Tag Archives: anthology

Threads: A Neoverse Anthology

Threads: A NeoVerse Anthology, Volume 1Threads: A NeoVerse Anthology, Volume 1 by Aaron Safronoff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Neoglyphic is in the business of creating new ways to tell stories. It’s a transformation a long time in coming, the creation of media that unites story-telling, music, graphics and interactivity. Perhaps it’s been underway for years in the video-game industry, but it hasn’t yet carried over into electronic reading platforms. What I mean is this: prose itself is reaching the place where it can be transformed, for better or for worse. Publications are looking for submissions that blur the line between creator and audience, that find creative ways to use the now-fluid electronic medium to make stories more interactive. Again, some video games have been doing this very well for years, but they remain a specific platform and niche. Neoglyphic, it seems, is working to bring this transformation to story-telling itself, to transform how readers (not just players) engage with text.

To do that though, they have to position themselves as purveyors of story. They have to assemble writers and narratives, and they have to show that quality story-telling—with all the editing, advocating, and disseminating it entails—is part of what they do and what they do well. To this end, Threads: A Neoverse Anthology was born. Neoglyphic cast the net out for stories, and the anthology was their wide and varied catch.

What they caught was a school of strange fish, some frightening, some lovely, all of sleek and flickering hues, all from different depths and of different shapes and sizes. The stories in this volume, in other words, are of a huge variety. They range widely in polish and style and run the gamut from literary realism to psychological horror, from golden age scifi to technological thriller and on to lighthearted fantasy. (Full disclosure, this anthology includes my contribution, “Gold, Vine, and a Name,” which I will not be discussing below.)

Many of the stories feel like pieces of larger works (and the editor explains that this is indeed the case for some of the stories—that they are stand-alone chapters from novels, for example). This increases the feel (whether intended or not) that the work is meant to function as a patchwork showcase of sorts, of a collection of resources Neoglyphic can draw on in their quest to take storytelling in new and different directions. Whether this turns out to be the case remains to be seen, but there’s the sense here of launching, of piloting some new projects to see where they might go or how they might develop.

The anthology was organized around a contest, and the first three stories appearing in the collection are ranked in prize order. After that, the stories are alphabetical. This may have been to ensure the rest of them were treated equally, but it meant there wasn’t editorial freedom for structuring the flow of the anthology by giving the order of stories some organizational structure. What the book lacks in unified flow though, it more than makes up for in the artwork Neoglyphic created to accompany each story and tie them together. Each story has an introductory illustration by the same artist, and the cover (recreated as a full two-page spread at the conclusion of the volume) brings elements of each tale together in a dynamic mishmash that makes the collection of narratives leap off the page.

Some of the stories in this collection were especially striking on a first read. For example, Chuck Regan’s “Dysphoria” (the third-place winner) presented a grippingly horrific vision of a near-future alternate reality awash in chemicals. When most of the world has forgone a physical existence for a virtual one, a market has arisen to create and produce new psycho-chemical experiences. But who’s actually in control: the emotive artists creating them or the corporations selling them? “Say When” by Pamela Bobowicz and “Hotel Marietta” by Sabrina Clare were other stand-outs, literary pieces that look at issues of loss and how families (biological or adoptive) come together to cope. There’s a certain level of the saccharine in some of the works of the anthology, but these two do an excellent job of treating issue of the heart with earnestness and skill.

There’s great fantasy here as well: “Vanni’s Choice” by David A. Elsensohn and “Stormsong” by Tessa Hatheway, for instance, are solid and satisfying. In the first, we follow a thief breaking into the magical fortress of an enemy sorcerer and the choice she must make once she realizes the nature of what she’s been hired to steal. Elsensohn did such a great job building a world and a character in a manner of pages I wanted to follow Vanni directly to her next heist. Likewise, Hatheway’s “Stormsong” is a straightforwardly haunting tale of hubris and deep water.

