Monday, February 22, 2016

A Review of Joe Hill's "The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015"

Before we proceed, let me briefly issue a plan of attack for the next few months' worth of activity on this blog.  There are two novels that I'm very anxious to write about: Revival and Finders Keepers (the former because I feel as if I didn't give the novel a fair assessment when I read/reviewed it upon its release, and the latter because I have not yet written a review of any kind on it here and would like to do so in an attempt to not have the blog continue to feel unbalanced in some self-centered way).  Ideally, I'd like to cross both of those off the list before May, when the new Joe Hill novel (The Fireman) is published.  June will bring King's new novel, End of Watch, so I'd like to be back on track by then, and afterward be in good position to return to a semi-regular rotation of exploring King novels, stories, and movies.
Good plan!  Let's see if I can stick to it.  I'm not always great at that.  But it's always worth having a target: not having one removes the possibility of missing, but it also removes the possibility of hitting, and I'd like to hit.
I've got some other stuff I'd like to polish off prior to getting back to Revival, however: a couple of posts on Joe Hill and Owen King, who have both published things that I've missed in the past twelve months or so.  I'm a fan of both writers, and the fact that I've had some of their stuff sitting to the side for a while is unacceptable to me.  Therefore, in addition to this post, you can look for one covering Owen King's Intro to Alien Invasion (as well as a few other bits 'n' bobs) soon.
In any case, let's get that target officially pinned to the wall, and start taking a few shots at it, beginning with:
Houghton Mifflin introduced a new spinoff to their Best American Short Stories line last year with the first-ever edition of The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy.  My knee-jerk reaction was to be a bit grumpy about the fact that the two genres have been mixed for the purposes of this anthology, but series editor John Joseph Adams has anticipated the reaction of kids like me who prefer that their corn and their potatoes not touch: his introduction makes a compelling argument for mixing the two.  By that I mean science fiction and fantasy, not corn and potatoes.  Nobody will ever be able to sway me on that topic, because nothing should contain even trace amounts of corn juice except for corn.  No offense to corn or the juices produced by cooking it; I feel the same about all cooked vegetables and their various moistures.  Keep that shit away from my other foods, please.  
John Joseph Adams would powerless to convince me I am wrong about this, but on the subject of mixing sci-fi and fantasy in an anthology, he's much more successful.  He refers to the combination of the two as SF / F, and for the purposes of this review, so shall we.
Adams read several thousand SF / F stories during the preparation for this project, and whittled it down to a list of eighty tales that he then passed along to the year's guest editor, Joe Hill.  He gave Hill the eighty stories in a blind-ballot manner, meaning that Hill read the stories without the benefit of knowing who had written them.  Hill then selected the twenty he felt rose the farthest to the top, and voila, Houghton Mifflin (under their Mariner imprint) had themselves an anthology.
I'm going to read and briefly discuss each story in turn, but first, a few words about Hill's introduction, "Launching Rockets."  It's a mere five pages, but those five pages are superb.  Stephen King fans will probably know that King is very good at writing introductions to other people's works.  Not all traits and talents pass from father to son, but this one seems to have done so, because Hill is just as good at it as his daddy.  Maybe even better.
My inclination is to simply retype the entire introduction and occasionally interject with a worthless comment such as "That's awesome!" or "Me too!" or "If you aren't a Joe Hill fan then you are a fool, a FOOL I say!" but I feel as if that would get old quickly.
Instead, I'll simply give you the first two paragraphs:
Wonder is a blasting cap.  It is an emotion that goes off with a bang, shattering settled beliefs, rattling the architecture of the mind, and clearing space for new ideas, new possibilities.  Wonder is often thought of as a peaceful emotion, a sense of resounding inner quiet.  Of course we would associate it with silence.  The world always assumed an eerie hush after an explosion.
     Awe is TNT for the soul.
He goes on in that vein for five pages.  Ol' Joe Hill is somethin' else, boy.  If you aren't a Joe Hill fan then you are a fool, a FOOL I say.  Hill also makes a solid case for the intermingling of sci-fi and fantasy, and if it's good enough for Joe Hill then I guess it's good enough for me.  (By the way, here is a link to a wonderful article wherein Adams and Hill each make their choices for the top ten SF / F stories of all time.  I've actually a few, and should stop fooling around and read the rest.  Also, those two should expand the stories to twenty and put out an anthology.)
We won't be explicitly be talking about Hill as we cover these twenty stories, but I suspect his guiding hand will be felt all the same, and I suppose we'll implicitly be judging his ability to recommend stories of wonder and awe.  Let's see how he does, beginning with:
"How to Get Back to the Forest" by Sofia Samatar
(originally published in Lightspeed Magazine)
She gave the stars the finger.  The silhouette of her hand stood out against the bright.  I gave the stars the finger, too.  I was this shitty, disgusting kid with a lamp and a plaque for parents but I was there with Cee and the time was exactly now.  It was like there was a beautiful starry place we'd never get into -- didn't deserve to get into -- but at the same time we were better than any brightness.  Two sick girls underneath the stars.
Oh, fuck.  What kind of a mistake have I made, agreeing to read this book?  I'll tell you: an awful one.  Unless every other story in this book sucks ass, there is simply no way I'm not going to be responding to reading it by doing crazy things like buying authors' novels, buying authors' collections, subscribing to magazines, writing blog posts at my sci-fi blog (Where No Blog Has Gone Before) with greater frequency, etc.  There's no way I've got time for that shit!  No fucking way is my life going to accommodate a profound resurgence of interest in modern sci-fi like that.
And yet, if there are stories like "How to Get Back to the Forest" out there, and if there are authors like Sofia Samatar writing them, then what Christing choice am I going to have?  I'll tell you: none at all.
So already, this blog post is a wonderful disaster.  Thanks a lot, Sofia Samatar and Joe Hill and John Joseph Adams!  You sonsabitches clearly want me to have to pick a few television shows and give 'em up forever, and by God, you're probably gonna get your wish.  I hope you're happy!
Anyways, yeah, "How to Get Back to the Forest" is fucking awesome.  It's about a girl who maybe loved another girl when the two of them were at camp together, except this is seemingly in the future when people are maybe outfitted with internal bugs of some sort that do or don't control and/or regulate certain aspects of their lives, or their personalities, or both, or neither.  You can puke them up if you try hard enough, assuming they exist at all, and the jury is sort of out on that.  
Truth be told, I don't entirely know what in THE HELL is going on in "How to Get Back to the Forest," and if you want to know whether that matters or not, I'll tell you: it doesn't.  The emotion of this story is what matters, and it is plentiful and strong.  Some readers might feel alienated by Samatar's approach, and if you're the sort of reader who wants to know what everything means in concrete terms, then you're apt to be among them.  But let go of that and consider something: if you wrote a memoir set in your own existence, would you take the time to explain your iPhone to the people you thought might read it?  Would you explain Facebook to them, or would you simply say that you got a new friend request, accepted it, but later decided your new friend sort of annoyed you and opted to unfollow them so that their rantings didn't show up in your newsfeed anymore?
I think we know the answer to that.  So why would the narrator of "How to Get Back to the Forest" explain the things she takes as a day-in-and-day-out function of her life?  She wouldn't, and if we expect it to, then we expect her to be telling us a fiction and not the truth.  That this story is a fiction is beside the point; it isn't a fiction to the girl/woman who is telling it.
And in one fell gesture, Sofia Samatar has conjured a fiction that rings unmistakably true.
This might not be for everyone, but it damn sure is for me.  Pardon me while I go visit her website and/or Wikipedia page and prepare to put some books in a shopping cart somewhere.  Goddammit.

