Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Butterflies of Memory

Just received my copies of Ian Watson’s terrific short-story collection, The Butterflies of Memory.

My introduction begins like this:

If you’re of the opinion that science fiction is above all else a literature of ideas, then Ian Watson is your man, and this collection, which contains more than enough ideas to set up a couple of lesser writers for life is very definitely your cup of meat. Of course, ideas aren’t everything. For one thing, apart from a few incredibly rare once-in-a lifetime, fifty-carat, career-defining originals, ideas are as cheap and ubiquitous as advertising. Ideas, good or bad, are the human animal’s speciality. Day in, day out, we see clouds and think them very like whales. We put together two and two and make five. And even if you do have an idea that’s both brilliant and original, in the end it’s what you do with it that counts, and that’s where qualities like hard work, talent, and that indefinable but instantly recognisable quality, voice, come into play.

Ian Watson knows all about this, of course. Check out ‘How to be a Fictionaut’, which not only has a lot of fun with the myth of ideas and originality, but also pushes the notion of the anxiety of influence about as far as it will go.

This isn’t to say that the ideas on display here aren’t witty, outrageous, daft, unsettling and plainly fantastic, because quite frankly that’s exactly what they are. But more importantly, they have also been woven into stories by a writer who not only possesses a restless and capacious imagination, but also knows exactly what to do with his ideas, and has an enviable talent for stretching them in unexpected ways, testing them to destruction, or using them to smash open accepted notions about the way the world works.


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