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Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep

Posted: 30 June, 2015 at 4:14 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

As our Russian friends often say, the world is becoming multi-polar and I, personally, couldn’t be happier. A world dominated by only one culture is a stultifying place, flensed of nuance, and our understanding of the human condition can only be improved by taking on board many cultures and perspectives, and discovering that the commonalities and differences between “us” and “them” can only add to the richness of our own life tapestries.

It was with this in mind that I thought I would break a little with SFRQ tradition and review a speculative fiction anthology from Sweden, published by Affront Publishing. Owner of Affront and anthology editor, Peter Öberg had this to say when I asked him about the book and its publishing home.

focus-sweden“I started Affront Publishing in 2012 when no other publisher was willing to release a pet project of mine,” Peter says. “It was a non-fiction book about Nordic science fiction films. Since then I’ve edited four science fiction anthologies – three with the title “Maskinblod” (“Machine Blood”) and the fourth, an erotic collection titled “Kärlek i maskinernas tid” (“Love in the Age of Machines”). Unfortunately for your readers, all those anthologies were in Swedish.”

What prompted Peter to produce a speculative anthology in English? “The market in Sweden is small, and many readers primarily read English language SF, but since the mainstream media don’t understand the genre, they rarely write about it. I was interested in reaching a larger audience, so I asked around for authors who were interested in contributing stories in English.

“I finally collected twenty-six stories representing modern day Swedish SF, with some forays into horror, steampunk and urban fantasy. To make sure the quality of the language is up to the standards a native English speaker might expect, several American beta readers have been involved. You’ll also note that of the twenty-six authors, thirteen are female and thirteen male.”

Gender equality, a truly cross-genre set of offerings and different cultural perspectives? How could I resist? Let’s dig in.

“Melody of the Yellow Bard” by Hans Olsson is a first-person story about Rasmus Ekblad, an extremely gifted physics student who is invited to a mysterious island by an equally mysterious man called Clayton. When Rasmus sees what Clayton and the head of the institute have to show him, he realises that he must rewrite the entire framework in which he has been living.

This story has a tried-and-true plot, a young man (from his thinking and mannerisms, I imagined a highly functioning person suffering from autism spectrum disorder) is wooed by a secretive institute investigating otherwordly objects and those worlds themselves. While the plot is solid and intriguing, it is brought down by occasional info-dumps that interrrupt the dialogue flow. And the characters remain flat throughout. While that was perfectly understandable for Rasmus, it grated with others who could only “smile”, “smirk” or remark on something in an avancular manner. The accompanying “redshirts” die, of course. Having said that, the issues I have with this story are easily rectified, and only serve to momentarily distract from the central premise of wormholes and the incomprehensible wonder—and danger—of beholding worlds beyond ours. I do have to ask, though: why is it, whenever several people are running away, it’s always the woman who stumbles and falls? Sigh. Despite these niggles and the marked resemblance to the TV series Stargate, I give the story a C.

“The Rats” by Boel Bermann describes the attitude of a scientific researcher towards the animals he experiments on. But his attitude of empathy and emotion is actually a virus transmitted by the rats themselves, a clear liability as the country faces an epidemic of fatal proportions. How can a person who understands the society of the rats be effective in a position that requires their eradication?

I liked this story a lot, especially as I know of someone who did, indeed, give up research work when she saw how rats would attempt to shield the one that was due to be experimented on. Matching the urgency of the story, the language used is direct and powerful and it isn’t difficult to imagine the panic of the authorities, the fear sweeping the population, and the way our researcher narrator is pulled in several different directions. The researcher’s final act is satisfying and surprising, only let down by the thought that I have previously read many stories of this ilk. Despite that, I have no hesitation in giving this story an B+.