"Help Me Follow My Sister Into the Land of the Dead
by Carmen Maria Machado
(originally published in Help Fund My Robot Army!!! & Other Improbable Crowdfunding Projects)

How did your parents die?  You know how there was that SUV recall recently, because the brakes in some of their cars were failing for no reason, causing a series of high-profile, deadly accidents?  I wish that was how they died.  No, my father shot my mother through her left eye and then turned the gun on himself.  Nobody knows why.

This wry, amusing, and ultimately moving story is told in the form of a Kickstarter page, and originally appeared in an entire anthology -- edited by John Joseph Adams, by the way -- of stories told in that manner.  I don't believe I would want to read an entire anthology of stories told as Kickstarter pages, but I enjoyed reading this particular one, and have bookmarked Machado's website for further persual.

So yes, that's a recommendation.

"Tortoiseshell Cats Are Not Refundable" by Cat Rambo
(originally published in Clarkesworld Magazine)

"It doesn't pay to get attached," she'd said.  Her dry eyes infuriated him even further.  She'd hugged her arms to herself and returned his angry stare.

In which a fella clones his mother's dead cat as a gift for her, and then signs up to be a beta-tester of a human clone.

There's a lot of implicit horror in this story, though little of it is focused on in a horrific manner.  This, perhaps, is the line of demarcation between science fiction and horror.  Nevertheless, as I read the story I did so with my sixteen-year-old (non-tortoiseshell) cat Duncan Idaho sitting in my lap contentedly, and I found myself wondering if I would pay somebody to clone him after he died.  I never quite came to a conclusion on that, because I sidetracked myself by considering what my reaction would be when I inevitably discovered that this new Duncan Idaho -- you Dune fans are chuckling right about now, aren't you? -- had a completely different personality than the old one.  Because of course he would: my Duncan's personality is partially the product of genetics, but I believe it is largely the product of his life having been lived in the manner in which he has lived it, meaning his interactions with me, with the roommates I had when he was a young cat, the dog we had when he was young, the cats I got (and whom he has mostly outlived) since, and so forth.  THAT'S Duncan Idaho; genetics only puts him on the path to being Duncan.  So the new Duncan wouldn't be the same thing, and I would know it right off the bat.

And yet, he'd probably still be cute and kind of a butthole, and therefore eminently worthwhile.

How would that translate to a human being?  Well, that's a heck of a question, isn't it?

Three stories in, and it's becoming evident that Hill (and/or Adams) has put a decided emphasis on the human in choosing his stories of the fantastic.  Will this collection include any proper hard-sci-fi stories?  There is certainly no mandate that it do so, but I'm curious to find out.

Almost forgot: this story is very good.

"The Bad Graft" by Karen Russell
(originally published in The New Yorker)

Before starting the ascent, each pauses to admire the plant that is the park's namesake.  The Joshua trees look hilariously alien.  Like Satan's telephone poles.  They're primitive, irregularly limbed, their branches swooning up and down, sparsely covered with syringe-thin leaves -- more like spines, Angie notes.  Some mature trees have held their insane poses for a thousand years; they look as if they were on drugs and hallucinating themselves.

