By far the most common way of going about creating an anthology of short fiction is by theme. Whether it be something as expansive as horror or fantasy, or something more specific like women writers of the 19th century or alternate visions of London, the majority of anthologies on the market are tied to a broad theme in some fashion. There are a few, however, which look to collect stories along more specific lines. Jeff VanderMeer asked people to create stories based on four words: last, drink, bird, and head. George Sandison proposed writers look at Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four in the context of today in 2084. Patricia Bray said specifically steampunk vs. aliens. And there are many other examples. And then there is Ian Whates and Tom Hunter’s 2001: An Odyssey in Words (2018). Wanting to pay homage to the 100th anniversary of Arthur C. Clarke’s birth, the pair decided the best way would be not to give prospective writers a related theme, rather a broader but more concrete goal: any type of short science fiction at precisely 2,001 words in length. Becoming more than a gimmick, the tightness of the writing space resulted in the writers producing a surprisingly good selection of stories, a few truly standout. It goes without saying, none overstay their welcome.
In what I would not have picked as the anthology’s opener, Dave Hutchinson’s “Golgotha” tells of an alien’s first visit to Earth. As part of the experience, a priest introduces it to the sea, as well as a certain dolphin, all of which goes on to have dire consequences. Message fiction, it nevertheless is a good message, relatively well-framed by a classic sf conceit. Hutchinson’s story is followed by what should have been the first: Paul McAuley’s “The Monolith’s of Mars”. The best piece of McAuley fiction I’ve read, the story provides a virtual tour of Mars while somehow capturing a mood equally scientific and spiritual, something I think Clarke himself would have appreciated.
Compassion and balance with nature its themes, in “Murmuration” by Jane Rogers a sequestered spaceman recounts meeting an intelligent species in a distant solar system. If McAuley’s story struck a scientifically spiritual chord in its quest for knowledge and obeisance to a higher power, then Ian Macleod’s “Ouroboros” is the cyberpunk fugue. About a hacker given the ultimate hacking job, Macleod goes zen in mathematical fashion. As is to be expected from Macleod, it is an intelligent story that highlights how far science has come and how far it has to go—in 2,001 words. A story that could—could—be about selling one’s soul for social media fame, “The Escape Hatch” by Matthew De Abaitua tells of a woman who films an alien phenomenon, puts it up on the internet, and the subsequent effects. Pun firmly intended, “Childhood’s Friend” by Rachel Pollack tells Nancy Kress’ “Beggars in Spain” in short—2,001—word form (i.e. super-children get ostracized from society).
Bruce Sterling being Bruce Sterling, “Tales from the White Hart” blurs the line between fiction and sf/social commentary in biting—sometimes humorous, sometimes satirical—tones. Title not precisely matching tone, “Your Death, Your Way, 100% Satisfaction Guaranteed!” by Emma Newman tells of an inveterate asshole who gets his just desserts. In “Distraction”, Gwyneth Jones has fun with humanity’s more dangly appendages sans gravity. A spin off from the real 2001 Space Odyssey, “Dancers” by Allen Stroud takes the HAL problem his own direction. From one of the anthology’s most mundane stories to one of the best bits of short sf I’ve read this year (or past few years, for that matter), “Entropy War” by Yoon Ha Lee uses some zen thinking of its own to lay bare—no, filet—the ultimate nature of entropy and human defiance of it. Thought-provoking, edge-finding stuff.
In another zen-esque text, “The Ontologist” by Liz Williams weaves the spell of a guru and his efforts in the area of taxonomy and meaning, before resolving itself in a subtle moment of semantical existentialism. I loved it. Touching in an unexpectedly quiet way, “Waiting in the Sky” by Tom Hunter is a cultural/family piece blending domestic life, reinvention, and Mars exploration in what may or may not be a tribute to David Bowie. (“Ground control to Major Tom…”) A lateral spin on the monoliths of Clarke’s 2001 Space Odyssey, “The Collectors” by Adrian Tchaikovsky tells of a ‘monolith’ of more relatable presence, and its role in convening with the species of the universe through a small bit of wonder. A pure riff on Childhood’s End“, “Before They Left” by Colin Greenland tells of a little girl who wants to visit Olympus Mons and the role the Overseers play in her desire. A striking piece, “Drawn from the Eye” by Jeff Noon tells of a tear collector living on the moon. Taking advantage of the light gravity to capture his specimens, he converts the tears to art in sublime fashion making for one of the anthology’s stand out stories.
