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‘Even Greater Mistakes’ gets everything right

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First things first: I love short fiction. There’s something wonderful about reading exquisitely crafted pieces that are not one word longer than they need to be. Maybe it’s 5,000 words, maybe it’s 500 – whatever it takes to tell the tale.

And while short fiction operates in the context of all genres, I’d argue that no genre is better suited for it than speculative fiction; the idea-driven nature of it allows for significant flexibility regarding how the stories are designed to play out.

Now, I’m a fan of anthologies, to be sure – there’s a lot of fun to be had when the works of a score of disparate authors is collected under one figurative roof, after all – but there’s nothing quite like sitting down to read an assemblage of short works by a singe author. You get to see the writer’s stylistic quirks and ideological idiosyncrasies laid out over the course of 10 or 12 or 15 tales, a snapshot of their ethos along with their stylistic strengths.

And in that respect, “Even Greater Mistakes” (Tor, $27.99) by Charlie Jane Anders definitely delivers.

The complexity of the concepts explored through the work of Anders makes for thought-provoking reading, to be sure – the author is unafraid to challenge the reader. She is particularly fascinated by the fluidity of gender and the interpersonal dynamics that spring from that fluidity; she also has a knack for finding the (admittedly dry and dark) humor inherent to various flavors of apocalypse. Her ability to wield genre tropes and generalizations in unconventional ways makes every story contained herein an absolute treat.

Take the very first story in the collection, titled “As Good As New.” It’s the story of a young woman who, through pure good fortune of circumstance, survives an apocalyptic event. Upon venturing out of her bunker, she happens upon a bottle – a bottle containing a genie. What follows is a thoughtful and quietly hilarious unpacking of wish logistics and the unanticipated consequences even the best of intentions might carry with them.

Another highlight is the marvelous “Six Months, Three Days,” a story about the perfect couple that also happens to be diametrically opposed. Specifically, Judy is able to look ahead and see all possible futures laid out before her, while Doug is able to view with precision the one and only true future. Sweet and sad and utterly paradoxical, it’s an unusual love story, yes – but it is definitely a love story.

In the collection’s longest work – a novella, really – we have “Rock Manning Goes For Broke.” Now, this story is a lot of things, but basically, imagine if Johnny Knoxville of “Jackass” fame became a favorite filmmaker of the masses in a bleak authoritarian future. The slapstick stunting – inspired by legends like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd – becomes an object of interest to both sides in an ongoing and ever-expanding culture war. A war with brutal societal consequences.

And on and on we go. What if a group of time travel cosplayers stumbled into a situation that involved actual time travel? Check out “The Time Travelers Club.” How about if, in a future, fractured America, a bookstore straddled the unsteady border between two new nations? “The Bookstore at the End of America” lays it out for you. Ever wonder what would happen if a werewolf bit a fairy and a vampire was zombified and then the two fought? Here’s the aptly-titled “Fairy Werewolf vs. Vampire Zombie.”

“Even Greater Mistakes” is an exquisite collection, an assemblage of outstanding short fiction. Anders is a gifted prose stylist, one with a vast imagination to go with her technical craft. The worlds in which these stories operate are rich and vivid, beautifully realized without tiresome minutiae. With just a few sentences, Anders can clearly and concisely convey her vision of place; it’s a rare talent indeed, but one that she with which she is generous.

She’s also unafraid to delve into cultural complexities without handholding. Perhaps the best example is in “Love Might Be Too Strong a Word,” a story set in deep space that nevertheless revolves around the difficulties that can arise when a society’s genders and sexualities are rigidly hierarchized; Anders offers up assorted genders and pronouns without feeling the need to spell it all out for the reader. It’s indicative of a respect both for the reader and for the subject matter.

Of course, while the commitment of Anders to the dissemination of ideas and to thoughtful prose construction is certainly admirable, none of it works unless the stories themselves are compelling. Unsurprisingly, Anders is a hell of a storyteller as well, folding these wonderful concepts and ideological deconstructions into top-notch speculative narratives. Challenging as they may be, these stories are a hell of a good time, propulsive and darkly funny.

“Even Greater Mistakes” is a best-case scenario for a reader such as myself, a wide-ranging collection of stories that are equal parts intellectual stimulation, comedic interlude and rip-roaring yarn. You probably don’t need me to tell you how unusual such a combination is. So if you’re a fan of high-quality speculative short fiction, tuck into some Charlie Jane Anders.

Oh, and if you’ve never experienced her before? You’re welcome.

Last modified on Tuesday, 16 November 2021 08:26

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