A wistfully romantic anti-romantic drama about a couple whose ill-advised love affair is, depending on your point of view, ruined or deepened by virtue of one of them being possessed by the spirit of a Joshua tree.  I'd be curious to know whether Joe Hill considered this story to be science fiction or fantasy.  Either way, he must have considered it to be awesome.

You and me both, Joe.

"A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai'i" by Alaya Dawn Johnson
(originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction)
He is waiting for a response.  She forces herself to nod.  She wants to close her eyes and cover her mouth, keep all her love for him inside where it can be safe, because if she loses it, there will be nothing left but a girl in the rain who should have opened the door.

Kind of like Twilight in that it's a story of a woman's love for a vampire, but kind of unlike Twilight in that it is well-written and full of actual emotions.

I used to have a subscription to F&SF years ago.  I'm thinking I should reup on that.

"Each to Each" by Seanan McGuire
(originally published in Lightspeed Magazine)

I drag myself up the short flight of stairs between the hallways and the front of the ship (and why do they still build these things with staggered hearts, knowing what's been done to us, knowing what it yet to be done?) and join my crew.  A hundred and twenty of us, all told, and less than half standing on our feet.  The rest sit compacted in wheelchairs, or bob gently as the water beneath the chamber shifts, their heads and shoulders protruding through the holes cut in the floor.  There is something strange and profoundly unprofessional about seeing the captain speak with the heads and shoulders of wet-suited women sticking up around her feet like mushrooms growing from the omnipresent damp.

In this one, we journey to a not-too-terribly-distant future in which deep-sea exploration and colonization has become a big deal.  One of the means of accomplishing that: women who are transformed into hybrids of the human/icthyic variety.  "Mermaids," if you will.

This one didn't do much for me.  There are some interesting ideas, but they seem to have not entirely found expression in an actual story.  It's not bad, though; and anyways, putting the ideas ahead of the story is a sci-fi tradition.

"Ogres of East Africa" by Sofia Samatar
(originally published in Long Hidden)

My face still burns from the sting of her regard.

Another winner from Sofia Samatar, this interestingly-structured story takes the form of a sort of field-journal in which a tour guide working for a wealthy colonialist-type guy catalogs the, uh, ogres of East Africa.  He has the help of a local woman in doing so.  His log entries become increasingly concerned with her, and part of the fun of the story is in watching how and to what degree Samatar will break her self-imposed format with each subsequent entry.

Good stuff.

"Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology
by Theodora Goss
(originally published in Lightspeed Magazine)
We dream countries, and then those countries dream us.  And it seems to me, sitting here by the window, looking into a garden filled with roses, listening to one of the thousand fountains of this ancient city, that as much as I have dreamed Cimmeria, it has dreamed me.

A few things about this story:

  • It is terrific.  It's about . . . well, I don't want to say much, since this is a story that ought to be experienced moreso than explained.  But I'll settle for saying that it's about a team of anthropologists who, as a seminar, invent Cimmeria, which then comes into being, prompting them to pay it a visit.  More than that, I will not say.
  • I read it thinking that Cimmeria was invented by Robert E. Howard for the Conan stories, and was a bit confused as to how the anthropology students could claim to have invented it.  Then, I Googled Cimmeria, and apparently it was actually a real place?  AND a fictional place?  I'm confused.  And yet, this does not diminish my enjoyment of the story.
  • This is the eight story in this anthology, and the third to have originally appeared in Lightspeed Magazine.  This seems to be a cause for a subscription.  It only exists digitally, which is a bummer; but since my lack of subscribing to magazines for the better part of the nineties and aughts is at least part of the reason why there aren't that many print magazines, I feel as if I'd be a king-size douche for complaining that I can't get a print edition of Lightspeed.
  • Eight stories in, and I'd say that I've loved at least six of the stories, liked one of the others, and appreciated the other.  Not bad.  If that ratio keeps up, then this is going to turn out to be a fucking phenomenal anthology.
"Sleeper" by Jo Walton
(originally published at
Matthew believes that he is in his flat in Bloomsbury, and that his telephone rings, although actually of course he is a simulation and it would be better not to consider too closely the question of exactly where he is.  He answers his phone.  It is Essie calling.  All biographers, all writers, long to be able to call their subjects and talk to them, ask them the questions they left unanswered.  That is what Stanley would think Essie wants, if he knew she was accessing Matthew's simulation tonight -- either that or that she was checking whether the simulation was ready to release.  If he finds out, that is what she will tell him she was doing.  But she isn't exactly doing either of those things.  She knows Matthew's secrets, even the ones he never told anybody and which she didn't put in the book.  And she is using a phone to call him that cost her a lot of money, an illegal phone that isn't connected to anything.  That phone is where Matthew is, insofar as he is anywhere.
Here's one that I ended up liking a lot.  I liked it initially, then became uncertain about halfway through thanks to being uncertain about a certain aspect of the plot; but my uncertainty about that plot point was addressed quite nicely by story's end, so ultimately, I dug this one.
It's about a biographer in the future, who creates a sort of AI simulation of her subject.  Is there more to it than that?  You bet there is.

"How the Marquis Got His Coat Back" by Neil Gaiman
(originally published in Rogues)
"You even scream sarcastically," said the Elephant.

Let's not belabor the point, but I feel an intense stab of regret every time I realize I'm not a devoted Neil Gaiman reader.  Or, at the very least, every time I realize that I've not given Neil Gaiman a fair opportunity to turn me into a devoted Neil Gaiman reader.  I'm sure I'd enjoy reading him devotedly.  I take it on faith that I would; people whose opinion I trust have assured me that I would, therefore I assume it to be so.

