Edited by Warren Lapine
(Wilder Publications, April 2012)
“Interface Pattern” by Kelly McCullogh
“How Interesting: A Tiny Man” by Harlan Ellison (reprint)
“Steaming into Wonderland” by Douglas Cohen
“The Digital Eidolon That Fits in Your Pocket” by Trent Zelazny
“Riding the Bus” by Tom Piccirilli
“Sluggo” by Mike Resnick (reprint)
“The Swap” by Barry B. Longyear
“Starwisps” by Edward J. McFadden
“Custody” by Jay O’Connell
“Haircut” by Shariann Lewitt
“A Cry For Hire” by Carole McDonnell
“And What Were Roses?” by Mary A. Turzillo
“The Box in My Pocket” by Amy Sundberg
“Skyblaze” by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller (reprint)
Reviewed by Colleen Chen
Fantastic Stories comes from veteran editor Warren Lapine, who is releasing the anthology as an informal celebration of his twentieth anniversary in the publishing field. The collection of eleven original stories and three reprints, many with a young adult “feel,” is an enjoyable, mostly upbeat selection of science fiction and fantasy. I think it’s particularly well arranged; together, these stories have an alchemy in which a few weaker links benefit from the presence of their neighbors, and all contribute something to the flavor of a smooth and palatable whole.
The anthology starts off with “Interface Pattern” by Kelly McCullough, a murder mystery story that takes place in a future in which, as a further extension of Internet technology, everyone uses autonomous remotes and intricate wearables to interface with every aspect of life—even their very perceptions of reality.
In the beginning of the story, we discover that someone has been hacking into the ROS (realtime operating system) on people’s wearables—causing a man to see a bridge where there was only empty space, and to walk into it and fall. Freelance hacker Becker is put on the case. The reason why Becker is such an appropriate person to solve the case is that he has much in common with the hacker:
I might have walked in the light for the past five years, but I could still feel the call of the dark. Computers ruled the world now. And the ROS hacker had just demonstrated who ruled the computers. It wasn’t about killing. It was about being the best, being god. And there was part of me that still wanted it. Wanted it badly. That was the real reason that I would give this case everything I had. Because if I could nail the bastard, it would prove that I was better still.
Becker works against time as the murders escalate in number and drama, and it builds up until a confrontation with the murderer becomes inevitable, and he has to face his own inner demons about the godlike power within every hacker’s reach.
This is a good edge-of-your-seat read. I wasn’t sure I could accept the premise of a future in which basic freedoms seem to be intact, but “the web is civilization and [you] can’t break loose.” I personally wouldn’t want a technological middleman to my sensory experience of the world. But I suppose one can’t judge a story based on whether one would choose that future or not, so that issue aside, I found this an entertaining, satisfying, and well-paced story.
“Steaming Into Wonderland” by Douglas Cohen is the first of three steampunk stories in this anthology. In this case, it’s a steampunk version of Alice in Wonderland, in which Alice follows a chrome-eyed, steam-eared rabbit down a metallic rabbit hole full of typical steampunk paraphernalia—books and maps, gears and whistles. She meets the typical Wonderland characters—the Cheshire cat, the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and we can’t forget the evil Queen of Hearts, and the new twist here involves a discovery of Alice’s origins—a quest involving her father, who constructed Wonderland as a gift to his daughter.
The whimsical language reads like Lewis Carroll and is rather a pleasure:
The clocks were the most fascinating attraction. She must have passed a hundred different sorts, most displaying different times. Two of these clocks had faces and were engaged in a heated argument concerning which time was right. One clock asked her the time as she slid past and a stern grandfather clock scolded her, telling her young ladies did not slide in such a fashion.
I did feel that the story fell a bit short of being an authentic extension of Alice’s adventures. The absurd happenings and randomness, particularly once Alice sets off on her “quest,” were somewhat confusing to me rather than charming, although perhaps while I just didn’t “get it,“ I’m sure many readers would.
The next story, by Trent Zelazny, goes by the lengthy title, “The Digital Eidolon That Fits in Your Pocket.” This is a tongue-in-cheek story of 28-year-old Sean, who has been mourning his dead wife for a year. One day after returning from her gravesite, he’s confronted with a salesman, one Mr. Dobbs from the Tears, Robust and Co.
Mr. Dobbs attempts to sell Sean a SpecterCast, something that looks like an Ipod Nano but contains, as Dobbs says, “680 gigabytes of past and present in one simple handheld device. This one in particular has been formatted specifically for you, Mr. Naidus, and I’m sure once you’ve tried it, you will undoubtedly, definitely, indubitably want it for your very own.”
