In the world of books, nothing says set-piece affair like genre fiction. You either love vampires or dragons or aliens with outsized sexual organs, or it’s just a closed-off world. Sure, there’s a living to be made in giving punters what they want – just ask these two – but is it art? And if not, who really cares when everyone goes home happy. Snapping back to current matters, it feels right to declare my hand – so suffice to say, if I ever met an enthusiast of the Klingon language, I’d petition my MP to get them disenfranchised. So why then review Invaders, a science fiction anthology from Tachyon Publications, a specialist sci-fi and fantasy house? Because among the contributors is Junot Diaz, and I was piqued – to my knowledge, sci-fi was not his thing.
As the editor Jacob Weisman points out in the Introduction, there is a history of writers with serious literary credentials, experimenting with sci-fi. And Invaders has been curated to exhibit works at this very intersection. But rather than blasting straight off into space, these stories hover just above terra firma. It’s a strategy not without risks – those needing the ‘out there’ dial turned all the way up to ten, may not get off. And in different hands, those who prefer stories rooted in reality, could well get motion sickness. But Weisman’s selected writers not only have serious pedigree – many are recipients of major literary awards – they have all understood the mandate: to use sci-fi and fantasy to explore eternal human themes. And in the skilled hands on show in this collection, it works perfectly. The opening story, ‘Portal’ by J. Robert Lennon, crystallises the idea – it is ostensibly about a portal into parallel dimensions, except that its beating heart is of a once tight-knit family coming apart at the seams. The leveraging of such a trope, not for its own sake but rather to spin a ‘classical’ tale, could so easily have bombed. But here, it’s a work of art:
“Kids,” I said, “stand behind me.” Because I didn’t want them to see what I was about to do. Eventually we’d get over this little taboo and enjoy watching each other walk super slowly through the portal, revealing our pulsing innards, but for now I didn’t want to freak anyone out, myself least of all. When the kids were safely behind me, Gretchen holding them close, I stuck my head through. I don’t know what I was expecting—Middle Earth, or Jupiter, or Tuscany, or what. But I could never in a million years have guessed the truth. I pulled my head out. “It’s the vacant lot behind the public library,” I said.
In ‘Beautiful Monsters’ by Eric Puchner, the march of technology and ideas leads not to nirvana, but a sterile dead-end. But how do children in this brave new world come to have their conditioning challenged? By an adult from some hinterland, from the ‘old world’, playing with them; making them laugh and feel special. Allowing them to experience childhood as it was (i.e. just about still is). Again, despite the fantastical decoration, the story could not be more traditional. Jami Attenberg’s ‘In The Bushes’ epitomises the ‘hovering just above terra firma’ notion. It’s about the demise of the automobile, and all that entails. Such a credible near-future scenario would have all manner of consequences, but Attenberg’s focus is not transportation, freedom, jobs or the economy – rather, this is a story about what young lovers do, without the backseat of a car in which to make out in. For all the dystopian backdrop, could there be a more human story?:
“As we walked she told me about life back East … She was from Philadelphia, and, like every other city out there, there weren’t too many trees left, let alone bushes. There were lines every night at the few public parks that remained, and the government charged admission. A fee to flirt. If you couldn’t afford that, it was all alleyways for you. She said she got sick of the feel of cold cement against her ass.”
Any Cop?: Invaders lives up to its tagline – ’22 tales from the outer limits of literature’. In here, some of the best writers have freestyled on a blank page, without care for rules or patterns. And in so doing, they’ve produced stories that push the envelope not only of sci-fi, but of literature as a whole.