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“Star Trek: The Next Generation–The Sky’s the Limit”, edited by Marco Palmieri

In 2007, as part of a celebration of the twentieth anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a short story collection called The Sky’s the Limit was published. Edited by Marco Palmieri, the book includes stories spanning the entire TNG continuity as it existed at that time, from shortly before “Encounter at Farpoint” all the way up through the aftermath of Nemesis.

My two favorite stories were Susan Shwartz’s “Turncoats” and David A. McIntee’s “On the Spot.” In “Turncoats,” an ensign who had previously defected to the Romulan Empire and then re-defected to the Federation (as seen in “Face of the Enemy”) finds himself in a position to reclaim his twice-lost honor. This story felt especially true to the spirit of Star Trek, since while there is a classic “technobabble” problem threatening the ship, that’s not what the story is really about. It’s about trust, betrayal, and redemption. In “On the Spot,” Worf finds himself taking care of Spot after Data’s death in Nemesis. There are some humorous moments in this entry, as when Worf solemnly proclaims “You are a good cat” after Spot demonstrates her hunting skills. But there are some touching moments too, like Worf pointing out that for all his desire to be human, Data met his death like a Klingon.

Of course, several of the stories feature Captain Jean-Luc Picard. In Keith R.A. DeCandido’s “Four Lights,” the Dominion War brings Picard into a new conflict with his former torturer, Gul Madred. “Chain of Command” was one of TNG’s most powerful episodes, and seeing Picard grapple with the aftereffects of it is powerful as well. In Geoff Trowbridge’s “Suicide Note,” Picard finally gets to deliver the letter Romulan admiral Jarok left for his family at the end of “The Defector.” There was a small moment in this story I really appreciated. Picard feels awkward visiting Jarok’s widow and daughter, not only because he’s bringing them what was essentially Jarok’s suicide note, but also because of the difference between Romulan and Federation cultures. The tension is broken when Jarok’s widow offers Picard a beverage made by filtering hot water through a type of leaf—essentially, Romulan tea. Again, this is a very “Star Trek” message: similarities between seemingly disparate cultures that can help them to understand each other.

I read this for the “comfort read” square on a Book Bingo challenge, and it really fit the bill. I loved TNG as a kid (and still do), and it was so nice to return to that universe. I think Trek fans will get a lot out of this book.

“The Book of Dragons” edited by Jonathan Strahan

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From The Hobbit to A Song of Ice and Fire to the iconic TTRPG Dungeons and Dragons, dragons have been a cornerstone of the fantasy genre. In 2020, Jonathan Strahan put together an anthology of stories featuring this grandaddy of all mythical creatures. Enhanced by Rovina Cai’s lovely art, these stories were a joy to read.

Even in such a uniformly excellent collection, some pieces were standouts. I loved Ken Liu’s “A Whisper of Blue.” In this tale, the fire breathed by dragons powers the electrical grid, and so-called dragon whisperers keep the dragons calm and persuade them to provide this resource. The story has a lot to say about our energy economy and the boom-and-bust cycles that can occur when a valuable natural resource is discovered near a small community. K.J. Parker’s “Habitat” presents a unique take on dragons, and like Liu’s story, it’s full of social commentary—in this case, on war. “Lucky’s Dragon,” by Kelly Barnhill, is just plain heartwarming. A precocious young girl unexpectedly manifests a tiny dragon during a school science experiment, and the dragon soon begins to cause problems out of all proportion to its size. I loved Lucky, I loved her eccentric neighbor, and I loved the dragon. Peter S. Beagle, of The Last Unicorn fame, contributes “Except on Saturdays.” While Lucky is a child, the protagonist of this story is middle-aged verging on elderly. But meeting a dragon has a tendency to reignite childish wonder. This is also a heartwarming story in its own way.

In Western folklore, dragons breathe fire. But dragons have an important place in Asian mythology as well, and that mythos associates dragons with water. Brooke Bolander’s “Where the River Turns to Concrete” features a river dragon who ends up in human form. Bolander has created a protagonist you can really root for, and I would be happy to read more stories set in this world. Zen Cho’s “Hikayat Sri Bujang, or, The Tale of the Naga Sage” tells the story of a naga who has left his home in the ocean to seek enlightenment on an isolated mountain. Despite all the main characters being nagas, the complex family relationships will probably feel familiar to many readers. And J.Y. Yang’s “The Exile” puts a science-fictional twist on the water dragon, with a dragon and hir human priest being exiled to a remote planet.

