Category Archives: Anthology

Stories Of Your Life And Others

Stories Of Your Life And Others by Ted ChiangReview: Stories Of Your Life And Others by Ted Chiang (Small Beer Press, 2010)

“Though I am long dead as you read this, explorer, I offer to you a valediction. Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so. I feel I have the right to tell you this because, as I am inscribing these words, I am doing the same.”

Finding an author like Ted Chiang is a rare occurrence. A writer who speaks not only to you personally but also serves to illuminate the works of others, revealing hidden depths you would never have stumbled across in works you’ve cherished for years. Chiang’s almost miserly output – a mere 14 short stories and novellas over more than two decades – cuts right to the core of the sci-fi genre, revealing its beating heart in all its imaginative glory and adding a shot of adrenaline for good measure. To have only discovered him now pains me. To realise that in finishing this collection I have depleted over half of his catalogue is unbearable. But at least I can do my best to tempt you to join me in the ecstasy.

Stories Of Your Lives And Others covers a bewildering variety of styles, subjects and eras. The collection’s opener for instance, Tower Of Babylon, thrusts us not into the future but the Biblical past. We join a team of miners on their journey up the mythical tower, learning the secrets of its constructions from fellow labourers as they go. Why would miners of all trades be required at the peak of this greatest of all monoliths? Because the vault of Heaven has finally been reached and mankind is ready to break through to the world of gods. The action takes place at a meditative pace, steadily ascending as the mechanics of this universe slowly reveal themselves. However, the gods of whom they are in pursuit seems mightily conspicuous by his absence. The story’s twist ending is pitched perfectly and will have you smiling and contemplatively stroking your beard (where applicable) for a time afterwards.

And so it is with the remainder of the stories. There’s a wonderfully novel mash-up of the time travel genre with the Arabian Nights style of story-telling, multiple story-lines and time-frames wrapping around each other to dizzying effect. I lifted the quote at the start of this review from a remarkably touching tale of a robot making the momentous discovery that his universe is approaching the equivalent of the entropic heat death which awaits our own. There’s the incredibly poignant and moving tale of a loving partnership in the process of disintegration, told through the lens of a terrifying mathematical discovery in Division By Zero. Yes, maths can be terrifying, trust me. Hell Is The Absence Of God drops us into a world where it’s taken for granted that Heaven, Hell and angels all exist – they’re there to be empirically verified by whoever cares to look. Given this premise, Chiang embarks on a study of blind faith versus rational investigation, managing to avoid appearing condescending to believers while still wielding his scientific skepticism like a scalpel.

And there’s the titular Story Of Your Life, of particular interest to the language teachers among us. Here Chiang grants us a unique twist on the first contact story, with alien lifeforms arriving on our doorstep and calmly awaiting communication. However, unlike other tales of this ilk, there is no universal translator available. Instead we join a linguist tasked with learning an alien language from scratch, painfully aware that we have not evolved to discern the sounds made by our visitors’ physiology and with an almost entirely unrelated written language to contend with. All the while the story is framed by an apparent series of letters to her daughter, speaking of events past as though they yet awaited in the future and leading us towards the time-twisting conclusion.

There’s nothing I’d like more than to get into a detailed discussion of each and every tale within these pages. They all merit extensive examination and there’s barely a wasted word anywhere. However I’ll simply leave it to you to find out, for the pleasure will be all the greater when you get there. I will say this though; if you care at all about science fiction, creativity, intellect and masterful writing then you would do yourself an enormous disservice by ignoring Ted Chiang.

