Tag Archives: short fiction

AN INFINITE SUMMER – Christopher Priest (1979)

An Infinite Summer (first edition)An Infinite Summer‘s first cover, pictured here, is kind of fitting to this short story collection. The other covers, at the end of this review, don’t really do it justice. Christopher Priest has a sophistication to his writing that’s more akin to regular literature than scifi of the pulpy kind.

My first encounter with Priest was Christopher Nolan’s 2006 movie adaptation of The Prestige. I also read 1974’s Inverted World, but that was at the onset of my explorations of SF, and while I liked the novel, I expected the wrong things of it, and I ended up writing a short review that was ultimately negative because of an ending that was ludicrous from a realistic point of view. In other words: I applied Hard SF standards to a novel that was at heart more poetic than scientific.

I’ve always felt that I should give Priest another chance, and when I found An Infinite Summer a few weeks ago in a second hand store, I knew it was going to be my next read. 2011’s The Islanders has been on my TBR for a few months too, but I thought this collection would be a better introduction to the world of the Dream Archipelago – because it was published way earlier, and because I liked the idea of short stories as an introduction to what seems like a fragmented concept to begin with.

Not that all of the 5 stories/novellas in this book are considered Dream Archipelago material: Whores, The Negation and The Watched are – and they are also collected in the 1999 The Dream Archipelago collection. Palely Loitering isn’t a DA story, and while the title story An Infinite Summer is considered to be one by some, it doesn’t mention the DA in the story itself, it’s not part of the later collection, and Priest himself doesn’t frame it as such in the introduction to this volume either – while he explicitly does so for the three I mentioned.

Both “Whores” and “The Watched” are from a loosely linked cycle of stories I think of as “the Dream Archipelago” (“The Negation” also fits into the series, although in a slightly different way.) The Dream Archipelago is more an idea than an actual place, but if it has a correlative reality then it would be a kind of fusion of the Channel Islands and Greece, with bits of Harrow-on-the-Hill and St Tropez thrown in for good measure. (…) There is very little in common between each one, except perhaps the words “Dream Archipelago” themselves.

I’ll first give a few general remarks about the collection, and afterwards zoom in and say a few words on each story.

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EXHALATION – Ted Chiang (2008)

ExhalationI was conflicted about Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang’s much lauded first collection. There’s something about this guy: he can write – but are these really, truly stories?

So at first I decided to skip Exhalation: Stories, his second collection, published in 2019. But then I read a glowing review on Speculiction that dubbed the title story “one of the greatest science fiction stories ever written”. It also won three major awards: the Hugo, Locus and BSFA. As it is available for free on Lightspeed Magazine’s site, I decided to read just that.

It turned out to be a typical Chiang story: exquisitely crafted, good prose, convincing atmosphere, smart ideas. But sadly, for my taste, it’s also a bit too didactic, for two reasons.

It tries to convey a message – the clichéd ‘be thankful for the wonder of existence’, but more importantly, because it follows the typical Chiang template: he read some interesting stuff, and tries to mold his newfound wisdom into a story. Continue reading

BLOODCHILD AND OTHER STORIES – Octavia E. Butler (1995)

Bloodchild and other stories

Lists are fun. Hence me browsing the fantastic Classics of Science Fiction, an aggregated ranking site by James W. Harris – who blogs about sci fi and getting older over at Auxiliary Memory. I saw that Bloodchild by Octavia E. Butler was ranked as the most cited (i.e. best) science fiction short story. For what it’s worth, it also won a Hugo, Locus, Nebula & SF Chronicle award. As I hadn’t read anything yet by Octavia Butler, I thought Bloodchild would be a good place to start. I found a cheap second hand copy of Bloodchild and Other Stories easily, and here we are.

There’s a couple of editions of the collection. The copy I got was published in 1995, and that has 5 stories, plus 2 essays. From 2005 onward however, it has been printed with two more stories – Amnesty and The Book Of Martha, both written in 2003. I did some googling and I found those easily, here and here – I’ll review them too. The fact that I chose to look online for the additional material is telling: this is not a bad collection – and that from an author who opens the preface to her collection with this line: “The truth is, I hate short story writing.”

