Monday, December 25, 2017

Making Space for Everyone - A Review of "Everyone: Worlds Without Walls"

Normally when I review books, I do several at once, posting big batches of them together, mixing the good, the bad, and the indifferent. This time, I'm posting a solo review because Everyone: Worlds Without Walls is important enough that it merits having the spotlight entirely to itself.

It would be tempting to say this anthology — edited by Tony C Smith of the StarShipSofa podcast — is simply a reaction to the divisive ugliness of nationalism and intolerance that have become a plague in recent years. Blowhards like Donald Trump and his ilk around the world attempt to inspire fear, distrust and hatred of other cultures to try to raise support for their own twisted values or to distract people from their wrongdoings. They talk about building walls.

Smith, like many of us, became fed up with this nonsense. His solution was to launch a fundraising campaign to publish a new anthology of speculative fiction, one gathering writers from a variety of backgrounds across the globe to celebrate diversity, share perspectives, and show that all of these different types of people and stories can work well together side by side.

And that's why it's only tempting to say that this anthology is merely a reaction. Because that wouldn't be correct. It wouldn't be the full story. While this book is a protest against divisiveness and intolerance, it's also much more than that. It's an assertion of faith and hope. Faith that most of us, as sf fans and as human beings, are better than those who would drive people apart. Hope that if we just keep talking with one-another (hey, there's nothing wrong with dropping a Pink Floyd reference), if we share our stories and our perspectives, our hopes and our fears, that we can somehow move past all this and learn to get along with each other, knowing that our differences are, in fact, complimentary, and that having this variety makes us better. It's appropriate that a collection of science fiction, fantasy and weird stories takes this stand, because seeing the possibilities, especially those that can propel us towards something new and positive, is something that speculative fiction is very good at. And Everyone: Worlds Without Walls excels in this role as a booster rocket, propelled by diverse voices, taking us to new heights.

Now, in the interests of disclosure, I have to say that I contributed a little money towards this project, and am listed among the many, many supporters on the Acknowledgements page at the back. Some might say that means I've got a bias and so, of course, I'd say nice things about this book. Not at all. I may have participated in the funding of E:WWW because I believe in what Smith is trying to do, but that doesn't mean that I'd pile unwarranted praise on the book if it didn't deserve it. On the contrary, if the whole thing had been a washout, I would have had no problem saying "good intentions, but it didn't work and here's why..."

Fortunately, this is a good anthology. Not only is its heart in the right place, it offers a solid lineup of stories, many of which I enjoyed. While I can't say that every story worked for me, that's not because they were bad. Rather, they just didn't click with me on some level. And that's not unusual for an anthology — it's pretty rare that I'm going to love every single story. Instead, it's a question of whether, on the balance, I enjoyed or was challenged by most of them, and, secondarily, were the stories I didn't enjoy at least well written. Everyone: Worlds Without Walls passes this test easily, and, as a bonus, it has introduced me to some fine authors I hadn't encountered before. Even better: these are authors from other parts of the world, and I love anthologies that show me different outlooks on life and give me a glimpse into how speculative fiction is being perceived and written in other cultures.

Now for the breakdown. Here's the good:

Let's start with Smith's opening rant. It's presented as a copy of something he's handwritten. Profanity erupts through it. The words look like they've been blasted onto the page at a breathless, frenzied pace. The emotion in them is palpable. They are occasionally illegible. But this is what makes the piece effective. Smith is channeling the incredulous frustration that too many of us feel these days when reading/listening to/watching the news and trying to comprehend the viciousness stalking through politics and society. It's a torrent that splatters itself across the page like the literary equivalent of a rage-fuelled graffiti tag more than as an editorial. It just wouldn't capture the same raw emotion if it was neatly typed out, structured with an eye to order, and presented with restraint.

Dr. Amy H Sturgis follows with an editorial that reads like a hymn to what is best about sf, and what the genre can be. It was an absolute pleasure to read.

Among my favourites from the story lineup:

"Mother's Love" by Dayo Ntwari was enjoyable for its exquisite turns of phrase. My favourite: "foaming rapids of passengers".

JY Yang's "The Blood that Pulses in the Veins of One" was effectively creepy and alien, reminding me a little of "The Things" by Peter Watts, and yet it was a little sad.

"The Dust Garden" by Ken Liu was as brief and pretty as its namesake in the story.

Yukimi Ogawa's "The Seed Keeper" was a sweet, sad little tale that stayed with me for a while.

And, guaranteed to give any chocolate lover a shudder, Chikodili Emelumadu's "Candy Girl" is a story about a curse that's guaranteed to stick to the reader like toffee cementing your teeth together. It's also an interesting metaphor for overcoming colonialism, though there's an irony underneath that layer that may not have been considered.

The down side:

As I mentioned previously, there were a couple of stories that didn't click with me, but I certainly can't fault the writing.

Aside from that, the copy could have used another pass in front of an editor to catch some of the spelling and punctuation issues that made it through here and there, but that seems to be a common fact of life in publishing these days.

Overall, Everyone: Worlds Without Walls is entertaining and, as an anthology showcasing sf writers from around the world, it's important for its role in introducing readers to authors and cultures that they may not have known about before.

This book is also important because it is more than just an act of defiance by a single editor, or a small group of writers, against the forces of meanness, small-mindedness, insularity and racism. It is important because it is a declaration by a community — the editor, the participating writers, other writers who maybe would have liked to be included but couldn't for various reasons, the funders who backed the book, and everyone who reads it and talks about it and loans it out and likes even just one story from it — that we, as a genre, celebrate our differences. That we are better and stronger and, let's face it, more interesting for having different experiences and points of view and opinions and stories to tell. That we're a world that's better off without walls. A world where everyone is welcome.


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