Stories: All New Tales, Edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio

"...and then what happened?"

This is the question that's asked by Neil Gaiman in his introduction to Stories: All New Tales, which goes to the heart of what should happen with any story. In this collection of nearly thirty stories, the two have assembled an incredible roster of authors to tell some good stories, and ultimately fulfills the purpose of this anthology, to captivate the reader, and to have them continue to turn the pages.

Built on the premise of the notion that stories should be page turners, this anthology differs significantly from other anthologies that I've picked up over the years, and brings together an extremely wide range of tales from every genre. The result is a comparative library of short fiction, putting together a number of genres, themes and perspectives into a single volume. While it's not the best anthology that I own (Robert Silverburg's classic, Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. 1, takes that title), Stories comes very close.

Short fiction seems to be on the rise, with a number of fantastic anthologies published recently: Masked, edited by Lou Anders, Wastelands/Federations/The Living Dead, by John Joseph Adams, the ever present Year's Best Science Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois and The Best Book of Science Fiction, edited by Jonathan Strahan, not to mention the countless small press anthologies and digital magazines, such as Lightspeed Magazine, that have grown more popular. As a result, there seems to be a relative explosion of short fiction out there, and Stories is one of the better collections that I've seen. By structuring the anthology with a broader mission, it stands out because it doesn't fall into any one genre.

Broadening the focus of the anthology also brings out a wide diversity in authors, from inside and outside the typical genre circles. Authors include Joyce Carol Oats, Neil Gaiman, Richard Adams, Jodi Picoult, Michael Swanwick, Peter Straub, Chuck Palahniuk, Jonathan Carroll, Michael Moorcock Elizabeth Hand and Joe Hill, amongst others, which bring together a really neat roster of all-star writers, which goes to help with the quality of said stories. This isn't to say that a themed anthology is lacking because of the intense focus and a more limited range of stories and authors, but what it does allow is for quite a bit more freedom to tell a number of good stories unrestricted of content. As a result, this is one of the few anthologies that I've read cover to cover, rather than reading through a couple of stories piecemeal. Where Stories is a collection that defies genre, it gains some of the best minds from a broad cross section of writers amongst many genres.

There were a number of stories that I really liked: “Fossil Figures”, by Joyce Carol Oats, “Blood”, by Roddy Doyle, “Wildfire in Manhattan” (which, as a couple of other reviewers have noted, would fix exceedingly well with Neil Gaiman’s own American Gods), “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” by Gaiman, “Juvenal Nyx”, by Walter Mosley, “Weights and Measures” by Jodi Picoult, “Goblin Lake” by Michael Swanwick, “A Life in Fictions” by Kat Howard, “The Therapist” by Jeffrey Deaver, “The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerephon” by Elizabeth Hand and Joe Hill’s “The Devil on the Staircase”. Michael Moorcock’s title story “Stories” is another that bears mentioning: it’s not one that I particularly liked, but it’s one of the tales that has remained with me since I read the book, and has caused a considerable amount of reflection after the fact.

The end result is a book that easily accomplishes what every storyteller should be doing: telling a good story, one that compels the reader to continue to turn the pages and to see what happens next. For a single author to do to this is a good thing: to get twenty-six excellent stories together that do the same thing is even better, and as a result, Stories is a worthy addition to any library of a speculative fiction fan, or reader in general.

Third Class Superhero, Charles Yu

A forthcoming book caught my eye last month: How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu. It had a slick cover, and I got my hands on a copy to review. While I was waiting, I did a bit of background research on the author, coming up with only one other work to his name, Third Class Superhero, a collection of short stories. Yu, who was selected by the National Book Foundation as one of the '5 under 35' authors to watch in 2007, and seems to be a promising writer to keep an eye on, demonstrates an exceptional skill throughout Third Class Superhero.

The book is a collection of eleven short stories, each of which covers a broad range of subjects, but each with a very poignant style that goes right to the heart of contemporary and speculative fiction. Reading over the book, there's clearly an edge towards speculative fiction, but if anything, it's the subtle touches and even the style of the prose that pushes the book over the genre edge, allowing Yu to tell a number of stories that are highly relatable in any setting. The title story, Third Class Superhero, is by far my favorite, one that looks to a struggling superhero, something that would fit well in the worlds created for Dr. Horrible's Sing-A-Long Blog or the UK show No Heroics. It's a story that's singularly human, demonstrating the temptations and dreams of the more average, overshadowed by others who are more skilled. A couple of other stories, such as 401k, and Man of Quiet Desperation Goes on Short Vacation look to some of the problems in a modern, commercial world, where we are so connected with everybody, but so alone at the same time.

What struck me far more, however, was not necessarily the content of the stories, but the style in which they were laid out. Thinking back to the stories that I read, the only word that can adequately sum up the books is 'Surreal', something that seems to be incredibly difficult to accomplish for any writer. Moreover, where it's difficult to get subject matter across in such a fashion, the presentation itself is generally difficult to accomplish, and Yu manages to accomplish both excellently, using the stories, characters and content in most of the book to specific methods where tailored towards specific ways in which the story was written, by changing the tense and even physical appearance of the story to suit his needs. The result is content and the physical delivery of the content that go towards approaching specific themes that the writer is trying to convey to the reader.

What Yu does here is what every story, (long or short) should be doing: presenting a problem, in a fictional setting, that allows for someone to relate to and examine said problem outside of the regular contexts. This way, they can come across avenues of thought that might be different with the differing contexts. Allegory comes in any number of means, and I’ve often thought that the science or speculative fiction genres offer one of the more unique ways for people to address problems that they face, either with major, global events, of intensely personal ones that they might otherwise not see an answer to.

The result is a very good collection of short stories, and the praise that Yu has received for already, with only a Third Class Superhero under his belt is very noteworthy indeed. The stories themselves were very interesting - if a bit on the pretentious side of things - and go very much to the heart of critical and contemporary literature. In anything, the series of stories, plus Yu's approach to speculative fiction (subtle, pointed elements, supporting the story, rather than the other way around) leave me very excited to see what's in store for his upcoming How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe in September.