Gary K. Wolfe & Rich Horton Review Avatars Inc, Edited by Ann VanderMeer

Avatars Inc, Ann VanderMeer, ed. (XPRIZE, free, eb) March 2020. [Download from <>]

All well-made anthologies offer something like a conversation between the stories included, and in some cases (such as Jonathan Strahan’s recent Made to Order: Robots and Revolution) that conversation is more focused than usual, since the stories all revolve around a classic SF theme. With Ann VanderMeer’s Avatars Inc: A Sci-Fi Anthology, now available as a free download from XPRIZE, who gave us last year’s Current Futures: A Sci-Fi Ocean Anthology, the con­straints are even narrower: each story has to deal with remote presence – a human operating an avatar (usually mechanical) at a distance – and all need to take place in the 21st century. These avatars, for the most part, resemble the varied robots of Strahan’s anthology more than the bat-eared mutant Smurfs of the James Cameron movie, and VanderMeer has selected an impres­sive variety of writers, several of whom manage to find striking new approaches despite that pretty constrained remit. At the same time, those very constraints make the conversational aspect of the book seem more immediate; reading them all at once gives the odd feeling of eavesdropping on a brainstorming session among really smart folks, or watching a terrific convention panel: the anthology as seminar. Maybe that’s the point.

Several of the stories, not surprisingly, deal with hazardous rescues or interventions – wild­fires and an earthquake in Ken Liu’s “UMA”; another earthquake causing a mine cave-in in K Chess’s “Overburden”; hurricanes in Sarah Pinsker’s “La Mer Domme” and Robert Reed’s “Waiting for Amelia”; global inundation in Charles Yu’s “Bounty”; a catastrophic environmental spill, complicated by “feral” microscopic AIs, in Aliette de Bodard’s “In the Lands of the Spill”, which features the most striking and bleak landscape of all the selections, although the “Plastic Coast” of Julianna Baggott’s “Banding”, with its genetically engineered mutant millipedes gone wild, probably most closely approaches the tone of a horror story. Surprisingly, the only story that deals with explor­ing other planets is Madeline Ashby’s “Porcelain Claws in Cinnamon Earth”, a touching tale of a mission to retrieve the body of the first woman to die on Mars.

Some of the more unusual applications of avatar technology include environmental engineering in remote areas (Kelly Robson’s “Two Watersheds”), crime scene clean-up (Nino Cipri’s “At the End of a Most Perfect Day”), underwater archeology (Adrian Tchaikovsky’s “Oannes, from the Flood”), collecting research in an especially fragile environ­ment (Johanna Sinisalo’s “A Bird Does Not Sing Because It Has an Answer”, in which an AI, almost inadvertently, discovers a kind of language among birds), searching for long-lost airliners (JY Yang’s “The Search for [Flight X]”), even sabotaging a space elevator (Juli Novakova’s “A Mountain to Climb”) or becoming an inadvertent murder weapon (Pat Cadigan’s “The Final Performance of the Amazing Ralphie”). A couple of stories touch upon the existential question of what it might be like to be occupying an avatar when your own body dies, in the context of a violent conspiracy-thriller in Jeffrey Ford’s “The Ulgrieb Case” and, more meditatively, in Tom Sweterlitsch’s “Neuro-Dancer”, which skillfully uses shifts in point of view as a terminal hospital patient sees himself die from the viewpoint of his avatar.

For me, the most interesting stories don’t neces­sarily involve the most inventive applications of avatar technology, however, but those which use it to amplify more human-scaled explorations of character. The avatar in S.L. Huang’s “Add Oil” permits its operator to visit his grandmother in a politically precarious Hong Kong, while in Indra­pamit Das’s “Incarnate” a political exile is able to visit her family in India without technically violat­ing the terms of exile, thanks to the avatar. A son long since paralyzed by a viral infection is able to use an avatar to visit his dying father in James S.A. Corey’s “Elsewhere”. In what is perhaps the most moving story in the anthology, Paul McAuley’s “Robot and Girl with Flowers”, a photographer famed for his pictures of “ghost landscapes of the Anthropocene” is able to attend his centenary in his Gloucestershire home village only with the aid of an avatar, and then decides to use his limited time in the avatar to “see for myself the damage done.” It’s not the only story in this fascinating collection that addresses environmental issues, or that features a memorable character, but it may be the most affecting. If at times Avatars Inc seems at risk of being too much of one thing, like those albums made up entirely of versions of Pachelbel’s Canon, it also provides an impressive demonstra­tion of just how inventive a well-chosen selection of contributors can be.

Gary K. Wolfe

Avatars Inc is a fascinating project from the XPRIZE foundation, an anthology of near-future stories, supposedly set between 2030 and 2080, all involving the conceit that they are based on the memory cards retrieved from “avatars” – remote-presence robots – on Mars, after people have emi­grated there. One result of such a fairly constricted theme is that some of the stories have a sameness to them: they portray the climate-change ravaged Earth, show something cool an avatar might do, check! (I confess – not a complaint, just the way I feel at this moment – that while climate change remains a vital concern, it feels a bit odd to obsess about it and not a plague!) But there are some very fine stories here. My two favorites come from the middle of the anthology.

Pat Cadigan‘s “The Final Performance of the Amazing Ralphie” is the least Avatar-centered of all of these. It’s set on a LaGrange space colony. The narrator is an operator for an “Amazing” avatar, which entertains terminally ill patients, in this case a difficult woman named Miz Flora, and things quickly go strange. It seems that the avatar, the Amazing Ralphie, is in charge instead of the narrator, and he (based on a magician) amazes Miz Flora with a series of snarky doves…. Something quite strange is happening, and Cadigan is clearly interested in aspects besides the cool tech of remote presence robots. Cadigan’s narrative voice is a joy as usual, her narrator (a criminal) is a nice character, and the resolution is cool. “Thirty-Three” by Tade Thompson is about a special mission for which ava­tars are essential. A scientist has apparently created a magical but very dangerous energy source and it might be in danger of getting out of control. All that energy has created a plasma shield of sorts, which can only be penetrated by a highly shielded avatar. Dr. Will Bari is an expert who has one important idea – avatars might work better if the operators can feel pain when the avatar is in danger, which is an interesting concept for an avatar penetrating a plasma shield! And becomes more interesting by the end… Will has another issue, too, which gives the story a personal hook – a disintegrating marriage and an intriguing new girlfriend. In the end this is a small-scale but nice piece.

Rich Horton

Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.

Rich Horton works for a major aerospace company in St. Louis MO. He has published over a dozen anthologies, including the yearly series The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy from Prime Books, and he is the Reprint Editor for Lightspeed Magazine. He contributes articles and reviews on SF and SF history to numerous publications.

This review and more like it in the May 2020 issue of Locus.

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