Titanic Terastructures

By Jessica Augustsson

Rating: 4 stars

This is a great theme for an anthology – collecting stories relating to one of SF’s oldest and fondest tropes – the Big Dumb Object. From space elevators to arcologies to planet-sized cities to Dyson swarms; if it’s a giant megastructure, chances are it’s featured in a story in this book.

I only heard about it because a friend has a story here but I liked the concept enough that it immediately went on my wishlist. One birthday later and it’s sitting on my shelf. There’s a great breadth within the twenty six stories here, and the best of them contrast the size of the structure with the small scale of the characters.

The first story, Honeysuckle for Ashes features a witch, complete with Wizard of Oz style flying house, who lives around a ringworld and the child who stows away when the witch comes to help her mother through a difficult pregnancy. It’s a nice story, but could really be set anywhere, with the ringworld being more backdrop than an important part of the story. Better, in that regard, is You Too Shall Pass, a fable about hope in the face of endless toil and loss, as blue-collar workers strive to build a bridge to a New Earth and what they have to give up along the way.

Highlights for me included The What-The Tree about an interruption to a cold-sleep journey to another star system; Haunting House about a house that’s haunting a shipyard, which I loved for its evocative worldbuilding and clever mystery; and And the House Did Watch Over All about a planet-wide House that’s slowly dying but still has an awareness that tries to help its inhabitants.

There’s more than a few pretty dark stories in the mix, but those too shall pass, and you’ll find yourself reading about living starships, senile giant houses or outsized spacebourne life. A mixed collection, but with the good definitely outweighing the bad for me.

Book details

ISBN: 9798758871829

The Hidden Girl and Other Stories

By Ken Liu

Rating: 3 stars

This is the hardest kind of book to review, because while I really appreciated it, I mostly didn’t enjoy it. Honestly, these stories are great speculative fiction. The science fiction stories often take that platonic ideal of extrapolating a single idea and asking, “what if…?”. Unfortunately, Liu often takes that extrapolation into directions that I really struggle with. The strongest iteration of this is in Thoughts and Prayers about how the memory of a young woman who died in gun violence can be weaponised, and how the defences to that can be as bad as the assault. Haunting, powerful and I wanted to take a shower after it.

A number of the stories are pretty grim and, to my mind, unnecessarily depressing. I loved the idea of The Message where a xenoarchaeologist and his newfound daughter explore alien ruins against a deadline, trying to figure out the meaning of a monument before it’s destroyed by terraformers. It was a neat tale with a clever idea and a strong emotional thread, that had a sting in the tail that soured the whole thing for me.

There’s a specific trilogy here, in The Gods Will Not Be Chained, The Gods Will Not Be Slain and The Gods Have Not Died in Vain, which were written for a apocalypse-themed trilogy of anthologies. But others in the collection touch on similar themes and some could be read to be set in the same universe, telling a grander future-history of the Singularity, the people who choose to remain behind and the directions post-humanity chooses to go after it.

The weakest story, to my mind, was probably A Chase Beyond the Storms, mostly because this was an excerpt from a novel, and not even the first novel, but the third in a trilogy, which meant that it was mostly incomprehensible for someone who hasn’t already read the first two books. My favourite story, on the other hand, is probably Seven Birthdays that follows a single life, starting before the Singularity and following it, post-upload into the far future.

There’s no doubting that Ken Liu is a powerful voice in science fiction in this period, both through his translations of other people’s work into English, and as this collection shows, in his own right. But having read the nineteen stories in this book, and having had a good selection of his work, I don’t think he’s a writer that I’ll be actively searching for. He’s good, but I didn’t enjoy most of what I read.

Book details

ISBN: 9781838932060
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Year of publication: 2021

Tales from the Folly: A Rivers of London Short Story Collection

By Ben Aaronovitch

Rating: 4 stars

This collection brings together a number of stories about Peter Grant and others with knowledge of magic in his world. These have mostly be reprinted elsewhere and I’ve read most of them before, although it’s still nice to have them all in one place.

The book is ordered by putting the Grant stories together at the front and the others at the back. I preferred to mix them up, so I tend to alternative a Peter story with a non-Peter story. Of the Peter stories, King of the Rats was a bit disappointing, as it stopped just as it was getting interesting. I’ve got a vague feeling that more of that story might have been covered in one of the novels, but after eight books and counting, I’m finding it hard to keep track. Much better was A Rare Book of Cunning Device, seeing Peter chasing something deep in the stacks of the British Library, and introducing the rather marvellous Elsie ‘Hatbox’ Winstanley. Aaronovitch teased a future short featuring her and resident Folly library Harold Postmartin, which I think would be an awful lot of fun.

Of the non-Peter stories, Three Rivers, Two Husbands and a Baby was probably my favourite, dealing with the aftermath of Peter and Beverly’s, er, excursion in the river Lugg. It was one of the few stories that I hadn’t read before as well. There were three flash pieces amongst the non-Grant stories as well, which Aaronovitch calls ‘Moments’. I’ve recently discovered that these tend to be available online and you can find links to all of them on the Follypedia.