The Book of Dragons is packed full of a wide range of interpretations of the titular creatures, so there’s likely to be something here for everyone. I really loved this book, and it introduced me to a couple of authors whose work I wasn’t familiar with.

“Black Feathers: Dark Avian Tales,” edited by Ellen Datlow

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As someone who loves both birds and horror fiction, Ellen Datlow’s anthology Black Feathers: Dark Avian Tales is one I just had to read.

Because they feed on carrion, crows are often associated with war and death. In some cultures, they’ve also been considered psychopomps that guide newly dead souls to the underworld. So it’s not surprising that many of the stories in this book feature crows and their relatives. Priya Sharma’s “The Crow Palace” is a chilling tale of family secrets centered around a huge bird feeder-like structure frequented by crows. Seanan McGuire’s “The Mathematical Inevitability of Corvids” uses an old nursery rhyme to tell a story of an outcast young woman. Fans of her Wayward Children series will recognize her talent for writing about children and teens who don’t quite fit in with those around them. Livia Llewellyn’s “The Acid Test” presents a being that has some characteristics of a crow, though as is typical for Llewellyn’s fiction, it’s actually something quite a bit weirder.

Some of my favorite stories, though, focus on birds that don’t have quite as sinister a reputation. Joyce Carol Oates’s “Great Blue Heron” is a powerful story of a grieving widow who develops an emotional bond with the titular bird. Stephen Graham Jones perfectly captures the narrative voice of a teenager in “Pigeon from Hell” and turns what should be the most unthreatening bird on the planet into an ominous omen. A.C. Wise’s “The Secret of Flight” is another tale featuring passerines—starlings, in this case. It uses false forms, a storytelling style I love, to document the eerie disappearances and accidents surrounding a play. In Pat Cadigan’s “A Little Bird Told Me,” a parrot is the star. This is a particularly creative story, putting one type of bird into a narrative role usually reserved for another type.Black Feathers is one of Datlow’s lesser-known anthologies, and it deserves a wider audience. The stories here pack a punch, and some linger in the imagination long after being read.

“The Best of the Best Horror of the Year”, edited by Ellen Datlow

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Ellen Datlow is probably the best-known editor of short speculative fiction and certainly the best-known in the horror genre. In addition to her many other projects, she’s the editor of the long-running Best Horror of the Year series. In this retrospective volume from 2018, she collects selected stories from the first ten years of that anthology. Some of the authors represented herein are heavyweights of the genre, like Peter Straub and Ramsey Campbell. Some have achieved renown in more recent years, like John Langan and Laird Barron. Still others, like Suzy McKee Charnas and Jane Jakeman, were unknown to me when I picked this book up. In bringing them together, Datlow has created a truly memorable horror anthology.

In her introduction, Datlow pushes back against the idea that the famous monsters of horror fiction—zombies, vampires, werewolves—are worn out. “There’s a reason these tropes/monsters don’t go away,” she says, and several of the stories collected here prove her right. I’m personally not a fan of zombie stories, but the zombie stories included in Best of the Best—Stephen Graham Jones’s “Chapter Six” and “Tender as Teeth” by Stephanie Crawford and Duane Swierczynski—were among my favorite stories in the book. The reason is simple: neither of those stories is really about the zombies. Similarly, Nathan Ballingrud’s “Wild Acre” is a lycanthrope story that isn’t really about the lycanthropes. Instead, these tales are about the relationships between living humans: the stress that financial hardship can put on families, the power dynamics between mentors and proteges, the way society moves on (or doesn’t) after a disaster, the human tendency to simplify other people into heroes or villains when they might really be both or neither.

Speculative fiction is at its best when it has something to say about the real world. Several of the stories in Best of the Best are standouts in this regard. Although the anthology was compiled in 2018, and the stories were written over a period of ten years prior to that, Suzy McKee Charnas’s “Lowland Sea” felt very timely, being a modern take on Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death. Cody Goodfellow’s “At the Riding School” deals with gender politics and coming to terms with dark secrets in one’s family history. Brian Hodge’s “This Stagnant Breath of Change” is another piece that feels highly relevant today, with its focus on a resistance to societal change by the wealthy and well-connected.

