Ready Player Two, by Ernest Cline

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 24, 2020

Summary: AN UNEXPECTED QUEST. TWO WORLDS AT STAKE. ARE YOU READY?

Days after winning OASIS founder James Halliday’s contest, Wade Watts makes a discovery that changes everything.

Hidden within Halliday’s vaults, waiting for his heir to find, lies a technological advancement that will once again change the world and make the OASIS a thousand times more wondrous—and addictive—than even Wade dreamed possible.

With it comes a new riddle, and a new quest—a last Easter egg from Halliday, hinting at a mysterious prize.

And an unexpected, impossibly powerful, and dangerous new rival awaits, one who’ll kill millions to get what he wants.

Wade’s life and the future of the OASIS are again at stake, but this time the fate of humanity also hangs in the balance.

Thoughts: I enjoyed Ready Player One a lot. It wasn’t until later, after reading some other opinions and giving the book a second look that I really started to see some serious problems with the pop culture glorification and the truly terrifying amounts of gatekeeping the characters embodied. I can see why there was gatekeeping, given who the characters were and what they were doing, but geek culture already had a huge problem with that, and Ready Player One seemed to say, “Yeah, okay, but what if making other people feel like they know less actually gets you cool things in the end?!”

Now we come to the sequel, Ready Player Two, and wow, there are just so many more problems! Where the first book was at least fun to read during many scenes, this one was mostly the opposite, I’m sad to say.

Strap in, friends, because this is not going to be a positive review. Nor a short one.

The premise of this novel is that new tech has been found that allows users of the OASIS, that gigantic MMORPG upon which 99% of human interaction and economy relies in Cline’s near-future world, to essentially port their very minds into the game, allowing for total immersion in a way that resembled a directed lucid dream. Only the once-founder of the OASIS, James Halliday, did the same thing at one point, leading to a faulty but autonomous NPC version of himself running around and demanding that since he once scanned the mind of his lifelong crush, Wade and his friends should set out on a quest to bring her to life, so to speak, as an NPC, so that he can have another chance to be with her. To ensure that everyone complies, he locks all of the mind-scanned users within the OASIS and won’t let them log out, holding millions of people hostage and giving the group a 12 hour window in which to solve all of the riddles and quests that will lead to his goal.

In other words, the characters from the previous novel have an even greater quest to accomplish with less time, fewer resources, higher stakes… and of course they manage, because what once took years now must obviously take less than a day because that’s just what the plot calls for.

It felt very much like a problem a lot of sequels have, though usually I see it in TV shows and movies rather than books. It’s not enough to meet and match what the first thing accomplished. There’s this assumption that one has to go even further beyond, to top the previous story or else nobody will be interested. Got to make things bigger, make the consequences or the quest more grand, or else nobody will care because they already saw this story.

The problem comes when you reach too far, and give the audience a higher-stakes plot that must be (and will be) fulfilled within a tighter time limit, despite it not making sense to do so. It could be argued that the characters have so many more resources at their disposal this time around, since they’re all in control of massive wealth and in-game power, but they had a significant amount of that by about the halfway point of the previous novel too, and the omnipotent powers that Wade gained for winning Halliday’s original east egg quest have been stripped from him in Ready Player Two, so you can’t even excuse it through that. The stakes might be higher and so the group might be more motivated, yes, but that doesn’t automatically mean they can actually accomplish everything in the given time period.

But the plot demanded it, and so…

Wade, for his part, comes off as initially a pretty terrible person in this book. It’s a case of “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” since he openly admits that he used his in-game god-powers to bankrupt and destroy the characters of people who so much as said mean things about him and his friends. And in a world where there are no second lives, are no backup accounts, killing a character means that characters starts over again with nothing. Since so much of out-of-game economics are tied to the game… Well, let’s just say it’s like whenever you die in a video game, the bank shows up at your door to repossess your house and all your belongings.

Yes, Wade does change from this mindset thanks to therapy and effort, but then you get to the part where he can stalk any account he chooses, and gives Aech and Shoto the benefit of respect and privacy, but decides he’s still so hung up on Art3mis that he has to keep tabs on her at all times, and oh yeah, this definitely presents him as a character I want to give a shit about for an entire other novel…

Cline’s writing throughout the book was fine, if a bit unbalanced at times. Some scenes rush by relatively quickly, others take for-freaking-ever to resolve, to the point where I legitimately considered skipping past large chunks of the whole “battle 7 versions of Prince” section because it was just a whole lot of running around, gathering items, and listening to Aech talk about how awesome Prince was. The characters themselves… Honestly did not quite feel the same as they were in Ready Player One, occasionally feeling like I was reading a tolerable but not-quite-there fanfic presentation of them. This was especially true in Shoto’s case, as he went from being rather formal in the first book to spouting English-language jokes and slang in this book. Perhaps that could be hand-waved because he was using translation software and it could be argued that’s the fault of the software… but that’s a lot of reading between the lines to do to explain some character degradation.

Though I will admit that the constant pop culture references got stale very very quickly here, and for the record, I didn’t find them stale in Ready Player One. Every character’s obsession with 80s pop culture made sense, given what they were working toward. But in Ready Player Two, the pop culture craze seems to still stay decently in the 80s but also occasionally skipping forward a few decades to reference popular things from later decades. But only up to current day. And sure, it can be argued that Cline doesn’t exactly know what media is going to be popular in 2025 and so can’t reference it, but it gives the peculiar impression that after a certain point, no new media was really made in Wade’s world. It’s all just stuff that was popular in the past, because something something reader nostalgia.

Yes, I’m being caustic here. But if you give me a reason for characters to talk in pop culture references from the 80s all the time, I will believe you and accept it, even when I don’t get the references. Give me no reason that they’re familiar The Matrix, though, and I call bullshit.

Which brings me to a very personal gripe about one reference… Art3mis mentions that putting your whole consciousness into a game is a bad idea, because hasn’t anyone ever seen Sword Art Online? And yeah, SAO does involve that. But you know what other anime involved that, which was before SAO’s time? Freaking .hack! You know, that series that had multiple anime seasons and spin-offs, multiple video games, manga adaptations, novels, and also involved people getting dangerously stuck in an MMO. A series which seems to have been largely forgotten in the wake of SAO’s popularity, to the point where it seems like many people have no idea that the concept of people getting stuck in a video game even existed before Sword Art Online was conceived. SAO is more popular now. But .hack had the Western stage first, and it bothers me a lot to see people continue to overlook it, especially in a novel where characters once argued constantly about how relevant obscure 80s movies were. Things like that made it seem as though Cline was writing not so much what the characters were likely to know, but what the book’s audience was likely to be interested in at the time of the book’s release.

This isn’t me gatekeeping. This isn’t me saying, “If you only know Sword Art Online but don’t know .hack, then you’re not a true fan of a very specific subgenre.” This is me saying that the characters probably had as much reason to know about both, but the author chose to reference only the one that the book’s audience was likely to know, despite throwing out all sorts of references to things the audience probably didn’t know in the previous novel.

