How High We Go in the Dark

How High We Go in the Dark
By Sequoia Nagamatsu

A collection of linked short stories dealing with the effects of an “Arctic plague” of alien origin released by melting Siberian permafrost might seem very timely in 2022. This makes it all the more remarkable that How High We Go in the Dark was mostly completed before 2020 and the outbreak of COVID.

The actual working of the plague — which causes organs to start copying the function of other organs, with predictably disastrous results — aren’t as important as its human impact. These are stories (calling it a novel seems more about marketing) that deal with the subject of grief and loss, especially as felt by parents and their children. Broader considerations also come in to play, however, as the pandemic impacts on both a personal and political level. The funerary industry, for example, becomes a major growth sector almost overnight. It turns out that mass die-offs are good for some parts of the economy.

In the face of so much death, science throws up various surrogates for lost loved ones and family members: talking pigs, robot dogs, and even plasticized corpses. Given the subject matter, Sequoia Nagamatsu has to occasionally walk a fine line to avoid falling into sentiment. That he does so is a tribute to his imaginative range and how finely he explores the psychological ramifications of the end of our world.

Selected Stories of H. G. Wells

Selected Stories of H. G. Wells
Ed. by Ursula K. Le Guin

A lot of successful novelists see short stories as little more than finger exercises: warm-ups for more substantial work. I think this was how H. G. Wells saw them, considering stories as too restricted in both form and effect to bother with as much in his later career. That said, he wrote a lot of great stories and they’re nicely sampled here by Ursula K. Le Guin, who also does a great job introducing them.

Some preoccupations, for example flight, would be developed at greater length in Wells’ novels. Others, like out-of-body experiences and transferals of consciousness didn’t make it out of the stories. Le Guin correctly makes the point that SF doesn’t really deal with the matter of predictions, preferring “warning, speculations, and alternatives,” but Wells may be taken as an outlier here as many of his works were remarkably prescient. For example, the pale-faced clerks working “The Land Ironclads” (forerunners of tanks) are moving the same knobs and pressing the same buttons as they operate drones today.

The final stories veer into fantasy and fable, following an arc Wells’ career also described. But while they don’t have quite the same threatening edge, they do illustrate abiding themes in Wells’s work – ones that still resonate today.

The Machine Stops

The Machine Stops
By E. M. Forster

SF authors score a lot of points for getting the future right, and E. M. Forster’s 1909 novella (or “meditation,” as he calls it) looks pretty good with a century-plus of hindsight.

Most of humanity have moved underground where they live in monastic cells, cared for by a mighty Machine and basically devolving into giant grubs (“white pap,” or a fungus) while connecting to others virtually by way of a proto-Internet. The pursuit of comfort has led to a paradoxical decadence: a “civilization” given over entirely to the life of the mind that’s helpless when faced with a mechanical crisis. The lectures and “ideas” that are its raison d’être all have to do with history and the arts, and there are no engineers.

Written as a response to The Time Machine, it’s a story that presents a similarly divided world where the Morlocks have gotten soft, and the Eloi more muscular and healthy by living close to nature. But what city would Forster have seen himself being a citizen of? This may be the real meaning of Homelessness.

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2021

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2021
Ed. by Veronica Roth; Series Editor John Joseph Adams

COVID-19 feels like it’s been with us for so long, it actually comes as a bit of a surprise that this is the first Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy with stories published during the pandemic.

It was over the past year that we seemed to enter a world of science-fiction. Editor Veronica Roth, author of the popular Divergent series, introduces her selection of twenty of the year’s best SF&F stories by tying them in to this changed environment, taking as her starting point the line that there’s nothing as surreal as reality.

Roth doesn’t bring a particular angle to this instalment of what has become the foremost SF annual, but rather shares a vision of speculative fiction as “a playground of big ideas, a series of ‘what if?’ scenarios.” The line between SF and fantasy gets blurry in places, but underlying most of the stories is the question of coping with suddenly changed circumstances, whether it be surviving a pandemic or battling a giant crawfish. A lot of different ground is covered but there are plenty of strong entries, with “Brother Rifle” by Daryl Gregory standing out as one of the best takes on the mind-machine interface yet.

A Cage for Every Child

A Cage for Every Child
By S. D. Chrostowska

The challenging stories in S. D. Chrostowska’s latest collection aren’t really science fiction, as they take place in a universe largely without science. But then they’re scarcely stories either, taking more the form of essays or parables set in fantastic worlds where giant worms are hunted or flowers sprout from the palm of your hand.

