Review: “Diverse Energies”

Writing a great short story is difficult. Very often a short story will end up feeling like a novel or novella folded onto itself, so that parts of the story seeming rushed or compressed, while other parts seems stretched out by comparison.  And, I say that meaning it’s still a great short story, the same way a sunflower seed is tasty to eat, but has larger possibilities folded inside it.  Writers sometimes give in to the narrative tension wrapped into the short story form, and refuse to accept that their own work is “good enough” while it still feels bursting with potential.

This is why it’s wise to read other writers’ short stories, to feel the literary goodness and structural tension living peacefully side by side.

So, when I got my  copy of the sci-fi short story anthology Diverse Energies (available in hardcover and ebook), I knew that I would be reviewing the stories both as a reader and as a writer.  And DE turned out to be perfect for this: the stories are pure fun to read while still giving a structure-minded writer plenty of test cases to strategize ways to tweak short story pacing for novella or novel length, for adaptation as a TV series or feature film, or just to massage a different effect from a good short.

The guiding principle behind Diverse Energies (don’t all anthologies have one?) is to present characters of “non-traditional” backgrounds and ethnic/sexual identities. Now, this might raise red flags as a possible PC polemic disguised as sci-fi but, as no friend of political correctness myself, let me reassure the reader that the best thing about how Diverse Energies fulfills its promise is that the stories have characters of diverse backgrounds and ethnic/sexual identities, but the stories are not themselves necessarily about diversity.

As Tobias Buckell explains the anthology in the preface: “Why? It’s the future face of the world.” No political bone to pick, just sci-fi writers being honest about their setting.

None of these stories would ever be commandeered for propaganda by an activist group.  The diversity in Diverse Energies (the title is from a JFK quote) is simply organic to the story, established the same way you might mention that a character suffers a peanut allergy, or has perfect color vision, or loves bluegrass in a rock-and-roll town. Even when explicit political conflict is unavoidable (see “Next Door” below) there are no real bad guys twirling their mustaches, just the reality of social tension and interpersonal struggle.

In other words, just a story.

In other words: hell yeah, a story!

There are eleven yarns in the anthology, but let me draw out four for special attention.  I have chosen a story by Ursula K. Le Guin because she is undoubtedly the best-known author in the book.  I chose Ken Liu and K. Tempest Bradford because their stories had similar themes of isolation from the larger world, but approached from very different angles.  Finally, I chose Rahul Kanakia not only because I have reviewed his fiction before, but because “Next Door” was the most eerily immediate of the dystopian worlds presented in Diverse Energies.

Pattern Recognition
by Ken Liu

Liu’s piece puts the reader inside a school, insulated from a destroyed world by 40-foot walls, where children are protected from corrupting influences (like books and photographs) and taught through the purity of computer-based, pattern-recognition exercises.

This was perhaps the clumsiest piece in the anthology, and it is still a great story.  It is by far the cleverest in how it sets up a distant, apocalyptic dystopia then reveals it to be disturbingly closer than the reader is initially led to believe.  I won’t spoil the twist, but it’s like suddenly realizing that who you thought was a Mad Max barbarian is really the systems engineer contracted to your office.  Coffee spit-take!

Structurally, however, “Pattern Recognition” suffers from the James Bond syndrome of pivoting on an expository reveal by the Bad Guy. I put that in ironic Pooh-caps because the Bad Guy’s badness is politically ambiguous and complicated, and this is one of the story’s strengths. But, despite the sophistication of the story’s moral narrative, the reveal is a bit heavy-handed.  Given more space, I can’t help but think Liu would have eased the reader out of the Matrix much more gradually.

Let me end on a point of praise: when you finish “Pattern Recognition” take a moment to think about how the diversity in the story was achieved.  This subtle spin on the anthology’s theme was my favorite part of Liu’s tale.