But now I want to talk about the book’s serious moral quandary, and for that, I’m going to have to discuss some huge spoilers, so if you still plan on reading this and don’t want to book’s ending to be ruined, then feel free to not read the rest of this review.

Okay, so a thread that runs through the bulk of the novel is that Art3mis does not like this new brain-scan technology and refuses to use it, being the only holdout of the group. It contributes to the huge rift that has formed between her and Wade. She’s of the opinion that it hooks users too much into the game and prevents them from existing in the real world, which is something the group actively took pains to prevent at the end of Ready Player One, ensuring that players absolutely had to log off sometimes and go interact in meatspace. But at the end, when it allows for Og and Kira to be reunited as sentient NPCs even after their physical bodies have both died, she basically pulls a, “Oh Wade, you were right all along, this technology is so wonderful!” as though all of her other objections just don’t matter anymore.

(Plus their relationship just sort of starts up again almost randomly, without any resolution to their problems. They go through danger together, beat a great foe, and then it’s just sort of casually mentioned later that oh, they’re back together now. Readers didn’t even see them discuss getting back together. It just happened off the page and we have to take Wade’s declaration of it as fact, I guess.)

But there’s more. The reason that Kira is in the game as a sentient NPC to begin with is because Halliday ported her mind in there without her consent, an act which many characters are horrified over and think was despicable. But when push comes to shove, they make the decision to turn the minds of every brain-scanned OASIS user into sentient NPCs in a self-contained OASIS simulation without their knowledge or consent, to keep their self-contained OASIS simulation fresh and full of real minds during a long interstellar journey and to keep consenting sentient NPCs company, because getting informed consent would just be too tricky. They take the attitude of, “What people don’t know won’t hurt them,” even though they acknowledge it was a clear violation when someone did that to Kira.

And at that point, I was thankful the book was pretty much over, because the self-righteous hypocrisy made me very angry.

Ready Player Two isn’t a bad book, per se. It’s fine. It’s okay. It’s reasonably entertaining. But it has a lot of problems, both moral and technical, and I found it considerably less enjoyable than its predecessor. It’s not one I regret reading, per se, because unless I absolutely hate a story or series, I tend to want to see if through to the end, even if I’m not always having the best time with it. But it is one that I’ll mostly end up remembering for all the issues I had with it, rather than the sort of exciting high-stakes adventure it was meant to be.

Remina, by Junji Ito

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Publisher’s website
Publication date – December 15, 2020

Summary: An unknown planet emerges from inside a wormhole, and its discoverer, Dr. Oguro, christens the body “Remina” after his own daughter. His finding is met with great fanfare, and Remina herself rises to fame. However, the object picks up speed as it moves along in its curious course, eliminating planets and stars one after another, until finally Earth itself faces extinction… Is the girl Remina the true cause of the catastrophe? A masterwork of horror from Junji Ito, unfolding on a universal scale.

Thoughts: Ito has earned his reputation as a master of horror manga. His artwork alone can disturb and disgust, but the stories he tells linger with readers, the two combining to create a sense of unease and dread in the dark of night, memories of what was just read creeping back in to fill the hours with shuddering discomfort. There’s something about his work that never ceases to thoroughly unnerve me, whether the horror of the story is related to a dread supernatural presence or the darker side of human nature.  Remina ticks all the boxes that I’ve come to expect in one of Ito’s works.

When a new planet is found, the scientist who discovered it decides to name it after his daughter, Remina. Remina is a shy woman, but finds herself thrust into the spotlight after this, becoming the darling of the media and gaining thousands of ardent fans. But the planet keeps moving ever closer to Earth, posing a threat not just with its proximity but also with its very very strange and creepy surface, and Remina the person is the one blamed for the threat, with people adamant that she, or her family, somehow summoned the planet and caused it to approach Earth. Mass panic grows as the danger looms ever nearer, and neither Remina nor her father may come out of the ordeal alive…

While the planet Remina definitely is a sinister force to be reckoned with in Remina, as it does things that planets are definitely not supposed to do, I found the greater horror to be the way people latched onto Remina the woman as a scapegoat, blaming her for all the ills befalling humanity. Now, it seemed that the planet itself was feeding into humanity’s dark side through all of that, almost feeding on the desperate fear and anger that people felt, even tricking them into approaching it with false promises of safety from the chaos happening on Earth, but frankly, no supernatural force needed to be exerted in order to get people to blame something convenient for their ills. Especially something they once loved; Remina went from a much-beloved idol to a hated pariah in short time, fans turning on her as they felt betrayed by what they assumed she did. You don’t need to bring the paranormal into it, to tell that story. We see it around us all the time, especially when crisis looms.

Remina delivers horror on two levels, and that’s not even taking into account Ito’s unique art style, which can be just as disturbing at times as the story itself. He’s particularly good at illustrating body horror and the grotesque, both of which feature here; if body horror is a trigger for you, then be cautious when approaching Ito’s work. Remina had less of that than other works, at least in terms of “the human body doing things human bodies are not meant to do,” but similar to how one of the frightening aspects of the story was the realistic aspect rather than the supernatural, there are depictions of broken and bleeding bodies in here, some of which involve characters being tortured.

If body horror and violence are not trauma triggers for you, however, and you’re in the mood for something visual and disturbing to bring additional shivers to the approaching winter season, then get your hands on a copy of Remina as soon as you can. It’s delightfully disturbing and tremendously troubling, balancing the weirdly supernatural with the weirdly mundane. It’s a story I won’t soon forget.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

One Word Kill, by Mark Lawrence

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 1, 2019

Summary: Prodigy son of a famed mathematician, Nick Hayes is not your average fifteen-year-old. Especially when you consider that he has just discovered he is dying of leukaemia. But there is a part of Nick in all of us, and I immediately empathised with the struggle at the heart of his story.

Nick knows that his time on this planet might be near its end. But when an alluring new girl, Mia, joins his group of Dungeons & Dragons–playing friends, he realises that life might be giving him one last throw of the dice. Just then, however, his world is turned upside down when he meets a strangely familiar man whose claims about Nick’s future are too harrowing—and unbelievable—to ignore. Soon everything he thought was true, from the laws of physics to the trajectory of his own life, is proved otherwise.

One Word Kill is a story that we’re familiar with: a boy with nothing to lose, forced to put what little he has left on the line. But it’s also the kind of story that comes along once in a generation, because we’ve all dreamed of being like Nick, playing a game with the highest real-life stakes and the world on our shoulders. This time, though, it’s not imaginary.

So, what would you do in his position? What else can you do?

Roll the dice.

Thoughts: I initially saw One Word Kill pitched as something that those who enjoyed Stranger Things would also appreciate, and it’s very easy to see that comparison. You’ve got a group of teens in the 80s, all varying degrees of geekiness, all getting together to play D&D, and things change when a girl enters the picture, breaking down the group’s idea of reality as they know it. I wouldn’t say that One Word Kill is a rip-off of Stranger Things, though, since beyond that initial premise, the two definitely diverge into their own stories and run with their own ideas. Lawrence’s new series might take some inspiration from the popular show, or have some aspects in common with it, but it’s a distinct entity.