But I have not, as yet, made the effort (as I've written elsewhere on several occasions).  Someday, perhaps.

In any case, this story neither speeds nor delays that day's arrival: it was enjoyable, but it was not a game-changer.

I don't have much more to say about it than that, so instead, let's briefly consider a different topic: the fact that Neil Gaiman is British, but has a story in The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2015.  And before we proceed, please don't assume that what's about to come next is some sort of embarrassingly nerdy sci-fi nationalism.  Ick.  Not from me, one hopes.

Instead, I'm simply intrigued by the notion that in titling a series "The Best American" something, one must then immediately set about trying to define what makes that thing American or not.

In his foreword, John Joseph Adams devotes a paragraph to this consideration (among others):

The stories chosen for this anthology were originally published between January 2014 and December 2014.  The technical criteria for consideration are (1) original publication in a nationally distributed American or Canadian publication (that is, periodicals, collections, or anthologies, in print, online, or as an ebook); (2) publication in English by writers who are American or Canadian or who have made the United States their home; (3) publication as text (audiobooks, podcasts, dramatizations, interactive works, and other forms of fiction are not considered); (4) original publication as short fiction (excerpts of novels are not knowingly considered); (5) length of 17,499 words or less; (6) at least loosely categorized as science fiction or fantasy; (7) publication by someone other than the author (self-published works are not eligible); and (8) publication as on original work of the author (not part of a media tie-in / licensed fiction program).

This is the sort of thing that fascinates me.  Therefore, we are now going to pause for a bit and consider these criteria.  Know in advance that I agree that each of these points is at least somewhat valid, and that if I were constructing an anthology, I would almost certainly use many of them.  That doesn't mean there isn't an argument against them, though, so allow me to argue; in some cases, I'm merely playing devil's advocate, but in others, not so much.

(1)  Correct me if I'm wrong, but Canadian isn't American.  Unless you mean "North American," in which case the title might have been adjusted accordingly.  Not a big point, though; I tend to assume that the secret, unstated title of most anthologies like this is The Best English-Language so-forth-and-so-on.  But it begs the question: why should Canadians be permitted in and English-writing Mexicans  or Bolivians not be?  North America is fine, but South America isn't?

(2)  So if that hypothetical Bolivian decided to move to Iowa, she would make the cut?  Does she have to be a citizen?  If not, what's the criteria to determine whether she makes the United States her home?  What if she was ninety years old, and effectively had been a Bolivian for the better part of a century?  Is she still American by virtue of deciding on a change of scenery?  Would her writing reflect that relocation as ably as her mailing address would?  Please understand that none of this actually matters to me.  However, in determining who does and who doesn't count as "American" for the purposes of an anthology, isn't a certain murkiness in the waters a near-certainty?  Neil Gaiman strikes me as being rather profoundly British, and while I would not in any way wish to imply that that fact means he is unable to also -- and simultaneously -- be American, I have to wonder: why bother making this anthology series "American" at all?  My guess is that it's to help narrow the focus a bit both for the editor(s) and for readers.  But if that's the case, it's clear that Adams (and Hill) wished not to actually be very strict in terms of their definitions of Americanness, which brings me back to the original question: why bother at all?

(3)  This seems unnecessarily restrictive to me, but at the same time, I understand why it's used as a criterion, and would do so myself.  However, I believe I would be willing to consider at least some stories which had originated in one of those media, provided that the author and/or publisher provided me with a prose text.  I mean, think about it: what if Octavia Butler wrote a story, then published it as an audiobook exclusive.  Would it be the right decision to automatically eliminate it from consideration as one of the year's best sci-fi stories?  That would be silly.  But it makes sense from an editorial point of view.  By eliminating those forms of "publication," it means you can avoid doubling or tripling your work-load in terms of consuming stories during the consideration process.  However, I think it might be preferable to dedicate assistant readers to the task of consuming stories in those media, and passing along to the main editors only those stories which make the cut.  Then, in order for the stories to be considered for the anthology, prose versions would have to be supplied to the editors.

(4)  That one, I agree with 100%

(5)  So if a story clocks in at 17,506 words, it's fucked?  Why 17,499 instead of 17,500 or 18,000 or 17,000?  I agree that a length standard of some sort has to be in place, and I've got no issue with 17,499 being the benchmark.  I'm just curious as to how that became the number.

(6)  I guess that makes sense.  The means by which one determines whether that criterion has been met is another topic altogether, and one which fascinates me.

(7)  I completely support and understand the idea that most self-published works shouldn't be considered.  However, what it Harlan Ellison self-published a story, and it was generally considered to be the best thing he'd ever written?  That story would be eliminated from consideration?  That seems like a shame.  Obviously, the odds of that happening are slim; but never say never.  And also, let's not assume that a self-published work is beneath consideration.  Most of them would be, but there actually is such a thing as diamonds in the rough.  It'd be a real shame to say you're never going to even consider giving a self-published author consideration.

