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Wildside Press

Tuesday 27 August 2002

A Six-Pack of Collections

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière

Are We Having Fun Yet?, by William Sanders (expanded edition: Wildside Press, 2002)

William Sanders is wickedly funny, a great storyteller, and a writer with peculiar ideas. All these qualities are showcased in his collection, Are We Having Fun Yet?, previously available only as an ebook and now expanded (with the addition of "When this World Is All on Fire" from Asimov's and "Smoke", a Cherokee crime story) for its print debut from Wildside Press. The stories here are rich with Cherokee lore, bustling with vivid characters, and, most of all, great fun.

Possibly the most well-known tale here is "The Undiscovered", winner of the Sidewise Award, finalist for several other awards, and already anthologized a few times. In it, Shakespeare creates his plays while living with the Cherokee. It's a delightfully funny romp that never descends into easy slapstick.

My favourite story here, though, is one of the two stories that premiered in this collection's ebook edition: "The Scuttling". This is, by far, the best pest-control story I've ever read. I laughed so hard I cried.

Sanders brings a very personal voice to SF and fantasy. He is bursting with chutzpah, unabashedly political, thoroughly entertaining, and not at all worried about offending those who could use more than a little offending.

To answer the title's question: I know I am; William Sanders certainly is; and you probably will too once you crack this book open and start reading.

Toast: And Other Rusted Futures, by Charles Stross (Cosmos Books/Wildside Press, 2002)

Several of the field's most prominent editors and critics — Gardner Dozois, Michael Swanwick, Nick Gevers, etc. — have been touting Charles Stross as the new big thing in SF, as one of the – if not THE – writer on the cutting edge of SF short fiction.

I don't get it. To me, his stuff reads like competent fan fiction: in love with the ideas of SF, but somewhat overlooking the "fiction" in "science fiction".

The stories in Toast are certainly enthusiastic. The author has lots of sciencefictional ideas about the future and uses his fiction to work them out, mingling homages to past masters with youthful brio. And that sounds better than the results.

Stross's stories are laden down with stale exposition and unnecessary explanations. His characters often speak in awkward info dumps. And I couldn't shake the feeling that Stross loved his ideas a bit too much. The stories, in the end, were not much more than didactic exercises.

I was unwilling to suspend disbelief because I felt that I was not being told a story but rather having an idea, or a set of ideas, explained to me. The stories in Toast read like complexified versions of the examples used to illustrate math problems in school textbooks: they're stale and artificial.

Several of the stories attempt to bring humour to the mix, but, again, it felt very fannish and in-jokey, somewhat stilted and forced. And yet, from the author's intriguing and intelligent introduction, it's clear that Stross has put a lot of thought and care into his fiction.

But the results don't speak to me. Not a single story in this book captured my imagination.

I don't mean to rain on Stross's parade. Good for him that his fiction has struck a chord in the mainstream of SF. But that success makes me wonder about what many SF editors like, why they like it, and, perhaps, how the kind of SF valorized within the field may encourage a certain insularity that can only be rebarbative to readers not already conditioned to respond favourably to narrative strategies particular to the traditions of magazine SF.

The Suicide Kittm, by David L. Hayles (Secker & Warburg, 2002)

David Hayles's collection, The Suicide Kittm, is not marketed as SF. In fact, only about half of its contents are actually SF. However, even those stories that aren't make brilliant use of a narrative stratagem usually identified with SF (but, as far as I'm concerned, woefully underused in most popular SF novels and stories): cognitive estrangement.

Hayles's book is delightfully bizarre and darkly humorous. Everything is strangely askew in these 22 stories. The author deftly juggles the mundane and the outré and his characters' unpredictable reactions to both.

Hayles's stories move forward at a clipped pace, never lingering too long on any detail. Hayles makes deft use of sparse insinuations to create bizarre worlds, leaving space for readers to imagine the full scope of the strangeness. His characters are profoundly unlikable, yet oddly endearing. His scenarios are unusual and disquieting.

"The Typing Pool" is set in a political dystopia in which failing at a job application can have disastrous consequences. "The Dwarf-wrangler" describes a most distressing occupation. The hints dropped as to the nature of the backdrop to the unsettlingly slapstick war satire "Pigback Apocalypse" have disturbing implications. And so on.