As one might expect from such an anthology, there were a number of other excellent stories. I had previously read Laird Barron’s “In a Cavern, In a Canyon” and was happy to read it again. I usually prefer supernatural horror, but Stephen Gallagher’s “Shepherds’ Business” was wonderful despite not including any spectral goings-on. Simon Bestwick’s “The Moraine” is a great creature horror story. Ramsey Campbell’s “The Callers” shows why he’s sometimes described as Britain’s answer to Stephen King. Finally, the book ends on a strong note with Carole Johnstone’s superb “Better You Believe,” which manages the impressive feat of making an old trope feel fresh. Overall, this is an exceptionally strong collection of horror short fiction, and it should be on every horror aficionado’s shelf.

“Ashes and Entropy” by Robert S. Wilson (editor)

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Robert S. Wilson’s small press Nightscape Press has put out a number of interesting books, and their innovation has clearly earned the attention of the horror community. Two of their anthologies, Nox Pareidolia and Ashes and Entropy, have won the This Is Horror Award. Ashes and Entropy features new stories from horror luminaries such as John Langan and Laird Barron alongside newer voices.

Nadia Bulkin’s work tends to contain strong elements of social commentary, and her entry here, “Flesh Without Blood,” keeps up that trend. The lines she draws between the literal human sacrifice in the story and the damage professional athletes do to their bodies in exchange for adulation and exorbitant salaries is thought-provoking.

John Langan and Laird Barron have occasionally nodded to each others’ mythoses (mythosi?) in their tales. Langan’s story “Breakwater” includes more indirect tributes to Barron by incorporating noir tropes while remaining firmly in the realm of horror. Barron’s “Girls Without Their Faces On,” on the other hand, is a classic Laird Barron story. The dog still being a good doggo after the arrival of eldritch entities was a perfect mix of creepy and adorable.

It’s not only the famous writers who deliver on the thrills and chills, though. Erinn L. Kemper’s “The Head on the Door” is more of a ghost story than a cosmic horror tale, but it’s a unique concept that comes to life through compelling writing. I hadn’t heard of Kemper before and would be interested to read more of her work. Autumn Christian’s “Shadowmachine,” meanwhile, is a wonderfully sci-fi-inflected horror story.

On top of all the great writing, the eerie illustrations by Luke Spooner add a dollop of extra spookiness to the stories.

Ashes and Entropy was funded by a Kickstarter. It was more than worth the price, and I encourage people to fund future projects by this publisher.

“A Book of the Sea” by Mark Beech (editor)

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The British small press Egaeus Press prides itself on publishing “morbid and fantastical works.” Their A Book of the Sea, edited by Mark Beech, certainly fits the bill, although not all of the stories are completely satisfying.

As the title suggests, this anthology features stories in which the sea plays a prominent role—in some, it’s a character in its own right. Some of the stories are strikingly imaginative. In Stephen J. Clark’s “The Figurehead of the Cailleach,” an artist is commissioned to restore an old figurehead half-ruined by the elements. As he works, he begins to suspect there’s something unusual about this figurehead and about the isolated cove where his studio has been set up. The central conceit of the story doesn’t fit into any of the typical marine motifs—pirates, mermaids, ghost ships, and so forth. It’s a truly original and intriguing piece. Karim Ghahwagi’s “The Sorrows of Satan’s Book” is a similarly imaginative tale. It blends a murder mystery with an interesting theological premise, all set in a Danish seaside town.

Interestingly, the book’s other strength is in stories that do hew closely to old tropes. A couple of the pieces here perfectly capture the feel of a folktale from the Old Country (wherever that happens to be for you) or the modern equivalent, the friend-of-a-friend narrative. “Dancing Boy” by Colin Insole tells of a cursed ship built to punish a malefactor, while Steven Pirie’s “The Woman Who Walked into the Sea” is the story of a long-ago mystical bargain fulfilled.

Unfortunately, a few of the stories are marred by purple prose. Albert Power’s “The Final Flight of Fidelia” is a moving story of a revenant seeking justice for a grave wrongdoing, but the emotional impact is somewhat blunted by the artificially old-fashioned writing style. And while I don’t object to a dense narrative, the writing in Jonathan Wood’s “From Whence We Came” crosses the line from dense to impenetrable.

One last note I want to make here is about the production values for this book. Egaeus Press says they strive to produce “volumes of a quality of ornateness rarely seen in modern books,” and they are not kidding. The book, as a physical object, is beautiful. It’s a sturdily-bound hardcover, with reproductions of a gorgeous painting on the front- and endpapers. Each section of the book, as well as the beginning and end of each story, are marked by line drawings. This is a quality you rarely see from large publishers, let alone a small press.