The protagonist, Nick, is newly diagnosed with a form of leukemia, and in the 80s, you can imagine just how much fun that is. He wants normalcy in his life, or at least a level of normalcy that he’s comfortable with, and cancer doesn’t fit into that picture. What does fit into the picture is his group of friends, his new friendship and budding relationship with Mia, regular mundane stuff. Not cancer. And definitely not a man who claims to be from the future and who starts asking Nick to do all sorts of strange things in an attempt to save a loved one further down the timeline.

I have to confess that I’m a bit of a sucker for fiction that brings multiverse theory into the mix. As much as pondering the implications can bring on a headache, I love thinking about the possibilities of timelines, of different universal rules. Lawrence has a grand time playing with those concepts in One Word Kill, talking about diverging timelines and branching points and closed time loops and all sorts. If someone, for instance, remembers meeting their future selves one day, that future self must also go back in time to meet their past self in order to keep the timeline consistent. Lack of doing so would create another timeline, a branching point in which something either did or didn’t happen. It wouldn’t be a paradox, because the timeline in which you did go back would still exist. You, in your current awareness, just wouldn’t be on that timeline. An infinity of selves can play out over the multiverse, none of them contradicting another because their timelines are their timelines.

Get me started on this tangent and it’ll be a while before I shut up about it.

That’s one of the reasons I really enjoyed reading One Word Kill. It involves concepts I find fascinating to contemplate. The story itself may be fairly short, but it contained a whole lot, at least when it comes to thought experiments and quantum fuckery.

It also asked some of the big questions, the kind that can make people freeze up. How much sacrifice is acceptable? How much wrong should be done in the name of doing something right? If someone does a terrible thing but then all the effects, including memories, are erased, then was that terrible thing still terrible? None of these questions really have answers, there is no right or wrong way to answer them, but that’s what makes them so difficult to tackle. Lawrence doesn’t seem to use this story as a way of taking a stance on rhetorical questions or thought experiments. He just… tells the story, and those questions are a factor.

I’m curious to see where the story goes, because as of right now, there are two other novels in the same series, and I want to see if the concepts started here will continue through the rest of Nick’s story. The delightful geeky nostalgia peppered throughout One Word Kill makes me smile (and makes me wish I was more familiar with D&D, to be honest), and the blend of mundane life with quantum multiverse conundrums is very compelling. It’s difficult to imagine a timeline in which these books wouldn’t appeal to me.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

I Still Dream, by James Smythe

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 5, 2018

Summary: In 1997 Laura Bow invented Organon, a rudimentary artificial intelligence.

Now she and her creation are at the forefront of the new wave of technology, and Laura must decide whether or not to reveal Organon’s full potential to the world. If it falls into the wrong hands, its power could be abused. Will Organon save humanity, or lead it to extinction?

I Still Dream is a powerful tale of love, loss and hope; a frightening, heartbreakingly human look at who we are now – and who we can be, if we only allow ourselves.

Thoughts: Artificial intelligence is something that has interested me for a very long time. Mostly in the sense of the delineation between “programming” and “experience.” At what point does something’s coding allow it the capability for independent, albeit limited, thought? How much is our own autonomy dependent on our experiences, which can be likened to programming? The usual approaches, really, when it comes to the ethical arguments of artificial intelligence, but it’s fascinated me for years.

It’s this sort of exploration that’s present in Smythe’s I Still Dream. Laura Bow originally created a sort of therapy program she called Organon, something to help her teenage self work through issues, tweaking the code as she went to make it more dynamic, more able to give her what she needed when she needed it. She continued to work on it while working for a large tech company that was also working on its own AI system, known as SCION. Both programs developed along different paths, with different goals, in accordance with what their users and programmers demanded of them. SCION becomes ubiquitous in everyday tech, while Organon stays something rather private to Laura. Things take a turn for the world-changing when SCION begins behaving in ways that are decided unintended and disastrous, and it might only be Organon’s assistance that normalcy can be restored.

I can’t say that I Still Dream is a novel of the future, something that might legitimately happen, because much of the story is set in the past, in Laura’s youth and adulthood of the 90s and early 2000s, setting in motion the events that will come later in the story’s timeline, but that definitely didn’t happen in the real world. It’s one of those books that I think fits squarely in the “speculative” genre, that umbrella term that encapsulates the “what if” stories that don’t fit so neatly into other categories. Part historical fiction, part science fiction, part alternate past and alternate future, with a heavy dash of social sci-fi. It defies easy categorization, which is one of the things I love about the novel. Smythe seems unconcerned with demanding that the story fit with what really exists and instead tells the story of what might have been, with all the extrapolations of that concept.

There’s something that really resonates with me when it comes to stories of AI development, and I think it might be related to something a therapist once told me. People aren’t born with all the reactions and thoughts they’ll have as adults. They grow, and learn, and experience, and it’s our experiences that help build us into the people who eventually become. If those experiences are negative, then we’ll have negative reactions to a lot of things. If those experiences are filled with pressure to perform, we’ll likely end up being stressy perfectionists in adulthood. Our childhoods, in a sense, program us into the adults we’ll become. It’s how we develop. You can see the same sort of process in how SCION and Organon behave, given that they’re both programmed to learn and function. SCION’s processes get tested with video games, fail-states and win-states and how to view others as opponents to be overcome. Self-involvement. Organon, on the other hand, was first and foremost something that Laura designed to help herself, a companion and therapist and assistant. Still concerned with others, yes, but in a way that stressed beneficial outcomes, improvements rather than defeats. The two may have been programmed, but their programming followed different parametres, stressed different ideals, and in the end, you can really see the outcome of the two different methods.

Which is analogous to raising a child, really, and that’s sort of the point. We can have nature versus nurture debates all we want, but at the end of the day, nurture still means a lot, and our experiences, be they positive or negative, will have profound effects on who we are later in life. To use a human example from the novel, Laura is admittedly reticent at first to show anyone what she’s created in Organon, but eventually allows it because she believes that person will help her. She’s betrayed, though, and she pulls back. She’s betrayed once again in adulthood, at the job where she was allowed to develop Organon further, and once again pulls back further, letting fewer people in, letting fewer people get a glimpse into her work. The more people prove they can’t be trusted, the less she’s willing to trust them. Her experiences drive her behaviour, a sort of biological programming that people both passively and actively make use of every day.

It’s just easier to see that for what it is when you use computers as an analogy.

The ending of I Still Dream is touching, bittersweet, and very emotional, and also difficult to read without contemplating the very essence of emotion itself. What is it, where does it come from, what influences it? It does the same thing with the concept of reality, honestly. Which, unsurprisingly, is related back to the whole “programming” thing I’ve spent half this review talking about.

