Robert Reed,
The Cuckoo's Boys
(Golden Gryphon, 2005)

Robert Reed is a prolific short-story writer, and despite the fact that I run across at least a couple of his tales in anthologies each year, I know I've been missing a lot of terrific fiction. So the arrival in my mailbox of The Cuckoo's Boys was cause for celebration, a chance to rectify this situation. I'm pleased to report that the book does not disappoint.

At least five of the stories included in The Cuckoo's Boys have been featured in various Best of the Year collections over the past decade. And the excellent new story "Abducted Souls," published here for the first time, could well add to this total. It's a story of faith: faith in God, faith in medical science, faith in one's own conception of how the world works. The story's protagonist may or may not have been abducted by aliens when he was a child. But his sense of self is certainly built upon his belief that he stands apart from the crowd by virtue of his presumed encounter with interstellar voyagers.

In the afterword to the collection Reed reveals that his motivation in writing "Abducted Souls" was to explore what it would take "for someone with my temperament and beliefs to be tempted ... to become a True Believer." After reading, or re-reading, the 12 stories in The Cuckoo's Boys, I've certainly renewed my status as a True Believer in the extraordinary quality of Robert Reed's fiction. He's an author who constantly challenges himself to explore new territory.

He crafts a world in which one man has created a virus that causes hundreds of thousands of women around the globe to give birth to his clones ("The Cuckoo's Boys"). A room inhabited by a "legally designated sociopath" is fitted with one link to the outside world, a video-window connection to an idealistic young woman ("She Sees My Monsters Now"). And a war hero who, it appears, may have gone too far in order to help protect the world from an alien threat is asked to explain himself to the government, and to his grandson ("Savior").

I was also pleased to read, in the afterword, that author "James Patrick Kelly has read 'Coelacanths' several times, and whenever he sees me at conventions, he mentions the story, shrugs, and makes some soft, baffled sounds." I, too, had read this particular story a number of times and I have the same basic reaction to it. But it highlights one of the things I most appreciate in Reed's writing: its unpredictability. Reed is a stylistically diverse writer and his range is fully showcased in The Cuckoo's Boys -- meaning that readers are unlikely to love everything in this collection. But equally true is that it's almost an impossibility one could read this book and not encounter stories that startle, exhilarate and impress.

Short fiction is a playground, a place where much of the most inspired experimentation with style and structure takes place. Robert Reed is very much at home in this playground, building breathtaking sand sculptures, leaping madly about on the monkey bars and plummeting head first down the slide. With The Cuckoo's Boys we're lucky enough to be invited along for the ride.

by Gregg Thurlbeck
17 December 2005

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