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Filed under Anthology, Science Fiction, Short Stories

Sequel City Part 4 – The End Is Now

The End Is Now by John Joseph AdamsReview: The End Is Now by John Joseph Adams & Hugh Howey (ed.) (Broad Reach Publishing, 2014)

First off, apologies for the brief hiatus. I was first interrupted from my reading reverie by the fact that my countrymen, in a dazzling display of cowardice, naivety and gullibility, rejected the chance to decide their own future and decided instead to be ruled from another country by a party which the entire country has outright rejected for the past three decades. It was kinda like being in a sci-fi movie actually, a whole week of “Did that actually just happen…?” before I even began to come to terms with the enormity of it. And then there was the diving. I’m now officially a Rescue Diver which means if any of you happen to find yourself in trouble on the high seas you just have to holler, I’ll drag you out and CPR you back to life. Two week where my only reading companion was the PADI Rescue Diver manual. Anyways, back to business as usual so on with the show…

Rounding off the current spate of wonderful and eagerly awaited sequels in my reading pile has been The End Is Now, follow up to the stellar The End Is Nigh and midway point of the Apocalypse Triptych. Ably curated by anthology maestro John Joseph Adams and current post-apoc-fic darling Hugh Howey, the series shifts from impending armageddons to works in progress. Almost every story in the book is a continuation from the first installment but worry not, there’s just enough exposition and background to fill in new readers without annoying those already up to speed.

My review of the previous book was glowing to say the least so did the authors manage to keep up the pace for round two? The answer is a mighty hell yes. The majority of the stories pick up exactly where their predecessors left off, meaning with some you’re pushed straight into the action without a pause for breath. For example, reading Scott ‘Infected‘ Sigler’s The Sixth Day Of Deer Camp feels as though you just put the preceding chapter down yesterday. You’re right back in the same freezing North American cabin, with the same group of semi-drunk hunters and the same crashed alien vessel in the woods outside. The invasion is in progress and this gaggle of everyday Joes have to figure out whether to brave the snowbound road to the nearest town (if it’s still there), bunker down and hope it all blows over or go on the offensive. They’re Americans. They have guns. Guess which one they choose…

That tale in particular exemplifies one of the overarching themes which seems to have manifested in many of these, a focus on the humanity, loss and sadness rather than the gratuitous carnage which reduces much of the rest of the genre to Schumacher-esque pastiche. What starts out as a rather insane push for mankind’s survival turns into a deeply upsetting realisation that the fearsome, inhuman invaders are not all that different from us. I really didn’t expect the turn this one took and it’s all the better for it. Another winner in this field was Annie Bellet’s touching Goodnight Stars, one of the more down-to-earth tales (kinda literally) which opts for a heart-breaking family angle and absolutely nails it.

The rest of the book is a wonderful mixture of destruction, disease and death in all its splendour. Special mention for insanity goes to Charlie Jane ‘io9’ Anders’s Rock Manning Can’t Hear You. I have no idea where this idea came from or where it’s going but there sure isn’t another apocalypse like it out there. However, cream of the crop must surely Fruiting Bodies by Seanan McGuire aka Mira Grant. I’d like to state here and now that fungal fiction is definitely the ickiest, most flesh-creeping idea ever to crawl out of anyone’s warped mind. Between Seanan’s series and The Girl With All The Gifts (to be reviewed in a few days) I’d be happy never to eat a mushroom again. Or touch anything. Or even breathe. Seriously. Fruiting Bodies manages to combine an utterly revolting concept of a genetically engineered fungi gone wrong with a tragic tale of a mother and daughter fighting to survive in an incredibly hostile environment. I didn’t know whether to puke or cry.

While you may want to check out the first book before jumping in – and you really, really should – The End Is Now is a fun ride for anyone who just wants to see the whole word burn. Adams and Howey gave a shitload of matches and gasoline to some of the finest genre authors of today. Boy, do they know how to use them.

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Filed under Anthology, Dystopian, Post-Apocalypse, Science Fiction, Short Stories

Wastelands: Stories Of The Apocalypse

Wastelands by John Jospeh AdamsReview: Wastelands: Stories Of The Apocalypse, edited by John Joseph Adams (Night Shade Books, 2008)

He only wanted to make the world a better place. To stop us fighting, arguing, wasting our time on petty disagreements. He thought it would help. And it did, for a while. People were kinder and gentler. They laughed with each other, they played games, they enjoyed life. But soon, that was all they did. Then the memories started to disappear, and before long they couldn’t do anything, not even take care of themselves. And by then it was too late. No-one who could have reversed the effects had the brainpower any more. Goodnight humanity.

