Invaders: 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of Literature ed. by Jacob Weisman
As with most collections, whether they be of stories, poems, or essays, I found Invaders: 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of Literature, edited by Jacob Weisman, to be a mixed bag overall, with some weak stories, some solidly good ones, some very good ones, and several absolutely great ones, more in fact than I typically find in an anthology, making this an easy collection to recommend.
The authors collected here are non-genre writers known mostly for “literary fiction,” such as George Saunders, Max Apple, Molly Gloss, Jim Shepard, Katherine Dunn, and Junot Diaz. In his introduction, Weisman says the idea for this anthology came out of the responses he saw to an earlier one (from 2009) entitled The Secret History of Science Fiction, which was “intended to be a serious investigation of the intersection between literary writers who occasionally dabbled in science fiction and science fiction writers who occasionally dabbled in something resembling literary fiction.” The reactions, he states, were mostly positive, save for some that were angry and defensive, accusing the editors (James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel) of telling science fiction writers how they “should write.” The most prevalent critical response, though, he says, was that the genre authors’ stories were superior to their non-genre counterparts, who were “somehow off the mark or ignorantly reinventing old tropes.”
For Invaders, Weisman explains that “What I set out to discover in Invaders was the answer to a simple question, posed indirectly by the critics of The Secret History of Science Fiction: If non-genre writers are indeed writing something different from the rest of the science fiction field, what are they actually writing. His answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, turns out to be, “Mostly it depends on the writer.”
I won’t go through every story, just the few I especially liked, and then a quick mention of the good ones.
“Beautiful Monsters” by Erich Puchner: set in a world without adults (the why and wherefore of this is gradually revealed), this is a sharply written, near-perfect story that is both beautifully moving and icily horrifying. My vote for the best in the collection, though really it’s a fine distinction among the top five or so.
“A Pre-Cursor of the Cinema” by Steven Millhauser: a richly detailed and inventive fake biography/history of the Harlan Crane, an artist who supposedly invented an animated paint and found his own way to the beauty and spectacle of moving pictures. The level of detail is brilliant both in its creation of imagined paintings and in the way it brings wholly to life a wholly imaginary person.
“Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders. Really, the author’s name is all one needs know here. But if you don’t know Saunders, this is an excellent introduction to his bitingly witty satire of modern society and culture. Start here and then move quickly on to his own short story collections. He’s a master of warped humor that also makes you think.
“Limbs” by Julia Elliot: set in an assisted care center with the sci-fi trappings of new bionic technology (the titular “limbs,” actually an acronym) that allows for greater freedom of independent movement as well as a potential lessening of dementia onset. This is a lovely, sometimes funny, sometimes achingly moving, story that goes in unexpected directions.
“Lambing Season” by Molly Gloss: A first contact story that reads more like Annie Proulx, Gloss uses the sci-fi trope more as a vehicle for voice and character exploration. Tender, quiet, sparse as its setting, a fantastic story.
These five alone are well worth the price of admission to the collection. Others that were very good but didn’t quite rise to the level of great were: “Fugue State” by Brian Evenson, “Amorometer” by Kelly Luce, and “Monstros” by Junot Diaz. The rest of the stories run the gamut from “meh” to “good but flawed in some way.” Even the majority of these (though admittedly not all), however, were still what I’d call well crafted with strong characterization and rich language, and many sprang from a highly imaginative concept even if that premise wasn’t fully exploited. So for instance Jonathan Lethem’s “Five Fucks” had its share of issues, but I absolutely loved the presentation of one of the three main characters.
Circling back to Weisman’s original question that he posed in his introduction: “If non-genre writers are indeed writing something different from the rest of the science fiction field, what are they actually writing?” Based solely on this collection, I might respond differently than with his own answer that it “depends on the writer.” He’s right in the “what” nature of the question — we get hard sci-fi and soft sci-fi here (though mostly the latter for sure), horror and humor, satire and magical realism. But it’s more the “how” that stands out in this collection, with these authors presenting a stretching of language, a vividness of detail, a sharpness of characterization, a depth of humanity that one does find in genre writers, but less consistently. But of course, it is an anthology, meaning we’re getting a cherry-picked view of what non-genre authors can do working within the genre. I dare say I could pluck out a number of top-notch genre authors and come up with an equally impressive consistency of excellence. But really, I don’t much care about making distinction between genre and non-genre, so I’ll just leave you with what’s important here. Invaders has 22 stories. A quarter of them are out-and-out great. Another quarter or so are very good. And most of the rest are solid, enjoyable pieces told in skillful prose. Which makes Invaders one of the better anthologies I’ve read lately.
