Sky Songs II: Spiritual SF

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"The Butterfly Collection" by Fred McGavran
"Call Up the Dawn" by Andrew M. Seddon
"The Red Bird" by Douglas Smith
"Freerider" by Steve Stanton
"Commedia Dell’Arte" by Arthur Powers
"Nineteen: One" by Megan James
"The Unicorn Cup" by Cherith Baldry
"Off the Hook" by Michael Vance
"An Excorcise" by Shari Tiedens
"A Time for Everything" by Peter Andrew Smith
"Roach" by Neil Ellis Orts
"Symbols and Keys" by Virginia Smith
"The Jesus Chip" by Greg Beatty
"Angel’s Promise" by Nina Munteanu
"The Bone Road" by Ernesto Burden
"Jubilee" by Steven Mills
"TreeDance" by Donna Farley

Sky Songs II: Spiritual SF
exposed me to the sub-genre known as Christian science fiction. They say first impressions are the most lasting, so I probably won’t be hunting down anymore "spiritual" sci-fi.

Alas, do not despair. Like most anthologies, a few worthwhile gems hide amongst the piles of crude rabble. One wonders if the editor, Steve Stanton, attempted to make a Jesus-like parable through his selection of stories. Some are worthy of the glories of Heaven, while others fall short of the mark and plunge the reader into the furthest abysses of fictional hell where triteness and boredom reign supreme.

"The Butterfly Collector" by Fred McGavran opens up the anthology and tells the tale of a man who captures a butterfly which allows him to view the world at various stages of human history. Somewhere along the line this shifts into a story about Alzheimer’s, at which point, the story falls flat on its face. The logical connection between the two never works out convincingly enough. The biggest flaw, however, is the protagonist just goes along for the ride and fails to "protag." Some beautiful prose, but like I always say, "beautiful prose does not automatically make a good story." This won the 2003 Raymond Carver Award from Humboldt State University. They can think what they’d like, but this story is hardly award worthy.

"Call Up The Dawn" by Andrew M. Seddon follows the story of a space captain readjusting to a changed "immoral" Earth after spending the years out in space. A mishmash of cliché science fiction elements with a pinch of in-your-face "Pro-life" policies makes for an uninspiring fictional recipe. The author writes in his story: "you don’t sound convinced." Nope, I’m not.

Things change for the better in the third story. "The Red Bird" by Douglas B. Smith is a mini-epic about a young boy named Asai and the phoenix that saves him from death while his village is being raided. Under the guidance of the Warrior, Ikada, he trains to become the next Warrior of the Red Bird, protector of the Hidden Light. Eventually he replaces his master and must face a tough decision involving the love of his life. If you love Japanese and Samurai stories this one will give you goose bumps. Nominated for the Canadian Aurora award, it was the only story in this collection that deserved such a nomination.

The next story proves it’s always a bad idea for the editor to include his own work. "Freerider" by Steve Stanton is about a futuristic taxi driver facing the ghost of his dead wife as her clone enters his taxicab looking for a free ride. The rest of the plot concerns itself with trying to escape from the people chasing after the clone. Loaded with Anne Rice-styled purple prose, "piercing me to my soul with innocence undefiled," the story couldn’t decide if it wanted a comical light-hearted feel or to be desperately moody. Important questions are never answered such as: why did the clone try to escape? Who was after her and why?

"Commedia Dell’Arte" by Arthur Powers serves as the collection’s token enigma. It seems every collection includes one story that leaves you scratching your head. I guess this one is about two corrupt men with the ability to create people, or something like that.

"Nineteen: One" by Megan Jones is a story about a non-human king who doesn’t want to deal with his responsibility, but instead chooses to compose a song in the name of the Creator. No real reason the characters in this story couldn’t be human, the fantastical race of the characters came off as a cheap excuse to call this speculative fiction. The theme and plot lack one iota of nuance. The main character would rather write songs than handle his God-given responsibility to solve the problems of his people . . . not very sympathetic if you ask me.

The next story improves the trend. "The Unicorn Cup" by Cherith Baldry is great. The plot follows a former noble-turned-peddler who joins with the half-sister of a powerful Lord in a plot to assassinate him by using a magic cup made from a Unicorn horn. Served in a rich medieval setting, every word of the narrative ripples with tension. This is a good example of what Christian speculative fiction is capable of being, dabbling in thought-provoking themes that proves the "Christian" sub-genre can pack a bunch without being heavy-handed.