(8)  Again, I get why you'd use this as a rule.  I doubt there are many tie-in stories that would even make the grade for consideration, much less actual selection.  But consider for a moment: there is a deep and rich tradition in short genre fiction of writing pastiches.  Lovecraftian fiction, for example.  I think a question begs to be asked: if a short story uses Cthulhu as an idea, what makes it inherently more valid than a short story set on the starship Enterprise?  I'm not arguing that licensed Star Trek fiction actually IS automatically worthwhile in terms of anthology-selection criteria, nor am I arguing that any of the chosen stories in this anthology emerged from a tradition such as Lovecraft's mythos.  I'm simply saying that if you state right up front that tie-in stories can NEVER be considered for an anthology like this, I think you're being needlessly exclusionary, probably just because you don't want to read a bunch of Halo stories.  And I get that.  But you might want to leave yourself some wiggle-room just in case a truly marvelous story emerges out of that mire at some point in the future, because hey, you never know.

"Windows" by Susan Palwick
(originally published in Asimov's Science Fiction)

And when it gets completely dark she'll peer up through the window and try to make out stars.  Sometimes she can see them.  She can't remember if there's a moon tonight, but she'll look for that, too.  Vangie feels like she has to look, because Graham can't.  He doesn't get to see the night sky anymore.

I enjoyed this one quite a bit.  It's a simple story, in some ways: it's the story of a woman going to visit her son in prison, but with a sci-fi angle that I'd rather not reveal.  This is not to imply that there is a plot twist or anything like that (there isn't), but simply to imply that there's no need for me to tell you more than that.  If you ever read the story, you can find out for yourself just how little there is to it.

And I say that not to imply that the story is a weak or unworthy.  See, here's the deal: sometimes, it's fine for short stories to just sort of get in and get out quick, and do a good job of being what they are, whatever that is.  In this story, Palwick's aims seem fairly simple: she wants to talk about a mother taking a somewhat unfortunate bus ride to see her incarcerated son.  But it's in the future.

There's more to it than that, of course, but for the most part, this is a slice-of-life story.  Short stories are well-qualified to be that, so I'm happy to see a few of 'em in this anthology.

"The Thing About Shapes to Come" by Adam-Troy Castro
(originally published in Lightspeed Magazine)

This story is fucking GREAT, and I refuse to tell you a damn thing about it other than that.  Best story in the collection?  We'll see, but it gets my vote for now.

Another one from Lightspeed, by the way.  Pretty sure I'm going to subscribe to that, even if there is no print edition.  They deserve my money.

"We Are the Cloud" by Sam J. Miller
(originally published in Lightspeed Magazine)

Arm flab jiggled as she fanned herself.  Mom is happy in her fat.  Heroin kept her skinny; crack gave her lots of exercise.  For her. obesity is a brightly-colored sign that says NOT ADDICTED ANYMORE.  Her man keeps her fed; this is what makes someone a Good Man.  Brakes screamed as a downtown train pulled into the station.

I was a little resistant to this story, which is about a very large semi-retarded teenage boy/man who falls in love with a new white guy who lands in his foster-placement home.  What follows is a tale of gay porn abandonment, and revenge.  The sci-fi element comes courtesy of the protagonists having clod-ports installed in their brains for reasons that were not immediately apparent to me.  I believe it has something to do with this being the future and people's brains being rented out either as cloud-storage space or as extra processing power.  Maybe both.  I'm not if the story failed to clarify these points or if I failed to pay enough attention.  Let's assume the fault is mine.

As I said, I was a bit resistant to the story, but by the time it had ended I'd decided this was another of those cases where I felt the sci-fi was amplified and legitimized by virtue of how matter-of-factly it was presented by the story's narrator (for whom it isn't science fiction at all but a mere fact of life).

A good story, and if your life experiences lean you in the direction of this all having a more personal connection to you than it had to me, I'd say it'll work for you even more.

"The Blue Afternoon That Lasted Forever" by Daniel H. Wilson
(originally published in Carbide Tipped Pens)
My goal was to create a scenario in which we could gaze at the stars together every night before we went to sleep.  I am interested in astrophysics.  She was interested in romantic gestures.  It was my hypothesis that sleeping under the stars would satisfy both constraints.

From the author of Robopocalypse comes a tale that had me quite teary-eyed by the end.  Not telling you what it's about.  Nope.  But I will say that it reminded me a bit of Stephen King's story "Graduation Afternoon."

I will also say that this is definitely a hard-sci-fi story, so I can check that off the list.

"Skullpocket" by Nathan Ballingrud
(originally published in Nightmare Carnival)
Jonathan Wormcake, the Gentleman Corpse of Hob's Landing, greets me at the door himself.  Normally one of his several servants would perform this minor duty, and I can only assume it's my role as a priest in the Church of the Maggot that affords me this special attention.  I certainly don't believe it has anything to do with our first encounter, fifty years ago this very day.  I'd be surprised if he remembers that at all.

Here's another one that I was resistant to initially, but in this case, I ended up loving the story rather than merely appreciating it.  It's a story about ghouls, children, carnival freaks, robots, and diplomacy (of a sort) between disparate groups.  It's got a bit of a Tim Burtony vibe to it, although that's a very shallow way of describing the story, and isn't ultimately very useful or accurate.  It's also a bit Bradburian, and maybe even a bit like something Joe Hill might write.

Those comparisons are designed to give you a bit of a sense of what the story is like without telling you much of anything about it.  It's a story that continues to unfold, flowerlike, as it progresses; and I'm reluctant to step on that by telling you anything much about the plot.

Oh, the amount of reading this anthology is tempting me to undertake...!