“A Knight, A Wizard, and Bee— Plus Some Pigs,” by K. G. McAbee, is another fantasy piece in this volume that stuck out. The plot is straightforward—a knight arrives to slay a powerful wizard—but the tone and style is in the tradition of Terry Pratchett, and the humor makes it come to life. Like Vanni, I want to follow Bee and her new master across a few more pages. If a goal of the anthology was to generate readers for new adventures, McAbee and Elsensohn succeeded.

There were several good pieces in the anthology, but there was one that stood out above the rest. (No, I’m not talking about my contribution.) This was Katie Lattari’s “No Protections, Only Powers,” which the author admits in the introduction was written as an attempt to channel Stephen King. A young girl dabbles in some harmless witchcraft and makes a new friend along the way. In the background though, there are much darker things afoot. What makes this story so devastating is the way Lattari balances the details of suburban life and the shadowed view of a surly teenager but then makes those shadows hide genuinely frightening details that only become clear later on. Things are left unsaid or only alluded to, and the story becomes exponentially more chilling by its conclusion. Lattari has stepped into something deep in this one.

Where some anthologies have an overriding theme that ties the contributions together, this one has rather an overriding purpose: to tell and celebrate stories. It gives the work something of a patchwork feel, but it also means that whatever your tastes, if you have an appetite for short stories you’ll certainly find something in here to satisfy.

Feast of Laughter 3

Feast of Laughter 3: An Appreciation of R.A. LaffertyFeast of Laughter 3: An Appreciation of R.A. Lafferty by Ktistec Press, R.A. Lafferty

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Welcome to the feast of laughter. The banquet has been set, the feast is open, endless, varied, and delicious– if you want rich fare and strong drink. Yet the banqueters are few. One of the opening (reprinted) essays of this, the third volume of a festschrift of sorts to the wild, wonderful, and largely neglected author R. A. Lafferty, sets out the imagery: those (in this volume and elsewhere) who have discovered and celebrate Lafferty’s works are the Family of the Empty Hall.

If this is true, I’m struggling to find a metaphor for what the third volume of Feast of Laughter is. It’s more than a toast given in one of the echoing corners of the hall. It is, perhaps, a congregation of fellow discoverers gathered around a table, in the light of a sputtering flame, discussing, sharing, tasting what they have found.

Feast of Laughter is now in its third volume, and rumor has it the indefatigable editors are putting together a fourth. Once was an event and twice a happy coincidence, but three times seems to imply we’ve struck a vein of precious ore (to abruptly switch metaphors here) and are following it out, mining it through, bringing to light as much of the rich writings and life of the spooky old man from Oklahoma as possible.

So what have we found this time around? Here we have another (thicker) collection of essays, analysis, correspondence, interview, and imitation of Lafferty. Some of it, as with previous volumes, is original, some reprinted from hard to find sources. Most all of it is pretty good.

Yet it’s also for a closed audience, of sorts. That’s not to say there’s anyone who would be unwelcome to the feast. But it is to say if you’re new to Lafferty you don’t necessarily want to start with this (though the volume does include two of Lafferty’s own stories, including “The Configuration of the Northern Shore,” which I’ve always found especially haunting). Rather, you want Lafferty himself first un-distilled and uninterpreted (perhaps by dipping into one of the three or four collected volumes of his fiction out or forthcoming from Centipede Press). But if you’ve read him and are bemused or enchanted, maybe a little confused or delightfully bewildered, and you want to get at his work from other eyes and angles, this is where you want to be.

Literary analysis is not necessarily my thing, and I find often find myself most annoyed with essays that repute to explain the deeper meanings of some of my favorite authors (some of the recent work on Gene Wolfe immediately springs to mind). But what I enjoyed about this volume is that several pieces focused on Lafferty’s novels, including interpretations or reprinted forwards for The Devil is Dead, Fourth Mansions, The Annals of Klepsis, and at least a few on Past Master, I found these quite helpful in approaching works that have seemed (and sometimes remain) a bit of a tangled thicket to me, even as I’m enjoying pushing through them. Reading these pieces helped me catch the things I had missed and see overall structures and themes click into place.

