There’s a quote in “Love Might Be Too Strong a Word,” Charlie Jane Anders’ delightful far-future short story about courtship across class and gender, describing this more-than-infatuation-but-less-than-true-love in floridly hyperbolic language: “Theirs must be a fleeting happiness, but how bright the afterimage!” As it turns out, this also perfectly encapsulates the experience of reading one of Anders’ inventive, provocative works of short fiction: With boldly realized worldbuilding in a fraction of the space that many SFF novels take up, these stories feel almost too short—they often end with the reader blinking back a powerful afterimage, followed by the urge to immediately read another.
That’s where Even Greater Mistakes, Anders’ new short fiction collection from Tor Books, comes very much in handy. These 19 stories, ranging from Anders’ early career to award-winning offerings, will appeal to both readers like myself (who have sought out Anders’ short fiction across such platforms and publications as Uncanny, Asimov’s, and of course Tor.com), as well as those new to her body of work.
Anders’ brief intro to each selection is a much-appreciated bit of context, with details that sketch out her career as an artist and journalist in the SFF sphere: which stories needed another go before she could get at the heart of them, which ones she created accompanying research documents for (let’s be real, that attention to detail is basically all of them), which ones got reworked at the bar at WisCon or another SFF gathering. These bite-size liner notes add to the “greatest hits” feel for the collection, while thoughtful content warnings aid the reader in deciding how vulnerable they want to make themselves.
It will also help readers further determine if they want to read straight through or dart around to find and follow the “subgenres” of Anders’ work: the clever relationship studies (“Power Couple,” “Ghost Champagne”), the utter romps (“Fairy Werewolf vs. Vampire Zombie,” “A Temporary Embarrassment in Spacetime”), the unflinchingly bleak scenarios in which speculative elements can only brighten so much of a powerfully dark story (“Rat Catcher’s Yellows,” “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue”). There is no wrong path, and a linear read has the feel of reaching into a bag of mixed candy (sweet, sour, anise-y) with every turn of the page.
For me, the best surprise from that figurative candy bag is the stories that use SFF premises to really dig into relationship dynamics. For instance, “The Time Travel Club” might have supplanted “Six Months, Three Days” as my favorite of Anders’ time travel stories. Instead of using it as a metaphor for a romance that’s doomed from the start, she examines the even more fraught bonds among a recovering alcoholic and the club of make-believe time travelers she joins—people who cope with their lives by pretending to be displaced in time. Told in appropriately nonlinear order but following protagonist Lydia’s timeline of sobriety (and turning her one-year sobriety coin into a key device for the real time-and-space-travel) grounds this speculative thought experiment in the intensely personal.
That said, “Six Months, Three Days” still slaps.
Less effective are the stories that tie in to Anders’ novels or otherwise larger SFF universes: “Clover” (All the Birds in the Sky) and “If You Take My Meaning” (The City in the Middle of the Night), as well as the serialized novella “Rock Manning Goes for Broke” and “A Temporary Embarrassment in Spacetime,” one of a number of space opera adventures featuring a pair of con artists who dream of opening a restaurant. It’s not that the reader can’t enjoy these as standalones, but the effort to contextualize them by cramming extra exposition into a smaller space is more obvious. On the flipside, however, readers who fell in love with those books will be thrilled at the opportunity for brief but chock-filled return visits.
If it’s not clear from these tie-in works and the aforementioned intros (like describing one story as “a little bit Vampire Diaries fanfic”), Anders is an incredibly self-aware writer. She treats Even Greater Mistakes as the opportunity to display both her guaranteed hits as well as stories that she struggled to get right. But the very best thing about Anders’ work is how she queers even her own worlds. Her self-professed favorite of the collection, “Love Might Be Too Strong a Word,” gives a slice-of-life glimpse into the soap opera-esque romantic dynamics on a colony ship whose workers possess a half-dozen disparate genders and sexualities. This premise far surpasses any gender or sexuality binary, yet there are still rigid rules about which class can “man” another or allow itself to be “womaned.” When low-level Mab catches the eye of poetry-spouting pilot Dot, she appalls her fellow “dailys” by taking an unprecedentedly dominant role with Dot instead of doing as expected and turning around for the socially-sanctioned back-to-back sex of their particular pairing. This and other stories are proof of a celebrated SFF author consistently challenging herself.
Another lovely running theme through Anders’ short fiction, aside from these multifaceted queer societies, is that of relentlessly hopeful futures. San Francisco could be submerged underwater (“My Breath Is a Rudder,” “Because Change Was the Ocean and We Lived by Her Mercy”), California could have seceded from America (“The Bookstore at the End of America”), the world as we know it could be but a distant unpleasant memory (“As Good as New”)—but Anders never gives in to the hopelessness of the post-apocalypse. Instead, she guides us to the karaoke nights and flash mobs and play parties and book clubs that survive even in the direst of futures.
As Even Greater Mistakes proves, there will always be muralists painting seawalls, small business owners trying to handsell books across an international ideological divide, playwrights gaining unexpected inspiration—and writers like Anders, chronicling ages we haven’t yet lived but that, through her thoughts and words, we feel as if we have.