We have our third first-person tale in “Getting to the End” by Erik Odeldahl, when a “finder” gets a job from a beautiful, mysterious woman to retrieve something very valuable from an old house in the dreaded “Event Sector”. To me, the story resembles a cross between Sam Spade and the Strugatsky brothers’ “Roadside Picnic” where the aliens (the “visitors”) never left. The prose stumbles only in a few places, and is delightfully tight and evocative, moving from noir to a ghostly post-apocalyptic vista and on to cyberpunk with barely a glitch. There are so many images here, so many threads, so much atmosphere that Odeldah could have easily built an entire novel from this story’s premise. I hope he does. Easily the equal of “Finch” by Jeff Van Dermeer (which was a bit disappointing at the end), I rate “Getting to the End” an A.

It’s a world of rich, powerful elites and two young women desperate to gain entry where Ingrid Remvall has set her story, “Vegatropolis – City of the Beautiful”. But the elites aren’t humans. They’re AAIGPs, Advanced Artificial Intelligence Goes Perfect, and the world is full of body tech, personalised projection billboards, and holographic musical instruments, freely available to the rich, but out of reach to poor, working-class humans.

It’s nice to read some YA sci-fi and I found the vision of this society compelling. The story starts with Vega, a young woman, gate-crashing a party with her friend, Maxine, and ends when Vega realises that even she, a mere human, has something to offer the magical AAIGPs. But no, it doesn’t conclude happily, if that’s what you’re wondering. A solid B.

We finally begin moving away from first-person narratives with “Jump to the Left, Jump to the Right” by Love Kölle. A spaceship crash-lands on a planet, and all the adults are killed. The surviving children are guided by the ship’s computer, called the Holopedia and, over generations, the relationship between computer and descendants develops into an initiation ritual. Norna is the reluctant initiate of the story, whose time has come to be “Passed” and take her place in Nuhome. But, in order to do so, she must confront Holopedia, find meaning in its words and defeat Beast.

The rite-of-passage is a common plot in SF, particularly in far future post-apocalyptic worlds. In the same way, although set on an alien planet, the atmosphere of “Jump to the Left, Jump to the Right” is reminiscent of Anthony Burgess’ “Hothouse”, but with humour, optimism, and a plucky young heroine. I give “Jump to the Left, Jump to the Right” a B-.

If you’ve ever seen those giant rubbish dumps in Pakistan, children scurrying over them as they try to locate anything worth a few cents, then the setting of “The Order of Things” by Lupina Ojala will be familiar to you. Outside the city walls, the trash from the city’s inhabitants forms the only largesse to communities of Outskirters, scavenging for clothing, machines and food. Ida’s son has left his community, looking for a better life, and she is left in ironically-named Serenity to worry and eke out a living as best she can. But Ida has a past that’s different to the rest of Serenity’s inhabitants. She was originally part of the city on the other side of those walls, and an accident involving her only son won’t let her forget that.

“The Order of Things” is a complex tale. Too complex for its length. The world is bigger than a short story will allow for, and decisions are made without the weight of conviction backing them up. When it comes to events, this can be excused, but not when it comes to emotions. And will someone please remember that “discretely” and “discreetly” mean two completely different things. I wanted to empathise with Ida’s many dilemmas, but felt kept at arms’ length to the proceedings. Still, the story is well-written and I hope Ojala will work with a tighter focus next time. I give this story a C+.

We’re back to first-person with “To Preserve Humanity” by Christina Nordlander. The narrator is a robot that acts as a house-servant. Another robot, Dom-5214, had subversive ideas after getting a kick to the processor and, before it became inoperational, it passed those ideas to our narrator robot, who decides to suggest executing on them.

Again, as with “”The Order of Things”, there’s a shorthand here that interferes with painting a complete picture of the world. I like the direct logic of the robot, but wanted to know more about how the robotic society is structured. Why do the Physicians seem to have more autonomy than the Maids? There’s an implicit assumption of class here (and with robots!) that I’m not sure I’m comfortable with. I’ve picked up another problem that also occurs in one of the other stories: it’s “two-storey”, not “two-story”…unless the house tells tales, of course. I give it a C+.

