The Golem of Deneb Seven and Other Stories
by Alex Shvartsman
Date: 2018-03-16 (Amazon)/2018-04-03 (ISFDB)
Format: Trade paperback
Price: $15.99 (Amazon)
Publisher: UFO Publishing
- “The Golem of Deneb Seven”
- “A Perfect Medium for Unrequited Love”
- “Burying Treasure”
- “Nouns of Nouns: A Mini Epic”
- “Whom He May Devour”
- “Letting Go”
- “The Fiddle Game”
- “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Monsters”
- “Islands in the Sargasso”
- “Catalogue of Items in the Chess Exhibition at the Humanities Museum, Pre-Enlightenment Wing”
- “Fifteen Minutes”
- “Masquerade Night”
- “The Poet-Kings and the Word Plague”
- “Golf to the Death”
- “Staff Meeting, as Seen by the Spam Filter”
- “Invasive Species”
- “One in a Million”
- “Grains of Wheat”
- “The Ganthu Eggs”
- “The Practical Guide to Punching Nazis”
- “Dante’s Unfinished Business”
- “Forty-Seven Dictums of Warfare”
- “How Gaia and the Guardian Saved the World”
- “He Who Watches”
- “Recall Notice”
- “Dreidel of Dread: The Very Cthulhu Chanukah”
- “Die, Miles Cornbloom”
- “A Man in an Angel Costume”
- “Future Fragments, Six Seconds Long”
- “Parametrization of Complex Weather Patterns for Two Variables”
- “The Race for Arcadia”
Depending on your inclination, the table of contents may not be so exciting or forbidding as it appears. Seventeen of the thirty-one stories are inarguably flash (less than one thousand words) and four more are less than two thousand. About a third of all lengths are clearly intended to be humorous, albeit sometimes darkly so, while the more serious nature of the other two thirds ranges from light to dark. Almost three-fifths are science fiction of one sort or another and the rest are fantasy except for one non-speculative story. Most of the stories were published in Galaxy’s Edge (those tending to be longer and better), IGMS (longer, lesser), Nature (shorter, better), and Daily SF (shorter, lesser).
The humorous fantasy flash or near-flash includes tales of metafictional satire (“Noun of Nouns,” “Seven Habits”) and Lovecraftian spoofs (“Cthulhu Chanukah.” “Recall Notice”), while the more serious ones include a magical con job (“Fiddle Game”), a non-magical con job crossed with a divinatory love story (“Future Fragments”), a biter-bit (“Forty-Seven Dictums”), a sort of demonic inverted “It’s a Terrible Life” (“Angel Costume”), and a surreal fantastic fable (“Poet-Kings”). I have problems with several of these, such as “Seven Habits” reading like a weak echo of “The Top 100 Things I’d Do If I Ever Became An Evil Overlord,” but most simply may or may not appeal to a given reader. My favorite was “Recall Notice,” in which letters from librarians of Miskatonic University tell the tale of Lovecraft the Third using Grandpa’s library card to check out things like “Preparing an Occult Ritual in Ten Easy Steps, Sports Illustrated: The Swimsuit Issue, Properly Pronouncing Your Invocations: Audio book on CD” and others to raise hell on earth.
Oddly, the shorter SF stories are more serious. They deal with alien invasions of varying sorts (“Catalogue of Items,” “Invasive Species”), nuclear apocalypse (“He Who Watches”), an omniverse quantum magic story (“One in a Million”), various sorts of love stories (mixed with weather control hacktivists in “Parametrization;” with time travel in “Letting Go”; with AIs in “Perfect Medium”). Three more AI pieces involve a couple of AIs in a depopulated solar system trying to figure out how to save Earth from a natural disaster (“Gaia and the Guardian”), a spam filter “becoming” sentient in a story which seems like it ought to be funny but unsuccessfully goes dark (“Staff Meeting”) and a person who feels tormented by an AI in a story which seems dark but very successfully goes for black comedy (“Fifteen Minutes”). The two science fictional revenge fantasies include another time travel listory (“Practical Guide”), while the much better one (“Grains of Wheat”) is a thoughtful look at business and medicine. The average quality of the SF may edge the fantasy though “Letting Go” is so contrived (and second person, present tense) and “Practical Guide” is so insufficiently transmuted by art that they don’t help the average. On the other hand, “Grains of Wheat” is transmuted by art and “Fifteen Minutes” is superb. Even some of the more middling pieces have some really nice elements such as the depictions of the Europans in “Gaia and the Guardian” and the clever methods of encoding messages in “Perfect Medium.”
Moving to the longer short stories, “Die, Miles Cornbloom” is an oddity in that it’s so weird it feels almost fantastic but isn’t. Miles and his pal are living their humdrum lives except that Miles has somehow acquired a stalker who has moved up to death threats. As the story progresses, so does the danger and then a twist occurs. It’s not a perfect story but it was effectively tense while managing a bit of lightness and worked for me.
The actual fantasies include another metafictional satire which takes issue with the economics of fantasy in “Burying Treasure” and the posthumous fantasy and unconvincing anti-pot diatribe, “Dante’s Unfinished Business.” Much more successful is “Masquerade Night” which uses the familiar motif of gods whose powers have waned along with their followers but creates a very powerful, creepy, and weird feel. It tells of a cat-god encountering a beautiful woman in the masquerades which allow the worlds of the humans and gods to barely, dangerously touch through the mediums of their disguises. The story is set in the 1920s and, indeed, feels like one of the good old-fashioned Weird Tales.
The longer science fiction pieces include the collection’s only novelette, “Islands in the Sargasso,” which is an installment in the shared-world series of “The Sargasso Containment” that Galaxy’s Edge ran from 2014-2016. Readers might benefit from being familiar with some of the other stories but I think this stands alone fairly well and is a pretty solid space opera which handles its drugs (a science fictional “Rust”) more convincingly and ambiguously than “Unfinished Business.” A recovering addict is fleeing from pursuers and must enter the barrier which surrounds the solar system and has previously meant certain death. He awakens on the other side two hundred years later and the scale of the tale broadens significantly. The other short stories include the title story about courage in invasions which isn’t provided by mechanized armor and “Whom He May Devour,” about a young woman dealing with technologically advanced humans encroaching on her religious and backwards world whose sole technology is devoted to preserving their uploaded ancestors. The worst of the short SF is “The Ganthu Eggs” which uses the poor device of a letter from a “mass-murderer” to a warden on behalf of another “mass-murderer” prisoner which depends on an anti-abortion viewpoint and trivializes the issue either way with the letter’s main concern. Along with “Sargasso,” two other tales compensate for that. “The Race for Arcadia” is a pretty good tale about a terminally ill man trying to win a second space race as a Russian competing against Americans and Indians to get to an earth-like world first, with a twist. “Golf to the Death” uses the “champion of the species” framework. In it, a man witnesses a human fight an alien in the aliens’ chosen sport and then must compete in the humans’ chosen sport, but with alien stakes, as they “golf to the death.” Just saying that makes me laugh and the story handles the premise reasonably well.
This is a collection with directly written stories full of familiar elements which for some readers will be a feature and for some a bug. Similarly, some may appreciate the mix of SF & F and of humor and seriousness while some might prefer just peanut butter or just chocolate. However it shakes out for the given reader, I do recommend several (the science fiction of “Fifteen Minutes,” the fantasy of “Masquerade Night,” and the mild suspense of “Die, Miles Cornbloom”) and think several more are notable (“Islands in the Sargasso,” “Golf to the Death,” “Grains of Wheat,” “Recall Notice,” and “The Race for Arcadia”).