Invaders: 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of Literature is an impressive effort; editor Jacob Weisman has assembled an anthology of short pieces from heavy-hitting authors like George Saunders, Junot Diaz, Katherine Dunn, Robert Olen Butler, and others who may or may not be familiar to readers. These titular invaders come from the so-called respectable realm of literary fiction, and while they all make a go at bringing their considerable talents to speculative fiction in one form or another, some — as Bill pointed out — were inevitably more successful than others. However, readers are sure to be introduced to authors whose style will appeal to them, and I hope they’ll remember those names during a future trip to their local bookstore or library.
The anthology begins with an introduction by Weisman, explaining what his goals were and why he wanted non-genre authors to cross the invisible-but-forbidding barrier between serious lit and sci-fi. He sets the tone for what the reader should expect, as well as reflecting on his own experiences as a reader and an editor in the publishing industry. Regardless of my evaluation of an included story’s success or failure as speculative fiction, he’s completely correct when he extols the talents of the authors.
Each story is headed by a short biography of the author in question, as well as a brief bit of information on the story itself: where it might have been previously published, whether it was nominated for any awards, etc., which was tremendously helpful in the cases (and there were many) where I wasn’t already aware of an author’s career.
“Portal,” by J. Robert Lennon: The magic portal hiding in a house’s back garden has “fallen into disrepair;” over time, the family living in the house begins to have problems, as well. It’s an interesting (if a little too on-the-nose) metaphor for what happens as people age and drift apart, but the ending is weak.
“Beautiful Monsters,” by Eric Puchner: Set in a world in which there are children who never age (“Perennials”) and adults who live outside their strict society (“Senescents”), this story examines what happens when two Perennials are forced to harbor a badly wounded Senescent. There’s a good analogue here for children taking care of infirm or elderly parents, and the strain it can put upon a family unit, but I had a lot of questions about the practicality of halting the aging process at nine years old.
“The Squid Who Fell in Love with the Sun,” by Ben Loory: Written in a storybook style, with simplistic, repetitive words and sentences, this story requires a healthy suspension of disbelief — how and where would a squid have a smelting plant, and how could it possibly build a spaceship? Like many of the authors contributing to this anthology, Loory uses his story to explore real-world allegory or analogue via a speculative device; in this case, man’s blinding hubris and the unforeseen, sometimes positive, consequences of his overreach.
“Five Fucks,” by Jonathan Lethem: Two people spend a night together, and in the morning, too much time has passed. As they spend more nights together, reality shifts more and more drastically, and the effects spread beyond the two people in question. Lethem excels at pairing sci-fi and noir, and I enjoyed his little tweaks of language and the repetitions of character identity, quirks, and certain imagery.
“LIMBs,” by Julia Elliott: In an effort to combat the mental and physical effects of aging, certain residents of a South Carolina nursing home have been fitted with Leg Intuitive Motion Bionics, an exoskeleton which assists with mobility. The nanobots which connect a person’s legs to the LIMBs system also help to recover memories, especially useful when the patient suffers from dementia. The story has a bittersweet ending, though some of the main character’s motivations toward that ending were a little murky.
“We Are the Olfanauts,” by Deji Bryce Olukotun: I loved this story, a logical extension of current technology and corporate practice into a chilling future. Renton’s job is to screen web videos and ensure that what people see matches the associated scents, also known as “whyffing.” While he acknowledges that the company he works for organizes his life down to the minutest detail, his job ensures that his family benefits in ways that would be otherwise impossible. His boss, Aubrey, rails against the company’s strict fabrication of their lives; most writers would make her the primary POV character, Olukotun made a smart choice by giving the reader a more complicated, nuanced perspective.
“The Region of Unlikeness,” by Rivka Galchan: An unnamed grad student meets a pair of patronizing forty-something academics, Jacob and Ilan, and is drawn into their two-man social circle. The men have too much to say, loudly and often, and the grad student is too passive. Somehow time travel and paradoxes are involved, and it’s entirely possible that I would have enjoyed the story more if I knew more about real or theoretical physics.