As far as the included correspondence and interviews, these are priceless and help Lafferty come alive, especially useful for those of us who discovered him after his time. The exchange with Alan Dean Foster, brief as it is, reveals much of Lafferty’s character and whets the appetite for the rumored forthcoming biography.

And then there is the part where people do their own stories inspired by the master. These are a nice garnish to the main course, but not really central to the feast (and I of course include my own contribution in this judgement). The two that stand out are “People are Strange” by Christopher Blake, which to me felt most clearly like a Lafferty homage, and J Simon’s “Bone Girl,” the best original piece in this collection, which could have easily found a home in any professional market and here really makes the rest of us look better just by being alongside it.

Flip the magazine over. There, on the back cover, is an image of the famous Door to Lafferty’s office. There’s a lot to be said (and a lot probably will be said) about this particular door, but this image alone is what you need to know about the man if you need to be convinced his words (and books like this filled with words about his words) are worth you time. It’s covered with clippings of art, diagrams, stickers, captions, and paintings in a contained sort of organized fractal. But totally covered so you can barely see a single spot of wood. Imagine walking down a hallway of doors (I don’t actually know where Lafferty’s office was– home or business or whatever) and seeing one like this.

Imagine the kind of guy who would be waiting on the other side.

Crack the cover, and come on in to meet him . . .

Invaders

Invaders: 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of LiteratureInvaders: 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of Literature by Jacob Weisman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What does it mean to write science fiction? On some level, it means writing stories that get published in magazines featuring artistically-depicted spaceships and robots on their covers. It’s creating content involving science or at least scientific ideas playing out in new and interesting directions. It remains relevant because of the ways science continues to inform who we are, what we’re doing, and where we’re going.

Who’s writing important science fiction today? Things get a bit fuzzier here, because though there are certainly people (a lot of people) doing wonderful, interesting things inside the genre universe, sometimes it seems very few of them bleed out into more mainstream or “literary” waters—by which I mean publishing works in broader magazines or winning literary prizes not named after celestial objects or science fiction editors.

It’s a bit easier to see things going the other direction: important literary or mainstream authors venturing into genre territory. That’s what makes a collection like Jacob Weisman’s Invaders possible. If you think you know science fiction, or you want to get to know science fiction, or you want a new, sophisticated take on some of the angles you’ve poured over in the pulps, here’s an anthology to note.

Invaders encompasses twenty-two short stories, only a few of which are by established genre writers or originally appeared in genre magazines but all of which explore familiar aspects of science fiction in original ways. The tropes are all here—mad scientists, alien encounters, post-apocalyptic wastelands, sex-bots—borrowed from the pages of the pulps and filtered through the imaginations of some of the top mainstream writers working today. (I started to make a list of all the different awards listed in these author bios—because a guy likes to dream, you know?—and had reached forty before the list was complete.)

These stories are better than good. They’re sharp, subtle, and unfailingly well-crafted. Sure, some lack the excitement and straightforward pizzaz you might expect from magazines in which the editors are tasked primarily to entertain. Yet even these, such as J. Robert Lennon’s “Portal,” Max Apple’s “The Yogurt of Vasirin Kefirovsky,” and Kelly Luce’s “Amorometer” are still lovely and mysterious. There are think pieces in here as well, like Rivka Galchen’s “The Region of Unlikeness” or Steven Millhauser’s “A Precursor of the Cinema”. There are also two stories that take what may be the most tired science fiction trope of all, the alien encounter, and make it something new without actually doing anything different but by writing with a style that makes them positively luminous. I’m thinking, of course, of “Lambing Season” by Molly Gloss and “Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover” by Robert Olen Butler.

This stuff is science fiction as literature. These are stories written by artists who have abducted the genre for their own designs. They’re haunting, pristine, and sometimes devastating.