Not an essential volume, by any means, especially if you tend to get the Waterstones editions of the books, which usually have a short story at the end (most of the ones in this collection started off life as Wasterstones exclusives), but spending time in Peter Grant’s world is always fun and the stories do help round out the characters.

Book details

ISBN: 9781625675095
Publisher: JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc.
Year of publication: 2020

Tea and Sympathetic Magic

By Tansy Rayner Roberts

Rating: 4 stars

There’s very little to this short novella of an eligible young lady trying to not get married to the most eligible bachelor in the land, and teaming up with a handsome spellcracker to save him from kidnap and being magicked into marriage. It’s very fluffy, but a lot of fun. It’s part of the magical Regency romance genre but very knowingly pokes fun at that genre.

I’m not sure I can take any book that’s set in a place called the “Teacup Isles” seriously, but then the author doesn’t really take it seriously either. Although despite it all, the book never mocks the genre but lovingly sends it up. I like that because it’s in an alternate world, although it liberally borrows from the British Regency period, it isn’t bound by it, and so things that don’t fit in that period (for example, same-sex relationships) are present and don’t feel out of place.

Great fun, with a protagonist I liked. A great antidote to 2021.

Book details

Year of publication: 2020

The Tales of Beaufort Scales

By Kim M. Watt

Rating: 4 stars

I read the first book in the Beaufort Scales series on the recommendation of a friend, and while I enjoyed it well enough, it didn’t make me want to run out and buy the rest of them. But this collection was offered for free at the end of that book, and, well, it would be rude not to!

I actually ended up enjoying it a lot. It gives us the origin stories to how the Cloverly dragons got entangled with the ladies of the Toot Hansell WI, as well as stories featuring just the dragons, and one featuring just DI Adams, without a dragon in sight. A Rather Unusual Flying Lesson, in which Beaufort tries to teach Amelia’s younger brother Gilbert to fly, is particularly sweet. I think the stories maybe work better in short form than at novel-length. The book is quite short, but a lot of fun.

Book details

Year of publication: 2019

Mission Critical

By Jonathan Strahan

Rating: 4 stars

I liked the idea of this anthology: of things going wrong, and going wrong quickly, and the people who have to deal with those situations and comes out the other side. There’s a lot to enjoy here. It displays its mission statement with a strong first story, This is Not the Way Home by Greg Egan, involving a space tourist trapped on the moon when contact with Earth disappears. This is followed up with a very different take on the idea in Rescue Party by Aliette de Bodard, set in her Xuya universe. This one posits the idea that people can be removed from society and “stored” to be used as living memory banks, if their cultural impact or worth is judged to be more important than their individual liberty, and the rescue party that comes to help the protagonist.

Other highlights include John Barnes’ The One Who Was There, which sort of snuck up on me. You start off thinking that the protagonist is a journalist who’s never been to Ethics, only interested in the story around the Saturn system, before it expands and shows you something much more nuanced. I enjoyed this a lot by the end. Then there’s Mutata Superesse, a fun first-person story with a rapid-response soldier/paramedic dashing in to rescue some colonists who’re in over their heads, and spinning some yarns as they go. The Fires of Prometheus is a story about first responders dealing with someone who just wants to die on Io, but the rules won’t let them leave him alone. It’s a poignant piece with some nuance to it.

I don’t think there’s any particularly bad stories in here, although some worked better than others. Some of the misses for me included Hanging Gardens about attempts to terraform Mars, and the children who get caught in it; Genesong which was just a bit grim, involving a pirate attack that kills almost everyone on a ship that was capturing an asteroid to bring back to a terraformed Venus; and while it’s not exactly bad, Cyclopterus isn’t the story I would have chosen to end the collection with, set in a post-climate change planet, where the megacorps are still intent on wringing all the profit they can out before it all collapses.

Strahan has a good eye for pulling the right stories into his themed anthologies. If you like a a bit of disaster-porn, you can’t go wrong with this one.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781085806
Publisher: Solaris
Year of publication: 2019

Entropic Angel: And Other Stories

By Gareth L. Powell

Rating: 4 stars

I’ve not read an awful lot of Powell’s work, but when I saw this special edition on offer, I thought I’d give it a go, based on having read Embers of War and Light Chaser. And I’m rather glad that I did. I enjoyed this collection a lot, there’s a lot of interesting ideas and settings, and some great writing too.

There’s a couple of far-future end of the universe stories: Sunsets and Hamburgers postulates two humans resurrected at the end of time, and encouraged to have children, despite hope seeming lost; while The Redoubt features two humans given the opportunity of a million lifetimes, to travel the universe until the end of time.

I loved the basic idea of the title story, which involves these winged creatures seeking out sources of energy – power stations, wind turbines and the like, and increasing the entropy within them until they fail and break. There’s a lot packed into a short space here and I enjoyed the stuff that was left unsaid as much as what as said.

There are a few linked stories as well – Fallout and The New Ships both set in an England after an alien ship crashed in the West Midlands, irradiating most of the area and what people do to survive. And then there’s The Last Reef and Flotsam with a setting of a solar system in which AIs go post-Singularity, but most of which turn inward as they ramp up their evolution and burn out.

