Sunday, 22 June 2014

Review: Quantum Zoo

Quantum Zoo
Quantum Zoo by D.J. Gelner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a copy of this book for purposes of review via one of the authors, A.C. Smyth.

I've been reading and reviewing a lot of anthologies lately, mostly Best Of collections of classic or recent SFF, so I was pleased to find that these stories mostly stood up pretty well in comparison. As in any anthology, some worked better than others, and some had more editing issues than others, but overall it was a good collection. All of the stories had narrative arcs and endings, which is not inevitable these days, but which I personally prefer.

The theme is simply "zoo". Given such a broad theme, the contributors have come up with remarkably varied stories, mostly science fiction but a couple of fantasies. There are some very general commonalities; the contributors seem united in their view that being in a zoo is not a good thing, and nobody really emphasised the conservation aspect of zoos, which surprised me slightly.

The opening story, "A King in Exile" by Bridget McKenna, was a good choice for the opening. A Victorian tale of the last T-Rex intertwined with the frustrated love of a couple kept separated by social convention, it was moving and well-told, with no glitches to take me out of the period or the plot.

"Echoes of Earth" by D.J. Gelner (one of the two editors) was less successful for me. It contained the old trope, old even when Isaac Asimov parodied it in "Playboy and the Slime God" in 1961, of the earthman kidnapped by aliens who is joined by a beautiful woman; he immediately forgets about his wife and family, she is immediately attracted to him, and they pair up without, apparently, any thought about children born in captivity. Also, the first-person narrator refers to "this journal" without any indication of how he has a journal to write in or something to write with (he's keeping track of days by scratching marks on the wall with his fingernails), and the ending is such that the journal idea is inexplicable. It's been a very long time since first-person narration needed such framing devices. These days it's enough to just narrate in first person without implying an audience or a transmission medium.

I enjoyed "Bestiarium" by Sarah Stegall. Its theme of the transmission of tradition from one generation to another and the importance of a connection to nature - not just for reasons of humanity, but as a necessity for survival in the future - worked well, and the generation-ship setting was sketched competently.

"Ignoble Deeds" by A.C. Smyth is the first story in the collection that isn't straight science fiction in its premise, though the fascinating idea of a "ghost zoo" is treated science-fictionally. I was completely blindsided by the twist, and thought it might have been over-enthusiastically hidden by the author, but looking at the opening quotation again reminds me that it was, in fact, signalled in advance.

"At Home in the Stars" by S.E. Batt sets out to be humour in the vein of Fredric Brown, but for me fell a little short, in part because I was distracted by several typos, and by odd phrasings that made me wonder if English is a second language for the author. The joke itself is a mild and predictable one, but it was somewhat entertaining.

"The Most Dangerous Lies" by Ken Furie has the "zoo" inhabited by great tyrants and serial killers from the past, abducted through a handwaved technology. The premise is an interesting one, marred for me by the fact that the central character is Jack the Ripper, and the author doesn't seem to have spent much time familiarising himself with the actual Jack the Ripper case, or with other historical points. For example, a woman wouldn't be addressed as "Gov'ness" in the same way a man was called "Gov'nor". At one point, Jack "knew that adrenaline coursed through her body," which seems slightly unlikely given that the earliest usage of the word "adrenaline" occurs several years after the Ripper murders ceased, and Jack is depicted as uneducated. Possible, I suppose, but not likely. If one ignores these research issues, though, the story itself is a good one.

"Playing Man" by Scott Dyson is set on a voluntarily depopulated Earth, with most of the human race living off-planet, and is the classic story of the clash of large corporate interests with ecological concerns. I enjoyed it, and liked the protagonist.

"You'll Be So Happy, My Dear" by John Hindmarsh is science-fictional horror, not my favourite thing. It's in second person, which can be a gimmick, but here is justified. The link to the theme of "zoo" is tenuous.

"Skipdrive" by Morgan Johnson manages to invoke the Cthulhu Mythos without once mentioning it or using any of its key terms, for which alone it deserves applause. I found some of the incidental ideas implausible: that someone could be so badly injured that half their brain needed replacing with computer circuitry and still survive; that this could be done with no change to personality or loss of memory or need for long-term rehab; and that the victim (who had also lost an arm and a leg) would be, not just allowed, but more or less forced back into the military afterwards. However, setting those issues aside, I found the arc of the story held my attention well and enjoyed the way in which it was told.

"Demon Rising" by R.S. McCoy is a strange little story, in mostly a good way. The themes of loss of innocence and shapist prejudice are well handled, and the connection to the theme is clear. I liked the protagonist, too.

"Your Day at the Zoo" by Frances Stewart was doing something that I never quite figured out. Something to do with the continuity between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, I think. It was beautifully described, though, and enjoyable.

"Serpent's Foe" by J.M. Ney-Grimm (the second of the two editors) was unfortunately afflicted with multiple typos and some needless pseudo-archaisms. I didn't feel that the viewpoint character had much protagonism; she suffered through a number of events and learned a lesson, but made few meaningful choices other than to accept the lesson. It could also have been trimmed slightly. This is the risk when a contributor is also an editor, and this is why professional anthologies usually keep the two roles separate: we are never as hard on our own work.

Overall, though, Quantum Zoo is a collection of good writing from authors you've probably never heard of. In a number of cases, it's well worth your while to hear of them so you can track down some of their other work (which the editors make easy by providing links after each story, as well as collecting them all at the back). While I had some quibbles with several of the stories, there weren't any that I outright disliked - not the case with several of the pro anthologies I've read recently - and some of them were very good indeed.

On my 10-point scale within the four-star range, where 0 is "just above mediocre" and 9 is "just below amazing", I place Quantum Zoo around the middle at a four or a five.

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