In other words, it’s a device which seemingly has all sorts of memories about Sean’s wife uploaded, but on a closer look it seems it might be something more than that as he hears a voice from the grave speaking to him straight from the SpecterCast…
This is a quirky piece, short and actually quite sweet, that poses intriguing questions about the nature of the soul and the interface of life with technology. Instead of hinting at what he thinks the answers might be, Zelazny leaves it completely open to interpretation in a thought-provoking way.
“Riding the Bus” by Tom Piccirilli is one of my favorites here—it’s the point at which I really started to warm up to the anthology. This is a funny, dark story, the sort that makes you wish you could stay just a little longer in that world, just to see what happens next, as it’s sure to be entertaining.
The narrator is a 46-year-old alcoholic writer traveling on a Greyhound bus going from New York to Los Angeles. The tone of this journey has already been set by a recurring dream the narrator has had about being on a bus where every person he’s known who’s died is on board.
This fellow, with his string of failures, is a loser. But he’s a sympathetic one. How could you not like this guy:
It had something to do with my losing my driver’s license thanks to my racking up three DUIs in quick succession this winter. After a lifetime of teetotaling I’d found out in the last year that I had all the earmarks of being an alcoholic. My writing career was in the shitter, my first marriage had bottomed out, and my second marriage had soured before we’d gotten home from the honeymoon. My cat was gone. My dog was dead. My plants hadn’t made it. My ma had climbed on the bus six months ago. I’d only had the dream once since her funeral, but I’d screamed so loud that the gay couple in the upstairs apartment had called the cops.
As the journey continues, it begins to blend with the narrator’s recurring dream, and he confronts his fears through self-reflection, some self-castigation, and various interactions with weird people seen through jaded eyes.
Somehow, it’s not a problem that this story offers very little hope. It’s oddly upbeat nonetheless, and perhaps shows that what may be needed to live in peace isn’t hope, but acceptance. I enjoyed this a lot—perhaps the deepest story of the anthology.
In “The Swap” by Barry B. Longyear, Jack is a stressed-out, overworked police assistant with a recent traumatic encounter with some criminals. A colleague suggests a job swap program where he can exchange living arrangements and jobs with someone living in a place he wants to visit. He agrees to swap with a security guard named Alex, at Carlsbad Caverns. The situation seems ideal until he discovers that Alex is a ghost, and what he’s guarding is a bunch of other ghosts, all with their unfinished business. He has his own unfinished business to face, too, which comes up as he goes about his job.
I felt like this story had potential but was missing something. There were parts that were funny-ish, but not quite enough to tickle my funny bone. There were parts that were absurd, but the rest of the story made too much sense to use absurdity as an excuse for certain things. For instance, I couldn’t buy the ghost logistics—their ability to be solid at will, to have most of the qualities of live humans whenever it’s convenient—and yet unable to resolve their problems that keep them in ghostly existence. The resolution Jack and the ghosts find is also too pat to be satisfying. I was left scratching my head and feeling like I wanted something more, but not quite sure what.
“Starwisps” by Edward J. McFadden III is a steampunk fantasy with a fairy-tale feel. Lights called “starwisps” descend for a night every 33 cycles, and whoever is touched by these lights has magic activated in them for one of the 19-hour cycles. Prince Rayo, although he’s considered too old for a first-time starwisp-activated transformation, feels sure that he’s been touched, although his father doesn’t believe him.
When Rayo’s father finds out that neighboring Roguesford, a town created by outcasts, is planning an attack using a child whose activated magic has the ability to destroy, Rayo is determined to go to the Weird Tower to find a seer to tell him what his nascent magical power might be, as he is convinced that it could help defend his land against attack. In his journey, Rayo encounters two others like him who have been touched by starwisps—a young woman and a talking dog. Together they discover the strange connection that brings their fates, and that of their lands, together.
This is a unique and charming story with all-ages appeal. The characters aren’t developed much beyond their archetypes, but in this tale it’s effective and enjoyable. The world built here is also appealing—a good springboard for a longer piece too.
“Custody” by Jay O’Connell poses the question: what do you do if your child becomes a vampire? That is, assuming the vampires are fairly civilized, and have ways of working around killing humans. In this story, Autumn’s daughter Layla is on the cusp of vampirehood, and Autumn agonizes over the decision of giving up “custody” to her vampire ex-husband, and letting Layla live on as undead—or killing her so she can die as a human.