"I Can See Right Through You" by Kelly Link
(originally published in McSweeny's Quarterly Concern)
Two girls and, look, they've found a Ouija board.  They make a list of questions.  One girl is pretty.  One girl is not really a part of this story.  She's lost her favorite sweater.  Her fingertips on the planchette.  Two girls, each touching, lightly, the planchette.  Is anyone here?  Where did I put my blue sweater?  Will anyone ever love me?  Things like that.

I've read a small handful of stories by Kelly Link.  I actually met her at a con years ago (circa 2001).  She was delightful.  I bought a copy of her then-current book Stranger Things Happen, and I've still not read it.  I say that to illustrate what a piece of shit I am.  Here I've got this probably-wonderful book by a certainly-wonderful writer sitting on my shelf, and can I be bothered to read it?  No.  Years pass, and still it's a no.  I know for a fact I've read a few Star Trek novels during that time, too, so folks, I'm afraid there is simply no doubt about it: I am a worthless pile of garbage.

I hope I can make amends for the sorry state of my existence by actually reading Stranger Things Happen soon, and I'd say I'm likely to follow that up by blindly purchasing whatever else I can find by Kelly Link that has appeared in the interim.  That'll be a step in the right direction as it relates to not-being-a-sack-of-shitdom.

Anyways, "I Can See Right Through You" is wonderful.  Just absolutely wonderful!  I'm not sure it's my favorite story in the book, but by now, there are several strong candidates for that honor, and it's clear that not winning that distinction is no automatic knock on a story's quality.

"I Can See Right Through You" is essentially the story of two actors who appeared in a romantic vampire film long ago, and who have gotten older but still have many of the same problems they've had for decades.  If you want to know more than that, I leave the discovery of that knowledge to you.

"The Empties" by Jess Row
(originally published in The New Yorker)
You will know from my lack of an establishing quotation that I was annoyed by this story, which seemingly takes place after some sort of apocalypse and involves a library or something.

It's about twenty pages, and I gave it five before slinging open the hangar door of the airplane and parachuting back to the surface.  It's the type of story in which the author feels it is acceptable to forgo quotation marks around dialogue, and to then also be so vague with his pronoun usage that by the time five pages had elapsed I was still not 100% sure whether the story was in first-person or not.  If you're going to write with that sort of stylistic bent, you'd better be a writer I already care about.  If you are (if you are, say, Alan Moore) then you can get away with it, because I know you and I trust you and I am willing to give you the time it requires to parse the meanings.

If you are NOT describable as such, then you are wasting my time trying to be cute instead of simply telling me a story.  You want to impress me; you want me to know that you have a unique mastery of form and perspective.  I want you to know that I could be doing something better with my time, such as watching an episode of The Wire (I finally started watching it this week), or reading the next story in this book, or sleeping.

You have not earned my patience, Jess Row.

Perhaps those with a bit more patience to spare will be enchanted by this story, but I couldn't be bothered.

"The One They Took Before" by Kelly Sandoval
(originally published in Shimmer Magazine)

Kayla reads the listing twice, knowing the eager beating of her heart is ridiculous.  One page back, someone claims they found a time machine.  Someone else has apparently lost their kidneys.

In which a woman who has been kidnapped by fairies (or something like that) and returned reads a lot of Craiglist ads and whatnot.  Not a bad story, but it's another one that is much more focused on being poetically impactful than on telling a story.  This story has talking cats that never talk, and may not actually BE talking cats; it's hard to be sure.  Dear story, please be vague on someone else's time, because I have other things to do.

I'm being awfully dismissive lately, aren't I?  Sorry about that, but I guess the odds of liking every story in an anthology are never good.

"The Relive Box" by T.C. Boyle
(originally published in The New Yorker)

The room was a mess.  The next day was the day the maid came, so I was standing amid the debris of the past week, a healthy percentage of it -- abandoned sweat socks, energy-drink cans, crumpled foil pouches that had once contained biscotti, popcorn, or Salami Bites -- generated by the child standing there before me.  "I don't like your sarcasm," I said.

This one is about a sad-sack single father who is vying with his teenage daughter for time on the Relive Box, a gadget that allows the user to relive previous memories by means of them being projected onto his or her eyeballs.  Do you suppose this leads a grown man to obsess over things his younger self did, and even get so bad about it that he stays up all night and ends up an hour and a half late for work?  Rely on it.

I enjoyed reading this one.  I felt like it didn't amount to much in the end, though: it was a good idea and excellent final line in search of an actual story.  This is something Black Mirror did in much more interesting fashion in the final episode of its first season, by the way.

