(Third Flatiron Anthologies, June 2017, 272 pp., pb)
[Editor’s note: I have asked for this review to be split between two reviewers. Christos Antonaros reviews the first half of the anthology while Kat Day takes a look at the remaining stories.]
Reviewed by Christos Antonaros
Cat’s Breakfast is a Kurt Vonnegut tribute anthology, the title coming from two of Vonnegut’s novels, Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions. It contains thirty stories with the last four being flash fiction.
In the first story “Spooky Action” by David A. Kilman, God ignores his creation not because he chose to, but he doesn’t even know we exist. However, when he finds out about our existence, he decides that the pain and suffering he caused with our accidental creation must end as soon as possible. And how does God learn about our existence?
The protagonist is the first human physicist who connects with God through science. Sarcastic and humorous, with an imposing inner monolog, this is a brilliant and funny read.
Next comes the short story “They Grow Up So Fast” by Konstantine Paradias, where Donny, a sue chef, works with a menu out of the ordinary, for he is a skillful chef when it comes to cooking de-extinct species, thanks to the de-extinction technology. However, Donny will come to realize that playing God sometimes may prove more difficult than any expectation of simplicity. One day, one of the de-extinct creatures reveals more intelligence than a usual snack. In less than a shift’s duration, Donny will witness the creature’s birth, growing up and passing. A smart and funny read, though I prefer staying with traditional Southern fried food, it has some interesting ideas about how to cook creatures made of primordial ooze.
In the short story “The Jim-Aaargh School of Philosophy,” Rati Mehrotra postulates an afterlife different than the ones described by various religions. Mona, a human, sits next to an Aaargh,, a spirit of a creature from another planet.
They are both waiting, amongst other souls, in a lobby to reveal what they are going to reincarnate into. Despite her bias against any other life form except humanoid, Mona will find out that the Aaargh sitting next to her has reincarnated multiple times, and one of those was her boyfriend. Mona immediately wants to know what the secret is of never forgetting your previous lives. Smart and funny, with an interesting connection between the spiritual world and science.
In “Command Decision” by James Beamon we are brought into a situation where Private Zahn has taken two Pakistani dry cleaners’ owners hostage near his military base. Lieutenant Colonel James Swick will arrive at the incident clad in not-military-outfit to discover that the reason behind Private Zahn’s berserk action is more than the usual PTSD case. Nevertheless, L.C. Swick will be asked by his superiors to create and use a cover story to protect the army. L.C. Swick ‘s ethical dilemma, however, is the racial profiling and injustice the Pakistani owners will claim, and the potential exposure the army will face. Even though the protagonist’s dilemma is different than what we have read so far, this story will not let you down. Such an accomplishment is achieved from the author’s experience with the military.
The day that famous singer Zachery Flynn kills himself, Kathleen, the protagonist of “Hear” by Tim Jeffreys, becomes obsessed with one of his songs and especially of the song’s origins. What she discovers, however, is far from what she was expecting. What if behind a great song hides a message from the other side of the universe? What if every time you listen to this song you feel like someone is crying for help. You crave to help and, when the song finishes, you feel disappointed with yourself that you didn’t get help. Enjoyable reading, which through Kathleen ‘s investigation gives artistic inspiration a mysterious meaning.
In an alternate reality provided by “Honour Killing” by Iain Hamilton McKinven, we read about an odd father and son bond in an even weirder world order, where the law demands children kill their parents so they can take their place in The Bigger Society movement. If they don’t do so, their parents and their families are dishonored. The background of this story is interesting, but the relationship between father and son overcomes any information provided. The constant switch of narrators, from son to father and vice versa is charming, but I had to keep reminding myself it is a science fiction story and not a drama.
In “Talk to the Animals” by Jill Hand the population of an entire city suddenly speaks with animals, or maybe it is the opposite? Meaning, maybe the animals, not all of them, just some species, begin speaking to humans after centuries of silence. Animals that speak their mind freely is a mind provoking event, and we get to see a variety of reactions based on a normal U.S. city’s demographics. At the end of this funny and pleasant story, I doubted if I really wanted my pet to start talking to me, after all the things she knows about me.
