Review: Federations

To boldly go where none have gone before.

To explore new worlds and encounter new civilizations.

To war, love, hate, seek justice and make peace in the depths of space and on the fringes of time.

Also, there is a hamster.

These are the stories of Federations, edited by John Joseph Adams and written by 23 writers.

I guess you could say that I typically hate anthologies. Which is why it’s so weird that I like, even love, this one.

My issue with anthologies is not so much to do with stories in particular, but in their combination and selection. Especially themed anthologies, where keeping tight to the subject matter often means sub-par choices or shoe-horned entries. Clunky stories are difficult to sit through, and the problem is exacerbated in an anthology, where context-switching can, for better or worse, affect how well a story is received. And when anthologies feature a varied mix of voices and story lengths, well, get ready for a choppy ride.

I wonder if the mid-to-lower-tier anthology assemblers just think of their books as a bags for stories to be tossed into until there’s enough page count, resulting in a read that’s like listening to a disco DJ on crystal meth. It would explain an awful lot.

In Federations, thankfully, John Joseph Adams takes a different and more successful approach.

First, he picks a flexible overarching theme to begin with—I mean, how much more flexible yet thematic can you get than “Space: the final frontier“?—which means he’s providing a stage for stories to play out upon, rather than forcing them to use extremely specific props.1 And second, he composes rather than sequences his selected stories, like writing music. By paying attention to the tempo, tone, and harmony of musical passages—or stories—and how they interact and complement each other, a composer can create a symphonic whole. The result is an anthology that’s lean and mean, without material that seems out of place or weak in its position, and wonderful to read, even for someone who hates anthologies. Even the shortest stories in Federations have unexpectedly massive narrative impact (prime example: Georgina Li’s “Like They Always Been Free,” which is gorgeous but difficult to explain because of its tightly compressed structure).

And like a symphony, Federations has an actual structure that goes beyond “put stories in conditions that show off their strengths.” Federations has pacing, which is unusual for a collection that doesn’t have an over-arching framing story. This is the best way to treat a selection of varied stories, since it allows the creation of niches that tales can fit into—you know, somewhere to hang the acceleration (in the beginning, with Orson Scott Card’s “Mazer in Prison,” set in the Ender-verse, a story about launching a man into space for not-your-standard-reasons, and a great way to boot something like Federations).  Or the raygun action sequences (“Spirey and the Queen” by Alastair Reynolds is but one of these).  Or the sweeping saga of the middle (halfway through, “Twilight of the Gods,” John C. Wright’s ode to Der Ring des Nibleungen in spaaaace).

There are also smaller but no less important niches to be filled in such a treatment—like humorous moments (would you believe that Harry Turtledove wrote a humorous story about space-faring hamsters?), psychological horror (Robert Silverberg, I will never ever believe in your sweet innocence ever EVER again), and a variety of contemplative and thoughtful pauses (the offbeat waiting-for-Godot style “Carthago Delenda Est” by Genevieve Valentine, the beautiful settings and character interaction of Yoon Ha Lee’s “Swanwatch,” and the most frank treatment of the “alien civilizations are likely not homogenous” I’ve seen or read, K. Tempest Bradford’s “Different Day”).

The ending of Federations is, like its beginning, wonderfully apt: “Golubash, or Wine-Blood-War-Elegy,” by Catherynne M. Valente, a miniature anthology in itself of seven mini-stories, and a beautiful send-off of every theme covered in previous stories.

I haven’t mentioned everything; there’s 23 stories, and that’s a lot. In Federations, you have everything from the straightforward to the poetical (I mean, Ring des Nibleungen) to the literary. You have a great mix of old voices and new voices (pleasant findings for me: another story in the Ship Who Sang saga, and Jeremiah Tolbert’s Borg-meets-capitalism “The Culture Archivist”). You have novelettes and short stories and short-short stories. You have an anthology introduction that isn’t boring, and the introductions for each story are sufficient to introduce the writer and a little bit of the tale to come, and never get in the way.

In many ways, Federations is the best of the art of anthology.

Unfortunately, the Kindle edition (and, most likely, any other electronic editions that may follow) leaves a lot to be desired. Like basic readability.

Prime Books’ attempt at setting this book in electronic form was arsed, even by the low standards of the average ebook out there, and that is low. Apparently they (and other publishers) also don’t allow editors or writers to examine the electronic galleys. Which is backwards, to say the least.

Here are the four biggest mistakes made in setting this book:

  1. Many passages in stories, that go on for multiple paragraphs, are underlined without rhyme or reason, often cutting off or starting at mid-sentence. This is beyond the rendering artifacts that sometimes present in various ebook readers; this is just screwed-up coding.

  2. The introduction for each story is completely underlined. Same readability problem. While consistent in this case, it’s crazy-making to parse.

  3. Multiple blank pages (page breaks, or else someone is having a heyday with vertical spacing) between each story’s intro and the story itself.

  4. The table of contents is not specially marked as such, so that the Kindle (and any other Mobipocket reader) can’t detect it.

There are other mistakes as well (anything that was italicized for the right reasons was also underlined, for instance) but those four are the biggest.

They blight an otherwise beautiful reading experience.

Do better next time, Prime Books.

And trust me, even something as seemingly open-ended as “artificial intelligence” can result in wooden selections.


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