Laugher at the Academy by Seanan McGuire
Laughter at the Academy (2019) is Seanan McGuire’s first short story collection as Seanan McGuire (apparently there is a Mira Grant collection). McGuire is amazingly prolific, and this expensive Subterranean Press anthology showcases that. In her foreword, McGuire tells us that she chose these specific stories because she loves them the most. The contents were published between 2009 – 2017. They all take place outside her “pre-existing universes,” as she calls them, but there are resonances with October Daye, the Wayward Children, and others. The collection lets us see the issues that preoccupy McGuire in her writing.
Many (most) of these tales ended up in anthologies, and many of them were invitational. You can see that influence in some of the titles, since one of the stories appeared in The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, edited by John Joseph Adams, and one in Ellen Datlow’s The Doll Collection.
Here is the Table of Contents:
“Laughter at the Academy: A Field Study in the Genesis of Schizotypal Creative Genius Personality Disorder (SCGPD):” A brilliant woman schemes to take revenge on the scientific world, with a clever detective only a step or two behind.
“Lost:” Across the world, some children are beginning to hum, then to sing. This is only the beginning of a chilling tale of loss.
“The Tolling of Pavlov’s Bells:” A brilliant woman scientist enacts her plan to take revenge on the people of the world because they wouldn’t listen to her.
“Uncle Sam:” The answer to the age-old question, “Why, in social settings, do women all go to the restroom together?” is answered in a story that’s part long joke and part genuine creeper.
“Crystal Holloway and the Forgotten Passage:” Some children find their way to other worlds. Often they leave that magical place and go back to their own world, never to return. This story explores why.
“Emeralds to Emeralds, Dust to Dust:” Dorothy Gale is a weary and bitter detective, trying to solve a murder in the noirish Emerald City of Oz.
“Homecoming:” Not all heroes look the same, neither do all afterlifes, and neither do all football games.
“Frontier ABCs: The Life and Times of Charity Smith, Schoolteacher:” A strange romp of a space opera. Yes, a space opera.
“We Are All Misfit Toys in the Aftermath of the Velveteen War:” Many SF stories explore the risk of AI. This one takes a look from an unusual angle.
“The Lambs:” A different look at AI and what happens when a learning machine learns a skill that conflicts with its stated purpose.
“Each to Each:” Undersea exploration, genetic manipulation, the way women are socialized, and mermaids all come together in a compelling adventure. This story has a gripping plot and vivid visualization.
“Bring About the Halloween Eternal!” This story is written in the form of a crowdfunding campaign. The campaign’s purpose is stated in the title.
“Office Memos:” This is a short humorous story told in the form of e-mails. As an eccentric and somewhat crotchety goblin scientist interacts with her human colleagues, her exasperation mounts. Good fun.
“Lady Antheia’s Guide to Horticultural Warfare:” A steampunk alien invasion story with an engaging narrative voice.
“Driving Jenny Home:” A grieving young woman is haunted by the ghost of her girlfriend.
“There is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold:” This story follows a most unusual dollmaker as she struggles to care for her aging father and deal with an exploitive ex-boyfriend in her workplace.
“In Skeleton Leaves:” A bit like “Emeralds to Emeralds, Dust to Dust,” this story takes a dark, loving and twisted look at Peter Pan.
“Please Accept my Most Profound Apologies for What is About to Happen (But You Started It):” A brilliant woman scientist enacts her plan for revenge on the world because she was bullied when she was in school.
“Threnody for a Little Girl, With Tuna, at the End of the World:” This story examines the loss of the earth’s oceans and the cost of consumer culture as a young woman is invited as a special guest to a most unusual memorial service.
“From A to Z in the Book of Changes:” This is not, strictly speaking, a story; it’s a collection of micro-fiction based on words, arranged from A to Z. My favorite is “K is for Knitting.”