It’s somewhat of a behind the scenes publication: each story is followed by an afterword of about 2 pages, in which Butler talks a bit about what she wanted to do with the story or how it came about. They are generally interesting, nothing spectacular, but nice enough. There’s also 2 short essays on writing, and I’ll say a few words about those later.

I’ll just do a quick write up of each story and a wee bit of concluding thoughts. This’ll be a fairly short review for a short book: 145 pages in my edition. Here we go:

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4 SHORT REVIEWS

After I finished the fantastic Version Control, I read the excellent Keith Rowe biography by Brian Olewnick. I might still review that, but it’s a hard review to write for an audience unfamiliar with Rowe’s particular branch of experimental music.

Sadly, after those 2 great books, I’ve hit three I did not even finish. That and the relentless summer heat didn’t really urge me to start writing the reviews. Fortunately, that streak of bad reading luck came to an end, as I’ve also read a great, recent SF novella by Peter Watts, and finished yet another book on Rembrandt.

As the summer drought is still not over, I’ve decided I simply won’t bother trying to write longer, in-depth reviews for these books. I won’t even try to write up Hard To Be A God, the 1964 political allegory by the Strugatsky brothers, and the first book in that row of DNFs. I stopped after only 40 pages, not enough to write something meaningful, except that it was all too obviously allegorical for my tastes. Anyhow, without further ado, here’s those 4 mini-reviews…

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THE FOUR-DIMENSIONAL NIGHTMARE – J.G. Ballard (1963)

The Four-Dimensional Nightmare

This collection of short fiction is my first exposure to James Graham Ballard – best known for diverse books as the controversial fetish exploration Crash, the autobiographical war novel Empire Of The Sun and the post-apocaloptic early clifi classic The Drowned World.

Some of the stories featured are published in other collections, and there are slightly different editions of this collection too – from 1984 onward under a different title, The Voices Of Time. But there’s also a slightly earlier collection that has a very similar title, The Voices Of Time And Other Stories, with an overlap of 3 stories with The Four-Dimensional Nightmare / The Voices Of Time.

I try to shed light on all that in a bit more detail at the end of this review, with an advice about which edition you should get.

First things first: my thoughts on the individual stories in this early collection of J.G. Ballard.

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ACADIE – Dave Hutchinson (2017)

Acadie

Dave Hutchinson is best know for his Fractured Europe sequence – an excellent, gritty near future mixture of spy, noir and even fantasy. So far, I’ve only read the first two books, both of which ended up in my favorite lists of what I read that year. I thought a break from that series before I tackle Europe In Winter might shed some more light on Hutchinson as an author. And while this 103-page novella is not as successful or original as both Europes I’ve read, it’s still a good, entertaining read.

For all the talk about Fractured Europe, Hutchinson’s short story collections seem to have been forgotten in the mists of time: he published 4 of those as David Hutchinson between 1978 and 1982. When he returned to fiction that was largely unacknowledged too. His 2001 full length debut The Villages has a mere 7 Goodreads ratings. The Push, a 2009 Hard SF novella, was released in only 350 copies. It took another 5 years before Europe At Autumn really got things going. Today Acadie is even published by powerhouse Tor, who seem to have picked up on Hutchinson’s critical acclaim.

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YOU SHOULD COME WITH ME NOW – M. John Harrison (2017)

You Should Come With Me NowYou Should Come With Me Now features 42 short stories written between 2001 and 2015. About half of those are very short, about half a page, and previously appeared on M. John Harrison’s blog. Harrison calls the short items “flash fiction”, but the “prose poem” moniker would have worked just as well.

Having said that, categories aren’t of much use in this collection: this truly is genre defying prose. There are elements of fantasy, science fiction, horror and the plain the weird. But ‘elements’ is indeed just that: mere elements – as the core of most of these stories are humans and human relations: for every ounce of speculativeness, there’s three ounces of something Raymond Carver would have been proud of too. So yes, what we have here is a 21st century Franz Kafka: fiction about the ordinary weirdness of being human, all too human, in a setting that’s at times a bit off, and at times perfectly normal.