"How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps" by A. Merc Rustad
(originally published in Scigentasy)
Everyone knows you can't be in love with a robot.
This story is a second-person exploration of what it might be like for a person who identifies as "robot" to fall in love with a robot and think about killing themself a lot while having to deal with getting evicted and whatnot.
It's been building for a while now.  I think this story finally put me over the op: I believe I am now officially a grumpy old man.
I wrote about seven different version of the remainder of this section, but and have deleted them all.  They were all intolerant in one way or another, and I just would rather not (even though I'm going to in a few paragraphs anyways).  Infer what you want from all of this.  And get off my damn lawn, you kids, with your hula hoops and your Zima and your Dan Fogelberg and your identity politics.  I'm not into any of it.
That said, this is an okay read.  It's rather self-indulgent, but at times is emotionally rich, and comes to a satisfying conclusion.  I can't honestly say I liked it, but maybe that has more to do with me than with the story itself.  I'm not willing to concede that point outright, but I'll happily consider it.
All of this brings to mind something Joe Hill has to say in his introduction:
I am also pleased that the finished collection organically arose as one of great diversity.  Whatever your sexual orientation, whatever your ethnicity, whatever your age or personal experiences, it is my hope you will find a hero somewhere here you can relate to, that speaks to the world as you see it.  Even better: there is a good chance you will find some heroes here who are deeply, fundamentally different from yourself.  I don't have much patience with readers who yearn to explore incredible worlds and mind-bending situations but grow cold at the idea of imagining their way into different political ideas, different faiths, a different gender, a different skin, a different life.
I can't find much fault in what Hill says here, but I confess to feeling a bit as though I'm being preached to, and I don't necessarily find that a rewarding experience.  Am I necessarily an -ist of some sort if I respond to a story like this one with an annoyed shrug?  Do I HAVE to simply accept the notion that in the future (if not in the present, which we've established actually kind of IS the future), people are going to be able to "identify as robots" and the rest of us are going to have to simply be okay with it?  Never mind that we don't actually think those people shouldn't theoretically be allowed to behave as robots or love robots.  For me, it's a terminology problem on the one hand and an assault on my sensibilities on the other, and I say "assault" because I simply don't believe that somebody who wishes to call themselves a robot should be allowed to ask the rest of the world to agree upon a lie merely to enable their sense of self-worth.  Is your sense of self-worth so low that you need it to be bolstered by the rest of the world?  If so, that seems like a problem, and the argument could be made that your insistence upon my falling in line with your narcissistic crusade is an invasive and belligerent one.
Also, at what point does the increasingly-incessant push for diversity become something other than a push for diversity?  Personally, I'd be a lot more inclined to accept diversity if it would simply be diverse.  I don't need or want you to give yourself a slow-clap for how diverse you're being.  Just BE diverse.  The fact that there's a constant need to praise how diverse diversity is indicates to me that diversity isn't the actual agenda: self-congratulation is.
And here's the thing: maybe I'm wrong.  Whatever -isms I might or might not be guilty of, I'm willing to be shown the error of my ways, and I'm willing to recalibrate my notions about what degree of acceptance I should show in certain cases.  Reading vibrant pieces of fiction is probably one of the most likely means by which that would happen.
I just don't think "How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps" is all that vibrant.  It's okay.  I think that's all it is, though.  I feel like it's maybe a wee bit self-indulgent, though, and in the end that's just not what I'm looking for in a story.  Give me a similar story on the same subject written by some of the other authors in this collection -- by which I mean "written in the manner in which they write," by which I mean with their emphasis on (and skill with) character, plot, perspective, and prose -- and I suspect I'd have a different reaction.  Hell, I feel certain of it.
In other words, I feel a bit as if Joe Hill is judging me, and I'm not sure I like the ruling he's delivered.  It feels a bit as if he's driven to the top of a hill expressly so that he can look down at me, and pronounce me to be a problem if I don't agree with everything the other people in his car are about to say.  I'm not sure I like that.
All of which means that I'm ending this review on a bit of a sour note.  I think it's safe to say that "How to Be a Robot in 12 Easy Steps" is the most confrontational and non-normative story in the collection, and I can't imagine that that placement was accidental on Hill and Adam's part.  So perhaps the intent is for readers like myself to exit the book on a note of self-reflective doubt and (maybe) anger.  Provocation is a good thing in fiction, and in science fiction, so perhaps it's a good thing that I find myself goaded in this manner.
Regardless of that, I'll say this: I have mixed feelings about the last few stories in the anthology, but overall, this is a very fine book indeed, with a number of VERY strong stories.  There is no guarantee you will like all the same ones I liked (and there's a chance you will like the ones I didn't), but I'd say that you are almost certain to like some of them.
That, sir (or madam, as the case may be), is a recommendation.


  1. "The fact that there's a constant need to praise how diverse diversity is indicates to me that diversity isn't the actual agenda: self-congratulation is."


    Joe Hill can be a bit on the preachy/ judgmental side of such things. Signal-virtuing is an affectation of the elite. Not just the elite. A preoccupation with such things always arouses my suspicion rather than sympathy. Any by-product of narcissism in a weaponized-narcissism culture is probably something to do less instead of more of.

    This collections sounds fantastic, and I'm eager to read it. I'm unfamiliar with most of the authors, so it would be a great way to introduce myself to some new folks. Like you say, no anthology (or very few) can be expected to be start-to-finish awesome - if it is, that's probably a net-negative, i.e. it probably played it too safe - but most of these sound like things I'd enjoy.

    I had a 2015 subscription to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science-Fiction. They publish some great stuff. Someone somewhere has decades of that magazine lining the bookshelves of his/her home, and that's a room I want to sit in a comfortable chair in.

    1. Yessir, that'd be a heck of a fine collection to have. "Asimov's," too. I'm going to subscribe to both of those as a result of this.

      Hill does indeed have a tendency toward preachiness, but I think this is the first time it's annoyed me. And anyways, it's not a automatic turnoff for me; he's preachy in something like the same way Gene Roddenberry was, meaning that I mostly agree with what he's preaching. A bit less so here, on account of me being unwilling to go as far down the road of identity politics as it would take for me to permit for somebody identifying as robot, but whatever. I still think of Hill as one of the good guys.

    2. He's not as bad with it as a lot of folks, to be sure.

    3. If I were in his position, I suspect I would be utterly insufferable. So I can't hold it against him too much, lest I feel like too big a hypocrite.