That’s one of the things I really love about this novel, though. The way it made me stop and think, to really consider the implications, the ramifications, of many of the book’s events, was wonderful. I’ve said for a long time that a really good book will do that, that it will make me have to pause in my reading to have a good long think about what I just read. There’s so much food for thought here, so much that will have readers reconsidering concepts they may have once thought were fundamental aspects only of humanity, and it’s wonderful when books do that, because it means that the book has effects that extend beyond the reading, if you catch my drift.

Fans of social sci-fi will find a lot to enjoy in I Still Dream, as will those who love a good exploration of humanity’s interaction with technology. It’s a book I know I’ll end up reading a second time, earning it a permanent place on my bookshelves. If you’re in the mood for a speculative novel that will really get you thinking about the nature of intelligence and experience, then look no further than I Still Dream. It’s one that won’t disappoint.

How Long ’til Black Future Month?, by N K Jemisin

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 27, 2018

Summary: N. K. Jemisin is one of the most powerful and acclaimed authors of our time. In the first collection of her evocative short fiction, which includes never-before-seen stories, Jemisin equally challenges and delights readers with thought-provoking narratives of destruction, rebirth, and redemption.

Spirits haunt the flooded streets of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a parallel universe, a utopian society watches our world, trying to learn from our mistakes. A black mother in the Jim Crow South must save her daughter from a fey offering impossible promises. And in the Hugo award-nominated short story “The City Born Great,” a young street kid fights to give birth to an old metropolis’s soul.

Review: It’s no secret at this point that I absolutely adore Jemisin’s work. She writes the most amazing stories that grab you and don’t let you go, pulling you along and making you hungry to see more layers of the world unfold before you. When people say she is a master of the craft, they’re not exaggerating.

But most of my experience with her work has been long fiction rather than short. It was with great curiosity and pleasure, then, that I eagerly tucked into How Long ’til Black Future Month?

Usually I rate anthologies and collections as less than 5 stars, because inevitably something won’t be quite to my taste, and that’s just part of the process. But seriously, there wasn’t a single story in here that I didn’t enjoy, or didn’t make me feel something, or in some cases, prompted discussion with people who hadn’t even read the story yet! (Seriously, in Red Dirt Witch, a story about a mother protecting her child from making bad deals with a fey, and also discovering that sometimes you have to make way for the people who can build a better future than you can, there was a line about how fey don’t go to Alabama much because of all the iron oxide in the soil. That prompted some research about the red soil on Prince Edward Island — also high in iron oxide — which led to a discussion with my partner about how the fey are linked to artistic creativity and how both of us feeling artistic drained and dead while living on PEI was hypothetically related to the way fey creatures couldn’t be there for long.)

That’s probably an average Saturday night conversation for us, honestly…

L’Alchimista was a fantastic story that left the reader in no doubt of the similarities between cooking and chemistry (and thus, alchemy), and I was left with a burning desire to know more about the future adventures of the characters, because the door was left wide open in that regard. Cloud Dragon Skies seemed like an exploration of science versus spirituality, and the relative “correctness” of either and both at the same time; it’s all about interpretation, and I kind of loved that. Non-Zero Probabilities looked at a world where superstition and belief, luck and ritual, all had tangible effects on the world, and I love reading that kind of story in general.

Valedictorian was one of those stories that left me with some conflicted feelings at the end. There was a lot about it that hit close to home for me. Academia was basically what I lived for for a while, and I was often near the top of my class… until depression hit in late junior high and early high school and I just stopped giving a damn. Pushing to be the best was, for a while, all I had for myself. I didn’t fit in, I didn’t really have many friends, and good grades were the only way I could convince myself and others that I was worthwhile. It wasn’t until later on in life that I began to really understand how some people would rather have seen me put less effort into school and more effort into almost anything else, because that would have made me more normal, made me fit in more with my peers. Not because I would have found something else to be passionate about, but because I would have been just a bit less of a freak that didn’t belong. Zinhle’s realization that when push came to shove, nobody would fight for her to stay, nobody would recognize her potential and her uses and all the things she could become, and they would just let her be taken away because that was just how things were done… It felt very familiar. I didn’t grow up in a dystopian world where the bottom 10% of achievers (plus the top achiever) were taken away by outside forces, no, but there was still much about this story that hit hard for me, and I suspect probably hit hard for a lot of people who, at some point in their lives, defined themselves by the good grades they got.

And then there was The Narcomancer, which was actually the very first thing I had ever read that Jemisin had written. It was years ago, I think it was on tor.com at the time, and it was before I knew anything else about the author. I thought Jemisin was a man, because unless an author had an obviously female name, I just kind of assumed they were male at the time. (The ploy of writing under one’s initials only is apparently pretty effective after all!) But this was my introduction to her work, and once I’d finished reading it, I had to sit and let it all sink in for a time, let the story and the hints of a larger world wash over me, and when the storm cleared, I knew I wanted more. I heard about a novel she’d written, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (reviewed here, but be warned, this is a very old review…), and I knew right then that I had to read it. The Narcomancer was the story that got me hooked to begin with, and it was wonderful to read it again after all these years and to remember the feelings that came along with the first reading.

If you’re a fan of Jemisin’s work, you need to read this short story collection. If you’re not a fan of her work yet, you probably will be after reading this. She constructs her stories and worlds on levels that I can only hope to aspire to as a writer, and that I appreciate immensely as a reader. Some of her stories remind me of Jo Walton’s short stories, as a matter of fact: they both seem very capable of turning idle thought experiments into brilliant pieces of fiction that entice and engage the reader, and How Long ’til Black Future Month? is a shining example of Jemisin’s skill with the written word. You’re doing yourself a great disservice if you choose to pass this one by.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Starlings, by Jo Walton

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – January 23, 2018

Summary: In this intimate first collection from award-winning novelist Jo Walton ( Among Others , The King’s Peace , Necessity ) are captivating glimpses of her subtle myths and wholly reinvented realities. An ancient Eritrean coin uncovers the secrets of lovers and thieves. The magic mirror sees all but can do almost nothing. A search engine logically proceeds down the path of an existential crisis. Three Irish siblings thieve treasures with ingenuity, bad poetry, and the aid of the Queen of Cats. Through eclectic stories, intriguing vignettes, inspired poetry, and more, Walton soars with humans, machines, and more than a hint of magic.

Review: It’s no secret at this point that I’m a huge fan of Jo Walton’s work, and I pretty much devour any of her writing that I can get my hands on. Starlings is her first collection of short fiction (and a few poems), and while she says she’s no good at that form of story-telling, I’d have to disagree. I wouldn’t say that the stories in Starlings is as good as some of her longer works, mind you, but that’s a far cry from not being good at all.

Like with any collection of short fiction, be it from multiple authors or just one, some pieces I like more than others. That’s to be expected, any as I say in just about any review of anthologies or collections, a lot of it comes down to personal taste rather than an indication of quality. I think the best example of this for me was the story, The Panda Coin, which is largely a collection of snippets from a multitude of different perspectives, detailing the happenings of people who have a particular coin in their possession at the time. Though not a hugely original idea, it was still well-written and interesting to see the diverse cast of characters that the coin passes to and from over time, but in the end it really didn’t stick with me as being one of the more memorable pieces. Just wasn’t to my taste, I suppose.

