Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Which Way To Mediocrity? "North of Infinity II"

First of all, a belated Happy Holidays! to everyone. All the best to ya in 2007.
The past couple of weeks have been a season of short stories for me as my wife and I headed to Ontario to visit family and friends. Anthologies and magazines are perfect when I’m doing a lot of traveling: ideally they’re full of great material which, being short, allows me to digest complete stories when I’ve only got a few minutes to read in a terminal between flights or waiting for someone else to get ready before hitting the road. And my recent selections have offered examples of the right way and the wrong way to assemble a collection of short stories.
I started the holidays reading the disappointing “North of Infinity II”, edited by Mark Leslie and published by Mosaic Press, released (apparently) in June of 2006 but not on any bookstore shelf out in this neck of the woods until November. It’s not that the selected tales were bad, merely drab (with two exceptions). It’s a given that in any anthology there will be a couple of less-than-stellar selections, but Leslie seems to have chosen a majority that are utterly forgettable.
And that’s an important point… when I finish reading an anthology or magazine, I don’t deliberately try to memorize them and I may not be dwelling on each and every story six months later, but if they were good stories, you only have to mention the title, author’s name, or a point or two about the plot and the whole thing refreshes itself in my mind nearly instantly. The best anthologies contain short stories that I can recall years later. And more importantly than their ability to stimulate recall, the best anthologies full of the best short stories have the power to continue to stimulate thought and emotion. Good examples of anthologies that meet the recall/emotion/thought criteria are the “Northern Stars” and “Northern Suns” collections edited by David G. Hartwell and Glenn Grant, “Ark of Ice” edited by Leslie Choyce, “After the King” edited by Martin H. Greenberg, “Dreaming Down Under” edited by Jack Dann and Janeen Webb, or the “Tesseracts” series, or any one of the marvelous “Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories:” collections from the late I.A. and the afore-mentioned Greenberg (a series of anthologies I picked up as a teen and used to educate myself about Golden Age and new era of SF). “North of Infinity II”, however, falls well short of the mark. I had a tough time remembering what was in it after a couple of days, and that wasn’t just the effect of jet-lag. Most of the authors’ contributions are unoriginal and suffering from lackluster writing. The only high points in the collection are Robert J. Sawyer’s dino tale “Forever” (although it would be a surprise if a master like Sawyer didn’t do a great job) and Nancy Kilpatrick’s unsettling “Metal Fatigue”.
What’s worse is that many of these weak stories are years old – one that jumps out as I flip through the pages now is dated 1996. If you’re going to assemble a collection of short stories to fit a theme and the date of original publication isn’t a concern (if you can’t round up enough stories that have been written recently or enough authors to write on assignment), if you therefore have all the time in the world to select and assemble the perfect combination of speculations from the past decade (or farther back), then you better make damn sure that you are collecting the very best - stories so explosively groundbreaking, intelligent and emotionally gripping that they’re guaranteed to knock a reader off of his chair. Those in “North of Infinity II” are not. They were mediocre when they were published and they’re mediocre now. There was no reason to resurrect them.
To add insult to injury, the book was overpriced. $20 Canadian/$17 US is way too much for a trade paperback that’s only 128 pages long containing only 12 stories and one editorial. By comparison, “Tesseracts Nine”, edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Geoff Ryman, released in May of 2005, was $20.95 Canadian/$16.95 US and weighed in at a portly 391 pages with 25 stories and 2 editorial essays. What’s with the price squeeze on “North of Infinity II”? I’ll admit I don’t know much about the economics of the publishing industry, but I have to wonder if the Leslie book’s price is so inflated because of a limited release or something. If that’s the case, given that this collection is so limp, I think I would rather my local book seller had been passed over in getting a couple of the scarce copies.
As much as I hate to say it, I think “North of Infinity II” will probably sit quietly in a back corner of my bookshelf unremarked except for the rare decade when I might reorganize things, glance briefly at the cover and say “Oh. That.” and have to flip through it for a second just to remind myself why I can’t recall anything about it.
In contrast, after slogging through that anthology, I had the pleasure of devouring a bunch of back-issues of On-Spec and the latest from Neo Opsis. Now these are what short story collections should look like! While I can’t say every single tale was a hit, I will say that on the balance the majority were memorable, thought-provoking, gripping and original. In fact, I give extra credit for magazine editors who repeatedly pull off successes like this because in the tough world of marketing SF magazines, it only takes a bad issue or two to convince readers to spend their money elsewhere and put you out of business. In fact, a magazine editor is under even more pressure, having to sift through the heaps of submissions to find the best, sort through the logistics of building an issue and get the thing to print and distributed in a matter of months, as opposed to a book editor who can take years to piece together an anthology. I have the highest respect for the magazine editors who do this three or four times a year (or more frequently with larger publications), year after year, and manage to create, on the balance, worthwhile collections.
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