The story takes the popularity of the vampire theme and adds a dash of realism; this is a down-to-earth kind of vampire story that explores family relationships. I had mixed feelings about this one—the angle on a worn-out theme is a little different, although nothing that got me terribly excited. I think this one might appeal to a young adult crowd.
“Haircut” by Shariann Lewitt takes place on the last day before a young woman is to make a Transition and Go—to have her brain removed and put in a machine, to become a probe out in space. This is something she’s been planning for years—to explore in a way humans never could, to have no limits and never die. Now, all that she is to lose is represented by her beautiful long hair, which she should have cut a long time ago when first committed to the Program. It symbolizes the transient human life she still loves. The story here is a series of memories and flashbacks and reflections as she prepares to take the last, irrevocable step.
The first-person narration works well, making philosophical thought particularly poignant, edged with all the wistfulness and longing of a young woman coming of age into what might be either death or life:
I am alive. I am human. I have limits. And these are the reasons I want to go, to learn, to discover why the universe was born. Every piece we find is a fragment of the puzzle that we have to put together and rearrange until we think we understand some fragment of reality. Until that fragment either becomes a strong bulwark that we call truth, or it breaks apart and is reconfigured through new lenses of an evolving image of truth.
This story explores concepts of immortality and humanity through the lens of a unique vision of the future, with thought-provoking, evocative language. A skillfully done piece.
“A Cry For Hire” by Carole McDonnell is another of my favorites in this collection. I have to say that before reading it I was fairly indifferent to steampunk, but this story may have permanently converted me to steampunk fandom. Its heroine, Novella, is an unconventional one; she is a “non-driving black freelance writer wife” married to an Episcopalian minister, living in an all-white backwater town in Idaho. She and her husband Liam, who has openly cheated on her and whose lover is now dying, have just moved into a semi-renovated roadhouse. Novella discovers a dumbwaiter in the walls, and she finds that it’s the portal to a strange vertically-oriented world in which people travel through the skies on pulley-like walkways and other conveyances run by cogs and wheels. The social structure of this world is literal—the “Higher-ups” are above, the less desirables live below in the dark, among the machinery that connects the world.
Novella meets and befriends a boy of the other world, and she finds a new sort of fulfillment in her friendship with him. As she becomes more involved with this other world, she finds refuge from her problems in her own world.
An empowering and uplifting story, where no judgments are made—no character is good or evil; they just are as they are. I found it refreshing, original, and fun.
“And What Were Roses?” by Mary A. Turzillo is one of the more tragic stories of the anthology. Its anti-hero, Dolpho, is a fellow you want to like but can’t—he is an aberrated result of breeding experiments that have given him advanced intelligence, but a strange appearance that has made him an outcast—neither accepted by those successfully bred to live in the seas, the Belowers, nor by the dry-land humans Above.
Bitter and alienated, Dolpho champions the cause of the Belowers as having been manipulated unfairly by those Above, and he plans revenge on their behalf. While he’s researching the making of a bomb, he meets an attractive young student named Laura. As Dolpho’s obsession with their romance grows, it begins to overshadow his plans for revenge.
This is a vivid, powerful story, the type one remembers for a long time after reading. It evokes uncomfortable emotions—the pain of rejection, guilt at judging others, frustration and despair and impotence at events beyond one’s control. None of the characters are sympathetic, and Dolpho is a tragic figure who seems destined for self-imposed suffering. For these reasons, it’s hard to strictly like this story—but I can appreciate that it’s very well done.
“The Box in My Pocket” by Amy Sundberg is a coming-of-age story about a girl dealing with her mother’s death. 16-year-old Olive is given a box by an odd woman in a New Age shop. When her mother dies, a silvery powder emerges from her mother’s mouth and enters the box, which Olive begins to carry around all the time in her pocket. She soon discovers that the powder is actually her mom—who can talk to her from the box, but who requires that Olive feed her a memory each time it’s opened. Her mother’s presence in the box becomes an integral part of how Olive learns how to deal with her grief.
This is a sweet story. I felt there was something to understand about the relationship between lost memories and holding onto your dead loved one longer than you should…I’m afraid I didn’t understand that part, but I still found it a pleasant, whimsical read, one that would appeal particularly to a young adult crowd.
There are three reprints in the anthology—all of them excellent and adding balance and range to the selections.
Overall…when I finished Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, I was left with the feeling of having digested something very pleasant. It is definitely worth a read.