Here’s the thing about single author short story collections: the author usually plays to his or her strengths. This tends to make for a homogenous voice. Now, if you happen to like that voice, you will enjoy the collection. Some authors offer just enough variety (usually of subject matter, sometimes of genre) that the reader won’t even notice the consistent (or, if you’re being more critical or the author is less skilled, repetitive) nature of the author’s writing style. Often, though, the reader’s interest will flag as story after story mines the same material in the same way.
One of the things that most impressed me about Suzanne Church’s Elements: A Collection of Speculative Fiction was her versatility as a writer.
I was absolutely delighted by the three stories set in the Couch Teleportation Universe, which were laugh out loud funny. Weird aliens (who reminded me of the aliens in Keith Laumer’s Retief stories), down on their luck heroes and an unlikely means of interstellar transit made for a very entertaining read. One could wish that there will be more stories in this series or – dare I hope? – even a novel.
The furthest away one can get from humourous science fiction is, I would imagine, fantasy infused with melancholic sadness. There are a couple of well executed examples of this kind of story in Elements, as well. “The Tear Closet,” for example, is about a young girl whose abusive father drives her mother to suicide. “Muffy and the Belfry” is about another girl who has to cope with bullies at school and a possible monster waiting in the shadows for her at home.
The fantastical elements in these stories in no way undermines the empathy Church has for her protagonists, an empathy readers are encouraged to share. Just the opposite, in fact: whether it’s the flight of tears in “The Tear Closet” or the ghostly presence in “Muffy and the Belfry,” by giving hope to characters who might otherwise live a hopeless existence, the fantasy relieves what would otherwise be an unbearable reality to read about.
My favourite story in the collection, “March of the Forgotten,” melds these two voices into a powerfully entertaining narrative. The story takes place in a world where common objects have chips implanted in them which, although primarily there to help them better serve their owners, endows them with basic personalities and memories. When they are left behind at shopping malls, they are made to walk, roll, bounce or otherwise move in a circle until they are claimed or cannot move any more, at which point they are thrown away. The story is told from the point of view of a travel mug that is certain that its owner will come back to claim it any time now. Any time now.
“March of the Forgotten” is a science fiction story told with a lot of humour. However, it is also suffused with a sad yearning for a reconnection with a severed emotional tie. It also poignantly raises a question that often appears in stories about artificial intelligence: if we create objects with emotional lives, what obligation do we have to keep them fulfilled and happy.
I also enjoyed “Hell’s Deadline,” about a young woman living a grubby existence over and over again thanks to a deal she made with “the S-man.” This horror story is more wry than laugh out loud funny, but it’s a nice take on an old idea.
I didn’t connect with all of the stories in Elements. “Tattoo Ink,” a one page story, for instance, was too…nasty for my taste. “Mod Me Down,” wasn’t scientifically plausible to me, and Church wrote herself into a box that made the ending predictable from fairly early on in the story.
It is inevitable, in a collection that teems with such variety, that not every story will appeal to every reader. Indeed, which stories appealed to me probably says more about my tastes than Church’s storytelling skill, which is considerable.
I can understand why publishers would be attracted to single author anthologies that contain one genre of story in one style: they’re easier to market. However, I prefer volumes that are constantly surprising and show off the versatility of the author. Suzanne Church’s Elements is definitely one of those books.