Jake, the protagonist of “The Pigeon Drop” by Gregg Chamberlain, owes a load of money to the mob, and he has passed the point of no return, where the moneylender, a serious businessman above all, tries to make an example out of someone.
As Jake presses his back against a building wall, trying not to look down, he wishes he had wings to fly away from his pursuers. A pigeon next to him, though, has a better idea when it states that Jake doesn’t need wings to fly, all he needs is to jump. Even though this is a very short story, we feel Jake’s tough situation from the first sentence to the last. Will the fact that a pigeon speaks to Jake be convincing enough to make him make a leap of faith toward his escape?
The title of the short story “Formica Joe” by Anne E. Johnson does not refer to a Formica manufacturer company’s name. Joe is trapped in the two dimensions of a table made of Formica inside a local restaurant. The only person who believes in him and tries to save him is his daughter. During her attempts to save her father she will discover that Joe is not the only one trapped. Funny and smart storytelling with plenty of genuine dialog make this one a good read.
A strange message by a strange man, nothing more than “one is one” is what makes the protagonist crazy in “One Is One” by Vaughan Stanger. And he is not the only one with the same response to that message. When he shares the message on the web, the world order will change vastly into a dystopian setting.
Mysteriously pleasant reading, with brilliant messages about how fast a message can travel through the internet and its tremendous influence, the protagonist’s inner thoughts perfectly guide us through this change.
“Emerging Grammars” by Christopher Mark Rose talks about a satellite communication system which allows two or more satellites to exchange knowledge and slowly teach each other. By this method, they don’t have to spy on one another, but they build a relationship based on honesty. After all, they get to know each other intimately. Yes, the satellites. I had to read this story twice to understand what the author was attempting to explain. Most of it is about the protagonist’s personal life; specifically, his relationship with his wife and kids. I also found it difficult to focus, for the story doesn’t offer action. It’s all about the thoughts of a man who sometime in his past created complex satellite software.
In “Picnic, With Xels” by Keyan Bowes, Robert and his daughter Emily head to a kindergarten picnic. Soon, Robert will discover that Emily’s new best friend is a boy from another planet and that the latter’s mother is more interesting than the human mothers Robert has met so far. Enjoyable reading, which offers plenty of amusing visions on humanity’s potential future extraterrestrial engagement.
In the next short story, “Scenes from a Post-Scarcity, Post-Death Society” by Peter Hagelslag, robots, manufactured by some other robots, enjoy slaughtering humans and are unstoppable. However, humans accept their dying fate, in many cases so much that they ask to be killed in the hope that the killing itself becomes uninteresting to their pursuers. The evil robots are so frustrated with humanity’s unwillingness to fight that they try to hire someone else to finish what they started. The story is presented by continuous reports, one after another, from lesser robots to their superiors and by dialog between murderous artificial intelligence. Even though it is an interesting story, the huge list of names makes it a challenge to keep up with whomever is in each scene.
Boredom is bliss, is the most important rule for the protagonist of “The Static Fall to a Standing Walk” by Jason Lairamore. Not in the mood to follow his friends deeper into the forest, he wants to lay down against a log, enjoy the night breeze and the beautiful dreams it brings—and being inspected by aliens. The protagonist’s inner thoughts are invaded by very funny dialog, which makes the short story very interesting, despite the perceived laziness of the protagonist we are introduced to at the beginning. It has everything we want to read in a science fiction story, even a clever twist.
In the short story “Beyond the Borders of Boredom” by Ville Nummenpää, we become the audience of, literally, a boring television game show. In this show, people are competing for the honor of being the most boring person. The contestants start talking about their lives, and based on the bore-O-meters readings, they find out who is the most boring person. The story exaggerates when it comes to boredom’s effects, but is part of the story’s comic theme. Nonetheless, if the author wanted to make the story boring, he succeeded.
