REVIEW: Down These Dark Spaceways edited by Mike Resnick

REVIEW SUMMARY: A very good collection of sf-mystery stories.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Six science fiction mystery novellas.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Every single story was enjoyable.

CONS: The weakest story, while still good, mars an otherwise nearly-flawless collection.

BOTTOM LINE: An anthology that’s better than most – including some “best of” anthologies.

Down These Dark Spaceways, edited by Mike Resnick, collects six original novellas combining the genres of science fiction and mystery. The goal set by Resnick was to avoid “cozy mysteries” like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and deliver the hardboiled mystery in the vein of Dashiell Hammet or Raymond Chandler. Many of the stories succeed with that goal but perhaps more importantly, they are all enjoyable stories

The list of big name authors that contribute to this anthology is impressive. All of them deliver. There was one standout story here: Resnick’s own “Guardian Angel”, but the others came darned close. Even the weakest story was still worth the read. In the end, Down These Dark Spaceways offers a collection of stories that is better than most – including some “best of” anthologies.

Reviewlettes of the stories follow.


STORIES IN THIS ANTHOLOGY:

  1. “Guardian Angel” by Mike Resnick [2005 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 05/03/06]

    • Synopsis: Private detective Jake Masters is hired by a socialite to find her missing son, whose father happens to be a notorious crime lord.
    • Review: Terse but descriptive prose, a fast-paced story and appealing flavor make this space mystery a winner. The son, Andy, is not so much missing as run away – the mystery is why he has done so. Still, it’s fun to watch Jake trounce around the galaxy, chasing leads trying to find his prey. There’s a nice helping of aliens in the story, many of which are to be found at a roving carnival where Jake closes in on Andy. Although a little too much story time was spent there, the payoff – learning the reason for Andy’s disappearing act – is worth it as it makes the story even more compelling. Resnick does a nice job at capturing the hard-boiled flavor of the detective novel, enough to elicit admiration from this reader and bring the story high marks.
  2. “In the Quake Zone” by David Gerrold [2005 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 05/06/06]
    • Synopsis: Timequakes are commonplace, propelling people through the past or future. While the laws grapple with the repercussions, some manage to make a living – legal or otherwise – using the quakes. One such use is hiring “time-ravelers” (not “travelers”) to prevent something. In this story, a time-raveling detective named Mike is hired to prevent the disappearance of a young man named Jeremy Weiss.
    • Review: There were several interesting aspects of this story. First and foremost was the use of the timequakes as a means of travel. Time travel is not used as a plot device here, but is essential to the story. I liked how society has accepted them as the norm and incorporate them into their laws culture. Straight out of Philip K. Dick’s “Minority Report” story, though never labeled as such, is the idea of “pre-crime” – punishing people for crimes they have yet to commit. The idea is interesting, but maybe isn’t as sound in Gerrold’s story since time is said to be mutable and therefore, how can you be sure the person still commits the crime? Another cool aspect of the story was the mystery. The search for Jeremy soon becomes a mission to save other young men who are believed to have been murdered by the same predator – a man who is targeting young, gay “pretty boys”. Ethical and moral issues arise as one considers whether Mike should save the first victim thus potentially preventing himself from ever fulfilling his contract of finding Jeremy, who is the third victim. To gather information, Mike befriends the second victim, Matt, who is having serious family troubles; more so when his homophobic father finds out his son is gay. Mike, against company mandate, intervenes on Matt’s behalf. Here, the story begins a thread where Mike wrestles with his feelings for Matt, a thread that ultimately becomes center-stage in the story’s last scene. Metaphors are meant to be drawn from Mike’s speech about how ravelers become detached from themselves and everyone around them. But this derailment of the mystery angle felt like somewhat of a cheat; like an inopportune moment to espouse some pro-gay propaganda (NTTAWTT) when the reader realizes that the Jeremy Weiss case is essentially a red herring. Still, overall the story has enough sense of wonder to make this better than most and Gerrold’s always clear and often-clever writing makes it just plain fun.
  3. “The City of Cries” by Catherine Asaro [2005 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 05/07/06]
    • Synopsis: Ex-Major Bhaajan, now a private detective, is hired to come back to her home world of Raylicon to find a missing prince of the Majda House.
    • Review: What stood out for me wasn’t the mystery of the prince’s disappearance, which was interesting in itself, but rather the backdrop of the Skolian Empire. It’s a rich, wonderful setting that sets up the City of Cries as a matriarchal society in which men are demoralized and lonely – like the missing prince. He has presumably run away but his sheltered upbringing means certain danger for him. Bhaaj is hired by the lead matriarch of the Majda House but the relationship between them is rather tense; Bhaaj’s brash, off-the-cuff independence is at odds with the required demeanor of royalty. Bhaaj uses her past contacts to gather information about the missing prince’s whereabouts; contacts like the lovable bad-boy (and romantic interest) Jak and the adversarial Scorch. (It is here that I wished I had read more Skolian Empire stories, because there are several mentions of past clashes/events that sound additionally adventurous.) There’s some fairly exciting adventure leading up to a very well done finale in a cavern. One quibble: for all the strength that the women of this matriarchal society possess, they sure do become annoyingly and uncharacteristically dumbstruck over a pretty male face.
  4. “Camouflage” [Marrow] by Robert Reed [2005 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 05/08/06]
    • Synopsis: Aboard the Great Ship of Reed’s novel Marrow, the alien husbands of a human named Sorrel are being killed. First Captain Miocene hires a drifter named Pamir – the umpteenth identity of a former captain that has been hiding for centuries – to find the killer.
    • Review: I really like the idea of the Great Ship, a place so huge, an entire world can fit inside it. It’s a place rich with alien culture and atmosphere. Although I liked this backdrop, the story of a series of murders didn’t connect with me. One common trait of all the victims, besides that they were all married to Sorrel, is that they all share the same belief in the Faith of the Many Joinings, a belief system where beings bond emotionally on a spiritual level. An interesting idea, but essentially a red herring. The characters were fairly flat. Pamir comes across like a reluctant detective even though he manages to somehow find another clue that leads him to the next adventure. Sorrel seems like an uncaring witch, maybe to make her seem like a suspect? If I remember this story, it’ll be for the cool setting.
  5. “The Big Downtown” by Jack McDevitt [2005 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 05/10/06]
    • Synopsis: Private investigator Kristi Walker investigates the disappearance of a model who poses for a supposedly-struggling artist. Both were seen leaving on a sailboat with seriously bad weather pending, but the model’s fiance suspects foul play. Sure enough, the missing person case becomes one of deception and murder.
    • Review: This is a very engaging and well thought out mystery, but from a genre perspective, really doesn’t amount to more than that. There were elements of science fiction here – the mention of The Retreat, an abandoned alien artifact found on the moon that housed a portrait of the unseen aliens; the flying taxis; the holograms; the AI assistants – but it’s really just window dressing. The science fiction is not integral to the mystery. That said, the mystery was fun and had me guessing the whole way through. As the hero, Kristi was tough and likable but a bit too perfect; she only missteps once. The story migrates from the art world to the world of adventurous archaeologists as Kristi is drawn ever-deeper into the crime surrounding the disappearance of the model and the artist. The story moves quickly and McDevitt’s writing style is clear and effective. The story’s title refers to Earth as it is thought of by people who are experiencing the loneliness faraway space.
    • Note: I believe this is set in the same universe as McDevitt’s novels, like Chindi – or at least there’s a humorous reference to the character of Hutch from those novels.
  6. “Identity Theft” by Robert J. Sawyer [2005 novella] (Rating: ) [I read this on 04/21/06, here’s what I said then]
    • Synopsis: Alexander Lomax is the only private detective on a domed Mars colony where flesh-and-blood humans can attain immortality by transferring their consciousness into an artificial (and enhanced) body. Recent transfer Cassandra Wilkins hires Lomax to find her missing husband, Joshua – also recently transferred – but instead, Lomax finds him murdered.
    • Review: Steeped in noir-ish imagery, “Identity Theft” provides a fast-moving tour through an interesting future Mars where expensive mind transfers are useful in finding the mother lode of valuable fossil deposits out in the Martian desert. Like any hard-boiled detective story, the first person voice is used to trace the steps of Lomax as he smartly gathers clues to first find Joshua, then his murderer. Lomax is a fun character, but the story’s voice lacks the one-two punch of, say, George Alec Effinger’s Marid Audran novels. Some moments, in fact – like referring to coffee as “a cup of joe” – seemed unnaturally forced. The murder mystery itself was based on a good premise and the motive was not obvious, but, sadly, the identity of the murderer was all-too-predictable; that’s rare for me. How could Lomax not figure it out sooner? One scene has Lomax watching one character torture another for an inordinately long time – even when all the clues to the murderer’s identity were plain as day and should have caused him to act immediately. This seemed out of character because Lomax is shown to be relatively bright except for when it counted most. These are relatively minor nits, though; this was still a fast-paced and very entertaining story.
    • Note: Nominated for the 2005 Nebula Award for best novella.

