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Tesseracts8, edited by John Clute and Candas Jane Dorsey, Tesseract Books, 1999, 312 pp.
What a contrast! Tesseracts7, the previous collection in the ongoing Tesseracts series of Canadian science fiction anthologies, was made up almost exclusively of shorter short stories, while Tesseracts8 bets everything on longer short stories. I may have criticized the previous volume for a clutter of inconsequential stories, but now I realize that longer stories is a choice that has its own risks. They have to be good, by simple reason of there being fewer chances to impress the reader. Fortunately, Clute and Dorsey have collected some excellent stories and they make the most of the smaller selection.
The two best stories in Tesseracts8 are “Umfrey’s Head” by Daniel Sernine and “Gone With the Sea” by Ursula Pflug. “Umfrey’s Head” is one of those baptism-by-fire stories, where an astronaut returns from a stay in space only to find that Earth’s culture has changed drastically, making things almost unliveable for anyone expecting the old ways. Walt Umfrey is a scientist, and only absent for six years, so he has an inkling of what to expect. The trend toward re-enacting realistic scenarios, like street riots or criminal encounters, has gone much further than when he last visited Earth. Combine that with programmed and virtually undetectable automatons, and Umfrey is in for a rough ride. The ideas in the story are not entirely new, but Sernine puts them all together vividly.
“Gone With the Sea” is a powerful and disturbing story, and perhaps one of the clearest bits of writing I’ve read on the topic of monoculture and resistance. A woman named Ellen lives in Hawaii; she’s the owner of a shrimp farm, but the shrimp have trouble surviving, despite genetic engineering and ever-increasing doses of antibiotics. The story cunningly intertwines the ideas and perils of modern, industrialized agriculture with the spectrum of culture from the oral culture represented by her neighbour and the wired culture of her son. It’s an excellent story, with more of a hopeful ending than I was expecting.
Tesseracts8 has at least four other topnotch stories. “Speaking Sea” by Sally McBride is a story about contact with aliens; it reminded me in some ways of her story “There Is a Violence” in Tesseracts5. Both stories are about the difficulties of communicating across the barrier of alienness, and both create the sense of this in unique ways, which is quite an achievement in the overcrowded alien contact subgenre. “Speaking Sea” also capitalizes on our land bound sense of the dark, mysterious ocean.
“The Dark Hour” by A.M. Dellamonica is also about aliens and communication. Dellamonica creates an interesting alien race called the Nandi, and the title refers to an intriguing aspect of their culture: “they called it the dark hour, the daily religious pause when everything on Angellan was shut down. Power, water, ships, dataweb, everything technological, even the spaceport, all of it was dead for the eighty-three minutes that comprised a Nandi hour” (159). This is of course problematic for a human named Oriole who is trying to recuperate in a Nandi hospital.
“Within the Mechanism” by Yves Meynard is one of Meynard’s trademark stories; we’re plopped into the middle of a bizarre and compelling setting, one that is never quite explained but is instantly comprehensible due to the actions of the characters.
“The Dragon of Pripyat” by Karl Schroeder is about the radioactive ruins of Chernobyl, blackmail, telepresence, shyness, and the mental pathologies of the rich, all wrapped into one gripping story. A man named Gennady is sent to investigate a blackmail-related claim that the enclosed ruin of the reactor is set to explode, and he is armed only with a Geiger counter and later with an advanced RPV (remotely piloted vehicle). Memorable.
The other stories in Tesseracts8 are also interesting. “Strategic Dog Patterning” by Hugh A.D. Spencer opens the collection; it’s a story set in a ruined Toronto, featuring a man who works for Animal Control hunting down predatory and evolutionarily advanced dogs. “Viking” by John Park reminded me of the recent movie, Reign of Fire, but with far more interesting characters and without the cheesy dragons. “The Sea Below” by Francine Pelletier is a relationship story, a dysfunctional love triangle, set in space. “The Edge of the World” by Sara Simmons is an effective bit of surrealism, an answer to the question: what if the world was flat? “Home Again, Home Again” by Cory Doctorow is a memorable story about the impact of first contact on how humans treat the mentally ill. Ursula Pflug’s second story in Tesseracts8, “Rice Lake,” is an odd story, and one that I didn’t like near as much as “Gone With the Sea.” Rene Beaulieu’s “The Energy of Slaves” tells the story of an expendable labourer named Gilbert Gilsen. Tesseracts8 closes with “Extispicy” by David Nickle, about a man who practices divination based on traffic accidents.
Tesseracts8 has poetry by Jean-Louis Trudel, Sandra Kasturi, M. Arnott (two poems), Peter Bloch-Hansen, Susan A. Manchester, and a short-short story by J. Michael Yates.
John Clute’s introduction talks about the realities and illusions of a Canadian essence in science fiction. Candas Jane Dorsey’s conclusion takes the same ideas and expands them.
Tesseracts8 is a fantastic collection, with quite a few powerful stories. Well worth seeking out.
See my reviews of the previous entries in the Tesseracts series.
Last modified: March 19, 2003
Copyright © 2003 by James Schellenberg (email@example.com)
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