Pagan fantasy on the cyclical yet transcendent nature of life, “Roads of Silver, Paths of Gold” by Emmi Itäranta does an amazing job floating above itself while maintaining a visceral line of direction. One of those ethereal stories whose meaning seems to impart itself sub-consciously, looking back it seems bare bones yet somehow full of import. A story that leaves you hanging in the best way possible, “Memories of a Table” by Chris Beckett tells of a man visiting a museum where items unearthed from the past—bowls, tools, tables, and such—can be scanned for the memories they contain. One specific exhibit attracting the man, Beckett leads the reader right into his trap. Luckily, it’s more pleasure than pain. About a group of robots who want to make a robot child, “Child of Ours” is a charming story ultimately about parents’ greatest inputs to their children’s lives. Ian Watson stroppy in old age, “Would-Be A.I., Tell Us a Tale! #241: Sell 'em Back in Time! by Hali Hallison” almost seems to make fun of the whole 2001: An Odyssey in Words exercise—a peanut gallery with no happy monkeys. A Twilight Zone conceit involving tobacco, “The Final Fable” by Ian Whates may make you look twice next time you see somebody smoking a cigarette.
In the most cosmopolitan story in the anthology, “Ten Landscapes of Nili Fossae” by Ian McDonald tells of a painter doing a creative study of a Martian rock formation. A vignette comprised of vignettes that drives the feeling of a larger whole, knowledge of painters and their work helps but is not 100% necessary thanks to McDonald’s fine prose. (This story could also have led off the anthology in good form.) Taking the ending of 2001 Space Odyssey and running with it, “Child” by Adam Roberts posits what the star child could have meant for the earth (and moon) in dramatic fashion. And closing the collection is Alastair Reynold’s “Providence”. About an officer on a crippled exploratory ship who volunteers for a repair mission, floating above the planet Providence she discovers more than she was supposed to. Not the most technically consistent story (how did it remain hidden from an exploratory ship with sophisticated detection equipment?), the story nevertheless strikes a strong chord for sentiment.
The anthology is closed by three essays (two of which seem to adhere to the 2,001 word limit). “2001: A Space Prosthesis—The Extensions of Man” by Andrew M. Butler digs into the book and movie’s presentations of how tools have paralleled human evolution (or devolution, depending whether you take Kubrick or Clarke’s view). “On Judging the Clarke Award” by Neil Gaiman is the non-2,001 word essay (shorter) about his experience with the award, and his view toward the award’s value. And the final essay—and the best of the bunch—is “Once More on the 3rd Law” by China Miéville. Taking advantage of the classic Clarke quote to soapbox the democratic value of fantasy (in comparison to science fiction) and genre (in comparison to literary fiction), Mieville paints a picture I wish I could paint as it echoes my own. Using a far more diverse and dynamic lexicon than I can, Mieville makes the case that (quality) science fiction and fantasy have achieved their goals of being accepted in the literary world, capped by the quote “any sufficiently advanced science fiction is indistinguishable from literature”.
Perhaps because of its very nature (to squeeze every drop from an idea possible to ensure it fits within 2,001 words), 2001: An Odyssey in Words is an amazingly tight yet dynamic anthology. Put more simply, as of September 2018 it is my collection/anthology of the year. In most anthologies I encounter a few standout stories; in 2001 I need two hands to count those which jumped out to me. Yoon Ha Lee, Ian McDonald, and Paul McAuley’s stories should be in contention for best of the year, with Ian Macleod, Liz Williams, Jeff Noon, and Chris Beckett’s not far behind, which is not to say Emmi Itäranta or Tom Hunter’s contributions should be ignored. Given the brevity of each story yet the kernel of substance practically each contains, it comes highly recommended—and certainly not for the gimmick of 2,001 words (though that does make for an interesting reading experience on its own).
The following are the twenty-eight stories and three essays included in 2001: An Odyssey in Words:
Introduction by Ian Whates and Tom Hunter
Golgotha by Dave Hutchinson
The Monoliths of Mars by Paul J. McAuley
Murmuration by Jane Rogers
Ouroboros by Ian R. MacLeod
The Escape Hatch by Matthew De Abaitua
Childhood's Friend by Rachel Pollack
Takes from the White Hart by Bruce Sterling
Your Death, Your Way, 100% Satisfaction Guaranteed! by Emma Newman
Distraction by Gwyneth Jones
Dancers by Allen Stroud
Entropy War by Yoon Ha Lee
The Ontologist by Liz Williams
Waiting in the Sky by Tom Hunter
The Collectors by Adrian Tchaikovsky
I Saw Three Ships by Phillip Mann
Before They Left by Colin Greenland
Drawn from the Eye by Jeff Noon
Roads of Silver, Paths of Gold by Emmi Itäranta
The Fugue by Stephanie Holman
Memories of a Table by Chris Beckett
Child of Ours by Claire North
Would-Be A.I., Tell Us a Tale! #241: Sell 'em Back in Time! by Hali Hallison by Ian Watson
Last Contact by Becky Chambers
The Final Fable by Ian Whates
Ten Landscapes of Nili Fossae by Ian McDonald
Child by Adam Roberts
Providence by Alastair Reynolds
Essay - 2001: A Space Prosthesis—The Extensions of Man by Andrew M. Butler
Essay - On Judging the Clarke Award by Neil Gaiman
Essay - Once More on the 3rd Law by China Miéville