Another day, another ten authors who are totally new to me. I’m a little exhausted with all the reading—I don’t think I’ve crammed like this since high school, but I am loving this project so far. I haven’t discovered this many new writers in years, in spite of making an effort to try new things. I’m actually pretty sure that this collection is all new-to-me writers up until S.L. Huang, who I’ll get to in part four or five, I believe. Today’s reading was a great mix of sci-fi and fantasy, with no horror, which is nice, and it also had the collection’s first funny story. There are still a couple of tear-jerkers in this group, but not nearly so many as yesterday’s selections, which was a nice change.
I know I said that there were fewer sad stories today, but the first one I read this morning almost killed me. “Room 42” looks at what might happen if everyone just stopped aging and dying and giving birth. What I love about this story is that D.K. Cassidy keeps it relatively small and personal, exploring the issues presented by immortality by examining the lives of Vivian, Vivian’s daughter Jenna, and Vivian’s mother Janice. All three women are trapped in different stages of life, facing different challenges, and they represent a kind of microcosm (albeit an imperfect one) of what the world is going through. “Room 42” explores multiple themes that are common to this subgenre of speculative fiction—suicide, euthanasia, loss of hope and purpose, the ennui that accompanies eternity—and though Cassidy is hardly breaking new ground here, it’s a nicely written story that handles these ideas with intelligence and sensitivity and without becoming too maudlin.
“Between Screens” isn’t the worst story I’ve read in this collection so far, but it’s certainly not for me. It’s about a 14-year-old boy who moves with his mother from Earth to what I gather is a series of connected space stations after the death of his father makes it so they can’t afford to live on the planet any longer. He struggles to fit in at first, but he soon makes a friend and meets a manic pixie dream girl (ugh) and before he knows it, he’s fully assimilated into the bleak, vaguely cyberpunk teen culture of the stations. This could have been worse, but I’m a little too much of an adult woman to be anything but bored by the adventures of miscreant teenagers.
Although space chess is never a terribly original idea for a story, I rather liked Curtis C. Chen’s “Zugwang.” While he definitely dwells a little too much on his heroine’s insecurities about her body, and things are tied up a little too neatly at the end of the tale, it was solid enough to get me to read his other two stories.
“Making Waves” is a Lovecraft-influenced piece that has a lot of potential, but never quite manages to capture the tone of creeping horror that characterizes the best Lovecraftian tales. Its best ideas are actually its characters—Hatcher in particular has a very compelling story—and its WWII naval setting. There’s enough story seeds here to carry a novel, and I think the characters could definitely benefit from more room to grow.
I kind of hate the very boring and undescriptive title of “Laddie Come Home,” but the actual story is the best of Chen’s three in this collection. The thing that I think holds it back from greatness, though, is its almost naively optimistic view of a frankly terrifying picture of a possible future where corporations have access to some pretty frightening technology. I just can’t help but find the limited AI, Laddie’s, manipulation of a child to be kind of sinister, but that doesn’t seem to be Chen’s intention and the story ends on a hopeful note. I also found the messaging—a little Asian girl’s oppressive, patriarchal family won’t let her learn about computers, so she needs to be rescued by a Western corporation so she can be a programmer for them—to be very strange.
“Agents of Change” is about time traveling agents working for an intentionally sinister-seeming machine AI, who sends them back in time to protect Harriet Tubman and change history. I feel as if this story is meant to have some big ideas, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what they are or why I as a reader am supposed to care about them. It’s a story where very little actually happens, and none of it seems to mean anything.
The three selections by Liz Colter are all amazing world building exercises that make her hands down my favorite author out of today’s ten. “The Ties That Bind, the Chains That Break” tells the story of Jerusha, a bi-gender messenger in a fantasy world on the cusp of a revolution. It’s another story that almost begs to be given a novel-length treatment. “Echoes” is a near-perfectly written story about a man with a fascinating and unique magic that lets him syphon the echoes of other people’s feelings and distill them into potions. “The Clouds in Her Eyes” is my least favorite of Colter’s group of stories, but mostly just because I would have liked just a little more background so that the conclusion of the story could occur more organically instead of feeling as if it’s just a chunk of exposition that summarizes a much longer story than what appears here.
“Last Transaction” is a very clever story about identity theft, told as a series of interactions with a computer. I found it riveting and a very fast read, though a little light on real substance. It was definitely a neat sort of “what if” story, but it didn’t have much to say for itself.
In “The God Whisperer,” we learn that a tiny war god makes a terrible pet. I laughed out loud more than once.
“Strange Attractors,” “The Egg,” and “Ships in the Night” all explore, in different ways, romantic relationships, from a centuries-long love between two people whose desires aren’t always in sync to a young couple dealing with the challenges of cancer to the aborted affair between an immortal and a woman who can see the future. These are very short stories that deal with big ideas about time and change and the resilience of love in compelling fashions. “The Egg” is somewhat forgettable, but “Strange Attractors” and “Ships in the Night” are standout pieces.
“Jane” and “Broken Glass” are both stories that turn out to not be what they seem at first, and with mixed success. I loved the twist in “Jane,” which is a pretty delightful little zombie story of sorts, but “Broken Glass” left me a little cold with its somewhat cloying and ultimately unsatisfying conclusion. I tried to read Dunlap’s “Bookburners” story as well, but found it hard to get into, though it’s interesting enough that I may seek out the rest of the series and come back to it later. I’m not hugely into urban fantasy of any kind, but “Bookburners” reminds me a little bit (in tone, anyway) of Matt Wallace’s Sin du Jour series, which I love, so it could be a fun thing to check out at a later date. No hurry though, to be honest.
Without knowing anything at all about S.K. Dunstall or her (their, I suppose) novel, Linesman, I found this excerpt to be moderately interesting, although I have no idea what the “lines” are supposed to be. They seem like space magic, which I usually hate unless it’s really well-conceived. Sadly, after reading the book’s description and glancing through some reviews of it on Goodreads and Amazon, I can’t say I am impressed or excited by it.
The only authors in this group whose work I’m truly likely to seek out more of are D.K. Cassidy and Liz Colter. The rest range from “mildly interesting but ultimately forgettable” to “probably actually bad.”