Bang Crunch: Stories, by Neil Smith

A solid little collection of human stories. Clever themes, tight writing, and very vibrant three dimensional characters. Something to relate to in every story, with only one stinker in the bunch. Neil Smith is Canadian, so there was a little more french in it than I was prepared for. I should probably learn at least some basic French at some point. 3.5 stars averaged, rounded up because there are some killer ones in here.

Isolettes: 4/5
Sad, but very poetic and knowing. Love this guy’s writing.

Green Fluorescent Protein: 3/5
Coming of age, dealing with the hand you’re dealt. Being comfortable with yourself.

B9ers: 3/5
Clever and cute story about pushovers and correlation. One race based plot point fell flat for me near the end.

Bang Crunch: 5/5
Really reminded me of Ted Chiang’s writing. Good stuff.

Scrapbook: 3/5
Could’ve been terrific, but ultimately left me wanting something more from it. I’m not sure what, so that may just be my fault.

The Butterfly Box: 5/5
Damn, this was beautiful and real.

Funny Ha Ha or Funny Weird: 4/5
Alcoholism and dealing with loss. Excellent follow-up on a specific secondary character from Green Fluorescent Protein.

Extremities: 1/5
Just not a good story at all. It felt more like a creative writing exercise on weird POVs.

Jaybird: 5/5
Thespian life has always seemed for the crazies. I went back and forth between loving and hating this one as I read it, ultimately I settled on loving it. Revenge against a crazy industry, and life working better when you accept who you are and work with it instead of against it.

The Dark Dark, by Samantha Hunt

The Dark Dark, by Samantha Hunt

“…voices that insist on being heard, stories that demand to be told, writers who are compelled to show us something new.” is how FSG Originals describes the books they publish, and I would absolutely describe Samantha Hunt’s writing in this way. Her stories are brutal yet beautiful, magical but grounded, sincere, horrific, and essential. Her characters have such unique perspectives on their lives and the events surrounding them; a lot of the time these were perspectives that I’d never fully considered, but instantly empathized with once exposed to them.

Samantha HuntThese are stories I obviously needed to read. Stories about women and men of all walks of life passing through stages of the fantastic and the mundane, learning about themselves and the world(s) around them. While reading this book I was reminded of that old saying about how reading someone’s book is like having a conversation with them, or getting to know them a little better. With Hunt’s writing, it felt like getting to know several different women at the same time. It’s extraordinarily powerful stuff. Seeing things from these many new perspectives was fascinating for me.

There isn’t a bad story in the bunch, but the standouts for me were: The Story Of, All Hands, Love Machine, Wampum, & The Story Of Of. Her prose is tight and expressive. She manages to say so much in so few words, and her writing often dips into the magically realistic, with postmodern sensibilities.

I think it’s past due time for me to pick up her novels, and I’m kicking myself for not paying attention when friends were telling me that I should. Oh well, better late than never!

P.S. I need to sing a few praises for this cover as well. Book designers have really been outdoing themselves this year, and this one is no exception. This cover fully subverted my pattern recognition engine by using it against itself, that is until I plopped it down on my coffee table absentmindedly and accidentally saw it from a different angle as it lay there sideways, smirking at me. Clever clever.

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016, Edited by John Joseph Adams and Karen Joy Fowler

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016For those who are interested in the best that Science Fiction and Fantasy has to offer as a literary form. This is an equal mix of F and SF stories, and John Joseph Adams truly understands the difference between Fantasy and Science Fiction, which is refreshing. In Fantasy the impossible happens. In Science Fiction the impossible but theoretically plausible happens. The stories started out a little rough but quickly got into some AAA level stuff about a quarter of the way in, including a few new personal all-time favorite short stories from any genre.

It’s wonderful to see this published along side The Best American Short Stories. I’ll be picking this yearly collection up every year, and so should you.
Standout stories: Interesting Facts, No Placeholder for You My Love, The Duniazát, Things You Can Buy for a Penny, and Three Bodies at Mitanni.

Individual story reviews:

Meet Me in Iram, by Sofia Samatar: F, 2/5
Narratively unique but otherwise not particularly interesting.

