The Book of Apex Vol. 4
Ed.: Lynne Thomas
And my turn has arrived in the Book of Apex Blog Tour. I’ve had a few weeks to mull over this post, wondering how best to approach a broad, challenging collection of stories. In some ways, this is all the more difficult for me. Why? If all genre readers were forced to swear blood oaths and give fealty to a single magazine, I would probably owe my allegiance to Analog. In fact, of everyone in the blogging circle I consider myself a part of, I am probably the most committed to traditional, science-y science fiction. Characterization is nice, but what I really want is a rigorously constructed FTL drive and some sort of stellar empire. (Preferably one with a realistic and logical economy.) I can only imagine that our benevolent Tour Despot, Little Red, was chuckling evilly to herself when asking me to join the party, possibly with a mental picture of me holding the book (and it’s a very nice book) muttering, “What on earth am I supposed to do with all of these goths, faeries, and weirdos? And the FEELINGS! I hate feelings!”
So, yes. There are emotions, characters, themes, man’s inhumanity to man, tattoos, fae, and all sorts of things I am not normally comfortable with. This is a good thing though, because it forces me to push my own boundaries, read things I wouldn’t normally read, and think things I wouldn’t normally think. These personal challenges sit at the very heart of genre fiction and are some of the very reasons we read it to begin with. I can’t honestly call myself a student of the genre if I willfully ignore whatever stories lie just beyond that next mountain, or at the back of this unexplored cave.
With that, we have established that, like broccoli and Brussels sprouts, The Book of Apex is Good for You. Thankfully, like well-prepared broccoli and Brussels sprouts, it is also very good. The sheer breadth of the collection astounds me. There are failed marriages and beauty pageants. There are gods and devils of several varieties, traditionally Christian and non-; at one point Hell’s baker makes an appearance in Puritan New England. Zombie redemption happens. Faery and All Quiet on the Western Front produce a disturbed offspring. All the stupid people get killed, twice, while armless maidens roam the American West. The world ends with instantaneous horror. Abusive lesbian relationships are resolved and real fairies hang out in Renaissance fairs. Have I left anything out? (Quite a bit, actually.) There is something here for everyone! Well, everyone that needs more twisted craziness in their lives.
Awkward segue alert. Every couple of months, I read an article somewhere proclaiming that jazz is dead. It has failed the masses, lost its relevance, given up its commercially viable ghost, gotten too abstract, dumbed itself down, is wedded tragically to convention, has brutally evicted tradition, or committed some other fatal sin. I have yet to figure out what metric defines the death of an art, but I do know that these kind of articles have been appearing regularly since at least the late 1940s, when Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie started blowing bebop. I am guessing that within days of the very first jazz performance, whenever that may have been, someone was already heralding its demise.
The above may seem completely unrelated, but swap out “jazz” with “science fiction,” change a few dates and names, and light bulbs may go on. Have we had this conversation before? Perhaps within the last year or so? I often find it instructive to compare jazz and SF because I think them strikingly similar on many levels. In this case, both are subject to constant doom-mongering, while the real question is, for now at least, an issue of medium transition rather than genre death. (Silicon discs replaced by megabytes and dead trees giving way to ebooks and webpages, respectively.) I am a long time consumer and creator of both, and I cannot think of a time in recent memory when the number of people involved has been greater, or the levels at which they create has been higher. There are commercial worries to be sure, but any serious listener/reader/creator of either cannot fail to be excited when surveying the innovations and offerings appearing weekly, even daily.
This is a winding scenic route to take when talking about Apex, but there is a connection! I won’t say that every story in the collection spoke to me. I will even confess to not being the target audience for this sort of weirdness. (It may be telling that the first book I picked up after Apex was a Jack McDevitt novel.) But all 33 of the stories show a writer, many of them very young, pushing at a different boundary of genre fiction. Not just innovating inside established territory, they are actively seeking new ground to explore. In some it is thematic, in others with advanced conceptualization or world building. It appears with a wider variety than ever of source materials, drawn from mythology and society the world over. In many, the stories directly engage with issues right now, not just fake European landscapes or far-future engineering. It is proof of the vitality within speculative fiction/fantastika/whatever it is we call the whole crazy thing, and of the bright future that awaits. I can’t think of any better answer to someone bemoaning the current state of the genre than to force feed him Apex publications.
To wrap things up, I will just mention my favorites of the bunch. (Please see other reviews for more detailed descriptions.) Valente’s “The Bread We Eat in Dreams” is amazing, as all Valente is. (The aforementioned Hell’s baker let loose among Puritans.) Genevieve Valentine delivers a story the equal of the title in “Armless Maidens of the American West.” Katharine Duckett’s “Sexagesimal” is the most mind-bending of the bunch. (Memory as post-death currency – please read her amazing guest post from earlier in the week.) “During the Pause” is Adam Troy-Castro’s take on the end of the world and is pretty much the worst thing that could ever happen. Finally, Eugie Foster’s “Trixie and the Pandas of Dread” drops the mic for everything. (Angry, but cute, gods smiting jerks and losers.) At least four or five more deserve mention, but this should give a good idea of what is on offer.
To sum up: The Book of Apex Vol. 4 is stuffed to the gills with high-quality, twisted, prickly, deranged, hallucinogenic glimpses into the future of speculative fiction. Guaranteed to set portions of every reader’s brain on fire while raising the ire of the stodgy old guard, it’s a great way to start the year.