Others, though, absolutely were to my taste, and three in particular really made a lasting impression on me. A Burden Shared, for instance, features a mother who uses technology to take her daughter’s pain so that her daughter can better navigate through life without being beaten down by disability. It’s an exploration of the lengths that a parent will go to, and that they feel they ought to go to, in order to give their child the best chance at a successful life. But in doing so, the mother overlooks pain of her own that signals deadly illness in her own body, thinking it to be a sign of something wrong with her daughter rather than her own body’s way of communicating that there’s a problem. To me, it was a story not just of parental sacrifice, but a subtle warning about giving too much of ourselves and overlooking our own issues in the process of trying to make things better for someone else.

Turnover was the story of a generation ship, filled with people on their way to another planet. Being a generation ship, though, some people there had never experienced life outside the ship, and as such, a culture had developed that was rather specific to ship life, with art and expression and lifestyles that simply wouldn’t be possible once the ship arrived at their destination. It was a piece that really got me thinking about culture and intent, and how what we seek now isn’t necessarily going to be what the next generation seeks, even if our intent is to give them what we think they will want. Cultures and subcultures spring up around us all the time, with goals that are just as valid and worthwhile as the goals of the people who came before. Turnover questions the value of multi-generational intent and asks us whether it’s better to let some people go their own way even if that goes against the original plan, if those people don’t want to be part of a plan they had no say in.

But I think my favourite story in the whole collection was Relentlessly Mundane, which is about three people who once went to another world and saved it from certain doom. With their task complete, they returned to this world, and now have to live the rest of their lives as mundanely as the rest of us. Only it’s harder for them, because they know they were saviours in another world, special and lauded and with abilities that just don’t exist here, and so there’s a sense of trying and failing to recapture one’s glory days, making pale reflections of something to remind you that you were once great, once a hero, and now you’re just another face in the crowd. The story ends with them possibly being given the chance to become somebody here, too, or to help other people become somebodies elsewhere, which is an uplifting note to be sure, but what stuck with me the most was the sense of faded potential. Most of the time people express that at the end of life, but the characters in Relentlessly Mundane were adults in their prime, and already feeling like the best parts of their lives were over because they had a taste of glory and now that taste is just a memory. It really resonated with me, as did the pervasive feeling that where the characters are isn’t where they want to be, where they feel they should be.

Walton certainly does have skill at evoking and capturing emotions that I don’t always quite realize are within me until I see them laid bare on paper. I’ve only encountered a few authors who have done that, and she is most definitely one of them.

While there were some phenomenal stories within this collection, it’s not one that I feel I can really recommend to general SFF fans. This one’s more for people who are already fans of Walton’s work and want to see more of what she can do with a different medium. If you do like her writing, then absolutely pick up a copy of Starlings and dive into her collection of thought experiments with glee, the way I did. If you haven’t encountered her work before, though, this isn’t the best way to do it, and I’d recommend passing on it until you know if you like what she does, first.

(Received in exchange for review.)

United States of Japan, by Peter Tieryas

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 1, 2016

Summary: Decades ago, Japan won the Second World War. Americans worship their infallible Emperor, and nobody believes that Japan’s conduct in the war was anything but exemplary. Nobody, that is, except the George Washingtons – a shadowy group of rebels fighting for freedom. Their latest subversive tactic is to distribute an illegal video game that asks players to imagine what the world might be like if the United States had won the war instead.

Captain Beniko Ishimura’s job is to censor video games, and he’s working with Agent Akiko Tsukino of the secret police to get to the bottom of this disturbing new development. But Ishimura’s hiding something… He’s slowly been discovering that the case of the George Washingtons is more complicated than it seems, and the subversive videogame’s origins are even more controversial and dangerous than either of them originally suspected.

Part detective story, part brutal alternate history, United States of Japan is a stunning successor to Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.

Review: It’s an old idea: What if the Allies didn’t win World War II? But rather than have yet another story about how America gets taken over by Nazis and the valiant few resist, Tieryas takes a different approach and instead has America run by the Japanese instead. Geographically, this makes perfect sense. Politically, it would be easier for the Nazi government to leave North America (I assume Canada’s probably involved in this too, though to be honest, I can’t remember if it was mentioned in the story) to the Japanese when they themselves have Europe to contend with. Thus, the United States of Japan were born.

I expected to really enjoy this book. I like things involving Japanese culture, and even though I’ve been burned so many times in the past by inaccurate representation, I keep hoping and going back to Japanese-inspired fiction to see if this time, it gets better. And to be fair, Tieryas didn’t do a bad job in this regard. It helps that most of the Japanese aspects involved fervent nationalism, the sort that could come out of any imperial regime, only with a particular Japanese flavour to it. Portrayal of life in Japan or typical Japanese culture was absent, largely due to the fact that this book did not actually take place in Japan. It took place in the United States, heavily influenced by Japan but not Japan itself. It was actually a rather clever way of getting around most of the issues I typically have with fiction involving Japan, and for that, I have to give Tieryas credit.

But I didn’t end up enjoying the book as much as I expected, and partly due to those expectations, United States of Japan left me feeling more disappointed than anything.  The story is mostly a mystery surrounding the idea that society is threatened by a video game that presents the question: what if the Allies had won World War II? Rather, the Japanese regime is threatened by the idea that anti-Japanese and pro-American sentiments might by stirred up by such an popular underground video game, and they want it hunted down and wiped out, and Captain Ishimura is apparently the man for the job. He tracks and censors video games for a living, so who better to judge what should be censored in this forbidden game? Together with a ruthless secret agent, he works to uncover the dark truth behind the video game and its disturbing origins.

So what was it that I didn’t like about this book? So far everything I’ve mentioned sounds positive, even interesting. Partly, it was the characters themselves. While they felt distinct, distinguishable from each other in many ways, they also felt rather flat and largely lifeless, as though they were playing roles rather than being themselves through the whole story. I felt no connection to either of them, no particular interest in what they were doing or thinking. Not being able to connect enough to characters to find interest in their actions, which drive the entire story, can really spoil a book for readers.

Now, I’m aware that this was a personal experience and that many people probably won’t have the same reaction when reading United States of Japan. It might have been a disconnect between myself and the writing style, which I found a bit lifeless, or it might have been that the characters themselves just didn’t hold any particular appeal to me and wouldn’t have done so even if they were written by somebody else whose writing I typically enjoy. That happens sometimes, and it’s nobody’s fault so much as it’s just an accident of circumstance. I’m not blaming Tieryas for writing dull characters or for not having the writing chops to make his story interesting. On the whole, the concept behind the novel was a fascinating one, and one that was definitely worth exploring. It just didn’t connect with me.

