[Athena Andreadis was born in Greece and lured to the US at age 18 by a full scholarship to Harvard, then MIT. She does basic research in molecular neurobiology, focusing on mental retardation and dementia. She is an avid reader in four languages across genres, the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek and writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics. Her work can be found in Harvard Review, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Science in My Fiction, H+ Magazine, io9, The Huffington Post, and her own site, Starship Reckless.]
REVIEW SUMMARY: An anthology showcasing the authors of the writing group Written in Blood.
MY RATING: context-free, within the larger context.
PROS: The anthology has variety and all its stories except one are competently executed.
CONS: Most of the stories have serious flaws and almost none are memorable.
This anthology contains one story from each of the eight members of the writing group Written in Blood. All have published short stories in well-known SF/F venues and two (de Bodard, Hardy) have also brought out novels. So these are not beginners in the crafts of either writing or publishing.
Because the collection is meant to showcase the individual authors, the content and style of the stories rove freely. Given the collection’s goal, most of the story choices are puzzling because they don’t represent the authors’ best efforts. As is my habit, I’ll start from the bottom and work my way up, so that we begin with gruel and end with truffles, if not ambrosia.
Researchers sometimes write collective grant applications. If the reviewers deem that one of the individual applications would doom the whole endeavor, they let the participating investigators cut it loose. The group should have done so with Doug Sharp’s “Flying Squids of Zondor,” a “space adventure” in script form that could have been written by Ed Wood during an uninspired spell. Clearly I’m not its target readership – I’m older than nine and didn’t appreciate projectile vomiting even when I was much younger than nine.
Two of the stories are essentially video games geared to teenagers. Let me nuance this by stating that I still play Nethack, I’m a goner for clever, atmospheric IFs and RPGs (Myst, Gabriel Knight, Syberia, Christminster) and I’m awaiting Eschalon III with bated breath.
Janice Hardy’s “Man’s Best Enemy” is a post-apocalyptic coming-of-age story that reverses Harlan Ellison’s “A Boy and His Dog”. The remnants of an epidemic-depleted humanity eke out a precarious existence in an Atlanta where mutant dogs fill the role of Terminators. The hero/narrator, a teenage girl, encounters the standard obstacles and fortuitous coincidences in her quest to become a hunter. The plot is lifted wholesale from Hollywood stock footage (the chase scenes are straight out of Jurassic Park) and the narrator is emotionally tone deaf.
Genevieve Williams’ “Kip, Running” (from Strange Horizons, 2008) is competitive parkour jazzed up with Lara Croft gizmos. The B plot is the vying of two teen alphas over a trophy girl. The twist is that one of the alphas is a girl – and like many folktale heroes she’s blue collar, whereas her quarry is vaguely upper-class. Had Williams focused on the extreme sport, the story would have been arresting: the specifics of both trainjumping and near-future Seattle give cinematic intensity to the narrative. However, the obstacles in the protagonist’s path are strictly by the numbers and the love story feels tacked on and is completely generic.
Three of the stories are attempts at literary speculative fiction in different modes. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, stories that seamlessly cross boundaries enrich the genre. The problem, of course, is that such stories invite comparisons with non-genre equivalents as well as illustrious genre predecessors.
Dario Ciriello’s “Dancing by Numbers” treads on paths blazed by Marge Piercy (Woman at the Edge of Time), Joanna Russ (The Female Man) and Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials) as well as the travails of ballet dancers portrayed so indelibly in Adrienne Sharp’s White Swan, Black Swan. Quantum entanglement and leaky multiverses serve as lazy plot devices and excuses for cliché-laden expositions. Had Ciriello posited fewer, better imagined worlds, this could have been an absorbing tale: several of the alternative universes look interesting. Instead, we’re left with a shallow travelogue, cardboard characters and one of the worst denouements I’ve read in a long time.
Juliette Wade’s “The Eminence’s Match” is a study of two men with complementary obsessions in a caste-based civilization reminiscent of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Wade juggles her multiple narrators well, and we catch glimpses of a potentially intriguing culture. However, the story is old news to anyone who’s read Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Der Unbestechliche or even Dorothy Sayers’ Wimsey stories. Worse yet, the plot arc is all arousal, no orgasm: it would be a great opening in a novel. But as a short story, it ends where it should start.
T. L. Morganfield’s “Love, Blood and Octli” (from Paradox, 2007) tells the universal light/dark myth – in this case, the splitting of Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca from their unitary predecessor Ehecatl in Nahua theology. We see the battles of the gods through the eyes of the young woman who becomes Quetzalcoatl’s first priestess. It’s difficult to write in the faux-simple tone of fable, especially if one needs to maintain the cognitive dissonance of taking the existence of gods at face value. Morganfield mostly manages to sustain the voice. When she falters, the modern narrator and the simplistic, didactic message become jarringly visible underneath the oracle’s mask.
And so we come to the collection’s strongest offerings. Both are near-future earth-bound dystopias, but they segue into completely different modes and endings. Both build believable worlds because they take time to highlight the small, telling details that make a universe leap to life. Both tell tales that matter beyond the narrow frame of the work. And perhaps not so coincidentally, they also have the most convincing and engaging characters in the anthology: in particular, opinionated old women that act as a sharp-tongued chorus to the action.
Aliette de Bodard’s “The Lonely Heart” (from Black Static, 2009) is in Paolo Bacigalupi (or anti-Jetse de Vries) territory. A woman, her husband and her mother-in-law are scraping by illegally in the shell of Fengdu city which is slated to sink under the Yangtze after completion of the Three Gorges dam. A waif appears in their lives who is not what she seems – and here the story takes a wrong turn, devolving into horror. The volte face (telegraphed from the very start of the story) is clumsy and needlessly weakens the story, which is hard-hitting enough without cheap pyrotechnics.
Keyan Bowes’ “Spoiling Veena” (from Expanded Horizons, 2008) explores gender assumptions, a fertile domain in SF inhabited by such game changers as Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Melissa Scott’s The Shadow Man. The designer child of a doting pair of Indian middle class professionals is not happy with the birth gender they chose. Medical technology allows seamless, non-traumatic switching, though at a crippling cost. Several stings are hidden in this wittily told tale that unreels like a giddy but taut comedy. The fluidity has resulted in extremely polarized, stereotypical gender roles in the young; it’s still better to be a boy; and the real question is asked at the very end: what would happen to social structures if adults also exercised this option?
Overall, all the stories in the anthology except “Squids of Zondor” are competently executed. Not surprisingly, there’s some cross-pollination (for example, a preoccupation with gory Aztec-style sacrifices: they appear in four of the stories). However, except for “Spoiling Veena,” none of the works is memorable or original enough to invite re-reading. For readers who already like specific authors in this collection, it will be even more of an anti-climax because several are clearly capable of far more interesting and thought-provoking writing. Given its context, Eight Against Reality is a journeyman effort that merits a gentleman’s C.