Review of Odd Corners: The Slip-Stream World of William Hjorstberg

by William Hjortsberg

Shoemaker & Hoard  May 2004 288 pp. 15.00 (PB original)

Copyright © Steven E. Alford  

 

            William Gibson and Neal Stephenson have been rightly praised for their innovative science fiction.  While it’s currently fashionable to look back to Philip K. Dick as the granddaddy of the cyberworld, space has to be made for the estimable William Hjortsberg. 

            Hjortsberg was exploring—and writing imaginatively about—the interconnected netherland of technology, virtual worlds and human dreaming in the early seventies. (Gibson’s Neuromancer was published in 1984.)  The collection Odd Corners brings together several of Hjortsberg’s early stories and novellas, some out of print, others never published.  This collection is a useful starting point for those unfamiliar with his work.

            A fabulous desert mansion is the futuristic setting of “Symbiology,” a place inhabited by the wealthy and famous Per Sondak.  Sondak is a Dreamer, someone who makes a living having his dreams captured, revised, and sold to an adoring public—John Grisham without the mediation of paper and ink.  His indulgently sensual life is threatened by the public’s fancy for another form of entertainment, Direct-Experience-Modes, which are outselling Dreams  by a four-to-one margin.   The public prefers the thrill of jacking into a chip implanted in a rocket-racer or gladiator, vicariously experiencing the “real” event instead of one of Sondak’s dreams.

            Sondak, inspired by boredom and greed, decides to kidnap a Nomad, a desert hunter-gatherer who lives outside the silken prison of the city, implant a chip in him, and have his own private Direct Experience.  The characterization of the Nomad’s tribal affiliations, and his climatic encounter with Sondak’s enemies are blackly comic.

            “Homecoming,” a brief fable, suggests that someone from beyond our solar system may well have something to say about our penchant for destroying the environment.

            Sports fans will be amused by “The Clone Who Ran for Congress.”  In the future, sports teams are the property of international corporations—not much of an imaginative stretch.  However, the teams are comprised of clones, and the true competition among owners doesn’t occur on the field, but in the labs that produce increasingly imposing brutes, modified through cosmetic surgery to feed the public’s visual expectations for sports heroes.  One enterprising scientist decides to abandon the brute arms race and produce a series of clones that hark back to the sporting values of nineteenth-century British public schools.  Several twists in the story later, the clones’ creator finds himself their slave, rather than their master.

            The final novella, first published in 1971, is the centerpiece of the collection.  “Gray Matters” envisions a world where humanity’s multiform goals have been reduced to a single one: spiritual advancement.  To systematize and hasten enlightenment, people have abandoned the prisons of their bodies, and now reside in giant warehouses, each person a brain in a vat, connected to one another through a computerized communication system and an army of robotic servants who perform the manual labor necessary to keep the brains alive.  Auditors, functioning like spiritual guides, assist the brains as they move from one level of spiritual awakening to the next.  It would spoil the fun to outline the cast of characters who occupy these vats, but suffice to say that they’re not all happy in their bodiless prison where enlightenment is not a choice, but a requirement.  “Grey Matters” is a superbly compressed, layered comic fable that will remain in your embodied brain long after you’ve finished the book and embarked on some other, decidedly unspiritual activity.

            Odd Corners brings back into publication some of the early work of writer who deserves a wide readership among aficionados of the world just around the corner.  His stories make you think, but they also makes you smile.