And then there are the pieces that are a whole lot better than good. Even if every other story in this collection had been a dud (and none of them are), four stories in here would still make Invaders completely worth the read. I’m thinking here specifically of Julia Elliott’s “LIMBs,” which tells a smart and heart-breaking story of geriatrics and technological advance, as well as love and aging; Deji Bryce Olukotun’s “We Are the Olfanauts,” a piece about personal sacrifice and the cost of success in a bizarre but strangely believable interpretation of the internet; and “Monstro” by Junot Diaz, which is somehow Akira meets Attack on Titan set in the Caribbean and told with a linguistic flare I could never hope to emulate or capture.

Finally, there is George Saunder’s “Escape from Spiderhead,” which wherever it was published (it was the New Yorker), genre or not, embodies what makes both great science fiction and great storytelling. It’s clean, simple, and as brutally efficient as a razor. I think, from now on, my writing prayer might simply be, “God, help me write a story as good as this one.” “Spiderhead” is the story of an idea just over tomorrow’s horizon taken to its unexpected and yet in retrospect unavoidable conclusion in language spare and merciless with characters simple and agonizingly real.

If you like science fiction that makes you think, and if you like stories told by writers who are masters of their craft, who use language as both a tool and a palette, this is the anthology you’ve been looking for.

If you’re already familiar with great science fiction authors who fit this description but are looking to expand your horizons further, you’re also looking for this book.

Now, my question: would it be possible to do this trick backward? That is, could you create an anthology of “genre” authors, writers who primarily work in science fiction and are not well known beyond it, that contains works of theirs falling outside the traditional boundaries of science fiction? Invaders is an anthology of literary authors writing science fiction; could we have a similar anthology of science fiction authors writing literature? (I think we could, and I can name a few writers who would almost certainly be in it, but I’ll save that for another post.)

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The Best of Michael Swanwick

The Best of Michael SwanwickThe Best of Michael Swanwick by Michael Swanwick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Michael Swanwick is a hero. He’s apparently (unless this has changed very recently) the only living person to win five Hugo awards for his writing in six years. From what I can tell he doesn’t have an enormous output, and his works haven’t made him a household name among nerds like Gaiman or Le Guin, but he’s still a literary hero. His novel Stations of the Tide was critically acclaimed by people who like literary science fiction (and those are the kind of people I like). I knew he had written short stories, but most of them I had never read. So I was quite excited when I stumbled across Subterranean Press’s Best of Michael Swanwick anthology among the stacks at my local library.

Reviewing anthologies is difficult, especially when an anthology by a writer who can do as many different things as well as Swanwick can in his writing. Each story in this collection is a winner (literally, as all the Hugo winners are included). Each one cuts like a piece of glass in your mind’s eye, scintillating and lovely and dangerous. Each one puts you in your place and reminds you however much you like to think of yourself as a writer of science fiction and fantasy you should settle down and shut up because this is how it’s done. (Or at least, each one did for me.)

Anything you want is in here. Weird future versions of the United States in the vein of Gene Wolfe’s “Seven American Nights”? You get it from the start with “The Feast of St. Janis.” Science fiction that does new things with the idea of identity and technology applied to the human mind? You get that scattered throughout, starting with my favorite piece in the collection, “Ginungagap.”

In Swanwick’s science fiction, technology is not just FTL and spaceships. It’s at perhaps its most prescient with the idea of technology that is able, for better or worse, to re-map and re-wire the human mind. This becomes something of a theme in the anthology, treated at most length in “Wild Minds,” a subtle little piece that detonates like a mental hand-grenade.

Apart from questions of identity and mind, you also get science fiction pieces (and two of these won Hugos) that examine scenarios of encountering intelligent life— weirder and larger than the tropes you expect— within our own solar system: “The Very Pulse of the Machine” and “Slow Life.” Here Swanwick’s realism comes into play as he offers scientifically accurate vistas of worlds in our own solar system and thoughtful physical and philosophical treatments of what encountering life there might be like. Which is probably why they were so well received. They’re doing what science fiction is supposed to do: taking what we know about humans and what we know about our universe and putting them into possible and challenging juxtapositions to see what emerges.

