Edited by John Joseph Adams

Titan Books


412pp/$16.95/May 2014

Dead Man's Hand

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

The American west has always provided the setting for popular literature, although the Western in the mode of Zane Gray and Louis L'Amour no longer has the sales that it once did.  Nevertheless, it offers a tremendous inspiration to science fiction and fantasy writers, not just of books, but also of media, such as Joss Whedon's Firefly series.  John Joseph Adams presents several stories inspired by the American West in Dead Man's Hand, providing a variety of authors the chance to work in the setting, but bring their own speculative touch to the world.

Ken Liu can always be counted on to bring a different point of view to any anthology in which his work appears, and "What I Assume You Shall Assume" confirms his unique world view.  Eschewing the beaten down Indians and Blacks, Liu's story is one of Liew Yun , a Hakka woman, the lowest of the low in China, who is the sole survivor of a Chinese mining camp in Idaho, and Amos Turner, a former Union soldier to whom Yun turns when her camp is destroyed and her partners are killed. However, Yun isn't helpless and Amos isn't the hero she wants him to be.  In fact, both of the characters have complex backstories, and Liu himself sums up the story quite nicely with the line, "Every story was more complicated than it appeared at first."  Liu mixes in the history of both countries as well as a wonderful form of magic to provide the complexity of this particular story.

While there has always been a religious underpinning in Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker novels, which are, of course, loosely based on the story of Joseph Smith, that religiousness comes to the fore for the first time in "Alvin and the Apple Tree," in which Alvin Maker meets Johnny Appleseed.  Johnny and Alvin have very different ideas about Christianity and the difference between the God of Love and the God of Punishment comes across clearly in this story, although it does get a little sanctimonious.

Mike Resnick has long had an interest in the American West, writing several stories that focus on gunslingers, as well as a steampunk series that began with The Buntline Special.  In "The Hell-Bound Stagecoach," Resnick pays homage to Robert Bloch's 1958 Hugo Award winning short story "That Hell-Bound Train" with his own version of a deal with the devil, set several decades before Bloch's on an older form of transportation.  The title helps telegraph the story's ending, but as Martin says in Bloch's original, "the fun is in the trip, not the destination."

Laura Anne Gilman offers an alternative look at a deal with the devil in "The Devil's Jack." Jack is coming to terms with having sold his soul to the devil, but at the same time, he is trying to delay the inevitable for as long as he possibly can.  Unfortunately, as he roams the West, he bears his eventual damnation like a Mark of Cain and also brings others to the Devil's realm.

Elizabeth Bear offers the story of "seamstresses" in a world seemingly inspired by a tour of Seattle's underground in the intriguingly titled "Madam Damnable's Sewing Circle."  The show-down between Madam Damnable's girls and Peter Bantle, a low-life pimp could almost have been told without reference to any science fictional elements, although the steampunk medical machine and Bantle's strange glove, which appears to give him some powers over the mind, do add an intriguing, if unexplored, dimension to the showdown.

"Neversleeps" is a very different look at the Pinkertons by Frank Van Lente.  Set in a magical world where dragon-trains run along lay lines, Van Lente's Simon Leslie has had a falling out with his former organization and finds himself in the middle of a conflict between those who support Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla's, embodied by Tesla's descendant Nicola, which results in a potential for a strained romantic relationship.  While this story never quite gels, the world which van Lente creates is rich and offers much in the way of potential for future stories.

The Western had enough potential for the collected works of Grey, L'Amour, Owen Wister, and numerous others, as well as years of television, film, and radio.  When elements of science fiction and fantasy are added to the setting, its potential increases exponentially, which allows Adams to create a strong and varied collection such as Dead Man's Hand.

Joe R. Lansdale The Red-Headed Dead
Ben H. Winters The Old Slow Man and His Gold Gun from Space
David Farland Hellfire on the High Frontier
Mike Resnick The Hell-Bound Stagecoach
Seanan McGuire Stingers and Strangers
Charles Yu Bookkeeper, Narrator, Gunslinger
Alan Dean Foster Holy Jingle
Beth Revis The Man with No Heart
Alastair Reynolds Wrecking Party
Hugh Howey Hell from the East
Rajan Khanna Second Hand
Orson Scott Card Alvin and the Apple Tree
Elizabeth Bear Madam Damnable's Sewing Circle
Tad Williams Strong Medicine
Jonathan Maberry Red Dreams
Kelley Armstrong Bamboozled
Tobias S. Buckell Sundown
Jeffrey Ford La Madre del Oro
Ken Liu What I Assume You Shall Assume
Laura Anne Gilman The Devil's Jack
Walter Jon Williams The Golden Age
Fred Van Lente Neversleeps
Christie Yant Dead Man's Hand

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