Tag Archives: anthologies

Welcome to the Machine

The machine captured that old-world sense of irony in death: you can know how it’s going to happen, but you’ll still be surprised when it does.

Title: Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die
Editors: Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, David Malki
Year: 2010
Rating: 4/5 stars

I love an anthology with an interesting theme, and this one’s got it in spades. The concept came from a comic written by one of the editors in which a character makes a comment about what the world would be like if everyone knew how they were going to die. At that point the genie was out of the bottle, people were fascinated, ideas were kicked around, and the result is the volume before us now.

The concept is more than a general theme, however, since the editors set out the basic premise that each story is to follow. That premise, in a nutshell, is this:

The machine had been invented a few years ago: a machine that could tell, from just a sample of your blood, how you were going to die. It didn’t give you the date and it didn’t give you specifics. It just spit out a sliver of paper upon which were printed, in careful block letters, the words “DROWNED” or “CANCER” or “OLD AGE” or “CHOKED ON A HANDFUL OF POPCORN.” It let people know how they were going to die. [....] But the machine was frustratingly vague in its predictions: dark, and seemingly delighting in the ambiguities of language. “OLD AGE,” it had already turned out, could mean either dying of natural causes, or being shot by a bedridden man in a botched home invasion. [....] There were now machines in every doctor’s office and in booths at the mall. You could pay someone or you could probably get it done for free, but the result was the same no matter what machine you went to. They were, at least, consistent.

And every story is consistent in complying with the details of that description, including the block letters, the mall, and especially the machine’s twisted sense of linguistic ambiguity, which is a big part of what makes it such an intriguing premise in the first place. Included are thirty stories (chosen from over 600 submissions) from authors around the world, amateurs and pros alike, none of whom I was previously familiar with. Don’t let that put you off, though, because the writing quality is fairly high overall. Styles run the gamut, including adventure, humor, horror, fantasy, and sci-fi; but no matter what style each author uses, they all pay careful attention to how this invention would change our world, and its social, psychological, economic, and legal effects. Among some of the effects explored are: high school kids creating a new social hierarchy based on how “cool” one’s death is; hiring discrimination based on manner of death; the impact on the medical profession; the new world of dating and romance (who would you rather marry, an “OLD AGE” or a “PRISON KNIFE FIGHT”?); and the choices made by criminals (if you’re going out by “ELECTRIC CHAIR,” why not really earn it?).

This is a tight anthology; all the stories are true to the given theme and you don’t have to wonder why a story was included (as with some anthologies). I definitely give extra points for that. The downside of that tightness is that if you read this cover to cover, the stories all feel a bit too similar. So I’d recommend you space it out, read a bit here and there over time. There are no badly written stories here, and the creativity level is high. My only serious complaint is that there are so few stories that tackle the premise…. if I may put it this way…. from a sci-fi standpoint. There are a few nods to quantum mechanics and information theory, but by far most authors don’t attempt any explanation of HOW the machine works, but simply accept that it does. It would have been nice if the editors had included more stories taking a hard-edged science fiction angle; but I certainly enjoyed this exercise in “speculative fiction.”

You can pick up a copy of this 450-ish-page anthology for a pretty decent price. Or, for those of you comfortable reading your fiction from an electronic screen, you can actually download a free pdf of the entire thing. So come on, really, you have no excuse not to read this.

And now for something on the kinky side….

He sat for a moment, stunned at what he’d done, stunned at what had happened, wondering what he would do the rest of his life with the memory of it. Then he zipped up his pants.

