Last week I began reviewing the first few of the 28 stories in this absorbing anthology, and ended things positively, having been enjoyably wrong-footed and often moved by the editor's selection. The next few tales, taking us into the centre of the book, would I hoped, however, enter more traditional sci-fi and fantasy territory, whilst, with some familiar names in the line-up, achieving a continuation of the excellent quality... Oh dear.
Neil Gaiman, probably the most familiar of all, begins things confidentially and indeed traditionally, with his take on the Grimms' Sleeping Beauty, after having contributed to the excellent Fearie Tales collection of last year. He adds a heroic Snow White to the mix, travelling with her loyal dwarfs to a neighbouring kingdom to solve the plague of eternal sleep that is spreading towards her people. Some wonderful moments follow, first with the Disney-recalling 'Hi-ho'-esque journey through a tunnel beneath the mountains, then entering the land of the dormant, with many creepily chanting Beauty's story from their slumber, and some even enacting a zombie-style chase of Snow'n'co. The revisionist twists are fun and the ending smart and refreshing.
Next however, I found disappointment and uncertainty. Cave and Julia by M. John Harrison is, to me, a confounding fog cloud of a story. I found myself admiring some of his descriptive prose - 'Now the lamp swung above their table, moving the shadows of their wineglasses regularly but uncomfortably across the tablecloth, Iike the umbrae and prenumbrae of planets' - but fuming elsewhere at his staccato sentences, particularly of dialogue, that lept from non-sequittor to non-sequittor. Some of the dialogue between the two characters struck me as downright laughable, but I was confused by the clear confidence and tight focus of some of Harrison's choices. After a while I was conflicted as to whether to chuck the book across the room in frustration (I didn't, as it was on my phone), or to start reading again, worried I was too ignorant to 'get it'. In brief, the 'plot' is initially compelling - Cave travels to a foreign coastal town and meets Julia, forming a long friendship that is haunted by a mystery of her childhood. Yet the subsequent waiting to discover more about the mystery was a frustrating and fruitless experience. Grinding my way through their depressive chats drained my soul of patience before the ending left me, like a child standing before a dropped ice cream cone, tearful with disappointment.
On top of that, I once again found myself perplexed as to the reasoning behind Strahan's picks. Not sci-fi, not fantasy. Hints of Neolithic magic, but tiny hints that perhaps I even superimposed in anticipation. And, most of all, no excitement. Thank beetlejuice for the next choice! M. Bennardo's The Herons of Mer D'Ouest is superb, frankly. Told in the form of 1764 diary entries, it charts the discovery by an early American pioneer of a local tribe and the monsters that they fight. The hero is given a brief yet profound backstory of grief and poverty, which adds a truth to his solitary and borderline suicidal actions, and a warmth to his eventual friendship with one of the local natives. The haunting imagery of the monsters (I won't spoil but the title is pretty telling) is wonderful, and the resulting violence outlandish and yet believable.
Finally taking us back to the future (hands up who has Huey Lewis in their head now?), Water by Ramez Naam is one of the ones most articles on this book refer to, but despite finding it pleasing enough, it wasn't a stand-out for me. From what the intro says of his novels, this was a continuation on their themes of brain-hacking. Simon is an exec in a bustling city who oversees his firms advertising. The twist is that by now humans have been fitted with retina displayers that provide us with data in return for a constant barrage of advertising directly into our brain. The titular substance cries out to us from bottles that set their temperature to what they scan to be our preference, window mannequins flick to mirror our idealised selves, and tourist companies tempt us with a sensory explosion of how it would feel to be on the beach. In this landscape of invasive corporate control, an old friend hacks Simon's internal IT and precipitates a revolution. It's very Dick, it's very fun, and it's a great futurist urban follow on from Bennado's bleak rural past.
Ted Chiang plays with expectations, mine at least, with his The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling. Mirroring Naam's idea of technology becoming more intertwined with our bodies, he imagines a near-future where Remem creates a product that allows users to search and rewatch moments from their past. This is nothing new to fiction (and reminded me particularly of the excellent Charlie Brooker tv drama The Entire History of You) but Chiang makes a clever move of framing his story as an article by a journalist who is cynical of this new tech. At first this approach was a bit distracting, although that might be his purpose - I soon caught myself questioning some of 'factual' things in the 'article', before remembering this is fiction. The area that armed my suspicions was the story the journalist interdisperses his piece with - an account of an African boy's discovery of the written word with a Christian missionary, and how writing things down affects his community's relationship with truth. What at first seemed like random snippets from another story soon became integral to the journalist's argument on memory, personal bias and evidence. Very interesting and engaging, Chiang's work makes me love the subject of writing itself - more please.
Two fairy tales, or folk tales, follow. The first by a Dutchman set in Thailand, the second by a Mississip...pian(?) set in Japan. First, Thomas Olde Heuvelt took my mind back to where I was lucky to go last year- northern Thailand. In a village near Chiang Mai, at some point, I assumed, in the past, we find a boy being violently drowned, and then 'flash back' (as the author slightly obviously states) to see how he came to meet his fate. Despite my parathesised criticism there, Heuvelt marvelled me with his wordplay, interweaving adult and childlike elements and rustic humour with a bold spiritualism, in reverence to the faith of the land he depicts. Little jokes like a footnote translating each character's nickname and brief humorous digressions to the mating behavior of dragonflies or the mosiac hobby of a monk litter and enliven his story, and whilst again it didn't at all fit with the spaceship-fest I was still hoping for, it was very fine indeed.
No spaceships either in Cherry Blossoms on the River of Souls by Richard Parks, but no loss to his lovely piece, which took my mind to the world of Hayao Miziyaki's animated fables. He charts little Hiroshi's journey down a dark well in his Japanese village that plays a haunting song only he can hear. Encountering an elusive monk and a devilish old lady, before facing monsters and finally the truth behind the song, Hiroshi's quest is entirely charming and often witty. I found nothing especially new in its imagery or ideas - it felt familiar and perhaps is a homage to Japanese folk tales- yet that doesn't mean I found in it anything but superb storytelling; it fully convinced and Parks is a fine writer.
So I end this segment entertained yet again a little disappointed. No space battles. No robots. No apocalypse. No goblins or ghost-Vikings. What do you people want?! Who doesn't like a ghost-Viking?! But some very good short stories again, although with less pure brilliance than some of the first few, and one clear failure...
...All of which brings the current average down to 7/10.
Written by English Scribbler.