The Suicide Kittm impressed me very much with its wry confidence, its merciless wit, and its brash voice.

Altmann's Tongue, by Brian Evenson (expanded edition: Bison Books, 2002)

The release of the first edition of Altmann's Tongue set in motion a series of events that led to Brian Evenson being increasingly alienated from his Mormon community. That journey, which led to a parting of ways between Evenson and the religion of his birth, is described in candid detail in this new edition's afterword. Also new to this edition are an introduction by author and philosopher Alphonso Lingis and Evenson's "Two Brothers", a story that won the O. Henry Award.

If I were to attempt to classify Evenson's fiction into a genre, I would have to say that most apt tag would be "moral horror".

Evenson's stories are peopled with characters — killers, mostly — whose morality is utterly alien. Not amoral, and certainly not immoral, but, perhaps, xenomoral. But there are no extraterrestrials or other nonhuman protagonists here. Evenson's characters are present-day people, aliens by virtue of being themselves.

Evenson does not try to justify his characters and their actions. He presents them in unequivocally unjudgemental fashion, with a cool and detached prose style, almost completely bereft of artifice. The effect is arresting, unsettling, and mesmerizing.

At their worst — because not all of these tales are successful — Evenson's stories approach impenetrability. At their best, they are stark tableaux of xenomoral cognitive estrangement, unapologetically transgressive, darkly beautiful, strange, odd, other.

The Collection, by Bentley Little (Signet, 2002)

Bentley Little's The Collection is a nice, fat mass-market original: 32 stories in one compact package. Even better: it's a great book.

Bentley Little is gifted with a twisted imagination, a dark sense of humour, and a vigorous storytelling style. His prose is almost invisible: these stories seduce because of their seriously deranged ideas, their utterly convincing characters, and the unstoppable momentum of their plots. Little makes the world outside of his book completely vanish; each story sucked me in, often making me laugh while simultaneously giving me the shivers.

A case in point is "Blood": a dead-serious story of bloodthirsty macaroni. Yes. Macaroni. I know it sounds silly. But it's not. It's frightening as all hell. It's only kind of funny in hindsight. It takes real skill to make macaroni that scary.

"Life with Father" is probably the most brashly savage environmental satire that I've read. It's unapologetically brutal. And seriously funny.

"The Idol" pushes celebrity worship to a grossly appropriate extreme.

"Monteith" lifts the veil of traditional American suburbia to reveal almost surreal horrors.

All of these stories are memorable. All of them are entertaining, weird, scary, funny, unexpected.

Haw!, by Ivan Brunetti (Fantagraphics, 2001)

Ivan Brunetti subtitled his gloriously misanthropic Fantagraphics collection Haw! "Horrible, Horrible Cartoons." These faux-naïf cartoons, insidiously drawn in a genteel New Yorker style, constitute the most lurid and excessive parade of atrocities, degradations, depravities, humiliations, and vulgarity I've ever seen. And Brunetti's genius is that he transformed this freak show of vile and repulsive human behaviours into one of the funniest books I've had the pleasure to read.

The humour comes mostly from the dissonance between the innocence evoked by the drawing style and the daring in-your-face cruelty depicted by Brunetti. Sometimes the caption says it all ("Why is Grampa dead, and why is his asshole filled with semen?"), but even the most twisted imaginations will probably fail to guess at the "horrible, horrible" actions that accompany such captions as "It was consensual," "Uh-oh... Looks like I'm running low on 'toilet paper'..." and "You're right... this is better than sex."

None of Haw!'s disgusting cartoons should be funny; yet, Brunetti's razor-sharp tone and sardonic voice transubstantiate the putrid and loathsome into visionary art. Brunetti looks unflinchingly at the ugliest, most despicable aspects of humanity and brilliantly manages to make us laugh at our own festering darkness.

To discuss this column, and genre fiction in general, visit Claude Lalumière's Critical Speculations on the TTA Press message boards.

Claude Lalumière is a writer, critic, editor, and translator. His Lost Pages fantasy stories have appeared in Interzone and Other Dimension. He is coeditor (with Marty Halpern) of Witpunk: Stories with Attitude, forthcoming in 2003 from 4 Walls 8 Windows. See his website for news and links to his online publications. Publishers: please send review material to 4135 Coloniale, Montreal, QC, Canada, H2W 2C2.

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