I grabbed Bell Bridge Books’ Stranded anthology off NetGalley for the simplest of reasons; the cover art appealed to me. To my knowledge, I haven’t read anything by the book’s trio of contributing story tellers: James Alan Gardner, Anne Bishop, and Anthony Francis. For that and many other reasons, I found Stranded to be something of a surprising experience. Though I haven’t found anything official which brands the text as a Young Adult anthology, it could certainly pass as one. The protagonists in Gardner’s A Host of Leeches and Bishop’s A Strand in the Web are both adolescent females cast into a world of adult problems. One of Francis’ main characters is an adolescent Centaur who finds herself amid a far future take on Lord of the Flies.
Before I dive into the stories, I would be remiss if I didn’t devote a few words on the overall editing of this anthology. In short, it’s poor.
In fact, I’m rather insulted as both a reader and a critic that Bell Bridge Books would let their eARC go to market with such shoddy formatting. The book’s preamble and introduction come in multiple fonts and sizes. At one point the author’s names are jumbled together as,
“Anne Bishop James Alan
Gardner Anthony Francis”
Within the novellas there are literally dozens of errors in spacing. At one point I thought A Host of Leeches to be an experimental prose poem as there are many unwarranted carriage returns. Beyond breaking up the flow of the text, these errors regularly made dialogue a chore to follow. I suppose there is a chance something very bad happened in downloading the ebook from NetGalley to my Kindle. However, if this eARC represents the final sale edition of Stranded I would not recommend a single reader subject themselves to parsing the digital version of this text.
My other editorial concern rests with the location of the author’s note as an antecedent to each novella. Perhaps I’m turning into a curmudgeon, but I don’t like to be told how to read a story. After the fact I enjoy learning about an author’s influences and intentions. Yet I can’t help but see Mr. Gardner’s directive to “Mix together The Omega Man, The Wizard of Oz and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick or Lonesome No More” as a poison pill. Both Bishop’s and Francis’ author’s note are guilty of the same thing. I don’t blame writers for wanting to draw a certain attention to their works, I do however question why the editors thought it necessary to take my experience, a perfect tabula rasa with respect to these authors, and preload it with potentially prejudicial information. What if I hated The Omega Man (I don’t) and thought Heston a ponce (I don’t) for his part in it?
Enough of the nuts and bolts though, let’s turn our attention to the substance of the stories.
A Host of Leeches by James Alan Gardner
Gardner introduces the anthology with a near-future SF piece set aboard a space station inhabited by sentient war robots. Orbiting the Earth, the colony is a gulag where the nations of the world abandoned the remnants of a cold war that very nearly went hot. When a plague breaks out on Earth, Alyssa Magord, the lone survivor of the initial infection, is exiled to the station while the powers that be decide her fate. Though neither Alyssa nor the machines dwell too heavily on the subject, A Host of Leeches is effective in its opening movements as an editorial on managing the sick and unwelcome within a society.
Free from even the slightest whiff of Asimov’s Three Laws, the AI’s make for clever reading. Bound by programming, a coldly logical Skynet-esque AI carries out a limited war against an equally intelligent spy drone, who is deliberately programmed to be emotional as a means of subverting her rival’s logic. Abandoned by their creators and facing possible annihilation due to the “sickie” in their midst, there is a genuine sense of tension on the part of the robots. Thus the machines’ struggle for survival is a meaningful one.
There is also some interesting subtext coming off the symbiotic relationship between Alyssa and her bio-engineered “aut”. Although the description of Balla the Aut left me with images of Moon’s Gerty hybridized with a Skrill from Earth: Final Conflict, the creature allowed for some insights into a culture ordered on ideology rather than nationality. Fascinating as they these details are, they do little to move the story forward.
Even if A Host of Leeches is somewhat inconsistent in its pacing, the writing is clever enough to begin as one story, manipulate the reader’s expectations, and then end on a somewhat different trajectory.
A Strand in the Web by Anne Bishop
Arguably the strongest novella within the collection, A Strand in the Web is an environmentally themed story of human Diaspora. Set aboard a massive city-ship, the plot follows a team of students in terra-forming school. Fair warning, there is a certain amount of teenage drama as Willow, the novella’s central character, gains access to a special project wherein she is appointed a full “Restorer” in charge of creating a balanced ecosystem on remote island on a nameless dead planet. Yet a decided lack of teenage angst, the presence of adult responsibilities on the part of Willow and her paramour, and fantastic story telling make this piece suitable for audiences older than the characters.
Though it describes a cold and sterile environment, there’s a seductive quality about the prose. Bishop creates a setting rich with its own sense of internal history. At the same time, she never forces expository dialogue between the characters for the benefit of the audience. Emotional conflicts between the players become touchstones for the realities of a life encapsulated in a starship. Shipboard malfunctions underpin the essential frailty of life, a motif very much the core of this story. As much as the book prompts questions which demand immediate resolution, Bishop’s eloquent style reassures readers that answers will follow. When they do, they validate pre-existing hypotheses as much as they turn them on their ear.
With the organic cycle of life, death, and rebirth as a constant thematic catalyst, some elements of A Strand in the Web may seem predictable. Ultimately though, the narrative’s movement through those phases is satisfying. Certainly on par with Paolo Bacigalupi’s ability to wreck the world, A Strand in the Web stands apart by remaining cautiously optimistic in its belief that humanity is capable of redeeming itself.
Stranded by Anthony Francis
The anthology draws its name and cover art from this novella. Stranded offers two stories that gradually intersect with each other. The first explores adolescent power struggles after the fashion of Lord of the Flies – in this case it is a “might makes right” conflict divided along lines of gender and sexual identity. The second is a study in youthful rebellion provoked by over-achieving parents and grandparents as a consequence of quasi-immortality. Neither plot thread, nor their union in the second half of the story, particularly resonated with me.
Though the themes would certainly be more in tune with a younger reader, I question if the approach would work. Stranded boasts a strongly didactic tone during some sections of exposition. One character goes so far as to deliver a sermon on sexuality and equality, couching it within the story’s extensive, opaque, and ultimately irrelevant mythology. Though I can’t speak for a current YA audience, I remember viewing all attempts to edutaine as the worst sort of condescension.
I’ll also concede I would likely be more receptive to the story were it not for a very early imposition on my suspension of disbelief. Dr. Francis’ webpage speaks of his love of “hard science” within his Dakota Frost series of novels. Yet almost out of the gate Stranded discusses, “bodies grown slender and toned in zero-gee.” A 2005 article from Scientific American, James Patrick Kelly’s Breakaway, Backdown and Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress all suggest that toned athleticism is not a probable outcome of spending an appreciable duration of time in null gravity. This plot point becomes all the more troubling later in the story when the aforementioned zero-g denizens crash on a planet, yet are capable of doing more than rolling around under the agony of a gravity well.
By the end of the story I found my interest focused more on the details of the universe than the adventure at hand.
The Bottom Line
As the saying goes, two out of three isn’t bad. It’s more than enough for me to recommend the Stranded anthology with the caveat that the actual ebook edition shows more polish than my eARC. Bishop’s novella is as smart as it is heartbreaking. Gardner offers a unique twist on the man meets sentient machine trope. And Francis’ story exists within a rich setting, even if its approach and subject matter may not have much appeal for an adult reader.