My rating: 3 of 5 stars
An anthology of ‘speculative’ fiction by author who are known for writing mainstream fiction. I’m not familiar with the majority of the authors, but hey, figured I’d give it a try.
*** “Portal” by J. Robert Lennon
The discovery of a magic portal in the backyard is given an amusing dissonance by the fact that the family who owns it treats it like any other property amenity, such as perhaps, an inground pool. And, the narrator tells us, they’ve allowed it to fall into disuse, in fact, almost forgotten about it, although it was quite the novelty at first, and was used as the starting point of any number of family excursions.
The setup is great, the alternate worlds imaginative and disturbing, especially in their reflections on family members’ obsessions and failings. But then, the author doesn’t really do much with the idea, and simply ends the piece abruptly on a note of indefinite ennui.
**** “Beautiful Monsters” by Eric Puchner
If I’d read this in an anthology of sci-fi shorts from the 50s or 60s, I never would’ve guessed that it didn’t belong. The themes and setting are both very much in line with the concerns of SF of that era – but hey, that’s also probably the era of SF that I discovered first, and that I came to love – so I can’t say it’s a minus in my book.
In this future, the ‘problem’ of aging has been solved. The vast majority of citizens are physically children, although they can live indefinitely in their prepubescent bodies. People who age and die are now a persecuted minority, on the brink of extinction. When an injured adult man turns up on the doorstep of one boy and girl’s home, it’s the first time they’ve ever seen one…
**** “The Squid Who Fell in Love with the Sun” by Ben Loory.
Awww. It’s a sappy parable. But its message about curiosity and ambition; the driving force toward knowledge and exploration – even in the face of ridicule, hopelessness and despair… and its dream of a better, even if unseeable future… brought a tear to my eye.
*** “Five Fucks” by Jonathan Lethem
I’m not generally a big fan of Lethem, but this one had a strong start. After a one-night (or so she thought) stand with a strange (both strange to her, and rather odd) man, a woman discovers that she’s somehow lost time, and has been reported as a missing person. Compelled to find her lover again and investigate what actually happened, the situation only gets worse, and odder…
Up till there, I loved it – but I don’t think that the author succeeds in wrapping it up well at all.
*** “LIMBs” by Julia Elliott
In a near-future nursing home, an elderly Alzheimer’s patient is using new prosthetics to help her to walk unassisted, and is also undergoing a new treatment designed to recover lost memories. Those retrieved flashes of memory allow her to realize that not one, but two of her fellow residents are men who were important to her in the past.
Very well written, but a bit sentimental for me. Recommended for fans of ‘Like Water for Elephants.’
**** “We Are The Olfanauts” by Deji Bryce Olukotun
Really good – the introduction made much of this author, but I’m going to have to say I agree with the accolades. Giving us the point of view of a man who works as a content reviewer at a new media company, the story is full of interesting speculative details about new technology, but also subtly and effectively delivers a host of observations and indictments on our present world and where it’s heading.
Like any social media content, the new tech, which involves being able to share scents as well as sound and visuals, is able to be abused by trolls and others. The protagonist here spends his work days reviewing ‘questionable’ content, and his leisure hours pursuing company-approved activities. There’s a lot packed into the short pages here – commentary on corporate culture, the inequity of hierarchies, the emotional toll of this sort of work, the ramifications of censorship, the consequences of adhering to rules, guidelines, and schedules, &c. Nicely done.
**** “The Region of Unlikeness” by Rivka Galchen
An interesting investigation of the ‘time travel paradox.’
A young woman meets a couple of older men in a coffeeshop, and finds their philosophical conversation more fascinating than that of her college peers. She falls into a slightly odd and unequal friendship with both men… although finding one of them attractive might have something to do with her starry-eyed attitude. But then, they seem to fall off the face of the earth. Did they just get bored with her company and ditch her? Or is something stranger behind this? An odd note piques her curiosity and makes it difficult to move on…
Interesting ideas, a very believable ambiguity, and truly insightful capturing of psychology…
***** “A Precursor of the Cinema” by Steven Millhauser
A wholly and utterly convincing art history essay – the catch, of course, is that the artist in question, and indeed, the 19th-century art movements he was allegedly involved with, such as the “Verisimilists,” are all fictional. The artist that the writer focuses on has, we are told, faded into obscurity as he, and all of his remarkable paintings, disappeared. Researchers have been left with only contemporary accounts of his exhibits and shows, which reportedly featured never-before-or-since-seen effects enabled by what the artist described as ‘animate paint.’
Fascinating, eerie, and wonderfully written. I’m not at all surprised to hear that the author won a Pulitzer.
** “In the Bushes” by Jami Attenberg
In a near-future rural America, bankrupted by foreign wars, the poignant tragedy is that young people have to go back to making out in the bushes, rather than in the backseats of cars. Straddling the line between apocalyptic doomsaying and absurdity, this one didn’t work for me.
*** “Fugue State” by Brian Evenson
Creepy pandemic tale, featuring a plague which brings confusion, dissociation, amnesia… and, of course, death.
