I received No Way Home (an anthology of short stories) from Michael Patrick Hicks as an Advanced Review Copy. Typically I don’t do ARC copies 1) because if it’s a book I really want to read I’d rather just buy it and support the author and 2) because it makes me feel subconsciously obligated to give a better review than it deserves. But, as an author, I understand the necessity of ARC’s. It helped that Michael Patrick Hicks, the author of Convergence (a book I reviewed a couple months back and which I absolutely adored), has writing chops out the wazoo, so I figured it would be a safe bet that at minimum I would like the anthology.
So I took a chance.
No Way Home is an anthology of 8 short stories. Each will take you anywhere between 30 minutes and an hour, a good length of time that lets you get deep enough into the mind of the characters without getting bogged down by minutia. I’m gonna take the stories one by one with final thoughts on the anthology as a whole at the bottom, so lets dive into the first story.
To Sing of Chaos and Eternal Night – Lucas Bale 5/5 stars
This story has one of my favorite premises: soldiers who have a neural link with a mechanized warrior body. When they die, they simply get reloaded into a new body. Neato, and interestingly, not a very far-fetched science fiction concept. I was reading articles recently about two guys who received prosthetic hands that they control with their thoughts, so now all we need is the wifi version and BOOM, mechanized warriors.
Okay, maybe I oversimplify, but what’re ya gonna do about it? Nothing! ‘Cause it’s my blog. Hahaha, err…
Off topic, let’s pull it back. Stop distracting me with shiny mechanized warriors. To Sing of Chaos and Eternal Night has a fantastic atmospheric feel combined with a loopy story. What’s a loopy story? It’s a story that twists and turns and then throws in a few loopdeeloops for good measure. Ya know, the type where you throw your hands over your head and go “Whoooooooooo” all the while trying like the devil not to wet your pants, but ultimately failing, though not caring, because lets be honest…who hasn’t gotten so carried away with a story that they tinkled just a little?
Oh, you haven’t? Hm… well look at you fancy dry pants.
Anyways, Lucas Bale’s story stands out in the pantheon of No Way Home by virtue of an action scene that is, simply put, fantastic. A great use of his mechanized warriors ability, plus an emotional attachment to add weight to the proceedings, and bad ass enemy tanks make for an intriguing scene.
The problems I had with the story are few and far between. The biggest one being that the Widows (the mechanized warrior bodies) transmit pain to their operator. Lucas provides some background on why this is necessary, but I’m not entirely sold. It makes for a more climactic story, for sure, because otherwise our protagonist is an unfeeling robot so I understand the necessity for it from a story angle, but from a practicality standpoint it’s hard to see. Then again, there is no right answer for this one, only personal opinions so it’s not really a knock against the story as much as it is me pointing out my opinion ’cause… ya know, it’s my blog and that’s what I do.
XE, or People Are Crazy – S. Eliot Brandis 3/5 stars
Have you seen Interstellar? If so, you’ll remember Matt Damon’s character who, along with some other scientists, were sent to separate planets where upon landing they would take some viability measurements, send those results back to Earth, and then wait out their existence alone. The goal being to find a suitable replacement for Earth.
If you haven’t seen Interstellar, no worries, ’cause I literally just explained everything you need to know above. Seriously, just read the paragraph above and you’ll be up to speed. Go on, do it now. I’ll wait.
Okay, so XE, or People Are Crazy is basically that same exact premise, but with a few twists thrown in for good measure. But I had some serious problems with this story and the main character who, quite simply put, is too stupid to survive.
Bradley, our main fella, lands on this strange new planet and then proceeds to do a series of stupid things that boggle the mind. Let’s give some examples:
1) Shortly after landing Bradley goes for a walk and discovers a stream. Instead of testing the water for impurities (or even testing to be sure it isn’t some other clear liquid like hydrochloric acid) the guy gets on all fours and says “Meh, it’s probably safe” and proceeds to slurp it up. I highlighted this section attached a note that said “What in the ever loving tuck.” Tuck being my phone’s auto-correct attempt at keeping me classy, but you get the idea.
Now, I’m an outdoor guy, so I’m a stickler on this one. I spend nearly every weekend in the mountains and the thing you learn real friggin’ quick is that you don’t go drinking water you aren’t a hundred percent certain on. That shit will kill you, or atleast make you wish you were dead, real quick. The fact that our main character does it within an hour of off-boarding his space craft is just ridiculous. Surely, that must be the end of the insanity, right?
Unfortunately no, because a few pages later this happens.
2) “He decides to skip the next step. There seems little need for shelter.”
Seriously, our main character is so lazy he can’t be bothered to find shelter or go back to his space craft so he literally curls up in a ball in the middle of a forest and falls asleep. He is, as you would expect, awoken by a huge predator who wants to eat him. But, ignoring the sabretooth tiger wannabe (which is how I imagine the predator in question), this is a real good way to freeze to death in the middle of the night. Especially on a foreign planet where you have no clue what the weather patterns are.
Simply put, Bradley is too stupid to care what happens to him. The writing itself was good, the story (though unfortunately a little too close in premise to Interstellar (which isn’t the authors fault, they probably wrote their story before Interstellar came out)) was basically good with interesting twists along the way, but ultimately it fell flat for me because I was actively rooting against the main character.