Eleven Minutes was probably one of my favourites in the collection, in which two squabbling Nasa technicians running night shift duty on a Mars rover see something in the camera that they really don’t expect.

There’s a few stories that didn’t work as well for me – Lift Up Your Face isn’t really SF, but I didn’t really get it much at all; while This is How You Die features a pandemic and the second person voice, neither of which I’m particularly fond of in stories.

But all in all, this is a strong collection from a pretty consistently good writer.

Book details

ISBN: 9781910935392
Publisher: NewCon Press
Year of publication: 2017

New Horizons: The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction

By Tarun K. Saint

Rating: 2 stars

I kind of wish I’d enjoyed this collection of short speculative fiction from the Indian subcontinent more than I did. The omens weren’t good when then footnotes for the introduction were almost longer than the introduction itself. And it was long and dry, feeling very much like someone wanted to be able to repurpose it at some point into an academic paper.

There was a mix of old and new stories, with some historical ones, although most were modern. It would have been nice to have some clue as to to the age of each story, actually, since the copyright page listing the stories was incomplete, and some of the ones that were present lacked dates.

The stories themselves were a mixed bag. The editor notes in the introduction that SF isn’t a genre that’s been historically popular in south Asia, but he includes some in here anyway. The opening story, Planet of Terror feels very “Golden Age”, and that’s followed by a satire in which a police inspector goes to the moon, to teach the people of the moon the ways of a modern, efficient police force (i.e. corruption and bribery). A lot of the stories are quite dystopian, which isn’t really my cup of tea, and many of the others feel quite experimental, and what can I say, I prefer more traditional styling in my fiction.

It’s a mixed bag, of course, and I did enjoy some of the stories. These included The Man Who Turned Into Gandhi, a diary of a man who, er, turns into Gandhi, and how he tries to continue living his life; Flexi-time is a gently humorous story about the perils of living your life too regimented and a paean to “Indian time”; and the last story Reunion is a cli-fi piece about the importance of change and adaptability. My favourite story is probably S. B. Divya’s Look Up, about a broken family, one of whom is trying to put her past life behind her with a new start on Mars.

So, an uneven collection, not to my taste, but I still think it’s important and that there should be more like it. I’ll certainly keep looking out for them, hoping that a different editor has tastes closer to mine.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473228689
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2020

A Quiet Afternoon 2

By Liane Tsui

Rating: 4 stars

I really enjoyed the previous volume of Grace & Victory’s “low-fi” speculative fiction anthology, and am pleased to report the same for this second volume. This one is bigger, with twenty eight stories (although some of the stories are more like flash fiction, only a couple of pages long) where the stakes are low, and the peril is mild. It was definitely a good choice to read this alongside Bear Head, a book that made me pretty anxious and stressed.

Some of the stories are whimsical, like the opener, Sadedali and the Secret Life of Clouds, about a cat and her human making friends with clouds; or The Many Kidnappings of Princess Zania, about a princess who keeps getting kidnapped by a sorcerer, until she figures out what he wants. Some of the stories are melancholy, such as In Case of Emergency, Break Heart, where broken hearts can be replaced by mechanical ones, and if they stop you from feeling, well, that’s a feature, not a bug; or Wings of Memory which is a lovely story about identity, and self, and determination.

I favour the warm, sweet ones over the melancholy ones. Remembering Simulacra, for example, tells of a number of painted concrete dinosaurs who, every night, climb out of the amusement park where they live to a nearby hill to watch the skies in memory of the great fire that killed the creatures they were made in the image of. And I’m always up for a Glasgow story, and Brian Milton’s Rab the Giant Versus the Problem Neighbour is just lovely (full disclosure, I know Brian, and loved the previous story featuring Rab).

In general, a lovely idea for an anthology, with a lot of very pleasant stories; and with a donation from the profit from the book going to charity (as they say, “quiet afternoons are too often a privilege when they should be a right”), I heartily recommend it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780994009760
Publisher: Grace&Victory
Year of publication: 2021

The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper

By A.J. Fitzwater

Rating: 3 stars

The author says in the introduction to this linked collection of short stories that joy is political, and they certainly set out to prove that here. Cinrak is a dapper, lesbian, poly, pirate, unionised capybara. She’s kind and understands the importance of family, especially family that you choose.

I quite enjoyed these gentle stories, but I didn’t find them entirely satisfying. There was a lot of gaps between them, so we go straight from Cinrak stepping on a pirate ship for the first time to her being a captain in her own right, to her wooing the queen. I enjoyed the message of the book and its gentleness and insistence that love is love and that everyone deserves to be loved and respected for who they are. Oh, and that unions are a good thing.

And despite being called Cinrak the Dapper, we never really got much description of her wardrobe (other than her being fond of bow-ties). There’s a lot of world-building in few words, but sometimes the stories felt a little vague. Enjoyable, fairly fluffy, and making an important statement, but it didn’t gel quite as much as I’d hoped.

Book details

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