Another theme I noticed in these stories in retrospect is an accident, an injury, or a death that plays a central role in transforming characters and their environment. It comes out in both of the first contact stories mentioned above, as well as “Trojan Horse,” “Griffin’s Egg,” “Radio Waves,” and “Mother Grasshopper.” The idea of knowledge through wounding or brokenness is sort of a tautology in literature in general, but science fiction often seems to feature (at least classically) the best and healthiest of humanity facing the worst the universe can offer. In Swanwick’s work, there’s something about being broken, wounded, less than whole that allows touching, interacting, and perceiving the universe in an important way. No one faces reality in these stories unbroken. (Does anyone really face reality another way?)

Swanwick also knows time-travel, and he knows what to do with it: either set up a perfect and heart-wrenching paradox (“Scherzo with Tyrannosaur”), use it to create an idyllic eternal (sort of) summer (“Triceratops Summer”), or go all mythic-poetical and throw out epic yarns that stretch time like taffy (“The Raggle Taggle Gypsy-O” and “Legions in Time”).

And then there are the tales that are most effective of all because they’re singularities. You can’t lump them into a group with anything. They’re alive and awful (as in both awe-filling and the other meaning but in a good way) and will stick with you long after you’ve closed the cover. I’m talking about “A Midwinter’s Tale,” which seems in my mind definitely a homage to Wolfe. It takes something of the strangeness of the alzabo from the New Sun and puts it in the atmospheric haze of Fifth Head of Cerberus or even Peace. “The Edge of the World” is a perfect story that is grimy and magic and reminiscent simultaneously of Bradbury, the Arabian Nights, and Stand By Me. “North of Diddy-Wah-Diddy” is a perfect story about hell and the train that goes there.

And then finally “The Dead” and “Radiant Doors” are horror stories that are horror not because of the creepy future-things in them (and there are creepy things and horrifying futures) but because the creepy things are mirrors. The creepy things are us, and they’re already here.

So this is a book to read (and preferably to own) if you want to surround yourself by living, breathing stories that can kick the crap out of you as a reader and hopefully let some of their technique rub off on you while they’re doing it. They’re aspirational stories in that sense. At least for me, as a writer, they made things start clicking and sparking in my brain (probably because they were kicking it so hard). Swanwick is a master, and this is a book of masterworks. If you love Gene Wolfe’s short stories, you should read this book.

But it’s not perfect, and the perfection of the stories within made a few glaring shortcomings of the book itself obvious. Firstly, there were typos. And not just little typos: huge, embarrassing typos that at times threatened to obscure the meaning of pivotal sentences. At one point, a character is making an important conclusion about understanding something that is “yours” when every other clue in the story and the context indicates he must have meant “ours”. If this was a carefully-edited volume I’d just assume there was a subtly in this exchange I must have missed (like in a Gene Wolfe story), but this is a volume that elsewhere put “arid” for “and” as well as a host of other mistakes. For the work of a wordcraft like Swanwick, that’s a crime. (Though either the editing got better as the volume went on or I stopped noticing it, because it didn’t seem as a bad in the second half— though misplaced, reversed, or dropped quotation marks continued to abound.)

Secondly, there was no listing at the beginning of where the stories first appeared. There was a copyright attribution that told when they were published, but not where. This is a shame, as one of my favorite things about anthologies is seeing where these stories first saw print. In my opinion at least, it’s kind of an essential historical record that goes along with story anthologies.

Editing faults aside though, the book is still worth its weight and shelf-space. It’s like a writer’s guide on how to be awesome. How to tell devastating stories with huge ideas.

But put it on a top shelf, out of reach of the kids, because another big theme in this work is sex. And not sex that’s just sort of a thing that happens to characters to keep things spicy but left sort of narratively vague. Nothing vague here. There’s pretty much a detailed climax scene in almost every story.

