This collection of Michael Burstein’s (rightfully) award-nominated and award-winning short fiction is a testament to his ability to blend hard science fiction with genuine emotional power. As challenging as it is moving, Burstein pulls few punches from the very beginning of the collection.
The opening tale, “Kaddish For The Last Survivor”, explores the importance of remembering one’s past and one’s heritage, as the passing of the final survivor of the Holocaust paves the way for more potential denial of those atrocities now that there is no one left who was there. The exploration of the dichotomy between past, present and future paves the way for one of the major themes of Burstein’s work, as exemplified in this collection, while providing a warning against creeping fascism that has become all too relevant in recent times.
Equally challenging, albeit in a more optimistic fashion, is the two-part tale consisting of “Teleabsence” and “Telepresence”. This exploration of the possibility of using VR technology in education to prevent violence in schools is fascinating, as are the two flaws that are explored in the story; the gentrification of the technology away from its original intended recipients in the former, and the way in which a school shooting might unfold in a VR world in the latter. While “Teleabsence” is a heart-warming story about social justice (in a Matrix-meets-the-Magic-Schoolbus-meets-Robin-Hood way), “Telepresence” darker, and all the better for it, blending the aesthetics of A Nightmare on Elm Street with genuine social commentary on the importance of interconnectedness and human relationships.
The next three stories in the collection also constitute a trilogy. “Broken Symmetry”, “Absent Friends” and “Empty Spaces” are examples of Berstein’s skill with conveying hard scientific concepts with clarity and ease (especially to this humanities graduate!), and the strength of his human characters. In the course of three stories Burstein explores both multiverse theories, the frustrating world of academic funding, the ethics of research, and the challenges of scientific discovery to religious belief, enduring friendship, obsession and the conflict between the needs of the individual and the needs of the whole. It’s powerful stuff, adeptly handled.
Burstein doesn’t shy away from the speculative, and in several stories he delights in the possible futures for humanity, from the nostalgia of a transcendent being for defunct technology in “Spaceships”, to the almost playful take on time paradoxes and the place of humanity in the wider universe in “Decisions”. A more grounded speculative story is “75 Years”, in which the proposed extensions to the free availability of census information after 70 years to 75 has ramifications beyond the intentions of the instigator. What begins as a political thriller transforms, almost without the reader noticing, into a case study for civil rights and what truly makes a figure historic.
As noted already, Burstein also shows great interest in ethical conundrums. “Time Ablaze” is a good example of this, combining historical detachment with human relationships in a style reminiscent of Ray Bradbury (and it is difficult to say much more without giving away the plot). The other chiefly ethical tale is “Sanctuary”. This is a true highlight in an already stellar collection, and raises challenging questions as to the nature of belief in the face of a wider cosmos – can aliens be Catholic? do their babies have souls? would the Church consider their abortion murder? The strength of this story is the clear research that Burstein (whose personal Judaism is prevalent throughout his writing) took to sensitively treat the issues surrounding Catholicism and to resolve them in a believable way. The resulting exploration of the nature of belief, and the strength of humanity lying in diversity and (ideally) resultant mutual respect, is a refreshing take on religion in science fiction that is reminiscent, again, of Bradbury, and of “A Canticle For Leibowitz”.
The final stories of the collection are, appropriately enough, about writing. The titular “I Remember the Future” is deeply moving, as an ailing author on the brink of losing himself to dementia cannot bring himself to burden his living daughter whom he feels he has neglected enough throughout his life due to his career. After a life of living in the past or the future, but never the present, he turns to his abstract children – his characters – for succour. As an aspiring writer, the idea of characters as our children, the mark we make on the world, is one that has occurred to me, but that I could never have expressed so well. “Cosmic Corkscrew” is about inspiration, and is very much a celebration of Asimov, one of Burstein’s chief influences. Finally, “Paying It Forwards” is a must-read for aspiring writers – a science-fiction story about writing and the privilege of the elder generation in nurturing the young. It’s a moving and appropriate conclusion to the collection, striking an optimistic and encouraging tone, and there is more than one author I would like to set up a similar system with…
“I Remember The Future” is a stellar collection that fans of science-fiction ought not to miss out on. Each story also comes with an epilogue explaining the thought-processes and stories that lie behind it. These enrich the stories with new understanding, making them well worth at least one reread, and aspiring writers will find excellent advice and encouragement within them.
Hard sci-fi with a warm heart. Don’t miss out.
(This review was written for Apex Publications in exchange for a free copy of the ebook)