Title: Alien Sex
Editor: Ellen Datlow
Year: 1990
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Science fiction, obviously, has an interest in aliens. And let’s face it, everyone has an interest in sex. So it’s not surprising to occasionally find both interests coinciding in the same place. In this volume you’ll find nineteen tales of sex seen through the lens of science fiction (with a bit of fantasy and horror mixed in as well). These stories run the gamut, from thought-provoking to dull to incomprehensible; there is enough of substance here, however, to make this a worthy contender for the reader’s attention. The stories also vary in their approach to the anthology’s theme; while some are straightforward speculations on human-alien relations, whether serious or humorous, others take the metaphorical route, using the guise of alien sex to say something about human sex, relationships, or gender differences. Each story is preceded by a short introduction by Datlow, and followed by a few words from the author explaining their inspirations or intentions in writing it. That last is a plus for me, since I like getting into the heads of authors to see where they’re coming from.

On the lighter side of things we have Larry Niven’s “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex,” a speculative look at Superman’s sex life. Also among the more humorous stories is Harlan Ellison’s “How’s the Night Life on Cissalda?”, about a trans-dimensional explorer who brings back an addicting orgasm-producing creature — “the most perfect fuck in the universe.” It’s typical Ellison irreverent weirdness, but fun. Also in this category is “The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod” from Philip Jose Farmer, a self-proclaimed “parody-pastiche” that asks the question, “What if William Burroughs, instead of Edgar Rice Burroughs, had written the Tarzan stories?” Interesting concept, but since I can’t stand William Burroughs’ style I found this one unreadable.

On a more serious note there is “Her Furry Face” by Leigh Kennedy; it explores what happens when a primate researcher becomes attracted to an engineered super-inelligent orangatun. Lisa Tuttle uses “Husbands” to ask about the meaning of separate genders, and about what happens when one of them goes extinct. Bruce McAllister’s “When the Fathers Go” uses the alien sex idea to look at the lies people tell each other in order to keep relationships going. Michaela Roessner’s entry is “Picture Planes,” a poem portraying a destructive, imprisoning relationship between an alien and a human that mirrors too many real-life couples. “Roadside Rescue,” by Pat Cadigan, poses an intriguing problem: what if you engaged in sex with an alien and didn’t even know it — simply by performing some innocent everyday action?

Then we come to my two favorite stories of the lot. “War Bride,” by Rick Wilber, is a depressing picture of a man who, in order to escape impending destruction, becomes the sexual pet of brutal alien invaders. This one, too, is a reflection of a scenario surely played out many times in human history, and is a stark reminder of the conditions people will subject themselves to in the name of survival. “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side,” by James Tiptree, Jr., is possibly the most thought-provoking piece of work in the book. It takes the position that our deep-seated biological imperative to spread our genes far and wide might become maladaptive when we encounter aliens, with whom mating is sure to be sterile. Tiptree deftly gets across the tragedy of this uncontrollable, misdirected drive, of eagerly striving toward a hopeless and unobtainable goal, to the diminishment of the species.

There are other stories — by Scott Baker, K. W. Jeter, Edward Bryant, Geoff Ryman, Connie Willis, Richard Christian Matheson, Lewis Shiner, Roberta Lannes, and Pat Murphy — that I didn’t mention for one of several reasons. Some are fantasy or horror and thus not really my cup-o-tea. Some were simply of no interest to me. And a few inspired me to ask that oh-so-frequent question, “what the hell was the editor thinking by including that?”

There are some winners and losers here, like most anthologies. But hey, how can you pass up a book about SEX? And ALIENS!? You know you cant!

The secret history of science fiction; or, trying to please mainstream readers

What we hope to present in this anthology is an alternative vision of sf from the 1970’s to the present, one in which it becomes evident that the literary potential of sf was not squandered.

