The Incarceration Of Captain Nebula by Mike Resnick (book review).

Some authors are reluctant to write short stories, either because they think they are no good at it and prefer the longer length of a novel or because they don’t find the time between those novels. In some cases, they are correct in leaving the shorter pieces alone. Some, like Mike Resnick, surprise themselves.

The credit for choosing this excellent selection of thirteen stories goes to Kristine Kathryn Rusch and they show Resnick at his best, a fact attested by the number of awards they have received. The original publication dates range from 1977-2010.

Resnick has a fascination for Africa. His novel ‘Kirinyaga’ is set there and he has visited Africa on a number of occasions.


The first story in this collection ‘Seven Views Of Olduvai Gorge’ is a Science Fiction story with an African stetting and written after a visit to Botswana. It originally appeared in MoF&SF and won a host of awards. Most people know that the Olduvai Gorge is where the earliest recognisably human remains were found. In the story, a group of alien archaeologists return to Earth, millennia after the extinction of mankind. The narrator is called He Who Views. He is a ‘Feeler’ as he becomes one with an object and gets a clear sense of its history. The expedition has found five artefacts and the views of the title come from the narrator’s skill. The artefacts he examines came from points in the past of this part of Africa and, in doing so, give snapshots of significant events relating to Earth’s past.

The other African story in this volume is the final one. ‘Six Blind Men And An Alien’ is set on the slopes of Kilimanjaro. When Ernest Hemingway had climbed part way up the mountain, he claimed to have found the body of a snow leopard. This story tells of an expedition following in his footsteps in 2038, one hundred years after the publication of ‘The Snows Of Kilimanjaro’. Climate change has caused the snow line to retreat and they find the mummified body of an alien exposed by the melted ice. Each of them invents a reason for the alien to have died on the mountain based on a small observation in the same way that the six blind men thought they understood what an elephant was by feeling just a small part of it.

‘Barnaby In Exile’ raises issues about the way we treat animals. The narrator is Barnaby, an ape that has been taught to communicate using sign language. In the lab where he has been raised, he has limited experience and none of others of his species. He almost thinks of himself as a human. His problems really arise when the funding dries up and Barnaby is taken and dumped in wild without any preparation. It is told in such a way that by the end, the reader must feel thoroughly ashamed of their own species. It is also a story that can be viewed from a number of perspectives. Is Barnaby is exile when he is in the lab away from his own kind or when he is taken back to his original home and away from the place he grew up? Maybe this is an unanswerable question.

‘The Last Dog’ is also about the relationship between animal and human. In this case, in the dying throes of the Earth, the last dog and the last man team up as the instinct for survival is strong in both. Again, the perspective is from that of the animal. Although we can never be sure that this is the way a dog would view a human, observable behaviour suggests that this is as fair a representation as could be found. Both these stories highlight the problems of trying to see through the eyes of an alien and to interpret their thought processes and motive. As SF writers, perhaps it is arrogant to try to write about aliens before we have understood those we share our planet with.

A question that comes up at intervals is the difference between robots and Artificial Intelligences, and can either of them possess souls. In ‘Article Of Faith’, a priest has a high functioning robot to care for his earthly needs. The logic in the robot’s circuits leads it to question the faith that, until then, the priest has accepted unquestioningly. While being on basic level a story about the meaning of faith, it also touches on prejudice against the unknown and religious bigotry.

‘The Big Guy’ is another robot story but this time the source of curiosity for the robot is emotion. Although it is meant to be the winning asset of a basketball team, it explores the way emotion can get in the way of intention.

Most writers at some time in their career have a go at updating a myth or fairy story. Resnick goes further than just bringing the tale into the contemporary world or putting a twist on it. In ‘The Boy Who Yelled “Dragon”’, he turns ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ story completely on its head after a socially inadequate boy meets a socially inadequate young dragon and they find they have a lot in common. It is a story full of compassion, understanding and humour. ‘The Bride Of Frankenstein’ is also an alternative version of a familiar tale but, in this case, the compassion and understanding has to be discovered by the eponymous narrator.

‘Alistair Baffle’s Emporium Of Wonders’ has a theme of nostalgia and the power of memory. In childhood, two boys had met at a magic shop and been friends ever since. Now in old age and living in a home, they escape and go looking for the place one last time, not expecting to find it. The outcome for each of them depends on their outlook, whether they thought the tricks they saw in their youth were magic or illusion. At the same time, the question is whether one should embrace the pains of aging or allow the mind to wander back to the days of care-free youth.

‘Distant Replay’ is a completely different take on old age. The narrator, Walter, meets a young woman who looks like and has exactly the same tastes in music and literature as his dead wife and they strike up a friendship. It is what Walter does to help her decides how her future will play out that makes this story fresh.

The stories in this volume cover a lot of speculative genres and often blend more than one. Not many head out into space. ‘All The Things You Are’ is the closest to space opera within these covers. After an incident at the space station, Gregory Donovan accompanies an injured man to hospital to discover that the hero of the day seems to have deliberately put himself in the line of fire to ensure a young girl’s safety and that this isn’t the first time he had done that. It was as if the man was trying to get himself killed. Donovan is curious and eventually finds out why. Perhaps it is not surprising what some people will do in the name of love.

The story that gives its name to the collection, ‘The Incarceration Of Captain Nebula’ is a humorous one with a more serious side to it. The patient that calls himself Captain Nebula is being held in a secure unit and has come up against the bureaucracy of disbelief. It is generally assumed that people with wild tales about megalomaniacs planning to invade Earth as part of their scheme to subjugate the universe are suffering from a mental disorder are mentally deranged. Perhaps they do have information we ought to be taking notice of. Part of the joy of this story is that it is told as a series of documents and allows the reader to piece together the apparent truth of what they are being told – if they are being told all of it.

All the stories here can be read purely for enjoyment but all of them have elements designed to make the reader think about underlying issues. All of them could be the starting points for deep and long-lasting debates about what we think and do and how we behave or expect others to. Many of these stories have either been nominated for awards or won them. Those familiar with Mike Resnick’s novels will love having this selection of stories together in this deluxe volume. Those who do not know his work, this is a superb introduction to his skill at storytelling.

Pauline Morgan

(pub: Subterranean Press. 285 page deluxe hardback. Price: $35.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-435-5)

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