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Is Anybody Out There? edited by Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern

November 6, 2010 1 comment

Always one to start off these reviews with a slightly different view of the world, I recall a poem called “Antigonish” by William Hughes Mearns, the first verse of which is:

Last night I saw upon the stair

A little man who wasn’t there

He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away. . .

It’s a pleasing paradox as, self-evidently, if he is not there, he cannot go away. This is something we can all smile about as absurd and, for a brief moment, it holds our attention. Then, as is always the way with these things, we give up thinking about absences and focus on those who are present.

In this rough and ready way, I am highlighting the problem with the theme selected by Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern for their new anthology Is Anybody Out There? They invited authors to dally with the Fermi Paradox. Put simply, if there are so many civilisations out there, why have we seen no sign of them? So the challenge to the authors is to make the absence of aliens somehow entertaining. Whereas Mearns reached a satisfactory outcome in a few words, we are to wade through more than 300 pages explaining why there are no little men on the stair today.

We start off with “The Word He Was looking For Was Hello” by Alex Irvine which, truth be told, I found tedious. “Residue” by Michael Arsenault is a pleasing conversation between a couple lying out on the grass, looking up at the night sky. As a piece of writing, it comes in well up the scale of skill, and it holds interest as a moment of affection, perhaps amounting to love. I suppose it’s tangentially science fiction because the editors have included it in this anthology. “Good News From Antares” by Yves Meynard is somewhat weird as a writer at a convention has a Sagan moment in an armchair which transports him dreamlike into a meeting with an alien character from one of his story sequences. While “Report From the Field” by Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn works hard to sustain a joke rather in the style of William Tenn. It’s a brave effort to spin out a thin idea over this length.

“Permanent Fatal Errors” by Jay Lake is one of these referential stories depending for part of its effect on the readers picking up all the in-jokes. The idea of where aliens might be hiding is quite entertaining in a story of mutiny in the depths of space, but the point of the story — that some answers are in themselves errors — is somewhat laboured. Similarly, “The Vampires of Paradox” by James Morrow is not a bad idea thrashed to death to make it fill the pages. One or two explorations of paradoxes might have held my interest, but this just seemed interminable. I dare not comment on “One Big Monkey”. Definitely not my kind of story!

The few good stories are “Galaxy of Mirrors” by Paul di Filippo, a rousing tale of boredom and its inevitable descent into mere disinterest, followed by complete loss of interest in continuing life. “Where Two or Three” by Sheila Finch, is a rather touching story of a dying astronaut’s relationship with a young girl. It manages to blend interesting character development with the unknowable, seducing us into suspending disbelief long enough to get to the end. I would like music to be a key to understanding the universe so, in a way, the plot appeals to my prejudices. “Graffiti in the Library of Babel” by David Langford is a sophisticated piece which suggests a novel way of communicating and different possible motives for the communication. In a way, this starts a trend where the editors cheat on their theme because aliens are shown to exist, but I forgave them because this and the other stories are good enough on their own merits.

The best of the bunch is “The Dark Man” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch which has another “real” alien periodically appearing in Rome. It’s a beautifully balanced piece of writing which blends a journalist’s scepticism and determination to debunk paranormal claims, with a real sense of mystery. “The Taste of Night” by Pat Cadigan is another pleasing idea which has us able to see into different dimensions if certain types of tumor affect the brain. It’s nicely done because the symptoms as presented are those ascribed to those suffering seizures, and the results are nicely ambiguous with agents of “authority” naturally characterising talk of aliens as evidence of mental disorder. “Timmy, Come Home” by Matthew Hughes is an elegant rehash of an old idea in which an alien, possibly a child, has accidentally been trapped in a human body and really would like to call home and get out of this Hell. “A Waterfall of Lights” by Ian Watson comes up with a unique way for AIs to communicate with us. Kudos to the Old Master for remaining so creative and giving us such a fun ride. “Rare Earth” by Felicity Shoulders and Leslie What completes the list of good eggs with a story somewhat like those YA stories I read decades ago of salmon returning to the river where they spawned. This has just enough contemporary reality to keep the interest in the “aliens” going.

So, on balance, I would look to pick this up secondhand. Although there are some very good stories, the overall standard is disappointing. I think the editors bit off more than they could chew with the theme, and then felt obliged to take some weaker stories to make up the numbers.

For a review of another anthology edited by Nick Gevers, see Other Earths.

Other Earths edited by Nick Gevers and Jay Lake

January 23, 2010 1 comment

Like many before them, the editors decided they preferred a unifying trope for the anthology. They gave it thought and came up with alternate history. Pausing at this moment, I confess very fond memories for Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, Keith Roberts’ Pavane, and others of that ilk. There is something fascinating about posing and answering the “what ifs”. Except these editors, having picked the trope, then decided to challenge their authors to bust the boundaries and write something “. . .where the shift of history was something else entirely”. In other words, the authors were commissioned to write stories only tangentially connected with the notion of an alternate history. The plots could be anything from horror to science fiction. This is like announcing a Sherlock Holmes anthology and the first story has him downloaded as an AI program into a robot to catch another robot that is running a simulation of Professor Moriarty and responsible for a crime wave on the Moon. Actually, I have some vague recollection of reading or viewing something along those lines — readers with better memories than I, please remind me what that story is (was it an animated episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Fast Forward?).

