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Monday, November 4, 2013

Reader's Guide to "Slow Birds" by Ian Watson

This originally appeared in Fantasy and Science Fiction; was a finalist for Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards; and was reprinted in several year's best anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois, Marta Randall, Terry Carr, Edward L. Ferman.  It opens the author's collection of the same name: Slow Birds and Other Stories by Ian Watson.  It may be his most well known short story.


Jason takes the lead in a skate-sail competition when a slow bird appears.  The slow birds sometimes blow up, leaving a circle of glass behind; sometimes they disappear.  Jason loses the race.  Daniel, his brother, has climbed the slow bird, which throws his parents and others into a tizzy.  Daniel refuses to jump off because he wants to see where it goes.  It disappears.  Jason suspects his skate-sail rival put his little, red-haired brother on the bird.  Jason and friends grab the rival and tie him to a bird.  The rival admits his misdeed, but Jason doesn't immediately free him.  When he does, his rival's friends pay Jason back by returning the favor.

Jason doesn't disappear with the bird, but rather comes up with a peaceful, submissive philosophy which he spreads around the country--famously as the silent prophet--to help people deal with what they see as inevitable destruction.  When Daniel returns with the truth about what is going on with the birds.  Jason's response surprises.

  1. How might the setting's time of "Mayday" play in more than one way?
  2. What does it mean that the slow birds are slow?  How do the people respond (or not) to the crisis?  How should they?
  3. What might the slow birds represent?*  Ecological or nuclear disaster?  The slowness and consequent effects suggests one thing, the explosion and glass another.  How might they be integrated?
  4. What does it mean that the slow birds travel through time and space?
  5. How do the people respond differently to the slow birds?  (see quote below.  Although only two speak, it gives three reactions.  Jason yields a fourth response.)  Which argument might the story favor in how each is treated?  When Daniel returns, which response matches his? or does he have his own response?
  6. How does Jason behave and how did you expect him to behave when rejoined with his brother Daniel?  What motivates Jason to behave as he does?
  7. How does Daniel behave in the end that relieves the tension set up in question #6?
  • " 'And what if the birds come only to punish us for our sins?...'
  • "Mrs. Babbige beamed, 'surely you aren't one of them?  A bright lad like you. Me, I don't even put candles in the window of tie knots in the bedsheets to keep the birds away.' "
* In the introduction to the collection, the author outright states that they represent Cruise missiles.

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