viernes, 27 de abril de 2012

Alien Contact, edited by Marty Halpern

(Disclaimer: English is my second language, so I want to apologize in advance for there may be mistakes in the text below. If you find any, please let me know so that I can correct it. I'd really appreciate it. Thanks.)

I love themed anthologies. In fact, I love anthologies in general but I have a soft spot for themed ones. From the moment that I learn that a new anthology devoted to, say, time travel stories is going to be published I begin wondering: What authors will be included? And which stories? Any of my long time favorites? Outguessing the editor is just part of the fun.

However, themed anthologies are risky. If I buy an anthology of time travel stories it is, most certainly, because I want to read time travel stories, not something that requires a huge stretch of imagination to even be considered a distant cousin of time travel fiction. Let me state this as the:

  • First Golden Rule of Themed Anthologies: A themed anthology must stick to its theme.

But this is not the only challenge that the editor of such an anthology has to face. Another danger that should be avoided is repetition. Yes, I want to read time travel stories, but I don't want to read the same story twenty times. I want to explore many different approaches to the same topic. I want to be surprised and amazed. I want to be shown something new, something that I didn't even imagine that could be done. This is the:

  • Second Golden Rule of Themed Anthologies: The stories in a themed anthology should be as different as possible, except where it contradicts the First Golden Rule.     

Sometimes, I have the strange feeling that there is some kind of Universal Law that prevents editors from following these simple Golden Rules. A kind of Uncertainty Principle for Themed Anthologies so that there is always either at least one story that has nothing to do with the theme or two stories that are almost exactly the same. Fortunately, there are some anthologies that are examples to the contrary.

I've recently had the pleasure of reading Alien Contact, an anthology edited by Marty Halpern. It is the perfect illustration of how to assemble a wonderful set of stories devoted to a fascinating theme. All the stories selected by the editor are excellent examples of human contact with alien races (not necessarily a first contact) but no two of them are alike. In Alien Contact we can find disturbing tales ("The Thought War" by Paul McAuley, "Exo-Skeleton Town" by Jeffrey Ford), parodies ("To Go Boldly" by Cory Doctorow), stories about language and communication ("Face Value" by Karen Joy Fowler) and about strange species ("The Gold Bug" by Orson Scott Card, "Swarm" by Bruce Sterling). Some are humorous ("The First Contact with the Gorgonids" by Ursula K. Le Guin, "MAXO Signals" by Charles Stross) and some are grim foretellings of our final destiny ("Last Contact" by Stephen Baxter). There is even a story ("The Road Not Taken" by Harry Turtledove) about one of the biggest cliches in science fiction: alien invasion; but it has a wonderful twist that makes it unlike any other story featuring invaders from space that I had read before.

This diversity of approaches is very refreshing, especially when confronted with what we are used to when it comes to stories about aliens:
'We’ve seen too many movies about visitors from space. Sometimes they come with a message of peace and universal brotherhood and just the inside information mankind has been needing for thousands of years. More often, though, the aliens come to enslave and murder us because the visual effects are better (...)' - (George Alec Effinger, The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything)
This amazing variety of takes on a single theme is one of the strongest points of the anthology. Throughout all the stories included in the book, we explore, from different points of view, a fascinating topic: ourselves as seen by a stranger. As one of the characters puts it:

'"And what do you imagine you are studying?" Hesper asked. She closed her lips tightly over the straw and drank. Taki regarded her steadily and with exasperation.
"Is this a trick question?" he asked. "I imagine I am studying the mene. What do you imagine I am studying?"
"What humans always study," said Hesper. "Humans."' (Karen Joy Fowler, Face Value)
As it is to be expected, not all the stories will appeal to all the readers (for instance, I didn't care much for "A Midwinter's Tale" by Michael Swanwick or "Lambing Season" by Molly Gloss) but the average quality is astonishing. Some of the stories, especially the tender and surprising "Sunday Night Yams at Minnie and Earl's" by Adam-Troy Castro and the moving redemption tale that is "Laws of Survival" by Nancy Kress, have quickly found a place among my favorite short fiction ever. The fact that only recent stories (published in the last 30 years) have been included in the book made the experience all the more enjoyable. Though it is a reprint anthology, I had previously read only two of the stories and I found many wonderful surprises both from authors which I had read before and from others that were new to me. Even re-reading those two stories within this context was an interesting experience, and I appreciated them more than the first time I encountered them.

The stories of the book are complemented with an invaluable source of information: before Alien Contact was published Marty Halpern blogged about each and every individual tale, providing extremely interesting details and, in some cases, even the full text of some of the stories. While reading the book, I frequently revisited Halpern's notes and that certainly added a lot to the experience.

I have only two minor concerns about Alien Contact. First, I find the cover design and art quite appalling. This comes as a surprise, since Night Shade usually produces books with stunning covers. In my humble opinion, however, this is not the case. Also, at least in my ebook copy, the biographical info of the authors is to be found at the end of the book, after the text of the stories and the acknowledgments. I confess that, after finishing the book, I did not read these bios and I'd have much preferred to have them together with each story (a more natural location, if you ask me). 

All in all, Alien Contact is one of the best science fiction anthologies I've read in a long while. If you are in the least interested in stories about alien races, or in good science fiction stories in general, do yourself a favor, buy this wonderful book and read it before the aliens come invading!

Note: I read Alien Contact in ebook format (Marty Halpern kindly provided a copy for reviewing purposes) and "I Am the Doorway" by Stephen King was not included, as the publisher did not have electronic rights to the story. It, however, is included in the hardcopy of the book.

Update: You may be interested in reading my interview with Marty Halpern, editor of Alien Contact.

(You can also read this review in Spanish/También puedes leer esta reseña en español)

2 comentarios:

  1. Hi, Odo,

    I'm working on a blog post to link to your Alien Contact review and interview, so I thought this would be a good time to respond to your concern regarding the authors' biographical information. This information appears at the end of the book in the print edition as well. This was a choice I made as editor, to not detract from the flow of the stories, the total ambiance, as it were, particularly for those who read the book from beginning to end.

    I may change this for any future anthologies that I edit, placing the mini bio material at the beginning (or possible even the end) of each individual story. But, I think I may conduct some type of reader survey first, to see what the overall preference is.

    Thanks again for a fine review.
    Marty Halpern

  2. Thank you very much for your explanation. In fact, the "flow" of the stories was excellent and the bios might have interrupted that. But the fect is that I couldn't get myself to read 10 pages of bios at the end of the book. Of course, other reader's mileage may vary.

    Thanks once again for your comment.