“A Precursor of the Cinema,” by Steven Millhauser: This story reads like a biography in an academic volume, or an Introduction to a textbook on 19th-century artists: matter-of-fact despite descriptions of the impossible, which draws the reader into accepting these impossibilities as fact. Millhauser includes an excellent level of detail regarding early photography and vogues in art styles of the late 1800s, and I thought the entire story was wonderful.
“In the Bushes,” by Jami Attenberg: In a future in which it’s “illegal to own a car,” teenagers are forced to make out in bushes, and the United States is engaged in four simultaneous wars. There are hints at riots (or worse) in Los Angeles and Detroit after the car-ban was enacted, but the oddly stilted language and lack of a strong sense of time and place made it difficult for me to enjoy the story. Moreover, I couldn’t connect with the nostalgia for what cars supposedly stand for as a crucial element of American identity.
“Fugue State,” by Brian Evenson: Bentham is trapped in a fugue state and has difficulty communicating with Arnaud, who observes him from another room. The fugue spreads farther, infecting people and destroying their ability to properly interact with their surroundings. The overall tone is bewildering and paranoid in all the best ways, reminding me of French absurdism, in particular.
“Reports Concerning the Death of the Seattle Albatross Are Somewhat Exaggerated,” by W.P. Kinsella: The man inside the Seattle Albatross costume is retiring from his job as the city’s baseball team’s mascot; what no one knows is that he’s an extraterrestrial, and what everyone thinks is his costume is actually his body. It’s a story about baseball, loneliness, and disconnection, with a rather sinister ending.
“Lambing Season,” by Molly Gloss: A quiet, reflective first-contact story about a sheepherder named Delia and her largely solitary life, changed in an instant when she sees something fall out of the night sky. Comparisons between Gloss and writers like Annie Proulx or Clifford Simak are well-deserved; Gloss’s prose reflects an appreciation for nature and itinerant people who, but for a few technological changes, live much the same way as their counterparts did a hundred years ago.
“Conrad Loomis & the Clothes Ray,” by Amiri Baraka: Loomis, a mad scientist, invents a device which can give anyone the appearance of wearing whatever garments they can imagine. It’s an interesting concept, though quite short and abrupt, and is a good incentive to seek out Tales of the Out & the Gone, Baraka’s collection of short fiction.
“Topics in Advanced Rocketry,” by Chris Tarry: After NASA’s dissolution, several private space exploration companies scrabble to fill the agency’s void. ManuSpace’s plan to promote their proficiency and viability is to send the most all-American average family possible into orbit, showing just how easy space travel can be. Rather than the beatific Cleavers in space, it’s rather more like putting the Bundys in a rocket and watching them shriek at one another. It’s an interesting concept, but the family’s squabbles overrun the sparse plot.
“The Inner City,” by Karen Heuler: This story was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award, and deservedly so: Lena Shayton’s life is going miserably, everyone has problems, and some trash she finds on the ground seems to lead her to a job opening… but what she finds is far more upsetting and disturbing than she could possibly imagine. A thoroughly creepy story with a solid, satisfying ending.
“Escape from Spiderhead,” by George Saunders: Jeff is a pharmaceutical test subject at a facility he calls Spiderhead; Abnesti, the tester, injects Jeff and his fellow test subjects with varying drugs at varying doses via a MobiPak surgically attached to their lower backs. Sometimes the drugs do wonderful things to them, and sometimes the drugs have horrifying effects. Why Jeff and the others would sign up for this is gradually revealed, along with Jeff’s growing dissatisfaction. It’s no surprise that this is an excellent story; Saunders is lauded for his short fiction work, and this story proves that he can write well in any genre.
“Amorometer,” by Kelly Luce: Aya Kawaguchi receives a letter from Shinji Oeda, developer of a device which, he claims, measures a person’s “capacity to love:” the Amorometer. He’s reached out to the wrong person, but Aya takes this opportunity to step into someone else’s shoes and experience a different kind of life. The story is only tangentially about the device, to my regret, but Luce writes convincingly about a late-middle-aged woman rediscovering herself through an assumed identity.