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TAXI NAAR DE BOERHAAVESTRAAT – J.M.H. Berckmans (1995)

Taxi naar de Boerhaavestraat

Ik lees al jaren amper nog Nederlandstalige literatuur, vaak helemaal niks. Vorig jaar alleen Jagers In De Sneeuw, de fantastische debuutbundel van Eric Spinoy, uit 1986. Die had ik op een rommelmarkt in de Markgravelei in Antwerpen gevonden. Hetzelfde kraampje had ook Taxi Naar De Boerhaavestraat van JMH Berckmans. Het werk van Berckmans is moeilijk te vinden – alleen zijn laatste boek Ge Kunt Geen Twintig Zijn Op Suikerheuvel (2006) is nog relatief vlot verkrijgbaar, en 4 Laatste Verhalen – in 2009 postuum uitgegeven. Een vijftal andere titels zijn tegenwoordig wel verkrijgbaar als e-book, zelfs op bol.com: vooruitgang.

De Boerhaavestraat ligt in de Seefhoek, en op nummer 20 is er De Wilg, een sociaal centrum van het Antwerpse OCMW. De Wilg begeleidt onder andere mensen met een psychiatrische problematiek die elders geen opname kunnen betalen. Het is genoegzaam geweten dat Berckmans in 1977, 24, zelfmoord heeft proberen te plegen. Berckmans had na de eerste kandidatuur Germaanse – grote onderscheiding trouwens – een zware depressie gekregen, gevolgd door een manisch avontuur als succesvol schoenenverkoper in Italië, om dan terecht te komen in wat heel zijn leven lang een sukkelstraat zou blijven. Taxi Naar… is een bundel uit 1995 met 9 stukken, zo’n 10 tot 30 bladzijden lang.

Ik heb eens een avond en een nacht met Jean-Marie Henri Berckmans doorgebracht, op 18 november 2006, in jeugdhuis Zigzag in Merksplas, waar we een literaire avond hadden georganiseerd. Ik had er gedichten voorgelezen uit een ongepubliceerde bundel, en Berckmans zou er ook voorlezen. Daar is weinig van gekomen, zoals je hier al kon lezen. Geen twee jaar later was hij dood, gestorven omdat hij weinig at en enkel dronk.

JMH Berckmans

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GYPSY – Plus… – Carter Scholz (2015)

GypsyKim Stanley Robinson fans beware: Carter Scholz is a buddy of his, they go hiking in the Sierras together. It shows, both on the cover of this little gem, and in the content itself.

Gypsy Plus… is a 146 page booklet in the PM Press Outspoken Authors series. Its main attraction is the novella Gypsy (97 pages), plus 2 shorter stories (The Nine Billion Names Of God, 10 pages, from 1984 – not the same as the Clarke title by the way, and Bad Pennies, 8 pp., 2009), a political essay on contemporary US politics (The United States Of Impunity, 14 pp.) and a 12-page interview with the author.

Gypsy is hard SF about a team of 21st century scientists who crowd-source a secret starship and abandon a doomed Earth for the Alpha Centauri system. Scholz says an interesting thing in the interview:

I’ve never seen an SF story take full stock on how hard, maybe impossible interstellar travel is going to be. Gypsy is my attempt to do it “with the net up” as the “hard SF” writers say. Even in the most rigorous hard SF, you always reach the hand-wave moment where the net drops to permit some bit of story development. I wanted to play it straight and let the story come out of the constraints of the physics. Continue reading

BURNING CHROME and other stories – William Gibson (1986)

burning-chromeOn the final page of the final story – the title story – Gibson envisions a possible future for prostitution.

The customers are torn between needing someone and wanting to be alone at the same time, which has probably always been the name of that particular game, even before we had the neuroelectronics to enable them to have it both ways.

It struck me how much reading books satisfies the same urge: wanting to be alone and needing someone at the same time.