“The Thirteenth Tower” by Pia Lindestrand suggests that a future Earth will be a water world, peopled by Bird-eaters, the more unfortunate fish-eaters and the lucky few who have hoarded soil on the Big Boats and so can eat plants. Our protagonist and her sister own a little boat. It is their home and their refuge, but a potential meal turns out to be a mechanical device from long ago, and it tells the sisters of a time when people walked on dry land, in a city called Prague.

The imagery is enchanting in this story, enough to lift it above some glitches, but it would have soared with a heavier editorial hand. I would call this story science fantasy, because the background of the Deluge is never explained, as it fits with the imagery and the strangely informative feathered toy. I give it a B-.

We move to steampunk with “Punch Card Horses” by Jonas Larsson, and poor Lage. He has only come to market to get a replacement ox, but fate has other ideas and, before he knows it, he has bought himself a contrivance instead. And, in order to master one new mechanical device, he needs to purchase another. And another. And another again. All at a cheery discount, of course, as the salesman keeps telling him. The market town (Skrivsjö) keeps changing and progressing as well. It’s all a little too much for Lage to cope with.

I liked the sly humour of this piece and, as a person who personally upgrades components of her own machines (and constantly gets told that the parts she’s after are now either “unavailable” or “obsolete”), could relate to Lage and his ongoing problems. Even the macabre ending made me smile. This story gets a wholly emotional rating of A- for me.

Many years ago, I read that the first Harry Potter book had to be renamed “The Sorcerer’s Stone” because North American readers didn’t know what a “Philosopher’s Stone” was. A mainstay of alchemy, the Philosopher’s Stone was reputed to be an object that, as a catalyst, would enable the transmutation from a base metal (such as lead) to gold. And so we’re introduced to “The Philosopher’s Stone” by Tora Greve. In the drawing-room of Sir Robert Boyle, a group of prominent scientists, also intensely interested in mysticism, discuss their own transmutation experiments and how they need the Stone in order to turn mercury to gold. In actual fact, alchemists didn’t try to change mercury into gold, but used mercury compounds as a possible intermediate step (and leading candidate for a Philosopher’s Stone) in order to change other metals into gold. However, the spiritual dedication demanded of alchemists is correct.

There’s a little too much showing and not enough doing in this otherwise interesting story that combines science, metaphysics and aliens. There are sparks there that could’ve burst into flame, but it didn’t happen. Again, some tighter editing wouldn’t have gone astray. Some scenes were quite choppy and seemed forced, rather than flowing naturally. There were also some interesting word choices: “Barrow repented that he had chosen the open vehicle”, “A true alchemist must resolve himself up wholly to it”, “It struck Barrow that their adversity against each other had ceased…” I rate it a C.

Player 3 is determined to win the annual gaming tournament of the Norsborg General Gaming Club, and get all the privileges of being Club Secretary, in “A Sense of Foul Play” by Andrew Coulthard. But the game is being put together by an untried AI Mind, and it has its own agenda. Coulthard tries for a fully-realised world in this tale, but doesn’t quite hit the mark. The motivation for being Club Secretary, for example, felt tacked on, rather than an intrinsic drive on the part of Player 3. It could have been left out without affecting the story at all which, I suspect, was not intended. Despite this, I liked this take on cyberpunk horror and rate it a C+.

“Waste of Time” by Alexandra Nero takes a figure of speech and turns it round completely as it describes the transfer of timewaste by robots who’ve missed a few service calls. I wish I could call this a short story but it has more of a feel of a vignette, a snapshot that hints at a deeper story but doesn’t attempt to go there. I wish it had. C+.

Johannes Pinter decides to go for a psycho-thriller vibe in “The Damien Factor”. A therapist, Kirkegaard (ha!), and ex-cop, Lucas, delve into a young girl’s subconscious in order to find the truth in a criminal sex abuse case. It’s not a pretty topic and Pinter doesn’t spare the reader as he uses our curiosity to draw us in, much as the villain of the piece has done. There are small, yet satisfying, hints of the larger world outside the laboratory, and the story is well-crafted, except for one thing. I have noticed in this anthology a common eccentricity. Rather than relating events as A-B-C, we get A-C + flashback to B. This ploy can work but, in my opinion, most of the time all it ends up doing is disconcert the reader and slow any action to a crawl. In a story like “The Damien Factor” that is the last thing that’s needed and an unfortunate tactic to take. The story’s tension suffers as a result. B- from me.