The Game of Smash and Recovery, By Kelly Link: SF, 3/5
Enjoyed this one. I like it when authors write outside of their usual genre like this. It’s dedicated to Iain M. Banks at the end, which automatically made me rethink it as a Culture story, which it isn’t. But it very easily could exist in that universe.

Interesting Facts, by Adam Johnson: F, 5/5
A new all-time favorite. Heartbreaking and human, with mind-blowing prose that literally changes the way you read the story AS you’re reading it. Fantastic fantasy.

Planet Lion, by Catherynne M. Valente: SF, 2/5
Alien lion analogs act out some soap opera drama when they come in contact with advanced colonist tech. A real eye-roller, with a neat tech concept near the end that is its only redeeming quality.

The Apartment Dweller’s Bestiary, by Kij Johnson: F, 1/5
20 very short non-stories written in second person about imaginary creatures in apartments, often detailing whether or not “your” boyfriend or girlfriend likes or gets along with them.

By Degrees of Dilatory Time, by S.L. Huang: SF, 4/5
I liked this one. Near future transhumanistic tale about adaptation and the process of healing being more than a physical one.

The Mushroom Queen, by Liz Ziemska F, 4/5
Creepy little fantasy story. Reminded me a lot of Jeff VanderMeer, but that might just be the Mushrooms talking.

Daydreamer by Proxy, by Dexter Palmer: SF, 3/5
Short little comedy about what seems like the worst place to work.

Tea Time, by Rachel Swirsky: F, 2/5
Great writing for literally being a piece of fan fiction.

Headshot, by Julian Mortimer Smith: SF, 4/5
Realistic near future democracy concepts. Very thought provoking.

The Duniazát, by Salmon Rushdie: F, 5/5
Fantastical alternate mythical history. Beautiful prose.

No Placeholder for You, My Love, by Nick Wolven: SF, 5/5
Fucking hell, that was brutally good. An SF romance/tragedy mixed in with Simulacron 3. Fantastic writing, and a compelling story.

The Thirteen Mercies, by Maria Dahvana Headley: F, 4/5
Great writing. I want to know more about this world. Brutally grimdark fantasy that’s just one click off our world.

Lightning Jack’s Last Ride, by Dave Bailey: SF, 4/5
Loved the way this one was written. Feels like a story straight out of the prohibition era, transported to the slight future.

Things You Can Buy for a Penny, by Will Kaufman: F, 5/5
Such a perfect cautionary fairytale. I wanted to hate this one when I started it, but it very quickly won me over and became another high peak in this collection.

Rat Catcher’s Yellows, by Charlie Jane Anders: SF, 4/5
An almost perfect little SF story.

The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History, by Sam J. Miller: F, 3/5
Solid oral history of a paranormal event that took place during a police raid on a gay bar during the late sixties.

Three Bodies at Mitanni, by Seth Dickenson: SF, 6/5
This story exemplarily embodies everything about what SF can accomplish as a literary form. An absolutely fantastic cerebral, philosophical, moral human story.

Ambiguity Machines: An Examination, by Vandanna Singh: F, 2/5
It was okay. The stories within the story were fun.

The Great Silence, by Ted Chiang: SF, 2/5
Really surprised that this wasn’t better. Ted Chiang almost never disappoints, but this one kind of left me wanting.

Gutshot, by Amelia Gray

Gutshot, by Amelia Gray

Gutshot, by Amelia Gray

“Here, the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, and that road is paved with handjobs.”

I’ve found that these FSG Originals are at the very least, always something unique that you might not find published elsewhere. They have the feel of something published by a much smaller press like Tin House, Two Dollar Radio, or Coffee House Press. This means that they’re usually going to be divisive as well. But, when their niche lines up with yours, it’s like a curator personally picking books for you.

With the exception of Ted Chiang, story collections are always going to be a little hit and miss from story to story. At worst Amelia Gray’s stories are uncomfortable and unsettling, with great prose. At best they’re uncomfortable, unsettling, hilarious, disturbing, and moving, with great prose. Great prose is the common denominator.