Title: The Secret History of Science Fiction
Editors: James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel
Year: 2009
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

secrethistoryI wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from an anthology promising to reveal the “secret history” of science fiction. This volume finds its roots in the never-ending debate on the worthiness of sf as literature, and aims to present a variety of sf that is somehow more critically respectable. And so the editors have put together nineteen stories which are not your typical science fiction, stories which (at least most of them) intentionally try to blur the lines between sf and mainstream literature. Well hey, any well-read science fiction fan knows there is plenty of high-quality sf out there (as well as low-quality too, of course). But as to literary chic, I go with the Goldilocks standard: you shouldn’t have too little or too much, but juuuuuust the right amount. Unfortunately, the majority of these stories fall into the “too much” category, trying so hard to succeed at being “real” literature that they fail at being good sf. There are a few good stories here, but the majority are quite boring, artificial, or pretentious. I can’t say I’d be disappointed if most of them had remained a secret.

One of the things I do like about this anthology is that in between the stories are short passages from all the participating authors in which they discuss their views on different types of fiction, their strengths and weaknesses, and the relations between them. Often these short discussions are more interesting than the actual stories. Ironically, one of these passages, written by T. C. Boyle, gives a good explanation of what I found lacking in many of the included stories:

I’ve thought about the domination of the literary arts by theory over the past twenty-five years — which I detest — and it’s as if you have to be a critic to mediate between the author and the reader and that’s utter crap. Literature can be great in all ways, but it’s just entertainment like rock’n’roll or a film. It is entertainment. If it doesn’t capture you on that level, as entertainment, movement of plot, then it doesn’t work. Nothing will come out of it.

And that pretty much sums up the problem with most of these stories (including Boyle’s, unfortunately). For me, they definitely do not work on the level of entertainment, as movement of plot, as presentation of events or characters or ideas I can bring myself to care about. There seems to be more style than substance here. Also, several stories have only the most tenuous link to science fiction, as if “literary sf” necessarily means “watered-down sf.”

There are a few diamonds among all this coal, however, and they mostly come from the ladies. By far the best of the bunch is “Standing Room Only” by Karen Joy Fowler, which the editors call “a time travel story turned inside out.” It’s a subtle and creative approach to a well-worn subject. Le Guin’s contribution is “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a nice little allegory about how the happiness of the many is often built on the sacrifices of the few. “Ladies and Gentlemen, This Is Your Crisis,” by Kate Wilhelm, is an eerily accurate prediction of the phenomenon of “reality tv” (written in 1976), and also recalls Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in the way people are addicted to their wall-size tv screens. “Schwarzschild Radius” by Connie Willis is also a very decent story, although I’m not sure I’d label it sf at all. The one other story I liked is by Carter Scholz, “The Nine Billion Names of God” — and if that title rings a bell, there’s a good reason for that. This is a very clever piece poking fun at literary theory and the ridiculous and abstruse lengths it can go to in search of interpretation and “deep meaning.”

That leaves fourteen more stories for which I can’t drum up enough interest to even mention by name. See the post tags for the rest of the authors included. Two of those are Kelly and Kessel themselves, and I must say I always find it rather narcissistic on the part of editors who include their own stories in the anthologies they put together.

I have to include one final quote from the author views, since I like this so much. This is from Gene Wolfe (and no, I didn’t like his story either):

What we normally consider the mainstream — so called realistic fiction — is a small literary genre, fairly recent in origin, which is likely to be relatively short lived. It’s a matter of whether you’re content to focus on everyday events or whether you want to try to encompass the entire universe. If you go back to the literature written in ancient Greece or Rome, or during the Middle Ages and much of the Renaissance, you’ll see writers trying to write not just about everything that exists but about everything that could exist.

Flash reviews — September ’09

Title: The Gold at the Starbow’s End
Author: Frederik Pohl
Year: 1972
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
A very decent collection of stories, most of them somewhat long since there are only five in total. Not really a bad story in the bunch; I enjoyed them all, to varying degrees. Nothing here is probably going to strike you as a work of genius, or the best of what the genre has to offer. But all are satisfactory reads, for sure.

Title: Isaac Asimov’s Utopias
Editors: Gardner Dozois, Sheila Williams
Year: 2000
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
This anthology contains stories originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction which ostensibly have something to do with the topic of utopias. My take goes like this: “Mountain Ways” by Ursula K. LeGuin is a halfway interesting look at different marriage customs, but the other eight entries are some of the most yawn-inducing stories I’ve ever read. And the utopian aspect is pretty vague in most of them.

