Thursday, September 11, 2014

Review of Upgraded ed. by Neil Clarke

I normally do not open a review with a quote, but in the case of Neil Clarke’s 2014 science fiction anthology Upgraded (Wyrm Publishing) the editor’s introduction is too endearing not to pass up:

“Last July, I suffered a ‘widow-maker’ heart attack that nearly killed me. The damage to my heart was very significant and that led to my doctors installing a defibrillator in my chest. That day, I became a cyborg.”

Inspired to say the least, Clarke decided to edit an anthology about cyborgs.  Upgraded the result, it is a selection of stories which, in some fashion, deal with the intersection of machine and body.  Featuring twenty-six in all, some of the biggest names writing short science fiction today are featured (see bottom of review for table of contents). Twenty-six a large number for such a narrowly themed anthology, there are likewise lesser known names.  But quality is not always an analog to popularity, thankfully, rendering the impact of the anthology limited by quantity, only.

Knowing the theme is cyborgs/androids/augments/cybernetic humans, it’s easy to start forming expectations about Upgraded.  And very few are not met. “Come from Away” by Madeline Ashby is a classic story about an augmented bodyguard contracted to protect the son of a rich CEO.  Death threats sent in emails, the boy is attacked one day at school, leading to some revealing moments in the two’s relationship. “God Decay” by Rich Larson is the requisite upgraded athlete story.  Highly pre-dic-ta-ble, it tells of a super-athlete whose modifications, unsurprisingly, begin deteriorating.  “Small Medicine” by Genevieve Valentine is the story of a girl whose grandmother dies and is replaced with a robot possessing her grandma’s memories.  “Mercury in Retrograde” by Erin Hoffman is yet another classic story of a woman with a digital implant who gets hacked and must find a way out.  Likewise obligatory, “Memories and Wire” by Mari Ness is a story about a man whose girlfriend is a cyborg and explores the disconnection inherent to a human-machine partnership in perfunctory fashion.  From the ills of biomodification, we arrive at its glory in Greg Mellor’s “Fusion”.  The story of post-apocalyptic, augmented transcendence, it puts a rainbow spin on the wonders of being upgraded.  Though featuring nice atmosphere, I can’t help wondering if the horse was designed for the cart given the ending...  “Taking the Ghost” by A.C. Wise is about an injured young war veteran who runs into an older man amidst the debris of battle, and together they scrounge, looking for a replacement arm. Nice atmosphere and well-paced, Wise’s story is one of the better in the anthology for as apparent as it is.  A wonderfully unveiled story, “Married” by Helena Bell is about a wife whose husband has recently undergone treatment that slowly converts his body into a cyborg’s.  Elegantly prosaic, it lightly yet effectively questions the underlying humanity of augmented humans in a manner some of the other stories in the anthology attempt but are not as successful. 

Thankfully, there are several stories in Upgraded which eschew expectation (at least as much as possible within the given parameters).  “Tender” by Rachel Swirsky is perhaps the the most bizarrely suicidal story ever written.  Protecting someone from hurting themselves is one thing, but this tale takes the cake.  “Honeycomb Girls” by Erin Cashier is tonally the most singular of the anthology.  Telling the story of junk dealer caught in the gears of an operation larger than his simple yet intelligent mind can comprehend, it is both subtly humorous and poignant given Cashier’s use of language.  “Coastlines of the Stars” by Alex Dally MacFarlane shuns the head-on approach to cyborgs most stories in the anthology take and applies the idea as a secondary element in an interesting tale of a woman trying to find another… person in the galaxy with map rationale.  I’m not sure the quest for symbolism doesn’t overpower the story, but due to its relative singularity is noticeably intriguing.  Just by being a Great Ship story, Robert Reed's "The Sarcophagus" is a unique story.  The planet-sized vessel discovering something it has never encountered before, a mission is necessary.  And the last story which stands out is “Synecdoche Oracles” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew.  “Behind the bars of Charinda’s ribs, there lives a peacock” the opening line, the story goes on to tell of a woman who wants to execute a general for fame and glory.  But with Sriduangkew, the story is only half the enjoyment.  Abstract imagery rendered in rich, obtuse prose worth chewing over is the other characteristic worth reading.

Having a strong effect on Upgraded is Ken Liu.  Contributor and translator, his own story “The Regular” is about a private eye investigating a dead prostitute and the serial killer who murdered her.  Though vividly described, the contrived scenes move the story away from original and toward conventional—save the real world bit of modern science that ‘breaks the case’.  “Oil of Angels” by Chen Qiufan (translated from Chinese by Liu) is about a woman whose dreams, fears, and lack of memories haunt her as she unintentionally follows in the footsteps of a cold, abusive mother.  Visiting a masseuse, however, triggers something in her memory implant that just may be a light at the end of the tunnel.  The second story Liu has translated is one of, if not the best story in the anthology.  “Tongtong’s Summer” by Xia Jia is a touching tale about a young girl and a summer she spends with her grandfather.  When a robot caretaker operated remotely by a technician/nurse is introduced to their home, Tongtong’s aging grandfather’s health starts to improve.  But when grandpa himself gets involved in the tech the story really takes off.  Possessing the right balance of wisdom and sentimentalism, it lacks melodrama but at the same time imparts worthwhile bits of knowledge.  (Xia’s story has a real chance of being nominated for some awards.  Hugo fans will love it.) 