There are 4-5 really great stories in here, and 1 fantastic one. There are about 30 or so that relied way too much on their gimmick to accomplish anything worthwhile as stories. Think Chuck Palahniuk trying to gross you out, and forgetting to you know, tell a story. But if you’re like me, you’ve already been desensitized to that sort of thing, and you’re un-gross-outable. So you’re just left with no story.

Amelia Gray

Amelia Gray

‘Go For It and Raise Hell’ is a high point and you should go read it right now. It reads like a character introduction from The New and Improved Romie Futch, which had fantastic secondary characters. You should go read that book right away. I was also really surprised by ’50 Ways to Eat Your Lover.’ The way it hid the story in the least interesting part of each sentence was brilliant and really snuck up on me. It accomplished so much in 50 sentences. ‘The Swan as Metaphor for Love,’ was another one that really worked for me. It illustrated how from afar something can be much more appealing than the up-close reality.

The stories that are good, are really good. Gray does this thing with her writing, where there’s just a hint of something else going on in each story and the reader has to sort of weed it out for themselves a bit; they have to meet the story halfway. When it works, it really works.

All-in-all this is an uneven collection, but the gems are hidden in here, and the stories are short enough that you can slam one out in a couple minutes flat. I’d say go for it. The good stories are worth digging through the rest.

Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

Stories of Your Life and Others

Stories of Your Life and Others

Ted Chiang’s name continually comes up in lists of great short stories. He’s never written a novel, but has won nearly every SF award that exists. 4 Nebulas, 3 Hugos, John W. Campbell, Locus, and on and on. He’s greatly admired among authors and almost entirely unknown by most readers. I’ve heard him referenced as an inspiration by several authors that I enjoy reading. Specifically Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham (who collectively write the Expanse series under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey) cite this collection as massively influential. I figured I should probably do myself a service and at least check it out.

It turns out that It’s completely mind-blowing. High concept science fiction that is grounded heavily in the real world. Every single story is incredibly unique, tonally diverse and powerful in different ways. If the quality among these 8 stories wasn’t at such a consistently high level, I’d say that Chiang was merely a ghostwriting team, comprised of 8 different authors, all exceptionally talented, each with different interests, politics and writing styles. Every story genuinely feels like it could be penned by a different author. I’ve never come across a creative powerhouse like this guy. He’s impressing the hell out of me with every sentence.

Tower of Babylon: 5/5
Killer story. The Old Testament cosmology was especially fun to hear described–passing beyond the moon, sun and stars, etc. A telling of the construction and journey up the tower of Babylon, and what lies beyond the vault of heaven. Blew my mind right open. Seriously creative. I get why it won all kinds of awards.

Understand: 5/5
Again, with the unique approach to storytelling. While reading this one, I started realizing how some of these concepts have clearly influenced other stories. Most obviously, the movie ‘Limitless’ and the Max Barry novel Lexicon. I particularly liked how the language and vocabulary of the story evolves as the protagonist’s intelligence and recall increases.

Division By Zero: 4/5
An examination of loss of belief, mental illness, suicide and math. What happens when everything you’ve worked for in your life, every kind of order that you’ve relied on, is suddenly incorrect?

Story of Your Life: 6/5
Stop what you’re doing now and read this. This is the absolute best short story I have ever read. Chiang’s grasp on the English language is deeply integrated into the story itself, causality, and omniscience. It’s insanely good.

Seventy-Two Letters: 3/5
Interesting concepts, but storywise it was a little boring. The power of language to shape action and perception. Reminded me a lot of early 50s Asimov. All conceptual, not much character development.

The Evolution of Human Science: 3/5
Interesting and extremely short little tale about a scientific understanding breaking down between regular humans and meta-humans. Conceptually cool, but too short to really be that interesting.

Hell is the Absence of God: 5/5
The moral of the story? God is a maniacal motherfucker who doesn’t give a shit about humans, and you should love him unconditionally. This one was a real brain twister. I loved it.

Liking What You See: A Documentary: 5/5
Advertisers, elective localized brain damage, culture jamming, politics, coming of age, concepts of beauty, love, relationships. This was terrific and heavily subversive.