Mike Resnick may very well be the most awarded science-fiction writer ever — the biography on the back flap of Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks is a list of awards and nominations. That’s it. There is justification for that, and it’s a matter of personal chagrin that, among those writers whom I habitually list as favorites, I need prodding to remember Resnick. That’s not his fault, by any means — entirely mea culpa, with very little in the way of justification, except maybe “So many books, so little time.”
The overriding metaphor of this collection is “on safari.” Take that in the widest sense: although there are a couple of stories that do deal directly with safaris (“Hunting the Snark” and “Safari 2103 A.D.”), the stories are about the hunt in a much wider sense.
Thus we have two lectures by the inimitable Col. Winnifred Caruthers to the Lower Manhattan Blood Sports Enthusiasts. You may remember Col. Caruthers as John Justin Mallory’s somewhat bloodthirsty partner from Stalking the Unicorn and Stalking the Vampire, from which these lectures were taken. (They are, by the way, insanely funny.) There is, in fact, a story about stalking a vampire, starring none other than Teddy Roosevelt and a mysterious gentleman who introduces himself merely as “D” (“Two Hunters in Manhattan”). We also meet Lord Bloomstoke, hiding out from his creditors in the African jungle and bringing — or trying to bring — Fabian socialism to the gorillas. (“The Lord of the Jungle”)
The real meat of this collection, though, is in the two longest stories, “Hunting the Snark” and the short novel The Soul Eater.
The first relates what is probably the last safari led by Karamojo Bell, who leads a party of four — along with gunbearers, skinners, a tracker and a pilot — to Dodgson IV, a newly charted world with no sentient inhabitants. Or so all the records say. It’s going to be Bell’s last safari because he loses his clients, his bearers, skinners, the pilot and the tracker to a murderous beast that they dub the Snark. Of course, nothing’s what it seems, but the climax of this story is shattering, at least for Bell. Seasoned readers will probably see it coming.
The Soul Eater hinges on a similar theme, with a heavy overlay of obsession and how it can destroy a man. Nicobar Lane is a professional hunter, mostly working for museums and zoos, who harvests exotic creatures from equally exotic worlds. He’s not a particularly sociable sort, an advantage for someone who can spend months alone on his ship with no company other than the Lord High Mufti, which may be the only creature Lane loves. But he’s happy that way, until he runs into something that seems to be composed solely of energy and who has no fear of black holes — in fact, it seems to use them to give itself a boost in velocity when necessary. That’s Lane’s first encounter with the Dreamwish Beast, until then only a matter of legend. And then someone tries to commission him to capture it.
This is not a perfect story — the chapters detailing the pursuit of the Soul Eater, as Lane comes to call it (for what Lane considers good reason, but it’s not really the beast’s fault) do detail it, but when your protagonist is alone on a spaceship for several months, telling us all about it is not the way to hold the reader’s interest. This could have been a riveting psychological study if it were somewhat tighter. The transformation in Lane after he realizes that his first take on the beast was wrong — it’s a projective empath, and what he thought he was feeling from it is not at all what he was really feeling — could have been a compelling study in obsession. Regrettably, it bleeds off into boredom.
The strongest story, as far as I’m concerned, is “Bwana.” It’s another one that hinges on interpretations and how they’re filtered through preconceptions, and although the Bwana of the title may be somewhat overdrawn, there is enough subtlety in the telling to keep it engaging.
The overtly satirical stories, such as “Safari 2103 A.D.” are pretty predictable, but would be humorous if the message weren’t so dire. The addition of a telling of The Soul Stealer from the Beast’s point of view is interesting — I wonder what Resnick could make of interweaving the two accounts? — but in a way superfluous: we have an idea of what the Beast was thinking and feeling anyway.
This is not a stellar collection, but it’s solid. Resnick’s fans will want it, and those who are looking for an introduction to his work could do a lot worse — it does display something of his range as a writer, which is immense, even if it doesn’t offer a look at his deepest or most polished work.
(Golden Gryphon Press, 2009)