The Planet on the Table

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Ten years have passed since Kim Stanley Robinson made his first short story sale: The development of his craft is reflected in this award-winning writer’s first short story collection, THE PLANET ON THE TABLE.

As a stylist, Robinson is a jack-of-all-trades. One’s first impression of the collection is the almost effortless ease with which he slips from style to style and voice to voice--from the spare, present-tense prose of “Ridge Running” to the colorful, evocative “Black Air,” a seafaring adventure with metaphysics filling the sails.

The themes vary--hard science fiction (“The Disguise”) to high fantasy (“Stone Eggs”), each story featuring solid characterization and exhibiting a true ear for dialogue. Robinson’s forte is, in fact, his people--whether in the seventeenth century or in the twenty-third, these are living, breathing, quirkily diverse individuals.

There is one aspect to these stories that some readers may find dissatisfying: Robinson often explores an idea without actually telling a story. “Ridge Running” (about three men on a day hike, one of whom, Joe, is recovering from an operation to correct brain damage) vaguely establishes the relationships among the men while pointing to Joe’s distinctive perceptions, courtesy of regenerated neural connections. Robinson carries the story through the set-up, then ends it -- serving the idea but not the reader. One is left to wonder how Joe gets on in life, what led to his accident, and what difficulties he has in a more demanding environment. “Ridge Running” is more an introduction than a story; the same can be said of “Stone Eggs” and, surprisingly enough, “Black Air,” which garnered a World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story.

These stories, in other words, are good enough to make the reader wish that they had been more fully developed. Robinson’s novels, such as THE WILD SHORE and THE MEMORY OF WHITENESS, are full meals, but even the appetizers served up in this collection make it clear that he is a master chef.