Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Review of The Best of Subterranean ed. by William Schafer

At this point in my life I’ve read enough short stories to realize that the best form they arrive at my door in is the curated anthology.  Anthologies of originals and author collections often hit or miss, curated anthologies allow the editor to cherrypick from stories that have been on the market for some time.  Generally speaking, this means stories that were memorable—for a good reason.  Curated anthologies like Gardner Dozois’ The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year's Best Science Fiction, Gordon van Gelder’s The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: The Fiftieth Anniversary, or Kessel and Kelly’s series for Tachyon, for example, Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology, contain numerous good, quality stories that have weathered a bit of time.  William Schafer’s big, fat The Best of Subterranean (2017) is another example in support of my theory. 

Opening the anthology in very strong fashion is Lewis Shiner’s “Perfidia”.  Playing with similar but different ideas to his novel Glimpses, the story tells of a rare music collector named Frank and the seemingly unbelievable find that comes his way.  A music recording dated three days after Glen Miller was officially declared dead, Frank, with the blessing of his drastically ill father, heads to Paris to find the recording’s seller.  The characters and emotion written with Shiner’s deft hand, “Perfidia” is a powerful tale of one man trying to find redemption—the uncertainties surrounding Glen Miller’s mysterious disappearance a great launch pad.  I am torn on Maria Dahvana Headley’s “Game”.  Wonderfully well-written, “Game” tells of a lifelong tiger hunter returning to India in old age for one last hunt.  Dahvana Headley expertly interleaving the hunter’s past with his present, it’s slowly revealed that the hunt may not, in fact, be all that different from those of his younger days, despite the years that have passed.  The story taking a severe left turn upon the climax, readers will either be enthused or disappointed.  I fall on the latter, as I’m unconvinced the left turn actually enhances the story.  Everything (if not more) could have been accomplished had the story been kept ‘realist’.  A very good story, nonetheless.

“The Last Log of the Lachrimosa” showcases the steps Alastair Reynolds has made to improve technique since his early days as a writer, but it continues to highlight how little the author is interested in writing anything beyond material of average substance.  Typical space horror, the crew of an exploratory craft (complete with a monkey in a space suit), find a crashed ship, the Lachrimosa, on a barren planet and begin to explore the nearby caves looking for survivors.  Mediocrity ensues.  Michael Marshall Smith choosing the least likely science fiction material and spinning it into a page-turner, “The Seventeenth Kind” tells of a television salesman and the otherworldly experience he has on-air one night selling a miraculous cleaning product.  The opening perhaps stronger than the closing, there is no denying, however, the story’s super momentum.

Certainly a unique story, “The Pile” by Michael Bishop tells of an urban community who, rather than throw their unused stuff away, puts it in a communal pile.  People leaving and taking objects as they see fit, the nice arrangement is interrupted by a toy ape (dancing the Macarena) that everybody seems to want.  A story that sizzles delicately in the brain after reading, under the simple story lies a rabbit hole of potential meaning, in other words, typical Bishop.  (It’s great to see Bishop still appearing in anthologies.)  A relatively straight-forward demon chase in a steampunk setting, “Balfour and Meriwether in the Vampire of Kabul” by Daniel Abraham features the return of a group of characters featured in a prior story.  After an attack on the Queen of England, the group are asked to track down the culprit, with all manner of dark magic and evil hallucinations the result.  Another straight-forward story is “The Bohemian Astrobleme” by Kage Baker.  About a team of Victorian-ish adventurers commissioned by a wealthy London patron, they head to the Czech Republic in an attempt to track down the source of a very rare jewel that may hold additional scientific value.  Run-of-the-mill escapades ensue.

As always with a Ted Chiang story, “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” is a well-thought out idea in smooth style that examines the manner in which technology affects humanity and vice versa.  The subject life-logging, Chiang postulates prosthetic memory is inevitable as society marches forward, and, like most other technical advances, has its dark and light sides.  Perhaps best described as steampunk horror, “Tanglefoot” by Cherie Priest is a story set in her Clockwork Century world, specifically a sanitorium, a kind of catch-all for people, young and old, left over from the war.  Young Edwin likes to visit the workroom of the elderly but innocently demented Dr. Smeeks.  Crafting his own inventions while the old man sleeps, Edwin builds a tin boy, and with the winding of a wrench, the creation creaks and totters around the room.  Trouble is, it seems the tin boy may not need a wrench.  Average stuff, yet written in a lucid hand.

Further proof Rachel Swirsky is one of the best writers of short fiction in the business today, “Dispersed by the Sun, Melting in the Wind” tells of the last two people on Earth after an asteroid has destroyed all else.  Subtly a sad story, Swirsky uses structure rather than melodrama to convey the emotion.  More an art piece than fiction, “White Lines on a Green Field” by Catherynne M. Valente is 50s’ nostalgia after having undergone a Coyote myth transformation.  Salaciously written, but still looking for the substance.  Western pulp with a Texas twang, “Hide and Horns” by Joe R. Lansdale tells of a black man’s encounters with the racist residents of the titular town.  Lansdale hanging his hat on style, the immature sense of humor will either grab the reader or turn them off.

A delightfully elegant story, Kat Howard’s “The Least of the Deathly Arts” tells of a Shadow Scholar named Noir and her unexpected love affair with Death.  Playing off a fantastical, Dia de Muertos atmosphere, the pleasure of poetry is Death’s bridge across the gap.  Taking a turn for the Weird, Kelly Link’s “Valley of the Girls” is a story about the modern life of teens, and the temptations and realities they face on a regular basis.  The symbolism may be too much for YA, but the message is strong, relevant.  Openly admitted as cutting-room floor material, “The Secret History of the Lost Colony” by John Scalzi is an inconsequential piece of interest only to people who are deep into Scalzi’s Old Man universe.  The rest can skip and miss nothing.  “Younger Women” by Karen Joy Fowler is decidedly more conventional—in the realistic sense.  Written in sharp, intelligent sentences that snap off the page, one evening’s encounter between a snoopy mom and her fifteen-year old’s boyfriend has all the drama one would expect, but thankfully more poignancy. 