I don’t consider myself too much of a prude (I probably am) but to be honest after a while this was kind of off-putting. If there was a male protagonist, and a female character was introduced, you knew what was coming. To be fair, sometimes the details were essential to the plot or tone (as in the general dreadfulness of “The Dead” or the central paradox of “Scherzo with a Tyrannosaur”) but in most of the other cases it wasn’t. Yet that’s not to say it’s in there just for kicks. Michael Swanick obviously likes sex, his characters enjoy it, and he writes about it with the same vigor and description as he does the other aspects of his stories.

I’m not sure how I feel about this (besides prudishly embarrassed). It might be, I think, an illustration of what my colleague who teaches English and who wrote his dissertation on the work of the Catholic author Graham Greene has often said about Catholic literature. (And though Swanwick was raised Catholic I have no idea if he practices.) My friend says that a characteristic of Catholic authors (and perhaps a reason there are few real literary giants among evangelical Christians) is that for a Catholic writer nothing is off-limits. Everything in the created order belongs to God. It can therefore all be used in all its gritty and vivid reality. The camera never needs to pan away, as it were. All the physicality (sexual and otherwise) in all its brutality and beauty is okay to use to build story.

And Swanwick does.

Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add?

Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add?Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add? by R.A. Lafferty

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Gene Wolfe has said of writing short stories that it is not enough to simply show people your ideas. He uses the analogy of a lion-tamer. A writer can’t just say to people, “Hey, look at this lion” and expect them to be impressed with her skills at showing them a lion. A writer has to do something with the lion, preferably something daring and unexpected. Wolfe says that the writer has to put her head in the idea’s mouth.

For me, that is the most difficult part of writing. Often I simply want to show people my ideas– an interesting imaginary place, for instance, or a character or device or image– but finding that narrative twist and plunge that makes the idea spark and come alive as a leaping, writhing story is something very different.

As important as Wolfe’s advice is though, I don’t feel like his requirement applies to R. A. Lafferty. There are in his stories– and specifically in the stories of this volume– rarely those unexpected twists that make you feel as though the bottom has fallen out of the narrative. In many of the stories that make up this collection, a reader can feel the end coming, can get a sense for the ultimate trajectory of the story, within the first few paragraphs. Part of this is because Lafferty does not craft those literary artifacts called short stories. Instead, he tells fables, and most fables have been told in some form before. But I think there’s also something deeper going on here with Lafferty and Wolfe’s lion-tamer analogy.

To return to Wolfe’s image, Lafferty does not need to stick his head in the idea’s mouth. Lafferty is the lion-tamer, but he’s a lion-tamer saying, “My God, it’s a lion. No, you haven’t ever really looked at a lion before. And you haven’t seen a lion like this. Look at it. This is the lionest lion that ever lived; this is the Ur-lion.” And then the lion– which, you realize, is indeed wilder and more savage and yet more merry than any lion you’ve seen before– rips out the lion-tamer’s throat and eats it with a wet chuckle, and both lion and lion-tamer have a good laugh together because that’s what lions are and that’s what lions do.

The story “Golden Trabant” in this volume is a good example of this approach. Narratively, the story is incredibly simple and has indeed been told many times before: a man discovers the El Dorado of asteroids, a rock not far from Earth formed completely of gold. What happens next? Exactly what you would expect. Pirates lay claim to it and become fabulously rich. Earth’s economy becomes unbalanced by the sudden influx of off-planet gold. The pirates build a kingdom with their new gold, sail the high skies hauling back their treasure in ship-loads, and ultimately turn each other. The asteroid becomes an irradiated waste haunted by a ghost. It’s every lost treasure story you’ve heard before with only the (now-blasé) element of being set in space. Maybe that was a new wrinkle when Lafferty wrote it, but beyond that there’s no unexpected twist that makes the story leap up out of the page like a living thing.

