Everything in All the Wrong Order: The Best of Chaz Brenchley, Chaz Brenchley (Subterranean 978-1645240112, 568pp, $45.00) August 2021.
Starting in 1974 with The Best of Stanley G. Weinbaum, Ballantine Books began issuing a series of best-of volumes that became a definitive record of canonical authors and stories, providing a reading map and sense of history for a generation or two of readers. (To a lesser extent, Pocket Books did much the same, contributing about ten comparatively weighty best-ofs in a 1976 series.) But no publisher in 2021 is doing anything similar for contemporary readers—except Subterranean Press. Their massive career-defining compendiums of such folks as Walter Jon Williams and Harry Turtledove offer an aerial view of the fantastika timeline, invaluable in establishing both personal tastes and historical patterns and precedents.
Their latest offering features a writer known mostly as a dweller in the horror or fantasy genres, Chaz Brenchley. (His first major publication, The Samaritan, from 1988, was actually a crime-suspense novel, a mode in which he still indulges.) But these 30-plus stories reveal a masterful author adept at many stylings and themes.
It would be impossible to array all 30 tales before you in this space, so let’s hit some highlights or representative instances of Brenchley’s craft.
“In Skander, For A Boy” finds Brenchley acing a taut little bit of historical fiction in ancient Alexandria, with nary a trace of supernaturalism for buttressing. A ruler’s right-hand man is sent abroad to discover a lost heir, but instead unearths the legacy of an old friendship formerly concealed by trickery. The shade of REH looks down approvingly.
“The Burial of Sir John Mawe at Cassini” is the first of two stories imagining an alternate history where the British Empire colonized Mars. (The other is “The Astrakhan, The Homburg and The Red Red Coal”.) As such it features great steampunk flavorings with some nice Bradburyian touches as well. “The simple schoolboy tune that lay buried in every Martian’s marrow. Red blows the wind and free/From Mars to the Empress in the old country.”
The great classic trope of the space bar, tavernal home to interstellar misfits and oddballs, gets a great workout in “Ashes to Ashes” (and later on in “Ch-Ch-Changes”). “The drifters are the ones they never see…. People assume they just got lost in n-space, but no one really knows….”
The curse of shape-shifting animates “I Am Death’s Brother”, in which the burden passes from one sibling to another, with grievous and melancholy results.
Brenchley essays a pitch-perfect Arabian Nights tale in “Every Day A Little Death”, concerning an expert clockmaker who thinks he has hit upon a foolproof plan to outwit the Grim Reaper. “And it seemed Death was tired of talking then, or else he was irritated by the chimes.”
Alastair Reynolds or Peter Hamilton might have delivered “Terminal”, a far-future outing where a strange stargate technology results in even stranger “corpses.” But when Brenchley layers in a Zelaznyesque love story, the tale assumes the stamp that only he can put upon it.
A contemporary music club and the oddly powerful female singer who stalks the stage provides the essence of “Live at Maly’s”, which showcases Brenchley’s dab hand at evocative naturalism as well as the uncanny. I kept envisioning this tale illustrated by Will Eisner in classic Spirit style.
Do you dare to walk the subterranean church labyrinth in “Going the Jerusalem Mile”? It might mean emerging quite differently than you entered. A brutal and short hardboiled detective tale is presented to us in “For Kicks”, while “Freecell” is expert cyberpunk about a new kind of terrorism, the human bomb or “biombe.” And “Winter Journey” is a Saki-like tale of a demon seed kid, set just after World War I.
Paolo Bacigalupi, dean of powerful climate change fiction, would have been proud to call “White Skies” his own, but it’s Brenchley who compounds this potent mix of foolish teenage bravado with the faded idealism of their elders.
“2 Pi To Live” is one of those tales that SF does so well (see Silverberg and Sturgeon and Kornbluth for examples), exploring the inner workings and mentality of an idiot savant whose influence extends far beyond his own small sphere.
And lastly, “The Insolence of Candles Against the Light’s Dying” explores the twisted relationships among a haunted house and its romantically damaged inhabitants and visitors. “I saw words form slowly in the mirror, letter by letter, as if an invisible finger moved between the glass and the silvering.”
Emerging from this rich panoply of narratives, so varied and unpredictable, the reader can assert some commonalities across the wide spectrum of Brenchley’s fiction. First is the sheer elegance of his prose. There’s not a word extra or adrift in these tales, and the sentences frequently take off into poetic stratospheres. Second, there’s always a distinctive voice at play, and not just in the first-person narratives. It’s often a voice that is unreliable, tricky, and wounded, holding back information or even unable to discuss the most hurtful topics. Third, Brenchley can conjure up both mundane and exotic settings vividly with a minimum of brushstrokes. And finally, while each tale has a startling animating idea or conceit at its core, these novums are never dominant, but are instead just the vehicles for character development and plot and emotional wow.
Brenchley provides generous and illuminating afterwords to each tale, wherein you will discover many great anecdotes about the writer’s life and techniques and marketplace realities. The last such mini-essay concludes thus: “I’ve been writing about it ever since. And avoiding the novel, too, for almost as long.
“Sometimes, short stories can be enough. Sometimes, they have to be.”
This volume is “enough” to the nth degree.
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