Uncertainty Principle
by K. Tempest Bradford

While “Pattern Recognition” brought us a whole school full of kids isolated from a changed world, Bradford’s tale is about a single little girl whose entire reality changes around her while she remains the same.  No 40-foot walls for Iliana; her isolation begins at her skin.  Her friends, her neighborhood, her school, and eventually even her parents shift, shuffle, and vanish from existence.

To get my gripe out of the way, I found the ultimate explanation for why Iliana doesn’t change when the world shifts to be a little sentimental.  It has to do with where she was born, yet the phenomenon somehow doesn’t affect her mother who was, presumably, also present.  The premise seems almost astrological, or even arbitrarily legalistic, as if the laws of physics were subject to the at-birth dynamic of the Fourteenth Amendment.  But, sci-fi needs its devices, right?  Even so, wouldn’t the moment she formed as genetically distinct entity be a better time to acquire unusual characteristics, since this would exclude her mother from being affected—or would such an at-conception dynamic whiff unintentionally of another set of politics?

This is where my friends usually tell me I’m over-thinking the plot.

Origin story aside, “Uncertainty Principle” was well paced—the best pacing in the anthology I felt—and its short-story “tension of potential” was almost completely external: at the end of the story I wanted to know more about Iliana and her adventures in shifting reality, more about the antagonists behind the changes, more about the larger world of the secondary characters who help her in her adventure.  In fact, Bradford’s piece feels like the pilot for an action-oriented television series or a film franchise.

And… what do you know?  Bradford is planning more stories in Iliana’s world!

Solitude
by Ursula K Le Guin

This story was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and later in Le Guin’s anthology The Birthday of the World and Other Stories. It’s part of her Hainish Cycle, so readers familiar with Le Guin’s writing will find themselves right at home.

I have to say that the story may feel a bit slow for readers who don’t enjoy academic writing.  Following the family of a social researcher living among a people who have descended—if that’s the right term—to the Stone Age from a high-tech past, “Solitude” is very anthropological in focus.  The dystopia into which Le Guin drops her characters has been stripped of most dangers either natural (no lions are other monsters) or political (no warring nations) so that the conflicts are entirely interpersonal and intercultural. The story is in fact about the consequences of using your children to help research an anthropology report, and it reads like the accompanying memoir.  I loved it, but I can see how it might not be every reader’s cup of herbal tea.

And, the way the story reads to a reader parallels how it reads to a writer. Its casual pace feels novel-like, and at the end I wanted to have seen more development before the final struggle—which takes place entirely inside the heart of the narrator, the researcher’s daughter Ren, who chooses to remain behind on the primitive world when her mother and brother choose to return to the interstellar Ekumen.

Next Door
by Rahul Kanakia

“Next Door” is about the struggle of a young homeless man named Aakash and his boyfriend Victor, who are trying to find a new squatter home in a world where the wealth gap has become a reality gap.  The Haves, called “strangers” from the protagonist’s perspective, are so wrapped up in the virtual world enabled by technology implants that they barely notice the Have-Nots, “squatters” who live on their property.  Many of the strangers literally lie in bed all day interacting only with their tech.  And, bad for both sides, the strangers are starting to die off, their utilities and other services expiring and properties collapsing into ruins, leaving the squatters with fewer and fewer places to squat.

This is a strange yet all-too-familiar dystopia, and one of the most believable in any dystopian tale I’ve ever read. Liu’s “Pattern Recognition” has this ring of familiarity as well, but it doesn’t seem as natural an outgrowth of our current web-obsessed society as Kanakia’s tale. “Next Door” feels like you’re peering at the horizon ahead, catching a glimpse of the inevitable cultural and economic consequences of the world where we currently live.

This was by far the most immediately relatable and creatively adaptable of the stories in the anthology.  And, like “Uncertainty Principle,” it reads like the introduction to a much longer story arc.  It would be great if Kanakia continued the tale of Aakash and Victor as they try to make a place for themselves in a society slowly dissolving around them.

 

 

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