David Marusek, Getting to Know You (Subterranean Press, 2007)
Getting to Know You is a short story collection in much the same way that The Who's Wire and Glass is an album, which is to say that it's mostly a collection of bits and pieces of something that's supposed to be much bigger, with occasional standalone moments tucked in here and there. The vast majority of the stories are part of the future history that Marusek's "The Wedding Album," perhaps the best-known piece in here, presents to the reader, and this is part of the problem. Because they're part of something more expansive, Marusek has a dilemma: either he takes time in each story to explain the future history and the story's place in it, or he trusts that by putting them close together, the stories reinforce each others' continuity, which risks leaving the reader who doesn't put all the pieces together floundering.
In the end, it feels like he picks a little of both, and it doesn't quite work. The overtly science fiction moments don't merge seamlessly with the rest of the more character-driven fiction, and the character-driven sections occasionally feel like they're lacking the future history context.
The best moments in the collection are the ones that just take the science fiction elements as accepted, sweeping past them and focusing on the delicate dance of character interaction that Marusek does very well. In fact, what may be the best piece in the collection -- "Yurek Rutz. Yurek Rutz. Yurek Rutz" -- doesn't even really have a science fiction element to it at all, but instead exists as a sly metafiction on the notion of a letter to a science fiction magazine. "The Wedding Album" is at its best as its lost virtual Anne tries to figure out who or what she is, instead of the increasingly intrusive moments of explanation for the sharp changes in setting. "A Boy in Cathyland" works better in proximity to some of the other stories for reasons of setting, but within the bounds of the story itself, the tragedy of a technophilic survivor brought down by low-tech means works well. And "The Earth Is On The Mend" is short but muscular and powerful.
Perhaps less successful are the stories where the social commentary is more overt. "VTV" is a heavy-handed polemic about the power of the media to manipulate -- and to be manipulated. "Listen To Me" is well-written, but equal parts predictable and unpleasant. It is, however, one of the few stories in the collection whereby the male character gets the better of the women around him. Most of the pieces -- from "Yurek Rutz" to "The Day We Downsized North America" to the title story -- orbit around the central notion of a man wandering into the orbit of a more powerful, more intelligent, more competent and more compelling woman and coming out the worse for the encounter. "We Were Out of Our Minds With Joy" is perhaps the most telling example of this -- successful artist Sam Harger loves, marries, and is irrevocably tainted by getting too close to politician Eleanor Starke. The genius of the piece, one of the best in the collection, is that it's never made clear as to whether it was Eleanor's enemies, her allies, or herself who launched the "mistaken" attack that renders him incapable of moving in Eleanor's powerful circles. What is clear, however, is that the attack and its aftermath are what drives him to new -- solo - action when happy matrimony had stripped him of his AI friend and rendered him creatively impotent.
Ultimately, Getting to Know You is a difficult book. The thematic repetition suggests that the stories are best read singly, but the semi-novel format benefits from reading the connected pieces, at least, one after another. It doesn't lack for ambition, nor does it lack for skill, particularly in the more character-driven pieces. But readers may do better to wait for the promised novel containing the future history pieces, and simply read the remaining stories. It's the sort of creative yet practical planning for the future of which Yarek Rutz himself might have approved.
And if you doubt me, read the story.