REVIEW: Subversion edited by Bart R. Leib
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Sixteen stories about subversion and acts of rebellion, both large and political or small and personal.
PROS: In some places, a very subtle and mature examination of subversion and rebellion, and of challenging the norm in the world about you. A number of excellent authors put forward stories which I dearly wish to make my friends read.
CONS: It’s not all killer and no filler. There are a few dud stories.
BOTTOM LINE: A great deal more subtle than I initially expected, and an excellent book with which to discover from fantastic up-and-coming talent.
When Crossed Genres offered me an ARC of their upcoming anthology Subversion via Twitter, I said yes straight away. After all, I’m a tremendously subversive person. It’s true! I wear a great deal of black clothing, I have a tendency to rant on the internet about things I don’t like, I don’t drive, and I drink tea instead of coffee, and in fact it’s a good thing I don’t leave the house a great deal or else I could subvert all of Western Civilization. Also, I quite like to read and write short fiction. What I’m saying is, me and this anthology, we were a pretty good match.
Actually, we’re a good match, because I like well-written and thoughtful short fiction, and there’s a great deal of that on display here. We’ll get into that in a moment. But first, a word about the cover…
I liked the cover when the book turned up, and in fact I still like it. When I showed the book to my wife, I pointed out “This reminds me a great deal of a Megadeth album cover.” And while it’d probably need more explosions, it still reminds me of a Megadeth cover. It’s an excellent piece of artwork by Brittany Jackson.
The only problem with the cover is, I don’t think it fits the book it adorns. It’s a very strong cover, a fist pumped in the air and jets soaring past a White House ceremony which would probably scare the ‘stache off Geraldo. It’s very bold and powerful, it’s a call-to-arms. Hence the Megadeth mention. The stories contained with the book are not strident call-to-arms heavy metal stories, however. They’re a great deal quieter and smaller and more subtle than that. This is more Margaret Atwood than Megadeth. I mention this purely out of interest, because the cover crossed my mind both before and after I finished the book.
That aside, let’s get our sleeves rolled up and dig into the stories, shall we?
“A Thousand Wings of Luck” by Jessica Reisman
During the Nine Days of Luck, none of the countless moths fluttering around must die, or bad luck will befall everyone. Those moths which do die are swept up and burnt. The characters in the story question the existence of Luck, and the theology behind it, and whether or not bad things happen because of Luck, or bad things happen because bad things just happen. It’s a well told story, but one which fails to connect to the reader in any emotional context, partially because we don’t know the history of the world and we are given too little time to connect with the characters. It’s a piece which feels like it needs more time and space to help us invest in these people and the world they live in.
“And All Its Truths” by Camille Alexa
Out of a book of strong stories, this is one of my favorites. It’s a science fiction piece about a world in which the machines designed to help the colony run efficiently have long since realized that the way to do that is to eliminate the inefficient humans, save for a handful of pitiful, tortured souls. And then there’s Beatrix, a strange ray of sunshine and chatter in the bleak and bloody setting. She and Lucky, the woman she finds barely alive, are engaging and sympathetic.
The descriptions in the story of the people and their environment are long and detailed, but never unnecessary. I was reminded of how Margaret Atwood can paint remarkable settings without ever killing the story. Atwood is a good name to mention, because the story sits in the middle of a Venn Diagram of Margaret Atwood and Harlan Ellison. My only regret is that the story ends. Excellent piece, and indicative of much of this book.
“Pushaway by Melissa S. Green
“Unbelievers sent Spirit,” Amelia said “but God used them to leave a sign for us.”
Told in scenes which move back and forth through a young girl’s life, this is the story of a religious cult who forms an unsustainable settlement on the site of the Spirit Mars Rover. What the story is mostly about is breaking free, over and over throughout the girl’s life, from whatever’s holding her down. The story also comes complete with books, philosophies, other colonies and other places with the same old human problems, and because of this, feels like a remarkably well-rounded future.. This feels very much like humanity among the stars: technologically advanced, but still busy being violent, oppressed, questioning and struggling to break out.
“Phantom Overload” by Daniel Jose Older
What happens when people die, and begin immigrating to be with their loved ones? Well, for those who have to make sure spirits are going where they’re supposed to go, it leads to the titular phantom overload.
Unfortunately, the story is trying very hard to be “gritty” and “hard-ass,” through the tired cliches of swearing a lot and incessant sarcasm. It doesn’t come across as gritty and real, it just feels awkward. As hard-ass as the man in a cheesy cop movie shouting “You’re outta control! Gimme yer badge!” At point one, the story jokingly references those sort of cop flicks, but the joke just elaborates the point that the entire story sounds like that. There’s a tremendous amount of yelling and exclamation points, but no heart to the story, no emotional connection to anything. Too much plot, and too few people, and a great deal of noise. It’s a shame too, because the core idea about the phantom overload is an excellent one.
“Cold Against the Bone” by Kelly Jennings
The gradual story of someone who wants to be a hero, leading a failed uprising. It’s well enough told, but it felt vague in both world and setting. As I read, I kept encountering new information that made me revise where, or even when the story was happening, and each time it jarred me completely out of the piece.
“The Red Dybbuk” by Barbara Krasnoff
What happens when old family ghosts infect your daughter with not their personality, but their ideals? It’s a simple question, extrapolated into a very remarkable story. The ghosts are not only dead grandparents, but the ghosts of old protests and passed-away ideals, the haunting remnants of another generation’s causes, all poured into a young college girl whether she wants it or not. On an equally powerful level, the story explores the agonizing process of being a parent and having to watch your children grow up, find their way, and get hurt. It’s a story that explores big social and political ideas, but never once loses its core story about family.
