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Infinity Plus One
edited by Keith Brooke and Nick Gevers
PS Publishing, 281 pages

Art: Dominic Harmon
Infinity Plus One
Keith Brooke
Keith Brooke was born 1966. He grew up in Harwich, an east coast port in Essex, England. He attended university in Norwich to study ecology and ended up studying environmental politics, meteorology, economics, anthropology, planning, and social sciences. In addtion to writing SF and fantasy, he is the Web Officer at the University of Essex.

ISFDB Bibliography: Keith Brooke

Nick Gevers
Nick Gevers, an editor at Cosmos Books, writes extensively on SF for a wide variety of publications. He produces two monthly columns for Locus, and his reviews and interviews have also recently appeared in The Washington Post Book World, Interzone (the March 2002 issue of which he co-edited), Locus Online, Foundation, and Infinity Plus. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

ISFDB Bibliography: Nick Gevers

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

Hailed on the back cover as "a ground-breaking anthology from some of the very best writers in the business today," and by one of the genre's more notable advocates, editor and commentator Gardner Dozois, one wonders, after sampling this collection, whether Mr. Dozois ever got around to entirely reading this assemblage of stories, or instead simply found himself suitably impressed enough by the authors' credentials to assume a certain latitude of expectation.  If not, one shudders to think that the thirteen tales contained within this collection truly do represent the best that is available in contemporary speculative fiction.  Still, one can easily understand the potential misapprehension when scanning the list of contributors: Michael Bishop, Tony Daniel, Paul Di Filippo, Mary Gentle, James Patrick Kelly, Garry Kilworth, Ian MacLeod, Kim Newman, Patrick O'Leary, Kit Reed, Kim Stanley Robinson, Michael Swanwick, and Jeff VanderMeer.  This illustrious roll is additionally reinforced by the title's referenced source for these stories, the highly acclaimed and respected online webzine Infinity Plus, with its equally lauded editors, Keith Brooke and Nick Gevers, both of whom possess credits in the genre well beyond their online publication.  Little wonder then that the average reader -- or Gardner Dozois, for that matter -- might, at face value, expect great things from such a collection of luminaries.  Unfortunately, the expectant reader, I'm afraid, will be sorely disappointed.

This is not to say that this anthology doesn't contain some excellent work.  Perhaps not surprisingly considering the authors' past work, four stories come to dominate this collection: the opening tale by Michael Swanwick, Jeff VanderMeer's comparatively eccentric ghost story, a light and singularly voiced parable from Paul Di Filippo, and a subterranean delving of the lunar surface by Kim Stanley Robinson.  Yet four outstanding stories out of thirteen is far from an equitable average, and significantly underscores the uneven quality that typifies the rest of this collection.  And one had every reason to expect more from the remaining contributors.

Looking to the works that uplift and are largely compelled to shoulder this anthology, the collection starts out with a relatively short yet imaginatively dense existential query by Michael Swanwick, in which the main protagonist is an entity whose corporeal life is over, dwelling as a form of spectral energy in a surreal landscape of electromagnetics, telephone lines and radio waves that coexist outside yet are like a kind of networked extension of the everyday and physical world, parallel but unnoticed by the living, a limbo for those who at death are "fast-thinking or lucky enough to maintain a tenuous hold on earthly existence."  Yet this new-found existence is insubstantial, without even the potential grounding that could be provided by a clear recollection of the corporeal past.  Nor is this new existence without its own dangers, for a beast called the Corpsegrinder prowls the electro-etheric plane, preying upon the discarnate.  But perhaps the greatest risk resides in one's own unrecalled memory.

Kim Stanley Robinson closes the anthology with "The Lunatics," a story that, despite the scientifically pinned description, nonetheless possesses a decided mystical undertone.  Transpiring within a lunar slave colony, in delving deep into the moon something has been disturbed, and miners are starting to disappear.  Borrowing interest from both mystery and horror, and set within a subterranean and socio-political context of fear and forced labor, the disappearance of one cell of slaves becomes transformed into an engaging and tautly written tale of rebellion and metamorphosis which, through a skillful use of metaphor, suggests much more.  In terms of narrative focus, in many respects I found this short story far more compelling than some the author's earlier, grander and more noted novels.

Stretched in between these two tales, much of the burden of carrying this anthology is placed upon perhaps the two most successful as well as eccentric stories within the collection: those of Paul di Filippo and Jeff VanderMeer.  Di Filippo spins an absolutely delightful and fanciful parable about a man beset by a "worrybird."  Blending some of the mechanism of science fiction into narrative structures reminiscent of folklore and fairy tale, the author crafts a rather dark and futuristic vision of a world that is rife with literary references and borrowings, with only the most obvious being the re-imagining of  Poe's "quothing" raven.  Highly stylized and richly worded, di Filippo exhibits his facility for conjuring wonderful imagery through visually charged language often individually tooled or wonderfully made up to fit the circumstances.  If there is any problem at all, it is that a little of the author's stylings go a long way, and at times more restraint than indulgence would better serve the narrative.  Nonetheless, it is impossible to ignore the author's vivid and opulently detailed invention, and, when thinking of the modest imitation and lackluster prose that dominates so much of speculative fiction (with examples present elsewhere in this collection), it is perhaps relatively easy to forgive the occasional excess.

