ReVisions, Ed. Julie E. Czerneda & Isaac Szpindel

DAW, 2004, 312 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7564-0240-9

As an on-line critic (or, more accurately, “some guy with a web site”), I seldom meet the authors of the books I’m reviewing. In all honesty, that’s a good thing. Otherwise, I’d spend half my time apologizing for writing “literary abomination” when I really meant “not up to the author’s usual standards” and then see subsequent reviews contaminated for having spoken to the author in question. Imagine my inner turmoil whenever I’m at a Science Fiction convention.

All of which to say that this is a contaminated review. A while back, during my 2003 Prix Aurora Award roundup [May 2010: now offline], I bitterly complained about the quality of the nominated short stories and mentioned that “should I be forced to do so, I’d say that Isaac Szpindel’s ‘By Its Cover’ is a decent second choice”. Imagine my surprise when, looking through my web referral logs over the next few months, I started seeing hits from keyword searches on “christian sauve review szpindel”. Imagine my further surprise when, at Noreascon4, I found myself standing next to Szpindel. Fortunately, you won’t have to imagine my surprise when Szpindel proved quite amused by the comment and then turned out to be one of the friendliest author I’ve ever met.

How do you not buy the guy’s next book after that? How do you not go to the book’s official launch event? How do you avoid having your evaluation of the work stay unaffected by the encounter?

Well, you buy the book, you go to the reading, you get your autographs, you let yourself be influenced (that’s what signatures are about, right?) and you at least admit it up-front whenever you review the book. Onward, then.

ReVisions is another of DAW’s original theme anthologies, which at least has the merit of offering another book-like publication outlet to SF authors at a time where readers, myself included, aren’t particularly tempted by magazines. DAW usually does a pretty good job at finding niches for their original anthologies, and so ReVisions is a straight-up collection of alternate history fiction.

The pedigree of the authors’ contribution to ReVisions varies widely, and so does the quality. Veterans of past anthologies know to expect duds along with the nifty pieces, and as a reader, there’s nothing to do except go on to the next story. (As a critic, it’s perhaps best to highlight the successes and be silently nice on everyone else.)

As usual, you can depend on the first and last stories to deliver on their promises and so hard-SF veteran Geoffrey Landis opens up the festivities with “The Resonance of Light”, a pre-WW1-era story that I particularly enjoyed given my fascination with Nikola Tesla. On the flip side of the book, lesser-known Australian writer Jay Caselberg also scores a hit with “Herd Mentality”, a whimsical little vignette in which cloned Einsteins plot to take over the world in a kindly older-uncle fashion. Not much plot, but an amusing atmosphere, and I can forgive a lot to a story that makes me smile.

As it happens, ReVisions‘ best stories are, overwhelmingly, those who take chances with the “alternate history” premise and have a little fun on the side. Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross’ Unwirer is a lot like that, though their type of fiction is written in my native techno-English dialect; non-nerdcore fans may not get so much from this electronic civil rights tale. James Alan Gardner also tries an unconventional approach with the conterfactual angle, and so his oddly elliptical “Axial Axioms” works well, though it may require a second reading to fully appreciate. While “fun” is not a word we usually associate with Peter Watts, his “A Word for Heathens” is awe-inspiring in its unremitting pessimism, and almost delightfully enjoyable if you’re familiar with Watts’ oeuvre. As if it wasn’t enough, you can even call his highly unlikely story an exercise in converging history.

Other stories are fine, but lack a bit of extra oomph to make them succeed on all registers. Browsing through the book after a few days, the one that strikes me as having the most unused potential is Robin Wayne Bailey’s ultra-dark “The Terminal Solution”. Excellent concept (HIV escapes from Africa during the Victorian age, leaving pre-viral medicine completely helpless), fascinating philosophical implications (do diseases progress alongside medicine?) and familiar setting (London, 1864), yet the overall impact is muted. Unfortunate. I found less to remember about John G. McDaid’s “The Ashbazu effect”, but this Sumerian-printing-press story seemed generally more satisfying. Mad props, half-raised, go to Isaac Szpindel for “When the Morning Stars Sang Together”: This Galileo-influenced tale fulfils its relatively ambitious stylistic aspirations, but loses in impact what it gains in fine writing. Paging through the rest of the book, I’ll finally single out Laura Anne Gilman for the pleasantly hard-SFish underwater thriller “Site Fourteen”. The remaining stories may or may not be any better, but they fail my memory test.

Every story is followed by a “Revision Point” afterword, in which the author gets to explain where and why the short story diverged from our world. Some of those afterwords have an annoying pedantic edge to them, but others do offer some amusing or interesting insights into the short stories —often telling us more about the author than the stories themselves. Your mileage may vary, but I’m the kind of reader known for browsing through collections just for the interstitial material.

As expected, ReVisions is an average original anthology with the usual mix of good and not-so-good. While the cookie-cutter nature of some of the early material can give the impression that this is an anthology at the frontier between adult and young-adult categories (a “problem”, if you think it’s a problem, that also plagued editor Czerneda’s previous Space, Inc.), the rest of the book is more assuredly in the adult category.

As the product of two solidly Canadian anthologists, ReVisions includes more than its share of non-American authors, and will form essential reading for whoever wants to nominate stories for the 2005 Prix Aurora Awards. Heck, if two or three of the stories I mentioned above make it on the final ballot, I won’t even have to complain about a weak line-up this year.

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