3 thoughts on “REVIEW: Down These Dark Spaceways edited by Mike Resnick”

  1. Thanks for the kind comments; I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    Thought you might like to know that I just signed to

    edit another 6-novella anthology for SFBC, this one to

    be called ALIEN CRIMES, more police procedural than

    hard-boiled private eye, more Ed McBain than Raymond

    Chandler. The line-up includes Harry Turtledove,

    Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Pat Cadigan, Greg Benford,

    Walter Jon Williams, and myself.

    My deadline for handing it in is October 1, so I

    would imagine it’ll be a Spring, 2007 release.

    — Mike Resnick

  2. Sounds excellent, Mike! I’ll be looking forward to that one.

    I’m curious…on some author blogs, they mention a tendency to avoid shorter-length fiction (less than novel-length) because, they say, it doesn’t pay. As a fan of short fiction, it troubles me to see that as a trend. Do you find it difficult finding big-name authors to contribute to these anthologies? or, are they waiting in line?

  3. I’ve edited over 40 anthologies, and I’ve never had

    any problem filling them with good stories by good writers.

    But the truth of the matter is that short fiction doesn’t

    pay worth a damn. People do it for a number of reasons:

    1. They love to write it

    2. It keeps their names before the public between novels

    3. A particular theme or idea for a short story fascinates them

    4. They have more chances for awards by writing in all categories,

    and if you don’t sell like Robert Jordan, awards help convince

    publishers to keep buying from you

    Let’s say you’re a midlist author. You write a 100,000-word

    novel. You get a $20,000 advance. That’s already a rate of

    20 cents a word. By comparison, Asimov’s, Analog and F&SF

    pay 7 or 8 cents a word — and you have to think up, write,

    and sell -fifty- 5,000-word stories to make the same money.

    Every time you sell that novel to another country, you make

    from $500 (smaller Eastern European countries), to $5,000 or

    more (Japan, England, France). Your short story reprints will

    earn over $100 only in Japan. The book, if it sells well,

    will earn royalties; the short stories will not. The book

    might sell to Easton Press or the SFBC; a story will not.

    When you go to resell the book in 10 or 15 years, you’ll

    get 4 or 5 figures for it; when you resell the short story,

    you’ll be lucky to get more than $100 for it.

    That said, it’s amazing that the field produces as much

    short fiction as it does.

    — Mike Resnick

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