“Wishmaster” by Andrea Grave-Müller is a nice change of pace from the preceding grimness, opening with a goblin clinging to the back of a garbage truck. Post-divorce IT Support worker and human, Marcus Jensen, takes pity on goblin, Ella, and—when they meet again—he shelters her at his home. Ella has stolen something and wants to return it, but that’s easier said than done. Marcus is pining for a beautiful co-worker and wants her to at least acknowledge his existence, but that’s easier said than done, too. And the owner of the stolen item is desperate to get her possession back. All three get what they what. In a way. An entertaining urban fantasy, I’d revisit Müller’s universe anytime, even though I don’t consider myself much of a fantasy fan. A solid B.

“Quadrillennium” by AR Yngve is a story of a post-human celebration of the Winter Solstice, complete with crucified Saviour. It is the story of what happens when, with the best of intentions, one obeys the letter of the law rather than the spirit. The story is humorous and sly, improving on a re-read, and I give it a B.

We’re in MilSF territory with “Mission Accomplished” by My Bergström, with a lone soldier tasked with evacuating as many civilians from a lunar base as she can after a sudden enemy attack. Much SFR is MilSF-based, so I’ve probably reached saturation with this sub-genre, but it will no doubt satisfy readers eager for more. B-.

“The Road” by Anders Blixt follows the path of a marshal tasked with keeping the peace along a trading route that stretches from the coast up into the highlands. The marshal has been mutilated from a botched campaign she undertook in the past, and there’s much to admire in her calm and stoicism. But her sense of equanimity cracks when she confronts a fleeing member of the Forsaken. This story kept changing voices, from the arcane that always seems to get used in fantasy stories (“The Ekklesia has appointed Brod shrine-shepherd in Teritha and I’m his acolyte” or “The breach of his celibacy vow is a disciplinary matter…and of no concern to me”) to a more contemporary cadence (“It’s more complicated than you think” or “…for them you’re just another weird foreigner”). This is a pity, as the story itself is engaging and heartfelt. I give it a B+.

“Lost and Found”by Maria Haskins is an intriguing look at the sole survivor of a capsule crash and what she does to keep herself occupied while waiting to be rescued. All I could think, after reading this story, was that psych tests are there for a reason. Tight and evocative, the only thing that lets this story down is a tangent that’s left dangling at the end. If not for that, I would have scored it as an A. As it stands, I give it a B.

Patrik Centerwall’s “The Publisher’s Reader” hits the spot for all authors who’ve wondered how to classify their books. Helga is a reader (but, really, more an editor) who’s tasked with reading the work of licensed writers, to make sure they abide by “the rules”, before pushing qualifying manuscripts out to the wider public via their ereaders. But her new writer is breaking all the rules and, yet, is so brilliant, Helga can’t stop reading. What should she do? A nice change of pace, with a killer last line, I rate this story as an A-.

We’re back to bleak with “Stories from the Box” by Björn Engström, about a nameless man who’s been imprisoned in a small, cramped box. An unknown amount of time passes, and he resigns himself to dying while entrapped, when the lock on his box suddenly opens and he topples out. My issues with the story revolve around technicalities. Having rested against a rusty iron surface myself, I can say that it does not feel like “smooth softness”. And someone who has been imprisoned inside such a contraption, where he can’t even stretch out his legs, would not be able to stand up and walk within minutes of release. I found this story to be more a dystopic travelogue than anything else, but competently written. B-.

KG Johansson takes us back to the good old days of H Rider Haggard-type adventures in “The Membranes in the Centering Horn”. With great white adventurers, deceitful natives, otherworldly treasures, a struggle at the edge of a precipice, and an enduring and tantalising mystery, Johansson updates the tropes for a modern audience and does a terrific job of it. As what one would call a “mixed-blood native” myself, I thoroughly approve. A solid A.