Title: Science Fiction in the 20th Century
Author: Edward James
Year: 1994
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
A highly readable account of science fiction — its history, culture, themes, and so forth. It’s probably hard to ever find a book of this nature that’s strikingly innovative; after all, any generalized critical work is going to cover roughly the same ground. But I did like the way the author expresses himself, and I did learn things I didn’t know before, so I consider it time well spent.

Read science fiction, and go, and sin no more!

Here we have stories which, in the science fiction mode, exemplify and illustrate each of the Seven Deadly Sins, and give each a dimension perhaps not thought of by Saint Thomas Aquinas.

Title: The Seven Deadly Sins of Science Fiction
Editors: Isaac Asimov, Charles G. Waugh, and Martin H. Greenberg
Year: 1980
Rating: 2/5 stars

7deadlysinsWhen I read an anthology, I like it to have a fairly solid unifying theme, something all the stories have in common to justify their inclusion together within the pages of a single book. I mean something a little more specific and meaningful than the numerous “best of” or “treasury of” volumes floating around out there (I can’t ever see any reason why one should be picked over another). So Asimov, Waugh, and Greenberg had the right idea when they put together this group of stories to illustrate the Seven Deadly Sins; it’s an interesting enough concept to serve as a focus point. After all, there’s gotta be some juicy stuff going on in a bunch of stories about sin, right?

On the other hand, this volume suffers from a weakness inherent in many anthologies: the fact that the stories were not written specifically for this volume, but were already-published stories chosen after-the-fact to fit the editors’ needs. Consequently, the match between the stories and the stated theme is not always as close as you might wish for, and is sometimes downright tenuous. For instance, we have “Sail 25″ by Jack Vance, representing Sloth; “Peeping Tom” by Judith Merril, representing Lust; “The Invisible Man Murder Case” by Henry Slesar, representing Envy; and Isaac Asimov’s “Galley Slave” representing Pride. While these stories did indeed contain some characters engaging in sloth, lust, envy, and pride, this behavior felt almost incidental. These stories didn’t seem to be centrally about sloth, lust, envy, or pride. No, it seems to me that the editors simply chose whatever stories they could think of that sorta kinda vaguely fit the theme, rather than making an effort to find more relevant examples.

Then again, some of the stories were closer to the mark. Zelazny’s “Divine Madness” was my favorite of the group. It’s a compelling and stylish tale of the consequences that follow from one single moment of thoughtless Anger. Gluttony, fittingly enough, is the only of the Seven Sins to get not one but two stories devoted to it: “The Midas Plague” and “The Man Who Ate the World,” both by Frederick Pohl. I found the first of those to be much superior to the latter, but both are powerful satires about our modern gluttonous, consumer-driven society, and Pohl envisions some rather extreme consequences. Poul Anderson’s “Margin of Profit” demonstrates the sin of Avarice; it’s an interesting story, but oddly, and unlike the other stories, this one shows the sinner benefiting from the sin, rather than suffering the consequences.

One last story was “The Hook, the Eye and the Whip,” by Michael G. Coney, representing Covetousness. (The mathematically inclined will note this makes eight, not seven, deadly sins; the editors note that different versions alternate between Avarice and Covetousness, and so they chose to include both.) To tell the truth, this story was so mind-numbingly boring I didn’t even finish it, so I can’t even say if it aptly demonstrates its chosen sin or not.

But leaving aside the question of whether or not these stories met the criteria of the anthology, and taking them strictly on their own terms, there were few that I liked very much. The pieces by Zelazny and Pohl were the standouts here, but none of the other stories did much for me.

So….. this was an intriguing concept for an anthology, but the bottom line is that it really needed better stories to pull it off.