by Charlie Jane Anders
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: November 16, 2021
Genres: Science Fiction
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
In her short story collection, Even Greater Mistakes, Charlie Jane Anders upends genre cliches and revitalizes classic tropes with heartfelt and pants-wettingly funny social commentary.
The woman who can see all possible futures is dating the man who can see the one and only foreordained future.
A wildly popular slapstick filmmaker is drawn, against his better judgment, into working with a fascist militia, against a background of social collapse.
Two friends must embark on an Epic Quest To Capture The Weapon That Threatens The Galaxy, or else they’ll never achieve their dream of opening a restaurant.
The stories in this collection, by their very outrageousness, achieve a heightened realism unlike any other. Anders once again proves she is one of the strongest voices in modern science fiction, the writer called by Andrew Sean Greer, “this generation’s Le Guin.”
While I haven’t read any of Charlie Jane Anders’ novels, I’d read a lot of her work on Tor, and very much enjoyed her bookstore short story that I’d read as part of a year’s best anthology. I’ve loved anthologies since I was a kid, as the yearly SFF anthologies were one of the few genre things my small childhood library could be guaranteed to carry. It’s how I got introduced to many of my favorite authors, and even today it’s a favorite way of mine to find new and different voices. So I was absolutely ticked when, in the introduction, the author refers to anthologies as speed-dating with authors! In that case, as this is a set of nineteen short stories spanning the author’s career, this is more like yearly coffee dates perhaps. Each story is preceded by a short introduction that explains what inspired it, as well as content warnings.
“Short stories are dangerous: tiny sparks of pure narrative fire that burn hotter because they snuff out sooner.”
The first story, “As Good as New”, was one of my favorites, telling the story about a woman at the end of the world who discovers a genie in a bottle. But the genie actually used to be a theatre critic and the woman gave up her dreams of being a playwright for pre-med, and anyway, it’s the end of the world, so maybe they should just sit around and binge watch The Facts of Life. It’s the sort of quirky mix of humor and horror that Anders navigates well, and it was the perfect opener for this anthology.
As for stories that didn’t work as well for me, two of the stories, “If You Take My Meaning” and “Clover”, are actually follow-ups to her novels. I found the first a bit hard to get into – it was obvious there was a lot of backstory I was missing – but ultimately enjoyed it, while the second I felt like I never quite got the point of. “Rat Catcher’s Yellows” was interesting, a shorthand version of The Speed of Dark where people with a certain illness retreat into themselves but excel at a complicated kingdom building game, but parts of it scratched me wrong.
“All my life, there had been a giant empty space, a huge existential void, that had needed to be filled by something, and I had never realized that that thing was the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile, with its sleek red hot-dog battering ram surrounded by a metal bun.”
And then you have the stories that appear to be absolutely ridiculous (or just bizarre) fluff that cover a deeper meaning. “Rock Manning Goes for Broke” is about a self-trained stunt guy who does, well, stunts-gone-wrong slapstick videos, and then tries to, you know, speak out against a tyrannical government with one. As one does. “A Temporary Embarrassment in Spacetime” is along the same vein, two space rogues just trying to make enough money to buy gas by robbing giant sentient divine blobs. (Also as one does?) “Captain Roger in Heaven” somewhat goes along with that vibe, as the initial take is “oops I started a sex cult” but then turns into musing on the calcification of religion.
“Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue” is a complete change of pace from most of the stories, about a forced gender reassignment, and was predictably written in response to, uh, everything about the past four years. It’s a raging, unquiet story, very much unlike the rest of the stories that fool you with quirky characters and then wallop you over the head with the moral. The message, of defiantly holding tight to your self-identity, struck a chord with me, and it’s definitely a story I’ll be thinking about for a long time. “Love Might Be Too Strong a Word” plays with some of the same gender identity issues, but in a much more fanciful way, complete with star-crossed lovers set among the actual stars.
“I’ve got my eye on this one future, this one node way off in the distance, where I die aged 97, surrounded by lovers and grandchildren and cats. Whenever I have a big decision to make, I try to see the straightest path to that moment.”
As a romance lover, “Six Months, Three Days” was a favorite, telling the story of the relationship between a woman who sees all possible futures and a man who sees only the future as it will happen. They’ve both been looking forward to meeting the other for their entire lives, but they also both know that their inevitable breakup will be painful. The emotions – the love, the despair, even the contempt – leapt from the page.
“I think that’s what makes us such good time travelers, actually. [..] We are very experienced at being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and at doing whatever it takes to get ourselves to the right place and the right time.”
But my absolute favorite was “The Time Travel Club.” A recovering alcoholic stays after her meeting and meets a motley group of people, who are all pretending to be time travelers. There’s some fun science, but my favorite part was the assertion that you could be known through the stories you chose to make up as well as you’re known through the ones that are real. They are, in a very real sense, just as true.
“Falling in love with a community is always going to be more real than any love for a single human being could ever be.”
For all the different genres and silliness, most of the stories would be characterized as hopepunk, positivity – or at least, the insistence that things can change – in the face of even a dystopian end of the world. There’s also a large focus on community, on found families and partners and pets (or sentient bicycles), as the antidote for hopelessness and loneliness.
Overall, this collection is an assorted chocolates box of stories, where even if you don’t like one or two flavors, you’re sure to find at least one keeper. Highly recommended!