Compared to the other stories contained within the collection, Jeff VanderMeer's tale of the past haunting the present is perhaps the most individual and idiosyncratic, as is much of the author's work.  Thematically and contextually enisled in relation to the other stories, and perhaps exaggeratedly highlighted by the relative drabness of its immediate neighbors, "Ghost Dancing with Manco Tupac" concerns the modern-day journey of the last descendent of the Incan emperors, who guides a treasure hunter who may be Pizarro reborn to a lost city hidden deep within the Andes.  Shifting between the present and the past in ways which make time seem dreamlike and fluid, as in his Book of Ambergris, the author loads his narrative with metaphoric and historical references both real and imagined, teasing the reader with incongruities of time and characters, as well as inserting myths and parables that may or may not have any basis in true folklore.  While bearing a certain relational resemblance to the fable by di Filippo, VanderMeer is far more subtle in his crafting, using both imagery and setting more as a glimpse rather than a glare into his thematic setting, even though in certain respects it is as exotic and fabulous in what is revealed.  This is myth both retold and postmodern in its approach, yet retaining the same sense of wonder and magic as the originals: masks of god indeed, and to my way of thinking the high point of this collection, both in terms of the crafting of its narrative as well as the manifold tale.  Also, whether intentional or no, the opening to the story bears an intriguing and perceptually apt reflection of E.R. Eddison's Mistress of Mistresses.  If intended, smart and most cleverly done!

The remaining nine stories range in quality from the earnest if flawed "A Spy in the Domain of Arnheim," by Michael Bishop to the light and inconsequential brevity of "The Second Window," by Patrick O'Leary.  The former tale, a surreal gaslight romance that in terms of imagery and introduction acknowledges Magritte, while sincere and serious in its motives, and possessing some intriguing and cleverly composed moments, is nonetheless marred by a tendency towards didacticism to deliver the story's content, and is far too artificially staged to be entirely successful.  In terms of intention, author Mary Gentle similarly delivers a resolute effort in her gender bending romance of "Kitsune," or the fox woman of Japanese folklore, though neither the writing nor the use of folk imagery rises to the level of di Filippo or Jeff VanderMeer, let alone the evocative and powerful use of this same archetype by Kij Johnson in her recent novel, though comparisons between a short story and a novel may be unfair.  Regardless, Ms. Gentle's tale remains only competent.

A far more fascinating story is that offered by James Patrick Kelly, concerning a race of sentient marsupials whose cultural traditions and family values are threatened by an alien race, humans.  While more often than not attempts to anthropomorphize animals or animal-like creatures fails to achieve full credibility or suffers from contrivance, in "Lovestory" Kelly proves himself amply able to suspend credulity, creating a social fauna that is both believable and at times expressively rendered.  Even though lacking the depth of the four best tales in this collection, Kelly nonetheless offers an effective vignette.

After these stories, the quality of the remaining narratives degenerates in varying degrees.  While Ian R. MacLeod offers an intriguing time loop in "Home Time," his descriptions of Antarctica, having actually been there, fail to ring true, instead reading as if imagined liftings from other historical or contemporary accounts.  Even for those readers without a basis for testing the veracity of his description, the story is too tied to incident to become completely compelling.  On the other hand, while Garry Kilworth is able to vividly bring Hong Kong to life in "Memories of the Flying Ball Bike Shop," the concluding message to his story is perhaps a bit too banally and obviously stated not to eviscerate most of its impact, regardless of its overall success up to that point.  "God's Foot," by Tony Daniels, seems rather pointless, Kim Newman's "Tomorrow Town" burlesque and derivative, and "Old Soldiers," by Kit Reed, at times overwrought and awkwardly and confusingly constructed, reminding one of some of the sophomoric efforts that can occupy an undergraduate writing workshop.  But without doubt the most marginal work within this collection is Patrick O'Leary's four page anecdote, "The Second Window": not for reasons of its brevity, but because its theme and treatment are handled in a way both trivializing to its subject and the audience.  Perhaps Mr. O'Leary thought this story concise and clever at the time he submitted it, but it's far too inconsequential and self-consciously cute in its instructional, commonplace set up and delivery to take seriously, or alternatively not be put off by its tone of conveyed wisdom.

Considering the quality of work written elsewhere by these authors, as well as being published by PS Publishing today, this is, with a few notable exceptions, a signal disappointment.  And, in certain instances, such as Patrick O'Leary's offering, one must question whether the author genuinely considered either his participation in this project or his possible readers seriously -- for that matter, one is equally forced to marvel at certain selections by the editors.  And while Gardner Dozois may be right to assert that this anthology possesses work by "some of the very best writers in the business today," except for the few stories already mentioned, it's not in evidence here. Finally, at 45, or approximately $65US in hardcover, despite every author's signature, four memorable stories out of thirteen hardly represent notable value, either for reading purposes or collecting.  Apparently, not only can you not tell a book from its cover, but its authors, editors and publisher offer no guarantee either.

Copyright © 2002 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction. In addition to his writing, he is pursuing masters degrees in information science as well as history at Indiana University.

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