      We should all of us probably speak out at least 50% less. I pledge to try to at least keep my stridentness limited to arguing over which Star Trek series is best or whatever else like that.

    4. For me, it's just boring more than offensive. I lose interest when people are too easily triggered, too enthusiastically snarky towards their perceived political enemies, too quick with their talking points. Left/ right, doesn't matter; just be original about it for eff's sake. No one needs to spread the talking points developed by multi-million-dollar-consulting-firm to activate people's Pavlov-narcissism. It's as crass to me as getting a Subway tattoo on your forehead.

      I just reviewed the last 50 or 60 of Joe's tweets, and he seems to be less into this than he was when I had to unfollow him a few years back. Maybe he's getting over it. We'll see when the next Power Kitty wave hits. (My term for such things, those trending items that the signal-virtue-elite is powerless before.)

    5. Last time I looked, Hill seemed to have dropped off of Twitter altogether. I don't blame him; Twitter strikes me as being uniformly awful. It's like an asshole magnet, and I say that as an asshole.

    6. haha - yeah, I can see that. Its being an asshole magnet, not your being an asshole.

      He still seems pretty active on there.

      I like some aspects of twitter and dislike many more. I'm on the fence on most social media. Most of its unsavory aspects I'm able to filter out or ignore and concentrate on stuff I find fun or useful. But, its capacity to hivemind poeple and topics is a net-negative.

      For me, that is. If I were a Vatican warlock like Charlie Sheen, maybe I'd see it as a net-negative!

      I feel bad commenting so afield from the topic at hand. I love anthologies and sci-fi/fantasy anthologies in particular and am really looking forward to reading this.

      I want to revisit Hill's 20th Century Ghosts, as well. I've been looking at it lately and thinking I might have to swap out one of the short story collections I planned to look at for it instead. I only read it the one time (and loved it).

    7. "For me, that is. If I were a Vatican warlock like Charlie Sheen, maybe I'd see it as a net-negative!"

      Screwed up my own joke. Maybe I'd see it as a net-positive in such a situation, I mean. Sheesh.

    8. It would be nice if Blogger allowed commenters to edit their comments. Many is the time I've committed comment fails of that nature.

      I'd love to reread "20th Century Ghosts," too. One of the best collections I've ever read, no doubt. I wish Hill wrote more short stories; it may the mode in which he is at his best.

      No worries about going off-topic. I invited discussion of this topic, so as far as I'm concerned, it's on-topic. Not that I'd care if it wasn't; I wouldn't.

  2. Haven't read this one yet, so I'll have to catch up.

    On the subject of "lecturing" in fiction in general, I regard it as a pretty self-defeating topic. I'd much rather just have an entertaining read. If I'm entertained by a story that can be said to have a "message" then I'm more inclined to regard it as one that just "emerged" organically during the composition process. I don't think such things can happen to writers as they go along. The difference seems to be one of unconscious self-discovery versus soap-boxing. Gaiman, for instance, says he wrote "Neverwhere" (to which his short story in this collection is the sequel) partially in response to the homeless question. However, based on my own reading, it seems like such concerns soon took a backseat to the first priority of telling a decent story.

    There were moments when I could see the theme crop up here and there, but it was never in any way that felt distracting. Gaiman seemed more focused on what came next rather than what shall I lecture on in his pages.

    As for Owen King's "Intro to Alien Invasion", I caught a copy on the shelves last Saturday while at a local Barnes and Noble. I've had enough time to read through it and now am eagerly awaiting your post on the subject.


    1. Once again, Chris, you've neatly summarized my own thoughts on a subject in a couple of sentences whereas it took me several paragraphs to fail at it. I appreciate it!

      And you're right, obviously. SF / F as a genre (or two) is uniquely well-suited to do this sort of thing, so I'd prefer that it simply do it, rather than announce that it's doing it. If I have to hear one more "Star Trek" story about how progressive it was for the original show to have black, Asian, and Russian people on the bridge (as well as a sort of metaphorical Jew in Spock/Nimoy), I'll spit. Was it a good thing? Absolutely. Do we ever need to hear its fans congratulating themselves over it again? Absolutely not.

      That said, I'd love for the new series to quietly try to do some of the same things. I'll be disappointed if it doesn't. The question is, how do you be quiet about a thing like that in 2016?

      I'll be reading "Intro to Alien Invasion" very, very soon. This weekend, I hope. Looking forward to it greatly! I can't believe it's taken me this long. What a shit blogger I am sometimes!

  3. I finished the 5th story yesterday, I think that only the Joshua tree to me wasn't excellent or truly outstanding. It was a good story but the style is hard for me to get behind, like an indie movie more interested in being weird than good. I don't know...
    I loved the 1st and 2nd stories though. The vampire love one was so good though. Every paragraph had meaning or emotion or moved the plot, I'm not sure how long the author spent on each line but it feels so crafted...which brings me to the abrupt confusing paragraph. Maybe I'm not smart enough to get it but the whole story was clear and concise and just thought the ending was written by a different person.

    Great stuff though can't wait to read more. Yes READ. I listen to probably 30 books a year but read maybe 4. It's so nice to read read. I love short story collections.

    1. Me too, and I don't read anywhere near enough of them. That's a colossal understatement; I barely read any. Fact is, I've turned into a rather horrible reader. I've gotten lost in some sort of forest in that regard, and need to find my way back out STAT.

      I hope you enjoy the rest of the book!