“#connellyhouse #weshouldntbehere:” A Lovecraftian pastiche and haunted house story, told in a series of tweets. This is more impressive than it sounds at first because McGuire used the old 140-character word limit.
“Down, Deep Down, Below the Waves:” A reclusive graduate student invites four friends up to her home in a strange little Massachusetts town over semester break. They have no idea what awaits them. As McGuire herself says, it pays homage to Lovecraft… but Lovecraft probably wouldn’t like it.
Laugher at the Academy will be of great interest to die-hard McGuire fans. It’s possible to see McGuire working through themes that she develops more later on. For example, “Crystal Halloway and the Forgotten Passage” slots smoothly into her WAYWARD CHILDREN series. “Lost” and “We Are All Misfit Toys in the Aftermath of the Velveteen War,” while they do not necessarily show children going to other worlds, deal with places in which children are vanishing. Both stories deal with those left behind. In the Misfit Toys story, our first-person narrator attends a 12-step-style support group in a world where most children are missing. I thought that this story went on a bit too long for the tale; while the narrator takes her time parceling out the information about why so many children have vanished, the reader has figured it out pretty quickly. I did like the twist ending, though.
The two pastiches, “Emerald to Emeralds, Dust to Dust,” and “In Skeleton Leaves,” take a dark look at their respective source material. Dot, as she prefers to be known, has stayed in Oz since Ozma took power, but she is living in a cheap apartment. Ozma has dropped her as a favorite, just as she’s dropped pumpkin-headed Jack. Dot’s girlfriend is the daughter of the rainbow; to control Dot and get her to do what she wants, Ozma stops the rain from coming, exiling the girlfriend. The mystery itself accurately captures noirish, mean-streets detective stories, with distrust and corruption. “In Skeleton Leaves” is less linear, and is told from several points of view of the girls who are brought to Neverland to take care of the Lost Children. Regardless of their names from before, they are all Wendys now. (And some of the Wendys aren’t girls.) The wars between the Lost Children and the pirates are growing worse, more violent, and lasting longer, and a trio of Wendys makes a difficult decision. The prose is lovely.
When it comes to creating a mood, one of my favorites in this book is “Homecoming.” In a strange, nearly deserted high school, on an October night, two opposing cheerleading squads prepare to cheer for their teams. When the teams come out onto the field, it’s clear that this is not a regular football team, because the players are chosen for a team, either the Falcons or the Ravens, after a play is made. There is a melancholy, elegiac quality to this tale, as the point of the game becomes clear, and the identities of the cheerleaders are revealed as well. There are all kinds of afterlifes.
“Office Memos,” which McGuire says she’s written to go into a convention program booklet someday, is a slight tale, but funny, and the tone of the emails, written by various people, is pitch-perfect.
McGuire shows off her skill at capturing social media communication styles in two stories, “Bring About the Halloween Eternal!” and “#connellyhouse #weshouldntbehere.” The Halloween story is a crowdfunding campaign designed to collect enough money for a massive worldwide ritual (oh, and blood sacrifice) that will usher in eternal Halloween. The campaign’s main author has a personal bone to pick with a competing campaign, to bring about eternal Christmas. You simply must read the rewards and the stretch goals.
“#connellyhouse #weshouldntbehere” is a haunted house story. A quartet of young ghost hunters go into Maine’s “most haunted house.” We follow the Twitter-feed of one of them who is live-tweeting. This story creeped me out and I liked it very much. I liked the way the hashtags carry a different message. There is a nod to Lovecraft here, and of course the original Blair Witch Project. I thought McGuire didn’t trust her readers, or her own skill quite enough at the very end, where our tweeter shares information we’ve already figured out, but that’s a quibble. It’s a masterfully creepy story.
“Frontier ABCs: The Life and Times of Charity Smith, Schoolteacher” is space opera. Settlements have been made on or near several of our system’s planets or their moons, and the pioneers who live there need teachers for their children. Enter Miss Cherry, who is a strict but kindly schoolmarm and a gunslinger. I don’t know if the backstory of Charity Smith and her near-superpowers held up all that well, but this story was just good fun from start to finish. There is a serious tone to it too, a point about the impacts of war.
