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REVIEW: "Not So Stories," "Starlings," & "Guardian Angels & Other Monsters"

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KEND

Here it comes: the collection review you never knew you needed! But you do. You do need this review, because collections are awesome and you have Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe's fabulous anthology Robots vs. Fairies to blame (I've already reviewed that gem at length on my Goodreads page, so I won't deal with it here). It has been many years since I was last tempted to read a collection of science fictional stories; I blame graduate school, and the collections course I was induced to take there. There are only so many collections a person can consume in an academic environment before the human brain begins to plot a course for the razor-sharp rocks of over-analysis, and it has taken me roughly the same amount of time to cleanse the salt taste of that class from my mouth as it has for me to reboot my own desire to write. So yes, blame Robots vs. Fairies. It served a sign that I was ready.

Ready to return to collections.

*****

Having purchased Thessaly: The Complete Trilogy through our local book exchange some time ago and having (typically) not found the bravery to pick it up yet (it's a massive compendium), I am familiar with the name Jo Walton without having actually read a single work of hers. Starlings provides, I think, the perfect entry point into her voice and way of being in the way that all single-author short story collections do. It is not a perfect book in that it suffers from the usual ailments that such collections suffer: namely, unevenness in quality, content, and voice. In her introduction, Walton herself admits that it is something of a grab-bag of odds and ends. (She writes: "So here in one place for your reading convenience are two short stories that I wrote after I knew what I was doing, two I wrote before I knew what I was doing, some exercises, some extended jokes, some first chapters of books I didn't write, some poems with the line breaks taken out, and some poems with the line breaks left in.") But that is not to say this is not a worthwhile or enjoyable book; it absolutely is! 

Here we have poems, some of them quite good indeed (the opening, titular poem, for example). Here we have truly short stories in the briefest of sense. And here we have some longer, more rounded, more alive pieces. The book opens on a great note, with "Three Twilight Tales," an interconnected set of tales full of the misty atmosphere of bygone magics, a structure which is echoed to good effect later in "The Panda Coin," which I loved for many reasons. The conceits behind "Jane Austen to Cassandra" (one of Walton's "extended jokes," I'm sure), "A Burden Shared," and "The Godzilla Sonnets" still have me emotionally fatigued (in the best way). I understand the fun behind "Not a Bio for Wiscon: Jo Walton" but am confused as to how it found its way into this book, a tonally discordant note. I will confess to being moved more easily by Walton's prose than her poetry (or her play, alas) but I emerge from this collection encouraged, and affirmed in my decision to purchase Thessaly: The Complete Trilogy without knowing the first thing about it. Walton is an author with range, and talent. I will be reversing time and reading her past works in the future with pleasure.

(Starlings is published by Tachyon, and was released on February 13, 2018.)

*****

Guardian Angels & Other Monsters represents my first foray into Daniel H. Wilson's work, and after having gone through Starlings I'm beginning to see a pattern: I spot books I might like to read but don't quite have the time to at present, and instead I end up reading short stories by the same author since I can polish them off between essay submissions and group projects and work and bed. Having not yet found time for Robopocalypseand yet knowing it's likely now to be booted (finally) out of Hollywood's/Steven Spielberg's development hell (by none other than *explosions everywhere* Michael Bay), I have at last succumbed to the subtle self-pressure to catch up on what might be the next hot thing in science fictional adaptations. Whatever you think about Spielberg's decision to pawn this project off on Bay, one has to admit there's something almost tantalizingly noisy about the whole prospect.

This is probably not the best book to read in bed, however.

Unlike Starlings, Wilson's collection feels less like an afterthought to a well-developed career than it does a serious project with a consistent tone. It's so serious, in fact, that pretty much every single short story deals with extreme violence, often in the context of war. I'm sure readers of the Robopocalypse books will be excited to know that the series rates a standalone short story ("Parasite: A Robopocalypse Story") which carries some weight of its own; I have the feeling, of course, that I'm missing a lot of the context. Or rather, all of the context, seeing as how I've not read any of the series yet. "Miss Gloria," Wilson's opening act, follows an artificial intelligence as it reboots time after time in its quest to save the life of a little girl under its care; the reboot process makes for an interesting, and thoroughly cinematic, trick to move the story along. "The Blue Afternoon That Lasted Forever" and "The Executor" are perhaps the most competent of the stories in this collection, lofting both fascinating premises and some serious (if compressed) character development at the reader. Several of the other stories in this collection deal with similar parent/protector-child relationships, always framed within a larger context of loss or violence. "Helmet" shifts the burden of protection onto an older brother and "The Nostalgist" shifts it to a grandfather figure, but otherwise these stories uphold the trend. Each one contains elements of horror, horror within families falling apart, which is why I don't recommend this as a bedtime read.

