Saturday, June 27, 2009

Recent Reading: The Starry Rift: Tales of New Tomorrows

edited by Jonathan Strahan

Original anthologies of SF short stories seem to be a bit of a rarity these days, perhaps due, I gather, to some catastrophic misjudgments by publishers a couple of decades back. However, my taste for moderately literary SF was initially nurtured by some good anthologies (Out of This World, if you want the series title that comes to my mind), so I'm quite prepared to encourage such things.

And, okay, I discovered that this one had original stories by both Greg Egan and Neil Gaiman in it. Anyone who wants to know about my tastes should be able to deduce enough from the effect that those two names can have on me.

I got the impression from somewhere that this collection is aimed at the slightly younger end of the market, and while that doesn't seem to be stated anywhere in the book, it's believable. The stories are light on sex or gratuitous darkness, and many of them have youthful protagonists. The dearth of gratuitous splatter could also be explained by the simple fact that this is an SF collection, and Strahan seems to have been largely successful in keeping his contributors to that brief, which makes a pleasant change from some "original stories" anthologies. Not that everything is saccharine, mind; Garth Nix's "Infestation" is comparable to, say, an episode of Buffy for its gruesomeness, while throwing in some stuff about religion that's left for the intelligent-teenage reader to work out from broad hints. Mostly, though, this is a collection that explicitly takes '50s magazine SF as its model, and proves that one can do intelligent modern stuff within that framework.

Although it must be said that writers who cleave too closely to the model can come a cropper. I've never been a big Stephen Baxter fan, and his "Repair Kit" here shows how his emulation of the classics is one of his worst habits, all hard SF puzzle story clunkiness with too little of the formal ingenuity and none of the ironic flair of his stated model, Robert Sheckley. Nor does the Greg Egan story, "Lost Continent", quite come off, despite not being very much of a '50s pastiche; Egan spots a very interesting SF metaphor in the painful realities of the modern world, and supplies some admirable compassion to the story which uses it, but the metaphor never becomes quite concrete enough, never strengthens the story by virtue of distancing estrangement, while at the same time, its presence weakens the story as a depiction of real-world injustice. And the modernity is sometimes incomplete; Walter Jon Williams's "Pinocchio" has some interesting ideas and good characterisation, but doesn't work through the implications of the transhumanist technology of its setting; bodies can be swapped for less than the price of a bicycle, death is temporary, international travel is cheap - but mostly, the world looks and feels like a cheerful version of early 21st century California

The Gaiman story, "Orange", is fun, if slight, by the way, as Gaiman tends to be when writing quick pieces to fulfill a promise to a friend in the business. An account of an incursion of strangeness into reality, told entirely in the form of answers to questions which the reader has to infer (although that's not hard), it achieves its goals, if not a lot more; by the end, it's at least quite sweet. The other stories are generally pretty good; Margo Lanagan's "An Honest Day's Work" is odd and disturbing (in a good way), for example, while Cory Doctorow's "Anda's Game" continues Doctorow's interesting and worthy, if quixotic, moral reinvention of the SF canon.

So, yes, this book is definitely to be encouraged. It's probably way out of its time, but maybe it'll help keep the SF short story flame alive for another generation.

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