After the first few pages I wanted him to die, which makes me feel like a sociopath, and, as a rule, I don’t like stories that make me feel like a sociopath. I’m weird like that.
Grist – J.S. Collyer 3.5/5 stars
I’m on the fence about how to rate this story. On the one hand Collyer does a fantastic job setting up a really oppressive/depressive atmosphere. Beautiful writing for the most part makes the reader feel trapped deep underground in the mines of this post-apocalyptic, nuclear fallout drenched society. On the other hand, there are two things, and unfortunately they are sort of big things for me, that pulled me out of the story.
First, despite all the really great writing, there is a certain action scene where the word “and” is used roughly 20 times in the span of 150 words. It was so jarring that I actually stopped reading to start highlighting the instances of “and”. This would have been a minor nuisance and I could have overlooked it, but it literally occurred at the most climactic moment of the entire story. Not the time you want to rip the reader out of the story world. After that, I had a hard time getting back into the story, which is okay, because the story blitzes through an improbable ending with reckless abandon.
What do I mean by an improbable ending? Well, these guys have been held down in the mines like slaves and all they dream about is getting out, or atleast that’s what our main character dreams about. But when it comes time to escape, he literally just…walks out. Nobody tries to stop him. Not a one. Which was very confusing and a little too convenient in context of the world set up earlier in the story.
Okay, I still think you should read this story though ’cause truly the writing was great for the most part. It just gets a bit lazy towards the end. Also, bonus points to Collyer for utilizing a deaf character which we see so underrepresented in science fiction. I thought that was a great character trait, and well used, throughout.
Merely A Madness – S.W. Fairbrother 5/5 stars
After colonizing much of the solar system, humans will look on their Terran brethren as being sort of backwater, primitive, ape-types. Martians and Europans will travel to Earth for “safaris”. A pretty interesting cultural shift and a great extrapolation of how our society might come to view the world.
So that’s the framework for the story, but really what it’s about is a guy going on a safari to please his wife. She loves Earth history and he loves her, so there ya go. Pretty simple, except when everything goes to shit.
This story is beautiful with a hauntingly sad ending. Our main character loves his wife, obsessively so (which thankfully he realizes), more than she loves him. That’s not so say she doesn’t love him, but just not as much. If you’ve ever been in this sort of relationship, which I suspect is a lot of people, then you’ll understand just how painful this concept is. How we’ll rationalize the limitations of the relationship in a way that justifies the inequality of affection. How we’ll tell ourselves it’s okay as long as they are there, that that is enough.
Anyways, Fairbrother does a fantastic job of getting inside the main characters mind and sharing the heartbreak and insanity caused by unrequited love. I’d recommend this story in a heartbeat.
Revolver – Michael Patrick Hicks 4/5 stars
I loved Convergence by MPH which has the unfortunate effect of setting a real high bar for future works. Revolver, therefore, had its work cut out for it. Now, what we get in Revolver is a glimpse of a future where conservative, bible thumping, pro-life, pro-gun nut-jobs take over the country. It’s bleak, man. To the point that there are television shows where people shoot themselves in the head with a revolver as a sort of fundraiser for their families.
This concept is pretty far out there, but let’s talk about the good first, and then circle back around ’cause I’m feeling circuitous this morning, don’t judge me.
The main character is a girl who’s been living on the streets after a string of unfortunate incidents she perceives herself to be responsible for. This character is fantastic and delves into what it means to suffer from Depression. And I’m not talking about being sad, or depressive, but full-blown I want to kill myself Depression. Because ultimately that’s what the story boils down too. There isn’t a single inciting event that makes our character want to die, it’s a fundamental problem at the chemical level.
It’s beautifully painful and horribly consistent with real life. I’ve got a fair smattering of degrees in Psychology and it’s so refreshing to see Depression dealt with in a factually consistent manner in fiction. It’s an insidious malady precisely because other people can’t see it, can’t understand the reasons behind it, can’t empathize with it. This only compounds the problem for those suffering from the disorder because the question “What do you have to be so sad about?” is unanswerable, and all the more painful because of that fact.
The time we spend inside the main characters mind is beautiful and sad and well worth the price of admission. Read this story and come to grips with the fact that there isn’t always a good reason to want to die, and that in and of itself is terrifying.
Okay, the things I didn’t like. The world building is heavy handed. It’s a political entreaty with all the subtlety of a polar bear in a coal mine (Oh, god. That was a horrible analogy, but you know what? I don’t care. It’s my blog and I’ll throw poor analogies around all day long, muahahaha!). MPH rightly acknowledges this fact in the author note and points out that he wrote the story at a time when he was feeling very angry at the world and its politics. I get that, and I don’t fault him for it, but after a while its hard being bludgeoned with caricatures.
You know what, though? I’d let you whip me with straw-men all day long if you let me spend some more time in the head of that main character. Truly, she alone makes the story great. Highly recommend this story!
Whoa, this post is getting wildly out of control. So long, so many words, much wow. Let’s cut it here and I’ll post up the remaining three stories plus my thoughts on the anthology as a whole tomorrow.