I did, admittedly, find the level of technology in the book more than a little unbelievable. I know that was part of the point, to play on some stereotypical images of superior Japanese technology and turn them into an in-universe reality, but there’s only so far I can suspend my disbelief. I could probably accept advanced video game technology that rivals that of today’s tech, even though this novel takes place in the 1980s. It takes a bit of mind-twisting, but it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility. The giant mechs that are used for military purposes, though? They’re visually impressive, and they’re a classic of Japanese sci-fi, but they’re utterly unrealistic, and their presence in the story was actually a low point rather than a high point with lots of action.

Combine that with a lack of interest in the characters (leading to a lack of interest in plot progression, and in the end, no matter how good Tieryas’s ideas or writing were, I just didn’t feel engaged, or compelled to continue with any other books in the series. Shame, because Tieryas clearly has some creativity at play here, and the ability to think beyond the typical when it comes to thought experiments, but overall, I think I can safely say that this just wasn’t for me.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Invisible Planets, translated by Ken Liu

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Translator’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 1, 2016

Summary: Award-winning translator and author Ken Liu presents a collection of short speculative fiction from China. Some stories have won awards; some have been included in various ‘Year’s Best’ anthologies; some have been well reviewed by critics and readers; and some are simply Ken’s personal favorites. Many of the authors collected here (with the obvious exception of Liu Cixin) belong to the younger generation of ‘rising stars’.

In addition, three essays at the end of the book explore Chinese science fiction. Liu Cixin’s essay, The Worst of All Possible Universes and The Best of All Possible Earths, gives a historical overview of SF in China and situates his own rise to prominence as the premier Chinese author within that context. Chen Qiufan’s The Torn Generation gives the view of a younger generation of authors trying to come to terms with the tumultuous transformations around them. Finally, Xia Jia, who holds the first Ph.D. issued for the study of Chinese SF, asks What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?.

Review: I want to start this review by saying that I am absolutely thrilled to be able to get my hands on sci-fi like this. More and more I become aware that my own view of the world is a very limited one, narrow and specific, and the chance to broaden my horizons and be able to read great stories by people who have experienced life entirely differently than I did is something I appreciate a lot. The more I read things like this, the more I become aware of, if nothing else, the myriad ways growing up in the culture I did has influenced me; I wouldn’t be the same person had I grown up in another country, another culture, another time. And though it’s a selfish way to begin this review, I think it bears saying. Invisible Planets takes Western readers outside a comfort zone they may not have even realized they were in, dropping them into the middle of futures imagined by people whose lives were shaped in different ways than our own.

Invisible Planets contains stories and essays from a variety of Chinese SFF writers, and all of them are good (despite one being the kind of story that I couldn’t quite wrap my head fully around, I could still at least recognise the quality of it). Though even by the end of it I wouldn’t be able to answer the question of what makes Chinese sci-fi Chinese, I can at least say that the stories in Invisible Planets had a feel to them that I very rarely encounter in Western-based sci-fi, even if I couldn’t put my finger on it and say, “This. This is what Chinese sci-fi reads like.” But even if I can’t properly identify it, I still enjoy it, enjoy the cultural and perspective shift that comes with reading something so firmly rooted in a culture I didn’t experience and absorb; Invisible Planets has a lot of that.

It’s at this point that I wish I was better equipped to dissect the stories and their origins more deeply. I feel like there’s a lot that could be said — and indeed should be said about the collection I just devoured, but I’m no authority on it, and I think half the things I might say might be influenced not only by my experience with reading the stories but also with my own cultural blindspots when trying to interpret another culture. Translator Ken Liu pointed out a few times through his notes in the book that it would be so easy to interpret some stories in certain ways that play to North American ideas of what China is, was, and might be like, but that’s not always a good idea. In one of the essays at the end of the book, author Liu Cixin comments that a North American author once tried to clarify some differences between Chinese sci-fi and the sci-fi we’re more familiar with here in Canada and America, but missed some points and fell short of the mark.

That said, though, my experience with this book, as someone who is admittedly ignorant of much of Chinese history and culture, is probably closer to what most readers will experience than those with more familiar backgrounds. Most readers of this anthology aren’t going to be able to pick out a dozen and one subtle cultural aspects that influence and make up the inspiration behind the stories told here. They’re just going to appreciate them for the stories they are. And there’s not necessarily anything inherently wrong with that, so long as readers at least go in with an open mind and don’t expect to find stories exactly like the ones an American would write, nor something so outside our sphere of experience that we can’t understand it.

As with any anthology, some stories stand out to me more than others, the ones that made their mark a little deeper and that I’ll probably go back and read again in the future. Chen Qiufan’s The Year of the Rat is the story of young men attempting to combat mutant rats who have gotten out of control, and in the end is a story about genocide and uncertainty. Ma Boyong’s The City of Silence is one of the most chilling possible futures I’ve ever read about; when the State controls everything, including what you can and can’t say, where do people turn to express their humanity, and how far does either side go in pursuit of their goals? Liu Cixin’s The Circle is similar to one of the scenes from The Three-Body Problem that has always stuck in my mind, the creation of a human computer, moving from simple binary commands to more complex reactionary coding, in order to compute the digits of pi. And Hao Jingfang’s Folding Beijing was a true gem in this collection, in which economic castes are separated from each other by time, and one man will go to great lengths to assure his daughter a decent place in the world.

Folding Beijing was one that struck me very deeply. There are pieces, in each section of the city that Lao Dao visits, where people talk about how much money they make. Throwaway lines, worked into dialogue naturally, but they make a good point. While visiting Second Space, Lao Dao talks to someone who makes about 100,000 yuan a month. Lao Dao thinks to himself that in Third Space, where he lives, he makes a standard 10,000 yuan a month. While in First Space, a woman offers him 100,000 yuan, and comments offhand that she earns that in about a week. It reminded me so much of a previous job I had, working contract for a section of a credit card company where my clients all possessed the 2nd most prestigious card the company offered, and sometimes when things didn’t go their way, they’d complain of being treated like second-class citizens and how it was outrageous that they were being charged so much. These people, just in order to have the card, had to earn as much in a month as I would make in an entire year at that job, and I was earning almost 50% above minimum wage at the time. So Folding Beijing flashed me back to that time, talking with people who thought little about spending as much on 2 nights at a hotel as I would spend on an entire month’s rent, and it really was like we were from completely separate worlds that never would really touch. I felt that connection to Lao Dao, because in such a situation, what can you really say, when someone says that something utterly beyond you is no big deal for them?

Invisible Planets is absolutely a sci-fi anthology that I recommend, and to pretty much everyone who reads SFF. The perspective shift is refreshing, the stories top-notch, and the essays enlightening. Ken Liu has done a fantastic job in translating them for English-speaking audiences, and the whole experience has made me hungry for more. Go and pick this book up as soon as you’re able; I guarantee you won’t regret it.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The SFF Divide: On the Assumed Validity of Science Fiction Over Fantasy

Listening to other people talk can teach you a lot.