“The Dark Descent” by David G. Hartwell (editor)

Originally published in 1987, David G. Hartwell’s The Dark Descent collects a number of the best short horror stories written to that date. At over a thousand pages, it’s a substantial collection. Hartwell divides the stories into three thematic categories, but there’s another way in which one could divide the book into thirds. Some of the stories in The Dark Descent were written by giants of the field (and many are themselves classics of the genre); others are works by lesser-known horror writers; and still others were penned by writers famous in genres other than horror.

Fans of horror will probably already have read some of the stories in the first group, like Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu.” In other cases, avid horror readers may be delighted to read “new” works by authors they already love. Stephen King, for example, is known primarily for his novels, but The Dark Descent includes two works of his shorter fiction, “The Monkey” and “Crouch End.” One of the most interesting stories in this set is Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner.” James’s The Turn of the Screw is a classic ghost story, despite the uncertainty over whether or not there’s actually a ghost. “The Jolly Corner” also presents a twist on tales of hauntings, with the main character conceiving of the house he grew up in as being haunted by the spirit of the man he would have become if he’d stayed there. When he tries to catch this spirit, the roles reverse, and he begins thinking of himself as the ghost.

Of the stories that fall into the second category, my favorites were Karl Edward Wagner’s “Sticks” and Robert Hitchens’s “How Love Came to Professor Guildea.” “Sticks” is a truly creepy tale of a man who finds sculptures made from tied-together twigs in the woods near his home. Despite its having won a British Fantasy Award, I haven’t seen this story reprinted anywhere else, and Wagner’s work seems not to have been widely reprinted in general. “How Love Came to Professor Guildea” tells of a misanthropic scholar who’s haunted by a presence that holds no ill will toward him whatsoever. On the contrary, it seems to love him. This may not seem like a promising setup for a horror story, but Guildea finds its presence revolting, and Hitchens conveys his feelings of being oppressed and smothered so well that the reader naturally empathizes with them.

Finally, several of the stories presented here are by authors who are famous not for horror, but for science fiction. While Ray Bradbury is primarily known for sci-fi works like The Martian Chronicles, he also wrote a fair number of stories that fall into the realm of horror or dark fantasy. Some of the best are collected in The October Country, including “The Crowd,” which is reprinted here. It takes the already uncomfortable phenomenon of people rubbernecking at car accidents and turns it into something truly sinister. The Dark Descent also features Philip K. Dick’s “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts.” Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” was adapted into the iconic sci-fi film Blade Runner, and here he straddles the line between science fiction and horror by positing a time-travel voyage gone horribly wrong.

While most of the stories in this anthology are well-chosen, there are a couple of puzzling omissions. John W. Campbell Jr.’s “Who Goes There?”, the basis for John Carpenter’s movie The Thing, is influential enough to have been included in the SFWA’s Science Fiction Hall of Fame. And while Harlan Ellison’s “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” is certainly a chilling tale, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” surely merits inclusion in an anthology of short horror fiction. Despite this, however, the collection is certainly a worthy purchase for anyone looking for a comprehensive survey of horror stories up to the 1980s.

“Autumn Cthulhu” by Mike Davis (editor)

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Contrary to the second part of its name, most of the stories in Mike Davis’s Autumn Cthulhu anthology aren’t strictly part of the Cthulhu Mythos. They do, however, generally fall into the realm of cosmic horror, and nearly all of them have some thematic connection to autumn.

I’m a huge John Langan fan, so his story “Anchor” is the one I was most looking forward to reading when I picked up this anthology. While I found it a bit overlong, the supernatural element was imaginative and I appreciated the skill with which the relationships among the main characters were conveyed. Also, two of the major characters are poets, and the story includes excerpts from their poems which are quite good.

One of the strengths of both “Anchor” and Langan’s novel The Fisherman is that the human relationships are as emotionally compelling as the paranormal goings-on. Damien Angelica Walters’s “In the Spaces Where You Once Lived” is another such story. The love the main character feels for her husband really comes through, and the tale is as touching as it is scary. Jeffrey Thomas’s “After the Fall” is in this vein as well. The sudden appearance of massive, monstrous images in the sky almost serves as a backdrop for the main character’s attempts to mend his troubled family relationships.

Laird Barron’s “Andy Kaufman Creeping Through the Trees” truly lives up to the name “weird fiction.” A teenage girl wants to secure tickets to an exclusive show as a gift for her seriously ill father. The transaction doesn’t go as planned, but beyond that, the story is almost impossible to describe.