Burning Chrome‘s 10 stories are populated by Gibson’s usual kind of characters, and deal with Gibson’s usual themes – although I probably shouldn’t make a sweeping statement like that, as I’ve only read two Gibson novels so far: Neuromancer & Virtual Light. Those two reading experiences weren’t fully successful, but reading this collection was, 100%.

The stories were published between 1977 and 1986, and are rather short: about 15 pages each, and not one of them above 30 pages. They fly by like a breeze, snappy, in prose that’s top notch. Here’s Gibson – in the voice of a photographer – on some building:

I shot one in San Jose an hour before the bulldozers arrived and drove right through the structural truth of plaster and lathing and cheap concrete.

That sentence alone should convince you.

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THE LADIES OF GRACE ADIEU – stories by Susanna Clarke (2006)

the-ladies-of-grace-adieuSusanna Clarke’s much lauded magnum opus Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is one of my favorite speculative books. So I didn’t hesitate to order The Ladies Of Grace Adieu And Other Stories after reading an excellent review on the Calmgrove blog.

It features 8 stories, plus a fictional introduction by “Professor James Sutherland, Director of Sidhe Studies, University of Aberdeen”. That introduction is only 3 pages and set my expectations even higher, as Clarke’s familiar ‘English’ narrative voice shone through instantly, promising more of the treat Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was. All the stories in this 235-page collection deal with Faerie in one way or the other, and were illustrated by WFA winning artist Charles Vess. A few are also explicitly linked with J.S. & Mr. N.

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ARMAGEDDON IN RETROSPECT – Kurt Vonnegut (2008)

img_20160914_153857047Armageddon in Retrospect and Other New and Unpublished Writings on War and Peace was published exactly one year after Kurt Junior Vonnegut’s death on April 11, 2007. It’s a diverse collection: a moving 10 page introduction by his son Mark, a horrifically blunt 3 page letter from Kurt to his family, dated May 29, 1945 – written in Germany right after the war, a speech he was supposed to deliver on April 27, 2007 in Indianapolis, and – the bulk of the book – 11 short stories, undated, ranging from 4 pages to 26 pages each. Armageddon In Retrospect is also illustrated by Vonnegut’s characteristic drawings, often including text.

The stories’ titles are as follows: Wailing Shall Be In All StreetsGreat DayGuns Before ButterHappy Birthday, 1951Brighten UpThe Unicorn TrapUnknown SoldierSpoilsJust You And Me, SammyThe Commandant’s Desk and Armageddon In Retrospect. Two of those are explicitly speculative in nature: Great Day is set in 2037 and features a time machine, and the title story is a kind of satirical alternative history featuring demonology. The other stories are generally ‘regular’ stories about war, in Vonnegut’s smooth style. Wailing Shall Be In All Streets isn’t really a story, but a straightforward account of his experience of Dresden’s bombing – one of the most gruesome war crimes committed by the Allied forces during World War 2.

The real value of this book aren’t really the stories. They’re good, don’t get me wrong, and some are even excellent – Spoils is haunting in its short, brutal simplicity. But the real value is the introduction, the letter, the speech, Wailing Shall Be In All Streets and a few of the illustrations. Combined they provide a look at the tormented person that’s behind the facade of witty satire. It’s not that the tragedy doesn’t shine through in his other writing – the facade is cracked, and translucent in places – but these texts provide a direct, unobstructed look.

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BONE SWANS – stories by C.S.E. Cooney (2015)

Bone SwansA few months ago I wrote a couple of paragraphs on the splendidly fresh The Bone Swans Of Amandale, a 28.000 word novella by C.S.E. Cooney. I ended that review with the promise to pick up the entire collection, and I’ve done just that.

Bone Swans features 5 stories – most about 40 pages. All of the stories can by read for free online (check the links below), but I think it merits a physical purchase, very much so. Unique, bold authors as Claire Cooney need all the support they can get. It will also be a great collection to read to your 12 year old kids – and bedtime reading from a tablet simply doesn’t have the same charm. Not to mention screen light being bad for your loved ones’ sleep cycles.