♣ ♣ ♣
Reviewed by Kat Day
In “Snakes and Ladders,” by Rekha Valliappan, we are introduced to “KTC – O34”—an operative who we are told no longer has a name, just a number. She works in a post-holocaust world in a room in a strange building which has only two doors: one with a ladder on it, and one with the head of a cobra. This was a peculiar piece which left me with far more questions than answers—a classic “dystopian future” tale in a way, but one which felt more like a confusing dream than a coherent story. If, as in the best dystopian fiction, there was a message or warning here about modern society, I didn’t find it.
Next up is “Drop Dead Date,” by August Marion. This story begins by telling us that Irwin has blood on his hand which he has not noticed, and that his boss likes to keep the blinds down in the office because “looking at the imminent downfall of human civilization” is bad for morale. Here, the mundanity of everyday office life crashes up against a world where humans are facing annihilation, and it’s rather good fun. This is a story full of humor and absurd conflicts. Is colleague Kingston an imposter? Or is he just a normal office worker who wastes time messing about on social media and who makes really great coffee? Read it and find out—this one is recommended!
“Monkeyline,” by Jonathan Shipley, is set on an alien world populated with a mixture of different species. The titular monkeyline refers to humans (monkeys in the “popular vernacular”) performing a sort of cheerleading routine at a sporting event called tailball. This, though, is off-kilter behavior which makes our observer—an “an amphib”—suspicious that something funny is going on, and he decides to investigate. The world-building in this story is truly excellent, unfortunately to the point where the story’s mere 2,500 words does not quite do it justice. I enjoyed the character of Syzz, but there was so much information to get though that the plot rather took a backseat. The last line is clearly meant to have an impact, but sadly didn’t. I’m sure, though, that there is scope to develop this world and its characters into a longer piece, and I hope to run across it in the future.
In “Quality Testing,” by S. E. Foley, we follow our protagonist as she walks into an upmarket coffee shop and runs into a mysterious, glowing figure. There are touches of The Matrix here, but laced with rather more humor. Although it’s not an original idea, it’s handled well and the story doesn’t outstay its welcome. The theme of making the most of the life you have was clear, and became more poignant upon reading the “about the author” section. Another fun little piece.
“Dead Girls, Dying Girls,” by James Dorr, is not quite as dark as the title might suggest. We meet Anise, a young girl with rich, easily-manipulated parents, who one day sees something very strange from her window. This is a surreal piece, and it’s rather difficult to like Anise who, it’s fair to say, isn’t a particularly nice character, and who doesn’t entirely appear to learn her lesson. This story is certainly original, though!
In “The Bringers,” by John J. Kennedy, we meet Gilmour Greer. He, we learn, is the president and, as a safety precaution, he’s travelling with “two pints of his blood hidden away under the seat” on his way to make contact with an alien race called “The Bringers.” This is an interesting story with some nice elements of humor, but it had some logical niggles which distracted me (such as, is the blood refrigerated? How often does he need to replace it? Who’s on hand to perform a blood transfusion?—absolutely none of which has anything to do with the story). A key plot point hinges on some knowledge of the significance of baseball teams, which may not be particularly meaningful to non-American readers. The final message, though, is a thought-provoking one.
“The Confrontation Station,” by Ryan Dull, is another piece which plays with the everyday conflicts of office life. Nicole, the manager, sets up a “confrontation station” in the front lobby, and aims a webcam at it. If two people find themselves in disagreement they’re forced to sit on the very uncomfortable stools in the confrontation station until they reach an accord. The result, of course, is to push disagreements underground and unvoiced, with the outcome that resentment and anger build up. Naturally, the scenario escalates out of all proportion. I rather liked this story, and the notion that people could get so completely stuck in office politics that they couldn’t find a way out—something which I suspect anyone who’s ever worked in an office has experienced.
