Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Review of Chimerascope

Review of Chimerascope by Douglas Smith, taken from Ideomancer.

There are few misses in Chimerascope, a superb collection of Douglas Smith’s previously published speculative fiction, stuffed with Aurora nominees (and one winner) and Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror honorable mentions. Spanning a wide spectrum of classic sci-fi, stories inspired by mythology, and post-apocalyptic fiction, this is an collection you’ll want to own and re-read.

Smith’s greatest talent lies in creating and then exploring worlds fashioned by posing a deceptively simple question. If a man awoke each morning and died each night, each time waking in someone else’s body, as in “A Taste Sweet and Salty,” would he be able to escape? What if, as in the book’s opening story, “Scream Angel,” an alien species secreted a chemical substance that warped humans’ emotional responses—changing extreme lows into torrid, wonderful highs?

His aliens are fully-fleshed, complicated beings with tangible challenges. They are occasionally horrific (as in the dark “By Her Hand, She Draws You Down,” populated by an entity that absorbs the life force of humans by drawing their portrait on paper). But more often, like his humans, they must make terrible decisions without the promise of a happy resolution. “Memories of a Dead Man,” for example, presents the titular character at a crossroads where he could choose to abandon his quest for vengeance, or wallow in it.

Few of Smith’s stories end on a feel-good note. In his introduction, he writes, “[M]y preferred ending is bittersweet, because that’s how I see life.” And nowhere is that more true than in “Going Harvey in the Big House,” narrated by a man who is—and eventually chooses to be—no more than a cog in the world’s wheel. Given the opportunity to cast down the machine, Big G walks down the easier road with no regrets. Flawed characters are the hardest to write because they are the most realistic: like us, they are plagued by doubts, insecurities, and are woefully void of foresight. Smith manages to capture the sympathy inherent in Big G’s decision; he is, after all, only human.

Another standout is the masterful “State of Disorder,” which contemplates the flexibility and fluidity of time. A number of events occur during a single, three-course dinner: the fortunes of two men are swapped, retrospectively, in time; a child’s life is erased permanently from the timeline; and finally, all three participants finish the meal with the knowledge of what has occurred, and how—one is triumphant, another despairing, and the third seeks revenge. In the hands of a less skillful writer, it would have been chaos.

An introduction to the book by editor and sci-fi novelist Julie Czerneda adds little, as this collection stands handily on its own legs. However, the author’s notes Smith provides before (and sometimes after, to avoid spoilers) the stories are tremendously interesting; each augments the tales with how the story came to be, and why it was written. Smith refers twice to Roger Zelazny, and once each to Poe, Jack London, and Bogey, all as sources of inspiration. It’s a complex mix: one of the many reasons this collection succeeds so powerfully.

Click here to buy Chimerascope from ChiZine Publications!

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