BRIEF SUMMARY: Three science fictional stories written by authors Ken Liu, Kathleen Ann Goonan and Judith Moffett, inspired by a painting by Richard Anderson. The painting is featured as the cover illustration.
PROS: Meaningful use of the elements of Anderson’s painting; nice variety between all three stories; solid narrative voice; significant word count allows room for the stories to develop.
CONS: Two of the stories have weak endings when compared to the overall story arc.
BOTTOM LINE: Editor David G. Hartwell points out in his introduction that there is a long tradition in the SF field of stories being written to accompany existing art work, a tradition that has fallen by the wayside in recent years. Hartwell teamed with Tor.com to reinvigorate the idea with The Palencar Project, based on an image by artist John Jude Palencar. Hartwell and Tor.com return to the idea with The Anderson Project. This is a fantastic science fiction image that compels you to wonder what is happening with these people apparently tethered to some sort of space craft. Each of these authors does an admirable job in interpreting the painting through story and this experiment has produced three solid stories that are well worth reading.
“Reborn” by Ken Liu
I remember being Reborn. It felt the way I imagine a fish feels as it’s being thrown back into the sea.
The Judgment happens four times a year, culling the malignant of society so that they can be reborn as their better selves. The Tawnin are the alien race who now coexist with humans and they came to Earth bringing with them the opportunity for humans to interact with them, and with one another, in a more peaceful, productive fashion. As is the case with change, there are some who embrace it and others who do not. Xenophobia occasionally rears its ugly head and the moment when the Judgment Ship reappears to drop off the reborn is an especially dangerous time. One of the many duties of Special Agent Joshua Rennon, of the Tawnin Protection Bureau, is to ensure these dissidents are found, and dealt with, before they can do any real harm.
Ken Liu draws inspiration from Anderson’s painting to create a story that looks at three cultures: humans, aliens and those in-between, the reborn, and the way in which their lives intersect. “Reborn” starts with sinister overtones that steadily build as the narrative progresses, delivering a tightly wound science fictional thriller. Ken Liu is a prolific short story author who has won numerous awards and his skill is on display in this novelette.
This small collection is worth reading for Ken Liu’s story alone, but wait, there is more…
“Space Ballet” by Judith Moffet
Josh always painted his dreams, and the paintings were always interesting and sometimes very good
The year is 2044, and Josh Russell is a student at The Center for Dream Research, affiliated with the Psychology Department of the University of Pennsylvania. He has just finished relating his dream in class to a group of intent listeners and is ready to unveil his painting, which he has titled “Space Ballet”, before the class takes turns at interpretation. Eleven years prior the school was founded after a series of seeming coincidences culminated in a terrible incident that might have been avoided. People dreamed, and many claimed that their dreams would later come true. Those labeled as crackpots, when their detractors were being kind, suddenly found themselves taken seriously and the study of dreams and dream interpretation took on a new significance.
Those with a particular aptitude could be further taught to re-enact their dreams while others entered the dream state with them in order to examine and better interpret those dreams. Josh had many questions about his dream, questions that grew more complicated when his fraternal twin brother related a dream that appeared to tie into the one Josh had about the two of them, dangling in space, tethered to a large space craft.
One of the strengths of this story by Judith Moffett is that the novelette length allows room for her to build character, flesh out the dream study concept, and weave in a full story arc. She treats her subject seriously, giving the story a gravity it might not otherwise possess. The build up of the mystery regarding the dream and what it might mean is so well done that it led to a small feeling of disappointment when things turned out the way I expected them to. The fault perhaps has less to do with the story itself than the expectations built from the previous story. Overall it is a very satisfying read.
“Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” by Kathleen Goonan
I hear her on the radio, while I’m in the bathroom drying my hair.
When my mother speaks—“We demand legal recognition for all living creatures”—I drop my hair dryer. It clatters on the tile floor. I turn up the radio and listen, stunned.
My mother died twenty-five years ago.
The last of the three stories in The Anderson Project is about animal rights, family, love, passion…and parrots in space. You read that correctly: parrots in space. I would hazard to guess at this point that you might be shaking your head thinking, “well, those previous two stories sound alright, but parrots in space? Maybe I can give this one a miss.” You would be cheating yourself out of some beautiful prose if you did.
What initially struck me as a very goofy idea soon turns into a lovely story about a man and a woman, their daughter, and a parrot that not only communicates like a human but is actually a hybrid creature. The story begins with a focus on Leilani Kalani and then shifts to her father, John, and then the intriguing parrot, Meitner. The narrative moves between the three and in the process readers also get to know Leilani’s mother, Jean.
Each of the stories in this collection have science fictional elements, but they also all have a common thread of mystery woven into the fabric of the story. In the case of Kathleen Goonan’s novelette, that mystery thread is murder.
I had a similar feeling with this story that I had with Moffett’s in that the ending fell a little flat. It does not take away from the beauty of Goonan’s prose, yet I wish the strength present throughout the story had held on throughout the end.
The Anderson Project is an experiment that turned out well, in my opinion. Richard Anderson’s painting fires the imagination and it was fascinating to see what three skilled authors did with the image as their inspiration. All three tales are available on the Tor.com site for free and you can navigate there by clicking on each title. The book is also available on the Kindle for $1.99. I do hope you will give it a try and I would be interested in your experiences with these stories.