"Off the Hook" by Michael Vance takes place in depression-era America where a crooked Senator up for reelection journeys to the Lost City to deal with his illegitimate child and encounters a monster hidden under a lake. Better written and more complex than the majority of stories found in this collection, it still only left me lukewarm.

"An Exorcise" by Shari Tiedens will make you think you’ve seen this movie before. Oh wait, I have; it’s called The Exorcist. Watered down and nowhere near as strong as its movie counterpart, this story tries to rely on a twist of the possessor’s identity. Guess what! It’s Satan. Not really a spoiler since it should be obvious to anyone within the first couple of pages. Preachy exposition repeating the same thing over and over again toward the end doesn’t help improve matters.

"A Time For Everything" by Peter Andrew Smith is an excellent story. A black man, condemned to a prison run by a malicious machine named Cyclops for murdering a group of racists, must orient a young neo-Nazi into hell-like prison life. The unique mood and setting creates an interesting flavor that instantly won me over. A lot of cool Sfnal elements keeps things spicy.

"Roach" by Neil Ellis Orts wins the award for being the worst story in the collection. About underground orphans and the priest who takes care of them and "safe" genes, the story goes on too many boring tangents and rambles on without establishing a solid enough conflict.

"Symbols and Keys" by Virginia Smith is military sci-fi meets the Bible, involving a religious alien race and the beginning of the Rapture entwined intricately together in a powerful story that embodies all the elements of good "Christian" sci-fi. This is the benchmark that most of the others in this anthology fail to reach.

"The Jesus Chip" by Greg Beatty deals with the tough issue of whether it is more important to know the bible intimately or understand the spiritual meaning behind the words. Pastor Caleb Jones has a chip implanted inside of him, which allows him to recall any verse of the bible instantly, but with chilling effects on his brain. Not the first Greg Beatty story I’ve read, and hopefully it won’t be the last. By far one of the best offerings in Sky Songs II.

"The Bone Road" by Ernesto Burden is a good story, equally gripping and downright creepy. A soldier trekking through a desert wasteland heads toward a Holy City after a post-apocalyptic event. The story will have you questioning what is real and what isn’t, especially toward the end.

"Angel’s Promise" by Nina Munteanu follows in the tradition of cyberpunk, but has close relative in The Matrix movies. A story about a young girl going by the name Angel whose ability to hear the speech of Machines helps her escape the confines of a machine-controlled city. Although this resembles The Matrix a little too closely—one of the characters is even named Neo—the tale is still a stunning example of good storytelling with an excellent setting and cast of characters.

"Jubilee" by Steven Mills has all the things that makes speculative fiction great: people rising from the dead, lambs transforming into slime monsters, people who can fly away just by flapping their hands. A surreal tale that follows a reverend handling his flock during the transmogrification of the universe when barriers between the dimensions of normal and weird come tumbling down. Told in a tongue-in-cheek voice, this story will have you smirking.

"TreeDance" by Donna Farley is about a wife and her son waiting for the arrival of a transport ship back to Earth after her husband dies on a colony planet. It also has dancing trees. This story fails in every way possible to grip the attention of the reader. Winner of the 2004 World Guild Award, there are plenty of other Canadian Writers in this anthology that show far more talent.

Never in my experience of reviewing or reading have I come across a collection this polarized. When the stories are good they could easily stand up beside some of the best work found in the professional magazines; when bad they feel like they were written by new writers who pulled these off of writing workshops without so much as garnering a single critique.

I would recommend reading: "The Red Bird" by Douglas Smith, "The Unicorn Cup" by Cherith Baldry, "A Time for Everything" by Peter Andrew Smith, "Symbols and Keys" by Virginia Smith, "The Jesus Chip" by Greg Beatty, "Angel’s Promises" by Nina Munteanu, "The Bone Road" by Ernesto Burden, and "Jubilee" by Steven Mills.

Unfortunately, eight very good stories get diluted by five really bad ones, and four mediocre stories. Not a very good ratio. If this anthology was only ten stories long: all 8 of my recommended, 1 mediocre, and 1 crappy story, I would be praising this anthology to high heaven. I must, however, judge an anthology on the merits of what the editor chose to include. Under this light, I can’t in good conscience recommend purchasing it. However, you could always skip the bad stories and get eight great stories for your money. The choice is yours.

Publisher: Skysong Press
Trade Paperback: $15.95
ISBN: 0968050239