If it hasn’t become obvious, Upgraded is best read in the fashion MPorcius goes about reading anthologies: a story here, a story there.  Read from cover to cover, it gets old quick.  (“Seventh story in a row of a person with biomodification, nineteen more to go…”)  On their own, the stories may possess bite, but read in a line mix together, and as a result take on a lackluster hue.  Told effectively in the second person but otherwise not smoothly written, “A Cold Heart” by Tobias S. Buckell is the story of an augmented man (surprise!) attempting to track down memories that have been taken from him.  Though a classic story, it tells of an anti-hero.  “What I’ve Seen with Your Eyes” by Jason K. Chapman (if one misses the advertisement in the title) is the story of girl who is part of a police investigation into the apparent murder of her brother by a killer who hacked her enhanced eyes.  What follows is an attempt to sort through the variety of imagery, real and virtual, of the future.  A reversal of roles from his prior short story “Malak”, “Collateral” by Peter Watts, is about an augmented soldier employed by the government for war purposes instead of a semi-intelligent drone employed by the government for war.  Responsibility for death and destruction still the main premise, everything goes smoothly in “Collateral” until the final two pages of over-the-top rationale.  “Always the Harvest” by Yoon Ha Lee opens the collection in vivid style.  Aiming at profundity, it is, in fact, the imagery and storyline which guide this story of a biotechnically modified young woman wandering an underworld labyrinth looking for a new hand to replace her infected one.  Meeting a mysterious stranger, he reveals to her not only new places in the labyrinth, but a facet of life she never thought possible.  Highly reminiscent of Jeff Vandermeer’s Veniss Undergound.

And there are still six more stories in Upgraded.  But it’s obvious with how monotonous this review is getting that an extra paragraph of “XX is the story of an augmented person who YY…” will not make a wit of difference.  Ian Whates and Jonathan Strahan producing themed anthologies of fourteen, fifteen stories these days, the twenty-six of Upgraded put the anthology at year-end ‘best of’ length without the variety. 

In the end, Upgraded is an anthology stuffed to the gills with stories of humans with machines added to their bodies that must be consumed in pieces.  The theme funneling the twenty-six entries into a slender bottle, allowing them to be distinguishable in retrospect requires time between consumption.  Given that the cyborg is one of the main tropes of science fiction, enjoyment of the anthology likewise depends on the reading experience the reader brings to the table.  Upgraded adding little in the way of novelty to the themes and imagery of cyborgs that have been explored by countless writers before, for readers steeped in science fiction the anthology will be proof Paul Kincaid’s widening gyre is indeed grinding ever slower.  This is not to say there is a lack of freshness or strong voice to the storytelling, rather that the material the plots and themes are constructed from is ground tilled through many seasons of genre history.  But if the reader is of the modern generation and not yet had their imaginative horizons expanded by previous generations than the anthology will undoubtedly offer something bright and enjoyable.  A combination of popular and unfamiliar voices on a facet of science fiction that is becoming more relevant with each day, for that, at least, it can be recommended.

The following are the twenty-six stories of Upgraded:

“Always the Harvest” by Yoon Ha Lee
“A Cold Heart” by Tobias S. Buckell
“The Sarcophagus” by Robert Reed
“Oil of Angels” by Chen Qiufan
“What I’ve Seen With Your Eyes” by Jason K. Chapman
“No Place to Dream, but a Place to Die” by Elizabeth Bear
“Married” by Helena Bell
“Come From Away” by Madeline Ashby
“Negative Space” by Amanda Forrest
“Fusion” by Greg Mellor
“Taking the Ghost” by A.C. Wise
“Honeycomb Girls” by Erin Cashier
“The Regular” by Ken Liu
“Tender” by Rachel Swirsky
“Tongtong’s Summer” by Xia Jia
“Musée de l’Âme Seule” by E. Lily Yu
“Wizard, Cabalist, Ascendant” by Seth Dickinson
“Memories and Wire” by Mari Ness
“God Decay” by Rich Larson
“Small Medicine” by Genevieve Valentine
“Mercury in Retrograde” by Erin Hoffman
“Coastlines of the Stars” by Alex Dally MacFarlane
“The Cumulative Effects of Light Over Time” by E. Catherine Tobler
“Synecdoche Oracles” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
“Collateral” by Peter Watts
“Seventh Sight” by Greg Egan

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