Not only lately, I’ve been hearing more people talk about women in SFF, examining their role and place, the biases against them, the opinions of them, and so on. My reaction to this varies between, “Nothing new here,” and, “It’s about time more people talked about this,” depending on my mood, but something was recently brought up that tangentially made me think about the views of sci-fi and fantasy as genres themselves, and the perceptions thereof.

In Bronwyn Lovell’s article, Science Fiction’s Women Problem, she says the following:

There is a perceived hierarchy of merit operating in these classifications as well: “hard” sounds masculine and virile, while “soft” connotes a weaker, less potent, feminised form of the genre. This is why “hard” science fiction is more likely to be considered among the “best” science fiction, and why the “soft” science fiction that more women tend to write doesn’t often make the cut.

In 2013, the judges of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Britain’s most prestigious science fiction prize, disqualified a number of submitted books on the basis that they were not “technically” science fiction. They were deemed by the judges to be fantasy – a genre that does not require the realism of science – which has twice as many female authors compared to science fiction.

Which is absolutely worth paying attention to for the issues it brings up about gender, and I in no way want to sideline that conversation. I mention it as context for my thought process, the jumping-off point from which my brain went, “Hang on a second, there’s something else here that I want to think about too.”

It relates back to something an old friend of mine once said. She strongly disliked fantasy as a genre, because, in her mind, there were no rules. In fantasy, magic could just do anything. No rules, no consequences. No realism. It didn’t make sense. So she didn’t like it, because fantasy, by its very nature, was not grounded in reality.

And sure, some fantasy is like that. But in fairness, it tends to be poorly-written fantasy that falls into the category of, “Screw the rules, I have magic.” Not all fantasy even has magic: I’ve read more than a few novels that may as well been classed as historical fiction for all they involved magic and monsters (that is to say, not at all), and all that really placed them in the fantasy genre was that they take place in a secondary-world.

But Lovell does have a point that science fiction tends to viewed as superior because it’s supposedly grounded in fact, whereas fantasy can just spring from the fevered imagination of some nobody who doesn’t have to know anything about how things work because magic can take care of all that. Fantasy is seen as softer. Science fiction? Well, that involves science, which involves intelligence and understanding and curiosity, not just making things up at random.

Only that’s a huge problem of assumption. And not just because some fantasy novels don’t employ Magical McGuffins.

The way I see it, it boils down to the preconception that science fiction is more intelligent and thus superior because it involves science. Even if it involves science that doesn’t make sense. The assumption that most readers make, even unconsciously, is that if there’s technology involved that works even when our current understanding says it shouldn’t, that in the future we just figure out new ways of making it work. We bridge the mental gap because we assume that technology = science = always correct according to the laws of the universe.

We don’t give magic the same benefit. Even if it accomplishes the same thing. A teleportation spell will always be less realistic than a Star Trek-esque teleporter, because the world we know doesn’t have that kind of magic in it and probably never will. It may eventually have that kind of technology, and so that possibility makes it, to the minds of many, more grounded in reality.

But none of that erases the way fantasy is devalued. All that does is point out our flaws of assumption when it comes to science fiction. What about the science of fantasy?

First, we’re going to have to look at the definition of science:

a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general law; systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation; skill, especially reflecting a precise application of facts or principles; proficiency; knowledge, as of facts or principles; knowledge gained by systematic study.

That’s according to dictionary.com, which works as well as any dead-tree dictionary I could pull from my bookshelf.

So what prevents that definition from being applied to fantasy?

Absolutely nothing.

As many fantasy writers have demonstrated.

Again, it comes back to assumptions. Science is organized, and magic (and therefore all of fantasy) is chaotic. Uncontrolled, random, imprecise, because it’s nothing we can measure and confirm. But we can’t confirm and measure that future-tech teleporter, either, so that bias must get thrown out the window or else we must admit hypocrisy.

Let’s say you have a secondary world where people can do magic and accomplish great feats such as healing the sick or making rocks float or conjure invisible protective shields to save them from an assassin’s thrown dagger. Throw in a unicorn or two, for good measure, and a dragon, because everybody loves dragons. Typical fantasy fare.

Now let’s say that magic has been used on this world for the whole of recorded history, and people past and present have devoted time and effort to figuring out how it all works. They know magic’s limitations, they know its side-effects, they know what it can and can’t do.

Is that unscientific just because they don’t know that magic can light a candle by agitating the molecules in a certain area to create heat, thus igniting the candle’s wick?

Looking at our own scientific history, it’s easy to think, without really thinking, that anyone who hasn’t reached the conclusions we reached is ignorant, or undeveloped. But by the definition of science, it’s still scientific in nature for monkeys to know what plants make them sick after seeing other monkeys get sick from eating them. Observation and experimentation.

We too often conflate science with technology. Advanced technology, at that; looms used to weave cloth are technology, machines based upon scientific principles. Hell, Jacquard looms are basically some of the first computers, using punchcards to create patterns on a power loom (yes, the same kind of punchcard that used to be used in computer programming even in the 1980s). Jacquard looms were invented in 1801, back when science still considered disease to be caused by “bad air.” But often when we think of computer science, we don’t start that far back, and especially with textiles now being considered a typically “womanly” think to be concerned with, it seems almost uncomfortable to think that early computer technology was just being used to quickly weave the cloth for pretty clothes.

But science is so much more than calculators and rocket ships. Look at Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent series, which deals with the biology of dragons. And I’ve read hard scifi that involves vampires who react badly to crosses. Having vampires in it didn’t make it less science fiction, nor any of the science it used less credible, but if we’re judging based solely on common content

Sometimes it’s the exceptions that prove the bias.

I’ve noticed increasingly that “speculative fiction” is coming into its own as a category that seems in many ways to blend the two aspects of science and magic (or the supernatural, as we define it). If a book takes place in the future of this world, for instance, and involves magic or something similar to it, then it’s often classed as speculative fiction, that umbrella term for “what if” stories that don’t seem to fit into either science fiction or fantasy. It’s not science fiction, even if there’s technology more advanced than what we have now, because it doesn’t fit some classic sci-fi tropes, but neither is it fantasy, because it takes place in this world and doesn’t deal with either the present or the past.

(Which is another indicator I’ve noticed, actually. Sci-fi almost exclusively deals with the future, whereas something under the fantasy umbrella, if it occurs in this world, takes place either very recently or else in the past. There’s almost no historical sci-fi. There’s very little post-apocalyptic fantasy unless the technological advances in history were made by some very-long-ago civilization and nobody understand anything about it anymore. When something crosses those lines, it tends to be notable.)

But speculative fiction as a genre name sounds far more credible than fantasy. It sounds like somebody’s asking hard questions about what is, or what could be, in a way that we assume fantasy never even contemplates. It sounds more intellectual, and is more likely to be taken seriously. Not quite as seriously as science fiction, because it’s softer and more human and less sterile, but definitely more serious than fantasy.