There’s a deliberate difficulty to Chrostowska’s work, from the almost awkward formality of the prose to the evocation of imagination as a supernatural gift constrained by our corrupt human condition. Children being raised in cages, the subject of one story, has an obvious political resonance, but is more allegorical than topical. Perhaps freedom is overrated?

I find something almost medieval in Chrostowska’s antagonism of soul and body, as well as very modern in her exploration of perverse psychology. Kafka may be the presiding spirit, with the failure genius in one story being explicitly likened to Kafka’s hunger artist. He’s truly a master of the pathetic fit for our time: alienated from his world, from others, and from himself but trying to make something of it all the same.

The Progressive Apparatus

The Progressive Apparatus and More Fantasticals
By Hugh A. D. Spencer

Toronto author Hugh A. D. Spencer is a singular voice in Canadian science fiction. While borrowing from pop-culture SF conventions that are so familiar they feel a part of us he nevertheless manages to spin them in quirky directions that take us places entirely new.

In this selection of stories spanning three decades of work he looks at the fate of humanity as our species undergoes radical overhauls. It’s a process of trial-and-mostly-error as various attempts at directed evolution – drugs, implants, artificial intelligence, the cult phenomenon of “mentotechnics” – often end up going in the wrong direction. What is the fate of the new human going to be? Well, we’re probably going to get very sick and die from our “upgrades,” but we’ll also experience a lot of new ways of relating to one another.

As in his previous collection Why I Hunt Flying Saucers the stories here are introduced with biographical sketches that give some idea of the sorts of preoccupations and experiences that gave rise to them. Spencer is a writer who should be better known. Picking up any of his books is a good place to start.

Terminal Boredom

Terminal Boredom
By Izumi Suzuki

Genres can get stuck in a rut, in need of a jolt to get them going again. In twenty-first century SF, for example, there have probably been too many political dystopias and climate apocalypses. The end of the world used to be more interesting.

The stories in Terminal Boredom provide an injection of something new, which is all the more surprising given that the author, Izumi Suzuki, committed suicide in 1986. What her writing connects with, however, is a sense of jaded alienation that is still with us, brought about not so much by our machines as by meaningless, routinized social relations that turn our lives into reruns of old TV shows. Solace can only be found in technology and drugs.

The best of Suzuki’s stories recall the fierce existential probings of Philip K. Dick. “That Old Seaside Club” even plays like a clever and sad reimagining of Dick’s famous story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” All of which should make the book feel terribly retro, but instead it’s one of the freshest collections I’ve read in years. One warning: it doesn’t put its best foot forward, instead leading with what I think is the weakest story in the bunch. Don’t let it turn you off.

Mars Attacks

Mars Attacks
By Len Brown

A book classified here under “Stories” because I don’t have another category for it. I suppose you could think of it as a kind of graphic novel, being a series of 55 illustrated trading cards (including index) that tell a through narrative of a Martian attack on Earth.

The cards had limited distribution in 1962 because of backlash at all the sex and violence, but they’ve gone on to become collector’s items, their cult status boosted further by the (terrible) 1996 Tim Burton movie. The story is pretty weak, being basically just a serial account of alien invasion in the tradition of The War of the Worlds. But as a compendium of pop SF at the time it’s hard to beat, and this book is a wonderful tribute, with excellent reproductions of the original series of cards as well as a generous selection of bonus material and commentary. A great addition to any SF-lover’s shelf.

Projections

Projections
Ed. by Rebecca Romney

In her introduction to this neat anthology of classic SF tales Rebecca Romney informs us that “it isn’t a science-fiction writer’s job to predict the future.” What they’re more inclined toward is projecting contemporary anxieties. If some present trends were to continue, what would the world look like? And what does that tell us about the way we live now?

That said, if we were giving out prize crystal balls the winners here would probably be Murray Leinster’s 1946 story about what happens when an AI loses its guardrails and James Blish’s early take on global warming. But stories less about technology and more into exploring the changing ways we relate to one another, like Doris Pitkin Buck’s “Birth of a Gardener” and J. G. Ballard’s “The Intensive Care Unit” also hit us with a shock of recognition.

The neatest thing about Projections, though, is its design, by the Albertan publishing team of Hingston & Olsen. The twelve stories, plus Romney’s introduction, are in separate booklets attractively packed into a custom-made box that make it a terrific keepsake and gift idea as well as full of lots of great reading.