The Best of Subterranean edited by William Schafer. ★★★
Short fiction collections always have stories that are a mix of quality and taste, but by and large I found The Best of Subterranean to be disappointing. The majority of stories didn’t work for me at all.
By far my favorite story in the collection was by Ted Chiang, which I sort of suspected would be the case going in. While you won’t see the review for it until this fall, I read and loved a collection of his short fiction. All of his stories I’ve read are technically stunning and contain such intriguing ideas that they will stick with you for a long time after. The story in this collection, “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” is no exception. This story looks at how technology can shape the way we think. The narrator is living in a future where many people habitually record their entire lives, and a new company released software that that sorts through the recordings to bring relevant scenes up. While it currently just assists memory, will it one day replace organic memory altogether? And is that necessarily a bad thing? The emotional core of the story is the narrator’s fraught relationship with his daughter and the role forgetfulness has played in it.
Currently, “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” is available on Subterranean’s website. In fact, many of the other stories also appear to be available online, including one I’d read before picking up this collection, “Sic Him, Hellhound! Kill! Kill!” by Hal Duncan. My second favorite story of the anthology, “A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong by K.J. Parker, is also available.
I’d previously read a novella by K.J. Parker, The Last Witness, that while well written wasn’t too my tastes. I had a much better time of it with “A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong.” I believe it’s set in the same world as the novella (which I think a lot of his stories are set in?) and follows a professor at a college of music who has a pupil who’s a musical genius, the author of some extraordinary pieces of music. However, his pupil is then arrested for murder. The narrator has the chance to help him, but what is it worth? Although it’s a bit exasperating that it’s one of multiple stories in the collection where women don’t have any dialog, I did enjoy it, especially the clever plot twists.
While those two were the stand out stories, there were some others that were all right. “The Seventeenth Kind” by Michael Marshall Smith is a humorous tale about a shopping channel which attracts extraterrestrial attention. “The Last Log of the Lachrimosa” by Alastair Reynolds is a horrific science fiction story about what’s lurking on a presumably uninhabited planet. “Last Breath” by Joe Hill is a short, creepy story that reminded me just a bit of Ronald Dahl’s “The Landlady.” “The Least of the Deathly Arts” by Kat Howard presents a fantastical city obsessed with Death, who is himself a resident. “Troublesolving” by Tim Pratt has an intriguing take on time travel. “The Screams of Dragons” by Kelley Armstrong is set in the same world as her novel Omens, although I didn’t see any direct connection. Cherry Priest similarly has a characteristically creepy story set in her steampunk Clockwork Century world, “Tanglefoot,” although in this case the connection to her established world felt hamfisted and out of place.
As for the other stories, I would have preferred to skip the 2/3rds of the book they represent and have done something else with my time. The only one I actually did skip was “The Indelible Dark” by William Browning Spencer because it was not only boring but long too. It wasn’t the only story I disliked. “The Dry Spell” by James P. Blaylock, “Perfidia” by Lewis Shiner, “The Pile” by Michael Bishop, “Water Can’t be Nervous” by Jonathan Carrolland, and “The Crane Method” by Ian R. MacLeod were all similarly mind numbingly boring, but they at least had the grace to be short enough I could get through them. “Valley of the Girls” by Kelly Link was confusing and full of unlikable people. “The Secret History of the Lost Colony” by John Scalzi wasn’t even a short story — it was a cut chapter from a book of his and really didn’t work well in a short story collection. “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlín R. Kiernan, a description of a fictional movie, was very strange and probably too much horror for me. “He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes” by Harlan Ellison was an utter mess I couldn’t make heads or tails out of. “Dispersed by the Sun, Melting in the Wind” by Rachel Swirsky was unrelentingly depressing. “The Toys of Caliban” by George R. Martin has more than a whiff of ableism about it, and “Game” by Maria Dahvana Headley felt sort of white savior-y.
Other stories I was more ambivilent on or at least could see other people liking. “Hide and Horns” by Joe R. Lansdale is a straight up Western (no fantastical elements), so it might appeal more to fans of that genre. “The Bohemian Astrobleme” had some interesting ideas and did manage to be fun, but I felt the ending could have been stronger. Same goes for “The Tomb of the Pontifex Dvorn” by Robert Silverberg” and “A Long Walk Home” by Jay Lake. I found “Balfour and meriwether in the Vampire of Kabul” by Daniel Abraham to be boring, but I can’t put my finger on exactly why. Maybe it was too tropy? While “Younger Woman” by Karen Joy Fowler wasn’t among my favorites, I did like how it looked at a mother’s reaction to her teenage daughter dating a vampire. “White Lines on a Green Field” by Catherynne M. Valente has her usual gorgeous writing style, but it was very much focused on the idealized myth of high school and didn’t reach me.
In the end, I feel like I would have made a better use of my time reading a random thirty of the stories I have bookmarked on my web browser. On average, I’d probably enjoy them more.
I received an ARC in exchange for a free and honest review.