Please note: I don't review to provide synopses, I review to share a purely visceral reaction to books and perhaps answer some of the questions I ask when I'm contemplating investing time and money into a book.
A list of shorts with the likes of Swanwick, Stross, and Bear? Yes Please! This was one of those "you might also like..." suggestions from That Monolithic Online Retailer. It showed up while I was filling in my Laundry Files collection, and on a whim and without even looking at any reviews I bought it. Say what you like about the way Mr. Bezos runs his business, but the boffins who write the code that glues purchasing patterns to the inventory are doing some good work - I really liked this collection. All of the stories are strong enough that I feel no ambiguity; the stories I like I like a lot, the stories I don't like I really don't like.
Unfortunately, demands on my time dictate that I can only reliably allocate the time between getting in bed and falling asleep for reading every day. The stories in this collection were exactly the right length for this interval. I doubt this was intentional on Tor's part but it was nice for once to be able to pick up my reader and start at the beginning of a new story for a few nights in a row. The volume appears to be an amalgamation of complete ebook files from each story; there's an overall cover and title page, then each story has it's own cover and title page. This is no doubt the result of some laziness on Tor's part, as combining small standalone files into a single compendium only takes a few keystrokes, but I didn't mind at all. As we'd expect from a large publisher like Tor, all the mechanics of a proper book like formatting, spelling and grammar were spot on.
Dormanna, by Gene Wolfe, is yet another reinterpretation of the childhood imaginary friend. I'm not sure it really added much to the genre to be honest. As I was reading the story, I kept hoping something horrible and twisted was going to happen. The ending is ambiguous enough to let each to let the reader decide the fate of humanity but I never got the dark twist I was hoping for. This is a story I didn't like. The whole tone was all sweetness and bubbles, and the dark forces that were hinted at never materialized enough to provide a meaningful (or entertaining) counterpoint.
The second story in the collection is Portrait of Lisane de Patagnia by Rachel Swirsky. This is the only story I didn't finish. I just couldn't get into the first person POV; I feel like the characterization didn't put enough hooks into the protagonist to make learning about the world (and therefore deciphering what's happening) worthwhile. I think a more dedicated reader, who is more appreciative of intensely allegorical introspective relationship studies would do much better with this than I did. I have nothing bad to say about the quality of Ms. Swirsky's writing, but unfortunately the POV and conflict push all my DNF buttons.
Michael Swanwick has created some of the most engaging worlds I've ever had the pleasure of visiting. I remember reading Vacuum Flowers in highschool; his use of dialogue to bring the world to life still sticks in my brain today. The Mongolian Wizard, like all of his works I've read since, does the same and breathes some sophistication into what would otherwise be a straightforward steampunks and wizards jaunt through a quasi Hapsburgian Europe. This would be an example of story that didn't rely on depth, sex, violence or gimmicks to keep me involved, but instead was so expertly crafted it was just a pleasure to take it in.
A Tall Tail by Charles Stross would be a great introduction to Stross for the uninitiated. Mr. Stross knows engineers; he gets us folk with an affectionate sarcasm that can only come from being and accomplished engineer himself. This little story has accurate science, caricatures of people you know, a bit of cloak and dagger conspiracy and more than a few good jokes. Again, not a story that's going to echo through your worldview and knock the cobwebs down, but a great way to spend a few minutes and learn a little about rocket propulsion.
Time travel is very difficult to do well; all too often we see it used as a gimmick to artificially create resonance between elements on different arcs. The Ghosts of Christmas by Paul Cornell neatly avoids this trap by making the entire arc of the story a fractal exploration of itself. It's elegant, it's engaging and it kept me interested with a believable protagonist and multi-dimensional supporting characters. Kudos to Mr. Cornell, and I'm looking forward to read more of his work.
Brit Mandelo's The Finite Canvas follows a well worn path to redemption through all our favorite cyberpunk tropes, but it did keep me engaged up until the end - the protagonist has a choice to make, and her character is layered deep enough it's not clear what she'll do until the end of the story. After that, the inevitable gracefully concludes itself with a minimum of chatter which I appreciate. Ms. Mandelo is also on my "authors to look for" list.
Am I Free To Go? is Kathryn Cramer's dystopia about the police state encroaching on american liberal-centrist middle class sensibilities. It feels quite preachy; Kathryn has a Point to make so she Wrote A Story to illustrate her Point. I think it didn't cover enough nuance to justify the word count, and the plot was too disjointed and the characterization too thin to feel engaged with the protagonist. Everything Kathryn is warning us about has been covered at nymag, hufpo, theatlantic, etc ad nauseum. I'm not at all opposed to politics in my scifi - it's what scifi is supposed to be about IMHO - but this attempt feels like a miss for me.
Every collection of shorts always has that one story that surprises me with how much it sticks with me. I liked Pat Murphy's About Fairies for it's imagination and it's dark undertone that rose up in unexpected places. I didn't like the pace at all; it veered dangerously close to some allegorical, introspective soliloquies in a couple of places but managed to pull itself back from the brink. It seems a lot of words were spent in the interstitial places between realms, and I think I would have liked to see a more intricate plot that wove the different realms together in a more symbolic manner. Despite this, it is a story that has stayed with me and I appreciate that.
Our Human by Adam-Troy Castro wasn't poorly written, but it did bore me. I had the "surprise" worked out about seven paragraphs into the story. This is NOT to say I'm a sophisticated reader; instead, I'm a voracious reader of the sorts of stories that use all these tropes so I knew what to expect right away. That being said, I played Jane's Addiction in my head and it was an easy enough way to spend a few minutes before drifting off to sleep. Not a story brimming with originality, but the author showed skill and confidence and I felt it worthwhile to finish it.
Elizabeth Bear's contribution Faster Gun ticks all the boxes to squeeze my DNF gland dry: alternate history, the wild west, steampunky time travel and little green men who come in peace. On paper, this looks like a story I'd avoid at any cost. Quite to the contrary, I enjoyed the heck out of it. The whole story had a self-deprecating, tongue in cheek quality that gave a dimension to the tropes I hadn't seen before. Because of the way it was handled, what could have been a vile dud is actually one of the three best stories in the collection.
I paid about two quid for this, and I feel like I got my money's worth. I don't know if I'll ever come back to reread any of it, but it satisfies my criteria for a good collection: the majority of the stories were good and I found some new authors to look for. This would be a good survey of contemporary scifi; there's a variety of settings, plots and tropes to select from that illustrate where the "mainstream" is at these days.
"I saw a brontosaurus by the Thames this morning."
"Oh, lovely! It's been a warm winter, I suspect that's why they've come out so early"