I loved Gemma Files’s short story collection Spectral Evidence, so I was happy to see that one of the stories in this anthology is by her. Titled “Grave Goods,” it focuses heavily on our individual and collective sense of self, and how we react when that sense is overturned.

The central conceit of Nadia Bulkin’s “There is a Bear in the Woods” might at first seem humorous: a politician sells his soul to an eldritch being to win an election. Who hasn’t joked about a politician they dislike doing something similar? But Bulkin makes the story truly horrifying, giving the reader an impression that, while the earthly consequences of the deal are pretty terrible, the metaphysical ones might be even worse.

In his introduction to the book, Davis quotes Lawrence Block as saying that while autumn is the best season, it’s also the saddest. Many of the stories deal with something or someone passing away, lending the anthology an almost elegiac feel. While there certainly is dread, and a few outright scares, in the book, they lie side-by-side with a quieter melancholy, and that sets Autumn Cthulhu apart from other anthologies in the same genre.

The Big Book of Science Fiction, by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer (editors)

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Jeff and Ann VanderMeer have collaborated on several anthologies of speculative fiction, including the excellent The Weird. In The Big Book of Science Fiction, they take on exactly the genre you would expect from the title. At over 1100 pages, this massive tome catalogues sci-fi from H.G. Wells to the early 2000s, by authors from all over the world.

While it’s hard to summarize such a wide-ranging collection, there are a few themes that emerge over the course of the book. One is the concept popularized by the famous Star Trek episode “The Devil in the Dark”: If we encountered alien life, would we recognize it for what it was? Accordingly, a number of the stories therein, such as Bruce Sterling’s “Swarm,” present truly unique conceptions of extraterrestrial beings.

The Big Book also includes some interesting dystopian stories. Yasutaka Tsutsui’s “Standing Woman” posits a society with a strange and grotesque punishment for social dissidents, while Tanith Lee’s “Crying in the Rain” shows us the self-sacrificial love of a mother in a world where the rain is deadly.

Many of the stories are from non-English-speaking authors, and in a few cases, the VanderMeers even commissioned new translations of the works. There seems to be particularly strong representation from Soviet-era Russia.

Even in such a huge volume, it’s obviously not possible to include every significant work. That said, the lack of any pieces by Ken Liu seemed like a glaring omission. His “The Regular” is a masterful near-future detective story and would have been a perfect fit for this anthology.

A few notes on individual stories that I particularly enjoyed:

James H. Schmitz’s “Grandpa” presents a fascinating extraterrestrial ecology, but I wanted to see more of the denouement. Did the events of the story cause the other team members to rethink their view of Cord? And what were the yellowheads getting out of their symbiosis with the rafts?

Damon Knight’s “Stranger Station” is a great example of a dramatic reveal done right. I loved the moment where the reader (and the main character) discover the alien’s motivations and the how/why behind its production of the immortality serum.

I previously knew James Blish as the author of several novelizations of classic Star Trek episodes, and it was a treat to read a piece of his original fiction. “Surface Tension” includes some wonderfully imaginative ideas for the technology and ecology of a microscopic civilization.

Clifford D. Simak’s “Desertion” is, at its heart, a story about man’s best friend. It also does a great job of illustrating how different species might have wildly divergent views of the same environment.

I loved the variety of alien species in James White’s “Sector General,” as well as the concept of a sci-fi story set in a hospital.

The stories collected in this volume run the gamut in tone. I mentioned a couple of quite dark dystopian stories above; by contrast, Sever Ganovsky’s “A Modest Genius” is a whimsical, heartwarming tale.

I’ve always loved stories about the Fair Folk, so I thoroughly enjoyed James Tiptree Jr.’s “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side,” which reads like a sci-fi retelling of a story about a human enthralled by the fey. (While the Wikipedia entry for the story doesn’t explicitly confirm this interpretation, it’s bolstered by the fact that the title is a line from Keats’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci.)

One of the joys of reading an anthology is being introduced to authors I haven’t read before. I loved Robert Reed’s “The Remoras” and have since sought out other work in his “Great Ship” series.

I knew something about Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” from the excellent movie Arrival, which is based on it. I’m happy to report that, contrary to Hollywood’s standard practice, they did not butcher the source material.

The Kindle edition of The Big Book of Science Fiction costs about $18, which is pretty steep for an e-book. But for 1100+ pages of mostly good-to-great science fiction, it’s worth every penny.