There's a lot to enjoy here, a lot of flash-bang and a lot of uncanny valley and a lot of familiar faces turning twisted in the dark. But there are also some missteps, and one in particular which still grates: In "Blood Memory," Wilson ties a child-turned-psychopath to an autism diagnosis in the second paragraph, and seeds the horror story which follows with lines about "wrongness" and "deformity" which are bound to get my hackles up. I'm sorry, but when you start a story with a diagnosis, you don't get to pretend it's not important to how those of us who are on the spectrum will read your story. It's telling that one of Wilson's favorite adjectives in this story is "empty," another word familiar in all the wrong ways to those of us who are part of the ASD community. I won't due Wilson the disservice of claiming all of the stories are like this one, but it certainly casts the series in a new light when I look at it in retrospect, as a whole. Does Wilson equate autism with emptiness? And what does framing that story between "Helmet" (in which a kid is trapped in his own body and denied agency, another trope familiar to the medical/science fictional nexus) and "Foul Weather" (in which a man is trapped in a plane with an active horror) and any number of stories about robotic technology gone astray say about the way Wilson views the human body in relation to the human mind? Minds and bodies, in Guardian Angels & Other Monsters, are usually malevolent, or impotent, or otherwise doomed to fail those we love.

Framed in a medical context, that's a troubling conclusion indeed.

(Guardian Angels & Other Monsters is published by Vintage/Random House, and was released on March 6, 2018.)

*****

Finally, we come to Not So Stories, an anthology commenting in the most obvious of fashions upon Rudyard Kipling's classic (and classically racist) Just So Stories. I admired the goal of this anthology enough to request an advance copy through NetGalley, and I'm glad I did. Here, Australian author and anthologizer David Thomas Moore gathers together a number of authors, many of them known primarily as short story writers and few of them currently in possession of published novel-length works, and unleashes them upon Kipling with the goal of producing a diverse, spirited update of the original.

It is worth noting at the outset that Moore himself is white, while most of the contributing authors are not. Many of them are based in the United States, but their short biographies indicate that they come from all over. I think there's a lot to learn from this sort of approach, and I'm cautiously optimistic we'll see more work from all of them in future. Going in, the only author with whom I was familiar was Paul Krueger, whose Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge is rollicking good fun and an interesting take on the urban fantasy genre. Coming out, I'm hungry to track down the other authors involved in this project.

The tone here varies widely, but a number of threads run through the stories to bind them together. Characters appear, then reappear, and the narratives interlock and inform each other in both obvious and less-immediately-apparent ways. This device holds true in many ways to the original Kipling, and in many ways subverts it, as the animal characters here achieve greater degrees of engagement, and roundness, and agency, than they ever do in the original. This project feels like a unified whole, a legs-planted, face-forward stare into the middle distance of routine collections and mainstream science fiction. Like Robots vs. Fairies, it's clear that the authors took the premise they were given and ran, hard and long and fast, in directions that may not have been mapped out for them beforehand but which certainly led back to a place which makes for great reading material. Unlike Robots vs. Fairies (my current benchmark for collection excellence, you'll note), Not So Stories feels as much like a collaboration as it does a collection. These authors worked together, or at the very least drew upon each other for inspiration and plot architecture. They have built something solid, something whole. It's a beautiful idea which has taught me something new, several things new, and raised the bar for what is possible in a science fictional (and fantastical) anthology.

(Not So Stories is published by Abaddon Books, and will be released on April 10, 2018.)

*****

Are there, then, any lessons to be learned from this early Spring batch of science fictional and fantastical collections? They have certainly encouraged me that there's great range in content and voice and style and project within these genres. They have encouraged me that there's more yet to come in experimenting with all of these things and the impulse to collect in the first place. How authors go about deciding what to include, and how anthologizers go about deciding who and what to solicit, can transform the final product from the traditional "here's my best things, or my leftovers" impulse and the equally traditional "I happen to like these authors, so let me put them all in one place" impulse ... into something magical. Or horrifying. Or instructive. Or eerie. 

And I'm all here for that.

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