And yet it’s a fantastic story. Like so many of Lafferty’s, it simply works. The whole thing is alive. This is the case with many of the stories here. In some, it’s unclear what exactly is happening or has happened, plot-wise. “About a Secret Crocodile,” “Nor Limestone Islands,” and “Boomer Flats” are examples of this. “Boomer Flats” and “Maybe Jones in the City” in particular I found a bit frustrating, but the richness and jollity of Lafferty’s tone always wins me over eventually, even when they seem spun around nothing. If the bones of the story are a bit hollow, you still get Lafferty telling them. And that’s what you want. I’m convinced that had Lafferty taken it upon himself to re-write a phone book, it would be fun to read.

To be fair, there are stories with twists. There’s one at the end of “In the Garden” and “This Grand Carcass Yet” and “The Ultimate Creature.” “The Weirdest World” is all twist, and it may be one of the funniest Lafferty stories I’ve read yet. But the twist is secondary; the story is not built around it. And you probably saw it coming anyway. Moreover, the twist is usually twisted: this is a volume that highlights Lafferty’s brutal, grotesque humor, which is especially ripe in “This Grand Carcass Yet,” “Pig in a Pokey,” and “The Ultimate Creature.”

An annoying and puzzling (though easily ignored) feature of this volume is the needless division of the stories into those related to “Secret Places” and those about “Mean Men.” The stories in this work alternate back and forth between these two headings. In my edition of the book, this is even reflected by stories under each division having a differentiating font. Lafferty (not surprisingly) offers no explanation for this division, but it’s unlike Lafferty to offer much explanation for anything.

The reason the division doesn’t work though– or at least seems unnecessary and arbitrary– is that all of Lafferty’s stories are in some sense about secret places, and they’re all in some sense about mean men. They’re stories about the hidden, real world lurking just below the skin of this one and about the god or the devil lurking just below our own skins. That’s why their twists aren’t wholly unexpected: we feel them in our bones. We catch hints of them when we we’re not asleep.

If you’re new to Lafferty, this is as good a place to start with him as any. It’s hard to know what angle to approach his writings, but wading out into his short stories and learning how they rise and fall is easier than diving into one of his novels. Because, to be fair, you might not like his bright and bloody world. You might not want to get too close to that lionest of lions and hear its throaty chuckle. With his short stories, it’s easier to run away.

M is for Magic

M is for MagicM is for Magic by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Many of us who believe that true magic lies in stories know and love Gaiman for his work on Sandman. Sandman itself was built of stories. That was a large part of the wonder of it. But it was still an epic, and I had never gotten around to exploring Gaiman’s short stories.

I’ve had the goal of doing so for a long time, especially as Gaiman is known as a huge fan and protégé of my very favorite crafter of short stories, Gene Wolfe. (In fact, the only time I’ve ever met the two of them in person they were interviewing each other at a Chicago Humanities Festival event several years ago.) I haven’t had much time for reading fiction lately though, so this was a low-priority, long-term goal.

But then my wife brought this book home from the library, and I had a lazy Saturday. And M for Magic is definitely a Saturday book. It’s a single-day read. Don’t take it along for a week’s getaway by the lake (or at least, don’t take only it along). These stories are quick, lovely, and melt-in-your mouth. I could say other things as well. I could say they were dreamlike (as you would expect from Gaiman), haunting, gorgeous, and practically flawless. But I might sound a bit gushy, something I try to avoid.

This particular anthology was built out of stories Gaiman chose for young-adult audiences, but they don’t feel like kids’ stories. This is part of Gaiman’s art, which he has used to good effect in works like his movie Coraline or his children’s book Wolves in the Walls: the ability to tap into some of the things that make childhood filled with equal parts wonder and fear.

There are a lot of voices echoing around in the corners of this anthology. The title is a self-admitted tip of the hat to Bradbury, whose voice haunts works like “October in the Chair” and “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” (which holds the only whiff of science fiction in what is an otherwise straight fantasy collection). Lafferty is clearly laughing through the background of “Sunbird,” one of my favorites in the anthology. And there are strains of Beagle’s Fine and Private Place throughout the longest story in the batch, “The Witch’s Headstone.”

