Your mom was right…good things do come to those who wait.
I've always been under the impression that Science Fiction can only truly succeed in one of two forms: the believable and the absurd. For instance Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984 were powerful because they grew from societal trends, and the stories, though frightening, have the possibility of really being our future. As for the absurd, two names come to mind, Douglas Adams of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series, where robots are whiny and people walk around with fishes in their ears, and of course the ever bizarre Kurt Vonnegut who canonized the Science Fiction writer with his self-portrait alias Kilgore Trout.
Super Flat Times, a new collection of futuristic tales by Matthew Derby, didn't fit into either of these characteristics, and perhaps that is why I was turned off by it at first. The stories, which involved people eating dirt sandwiches and a man who stuffs himself into a dryer for fun, just didn't have enough believability to make them compellingly frightening, and though quite absurd, were not to the point of becoming hysterically funny. The first few stories of Super Flat Times only lived up to 1/3 of its title… flat. Though situations around the characters differed their inner-monologues, no matter what age, sex, race the protagonist happened to be, all seemed to come from the same bland cookie cutter.
Now, before you stop reading this review and completely dismiss Super Flat Times as just another collection of "being stuck in a future you don't like" short stories, remember this one piece of advice: Good things come to those who get to the end, and in certain cases, even better things come to those who take the journey twice, realizing there was a small glint of brilliance that wasn't visible at first.
It was the last few stories of Super Flat Times that made me realize, this was much more than a simple reprinting everything Derby had ever written, as seems to be the case with many short story collections, but rather it was an extremely ambitious satire, each piece building from the one preceding. Rather than each story becoming more and more futuristic, he made each one start to come down back to that believability, showing how history can repeat itself, sometimes in the most haunting ways. The characters that I accused of being flat, were intentionally so, and after examining the style more closely, were wonderfully so. It's almost like he intended the first stories to be slightly larger and less appealing, because the time itself was cold, bitter, and well…pretty darn un-appealing.
Though Derby's writing bordered on being too adolescent at times (never thought I would be praising a book that mentioned the male genitalia and anal leakage so many times) it didn't deter me from being completely sucked in by the originality.
The introduction is from a futuristic historian, who says all too truly "There will be some that claimed it never happened" meaning that the time was similar to the denial of the holocaust, the dark ages of history.
One story that stood out was "The Father Helmet," where teenager Pembroke and his robot dad "Clay" designed a roller coaster which "took its passengers slowly up a steep incline for 1,200 feet. At the peak, the coaster stopped and everyone had to get out and climb down the narrow stairwell to the ground. Some steps were deliberately brittle so that if one person broke through, she could bring the whole group down with her. No one had any idea how popular it would be." Another was "The End of Men" where a government test group is sent off into the woods and out of sheer boredom the group reverts back to the Middle Ages, giving themselves knight names and killing one another for honor. "The Sound Gun" was a brilliant parody of war where the huge gun that doesn't really "kill people" but rather "pushes them out of the way, except that they stay there, wherever they topple, forever."
The stories flowed, and whether this transition of banal to compelling was intentional or an accident, it doesn't matter. It shows a regression of the future, and is the first book I have ever come across to do so. For that reason it just might have redefined my definition of what good Science Fiction is.