Other Worlds Than These by John Joseph Adams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
John Joseph Adams' taste in stories and mine don't always coincide, but when I saw this on $1.99 sale and checked the authors in the table of contents, I thought there would probably be enough stories I enjoyed to make it worth buying. I was pleasantly surprised to end up enjoying almost all of them.
I've always liked portal fantasy, which is coming back into vogue again (after a break while everyone sorted out the whole colonialist aspect). I also enjoy, to a lesser extent, alternate-worlds stories. This volume collects both types and intermixes them.
A word about the copy editing before I start in on the individual stories. I know that some authors, even well-known ones, make a lot of errors and are therefore hard to copy edit, but this particular copy editor seems to have a couple of mistaken beliefs. One is that "two hundred" requires a hyphen, and another is that "a few days' R&R" doesn't require an apostrophe. There are other missing apostrophes, comma splices, "Ok" when it should be either "OK" or "okay," an uncaught inconsistency in one story between "Life-giver" and "Light-giver," "peeling" as a homonym error for "pealing," "the Mura's front lawn" when Mura is the name of the family and it should be "Muras'," "however" and "whatever" each written as two words, some missing question marks, and numerous other little errors (missing punctuation, mostly). Then there are couple of sentences of dialog that have been rephrased, but the following sentence of dialog is still replying to the original phrasing, and now makes no sense. It's a poor standard for what should be an impeccable book, given the reputation of the (acquiring) editor and the authors.
Leaving all of that aside, how were the stories? They were, mostly, excellent. I'll briefly summarize and comment, and rate them out of ten.
"Moon Six," Stephen Baxter (7/10): alternate-world SF around the moon landings. A downer ending, in part because, in keeping with the hard-SF tradition, the protagonist is mostly an observer of significant events rather than someone who makes a difference to them.
"A Brief Guide to Other Histories," Paul McAuley (7/10): a parable of occupied Iraq, but it's one version of America occupied by another. About as dark as you'd expect.
"Crystal Halloway and the Forgotten Passage," Seanan McGuire (7/10): portal fantasy, with a Chosen One from our world battling to balance her two lives. Downer ending.
"An Empty House with Many Doors," Michael Swanwick: no rating, because I skipped this one, reading only far enough to confirm that it was Swanwick's usual depressing nihilism.
"Twenty-Two Centimeters," Gregory Benford (7/10): a first-contact alternate-Earth story, with an Earth so alternate it might as well just be any alien planet.
"Ana's Tag," William Alexander (8/10): a strong sense of place (impoverished rural America) in this tale, where the alternate world is the fae realm.
"Nothing Personal," Pat Cadigan (6/10): I found this slow-moving; it took a long time to get anywhere, and when it got there the destination wasn't, perhaps, completely worth the trip.
"The Rose Wall," Joyce Carol Oates (6/10): an inconclusive ending made this feel like the beginning of a story rather than a complete story. Well told, but I found it unsatisfying.
"The Thirteen Texts of Arthyria," John R. Fultz (7/10): reminiscent of sword-and-sorcery and at the same time of the odder kind of portal fantasy (I'm thinking of Eddison, though it isn't quite as strange as that, and fortunately lacks the ultraviolet prose).
"Ruminations in an Alien Tongue," Vandana Singh (7/10): a sense of age and decrepitude haunts this story, which moves back and forth in time and builds up a picture of an interesting life.
"Ten Sigmas," Paul Melko (8/10): I enjoyed the first of this author's alternate-worlds novels, and this story was just as good: a person with multiple selves who can communicate across their alternate worlds decides to intervene, at personal cost, to rescue someone.
"Magic for Beginners," Kelly Link (7/10): I've only read one other Kelly Link story that I recall, and that one was less of a story than a series of events, carefully depicted, which eventually just stopped. This is the same, but unlike the other story it's amusing rather than depressing. It has, for me, a tenuous connection to the theme of the book, but the connection is there.
"[a ghost samba]," Ian McDonald (6/10): tries perhaps a bit too hard to be very, very Brazilian. The story itself, under the layers of cultural reference, is simple, and I didn't find it particularly appealing.
"The Cristobal Effect," Simon McCaffery (7/10): a traveler across alternate worlds prevents the death of James Dean, which doesn't work out especially well for anyone.
"Beyond Porch and Portal," E. Catherine Tobler (7/10): springboards off the odd circumstances surrounding the death of Edgar Allen Poe, in a story which has resonance with his but isn't really a Poe kind of story. In mostly a good way.
"Signal to Noise," Alastair Reynolds (8/10): a poignant tale of a man given the chance to spend a last week with an alternate version of his wife, who has just died in an accident.
"Porridge on Islac," Ursula K. Le Guin (7/10): I'd read this before in the author's collected stories. It is, of course (given who wrote it), a strongly human story about lives in unusual circumstances.
"Mrs. Todd's Shortcut," Stephen King (8/10): I'd read this one elsewhere also, but re-read it because I remembered it being enjoyable. It still was. Reminded me of Roger Zelazny's "hellrides".
"The Ontological Factor," David Barr Kirtley (7/10): an unpromising title, but not a bad portal fantasy. Avoids the colonialist issues of the genre by positing that our reality is kind of average in its degree of realness, rather than being superior.
"Dear Annabehls," Mercurio D. Rivera (7/10): an amusing piece in which alternate versions of an advice columnist give advice on coping with a situation where people can move freely between alternate worlds.
"The Goat Variations," Jeff Vandermeer (7/10): the master of weird produces a thought-provoking riff on George W. Bush's seven-minute delay on September 11, 2001, in the elementary school where he was reading the kids a story about a goat.
"The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr," George R.R. Martin (7/10): Martin's stuff is usually too dark and nihilistic for my taste, but this one is more poignant than depressing. Reminiscent of Fritz Lieber.
"Of Swords and Horses," Carrie Vaughn (7/10): I sometimes like Vaughn's stories more than this. It's from the point of view of the mother of the Chosen One who vanishes into the other world, and, while strong and realistic, it has the drawback of focusing on the person who isn't having the adventures.
"Impossible Dreams," Tim Pratt (8/10): a rather sweet story about a film buff who discovers that alternate movies are not the best thing he can find in a mysterious video shop from an alternate world.
"Like Minds," Robert Reed (6/10): somewhat rambling and ultimately despairing, with moments of cruelty.
"The City of Blind Delight," Catherynne M. Valente (6/10): like her first name, Valente's stuff is consistently overwritten and overornamented for my taste, but sometimes manages to end up with a decent story half-visible through the fluff. This is not one of those times.
"Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain," Yoon Ha Lee (7/10): I think I've read this, or another part of the same story, before; it has very much the feel of being part of a longer story, and is a well-thought-out exploration of an unusual variation on the alternate-world idea.
"Angles," Orson Scott Card (7/10): no lack of storyness here, though I was surprised to see such an experienced writer come out with "said Moshe nastily" rather than something stronger that dispensed with the adverb.
"The Magician and the Maid and Other Stories," Christie Yant (7/10): I anticipated the twist quite early, but not a bad story for all that.
"Trips," Robert Silverberg (7/10): an exploration more than a story, with Silverberg's characteristic obsession with sex, but, of course, well told.
Overall, my ratings average out to about 7/10; there were, for me, no truly earthshaking stories, but most of them I liked at least a little, and some quite a lot. And there are certainly plenty of them.
A good and varied exploration of the collection's theme.
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