Everything I wrote about The Bone Swans of Amandale is true for the other 4 stories: “poetic, humorous, original, daring, gruesome, outrageous, unsettling and even amoral.” Maybe that last adjective doesn’t go for every tale, but still: that’s quite a row of lauding words. I cannot praise the collection enough. I’m fairly sure it will end up in my favorite ten reads this year…

Below a few notes on each story. Whatever you do after the jump, please, do read those four, short quotes. Continue reading

THE PAPER MENAGERIE AND OTHER STORIES – Ken Liu (2016)

The Paper MenagerieKen Liu is on quite a spree this year: in October Tor will publish his translation of Cixin Liu’s Death’s End, the concluding volume to The Three-Body trilogy, in November Saga will publish The Wall Of Storms, the sequel to Liu’s own The Grace Of Kings, and November will see the release of Invisible Planets, an anthology of Chinese SF stories & essays, all of which he translated.

March 2016 saw the publication of The Paper Menagerie And Other Stories. Yes, that’s a great title, and an even better cover! The 450 page collection features 15 short stories and novellas, almost all of them from around 2012. They have all been published elsewhere before, except one. The stories are short indeed: most are about 20 pages. Only four are significantly longer: 38, 55, 61 and 95 pages.


Liu is quite explicit about his philosophical framework and goals in the preface. The universe is accidental and senseless, and the stories in The Paper Menagerie have a clear objective: they are tools in a search for meaning and truth.

For me, all fiction is about prizing the logic of metaphors – which is the logic of narratives in general – over reality, which is irreducibly random and senseless.

We spend our entire lives trying to tell stories about ourselves – they’re the essence of memory. It is how we make living in this unfeeling, accidental universe tolerable. That we call such a tendency “the narrative fallacy” doesn’t mean it doesn’t also touch upon some aspect of truth.

A few of the stories are quite meta, almost all deal with aspects of cultural identity of some sort, and there’s a clear presence of Asian themes and settings. Liu writes both fantasy and science fiction, and as such it is a varied collection. Still, in all of these stories Liu manages to write with a fairly recognizable voice: most share a kind of magical realism feel. You won’t find epic high fantasy, nor epic space opera, or chilling hard SF, but instead will find a subtle, sometimes even poetic collection – not without blood and suffering though. Taken as a whole, I loved it.

I will refrain from giving a summary for each story, but try to use each of them to highlight some features of Liu’s writing.

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THE BONE SWANS OF AMANDALE – C.S.E. Cooney (2015)

The Bone Swans Of AmandaleI had never heard of C.S.E. Cooney before I came across her name in the list of this year’s Nebula nominees. Cooney has only published her first collection of short fiction – Bone Swans – last year, and hasn’t published a full length debut (yet). The title of the Nebula nominated novella, The Bone Swans of Amandale, instantly struck a chord. Something about it stuck out. I was intrigued. If an author can come up with such a good title, there might be a pot of gold to discover. Googlegooglegloogle, and to my instant gratification I found the novella in full on the website of Cooney’s publisher (the link is here). I printed its 28.321 words (about 60 pages in a book) and started reading.

It’s fitting that Gene Wolfe wrote the introduction to the Bone Swans collection. Cooney’s novella has something of the mythic folk blend some of Wolfe’s own work has – like the stories Severian tells in the mind-boggling The Book of The New Sun, and the second story of The Fifth Head of Cerberus.

The Bone Swans of Amandale is a retelling of the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, combined with a lesser known fairy tale written down by the Grimms, the pretty gruesome and bleak The Juniper Tree, and a dash of shape shifting Fairy Folk, Swan Lake and the likes. It reminded me at times of the footnotes and stories in Susanna Clarke’s brilliant slow burner Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell too. This is not an update of the Pied Piper or The Juniper Tree in a more contemporary setting, nor a simple mix of the two. This novella is very much its own thing, inventing a whole new story, in a whole new setting, with a whole new vibe.

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