As to the stories admitted between the covers, we start with a fascinatingly cruel reimagining of what might have happened to resolve the conflict between the North and the South. Robert Charles Wilson in “This Peaceable Land” cleaves to the trope more than others and shows what solution might have been applied had there been no war to abolish slavery. In every respect this is a powerful if disturbing alternate. In the literal sense, there is a horrific possibility that he might be right and, having given us all food for thought, we move on to “The Goat Variations” by Jeff VanderMeer. This is a brave story. Not many US authors have had the confidence to write 9/11 stories so, kudos to Jeff for taking it on. For those of you not up on the lore of the day, President Bush continued reading The Pet Goat to an elementary school class for some seven minutes after being informed of the attacks. Thematically, this is a multiverse story where multiple Presidents in parallel universes face an incredible range of different catastrophes on the same day — I love the idea of the Ecstatics and their god-missiles. Structurally, I am not sure that it all hangs together, but it is such an edgy attempt, it definitely deserves to be included.

Stephen Baxter’s “The Unblinking Eye” is another clever story. He postulates that the southern hemisphere achieved true scientific civilisation while Europe remained little better than the Dark Ages. You may note that I declined reference to Enlightenment because, despite their scientific progress, the Incas seem unenlightened. They come bearing decorative devices with the destructive power of atomic bombs and quietly place them in the capital cities of the North. Local leaders are flattered by these gifts and, not understanding their threatening nature, accept them and, perhaps, venerate them.

We then hit a roadblock. “Csilla’s Story” by Theodora Goss is one of the more turgid piece of fiction I have laboured through over the last few years. It has a not uninteresting premise: that there is reality in the mythology of dryads or nymphs of the woods. Or, perhaps, this particular group of women has some fairy in them. Frankly, it was just too self-obsessed, telling and retelling the stories representing the oral history of these women and, while I am completely sympathetic to the semiotic need for people to seek the preservation of the meaning in their lives, I prefer it about half the length presented here. By a curious editorial irony, we then have a model of how to write a short story about fairy magic. I see absolutely no connection between Liz Williams’ “Winterborn” and alternate history, but it is a very successful story. This is less florid than some of her other short fiction involving the use of magic and it is the better for being leaner.

Taking them slightly out of order, we then have two different World War II stories. The first by Gene Wolfe is a slightly pedestrian alternate in which Britain falls to the Nazis, and Alastair Reynolds has a haunting tale of an alternate Britain in which the protagonists have the same names but are subtly different from their real world originals. Wolf’s “Donovan Sent Us” has OSS operatives parachuting into occupied London for a dangerous undercover operation. Reynold’s “The Receivers” has a wonderful Heath Robinson approach to detecting incoming German aircraft and a delightful possibility of other sounds being picked up out of the aether. As an aside, I recall operators at the Lovell Telescope being able to pick up conversations from miles away. Although I admire the central conceit of Wolf’s story, I found the whole less than impressive. Had it been an attempt at humour, I might de cod cherman accents haf enjoy. But I remember reading comics in the 1950s and 60s where the German in the bubbles was more convincing. Frankly, any author who resorts to imitating foreign accents in stories like this has no confidence in the readers’ ability to “hear” the uses of different languages in context. Reynolds, on the other hand, offers an interesting piece for a “young” writer. He is playing around with the life histories of several people probably completely unknown to the modern generation of readers. I loved its darkly melancholic exploration of why some artists are driven to practice their art. Whether its message will be understood by the majority of readers is debatable so, in their decision to include this story, I give high praise to the editors.

The two war stories sandwich a pleasingly wry tale about life on the ‘gator farm. Greg van Eekhout tells a mean story of religious rectitude in “The Holy City and Em’s Reptile Farm” where a thief with “pure” motives comes through an ordeal like Daniel in the lions’ den and is able to bring the Pilgrims back to the farm. Paul Park’s “A Family History”, partly written as a series of auction prizes on eBay, is a slightly strange dalliance. Albeit for nonsexual purposes, this is a writer being playful, toying with his readers as a man essential to maintain the family’s lineage survives an encounter with a “savage” because of his earlier meeting with a flute-playing dryad.

All of which leads us to “Dog-Eared Paperback of My Life” by Lucius Shepard. This is the reason why you should buy this book. No matter how you look at it, this must be rated as one of the best novellas of the year. We are back in a variation on the multiverse theme where multiple versions of the same character are all drawn to a particular place down the Mekong River. The journey itself and ultimate explanation of why they are drawn to make it are riveting fiction. Intellectually, it is among the most satisfying pieces of fiction I remember reading for some time. I was faintly surprised this was not the final story in the anthology. For some reason not entirely clear to me, the editors felt the need for one more entry into the lists. Except this is rather more a short disquisition than fiction as Benjamin Rosenbaum offers us something slightly more substantial than a powerpoint catalogue of thoughts about alternate history.

Overall, this paperback anthology is sensationally good value and definitely worth buying.

For my other reviews of Lucius Shepard, see: Louisiana Breakdown, Two Trains Running, Vacancy and Ariel and The Taborin Scale.

For a review of another anthology edited by Nick Gevers, see Is Anybody Out There?

For books written by Jay Lake see:
Endurance
Green
Kalimpura
The Sky That Wraps.

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