Not to say any of this work is derivative. It is not. We all build our stories on the backs of what we’ve read and loved. And there are pieces in here that are completely unique, with a voice of cats and railroad beds and England and magic that is Gaiman himself, un-distilled, as in “Troll Bridge,” “Chivalry,” and “The Price.” With the exception of the first, bumpy story in this work, nothing here disappointed. All of my other “to read” Gaiman anthologies just climbed up a notch on my list.

If you need a breath of fresh air, and you want to open a window in your skull letting in a breeze on which the metallic tang of rain and the heavy scent of graveyard flowers are mingled, read this book.

Sword and Laser Anthology

Sword & Laser AnthologySword & Laser Anthology by Veronica Belmont

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Please, judge this book by its cover. Because it is such a wicked cool one. And in this case, it’s a good indication of what you can find inside.

Sword and Laser is a “science fiction and fantasy-themed book club, video show, and podcast,” featuring Tom Merritt and Veronica Belmont, the editors of this anthology. The anthology itself consists of twenty stories split between “sword” (fantasy) and “laser” (science fiction). It is, as a good anthology should be, a hodgepodge, rough-and-tumble collection of stories with as many polished faces as jagged edges, sparking with ideas and a lot of raw enthusiasm. Its aim is showcasing new voices in the science fiction and fantasy community.

The enthusiasm is indeed palpable and refreshing. I suppose that’s what happens with a choir of fresh, new voices. Not every story is fantastic, but many are. And the beauty of an anthology is that each reader will likely differ about which stories to put within each category. If you’re a science fiction and fantasy fan, you’ll feel like you’re in a room with a bunch of friends. And they’re telling their best stories.

The ones that stood out to me were by writers who obviously know how the genre works and can have fun with it. In this vein “Partly Petrified” by Auston Habershaw, “The Same International Orange” by Luke R. Pebler, and “Honeybun” by Austin Malone were fine examples. “Honeybun” in particular I thought was a good representation of a lot of this anthology: potential. The bones of some excellent ideas that, perhaps catalyzed by inclusion in this anthology, could spiral out into something deeper and bigger. In this respect, the cover of this work is truer than perhaps anticipated: like the shelved world-bubbles in the image, there are a lot of seeds planted here.

There are glimmers of deeper waters as well. Perhaps because I’m in the midst of stitching together the bones of my own deep space endeavor, my sympathies in this anthology leaned toward the “laser” end of the book. The concepts in “Jonah’s Daughter” by Adam Callaway, “False Lights” by Victoria Hooper, and the very strong finish to the volume, David Emery’s “Only Darkness,” sounded the depths of the weirdness and the wonder that makes great science fiction shimmer.

Then there was my piece, “How Fox Fixed the Sky,” nestled in the final half of the “sword” section. It’s a fablesque epilogue to the story of Chicken Little. What if Chicken had been right and the sky was really falling? What if Fox made a knife from a fallen fragment of sky? What if he climbed through the hole to see what was beyond? I’m probably borrowing tone from Miyazaki, but Fox’s character was put to paper before I ever saw The Fantastic Mr. Fox (though if Miyazaki were to animate this story, Clooney would be a great voice for Fox). It’s surrealist and fun, maybe even a bit haunting, and if you pick up this book I hope you like the bit I contributed.

As far as I know, the anthology isn’t yet available for general purchase. I think it’s gone out to the contributors and the folks who backed Sword and Laser’s next season via Kickstarter. Check back here for updates though, because as soon as I know how you can get your hungry mitts on a copy (besides coming over here and borrowing mine), I’ll let you know.

UPDATE: Sword and Laser Anthology is available for purchase (electronic or traditional format) here. Buy a copy! Support fledgling writers and good science fiction! If you buy a paper copy I’ll promise not to drive its value down by trying to sign it.