One of the advantages of having an ereader is that I can now easily get books from small presses that were difficult to get my paws on in print. I’ve therefore been on a bit of an anthology binge lately, tearing through three anthologies from three small presses, each of them an interesting collection of stories that show how valuable the sf small press scene really is.
Irregularity – Jurassic London (2014)
You’d think there’d be more science fiction about the history of science, but there really isn’t that much. Irregularity seeks to remedy that void, giving us 14 sf stories set during the scientific revolution. Now, “scientific revolution” is a contested term in history circles (just how can a “revolution” last hundreds of years?), and the editor is loose with periodization–we have stories ranging from the early seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, all featuring scientists in some capacity but not, strictly, about “science.”
That’s the most interesting feature, really: many of these stories explore the development and refinement of the scientific method through the lens of fantasy, making real the metaphor of a new world replacing the old. A common thread is the Linnaean system of classification (Linnaeus himself is a character in one of the stories) and tying it to the Le Guin-ien idea that by naming and classifying a thing we gain power over it; in these cases, we steal away the mystery of the thing named, and its capacity for the preternatural or the miraculous, therefore making it bow before our Reason. “Reason” capitalized, because in these stories, Reason is often a supernatural force of its own.
The stand-out story in this anthology is “The Last Escapement” by James Smythe, which approaches that same idea indirectly: taming and gaining power of the world through the measure of time, rather than its naming. Or that’s how it begins, before descending into some truly affecting body horror. I don’t often physically squirm when reading, but this story did the trick.
All in all, a great bundle of stories.
Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories – Tyche Books (2013)
24 tales of Canadian super heroes! Or, at least, mostly about Canadian superheroes, with a few exploring broader interpretations of the term. With most of the prominent sf magazines these days skewing towards the dour and melancholy, its up to anthologies to deliver tales oriented more towards action and adventure. Most of these are, which doesn’t mean they aren’t thoughtful as well. The main glue keeping these stories together is how the superhero reflects on personal identity, Canadian, immigrant or otherwise.
I was tickled to find out three of the stories were set in the Yukon (in fact, I know one of the authors because she’s from the Yukon) and featured mineral extraction in some way. I have a feeling Robert Service helped cement the Yukon as the landscape for the Supernatural North. “Lonesome Charlie Johnstone’s Strange Boon” by Jason Sharp carries the most obvious homage, tying together Albert Johnson and Klondike Gold Rush mythology (Service, again, alongside Jack London) into a tale of greed and madness.
Favourite story? Probably David Nickle’s “Knife Fight”, which barely qualifies as a superhero story at all. It does, however, feature a Rob Ford stand-in enacting regular parking garage gladiator battles between city councillors and the odd reporter, and has a huge whiff of early weird fiction that I appreciate. After that, “Giant Canadian Comics” by Patrick T. Goddard manages to create the best Canadian superhero team of All Time using the snappy medium of a disjointed comic book script. Idiosyncratic in the best way, really.
Are all the stories excellent? Well, no, but they’re never boring. This is a great showcase of Canadian writing outside the hallowed halls of Can Lit, and I’m grateful it exists.
The second anthology of these from a Canadian small press, and also the shortest, with only 12 stories therein. Broken Time Blues takes us to the interwar years just before or just after the markets came crashing down. Despite its slim length, this is in my opinion the best of the three; a really solid collection filled with truly great fantasy stories set in an era that doesn’t often receive the sf treatment.
Prohibition features strongly in a few of the stories, either directly or indirectly, with the next most popular topic being variations on hard-boiled detective fiction from the likes of Chandler and Hammet. The seedy underbelly of America’s great cities, with speakeasies and jazz, gives a background of swirling chaos that readily harbours the supernatural. “Semele’s Daughter” by John Nakamura Remy takes up on both these concerns, with prohibition becoming a 1920s ban on witchcraft and our hero a transgender P.I. witch-hunter whose wife just happens to be a servant of Diana. The description of a jazz-hall witch’s sabbath is truly something to behold.
But I got to say, the anthology closes with a real stunner, and I’m not really surprised because it’s by Robert Jackson Bennett. “A Drink for Teddy Ford” has Teddy going to a party and meeting a strange guest with a penchant for mixing odd drinks. Slowly but surely, we realize the guest is Thoth, doing his thing, and it shouldn’t work as a story…but it does. It really does.
I’d be remiss not to mention the illustrations sprinkled throughout this volume. They’re delightful, but a bit washed-out and pixelated in the epub version. Definitely worth going for a print copy if you have the chance.
So, three anthologies…which one should you pick up? All of them! These are all worthwhile projects, and I wanted to signal-boost them here since they’re likely to fly under the radar because of their small press origins.