“Deep, Deep Down, Below the Waves” is also a Lovecraft pastiche with genuinely original characters and a scientist main character. I thought it worked well. I also thought the science fiction story “Each to Each” worked well and raised some disturbing questions.
In “Lambs,” convincingly human-looking androids have been sent undercover into public schools. Their purpose is to mingle with the students and record instances of bullying. Then the androids, at year-end or graduation, will play back the bullying incident in front of the whole school (or the bully’s parents) to provide an irrefutable record — and publicly shame the bully. That really isn’t quite what the story’s about, as Bevan, the android, faces a conflict after she records a boy that used to be her friend (or a friend of the human consciousness that was downloaded into her) participating in a bullying incident. At graduation, Bevan will be called up and revealed as the recording AI, but she still thinks of Tom as a friend. In this story, Tom’s purpose seems to be mouthing the standard excuses we’ve heard for male bullies over the years (and quite a lot recently); “My whole future will be ruined because of one thing and it’s not fair.” I liked the idea that Bevan, an AI, is growing and learning, but this whole public-shaming premise didn’t work for me and I was never sure if the story was trying to show that the anti-bully campaign is really a form of bullying. This question overshadowed, for me, the conflict Bevan faces; should she compromise? It was not a success for me.
“Driving Jenny Home,” while it had a lot to recommend it, wasn’t a complete success for me either. Leigh’s girlfriend Jenny was killed in a car accident on the way home from the homecoming dance, and Leigh was driving. Leigh was in a coma for several days, and she feels displaced and disjointed when she recovers. When she finally goes to the cemetery, she sees Jenny, who asks Leigh to drive her home. There are rules, Jenny says; they can’t kiss, they may not even be able to touch, and Jenny never makes it all the way to her house before she vanishes from the car. Still, month after month, Leigh goes to the cemetery and drives Jenny home. What the story does quite well is explore grief. Leigh’s resentment as her classmates move on — while she can’t — is believable. Leigh’s resentment toward the boy who was bullying them at the dance, and who was driving the car that crashed into them, grows. When she visits the hospital, planning to take her revenge on him, a mysterious nurse gives her some important information. The ending is suitably dark for a ghost story, but it had an adolescent feel to it, and I don’t mean the character.
“There is No Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold” features an abusive, harassing ex-boyfriend and a very strange dollmaker. The dollmaker is trying to deal with her father’s failing health, maintain her job, and finish the ball-joint dolls she is compelled to make. When the abusive ex comes to her apartment, beats her and steals several of her dolls, the secret of the dollmaker, her father, and the dolls themselves begins to unfold.
“Lady Antheia’s Guide to Horticultural Warfare” felt like something completely different; a memoir from the titular Lady Antheia about an important transition of power in steampunk London. Lady Antheia is not from around here. Her observations of mammals are interesting, and McGuire convinced me of a character descended from plants. At one point, the story veers away from the story to lecture us a bit more than it needs to about things like colonialism, but that’s only for a moment.
“Laughter at the Academy…,” “The Tolling of Pavlov’s Bells,” and “Please Accept my Most Profound Apologies…” are the same plot told three slightly different ways. They all share first-person narrators, brilliant women who plan to change the world, or punish it, for various reasons. Revenge for bullying is one; a desire to make people learn is another. Each on their own is a good story, I think. I’m not sure this collection needed all three of them because the theme and the plots are so similar. On the other hand, they do give a perspective on McGuire as a writer. Of the three my favorite was “Please Accept my Most Profound Apologies…” because it pays homage to Jurassic Park.
As I said, Laugher at the Academy will be a must-have for McGuire fans. For others, it gives a good overview of the writer’s work under this name. I think it’s a must for the true fan.