selecting seven speculative tales for inclusion. I don’t know what the editorial process was like for him, and I can’t recall if this is his first foray into editing (which is not an easy job to do, by the way; rejection letters are not fun to write). In any case, it gave me the opportunity to use my Nook, which has not been getting the use I would like due to graduate school.
|Cover Art (“That Darn Tower of Babel!”) by Aaron C. Wirtz|
Issue #4 is somewhat of a mixed bag, but it is also an issue that shows a fair deal of potential, which I think is important to note for a small, semi-pro market. While the issue contains stories that I didn’t care for, there are also stories here that I think are fantastic examples of speculative fiction. “Salieri” by Marina Julia Neary, for example, end well enough, but is most interesting because of what it does with its setting and novum (the “new” idea). It follows a brilliant college student in a faux-Victorian-era city who finds himself turned second-rate by his equally brilliant, but unusual, albino roommate. The main character’s interactions with the social landscape of a rigid university is only overshadowed by the plot twist, both of which are interesting concepts to consider in a realistic setting. The only significant flaw in the story is its light-handed tackling of the twist, which could have been expanded and addressed with as much fervor as the university’s social rules. There’s a grain of something brilliant in this story, not just because the ending flips the relatively mundane setting on its head, but also because what happens and what is left to be discussed are both ideas that really should be explored in quasi-fantasy (quasi-steampunk; quasi-alternate-history) fiction. “Salieri” is certainly one of the strongest stories in Issue #4, despite its minor flaws.
“Flawed with some shiny, expensive gems,” I think, is a useful way to describe Issue #4. Most of the stories in this issue are at least entertaining (which I’ll get to in a moment), but there are also stories that I think miss the mark. “End of Eden” by Shane Collins, for example, reads more like fan-fiction for The Road (or any other dystopian tale from which McCarthy might have drawn), with a pair of lovers traveling across a ruined landscape avoiding gangs of wild people. The problem with post-apocalyptic fiction (for me) is that so much of it reads like things that came before, and are, as a result, predictable. In the case of “End of Eden,” it is obvious from the moment the main characters arrive in a utopian community early in the story that everything is going to fall apart. The fact that the female character gets pregnant during this journey–which is supposed to be devastating for her and her partner–is left unresolved; as far as post-apocalyptic fiction goes, few stories that I have read have dealt with how one survives while pregnant in that kind of hostile environment, which might explain why I was surprised to see this particular plot point in “End of Eden.” It would be better to see that plot resolved, though.
While Collins’ story benefits from the potential for unfamiliarity–i.e., that readers unfamiliar with dystopian SF might not recognize the story’s cliche framework–the same is not true of “The King of Infinite Space” by Jason Reynolds. As a story about drunk driving and racing, Reynolds’ tale suffers from being utterly familiar. We’ve heard this story told before: a young man gets plastered and attempts to drive home, decides to try racing someone at a light, and then pulls out in the end only to find out the following day that the other car had crashed, killing the passengers. Even the final “twist” is problematic, since it does nothing but conveniently connect the main character to someone else and provide closure. As a motivational story, I suppose it works, but it is otherwise seriously lacking.
Other stories have similar flaws, though less pronounced, but they also contain a flare of originality. “Fishing the Moons of Jupiter” by Jason Rizos takes a premise that should be quite boring (mining in space) and flips it on its head like a Doctor Who story by changing the search for minerals to the search for enormous, and dangerous, space worms (which produce copious amounts of energy that can be harvested back on Earth); but after the story progresses from the trials and tribulations of a mining crew in space to a very interesting “discovery,” it ends, leaving an unresolved bigger picture. I would have liked to see where the story could have gone with that ending, but the story simply stops.
“Overgrown” by Stoney M. Setzer, in contrast, reads like a pulpy action story that knows it’s a pulpy action story, which might explain why its narrative feels disconnected. The story tries to work too many narrative strands together (the story of a scientist who has overstepped and of a dysfunctional family who has to contend with the effects of science gone wrong–i.e., plant monsters), as if the author wanted to interject and say, “See? This is what is going on over here. Now back to your scheduled programming.” The story is, overall, entertaining and humorous, but too much attention is placed somewhere other than on the characters who seem to actually matter, and the ending is both convenient and too predictable. But those might be features of pulp writing that I’ve simply forgotten, which might mean the story works just fine within its narrative parameters.
But there are also stories in this collection that I think are fantastic works of serious SF which outshine the other works. “Immortals” by Leah Darrow is a primary example. While slightly predictable in terms of its ending, Darrow’s story is thoroughly fascinating based on its worldbuilding alone. The story takes place in a world of humans-become-immortals, where natural acts of biology like childbirth have been reduced to “selfish” indulgences and where one man must “grow up” in a world that doesn’t make it easy to do so. I’d recommend it for those interested in social SF, since it digs deep into the implications of our inevitable mastery over death and the strange, if not terrifying, influences such changes will have on our social lives. Wondering what we will become in our social and cultural lives is a fascinating avenue to consider in fiction, especially if the apparatus under which such changes come is a scientific one. Technology has and continues to change us, and thinking about where we might end up in the next twenty years is a fertile field for science fiction writers to play in.
Lastly, there is is “Testament” by Michael C. Lea, which I consider to be the crown jewel in this issue (perhaps because I am fascinated by how technology influences the development of human identity). As a murder mystery told through trial testimonies, “Testament” does two things: 1) plays with structure so that each succeeding speech reveals new pieces of information, new falsehoods, and so on, thickening the plot across multiple strands (like one of those logical grid puzzles we did as kids); and 2) imagines how human beings react to the complex emotions of jealousy, love, and so on when displaced by the technological “threat.” The story is engaging for those reasons alone, but the ending will also leave you spinning because it takes physics to its incredible (I’m hesitant to say logical here) extreme. If not for its mundane setting (a trial and a lab), you might even call the story SciFi Strange.
Overall, I think the problem with the issue is that it doesn’t feel consistent. I don’t know if that’s an editorial or a personal problem (probably personal), since even an issue of Interzone will contain stories that I don’t much care for. This is the flaw of general SF/F magazines (even though Residential Aliens is technically a themed magazine) and collections; the more stories you include, the more likely you’ll split your reading audience on certain stories. But I also think it’s important to note that while I think many of the stories in Issue #4 are flawed, they are also often (at least) entertaining. In the end, I suspect this is what matters most. Readers aren’t always looking for “great” or “perfect” stories. They’re looking to be entertained. For a lot of readers, Issue #4 will entertain throughout (with an exception or two). There are plenty of amusing ideas, odd situations, and fun pulpy romps here. For more “sophisticated” readers (I put that word in quotes on purpose, because it’s an odd and controversial term to use to describe readers), however, I suspect that some of the stories will fall seriously short. They will be pleased, I suspect, with “Immortals” and “Testament” (“Salieri,” too), both stories that take unique approaches to truly human problems. Hopefully more stories like these will be published in Residential Aliens in the future.