Posts Tagged ‘anthology’

Short Takes: ‘The Final Frontier,’ Denis Johnson’s ‘The Largesse of the Sea Maiden’ and Poul Anderson’s ‘Tau Zero’

October 4, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 4, 2019

The 2018 book The Final Frontier is a collection of 21 stories that share the topic of deep-space travel. My favorite entry in the book was the final one, which I’d read before: Peter Watts’s “The Island,” which is essentially a three-character narrative.

The tale is set aboard Eriophora, a deep-space vessel that set out millennia ago and whiles away the centuries ceaselessly building a network of teleportation gateways. Each gate empowers not its builders but the offshoots of whatever civilization launched the ship; each one also destroys anything near it, which is among the reasons why the vessel cannot slow or even change course by more than a tiny degree.

The unnamed narrator, like all of her crewmates, is carrying out a limited rebellion against Chimp, the deliberately hobbled artificial intelligence that ruthlessly hews to the ship’s original mission. Make that most of her crewmates — the third player in the story is Dix, the 20-something son she’s never met, who is suspiciously loyal to Eri’s brain.

‘The Final Frontier’ edited by Neil Clarke.

The narrator and Dix are awakened as part of a seemingly random rotation of personnel who shepherd the assembly of each new gate. As so often is the case, there’s a wrinkle, which is precisely why the ship has a crew. Chimp has detected an anomaly and wants to know if it will affect the build. The narrator discovers something amazing, something the AI likely would not have perceived on its own. In the end, though, she finds that her intuition — her uniquely human wisdom — may not be as well geared to comprehending the immensity and variety of the universe and its strange creations as she initially believed.

Read the rest of this entry »

Three entertaining Connie Willis novellas journey to space school, future Hollywood and a remote planet in ‘Terra Incognita’

May 13, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 13, 2019

American author Connie Willis was named a grand master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 2011. She’s best known for a quartet of novels in which historians from the University of Oxford travel through time to conduct their work; all four books won the Hugo award, and three of them also won the Nebula.

Terra Incognita, a 2018 anthology, collects three tales by Willis, presented by date of publication; I’ll be discussing them in reverse order.

The last item, “D.A.,” which appeared in 2007, is the slightest of the works, both in length and substance. The story is narrated by Theodora Baumgarten, a senior at Winfrey High School in Colorado who has her heart set on attending UCLA.

Read the rest of this entry »

Fiascos and hilarity abound in ‘My Heart is an Idiot,’ Davy Rothbart’s collection of essays about life and love

March 22, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 22, 2017

Davy Rothbart, the Michigan-born writer and magazine editor, is like most people: Get some drink into him and he tends to develops the gift of gab. Also like most people, inebriation tends to lower Rothbart’s inhibitions and impair his judgments.

What sets Rothbart apart is his knack for getting into hilarious misadventures — often but not aways with a helpful nudge from spirits — and his ability to spin them into enjoyable stories. Happily for readers, he’s assembled some of his wackiest hijinks in My Heart is an Idiot, a 2012 collection of essays that documents some of his strangest exploits and describes some of the people he’s met during his various jaunts.

The book, which functions as a sort of haphazard memoir, begins with an amusing but largely ordinary childhood reminiscence. “Bigger and Deafer” details the mischief Rothbart and his brothers got into when Davy was inspired to mislead his deaf mother about the phone conversations for which they were serving as intermediaries. The best part about the story is the twists that take place on its final page.

Read the rest of this entry »

James Hynes delivers tart comedy-inflected horror with a trio of novellas in ‘Publish and Perish’

May 12, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 12, 2016

In the fiction of James Hynes, academic politics is the conduct of warfare by other means. Characters regularly pursue vendettas against rivals by inviting (or not inviting) certain people to meetings or by giving their comments scant consideration. Bureaucracy is used to crush the spirit of those who fail to distinguish themselves or to suck up to the people in power, and few accomplishments are more prized than securing tenure.

I stumbled upon Next, Hynes’s fourth novel, in a secondhand bookstore last year. Ever since, I’ve been working my way through Hynes’s oeuvre: Soon after I encountered Next, which was published in 2010, I read his third novel, The Lecturer’s Tale, published in 1997. Just this week, I read Publish and Perish, a trio of horror novellas involving American academics.

The first entry in Publish and Perish, “Queen of the Jungle,” is the volume’s weakest entry. This is not because of any flaw with the plot or the writing but because the main character, a career-minded English professor named Paul, is such a despicable heel.

Although he may once have genuinely loved his wife, Elizabeth, his ardor seems to have been entirely subsumed by his jealousy over the divergent paths their careers have taken. Paul’s once-promising dissertation, which he had hoped to parlay into a book, lies in tatters after having been shredded by a critic; he’s a departmental nonentity at the Iowa state university where he’s drearily finishing up a postdoctoral fellowship, and he has no clear notion of where he might go next. By contrast, Elizabeth has become a rising star at a prestigious university in Chicago after her own dissertation was published and unexpectedly won a major prize.

Read the rest of this entry »

Despite its overlong titles, strained premises and avant-garde structuring, Yann Martel’s ‘The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios’ is a marvelous anthology

December 26, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 26, 2014

Yann Martel is a Canadian author whose second novel, Life of Pi, published in 2002, was a best-selling critical success. It won the prestigious Man Booker Prize, awarded to the best English-language novel published in the United Kingdom, and was the basis for an excellent film adaptation directed by Ang Lee, which appeared in 2012.