** “Reports Concerning the Death of the Seattle Albatross Are Somewhat Exaggerated” by W. P. Kinsella
If you are the target audience for a baseball/sci-fi tragicomedy, this may appeal to you. I, however, am not that reader, and did not particularly enjoy this story of an alien, alone on earth, masquerading as a baseball team’s mascot, abandoned by his countrymen. Cue the sad clowns…
*****“Lambing Season” by Molly Gloss
It’s a bit difficult to make the case that Gloss really belongs in an anthology of science fiction by non-SF authors. Yes, she also writes ‘mainstream’ fiction, but she’s a winner of the prestigious James Tiptree Jr. award, the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and this story in particular was nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo awards. If all those don’t add up to Sci-Fi creds, I don’t know what does!
Regardless, 5 stars from me for this story. Quiet but intensely vivid, the piece brings us into the life of a solitary shepherd who, on one of her long lonely watches, sees something strange fall from the sky. Her reactions and decisions are not at all what most first-contact stories presume, but they make utter sense in the context of the character and her life.
The almost-hyperrealism of the setting and scenario also drew me to contemplate how very different – even ‘alien’ – to many of us, the actual lives and situations of many people right here on this planet might seem.
*** “Conrad Loomis & The Clothes Ray” by Amiri Baraka.
Well, this is an excellent introduction to a potential story about an eccentric African-American inventor and his more-conventional buddy. Excellent writing, and pointedly sardonic commentary on the obstacles – and dangers – faced by a brilliant black man with a potentially world-changing – and valuable – invention on his hands. However, then it just abruptly ends. Really too bad this idea wasn’t developed further. However, I think I’ll definitely have to put the book of short stories this originally appeared in on my list (“Tales of the Out and the Gone.”)
Available for free, here: https://pen.org/fiction-novel/conrad-…
** “Topics in Advanced Rocketry” by Chris Tarry
For a publicity stunt intended to revive interest in space exploration, a company has decided to shoot an “average American family” up in a rocket. The venture is none-too-safe, and public opinion/interest isn’t quite where it was hoped. And even on the launch pad, the family can’t stop their mundane bickering.
Yeah, the piece has depressingly true things to say about our society, but I didn’t particularly care for it.
*****“The Inner City” by Karen Heuler
Creeeeepy! A mildly eccentric but utterly believable West Village resident is looking for a job. When she comes across some discarded paperwork that indicates that someone might’ve been fired from a nearby office, she takes the initiative to seek it out – after all, they must have a vacancy they’re looking to fill! But the secret office she finds is absolutely not what she was looking for.
This one will be coming back to haunt me…
**** “Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders
I’ve previously read and enjoyed Saunders’ “Civilwarland in Bad Decline” but I think this story is even stronger. It shows us another aspect of a dystopian near-future, one where convicts might pull strings for the “opportunity” to enter experimental drug testing programs rather than a ‘traditional’ prison. The disturbing revelations pile up as our protagonist is led toward having to make a terrible moral choice – but the by-the-by implications of what these experiments might indicate about the outside world are equally bad – and completely believable.
** “Amorometer” by Kelly Luce
Felt a bit like an intended homage to Haruki Murakami, but it didn’t really do it for me.
A bored housewife receives a letter which was intended for another woman of the same name. A lonely, retired professor is seeking a former student, whom, he claims, decades before tested unusually high on an experimental device designed to measure a person’s capacity to love. The housewife is intrigued. What if she was this extraordinary woman?
** “The Yogurt of Vasirin Kefirovsky” by Max Apple
On assignment to interview an elderly scientist of some renown, a journalist discovers that the man has left his past work behind him, and is now wholly obsessed with the alleged benefits of a fad diet. I didn’t particularly care for the story, and moreover, I didn’t feel it belonged in this anthology, as there’s no indication that the yogurt diet’s ‘benefits’ are anything more than a sad delusion.
**** “Monstros” by Junot Díaz
Four stars instead of 5 only because this is very clearly the first chapter of a novel, not a stand-alone story. The introduction to the story here implies that the novel is to-come, but Wikipedia disagrees: “Since 2007, Diaz was reported to be working on another novel, entitled Monstro; however, in June 2015 Diaz stated that he had effectively abandoned that novel.”
That’s a shame, because I would read the hell out of it.
Two Dominican Brown University students, one a nerdy writer, one a wealthy playboy, and the beautiful but troubled girl that our narrator (the nerd) is obsessed with, all happen to be at home in the DR when a new plague breaks out. The plague’s effects are a new and extremely creepy twist on the zombie trope… but I guess we don’t get to find out what happens.
** “Minotaur” by Jim Shepard
Two couples meet for drinks. Their conversation reveals their fraught relationships and the disconnection caused by the fact that the guys are government agents working on super-top-secret projects that they can’t talk about to anyone. The piece feels a bit unfocused and all-over-the-place. I wouldn’t have chosen it for this collection, as calling this speculative fic is too much of a stretch for me.
** “Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover” by Robert Olen Butler
In this alternate world, Weekly-World-News-style space aliens are a fact of life. A spinster-ish, small-town homebody is unexpectedly sought out by one of these aliens, and swept off for a whirlwind romance in his UFO.
This tragicomedy is too silly and stereotypical to achieve real pathos, but doesn’t go over-the-top enough for satire, either.
* “Near-Flesh” by Katherine Dunn
Previously read; did not re-read: “tells of a nasty, unattractive woman who uses male sex robots to gratify herself… and gets what’s coming to her. I didn’t like it.”
Many thanks to Tachyon and NetGalley for the opportunity to read this interesting mix of stories. As always, my opinions are solely my own.