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Labor-of-love slipstream anthologyJan. 2 2010
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This is the fifth in a series of short slipstream works (no other volume of which I've read). It is similar to the `best of' collection from _Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet_. (I bought them at the same World Fantasy Convention two years ago, so maybe it was something in the air at the time.) Like the other collection, the two most striking features are (a) the exuberant range of writings and (b) the uniformly high quality.
The idea behind the Polyphony series, insofar as I can figure it out because the book doesn't have a word of editorial comment, is to try to get as broad a range of stories as possible under one cover. At this, it succeeds. The thirty-one stories, while limited to a PG to PG-13 level of violence, sex and controversy, are all over the place. If they have anything in common, it's that a fair number are set in the modern United States and that they all have some kind of fantastical twist or conceit. In a few cases, it seems like the writer tossed in a little surreal spice out of fear of being accused of being a realist. Indeed, the fantastic in Rick Wadholm's `The hottest night of the summer' could be dismissed as simply a coincidence. (But this story of a gas station attendant sticks with me, perhaps because I'm starting to feel a nostalgic anti-nostalgia for the 1980s in a way similar to the author's interest in the 1970s.) Or in the case of John Aegard's `Dwelling', the tension of the love triangle would work just as well if it weren't a post-earthquake Seattle ghost story.
But generally speaking, there is something significant to the stories in their defiance of physics or history. The opener, Heather Shaw's hilarious story about the hazards of online dating would lose everything if it were about a single white female and not, as is the case, a single white farmhouse. A few stories are set in undisclosed fairyland worlds, like Jeff VanderMeer's `The Farmer's Cat' about a farmer who has trouble with trolls. Full-blown otherworldly science fiction is rare. The most notable example is Alexander Lamb's `Ithrulene' that starts off as a futuristic rehash of an `ordinary American vs. Third World terrorists' movie but evolves into something considerably stranger, though Scott Thomas's `The Bone Ship' about an almost retro-1940s fantasy war is noteworthy as the one truly haunting piece. A few stories probably technically don't deserve to be called stories as such but are pretty funny: Nick Mamatas's `To-do list' and Bruce Holland Rogers's `Story Stories' (which begins "Some readers doubted that the story was a story at all. `It's too short. It lacks characters,' some said.").
And these stories, regardless of where they fit on the weirdness spectrum, are _good_. I find it difficult to subscribe to short story magazines because I rarely find one story per issue that I genuinely like. This collection maintains very high standards throughout. There are maybe a couple of stories that stoop to being average (and they're generally pretty short). It's easy to imagine that some brilliant upcoming writer twenty years from now attributing their decision to become a writer based on stumbling across this book as a kid and being completely floored by it. (But then again, that this will be the first review --- after four years on the market --- is further proof that literary success and quality have very little bearing on one another.)
The only kind of person who I think wouldn't enjoy this is someone who gets radically bent out of shape over typos. Most people, I suspect, find the occasional typo quite jarring: two hundred pages into a novel and the missing period feels like the page reached out and slapped you. (In, damned spot, in!) But this anthology is in a league by itself. Missing or erroneous grammatical marks, random spelling errors (`post-nuclear' as `post0nuclear'), dashes being spelled sometimes as three hyphens and sometimes as a genuine dash. . . in the same sentence [not kidding]: this volume has them all. I started to think of the typo onslaught as being like a grunge pedal or proof that this is a literary `hole in the wall' serving the secret good stuff off-menu. Or more realistically, the people behind this project did this out of love and devoted what time they could in their busy lives. And in their defense, I can add that not a single line of the book is rendered unclear. It's more like a grammar monkey got a hold of some of the stories after they had been typeset.