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.

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2020

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2020
Ed. by Diana Gabaldon; Series Editor John Joseph Adams

Anthologies necessarily take on the character of their editors, and live or die at their hands. This latest edition of The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy series, one of the best in recent years, is in the especially capable hands of Outlander author Diana Gabaldon, whose selections are complex, varied, and thoroughly accessible and enjoyable, even to non-genre fans.

They are also less overtly political than the previous two volumes in the series (especially 2018, but see my thoughts on the 2019 collection here). For Gabaldon it’s OK to have explicit political and social commentary – indeed, this is the bread and butter of most speculative fiction – but it should be “used as the springboard of the story, not the ultimate point. The stories are about real people, not animate megaphones.” This is advice that is followed in the best of the stories collected here, which although speculative still dramatically address issues, from race to crime to the writing of history, that are all in the news today.

A New History of the Future in 100 Objects

A New History of the Future in 100 Objects
By Adrian Hon

Coffee-table books looking to present the history of pretty much anything in 100 objects have become so common it seems an obvious next step to project the genre into the future and the stuff of science fiction.

A big reason why we read SF is to imagine the way science and technology might change the world, and change us in the process. Adrian Hon, in the guise of a curator of a collector of these future artefacts writing in the year 2082, understands that while he’s talking about material (and even immaterial) “objects” (apps are included) he’s also telling “the stories of our collective humanity.”

The list proceeds chronologically, from tech that’s very close to what’s available now to the more distantly speculative. Some of the devices are merely fun toys and games while others are sinister and creepy. Some are both. But they all shape our experience of reality, virtual reality, and the shape of reality itself.

Canadian content? The Owen’s Original Cloned Burger developed in Hamilton, Ontario in 2033. No more eating animals after that.

Worlds Seen In Passing

Worlds Seen in Passing: 10 Years of Tor.com Short Fiction
Ed. by Irene Gallo

Perhaps the world’s leading publisher of science fiction, Tor is also one of the few companies to have gotten online publishing right. Their Tor.com webpage regularly updates with great new fiction and has become an essential site for fans of the genre.

Now, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the website’s launch, we have this anthology of some of the best stories they have published online.

While online content still bears some stigma as being second rate, the stories here, which range from hard SF to fantasy, put the lie to that. Because Tor is able to draw on such a wide and deep pool of writers, not to mention what editor Irene Gallo rightly describes as “a dream team of editorial talent,” this is a collection of some of the best writing from the past decade, including a number of award winners and nominees. High quality and rich variety make this a book for every collector, and continue to make the website a prime destination.

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019
Ed. by Carmen Maria Machado; Series Editor John Joseph Adams

With the recent demise of two of the biggest “year’s best SF” anthology series, The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, under series editor John Joseph Adams, is going to have to pick up some slack. Putting SF and Fantasy together though can sometimes be an awkward fit.

2019’s editor, Carmen Maria Machado, is dismissive of genre labels, but they do provide some idea of what readers can expect. The first story here, “Pitcher Plant,” sets the table well, with someone invading a haunted house full of booby traps that may be “more sorcery than engineering.” It’s a story set in the weird world of dark fantasy, and it’s typical of a line-up that skews toward horror. There’s also a political edge to much of the selection, though not as pronounced as in last year’s volume. Of course, horror and politics are a big part of what 2019 felt like, in SF, fantasy, and real life.