This is partly a blog posting, partly a book review, partly an attempt to make sense of something that has been bugging me for some time.
I've borrowed the title Lean in from the ever-brilliant podcast Rule of Three, a phrase Joel Morris and Jason Hazeley (who I may have sat at the same table with once or twice at Week Ending open writers' meetings) as a phrase they often employ to sum up comedy that makes you want to listen. Good comedy, good writing, makes you lean in. And my difficulty with Lightspeed Presents Futures & Fantasies is that it only intermittently makes me want to lean in.
My starting point is, of course, that the problem lies with me. John Joseph Adams and Lightspeed have won just about every accolade and award they possibly can, and most of what's here has also appeared in whichever annual 'best of' applies. It's a publication I've not come close to getting into, although this made them encourage other submissions. This is the creamiest cream, science fiction-wise, that money can buy.
Or, in this case, money can't buy, because it's a freebie. Which makes being churlish about it feel even more misanthropic than it already does. Because I can't pussyfoot around the fact that it's taken me fourteen months to wade through and, I suspect, stands for many of the things that I really, really don't like about much modern science fiction.
In an attempt to put some flesh on the bones of what is at best a gut feeling, I skimmed back through the tome. It starts well. I think I've read Adam-Troy Castro's 'The Thing About Shapes to Come' before. There's a straightforwardness to the telling that doesn't get in the way of the surreality. It's a straightforwardness that is less in evidence in Caroline Yoachim's tale: "The conversation made sense in the way dreams often do." Hmm, the story too - possibly the leap of imagination here is so great that the words fail to map what's in Yoachim's mind into mine. Or maybe I prefer my sci-fi grounded, which Jeremiah Tolbert's story was.
My recollection of Brooke Bolander's story is frantic style with substance hard to get hold of - who, exactly is doing what to whom, and why? It's all detail and little context. Like I said, the writing needs to map what's in the writers head to mine, and the more crazed the scenario the less I need my writing gnomic.
I seemed to remember quite liking Charlie Jane Anders' tale without quite remembering anything specific about it. Hao Jingfang's... I'm sorry, but this is where the chin-stroking takes over and story... well, story doesn't even come for the ride. Seanan McGuire's and Sarah Grey's stories are, however, stories, which, to me, means a somebody wanting to do something but having hurdles in their way, and if you have that foundation in place it can carry the weight of your fantasy and phrases like "the krosuta-whitened stare of the Henza abbess". Otherwise... well, you're choosing soft furnishings before you even have the walls built.
Ashok K Banker's is also a story, I think, but it's long and gives away the ending at the beginning which makes for a dull trudge to get from one end to the other.
If Hao Jingfang's story illustrated one of my gripes - erudite and literate world-building for world-building's sake without it being the setting for a particular tale, like enjoying the thrill of the open road by studying the maintenance manual; Jaymee Goh's sort of makes it into that category by writing beautifully about not much, rather than nothing at all.
Now, Jake Kerr's story is a story, but was the only one that made me angry, not just for being implausible - I'm not convinced that spaceflight is possible without the knowledge that the tale denied - but, more importantly, for having a character called Mars, so it was only halfway through that I realised that it wasn't a planetary base that was also in communication with the capsule. I think it was meant to read like a clever twist on The Martian, but was just annoying.
I'm going to contradict what I said about lack of narrative, because Carmen Maria Machado's story is, like Jingfang's, a bit of clever word-smithery, but at least it has wit and charm, and was also succinct.
Hugh Howey's piece left little impression on me, so I'm glad I read the Wool trilogy before this, otherwise I may not have pursued it. Cadwell Turnbull's, however, did stick with me, possibly my favourite, being focussed, with a clear single element that differentiates it from normality, and isn't written by somebody in love with language first and ideas second. Sofia Samatar's has similar qualities.
Ken Liu may be a big name, but the conceit here is quite lame and, with Yoon Ha Lee, we're back in "light the colour of fossils burns from the ships, and at certain hours, the sun casts shadows that mutter the names of vanquished cities" territory. Does somebody have the keys to the pretentious phrases generator? Please throw them in the shrubbery. I was recently pulled up by an editor for describing a sound as being "like being inside the mouth of a volcano". Have I ever been inside the mouth of a volcano, he asked. No, but the leap of my imagination can get me there. But light the colour of fossils? shadows that mutter? No, me neither.
Theodora Goss' piece, I must have read very, very recently - just days ago - but can recall virtually nothing about other than it being more conceit than story, ditto Violet Allen's, which is pretty much all about the inability to tell a story.
Which leads me, like an Agatha Christie character gathering everybody in the drawing room, to draw my conclusion. And my accusation is: insufficient story.
It's that simple.
You can do all the world-building and sentence polishing you like, you can think up all kinds of different worlds and maybe come up with wonderful lexical tricks, which I may or may not call out as emperor's new clothes, that describe the additional colour they have in their palate compared to ours. Describe cities in the sky all you like, but if you don't tell me about the kid who lives there who wants to weave a ladder long enough to reach the ground, and all the reasons why they can't and what they do to make it so, it's just word sludge passing by my eyes. I'm no longer reading, I'm staring at words in order.
And a little less po-faced helps too, guys. Not sure how much of this made me crack a smile - Machado's, I think, and Cadwell Turnbull's had a lightness of touch - but there's a real sense of writing for the author's benefit alone, to some template of what 'literature' looks like, as if writing and reading are endurance sports, with an obligatory essay to follow.
But, if this is what good science fiction is – did I mention the pages of award and accolades? - then the problem is still me, and I doubt I'll make it from the foothills of semi-pro publishers up to the high snow-covered peaks. But do I really want to be there? The air's thin, you risk losing your fingers and have to carry your shit back in a plastic bag. I just need to learn to be happy where I am.
2084. The world remains at war.
In the Eurasian desert, twenty-year old Adnan emerges from a coma with memories of a strictly ordered city of steel and glass, and a woman he loved.
The city is the Dome, and the woman... is Adnan's secret to keep.
Adnan learns what the Dome is, and what his role really was within it. He learns why everybody fears the Sickness more than the troopers. And he learns why he is the only one who can stop the war.
Persuaded to re-enter the Dome to implant a virus that will bring the war machine to its knees, the resistance think that Adnan is returning to free the many - but really he wants to free the one.
24 0s & a 2
Twenty-four slipstream stories. Frequently absurd, often minimifidian, occasionally heroic.