“The Edge of Toska,” by Veronica Moyer, is another story set on an alien world. This time “half past Jupiter on the way to Saturn” to a flat planet called Toska. On this strange world the inhabitants gain emotions over time, thanks to a government-mandated patch which is applied at birth. For the first few years of their life Toskans can only experience happiness, and then they reach “litost” and gain a new emotion. In the case of our protagonist and her classmates, it’s anger—with predictably negative results. I think this story is intended to reflect on the difficulties of growing up, and how intense and one-sided emotions can become. Perhaps it is also speculation on the impact of depression, or a different mental illness. But, again, I found logical issues bothering me. Why would a government design such a system? Surely having an entire generation of children experiencing anger at the same time is predictably disastrous? What is the significance of the planet being flat, or not? And the ending is frankly disturbing, seeming to relish in a course of action which should never be advocated. Vonnegut, we are reminded in the “about the author” section, had an affinity for unhappy endings, but frankly that’s no excuse.
“Violadors on the Run,” by Corrie Parrish, tells the tale of Ernesto—a boy whose high-school prank gets out of hand, causing considerable destruction. There is a lot of unsubtle social commentary here, as we learn that “the president” has forced anyone with Mexican heritage (such as Ernesto) to register themselves, has deported two million Mexicans and, yes, built a huge wall. There are some interesting ideas and nice description in this story, but my issue was really with Ernesto who doesn’t seem to learn anything from his escapades. He’s that most unsatisfying thing: a protagonist to whom things just happen, skipping through disasters without ever resolving a problem himself or dealing with a dilemma, and coming out “on top” through no action of his own.
“37,” by Dan Koboldt, begins with birthday celebrations, but ones tinged with sadness since this is that old favorite of science fiction—a world where everyone’s lifespan has been artificially shortened to better manage resources. In this case, everyone dies aged 37, hence the title. Things aren’t, however, quite as neat and tidy as they ought to be in our protagonist’s case. This story jogged along very nicely until the very end, where the actions of both the main character and his wife suddenly felt very inconsistent. It’s a positive reflection on the quality of the earlier characterization that I found myself thinking “but he wouldn’t do that, surely! And neither would she!” Perhaps this was a case of trying to pull off an unhappy ending to fit better into this anthology, but if so it’s a shame.
“The Losers’ Crusade,” by Neil James Hudson, is the last story in this anthology before the “Grins and Gurgles” collection of flash fiction. In it, we meet a character called morton judson (lower case very much deliberate), a Loser (upper case deliberate) who signs up for the army. But since he’s a Loser he can’t join the regular army, and instead ends up in the 18th Technical Division Reserves. His role is to lose—even when the enemy he’s fighting turns out to be from his own side. This story is very obviously riffing on the utter pointlessness of war. morton’s name is, of course, no accident—he’s disposable. The problem is that I didn’t really care about morton and whether he bucked the system or not, and the last sentence felt like unnecessary proselytizing.
This brings us to the flash fiction collection, beginning with “Cyborg Shark Battle (Season 4, O’ahu Frenzy),” by Benjamin C. Kinney. This piece appears to be, at least at first, a list of rules for a sort of reality show called, you guessed it, Cyborg Shark Battle. “List” stories are very fashionable at the moment, and this one is more fun and better constructed than most I’ve seen. It actually has a proper narrative and even manages a twist at the end. Recommended.
Next is “Strange Stars,” by Laurence Raphael Brothers. In this story our protagonist is a neutron star who finds him(?)self talking to a blue supergiant. This is another piece that’s great fun, and seems to be impeccably researched in terms of the physics. It’s no simple thing to build in this level of detail without sacrificing pace, and maintaining an element of humor, but the writer manages it. Another fun piece.
“iPhone 17,000,” by E. E. King takes the form of a series of emails written to “iPhone Upgrades” from a woman named Angie. She’s been offered a free upgrade for her iPhone 16,000 to which, surreally, she’s just become engaged. The emails become increasingly bizarre until the, fairly inevitable, dénouement. This isn’t a bad piece but it’s not the best in the collection.
“The Service Call,” by Edward Ahern, also features a telephone, but in a rather different setting. Bryce is making a frantic call to a company called “Do Over” having managed to get himself into a difficult situation. This is a great idea, and haven’t we all had that frustrating experience of trying to make sense of a call center operative with less than perfect English? I really enjoyed this, right up until the ending which I felt lacked power—as though the author wasn’t quite sure where to go. Still, the last line might be a fitting end for the anthology as a whole!