31, 2011

Chunks of dead trees

J.G. Ballard? Philip K. Dick? Harry Harrison? Fritz Leiber? Kurt Vonnegut? Thomas M. Disch? Anyone who knows me knows I couldn't possibly pass up a book with those names on the cover. And yet, when I picked up this copy of The Ruins of Earth from a used bookstore recently, my first thought was: Why have I never heard of this? The anthology -- edited by Disch and containing his satirical short story "The Birds" -- was published in England in 1973 and features some of the best science fiction authors of the day, including a few veterans of the New Worlds-led New Wave. But the collection also runs parallel to the ecological movement of the time -- with the obvious theme being environmental catastrophe, summed up beautifully by Disch in his introduction. Sadly, Disch's own story, "The Birds," is a weak example of his otherwise incisive satire. A more noteworthy moment: the first published appearance of Harrison's "Roommates," the short story based on his novel Make Room! Make Room! (itself the basis for the film Soylent Green). Also: Gene Wolfe -- who in 1973 apparently didn't rate a mention on the cover! -- contributes "Three Million Square Miles," a wisp of a vignette that's mostly curious for this reason: Its man-caged-by-highway scenario almost seems like the seed of... J.G. Ballard's 1974 novel, Concrete Island. For his part, Ballard offers his 1962 story "The Cage of Sand" -- which, despite the title and the fact that the word "vermilion" pops up in the opening sentence, is not a Vermilion Sands story. Guided by Disch's grim, wry fatalism rather than the era's typically shrill eco-panic, Ruins is a great little slab of retro-future-shock; it's also one more reason why, funnily enough, I still love combing used book stores for chunks of dead trees.

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