Categories aren’t always helpful

A History of the Twentieth Century, with Illustrations
a novelette by Kim Stanley Robinson

In preparation for tomorrow’s jaunt to BristolCon, I have been reading some sci-fi short stories this week. Tim recommended this one, which has stuck with him for years (though it may not quite count as sci-fi). You can read it online here.

It’s the story of Frank Churchill (no idea if the Austen reference is deliberate), a writer of history books who is living in New York and taking “light therapy” in an attempt to alleviate his depression. It doesn’t seem to be working so he reluctantly accepts an offer to travel to London to write a complete history of the 20th century, figuring that the UK’s longer hours of daylight in summer will save him having to attend therapy.

The bulk of the story is about his research, with daily trips to the reading room at the British Museum. His findings form part of the story, a sorry litany of war after war after war. Obviously that’s a limited view of the century but it’s certainly believable that in future it’s all that will be remembered.

As with my previous experience of Robinson (or “Stan”, as I believe his friends know him), it’s all about the main character. In the background lurks a vague sense of apocalypse, of things unexplained, but at the forefront is an everyday, relatable human being. Frank is deftly created, a few words rustling up a lifetime of backstory. Every location is described with what feels like insider knowledge, without it becoming a list of buildings and street names (believe me, it happens). I often find that a short story isn’t long enough for me to really care about the outcome but I definitely cared about Frank.

I greatly enjoyed this story and it reminded me that I really should go back and finish Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy.

First published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1991. Reprinted in Remaking History and other stories (Orb, 1994).