A&A Reviews: Anthems Outside Time
and other strange voices by Ken Schneyer(Fairwood Press)
For what it’s worth, Abyss & Apex is one of the few review sites that loves reviewing short fiction collections. This one was a jewel box of delights. And there’s a nice intro by Mike Allen that’s worth reading, too – don’t skip it!
It starts with “Some Pebbles in the Palm,” which is a rather experimental way to start a short story collection. It does, however, set the tone and – in a way – celebrates the everyman as only a writer can.
Next, “Hear the Enemy, My Daughter” is a tale that alternates between a grief-stricken mother whose husband was killed by aliens, at home – and the same woman at work as an army linguist trying to learn what makes these strange marsupial enemies tick. It goes down dark roads.
The story inspiration for “Living in the Niche” was all of the author’s favorite restaurants closing. It tells of a man who was cursed with the fact that whenever he really liked something, that very liking caused to item to fail. Could he stop it? Could he exploit it? Okay, what if he really liked a woman? Taking it from there was a great ride.
Often the tales in this book are about, or by, someone who is not quite human. Schneyer’s next offering has an intriguing title: “The Mannequin’s Itch.” It is written from the POV of a department store mannequin who looks out at a city at war. The next offering, “Lineage,” and is about a possessive spirit: again, not quite human. It intervenes at crucial times in history – saving lives while sacrificing itself, over and over.
Speaking of over and over, people’s “Keepsakes” dominate the next tale. A Keepsake is a VR of a person’s memories at a specific age. We follow the relationships of three Keepsakes and their now-older progenitors until these three intersect, in real life and in a courtroom where the question becomes whether a Keepsake that remembers a murder can be admissible as evidence. And all of them change due to the experience.
“The Last Bombardment” asks a rather horrifying question: what do you do when you’re invaded by barely-walking cute toddlers, bringing death?
I found “Confinement” to be unexpectedly unsettling. Here a woman is haunted by a triptych of a reluctant Mary getting the annunciation of an aggressive angel Gabriel. Has that angel come to life and is it haunting her?
How’s this for a first-line hook: “I was very small when we killed my uncle.” The next one, “Serkers and Sleep,” was my favorite story so far. It has all the hallmarks of an epic fantasy and I felt a stab of editor jealousy that I had not been the one to publish this tale.
In “The Age of Three Stars” Petros is a blacksmith in a very corrupt town and kingdom that abuses children in the worst possible ways. He is confronted with a 12-year-old girl, Zandra, who wants to become a blacksmith, like him, and insists that she will be his apprentice even though he’s only a journeyman – and quite old. Everything in his world hinges on a prophecy that he witnessed ripped out of someone years ago, and the The Age of Three Stars song made out of that prophecy became a song his dearest sang, a song that would not leave him alone. There is a reason he fears the Watch will find him if they knew who he was. And Zandra was the key to that new age.
Hey – there’s an Abyss & Apex story in this collection! We published “Keeping Tabs” in 2011. A future technology allows fans to pay to tag along in a celebrity’s mind, time-sharing their experiences for a fee. When Dorothy tags along with her celebrity crush she gets much more than she bargained for.
Perhaps Ken’s most famous story – certainly his most celebrated – is “Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer.” I remember reading it when I first came out and I highly recommend that you read it, too. Absolutely breathtaking. And an odd fact about it is that some complain that there is no fantasy element while others complain that the fantasy element is too blatant.
Next comes “The Plausibility of Dragons,” a story where a Moorish scholar and a lady knight follow and interact with a dragon that has somehow veiled humans from remembering him. And in unveiling that dragon they may unmake them themselves.
There is not as much science fiction as there is fantasy in this collection, but “Calibration” is a sci-fi piece. It tells the story of an in-system astronomy tech; she observes, along with other techs, that something sentient is sending an impossible signal. Meanwhile she is remotely monitoring her impossible daughter via implant.
“Levels of Observation” is a ‘found documents’ story, where the reader has to figure out what has happened or could happen. In a most revealing aside, Ken says that he only realized after he was done that he’d written a horror story.
In the story “Who Embodied What We Are” tales of valor are told at a fireside, of bygone days of a great people who even in exile in a hostile land. Schneyer makes is sympathetic with them before cutting the reader off at the knees, emotionally, as the characters looked back fondly on a life they should have been shamed by.
“Tenure Track” was another ‘found documents story. Here the author gets the reader to contemplate what it would be life to be the recipient of an Extended Life Therapy, and how it would affect them based on forms the recipient had to fill out over the years. Fascinating concept.
“The Sisters’ Line,” co-written by Liz Argall & Ken Schneyer is the only co-authored tale in the collection, and is about a young person who is trying to build a train from parts mailed to them by a sister, far away. It’s slipstreamy, cheerful and dreamlike, and very different.
On the other hand, “A Lack of Congenial Solutions” is a chilling counterpoint: how do you effect a revolution against oppressors without becoming as horrible as those who oppressed you? In this case humans had conquered other planets and sentient beings from each were sent to earth as slaves or worse. When the cooperative revolution came, these species had to deal with “the human problem.”
“Life of the Author Plus Seventy” is another story about life extension, this time via hibernation techniques. It’s also about irony, stupidly efficient AIs, and legal loopholes.
I honestly did not enjoy “You in the United States!” It is yet another story that suggests that religious people – specifically Christians – are a political threat. No one likes their identity smeared in ways that seem implausible and impossible, including me. At least it was not written in a Handmaid’s Tale style
On the other hand, “The Whole Truth Witness” was delightful and I could see how the author would be able to sell it to Analog magazine. In this tale lawyers were up against nanobots who would compel witnesses in court to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Usually. Unless…
Next was “I Wrung It in a Weary Land” – a tale written about magic and alcohol and getting what you really needed – in the end, getting what you desperately needed instead of what you thought you wanted. It’s a tie for my favorite story in this book.
“Six Drabbles of Separation” is sparse, spartan: since drabbles are 100-word pieces of fiction – difficult to write and do well. These are well-written but the subject matter connecting them is bleak.
Writers can be inspired by things that they experience. In his final story, “Dispersion,” Schneyer used his experience with his mother’s dementia and decline to make a sort of allegory for it, poetic, sad, and very real. I was very touched by it.
Anthems Outside Time is a good volume to study the craft of writing from new angles and I enjoyed the variety and innovation. – Wendy S. Delmater