Friday, April 13, 2007

The Shape Of A Few Good Yarns - "Tesseracts Ten"

It doesn’t take much arm-twisting to get me to take a break from novels for a little while and dive into a short story collection or two. They’re a great way to get a quick fix of favourite authors, to sample up-and-comers and to detect the occasional poseur who’s made it through so you can avoid him/her if they somehow pull off a novel. And best of all, you get to see writers rising to a different set of challenges to their craft than novels pose: how to cobble together an intriguing plot, how to develop multi-dimensional characters we actually care about (flying in the face of the nonsense regularly spouted by high school English teachers that short stories are all about plot with lean to non-existent characterization), and how to pull this off in the confines of an editor’s word limit. It’s the mark of a successful anthology when most of the stories within it can pull this off. “Tesseracts Ten”, edited by Robert Charles Wilson and Edo van Belkom and published by EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy, rises to this challenge.
Veteran authors Wilson and van Belkom have assembled a group of 19 new Canadian writers offering various shadows of unsettling futures cast by the uncertainties of today. Wilson says it best in the opening segment of his introduction to the collection: “The going gets tough, and the thoughtful get nervous.”
The anthology gets off to a strong start with Scott Mackay’s “Threshold of Perception”, a cometary armageddon tale of faith amid ruin. And it’s the human focus to the story that makes it so great… where others might be tempted to go the disaster movie route and centre simply on the damage caused by the comet, Mackay makes his tale one of human beings challenging each other and themselves to look at reality in new ways. He skillfully paints us a picture of people dealing with these challenges in shades of Asimov’s famous “Nightfall” (both the short story and the collaborative novel with Robert Silverberg). I’ll also admit I really liked this as a kick-off story because I’m a sucker for a well-written alternate history.
The poem “Frankenstein’s Monster’s Wife’s Therapist”, second in the lineup, packs a solid punch that sent me reeling. Here’s an example of how effective and sharp a really short contribution can be to an anthology like this. This kind of selection is like an onomatopoeia in a comic book – if it doesn’t get your attention, then you weren’t really paying attention to begin with.
I also liked “Buttons” by Victoria Fisher (did Dickens’ Sydney Carton have a collection like this after his appointment with the guillotine in “A Tale of Two Cities”?), Mark Dachuk’s “Permission”, and Rhea Rose’ creepy take on how Spiderman could have turned out (if Peter Parker was a farm wife) in “Summer Silk”.
But every anthology has its weak links. In the ho-hum category were Allen Moore’s “Donovan’s Brain” and Jason Christie’s “Ideo Radio Poem”. And Scott Mackay, while scoring with a great opener, falls a bit short the second time around with “The Girl From Ipanema”, which should have ended sooner.
On the balance though, Robert Charles Wilson and Edo van Belkom’s “Tesseracts Ten” (really the 11th in the family – though I try to forget about “Tesseracts Q” with its tedious separatist sentiments) is an enjoyable and intelligent collection. It’s a worthy addition to the line begun 22 years ago under the careful hand of the late Judith Merril and mentored through its successive incarnations by powerhouses like Phyllis Gotlieb, Robert J. Sawyer and Nalo Hopkinson. For all the dark omens threatening to seep out of the pages of this book, van Belkom is correct when he points out at the close of his afterword essay that the remarkable variety of these tales shows a bright future for Canadian speculative fiction (and I would add, especially the tradition of writing fine short stories) with new authors such as these to nurture it. “…that child is coming of age and entering adulthood with its best and most fruitful years lying ahead with only the sky serving as the limit to their creativity and ambition.”
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