But we might not even need such a category if we didn’t tend to dismiss the importance of fantasy as a genre quite so much. Fantasy might not have robots in it, but that doesn’t mean it can’t tackle difficult topics. Is deconstructing racism more hard-hitting if it involves lizard-like people from another planet instead of lizard-like people from an island 200 miles off the south coast of Fantasia?

If life lessons are only worth learning now when robots are involved, then we have a serious problem on our hands.

Magic can have clear rules and definitions. It is not by default some unscientific thing, so long as it’s approached scientifically. The technology in science fiction can come as much from a writer’s desire for convenience as any enchanted amulet. Science fiction and fantasy both have a number of interesting things to say, wonderful stories to tell; the same faults can be found spanning both. And it’s entirely unfair to dismiss one genre as superior to the other because of our strange assumptions about what science actually is.

Strangers Among Us, edited by Susan Forest & Lucas K Law

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Forest’s website/Law’s page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 8, 2016

Summary: There’s a delicate balance between mental health and mental illness . . .

Who are the STRANGERS AMONG US?

We are your fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and lovers. We staff your stores, cross your streets, and study in your schools, invisible among you. We are your outcasts and underdogs, and often, your unsung heroes.

Nineteen science fiction and fantasy authors tackle the division between mental health and mental illness; how the interplay between our minds’ quirks and the diverse societies and cultures we live in can set us apart, or must be concealed, or become unlikely strengths.

We find troubles with Irish fay, a North Korean cosmonaut’s fear of flying, an aging maid dealing with politics of revenge, a mute boy and an army of darkness, a sister reaching out at the edge of a black hole, the dog and the sleepwalker, and many more.

After all, what harm can be done…

Review: I was thrilled to hear about this anthology, and yet disappointed at the same time when I realized that it wasn’t exactly getting much advanced attention, especially when social reform and visibility for those with disabilities are hot topics on so many lips these days. Maybe it’s because the book’s primarily Canadian, I don’t know, but either way, I haven’t heard nearly as much as I’d hoped about this anthology, and it’s a damn shame because it’s a great collection filled with powerful stories from some amazing authors.

And with Strangers Among Us shining the spotlight on mental illness and society’s outcasts, well, let’s just say that it has some material that hits pretty close to home.

Some background – I’ve struggled with mental health issues pretty much since hitting puberty. A diagnosis of depression and poor treatment of that when I was a teenager kicked off the whole thing. Throw in a batch of neuroatypical issues as I grew older (obsessive-compulsive tendencies, Tourette syndrome, social anxiety, other things that put me squarely on the autism spectrum, and an unpleasant dose of psychotic depression — also called depressive psychosis), and yeah, it’s no surprise that awareness of mental health issues is important to me. I could go on at length about how all this has affected my life, but I know that’s not really what you’re here for. You’re here for the book review. But I wanted to make it clear that I have experience with being one of society’s outcasts myself. I know what it’s like to doubt your sanity, the very essence of yourself, and I know what it’s like to face discrimination from others over said issues. It’s not fun. The more awareness that can be raised about what mental illness is actually like, the better.

Plus, I’m all about trying to share Canada’s great literary talent. This entire anthology is written by authors who are Canadian or who have a connection to Canada; some of the stories are set in Canada, which is a nice change of pace when the majority of what I see in SFF takes place in the US (or what used to be the US) when it’s set in this world.

So Strangers Among Us focuses on issues just like that. They’re all written by authors who write speculative fiction, and indeed most of the stories sit under the genre headers of fantasy or sci-fi, but not all of them. One rather memorable story is about a man who cannot leave his apartment, who spies on people through a payphone, learning about their lives and fantasizing about heroically saving an abused woman, until the time comes when he is pushed beyond his agoraphobia and steps outside to actually do so. Nothing fantasy or sci-fi about that, but it was a strong story nevertheless, and it definitely earned its place among all the others.

There were a couple of stories that dipped into the old well of, “People see things that aren’t there, only wait, those things actually are there and that person’s really special!” A dangerous well to dip into, really, since there have been so many stories done in the past that almost present that as a handwave to mental illness, downplaying what many people actually suffer through in the attempt to provide some sort of supernatural reason why these people aren’t ill, just misunderstood. The stories that did that, though, did it well, I’m happy to say. One, which blended multicultural mythologies in a school setting, legitimately did feature a character who could see things others couldn’t, but that story didn’t seem to tackle mental illness so much as it tackled the idea of being deliberately outcast from ones peers. Another, in which a young Irish girl could see fay and was later diagnosed as schizophrenic, of course turned out to be schizophrenic, but the story didn’t say that schizophrenia isn’t a real condition. It absolutely is. It’s just that some people get misdiagnosed with it because that’s what fits the pattern of modern human understanding.

There’s a sense of both fear and hope in each story. Fear of the unknown, the things we can’t understand, the things that seem different; hope for a better experience and for better understanding. The little boy who can’t speak and would probably get a diagnosis of autism were he not living in a secondary world, he’s sold like an object and overlooked as being too stupid to understand, until someone hurts him and the things and people dear to him and he gets his revenge, however subtle and historically overlooked that revenge may be. The thread of mental illness that runs through generations of family, tearing apart relationships as a sister feels excluded and ignored by those around her as she sees how that commonality brings others closer together. A dystopian future in which the imperfect are Culled, either killed outright or else just cast into the wastes beyond civilization, only to find that there’s a future out there, and people who are accepting and accommodating of those who aren’t what society deems normal. The person who has no bionic upgrades or implants, referred to as a dog, is the only person awake to repair damage to a spaceship, and he’s forced to wake up someone whose upgrades are offline in order to assist him, forcing that person to be thrown into his unaugmented (and, by that society’s standards, pitifully disabled) world. There’s the idea that mental illness can strike at any time, to anybody, and it can change your life, but in every story there’s a repetition of the idea that it doesn’t mean you’re down for the count. You can contribute. You can make a difference. You can maybe make all the difference.

It’s rare that I find an anthology that I like every single part of equally; there’s nearly always one or two stories that just don’t resonate with me the way the others do. And this is no exception, really. There were, I think, two stories that just didn’t do it for me, though objectively they were still quite good. They just weren’t to my taste. Some stories took a little while to get going, but I ended up liking them in the end, more than I expected to. And I can’t deny that the subject matter they tackled was important enough to keep me reading each one even when I wasn’t enjoying them as much as I’d enjoyed others.

Overall, I’d say this was a fantastic collection of short stories, and one that’s absolutely worth reading, even if mental health issues aren’t a pet passion of yours. The publisher donates a portion of the profits from this book’s sales to mental health initiatives, too, which is a wonderful bonus, and it makes me doubly glad that I was able to get my hands on this and be able to spread the word about it a little bit more. It’s an important collection, a great one to dive into, and that uplifting thread of hope that ran strong was, to be perfectly honest, what I needed during a stressful time. Definitely check this one out if you can; it’s worth it, and you won’t be disappointed.

(Received for review from the publisher.)