“The Yogurt of Vasirin Kefirovsky,” by Max Apple: When they aren’t ignoring him outright, the scientific community laughs at Dr. Vasirin Kefirovsky, philosophical thinker and drinker of home-made yogurt. Kefirovsky is a bitter old man who claims to have discovered the secret of eternal life, but I was bored by his posturing and self-aggrandizement, and his wife’s sudden shift from loving support to hysterical denial was both jarring and confusing.
“Monstro,” by Junot Diaz: In the Dominican Republic, a skin disease causes blemishes which have the appearance of black mold. By the time anyone notices the more dangerous symptoms, it’s far too late. Dr. Noni DeGraff investigates the spread of the disease while the 19-year-old narrator parties and chases girls with his rich friends in a sealed dome on the other side of the island. Diaz presents a perfect display of time and place, sprinkling the narrator’s voice with slang and references to futuristic tech as a contrast to Dr. Degraff’s steady, measured sections. If Diaz were to expand this story into a full-length novel, I’d buy it in a heartbeat.
“Minotaur,” by Jim Shepard: Much of this story consists of allusions to secretive military operations, projects, and groups, covered under the narrator’s umbrella-term of “black-world.” The narrator and his old friend Kenny used to work together on the projects code-named Minotaur and Minion, along with many other programs the narrator has to hide from his wife, Carly. Shepard’s focus is on the domestic problems caused by the need for extreme secrecy, rather than the projects, leaving the reader as much in the dark as the increasingly frustrated and dismayed Carly.
“Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover,” by Robert Olen Butler: A small-town Alabama woman named Edna falls for a spaceman, whom she calls Desi, after meeting him in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart. It’s a sweet love story, written in the form of a pleading letter published in a cheap supermarket tabloid, and Butler conveys Edna’s simple life in generous, kind words that never turn patronizing or pandering.
“Near-Flesh,” by Katherine Dunn: Thelma Vole is going on a business trip and wants to take an inflatable sex-robot along as an outlet for her overwhelming frustration. She beats and abuses most of her robot collection, taking them to a discreet repair shop when her sadism gets too out of hand. To fulfill her emotional needs, she purchased a Companion console she calls the Brain, since anything resembling a genuine connection causes a deeply paranoid rejection in her mind. The Brain, however, sincerely cares for her, setting off a disastrous chain of events. Dunn fills the story with deft touches, including Vole’s assistant and Vole’s stagnation in the workplace, as well as her deep-seated self-loathing. This was an excellent way to conclude the anthology.
The best stories in Invaders: 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of Literature certainly outweigh the weakest ones, and even the ones that I didn’t consider completely successful were still quite good. The style and content of the stories varies drastically from author to author, so I recommend reading a few stories at a time rather than plowing through the entire anthology in one go. Personally, I’ve been inspired to linger a little longer outside the sci-fi/fantasy section the next time I’m on the lookout for a new work of fiction.
Here there be, if not dragons, a rousing assemblage of apocalyptic plagues, some time travel, a couple of mad scientists, and several aliens from other planets. But this isn’t your normal set of science fiction stories. The real invaders, I suspect, are the actual writers of these stories, descending upon the fantasy and science fiction field with fresh ideas and less adherence to the traditions and tropes of the genre than one would usually expect. The result, from a reader’s perspective, can be both positive and frustrating … sometimes at the same time.
This collection of 22 speculative fiction stories, previously published in various magazines and collections, is by a group of respected authors known primarily for their non-SF genre writings. It may be the most unusual and stylistically diverse science fiction story collection I’ve ever read. Jana has done a fantastic job summarizing each story, so I’ll take Bill’s approach and discuss the stories that particularly impressed me, as well as a few that were notably weaker.
In “Beautiful Monsters,” by Eric Puchner, the aging process for most humans has been arrested at about age nine by scientific methods. A few adults, called Senescents, still exist as fugitives on the outskirts of society, hiding in the mountains and woods, on the edge of starvation. When an injured Senescent is found by two Perennial children, who take him in, they are as alarmed at his ugliness and feral behavior as he is at what they’ve lost. It’s a haunting and disturbing story.
“LIMBs” by Julia Elliott takes the opposite approach, sympathetically exploring the world of aging people, and the changes wrought by exoskeletal LIMBs that give them new mobility, as well as new treatments that can, at least in part, reverse dementia for some seniors. It’s a gentle and poignant tale, insightfully exploring the concerns and frustrations of the elderly.
