Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Review of The Starry Rift ed. by Jonathan Strahan

Fiction in the 21st century has torn down a lot of barriers. Where children’s, YA, and adult fiction were once distinct, today they bleed into one another. (I won’t get into the maturity of some fiction labelled ‘adult’, but certainly there is an argument to be made that the blending started a long time ago.) Nevertheless, it’s important to inform the reader off the bat that Jonathan Strahan’s 2008 anthology The Starry Rift: Tales of New Tomorrows is YA.

Unfortunately, I discovered this fact late in the game. After the third story, I was thinking Hey, these stories seem too simple, too immature to be explicitly for an adult mind… But knowing many books marketed to adults do not possess any more maturity, I plowed ahead but with senses tingling. It wasn’t until halfway through I decided to check, and sure enough, it was marketed for teens, forcing me to go back and re-evaluate the stories, which I don’t think I always successfully did. Bottom line is: if I were a teen interested in sf and fantasy, would I enjoy these stories? Answer: likely yes. A few, unlikely…

Turning the last page of “Ass-Hat Magic Spider” by Scott Westerfeld, I asked myself: That’s it? Is that a joke? Feeling like back-of-the-drawer material, Westerfeld’s very brief tale is of a young man getting ready to travel across the galaxy to start a new colony with his family. Able to bring only limited weight, he shaves his eyebrows and doesn’t drink water for a day, all in an effort to get below the limit to be able to bring his favorite book, Charlotte’s Web. The story an overt paean to books, it is a cheap moment to kick off the collection (for as much as I love Charlotte’s Web). “Cheats” by Gwyneth Jones ups the complexity level by telling of two boys in a virtual reality game, having fun altering the coding to find its new levels and secrets. Running into other players like they’ve never encountered before, the reality of their world at large is explained—a fun, lighthearted story with a deeper, metaphysical premise.

Ironically titled, “Repair Kit” by Stephen Baxter is in need of what it’s selling. There are times and there are places for shaggy-dog stories, but by their very nature they are heavily dependent on style of story-telling—the building up of suspense and tension through style. Baxter’s voice is simply too flat to pull it off. About a space ship that leaves without a critical component, a magical thing (the titular repair kit) emerges to save the day, or does it… A weak one-off about tanning cream, “Orange” by Neil Gaiman likewise tests—and exceeds—the limits for the anthology set out by Strahan in the introduction. (I even wonder if the name ‘Gaiman’ was more of a draw for Strahan than the content of the story.) That being said, teenage boys may find something humorous about the little tale. A step outside his comfort zone that doesn’t end up feeling that way, “The Dismantled Invention of Fate” by Jeffrey Ford defies the idea of “predictable” space adventure. About an astronaut stranded on a planet, he falls in love with an alien, marries her, but is torn away—by what else, none other than fate. Fate still having a role in the conclusion, Ford’s story is dynamic yet perpetual.

Margo Lanagan’s story is perhaps the biggest reason to call Strahan out on his introduction. “An Honest Day’s Work” tells of a young man who plays the role of a whaler, except that he is not eviscerating whales, rather giant aquatic humans. A literary story that doesn’t fit well within the more genre-oriented content of the anthology, it renders the lofty heights of Strahan’s intro, hyperbole. Ordinarily I am not a fan of Alastair Reynolds, but in this anthology his relatively immature style fits right in. “The Star Surgeon’s Apprentice” is classic sf. A young man sets out on his first voyage into space as a surgeon’s apprentice. Operating on humans with cyborg parts, Reynolds takes the classic British ideal of sailing the world into space, only this “sail boat” holds dark secrets.

Generally I’m not a big fan of Cory Doctorow’s series of pastiche shorts. “Anda’s Game” is another playing off famous sf, in this case Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. About an overweight teenage girl trying to make friends in her favorite online MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role playing game), her character and resolve are put to the test by an invitation to an exclusive club of players. For teenage girls, however, the story is likely empowering, and I would give Doctorow credit for it. An empathic story about cloning, “Sundiver Day” by Kathleen Ann Goonan tells of a young woman who loses her brother in a war and chooses to clone him. Goonan doing a reasonably good job building the emotional foundation such a story requires, its resolution something one may not expect. Another story about a young woman, “The Dust Assassin” by Ian McDonald tells of how she is caught in a family feud among India’s near-future water monopolies. McDonald’s style buoying things effortlessly, the fairy tale structure of the story has nevertheless been done before. That being said, refurbished homes are typically nicer to live in than older, shabbier homes.

Like Reynolds, Paul McAuley is not a writer whose work has made an impact on me. But I would have thought he could write a YA story, and in “Incomers” he tries. The result lacking subtlety, it tells of a conflict between old and new colonizers, as represented by an old man and two young men. Getting a little bit preachy toward the end, I assume most teens are able to see through the moralizing, and as such I’m not sure how successful it would be. About slick, suave vampire hunters, “Infestation” by Garth Nix is a genre romp. Nix letting his inner nerd off the leash, the story plays with a lot of stereotypes, but combines them in convincing enough story that readers not steeped in years of fantasy and horror (i.e. YA readers) can likely find a spot of action and character interaction to fuel their enjoyment.

A young male premise if ever there were, “Post-Ironic Stress Syndrome” by Tricia Sullivan tells of a society where wars are decided by duels between champions. Each limb or part representing some aspect of each society’s resources, losers lose and winners win. Sullivan spends a fair amount of time explaining the world, but for young men I don’t think it will be a problem (only adult readers like myself looking for a bit more show than tell). Closing the anthology is Walter Jon Williams’ “Pinocchio”. Playing off social media and insta-celebrities, it centers around a young man who must discover for himself the lengths and limits to which he’ll go to keep his followers happy. The moral is clear from this summary, but Williams does a fair job integrating it into the story, making for a solid closer.

As stated above, The Starry Rift is an anthology that teens/young adults interested in colorful, imaginative fiction will likely find interest in. I would dare also say that the anthology could serve as a good first step into the world of short fiction for young adults. There are several that did not jive with my adult mind or my imaginings of what my young adult mind was. However, I certainly would have been less critical in my youth, and simply pushed what I didn’t like out of mind and moved to the next, which is what I think a lot of YA readers will do, the overall experience still palpable.

The following are the sixteen original stories collected in The Starry Rift:

Ass-Hat Magic Spider by Scott Westerfeld

Cheats by Gwyneth Jones

Orange by Neil Gaiman

The Surfer by Kelly Link

Repair Kit by Stephen Baxter

The Dismantled Invention of Fate by Jeffrey Ford

Anda's Game by Cory Doctorow

Sundiver Day by Kathleen Ann Goonan

The Dust Assassin by Ian McDonald

The Star Surgeon's Apprentice by Alastair Reynolds

An Honest Day's Work by Margo Lanagan

Lost Continent by Greg Egan

Incomers by Paul J. McAuley

Post-Ironic Stress Syndrome by Tricia Sullivan

Infestation by Garth Nix

Pinocchio by Walter Jon Williams

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