Outliers of Speculative Fiction 2016
Edited by L. A. Little
Way back in 2015, L. A. Little’s Outliers of Science Fiction went up on Amazon.com, boasting among its pages Cat Rambo, P. E. Bolivar, and Little himself. The 17 stories it contained were speculative fiction of the first water – varied in scope, diverse in voice, and thought-provoking in flavor. The anthology is speculative fiction’s native format, and Outliers is why. “From forgotten gods to downtrodden superheroes, from visions of imperfect futures to new mythologies for the modern age, these are The Outliers of Speculative Fiction.”
He’s done it again.
Outliers… 2016 has eleven stories to the first volume’s 17, but packs just as much of a punch. The subject matter is rather darker and closer to modern-day Earth, but Little’s pride in the demographic diversity of the writers is justified: 50% are women, and they hail from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and experiences. I could almost swear there was a French-Canadian in there somewhere. And this diversity of voice creates a quintessential work of speculative fiction, the anthology: you’re never quite sure what the next story is going to be, what flavors and colors it will show you, but you know it’s going to take you away from everyday life and maybe, if you’re lucky, completely change what everyday life entails.
I liked these stories, in particular, well enough (with one notable exception) that I’m going to write out reviews for each one. If you’re into that sort of thing, it’s after the cut. If not, just trust me on this: get a copy, whether it’s paperback or whispered to your Kindle. It is very much worth it.
Alex Shvartsman’s “Hell is Other People” is a polite madman’s police confession to a crime that hasn’t happened yet. A farsighted architect has created the world’s first smart suburb, where the houses change shape to reflect their owners’ moods. Our madman describes his adventures moving in and making nice with the neighbors with all the effervescence of Humbert Humbert. As neighborhood spats mount, the fairytale homes lose their luster and begin taking on ominous shapes. And that’s before somebody breaks the control unit… “Hell is Other People” is a fun little romp that’s ever-so-slightly less clever than it thinks it is, but is having a good time anyway.
A. C. Macklin’s “The Death of Mohenjo Daro,” on the other hand, is serious as a weighty Quaker. It’s a fantasy (or possibly-SF) story of the last general, and the last day, of Mohenjo Daro, and the apocalypse he calls down on his doomed city. Macklin weaves concepts and incidents from the shadowy corners of the Mahabharata that ground his story in an ethereal ancient India we barely glimpse on the horizon. The palaces, streets, and the Temple of the Sun all feel lived-in and worn down from the endless siege. Drona is so, so tired. And his action makes sense. My only quibble is how linear the story is: Drona talks to the messenger and decides to use the Narayan-astra, then does so. But it was more than worth it to visit Mohenjo Daro and its half-remembered splendor.
Chris Dean’s “Myra’s Last Tango” is a good, old-fashioned space adventure about food and power. The Arvians have been eating their way through the galaxy, literally, and humans are next on the menu. Dean gets a lot of effect out of the gruesomeness of the Arvian’s meal as he talks, like the dinner scene from Temple of Doom given an SF twist. He builds and builds the audience’s loathing of the Arvian general and delivers a high-Asimov climax of two people sitting at a table discussing how clever their plan is. That’s not a criticism, incidentally, I love how beautifully he pulled it off. Then there’s a distinctly un-Asimovian martial arts action sequence…Myra’s last tango.
David Wright’s “Downriver at the End of the World” is a cross between my two least favorite genres: literary fiction where nothing happens and pointlessly cruel post-apocalypses. The river has come and washed away everything, and now a little girl on a raft is the only living human. Then she finds a building that isn’t quite washed away where a little boy named Mandeep lives, but then the building is washed away and Mandeep dies. Cyrana is nonplussed. Then the Coast Guard rescues her, and it turns out it wasn’t the world, but just North America, that was destroyed. The end. This was the one story I absolutely hated and almost threw my Kindle against the wall over.
Kelly Dwyer’s “A Speck in the Sky” opens with another little girl dying in a traffic accident while her sister ignores her to play with kites. The sister develops burning touch and a hatred of her sister and family, like a photo negative of Elsa from Frozen. She becomes a flame elemental and floats away like a kite. This story was a nice rinse after “Downriver at the End of the World,” and I’d like to see what Dwyer can do with a little more room and scope to work with. Her expansive prose seems cramped in a story this small.
Tim Jeffreys’ “The House on No Man’s Land” concerns a mother and daughter, and a mysterious old HOUSE reputed to be haunted. It’s not. There’s nobody there except you. And a glimpse of who you will be one day. That one glimpse has tortured the mother for decades, and yet, the daughter insists she should get to see… A nice, creepy little story, well-made and well-delivered.
”Souls in Other Space” is A. C. Macklin’s second contribution to this anthology. A down-on-his-luck scavenger/salvager goes hunting for the legendary wreck of a research ship that had been looking for Things Man was Not Meant To Know! He saves the universe from the things in the other dimension using his wits, grit, and quick thinking. A standard enough plot, but it has some beautiful moments when our hero is in the wrong-angled engine room and contending against the forces that are always in just outside the edge of vision. The mix of gritty and Lovecraftian work very nicely.
L. A. Little’s “Terrible Weight” is one man and his daughter surviving the beginnings of the zombie apocolypse that started when he shot his wife. Spoiler: actually, it’s only the man, and he has to do the job himself. It’s a broody meditation on that moment in every zombie story when a loved one becomes infected, and you have to put them down…and what kind of psychology is required to do such a ghastly thing. I was impressed, the past decade of zombie stories hasn’t left a lot of life in the genre, but Little managed to breathe some in and reanimate the dead.
Winnie Khaw’s “Existential Crisis” is…actually I don’t even know how to describe this. Everyone at Rose Hill High is dying off – drowning, snapped neck, car crash, suicide. And they’re still coming to school, making chem lab look like the waiting room from Beetlejuice. Only one girl realizes how weird this is, and nobody cares. And then her twin sister gets a B- on her test, and succumbs to the pressure her parents are putting on her, just like all the others. Finally, the main character goes to bed and dreams of being a superhero, then doesn’t wake up. I love this story for the Asian-American sensibilities (“the model minority – it’s real”) and the sardonic voice you’ve actually heard from high school girls. And I love the WTF factor.
Continuing the lift in mood, Rebecca DeVendra’s “A Packhorse for Your Silly Memes” is the relationship between a woman who is, to put it kindly, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and the superintelligence slouching towards Bethlehem in her womb. DeVendra represents their slow communion with textual experiments, starting by representing Muffin’s thought-dialogue in italics (in accordance with genre convention) and ending with the woman and the sentient data packet speaking as one. I think this story goes on a bit too long and sags in the middle, but it was a story worth telling.
Fittingly, the last story is a science fiction story about science fiction. F. R. di Brozolo’s “Grand Ideas” is a critique disguised as fiction. He presents a traditional science-fictional Grand Dreamer of Ideas as the very human and very flawed Russell, and poor, put-upon Eric, who can’t believe his friend still reads books, as our sympathetic protagonist. Russell keeps writing books for a world that’s post-literacy, and builds an absurd giant Hugo award that destroys half of downtown. In a lot of ways, di Brozolo lets out the frustrations any speculative fiction writer has (but especially SF writers, who trade in wonder and hope in a world that increasingly hates both) and the frustrations the rest of the world has with us. And for that, I thank him.