“Pushing Paper in Hartleigh” by Natania Barron
The story of a once-feared gunslinging Knight, now buried in paperwork behind a desk, and a rebellion of hard-edged citizens he’s trying to figure out what to do with. A very Arthurian story, but with airships and pistols and so forth. Excellent dialog and well-drawn characters. One thing the story gets right are action scenes, which don’t always come off very well in prose (too often, the author forgets that what makes a movie action sequence exciting is not necessarily what will work on the page). Here, it’s exciting when Sir Gawen begins to unbury himself and come alive. I’m not particularly a fan of high fantasy stories on the whole, but this one kept my attention and I liked it.
“Parent Hack” by Kay T. Holt
A short and simple piece about how two young orphans want to go about growing up, and what they plan to do about their robotic guardians. There is an excellent handful of human and robot characters, but I didn’t feel like I ever got to know them before the story ended. It kind of felt like the prelude to a longer piece, in which I do get to explore the world and these characters in more detail.
“The Hero Industry” by Jean Johnson
This is a light and genuinely funny story about a woman who is really good at getting kidnapped by freedom fighters. She’s clearly too much for any of them to handle. The majority of the story is just a conversation (very one-sided, because for being a hostage, our main character is impossible to talk over) but being just a conversation is fine, because it’s brilliant. It’s a piece of clear, well-told SF, with a little piece at the end that made me laugh out loud. This is the first work I’ve read by Jean Johnson, but it surely won’t be the last, because she’s terrific.
“Flicka by Cat Rambo
The story of a family of genetically modified people, who have equine qualities about them (tails, hooves, etc.) and what happens when they move to a small town, with all the small-town bigotry and suspicion one too often finds. It’s a simple story, and an acute examination of small-minded prejudice, reminding me ever so much of some towns I lived in growing up. The story succeeds beyond simply examining prejudice, because it seems to me there is genuine authorial sympathy and even affection for all the characters, even the hateful ones, even poor reactionary Steve.
“Seed” by Shanna Germain
Another really excellent story, but a difficult one. This is a hard one to read, and not because of any failure in the writing. Set in a world where sex is open and public, but eating and sharing food is the greatest of intimacy, the story asks what, then, is the greatest harm you can do against a woman in a world like this? This is a brutal and frankly painful story to read in some places, but it’s tempered with gorgeous passages of writing and moments of poignancy. The descriptions of food become extremely erotic, as they would in a world like this. A remarkable story for how it handles sex, brutality, and life. It’s a story which I think warrants rereading.
“Scrapheap Angel” by R.J. Astruc & Deirdre M. Murphy
A fine little story about being crushed by the great and soulless corporate machine, and finding a way to break free before it eats you alive. Its description of the a world full of nondescript cubicles is awfully accurate and depressing, and the ending is fantastic. I don’t want to say more than this, because I don’t want to spoil the ending. Excellent piece.
“The Dragon’s Bargain” by C.A. Young
A competently told story about a bargain with a dragon, who demands the lives of three second-born royal heirs, and the attempt by the heirs to evade this fate. There isn’t a lot to the story, frankly. Not enough to become invested in much of anything that’s happening. Simple characters in an undetailed world with a short plot leading to what was, to me, an unsatisfying ending.
“A Tiny Grayness in the Dark” by Wendy N. Wagner
This is a dark and rather spooky story, set in the Pit beneath the world. What we could call hell perhaps. It examines the interesting question of what growing up somewhere like that would be like. It’s poignant as well as very dark. A very well-told piece, and I know that because for the first half of the story, I had no idea where we were or what was going on, or why. But the strength of the writing and visuals they created carried me through until things became clear.
“Received Without Content” by Timothy T. Murphy
“It’s like the site said. Rich people suck up all the good stuff for themselves and leave the rest of us in the dirt. I’m tired of it.”
Timothy Murphy absolutely knocked this one out of the park. I finished and said “wow.” This is the story of teenagers attempting to level the playing field against those wealthy-family kids who are made harder, faster, better, stronger (sorry) by nano-technology. The story thrives in its very-near-future SF setting, and it reminds me of all the good bits of a William Gibson story. The power comes from the characters, though. No one is wasted. Everyone feels alive and relatable and human, even when only on stage for a few moments. The reader cannot help but care for all of these people, which completely enamors you in what happens as the story rolls on. Brilliant piece, one I’d happily revisit time and again.
“To Sleep With Pachamama” by Caleb Jordan Schulz
Humanity has ruined the earth and has to leave. They move their numbers into orbit and then begin engaging in a very strange plan: to eradicate all trace of humanity from the Earth. Every road, every building, every monument or fountain, every skeleton long since buried away. It’s a huge and unique idea, and it’s well explored. There is a small jarring moment when an idea-driven story changes gears into an action-driven piece (a change I’m not sure was needed), but it’s still a very good story nonetheless.
And that’s it. Sixteen stories, many of them very good, some of them absolutely out of this world. There are few things as enjoyable as a book full of good ideas being dealt with in a thoughtful and intelligent fashion, and this is one of those books. There’s a lot of talent on display here, and I think you’ll see being a lot of these authors time and again, in Best of anthologies and award lists, which is just as it should be.
So why not go grab yourself a copy? If you think I’m wrong, you can throw it at me. (It’s not too thick. You won’t do too much damage.)
Filed under: Book Review
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