In the introduction to the Anthology of European SF, editors Cristian Tamaş and Roberto Mendes outline their intention to use an exploration of European identity as the framework for an anthology of science fiction. Specifically, they assert that “Europe has a political union and a common market, but not a cultural common market or a publishing common market.” As a result, the editors are keen to showcase this collection as a means of mobilizing Europe’s native talent for a European audience while also bringing it to the world at large.
As a result the Anthology of European SF is rather broad in its approach to the genre. For example, Ian R. MacLeod’s The Dead Orchards opens the book with a story that lands at the intersection of fantasy, post-apocalyptic story-telling, and horror. Jetse de Vries’ Transcendent Express stands out as classic “hard” SF, and is perhaps one of the best stories of the anthology for the effort. There’s even a bit of Lovecraftian horror, in both style and form, from Liviu Radu’s Digits Are Cold, Numbers Are Warm. Even without the safety net of an explicit theme or trope to hold the anthology together, a great many of these stories are strong enough to stand on their own. Generally those tales which fall short of the mark do so in terms of failing to present a measurable conflict; the strength of their prose is undeniable, but from my point of view a story must do more than build a world and end on a note of introspection.
Starsong by Aliette de Bodard
As a rule, I tend to avoid recognizing reprints in this section of my anthology reviews. I think I better serve my readers by highlighting new works of fiction, rather than dwelling on stories which have already received an initial publication credit, and likely critical praise, outside of the anthology. I’m happily breaking this rule for Starsong.
The first few hundred words of Starsong almost put me off the story. The prose is elegant but somewhat difficult to parse. Further adding to the story’s opaque nature is a structure which shifts between ethereal and temporal narratives. Whatever confusion I initially felt, however, was put aside as the two layers effortlessly folded into each other. By the end of my first read through, I couldn’t believe I had even considered writing off the write-off. Mea culpa.
Starsong grounds its inner/outer universe dialogues in terms of a double story about humanity’s relationship to technology and its relationship to itself. It does so through focusing on a young woman’s marginalization from society at large. While this motif is nothing new within science fiction, Starsong pulls at the threads of this vast tapestry in a very compelling way. Ideas of racism and alienation are teased as to make the reader wonder if the “other” is indeed a literal alien. This was the hook for me. The finisher was when the story made me wonder why I thought the former question was somehow a relevant distinction.
For its ability to blend contemporary issues of racism, race loyalty, and xenophobia within a far-future human civilization, Starsong is not a story to be missed.
Repeat Performances by Carmelo Rafala
It is a rare and wonderful thing to see a story which is so much bigger than the few thousand words it comprises. Using near-future Mexico as a setting, Repeat Performances invokes elements of Latin American culture as a base for the story’s extended metaphors – FYI: de Bodard’s story does the same thing. How interesting that this part of the world prove such a fertile ground for European storytelling.
The conflict at hand is driven by an attempt to reclaim agency and reunite family within a world of exploitative flesh traders and post-humans who have symbiotic relationships with alien parasites. I believe this to be something of an intentional commentary in that all of the story’s post-humans are all children who have willingly embraced having their bodies changed at the hands of an extraterrestrial McGuffin. Where children are curious enough to forfeit part of their humanity to become something else, the adults only seem capable of recognizing an opportunity to appropriate something for their own ends.
Though this was my first exposure to Rafala’s writing, I think I would gladly read a novel set within this world.
News from a Dwarf Universe by Dănuţ Ungureanu
A very simple concept drives News from a Dwarf Universe: that of a machine capable of shrinking anything and then returning said object to its original size. Using a documentarian’s voice, Ungureanu shows how this technology could usher in a golden age for humanity, at least until a significant percentage of the population gets stuck in their shrunk down state. In that light, it is hard not to look at this story as a parable on the dangers of becoming dependent upon a technology which is not fully understood.
Beyond that, this piece is commendable for its efficiency in storytelling. It’s one thing to read a work of fiction where the author says “what if” with a new piece of technology. Witnessing Ungureanu introduce said technology only to remove it, and in turn showing the ways in which this upsets the apple cart, all while working within the confines of short fiction is no small (no pun intended) achievement.
While News from a Dwarf Universe is something of a lesson in hubris, it’s also an optimistic, if cautionary, tale on a sustainable lifestyle.
The Bottom Line
If the goals of this anthology were to A) expose readers to quality content from the European science fiction community and B) promote ISF Magazine and Europa SF at large, then I would say mission accomplished. The majority of the stories in this anthology are quite good, and a few are absolutely great. Those that failed to deliver, for me at least, did so because actual story proved secondary to style, remarkable as the latter may have been. Overall, the Anthology of European SF is a solid read and a promise of great things to come from its editors and parent publisher.
The Anthology of European SF
Edited by Cristian Tamaş and Roberto Mendes
Published by ISF Magazine and Europa SF