Sunday 27 September 2015

Book Review: Darwin's Bastards

I'm not entirely sure what to make of the 2010 short-story collection "Darwin's Bastards: Astounding Tales from Tomorrow". From the subtitle and cover art, one might expect a collection of pulp-inspired yards running the gamut from Gernsbackian wonder stories to tentacled Lovecraftian abominations. Instead one will get a mixed bag whose common thread is that they are written by Canadian(often Vancouver-ite) authors. This bag includes, hands down, some of the best post-cyberpunk that I've read to date. It also has many stories that are more experimental or even allegorical in nature, and these generally didn't resonate well with me. Some of the stories aren't really science fiction or even genre fiction and are written by authors who are working outside their usual genre. I'd like to hear the story behind this collection, but my guess is it went something like this:

  1. Let's make a science fiction short story collection with all Canadian authors
  2. We didn't get enough submissions, let's loosen up our definition of science fiction and ask some local non-genre authors to contribute stories
  3. Oh, Weird Tales and other classic pulps are making a resurgence--let's work that into the marketing

So, for the short version of this review, of the 23 stories contained within, 5 were excellent, and a few more were quite good. The book is divided into 4 sections and all the best stuff is in the first and last section, so my advise would be to just skip the two middle sections. You might also want to read William Gibson's story, though I found it a bit underwhelming.

Anyway, for the long version of this review, we won't dwell on what I didn't like, instead let's talk about the best entries in this collection:

Survivors: This is not the end my friend by Adam Lewis Schroeder

A epic road-trip through post-apocalyptic Canada. An action packed story with some subtle, and not so subtle insights into how Canadians view Americans(and themselves, in contrast). Schroeder's tongue-in-cheek humor is great.

The Aurochs by Lee Henderson

A post-cyberpunk tale of the black market for medical treatments, fossils, and car parts. A really entertaining read and another story with a great, always understated, sense of humor.

Survivor by Douglas Coupland

A tale of reality TV(another very cyberpunkish theme) and the apocalypse, brimming with black humor. The jaded British cameraman was an inspired choice for a narrator, taking a so so premise and making it hugely entertaining.

The Personasts: My Journeys Through Soft Evenings and Famous Secrets by Stephen Marche

This is a fictional ethnography of a fictional subculture based around a sort of roleplaying/acting sort of thing. This story isn't really science fiction, or genre fiction for that matter, but it's so good I just don't care. Especially interesting for readers who are pen-and-paper RPG fans like myself.

Sunshine City by Timothy Taylor

This was my favorite story in the collection. It's a post-cyberpunk tale told as a Hardboiled detective story and it's really well-done.

This story taught be something. The plot is fairly simple, the mystery easily unraveled, the characters all hardboiled archetypes(the hardboiled hero, the femme fatale...) but a good hardboiled tale don't demand complexity in those things. A good hardboiled tale is about the setting, the relationships, and most of all the feelings that these evoke.

In Sunshire City, our Hardboiled Hero, a burned-out detective of sorts, has been called to this decadent place to be duped. Everybody is in on the charade and he himself suspects it, though he stays because his old friend asked for his help. All the characters are sympathetic in some sense, all of them have been hurt by this tragedy in some way, though only our hero is the sort of man-of-honor who is willing to seek out the truth no matter what the cost. This code of honor is why he can't bring himself to live in this sort of place and why he burned out and essentially resigned from Human society.

Dougal Discarnate by William Gibson

A ghost story set in the Kitsilano neighborhood of Vancouver. I got the impression that Gibson is saying something really deep and profound about his old stomping-ground, but I guess it really just went over my head. This saddens me since I was born in Vancouver and I sometimes like to fantasize what life would have been like if my family had decided to stay there and I had grown up a young Vancouverite, rather than a Southern Californian...

Twilight of the Gods by David Whitton

I enjoyed this little post-cyberpunk story of soldiers entangled in a messy maritime conflict. Quite entertaining, through. Like most Norse mythology, it ends rather disappointingly.

Gladiator by Jay Brown

A post-Cyberpunk story where the Libertarians have won and medical research can legally be performed on any Human subjects who are willing. The protagonist reminded me of The Count, in Gibson's Count Zero, when we first meet him, a poor white kid who grew up in the inner city and harbors unlikely dreams of success. The difference is that, rather than dreaming of being an amazing hacker, our protagonist dreams of being the Guinea Pig in the development of the next big drug. The Existential tragedy that ensues is both predicable and compelling.