Charlie Jane Anders has published three science fiction novels, all quite different from one another, and all great. All the Birds in the Sky deftly takes the tropes of fantasy and of science fiction, and sets them against one another (but also asks how they might positively relate). The City in the Middle of the Night is set on a planet tidally locked to its sun, so human beings can only live along the terminator (one side is too hot, the other side, too cold). Using this framework, it asks questions about social organization and political power, about misplaced love and sexual desire, and about what it means to confront the truly alien, and whether we would even be able to recognize an intelligence radically different from our own. Victories Greater Than Death is the first volume of a YA space opera trilogy; its a lot of goofy fun, and I wrote about it here.
Anders’ latest volume, Even Greater Mistakes, is a collection of her short stories. She has published a lot of them, and the new book provides the author’s selection of her favorites. The variety here is just as wide as among her novels, perhaps wider. The stories range from angry and despairing to utterly whimsical, with a lot of other in between tonalities as well. I had read several of them before online, but most of them I hadn’t. The stories include short semi-independent sequels to her first two novels, conceptual explorations, and just plain silliness. I was sad that one of my favorite of her stories wasn’t included: “The Fermi Paradox Is Our Business Model,” which I talked about this past summer at the (online) conference of the Science Fiction Research Association. But otherwise I have no complaints about Anders’ self-selection.
The longest piece in the volume is an amazing novella, Rock Manning Goes for Broke, which I have published an article about. It’s a story about a guy who just likes to make people laugh with idiotic slapstick routines; but these come to carry a deep political charge due to the times we live in. I see this novella as almost the definitive statement of what it was like to live under the regime of Donald Trump; but Anders reveals that she started writing it long before, at the start of the Iraq War; and in fact is was first published in 2016, that is to say, before Trump even took office. It just goes to show how science fiction works to think about futurity (which is not the same thing as actual prediction of the future).
Other stories deal with such politico-philosophical dilemmas as whether the future is fixed in advance, or open to multiple possibilities (“Six Months, Three Days”), the paradoxes of time travel (“The Time Travel Club”), and the relation between gender positions and social hierarchies, set in (“Love Might Be Too Strong A Word”). But Anders always embodies these issues in the dilemma of concrete and rich characters, who are sometimes poignant and sometimes just silly. She is rarely able to resist detours into goofiness, which is welcome when you consider the serious import that some of these stories would have otherwise. In “The Bookstore at the End of America,” she writes about the division between the two Americas, the Trump/Christian one, and the California/Queer one, with both an awareness that these divisions are artificalLY too extreme (there are many Christians who are not homophobic bigots, for instance), and the Rodney King-esque hope that somehow we can all get along. But she can also write, with equal care and attention, a story like “Fairy Werewolf Vs Vampire Zombie,” which asks the question (one that is certainly important to at least a certain subset of fanboys and fangirls), as to, if you are both a zombie and a vampire, which of these two identities will win out? Do you want to suck blood, or gobble brains? Most of these stories are funny, but a few of them are disturbing and even downright terrifying, like “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue, which envisons a world in which the transphobes completely take over, and medical technology has progressed to the point that the most sadistic forms of mind/body control are now routinely carried out.
Even Greater Mistakes is a triumph of queer and trans sensibilities; but the real point it makes is that such sensibilities are not ever just one thing. There is an incredible amount of variety and creativity in the world, which would be unleashed to a far greater extent than is the case now, if only we could free ourselves from the stupidities of binary-gender normativity. Several of Anders’ stories point toward such utopian possibilities, most notably “Because Change Was the Ocean and We Lived by Her Mercy,” which envisions the possibilties for creative, collective expression in a post-global-warming, post-sea-level-rise San Francisco, where the tops of some of the hills are the only parts of the city not permanently under water. This story, in particular — although it contains its share of conflict and shitty behavior — gives me a sense of hope, and even a poignant sense of community (rarely evoked in a misanthropic old-codger hermit such as myself) — in the face of the coming ecological and political catastrophes.