“A Precursor of the Cinema” by Steven Millhauser, beautifully describes the life and art of Harlan Crane, a nineteenth century artist who invented “animate paint,” a type of art that somehow combines painting and motion pictures. Crane’s paintings contain details that inexplicably move: flies dart from place to place in the painting, a prisoner appears and disappears, dancers waltz and even emerge from the painting. The combination of the quasi-documentary, matter-of-fact narrative and the mystical, incredible details was absolutely magical, even though the plot itself is understated.
“Lambing Season” by Molly Gloss, is a first-contact story in which a somewhat doglike alien happens to meet up with Delia, a down-to-earth sheepherder who lives in the mountains with her two dogs and Churro sheep from May to September. Delia’s practical, caring attitude, unspoiled by society, carries over from the way she cares for her animals to her interactions with the alien. This quiet but moving 2002 story was deservedly nominated for the Hugo and Nebula awards.
In “The Inner City” by Karen Heuler, Lena is looking for a job, and stumbles onto a secretive company hidden behind a newsstand, or a café (the façade changes). Lena thinks she’s found a great job opportunity and decides to sneak her way into this place of business, but gradually her experience becomes more and more ominous. This may not be one of the more profound stories in this collection, but it’s a compelling tale with a memorable ending.
Some of the less successful stories for me:
- “Portal” by J. Robert Lennon, where the disintegration of a backyard space portal pointedly echoes the breakdown of the narrator’s family.
- “The Squid Who Fell Into the Sun” by Ben Loory, a whimsically humorous fable of a genius squid that ended up being a little too quirky, moralistic and thin.
- “The Region of Unlikeness” by Rivka Galchen, in which a young woman meets and befriends Ilan and Jacob, two eccentric and rather arrogant men who may be experimenting with time travel. Or maybe they’re just delusional? It’s an odd and elusive story, intriguing at first, but it lost me as it worked its way toward an indeterminate ending.
- “In the Bushes” by Jami Attenberg, a too-brief account of a day in the life of a young man, in a near-future world in which America’s love affair with the automobile has ended.
- “Topics in Advanced Rocketry” by Chris Tarry, a humorous story in which an average family, with typical problems is chosen to be sent off on a trip in a space capsule.
- “Minotaur” by Jim Shepard. The narrator and his friend Kenny chat about their work on classified government projects, exacerbating the frustration of the narrator’s wife with her husband. The story makes a worthwhile point about the impact of this type of secrecy on relationships, but otherwise doesn’t seem to have any particular point to it and is told in a rambling way that didn’t engage me.
- “The Yogurt of Vasirin Kefirovsky” by Max Apple is a parody of the mad scientist trope. Professor Kefirovsky is being interviewed by a Time magazine reporter, but by the end of the story I found the odd professor, who has an intense interest in homemade, all-natural yogurt, as tiresome and irritating as the reporter apparently did.
Even these less appealing stories, however, are still worth reading. One of the beauties of short fiction is that it allows you to explore new authors or types of fiction without the major time commitment that an entire novel takes.
With their roots more firmly in literary than speculative fiction, these are all imaginative stories that, for the most part, have some extra heft to them, more attention to style, theme and symbolism, a greater commitment to subtlety. They gave me more food for thought than the typical science fiction short story. At the same time, their more literary nature sometimes gave me a mental run for my money. Some of these stories are opaque and difficult to parse, and they tend to end on an ambiguous note that can frustrate a reader who is looking for a more easily understood story with a clear resolution.
I’d recommend this collection to readers who are willing to stretch their brains and are open to more literary types of stories, with their frustrations as well as their rewards.
Oh, cool! I’ll have to get it, and I don’t even read that many short stories.
Bill, I read this anthology, and had a relatively similar impression as you. (The stories you highlighted are nearly identical to those that stuck out to me.) If there was one impression the anthology made on me, (i.e. the difference between “literary” science fiction and “genre-centric” science fiction), it would have to be the overall quality of the stories. Where genre-centric science fiction is often very idea- or scope-heavy, the stories in Invaders, generally speaking, feature an awareness and attention to the other aspects of good writing, namely prose, structure, thematic counter-point, etc., and how they all work together to layer story. I may not have liked a story personally, but at least I could appreciate technique, which is not something I often say about genre-centric sf I dislike.
You have convinced me that I have to get this one.