Iterations by Robert J. Sawyer
Hardcover - 280 pages 1st edition (January 2002)
Quarry Press; ISBN: 1550822950

Review by Asta Sinusas
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If you don’t already know Robert Sawyer, then I’d like to know what museum your cave is now being displayed in.

His new collection of short stories Iterations gathers in one place all the pieces of him that you’ve come to know and love. James Alan Gardner succinctly says it in his introduction - in capital letters he compels the reader to “BUY THIS BOOK” then “SIT DOWN AND READ EVERY STORY.”


There is of course, the usual subject fare of Dinosaurs, Neanderthals and Astronomy (I refer to it as DNA). Astronomy stories are a bit more nebulous to pick out, but I usually lump into the category any alien, space exploration and colonization tales. For instance, in “The Blue Planet” we discover that Earth is actually a Martian colony while “Star Light, Star Bright” deals with a Dyson sphere colonized around the star Tau Ceti. In “The Shoulders of Giants” cryogenically frozen colonists arrive, only to realize they have been beaten to the punch by faster ships that were developed after they left. The most prophetic is “Above It All” which reminds us of the foolishness of pouring money into a space program while the solutions to poverty and disease still elude us. In comparison, the dino and Neanderthal stories are easier to pick out. After all, what else could “Gator” or “Peking Man” be about? Except, they’re urban myth and vampire stories as well. Have I confused you and made you think? Well, that’s what a good SF writer does and Sawyer’s one of the best.


Combined with the subjects of DNA are a variety of themes that Sawyer plays upon. In fact, the title Iterations is not a random one. Explained perfectly in “Iterations”, the title story, is the idea that each action we take splits us into two different universes and that there are as many parallel planes of existence as there are decisions that we make. This is almost as clear in the Sherlock Holmes story “You See But You Do Not Observe” where Holmes tells us that Schrodinger’s cat is to blame for the failure of the SETI program. Religion seems to be another theme that is played upon in such stories as “The Contest” where The Party in Power (also known as G--) and the Opposition (D----) see who gets to claim the life of a random soul. It appears again in the self-explanatory titles, ”The Abdication of Pope Mary III” and “Fallen Angel”.


In every story, there seems to be a happy-go-lucky character or moment. (“If I’m Here, Imagine Where They Sent My Luggage” comes to mind immediately) In fact, I think that fear and death are only a means necessary to the end of creating a story for Sawyer and it says something quite profound about his personality. If you look closely, Sawyer’s other beliefs shine through the writing. There is no such thing as infidelity, and each person or being has a specific place, as in “Lost in the Mail” where a writer is redirected down the “right” path and converted into a paleontologist, with the help of a mysterious mailman. I think that’s why Sawyer finds the idea of iterations so fascinating – that there are other universes out there that follow the different choices we have made. There is a past to alter and a future full of potential decisions.


My only problem with Sawyer is that he has the outgoing personality of an American. He actively promotes his titles and not only do his books win awards, but so does his website. (Usually writers have only one half of this winning combination of talent and ambition.) As we see in “Wiping Out”, he can write (gasp) space opera and in “The Hand You’re Dealt” (among others) mystery. He seems to have ignored the general principle that Canadian authors must write speculative fiction, about the gray areas, and not be so black, white and energetic all over. Sawyer’s enthusiasm for his homeland and the intentional nature with which he slips in geographical locations north of the border and other bits of Canada (I caught the name Terry Fox), is to realize that perhaps there is hope for Canadian nationalism and identity. But that’s what makes Robert Sawyer so unique. 

In conclusion, do yourself a favor and make one less iteration out there because the universe where you doesn’t have a copy of Iterations on your shelf is a sad place indeed.

© 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu