I love the sense of intimacy that I get when an author gets the chance to select the stories of theirs that they love the most and then introduce each one. As Seanan McGuire puts it:
“This isn’t necessarily ‘The Best Of,’ but it’s the pieces that I love most, that I most want to share.”
She has picked stories twenty-one stories, all published between 2009 and 2017. They all stand outside the main universes that she normally writes in. This means each on stands or falls on its merits. I like that.
There are too many stories in the collection to review in a single post, so I’m going to review as I read them. Here are my thoughts on the first three stories.
“Laughter at the Academy: A Field Study in the Genesis of Schizotypal Creative Genius Personality Disorder (SCGPD)”
The title already had me smiling: As an introvert who has learnt to pass in an extrovert’s world and has often had to repress the urge to tear down the noisy, showy, shallow world that they take for granted and expect everyone else to embrace as normal and a replace it with a place where normal people – people like me – can live,
I was enthralled by the premise of this story of a society so afraid of creativity and the creative geniuses /mad scientists who unleash it, that they’ve classified some kinds of creativity as mental illness and have tried to legislate it out of existence. I think that’s a world that deserves to be burnt down. I was cheering for the firestarter all the way through.
I loved the pace of the story, its humour, its lack of remorse and its originality.
I think the quote at the start of the story gives you a good flavour of the mind at work here:
“Upon consideration, we must agree that the greatest danger of the so-called “creative genius” is its flexibility. While the stereotypes of Doctors Frankenstein and Moreau exist for good reason, there is more to the CG-afflicted than mere biology. So much more. The time has come, ladies and gentlemen, for us to redefine what it means to be scientists…and what it means to be afraid.”—from the keynote speech delivered to the 10th Annual World Conference on the Prevention of Creative Genius by Professor Elizabeth Midkiff-Cavanaugh (deceased).
I love how the first sentence perfectly captures the pompous condescension of mainstream thinkers talking about non-mainstream thinkers and the threat tucked away in the last parenthetic word.
Sometimes it’s the quiet, slight stories that slip beneath my defences and take up permanent residence in my imagination. “Lost” is one of them.
It’s a short and fairly simple tale, told as a shared recollection of a grown man remembering his youth and the opportunity he lost but that he has not been able to forget. This is a story that twists the threads of the Pied Piper and Peter Pan into something new and tantalizing.
The simplicity of the story is deceptive. The narrative is really a carrier, a disease vector hosting a series of questions and possibilities that colonised my imagination. At the heart of this story lies a question about the nature of belief, the kind of belief that only children can fully embrace and even then, not all children have the capacity fully to commit themselves to the truth of an idea. What if the passionate belief of children made the things that they believe in true? Would we adults allow ourselves to see and accept that truth?
It’s a fascinating idea. One of the attributes that distinguishes the adult from the child is the ability of the adult to distinguish between facts and stories. Yet what if the stories hold more truth than the facts?
I found myself wondering if I was one of the children who would have believed or one who would have stepped back? Whether I am an adult who is open to seeing what the children see or if my grasp on reality s so tight and so desperate that new truths are too risky to reach for.
“The Tolling Of Pavlov’s Bells”
The style of this story is an almost playful depiction of the mad scientist as a threat to life on earth. Its content is about as playful as a game of Russian Roulette. The dissonance between content and style makes the story quite creepy.
The storytelling is matter-of-fact but non-linear. This allows the horror of what is happening to emerge slowly, like the gradual spread of a rash.
The science content of the story is distressingly plausible. This would not be so hard to do.
Except who would do this? Perhaps the most frightening thing about this story is that the scientist planning and perpetrating this atrocity is educated, rational and clear-sighted, making her a Mad Scientist who is mad only in the way that a sniper in a tower, aiming with care and shooting with precision, is mad.
The behaviour of humans en masse that is shown here, their reaction to the bells the scientist rings, is also depressingly plausible. As the climate change debate shows, we deny science that tells us unpalatable things. As the success of the anti-vaxer movement the Russians have used social media to create shows, our response to poorly understood threats is driven more by fear than by rational thought.
I also loved the vein of humour in the story that turns book signings into lethal occasions.