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Douglas Smith is an outstanding writer. Then again, Roy Halladay is a Cy Young Award-winning pitcher, but he can’t throw a change-up.
The Chimerascope collection highlights Smith’s prodigious strengths, but by exposing weaknesses that I wouldn’t have known about no less bring up here if only his best works had been included. This doesn’t happen very often, but the flaws in this book have more to do with the editing than the writing.
This anthology is my first exposure to Smith, so here’s what I take away: He is a fundamentally strong author who commands sparse yet evocative description and presents characters who are unique enough to be believable yet archetypal enough to shoehorn into the short-story format. The most amazing thing about his craft is the way he takes an experimental, ignore-all-the-rules approach to selecting a POV, then executes it flawlessly.
What takes me out of his stories, though, is trope. Smith does SF a whole lot better than he does fantasy. The first and last stories are absolutely Chimerascope’s best — and that at least should accrue to editor Julie Czerneda’s credit.
Let’s look at the last one first. “Memories of the Dead Man” is a retelling of Mad Max. That’s not a slam; it’s a compliment. The lone, damaged hero riding to the rescue was already a moneymaker to the eighth-century scop who wrote Beowulf. The main issue I had with “Dead Man” is that the main character, Bishop, had what were in essence supernatural powers — which weren’t really necessary and we don’t know the extent of them until the climax. (My nit is that a character who calls himself Bishop is chasing after a bad guy who’s referred to as Pope — an intentional choice, and a bad one.)
“Scream Angel” lives in a universe where humanity has taken to the stars and, ruled by a greedy and all-consuming Corporation, exploits the plentiful life around it. This was pretty standard sci-fi even before Ridley Scott took the first lens cap off to film Alien. But the reason why it was so familiar is because, damn it, it works. And it works as well as ever when Smith is at the keyboard. His sequel “Enlightenment” wasn’t as successful because it devolves into metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that seems out of place in the far-future setting.
Are we detecting a pattern?
When Smith is writing real science fiction — whether it’s far-future or post-apocalyptic, he is at his best, which is really, really good. But when he lapses into fantasy he is, at best, hit-or-miss. “The Red Bird” is an interesting, Japanese-themed adventure that is one of the better fantasy stories. “By Her Hand, She Draws You Down” is a compelling dark fantasy that could be mainstream horror if it had a dash more grue (but better that it doesn’t). “New Year’s Eve” is a quarter century too late to qualify as cyberpunk and you can’t even call this science fiction anymore, since the real science around virtual reality is a whole lot cooler than what we Smith shows us here (Doug, for $400 you can get Xbox with a Kinect controller and two games). I didn’t like “The Boys Are Back in Town” because a) the-mythological-gods-hang-out-in-a-bar has been done to death (Patrick Thomas, for one, revisits this every few months) and b) mythological gods make horrible heroes and villains in contemporary settings because the author can pretty much make up their strengths and weaknesses as he goes along; as Bruce Campbell might say, “Good? Bad? I’m the one who’s omnipotent.”
Most annoying of all was “The Dancer in the Red Door”. It’s a paint-by-numbers urban fantasy, and I knew what I was in for as soon as I realized that the fabulously rich, immensely powerful protagonist was named Alexander King — which couldn’t be more trite if his middle name were Wellhung.
On the plus side, “State of Disorder” was one of my favorites. Again, it’s familiar territory, but it’s sci-fi territory. Set in the present day, it shows how a person’s fortunes can change as the result of small happenstances. It asks the question, “What if I can go back and change the happenstances that made my life less than optimal?” We’ve all asked that. A lot of us have written stories about that. Smith does it with equal, copious measures of heart and brain. “Going Harvey in the Big House” is far-future sci-fi that’s hard to describe without spoiling the ending — let’s just say it’s worth it.
Ultimately, I’m giving this book four stars. Two-thirds of the stories are well worth the read so, on average, the collection as a whole is. A shorter or better selected Douglas Smith anthology would’ve gotten five-out-of-five from me. I certainly look forward to where his work might take me in the future.