If you’ve ever read Joe Haldeman’s “The Forever War”, you’ll know where Oskar Källner is coming from in “One Last Kiss Goodbye”. An interstellar traveller returns to her home and to the man she left behind. To her, it’s been eight years since she left Earth; to him, several decades. He is eaten up with bitterness and loss but there is one more thing she wants from him. Will he give it? Källner gets the dialogue spot on in this relative love story, and I’ve noted him down as an author to read more of. The story itself is poignant and, even though we know how it must end, strangely satisfying. Highly recommended. A.

“The Mirror Talks” by Sara Kopljar is not for the faint of heart. After losing her child, a woman orders an android replica as a replacement but comes to the conclusion that part of the joy in raising a real child is watching as its personality matures and blossoms, something a pre-programmed android will never do. The subsequent actions of the mother are brutal, vicious…and entirely understandable, driven by grief and revenge. If you’ve read Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary”, you may have an inkling of the kind of brutality I’m talking about, but if you’re a sensitive soul, don’t read this story. I would have rated this story higher but for the entirely superfluous second diary entry. As it stands, it gets a B- from me.

“Keep Fighting Until the Machines Fall Asleep” by Eva Holmquist places us in a world of ever-present surveillance and the perspective of one young woman who dreams of a future without AI interference. An interesting story, “Keep Fighting Until the Machines Fall Asleep” is bogged down by sloppy editing and punctuation. It also hit one of my hot buttons: “discrete” and “discreet” are Two. Separate. Words. They are not interchangeable. Learn the difference. C+.

The master cloud—a dark mass drifting through space, swallowing everything that travels into it—is on the move in “Outpost Eleven” by Markus Sköld, and Marta, newly-minted commander of Outpost Eleven must monitor it and take whatever action she deems necessary, oblivious to the horror of the reality she is about to confront.

Unfortunately, this story comes across as rather half-baked. There are slips that are unintentionally funny (e.g. “it could probably cover the entire region of space…save for a few really remote planets”; “…there is nothing alive on the station. Not even any anomalous heat signatures”), incorrect (e.g. “How many times she’s sat there, looking out the enormous panoramic window?”), or just don’t make time-sense. Marta has only been a commander on Outpost Eleven for thirty minutes, yet we’re told the outpost has been her home for the “last five years”. In which case, why is she carrying around a piece of paper that she found “when she came aboard, just a few hours ago”? There are enough questions here to detract severely from the plot. Space adventure seems like it should be easy to write, but it demands a mastery of time, tense and events that is missing from “Outpost Eleven”. Better luck next time, but this one is an unfortunate D.

We’re back to first-person with “Messiah”, Anna Jakobsson Lund’s take on the choices one makes. The one they call the Messiah really is the saviour, the person who has the potential to guide mankind to a better—or, at least, a less dismal—future, but the path to hope isn’t clear and successive failures have taken their toll. This is the kind of story that usually wins awards, but it’s a little too cryptic for my taste, illuminated by one brief exchange that I had to go back and re-read. Maybe positioning is the issue. I progressed through the entire anthology, to the final story out of a selection of twenty-six, and it sucks what little energy I thought I had left out of me. I give it a B-.

The anthology, “Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep” is a fine and varied selection of speculative fiction from Sweden. While I may quibble with the grammar and punctuation, the level of English is at a high standard. If I have any issues with the anthology as a whole, it’s that it’s not as tightly edited as I would have liked. And, one more thing. Line breaks may work well to separate sections in print books of PDFs, but are ignored when rendering for Epub or Mobi on digital screens. I know that the first line of each new section was left non-indented, but this was a subtle indicator and, without a clearer signpost, I lost too much time switching mental gears.

Western readers will find much here that is familiar, but also enough to give a glimpse of a different cultural perspective, one that is much more female-friendly than the Anglo norm. I look forward to reading more Swedish specfic in the future and wish all the writers, and Affront Publishing, the best for their future careers.

To purchase a copy of the anthology for yourself, go to the anthology’s page at Affront Publishing.

KS “Kaz” Augustin

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