Thursday, February 9, 2012

Two Holes-in-One and a Bogey

Alien ContactThis blog post has absolutely nothing to do with golf -- sorry, golf fans... -- I just happened to like this title that I came up with to represent the three recent reviews for my anthology Alien Contact (Night Shade Books).

I'll start with the two holes-in-one because we always want to boast first about the best -- our best golf swing, the humongous fish we caught, stealing home....

This first review is courtesy of Bob Blough, and published on Tangent online on January 30. After providing readers with the complete list of stories included in the volume, Bob opens his review with the following:
Alien Contact is an intelligently edited anthology of 26 first contact stories. And thankfully, Mr. Halpern has decided to mine the last 30 years for his selections, eschewing more well-known and oft-reprinted old favorites from earlier decades. So, this is a huge anthology favoring more contemporary SF and it acquits itself wonderfully. I do not agree with all of the editor's choices and can think of others I would have preferred, but so many terrific stories are gathered together in one place that everyone who likes this theme or is interested in learning more about it will perhaps find some new gems.
In the review, Bob focuses on "a few of [his] favorites." In particular, he singles out Pat Cadigan's story "Angel," which he refers to as "the best story of the batch (and one of my top SF stories of all time)."1 Bob's other faves include stories by George Alec Effinger ("a story with the perfect title"), Neil Gaiman ("read it and revel"), Mike Resnick ("a sadly moving tale, albeit a joy to read"), Michael Swanwick ("a complex and beautiful novelette"), Molly Gloss ("bravura performance"), Robert Silverberg ("a terrific read"), Nancy Kress ("clever and a delightful entertainment"), and Stephen Baxter ("the final story is one of the best").

Bob concludes his lengthy review with this paragraph:
These are but a double handful of my favorites; others by Paul McAuley, Bruce McAllister, Jeffrey Ford and a number of others serve this anthology well. If you are new to most of these stories or want to reacquaint yourself with some favorites – get this book. I thank Mr. Halpern for his knowledgeable selections. Alien Contact was a kick to read.
The second review -- by Kelly Jensen on SFCrowsnest, an online UK media magazine -- is dated January 2, but I only became aware of it shortly after the Tangent review was posted. Let me preface this by noting that toward the beginning of the review, Kelly refers to the ebook edition of Alien Contact, which she is reviewing; this will make more sense when you read the end of this first excerpt:
With its impressive list of authors, Alien Contact looked very appetising. Odd stuff would lurk in the corners, no doubt, but the appeal of such well-known names as Stephen Baxter, Orson Scott Card, Cory Doctorow, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Ursula K. Le Guin, Elizabeth Moon, Charles Stross, Michael Swanwick and Harry Turtledove was enough to nudge aside any doubt regarding complete literary satisfaction....Alien Contact contains twenty-six stories. In short, editor Marty Halpern has gathered an awesome collection of stories and as soon as I've finished writing my review, I'll actually place an order for a print copy of this one to put on my shelf. I have no doubt I'll be re-reading it.
One of the annoyances of ebooks, states Kelly, is the inability to quickly flip back and forth, particularly to the table of contents. "So I began at the beginning...and worked my way to the end. I'd forgotten most of the author list by the end of the first story...." Kelly then writes:

...and mumbled in pleased surprise when I "turned the page" and saw a story by Neil Gaiman....Then I flipped another electronic page and stumbled across another author I knew. This trend continued, almost unabated, through the end of the anthology. Self-professed geek I am, I actually got quite excited as I found Orson Scott Card's story, then one by Ursula Le Guin. I might have squeaked when I discovered Michael Swanwick had an entry, I bounced when I saw a Cory Doctorow story. At that point, I was only about halfway through the book. My favourite authors kept rolling past, eliciting pleased squeals and excited exclamations. By the time I finished the last one, I felt I held in my hands more than an anthology. Alien Contact is more than a "year’s best." Marty Halpern has delivered an accurate and outstanding representation of contemporary Science Fiction and the people who are writing it.

So many stories gave me reason to pause, but none more so than the final entry, "Last Contact" by Stephen Baxter. At the end, I actually said, "Wow!" which reflected my feelings about the story, but also its choice as the final one in the collection and the anthology as a whole.
Kelly continues her review by commenting at length on three stories in particular: those by Stephen Baxter, George Alec Effinger, and Adam-Troy Castro. This too is a lengthy review, which Ms. Jensen concludes with the following paragraph:

So, I've hardly mentioned the stories by those huge names on the front cover, but as I've said before, I don't have to. They will be read, as will every other story in this collection. Alien Contact is a fantastic achievement on the part of the editor, publisher and the authors whose work is included. In my opinion, this is one of those essential anthologies; every halfway serious Science Fiction fan should own a copy. It would be well worth the money at twice the price.

If I was humbled by Bob Blough's first review above, imagine how I felt after opening the link -- and reading -- this review just a few hours later! "Wow!" is what I said as well! As an editor, it's a pure joy to read reviews such as these -- not just because they are stunning reviews (which, of course, they are), but, even more importantly, because the reviewers actually "got" what it was I had hoped to accomplish.

Which brings me to the bogey. First, a clarification: the reviewer in this third review implies in the first paragraph that Alien Contact is an anthology of original stories: "Marty Halpern's editorial brief was for writers to concoct their narratives around first encounters with aliens and, duly noted, numerous authors are represented here with perfectly tailored schemes." However, this is not the case. As the book's back cover text explicitly states: "Editor Marty Halpern has gathered together some of the best stories of the last 30 years, by today's most exciting genre writers...."

The review, entitled "Looking for Wit in Sci-Fi Lit?: 'Alien Contact' Has It," by Dr. Gabrielle Malcolm, appears on PopMatters, a multimedia review site, and was also published on January 30.

Dr. Malcolm comments on stories by Stephen King, Ursula K. Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, and Orson Scott Card, and then states: "So far, so predictable; in short, there are no real surprises here. There's a business-as-usual element to the collection, which doesn't weaken it, but doesn't really strengthen it, either."

And yet, she says the Le Guin story "is suitably cryptic and shot through with a wry and clever quality." King's story is described as "nicely creepy." And lastly: "However, I think I reserve my most sumptuous praise for George Alec Effinger's 'The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything.' Looking for wit in Sci-Fi lit? This story has it in ample quantity." And then Dr. Malcolm goes on to describe the Effinger story in detail.

She concludes the review with this final paragraph:
This collection from Night Shade Books is quite an achievement. It is, understandably, predictable and breaks no boundaries in the main. However, along with Effinger's contribution there are other witty and quirky examinations of the genre. The short story format is quite a liberating mechanism at times for authors, and this collection certainly displays that tendency. You feel that there's some experimentation happening here and there, alongside the ones that have phoned it in.
So, what do you think: Is this review one over par? A bogey? I do know that when I read (and reread) her words "There's a business-as-usual element to the collection...." Jeffery Ford's description of his story "Exo-Skeleton Town," included in the anthology, came immediately to mind. So I dug up my copy of his short story collection, The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories (Golden Gryphon Press, 2002)2, and turned to the story's afterword. Here's what Jeff wrote about his own story:
This story got turned down more times than my Visa card. What's not to like? It's got giant alien bugs, Hollywood stars, balls of aphrodisiacal insect shit, drug consumption through a spigot in the crotch, and Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale, shooting herself in the head. Anyway, at least I thought it was great....

"Business as usual" writing? You be the judge.


1. You can still read Pat Cadigan's "Angel" online, for free, in its entirety, at

2. Disclosure: I acquired and edited Jeffrey Ford's The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories for Golden Gryphon Press.

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