12 August 2013

Review: Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction edited by Kelly Jennings and Shay Darrach

Kindle eBook, n.pag.
Published 2013
Read July 2013
Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction
edited by Kelly Jennings  and Shay Darrach

The title of this book would seem better suited to an academic monograph, not a work of fiction. Not to mention that I'm not sure that "menial" and "skilled labor" go together! But this is a collection of sf stories about labor, the sort of thing that immediately appeals to me. I wish I'd been able to pitch to this!

In execution, though, I often found the book somewhat lacking. Most of the stories here are what we might call "literary sf", which is to say they're pieces of science fiction written by graduates of creative writing programs, and focus on effect and characterization a lot. Which I like, and I often write that way myself, but I felt these stories often tipped over too far into "literary" territory, in that nothing happened. For example, in M. Bennardo's "Thirty-Four Dollars," the only co-worker of a young woman working on a wind farm dies. Someone comes to pick up their electricity, and years later that person leaves her thirty-four dollars when he dies. That's it! There's emotion, but no story, and it's frustratingly typical for this collection. 

The other common difficulty were stories that just got started when they ended, stories that felt like they were beginnings of novels because the writers didn't know how to get to the plot any faster. A. J. Fitzwater's "Diamond in the Rough" and Barbara Krasnoff's "The Didibug Pin" are among those that begin right when something finally happens. I liked them a lot up to that point, but when they ended, I had to go "...that's all?"  "Storage" by Matthew Cherry, about an inventory specialist on a spaceship who finds something strange in storage, almost had the same problem, but it was so moody and so intriguing that even though it ended unresolved it still worked. Which just goes to show that there's nothing you shouldn't do in writing; it's just that if you're gonna do it, you gotta do it well.

Maybe the worst story was slightly different from these templates: Clifford Royal Johns's "Big Steel in the Sky" is a faux news article about a construction project that just  worldbuilds. Could be the foundation for a great story... but it's just a collection of details as is.

There were a few I flat-out liked: Angel Primlani's "Snowball the Rabbit Was Dead" was a fine tale of a girl whose father owns a restaurant coming to deal with mortality (sort of). Margaret M. Gilman's "All in a Day's Work" was probably my favorite, managing to have mood, story, and character all at ones: a group of women who repair atmospheric domes on a space colony dealing both with a crisis and themselves; the end of this story had me on tenterhooks! Other ones were fine, but overall this was a disappointing anthology, a bit of a struggle to make it through.

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