A simply fascinating piece of fiction and meta-fiction, “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlín R. Kiernan is a unique perspective on a film that draws upon both its characters and narratation in superb prose.  While perhaps occasionally indulgent, Kiernan nevertheless delivers one of the anthology’s best. What is in fact a script for a teleplay (a very interesting way to break up the standard storytelling format of the anthology, I might add), “The Toys of Caliban” by George R. R. Martin is classic Twilight Zone material.  About a boy with telekinetic powers who can bring his favorite catalogs toys into existence, it’s a story with a whiff of cheese, but a definitive climax that is everything the show was known for.

A story set in the author’s Majipoor universe but requiring zero prior knowledge, “The Tomb of the Pontifex Dvorn” by Robert Silverberg is a tale addressing the delicate balance between respect for and exploitation of history.  When a young history scholar is sent with his best friend to study the tomb of the planet’s first emperor, he sees it as an opportunity of a lifetime.  But when exploring the quiet tomb, one discovery turns things on a dime that could mean everything for its sanctity.  A quirky story with a sharp tongue, “Troublesolving” by Tim Pratt tells of a man recovering from divorce and the ultra-bizarre encounter he has with a woman who seems to know his future.  A story (which could be argued is not a story) that somehow found its way into the anthology—particularly as its closer—is “A Long Walk Home” by Jay Lake.  Indeed a ‘long walk’, the patience that reader must exhibit patience reading this last-man-on-Earth scenario (seemingly endlessly extended by the man’s immortality) which goes nowhere with substance.   The ‘story’ could have been written in one-tenth the pages with ten times the impact.  I can only assume its inclusion is a tribute to Lake's recent passing.

A subtly creepy and mysterious story with an all-too-human undercurrent, “The Crane Method” by Ian Macleod tells of a controlling Medieval professor, one of his aides, and the interesting historical find that comes their way.  In typical Macloed fashion, the story is an excellent balance of prose, plotting, characterization, and overall technique in arriving at its salty conclusion. In what feels both a love letter and piss-take of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most beloved character, “He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes” by Harlan Ellison uses butterfly-effect logic to triangulate a modern day missing-persons case. 

A subtly understated story, “Water Can’t Be Nervous” by Jonathan Carroll tells of a man stil grieving from a broken relationship.  His ex-girlfriend gifting him two puppets before breaking up, the man re-enacts numerous scenes with past girlfriends, and in the process reveals something about himself.  “A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong” by K. J. Parker is a quality novella about two men caught in a cycle of revenge and morality/immorality, all written in Parker’s direct, black hand.  The characters and story oscillating back and forth along the outcomes of ethical decisions, Parker strikes another blow in his campaign to highlight the subjectivity of morality, this one of the harder blows.  (Longer review here.) The number of good romance stories able to be counted on one hand, I now have to add James Blaylock’s “The Dry Spell” (and I still need only one hand).  About a man anxious for summer rains to come, toying with the lawn sprinklers doesn’t seem any match for what turns out to be the real solution to the problem.  (The story is also a prime example of the power of subtle technique.)

In the end, The Best of Subterranean press is one of those good quality anthologies that you keep on your bedside table and read one or two stories from each evening.  It’s naturally impossible for every story to meet every reader’s likes and dislikes, but the fact that Schafer has amost a couple of decades’ worth of stories to pick and choose from automatically means that most lesser quality works have fallen by the wayside, and what’s left likely worth a read.  The real standouts for me are the Shiner and Kiernan stories, followed by a number of good quality stories—the Silverberg, Smith, Swirsky, Bishop, Fowler, Blaylock, Parker, Chiang, Carroll, and Macloed among them. 

The following are the thirty stories collected in The Best of Subterranean:

Perfidia—Lewis Shiner
Game—Maria Dahvana Headley
The Last Log of the Lachrimosa—Alastair Reynolds
The Seventeenth Kind—Michael Marshall Smith
Dispersed by the Sun, Melting in the Wind—Rachel Swirsky
The Pile—Michael Bishop
The Bohemian Astrobleme—Kage Baker
Tanglefoot—Cherie Priest
Hide and Horns—Joe R. Lansdale
Balfour and Meriwether in the Vampire of Kabul—Daniel Abraham
Last Breath—Joe Hill
Younger Women—Karen Joy Fowler
White Lines on a Green Field—Catherynne M. Valente
The Least of the Deathly Arts—Kat Howard
Water Can’t Be Nervous—Jonathan Carroll
Valley of the Girls—Kelly Link
Sic Him, Hellhound! Kill! Kill!—Hal Duncan
Troublesolving—Tim Pratt
The Indelible Dark—William Browning Spencer
The Prayer of Ninety Cats—Caitlín R. Kiernan
The Crane Method—Ian R. MacLeod
The Tomb of the Pontifex Dvorn—Robert Silverberg
The Toys of Caliban (script)—George R. R. Martin
The Secret History of the Lost Colony—John Scalzi
The Screams of Dragons—Kelley Armstrong
The Dry Spell—James P. Blaylock
He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes—Harlan Ellison
A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong—K. J. Parker
The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling—Ted Chiang
A Long Walk Home—Jay Lake

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