Thus runs Stephen King’s gloriously bleak ‘The End Of The Whole Mess‘, the first tale in Wastelands: Stories Of The Apocalyose, a diverse collection of post-apocalyptic short fiction from the master of the sci-fi compendium John Joseph Adams. King’s story, narrated in diary form by one Howard Fornoy, tells of how his genius younger brother Robert inadvertently brought mankind to a grinding halt. In an attempt to alleviate our more violent instincts he researches a chemical synthesised from water in the mysteriously peaceful small town of La Plata. Using a volcanic eruption to disperse the ‘cure’ around the globe he is at first elated by the effects. All too late he realises that it doesn’t stop there – the drug eventually leads to a state indistinguishable from Alzheimer’s. The final few journal entries by Howard are a respectful hat-tip to Daniel Keyes’ heartbreaking classic Flowers For Algernon as the narrator’s own mental powers slowly slip away.

Post-apocalyptic fiction usually carries a reputation for being excessively dark – grim and nihilistic are the order of the day. However by corralling 22 stories from some of today’s finest SF/Fantasy authors, John Joseph Adams has turned Wastelands into a vehicle from smashing such stereotypes into the dust. Yes, there are some ultimate downers to be found in these pages, Paulo Bagiaculpi’s ‘People Of Sand And Slag‘ being one example which may have you reaching for the Kleenex. It’s not all doom and gloom though, there is comedy to be found as well as sheer aching beauty in some of these visions of the future.

The apocalypse can take many forms, such as the one encountered Octavia Butler’s silent ‘Speech Sounds‘. She imagines a disease sweeping the world and removing the ability to communicate. To differing degrees people suddenly find themselves robbed of speech and handwriting skills but otherwise unimpaired. The paranoia instilled by a sudden total dependence on body languages and the ambiguities which lie within soon has the world in flames. The intellectually isolated population tries to get on as best as it can but find that it’s difficult to live in a world where even an apparent favour from a stranger could be fraught with danger.

An old favourite of mine, Cory Doctorow’s ‘When Sysadmins Ruled The Earth‘ makes a welcome appearance in Wastelands. By turns dark and yet comically surreal it foists an almost slapstick, accidental armageddon upon us. One freak occurrence leads to panic in another area, setting off riots which trigger a terrorist attack which leads to an overreaching response – you see where this is going. In the space of a single evening every government and terrorist group has unleashed their arsenals, carpeting the world in nuclear, biological and conventional devastation. Our hero, Felix, is called to his Toronto data center just as events are picking up. One of the first manifestations of the looming catastrophe is a worm knocking out his routers and as sysadmin he slumps out of bed, leaving his wife and daughter behind, and gets to work. It’s the last time he sees them alive. Safe inside the vault-like server storage unit, he and his other nerd friends weather the events in safety. Piecing together what they can by communicating with similar safe havens around the globe they proceed to construct an internet-based government to cope with the disaster. Unfortunately it transpires that getting geeks to agree on politics is a process similar to herding cats.

Wastelands helped to forge John Joseph Adams’s reputation as one of our finest curators of short fiction. His other anthologies such as The Mad Scientist’s Guide To World Domination demonstrate a similar eclecticism and eye for the exceptional. While not every tale in this collection is perfect the average hit rate is astoundingly high, with far too many favourites for me to list here. Fans of the post-apocalypse or just well-told sci-fi and fantasy tales in general should stop off for a while to recharge their batteries. From Dale Bailey’s sardonic ‘The End Of The World As We Know It‘ to Neal Barrett Jr’s gleefully silly ‘Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus‘ there is truly something here for everyone

Oh, and Jerry Oltion’s ‘Judgement Passed‘ may be the single finest piece of writing about The Rapture ever conceived…

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Filed under Anthology, Fantasy, Post-Apocalypse, Science Fiction