Rip-Off! by John Scalzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I picked this up because one of its stories, Mary Robinette Kowal's "The Lady Astronaut of Mars" has been nominated for a Hugo. Twice, actually, but that's a whole other story. Like all anthologies, I found it had its high and low points. The good stories were really, really good, so I forgave the few I disliked.
The premise behind this anthology is that each of the authors took a famous first line, and wrote a whole other story following it. Some of the stories also borrowed other material, either from the same story or from others. All came up with an entirely different story, steeped in science fiction or fantasy elements.
"Fireborn" by Robert Charles Wilson posits a world where there are the upper class, called the fireborn, and the ordinary peons. Our ordinary human protagonists, Onyx and Jasper, stumble across one of the fireborn practicing her dance, and learn of the world within the privileged bubble. They're drawn into a contest taking place at Harvest, the prize being a trip to the Eye of the Moon. The question becomes, how much will the ordinary humans let themselves be used? Lightspeed Magazine has made this one available to read online. I found the concept behind this story interesting, and I liked Onyx's perspective.
"The Evening Line" by Mike Resnick tells the story of an ugly man winning big at the races, and his sudden influx of lady friends, vying to marry him for his money. The perspective character, Harry the Book, takes bets on which woman will win the day, while the man insists he has no interest in any of them. Women are painted as gold-digging harpies, devious and underhanded and sometimes violent. If you find stereotypes funny, you'll love this story. I did not.
"No Decent Patrimony" by Elizabeth Bear paints a future created when an elite few can take a treatment to live forever. Edward has just survived an explosion that killed his father, and invites an intrepid journalist to come interview him when he returns from the hospital. Conspicuous consumption means something very different in a world with subtropical temperatures in New England year round. One of my favorites.
"The Big Whale" by Allen M. Steele retells Moby Dick as a pulp detective novel. Many of Melville's other characters make cameos, as well. It was creative, but not terribly memorable.
"Begone" by Daryl Gregory was another favorite. It starts with the opening line of David Copperfield, then tells the story of a man kicked out of his own life. I won't spoil where it goes from there, because half the fun was in realizing where it was going, but anyone who loves 1960's sitcoms will get it sooner than those who prefer their TV from the last decade or two.
"The Red Menace" by Lavie Tidhar starts with the first line of The Communist Manifesto, and from there shows us an alternate version of the 1930's, where Russia has a whole other dimension to play around in, and only they have the technology for passing back and forth. Interesting concept, but I think I was supposed to feel more of an attraction between Anna and our perspective character. There was too much politics cluttering up their romance. Or, there was too much romance cluttering up the politics. Either way, it didn't quite work.
"Muse of Fire" by John Scalzi tells of Ben Patton, a scientist working with plasma. His muse, Hestia, is trapped in Hell, but, if he can stabilize the plasma state, she'll be free. He's the only one who can see her. But, as his project comes closer to the testing phase, his co-worker, Rebecca, seems more and more interested in him. And Hestia is a jealous muse. This one is available as a separate ebook. I enjoyed it, though it wasn't my favorite, as with many other readers before me. It had the most recognizable narrator, certainly.
"Writer's Block" by Nancy Kress starts with Edward Bulwer-Lytton's famous "It was a dark and stormy night," and shows a writer struggling with where the story goes from there. Her writer has a few good ideas of where it goes from there, but his wife criticizes all of his ideas. Then he finds incontrovertible evidence she's been cheating on him, and that she's poisoning him, too. And just who is Violet, and why does she keep showing up? I'm amused by metafiction, so I liked it.
"Highland Reel" by Jack Campbell is set in the Scottish Highlands, and tells the story of Mary Chisholm. She's lost her land, her family, her very identity. Until she treks back to take back her home, and finds a village full of strong, attractive Highlanders where sheep pastures used to be. It seems too good to be true, but she doesn't discover the truth of it until she meets a young British soldier, there to find soldiers to fight at Crimea. This story snuck up on me, and I wound up liking it a lot.
"‘Karin Coxswain’ Or ‘Death As She Is Truly Lived’" by Paul Di Filippo starts with the first line of Huck Finn, and retells the tale as a female boat captain on the River Styx. Karin is more Tom Sawyer than Huck, and the tale is a lot more grown up than the one Mark Twain tells. When her ex-husband shows up on her boat, she agrees to help him get his girlfriend back from one of the Lords of Hell. But only because it's so amusing to watch him fail. I had my quibbles about this story, but it's ultimately funny and irreverent.
"The Lady Astronaut of Mars" by Mary Robinette Kowal calls up Bradbury-era SF, with its punch card technology and nostalgic view of a time that never was. It's available to read online, on Tor.com. It's touching and sweet, and I shouldn't have listened to it before a site visit, because it almost made me cry. I loved it. Worthy of a Hugo nomination.
"Every Fuzzy Beast of the Earth, Every Pink Fowl of the Air" by Tad Williams tells an alternate account of the creation of the world, as influenced by God's daughter, Sophia. She has the angels quite confused with her changes, like allowing birds to fly and putting fish in the water. She decides bugs need to hide underground or in rocks and trees because they're gross. While Gabriel frets about how God will take all this, Metatron observes all of this with a kind of fascinated wonder. I thought this story was cute.
"Declaration" by James Patrick Kelly didn't seem like the best choice to wrap up the anthology. It tells of a near-future where people can fully immerse themselves in the online world, and of the teenagers fighting to be allowed to spend all of their time in that world. Remeny (Hungarian for "hope") wasn't the best choice of narrator for the story. She follows around the ones making decisions and taking a stand, but her role is only to observe. Once she gets all of the pertinent information, she signs off, accepting the decisions other people have made.
This collection was released as an audio book. That's the only form you can get all of the stories in, though you can find some in SF magazines or other anthologies. For the most part, the narrators were a good choice, though the last one seemed to ignore context entirely, thereby changing the meanings behind a lot of interactions.
Overall, I liked it. The high points were excellent, and the low points were forgivable for the stories framing them. If you want a good sampling of what speculative fiction writers can do, this seems a fair representation.
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