Kaleidoscope, edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios, ISBN 9781922101112. Twelfth Planet Press, 2014.
Irregularity, edited by Jared Shurin, ISBN 9780992817213. Jurassic London, 2014.
Reviewed by Liz Bourke.
Reading Kaleidoscope and Irregularity back to back is an illuminating exercise. They’re both themed anthologies — Kaleidoscope as the result of a crowdfunding campaign to produce a collection of diverse short fiction; Irregularity to coincide with the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich’s Longitude Season — both produced by small presses, and both bear the imprint of decided editorial tastes. They have similarities: but in terms of overall quality, they are strikingly different. As a collection, Kaleidoscope is a stunning and successful achievement; Irregularity, on the other hand, is rather more of an interesting failure.
This may in part be due to the difference in lengths: Kaleidoscope contains twenty separate stories to Irregularity‘s fourteen. Irregularity‘s weaknesses thus fade less easily into the background, when compared with Kaleidoscope‘s. And yet there’s hardly a story in Kaleidoscope I didn’t enjoy reading, and some — like Tansy Rayner Roberts’ “Cookie Cutter Superhero,” Alena McNamara’s “The Day The God Died,” and Amal El-Mohtar’s “The Truth About Owls” — I found profoundly moving. While some, like Vylar Kaftan’s “Ordinary Things,” are only borderline SFF, on the whole they combine fantastical settings and conceits with real and vital human relationships. This is most pronounced in Ken Liu’s “The Seventh Day of the Seventh Moon,” when two soon-to-be-parted lovers find themselves face-to-face with a famous (and famously parted) couple from Chinese mythology, or in Hugo-Award-winning John Chu’s “Double Time,” where the focus is on a competitive ice skater’s fraught relationship with her mother. Chu’s “Double Time” ends on a disappointingly weak note, but this, the second-last story in the collection, is only the second time I felt a story had noticeably failed to live up to its promise (the first is Sean Eads’ “Celebration,” which tries to do too much with too little). As if to compensation for the surprising flatness of Chu’s ending, William Alexander’s elegiac “Welcome” closes out the anthology on a high.
Kaleidoscope‘s stories, true to the collection’s mission statement, feature a truly diverse array of protagonists: people with disabilities, people of colour, people of diverse sexualities, neurodiverse people, people who are some combination of these, or more. “The Truth About Owls,” a story to which I find myself returning, circles around problems of belonging and power and language and alienation, seen through the eyes of a young immigrant from the Lebanon and her relationship with the Scottish Owl Centre. “The Day The God Died” aches with loneliness. Other stories turn to less bittersweet endings, but throughout the collection, with the exception perhaps of “Celebration,” the protagonists’ difference from an assumed straight white ablebodied cisgender Anglophone “norm,” while vital and integral to the narrative, isn’t the point. These aren’t message stories — unless the message is: “We’re here.”
Irregularity‘s stories aren’t message stories either. The strongest of them concern themselves with knowledge — gaining it, failing with it, and its inevitable prices. Unfortunately, some of them barely seem to qualify as stories: one such example is M. Suddain’s “The Darkness,” which imagines Samuel Pepys in a steampunk version London being consumed by a Darkness whose spread, readers will recognise, mimics that of the Great Fire, told as a series of diary entries that appears to have no point beyond Steampunk Pepys And The Inexplicable Thing!
Others, meanwhile, take up an image or a conceit and never quite succeed in bringing it to a satisfactory emotional or narrative payoff. A story in this mode is Adam Roberts’ “The Assassination of Isaac Newton By The Coward Robert Boyle,” which is a fairly entertaining shaggy-dog story featuring a time-travelling Robert Boyle and his confrontation with Isaac Newton. It is enlivened by its similarity to a Socratic dialogue, its references both obscure and obvious, and Roberts’ own peculiar brand of humour, but it remains essentially a shaggy-dog story. Kim Curran’s “A Woman Out Of Time” posits inhuman forces bent on supporting patriarchal systems as a historic imperative… and leaves a sour pointless taste in the mouth. What are these forces? Why do they act as they do? They just do, and that’s the story.
Some of the stories — “The Last Escapement,” by James Smythe; “Footprint,” by Archie Black — achieve emotional force in a gothic manner: the power of the narrative is in the creeping sense of horror and unease that culminates in a permanent, and not positive, alteration to the narrator or their personal world. Others succeed in creating a powerful sense of place. Several include historical figures of the scientific Enlightenment, including Ada, Countess Lovelace, and a Charles Darwin (who doesn’t sound very much like the Darwin I recall from his The Voyage of the Beagle).
But Irregularity‘s three best, most effective stories are the first three in the Table of Contents: Nick Harkaway’s “Prologue: Irregularity,” a playful and irreverent short piece concerned with libraries and knowledge; Rose Biggins’ cunningly-told “A Game Proposition,” in which the reader only gradually realises what’s going on; and E.J. Swift’s “The Spiders of Stockholm,” in which knowledge — in this case, scientific knowledge about spiders — carries an unexpected price for the child protagonist.
It’s an interesting collection, but taken as a whole, nowhere near as successful as Kaleidoscope.