Martel’s first book is an excellent anthology from 1993 called The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories. As the title story suggests, the edition has plenty of quirky elements. Two of the four stories are clearly experimental fiction, while the title story itself could arguably be classified as such.

That title story has a convoluted premise that shouldn’t work. The unnamed narrator launches the tale by describing his friendship with Paul Atsee, a 19-year-old freshman, which begins when the two meet at college. (The setting is the fictitious Ellis University in the equally fictitious municipality of Roetown, which Martel situates just east of the actual city of Toronto.) At the time, the unnamed narrator was a 23-year-old senior working as an orientation volunteer, but the differences in age and experience are no barrier to the relationship: “[R]ight away I liked Paul’s laid-back, intelligent curiosity and his skeptical turn of mind. The two of us clicked and we started hanging out together.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Doom comes for most in Wells Tower’s strangely compelling short story collection, ‘Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned’

July 15, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 15, 2014

The characters in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Wells Tower’s 2009 collection of short stories, are generally losers. That it’s often hard to turn away from this anthology is a testament to the author’s skill.

The opening story, “The Brown Coast,” begins with main character Bob Munroe waking up on the floor of a vacation cottage near the ocean in North Carolina. The property was jointly owned by Bob’s uncle and Bob’s recently deceased father. Although the two were not particularly close,

[H]is father’s death touched off in him an angry lassitude that curdled his enthusiasm for work and married life. He had fallen into a bad condition and, in addition to several minor miscalculations, he’d perpetrated three major fuckups that would be a long time in smoothing over.

In short order, Bob made a disastrous error on a house he was helping to build, thereby losing his job; rear-ended a lawyer who won a $38,000 court judgment, thereby wiping out his modest inheritance; and trysted with a fellow traffic school student, thereby losing his home and, potentially, his marriage.

Nearly everything in Bob’s life, in fact, seems to be an exercise in spiraling downward. When Uncle Randall suggests Bob vacation at the cottage, he has at least one ulterior motive — getting Bob to rehabilitate the badly neglected house and yard. Bob begrudgingly sets about improving things, but his life nevertheless continues deteriorating. Back home in or around Chapel Hill, N.C., his estranged wife takes up with someone else, and at the cottage, his proudest achievement is accidentally ruined. The story ends with Bob impulsively committing an act of charity. However, the gesture nearly goes awry, and in the final reckoning, it’s hard to determine if Bob should feel good or bad about the way things have turned out.

Matthew Lattimore, the narrator of “Retreat,” may be Tower’s most loathsome creation. Matthew and his brother, whose parents are now dead, have had a vicious lifelong sibling rivalry. Matthew is down and out, having been ruined by a real-estate crash, but he may or may not be on the upswing after having purchased property in rural Maine that he plans to develop as a residential community.

When he invites Stephen, a lonely and struggling music therapist, to fly out from Oregon for a visit, it’s not clear — probably not even to Matthew himself — whether he wants to reconcile with his brother or to engage in another round of oneupmanship.

Read the rest of this entry »

Keats explores virtue and vice in ‘Book of the Unknown’

August 10, 2012

Jonathan Keats weaves intriguing and baffling fables about medieval Jewish society in The Book of the Unknown.

This 2009 collection, subtitled “Tales of the Thirty-Six,” revolves around the Kabbalistic notion that there must be at least 36 righteous people — the Lamedh-Vov, which is Hebrew for that number — at any time in order to justify humanity in the mind of God. “Without them, the world would be doomed,” the author explains.

Your preconceptions of sainthood are likely to be confounded by this American writer, however. The righteous folks described here include a fool, a liar, a gambler, a whore, a false messiah and a murderer.

Some of these characters find redemption through love. “Alef the Idiot” (as his tale is titled) achieves greatness both despite and because of his dealings with a demon, who persuades the mortal to surrender his soul; his intense bond with his wife helps erase his sins. “Chet the Cheat,” a professional sin eater, “Heyh the Clown,” an unusual circus performer, and “Yod the Inhuman,” a golem, all make sacrifices to alleviate injustices suffered by others. Read the rest of this entry »

The journey can be more enjoyable than the destination in Will Self anthology

July 8, 2012

There’s no question that Will Self is an able writer, but his 1998 collection of short fiction never quite came together for me as a reader.

Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys has eight stories in all. A pair, including the eponymous work, revolve around the dissolute, philandering psychologist Bill Bywater. Another pair, which bookend the anthology, concern drug-dealing London brothers.

These four stories were my favorite in the book, especially “Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys.” (It appears immediately before its companion piece, “Design Faults in the Volvo 760 Turbo: A Manual,” despite occurring at a later time.) “Tough Toys” describes Bywater’s epic single-day drive from the northern coast of Scotland to London.

The psychologist is both methodical and reckless. In the morning, he checks his fluid levels and repaired engine; then he lights a blunt and takes a large gulp of whisky from “‘the car bottle’ as he jocularly styled it — to himself” immediately before pulling on to the road. Read the rest of this entry »

%d bloggers like this: