My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Put together an eclectic collection of Nebula award-winning short stories and novelettes, as well as a full length novella selected by Kevin J Anderson and you know you’re in for a treat. Each story is distinct in its style, but what all of them have in common is that they are well-written, original and challenging. As the title suggests, this huge tome cannot be read in one sitting, nor fully done justice to in a short review. I will however note the stories that stood out for me, in the order they appeared in the anthology.
First up is “Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela” by Saladin Ahmed. It begins like a traditional Arabian Nights tale with a young court physician who has been exiled by his master for an indiscretion to a remote desert settlement. The village contains the usual mixture of gossips, do-gooders and nay-sayers, indeed the first part of the story comes across as a black comedy that wouldn’t be out-of-place in the Thousand and One Nights. But then things turn a lot more sinister when the physician’s services are called upon by Abdel Jameela, the local pariah who is said to be married to a woman who dabbles in black magic.
“Bridesicle” by Will McIntosh is also another that stood out for me, for its interesting take on the use of cryogenics. In the near future, people can take out insurance to have yourself or a loved one frozen until a cure can be found for their ailments; even if they are newly dead. When one young lady finds herself waking up to a man leaning over her, she realises that she had been in an accident and as a result has been frozen. However, things have changed a great deal since she was put under. She has become part of a collection of frozen postal-order brides that men can date and then chose to ‘defrost’ if they wish to marry them.
Then there is the novelette, “Divining Light” by Ted Kosmatka, who manages the impossible in this story by making Physics accessible to the lay reader. The story follows a burnt-out physicist who is being given a second chance by a college buddy to re-establish himself. He is given access to a veritable cornucopia of lab equipment and an open cheque-book to research whatever he pleases. Amongst the containers he discovers the tools to replicate the real science ‘double-slit experiment’, to see for himself how light can change from waves to particles, depending on how it is decoded or perceived by a viewer. Kosmatka then has the character take the next leap into discover, by introducing non-human observers, starting with small lab animals and working his way up through the various species. But the world isn’t ready for what he discovers . . . It’s safe to say that this story blew my mind, and as a stand-alone merits the full five stars!
Other notable stories include Rachel Swirsky’s retelling of the story of Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon, “A Memory of Wind”, which casts a fresh perspective on the Trojan War. Eugie Foster’s “Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest: Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman Beast” is a story about a future where people have lost all sense of personal identity and only find expression through the various personas imprinted on their masks. This one resonated with Orwell’s “1984” and Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut”. The anthology also contains a number of Rhysling Award winning poems, one of which I found quite emotive, “Song for an Ancient City” by Amal El-Mohtar. Also featured in the collection are stories by SFWA Author Emeritus Neal Barrett Jr. and SFWA Grandmaster Damon Knight.