One of the remarkable things about the Anthology of European Speculative Fiction is that it is the only anthology of its kind that I can remember hearing of, much less reading. In their introduction, the editors comment that "European SF anthologies are rare as pink diamonds" (p. 4), and though they cite a handful of exceptions, all but one of them are from the early 1980s or before. This is one of those facts that seems astonishing when you first notice it, although explanations for it quickly spring to mind. First of all, despite their shared heritage, the peoples of Europe are for the most part too strongly attached to their national identities to think of themselves as "European" at all, except by way of contrast with Americans or Asians or Africans. Secondly, the number of languages spoken in Europe makes communication between different countries' SF writers difficult, especially since the English-language publishing industry is notoriously insular and monoglot, reluctant to take risks on translations.
It is encouraging, then, that despite these obstacles, and despite the lack of precedents, Cristian Tamaş and Roberto Mendes have managed to put together an anthology so packed with high-quality fiction of a wide range of styles and genres. If this collection is representative of the state of speculative fiction in Europe, there is every reason to be optimistic, for the other remarkable thing about this anthology is how good it is.
The anthology features stories by twelve authors, representing eight countries, and spanning almost as many genres as there are stories. Hard science fiction, secondary-world fantasy, whimsical satire, cyberpunk, and Lovecraftian horror all make a showing here, along with other styles less neatly definable. The editors' own countries, Romania for Tamaş and Portugal for Mendes, are (understandably) slightly over-represented, with Romania contributing three stories to the anthology and Portugal two. The first story by a Romanian author to appear in the collection had me double-checking the author biography to make sure I hadn't misread Liviu Radu's nationality: "Digits are Cold, Numbers are Warm" is a Lovecraft-inspired horror story set in Victorian England, an old woman's confession of the terrible sacrifices she and her now-dead husband had to make in order to prevent a horrifying transdimensional incursion. The narrative voice is well-crafted, and the twist in the tale is just sharp enough to offset my prejudice against Lovecraftian stories. For all that I'm inclined to think that the material Radu is drawing on has been mined to the point of exhaustion, his own take on the mythos is well-executed enough to work.
Cristian Mihail Teodorescu's "Big Bing, Larissa," another tale from Romania, could hardly be more different, being a satirical far-future science fiction yarn set in a matriarchal world in which the financial system has become autonomous. As well as being the only respectable trade to engage in, high finance has taken on the status of a religion (to the credulous), or of a fundamental physics (to the more scientifically minded, the story's narrator being among them). "Big Bing, Larissa" is sprightly and witty and thought-provoking in an unsettling way. The third Romanian representative, Danut Ungureanu's "Notes from a Dwarf Universe," is similarly satirical, though it does not play the same kinds of narrative tricks as "Bing Bing Larissa." In a manner reminiscent of an Isaac Asimov short, Ungureanu takes a simple, rather silly premise (what if somebody invented a shrinking machine?) and runs with it, milking the silliness for all it's worth:
Slowly, their ideologists, speakers and literate men, because they had enough of these, spread vitriol through the mass-media: the philosophy of supremacy and precedence for the little man before the useless and harmful animal, which is "the big guy." The propaganda created a lot of phrases favorable to them and derogatory to us. They were "small and clever," "small and agile," "small but diligent," "small people-huge souls" . . . On April 22nd, 2059, The Big Insurrection of Small People was triggered, at the call of "the small and brave" William Wallace. It was obvious that he claimed his descendants from the legendary Scottish hero, since he and his soldiers were dressed in kilts made out of a plaid tablecloth, stolen from The Delicious Sausage (pp. 101-2)
Portugal is represented by Diana Pinguicha's "Rebellion" and Regina Catarino's "Memory Recall." "Rebellion" is the closest this anthology comes to a bad story—it's not actually bad, just a little overheated in style considering it has a fairly standard engineered-supersoldiers-turn-out-to-be-human plot, competent of its kind but unremarkable. "Memory Recall" is stronger and richer, with an effective central relationship and a plot that works all the better for not explaining everything that happens.
The only other country to have more than one representative here is England, with one story by Ian R. McLeod and one by Philip Harris. No doubt it's a coincidence that both stories are horror, though of starkly different kinds. McLeod's "The Dead Orchards" has a decadent, Aubrey Beardsley feel. Its setting is not immediately recognizable as anywhere in particular, and at the same time it's intimately familiar, because this is a fable about the idle rich and their poisonous pleasures, and that kind of story has been told since the first time a man was endowed with more money than morals. The particular nature of the evil is both grotesque and ingenious, as is the manner in which McLeod's idle rich man is forced to face the consequences of his self-indulgence. Where "The Dead Orchards" is lush and bordering on the purple, "Only Friends" is determinedly ordinary, so much so that if you were to skip a line or two, you might miss the entire point of the story. It demands to be read twice: once to see what the narrator has to say, and a second time to root out all the things he isn't saying.
The five countries that only get one story each are nonetheless well-represented, for the remaining stories are all very good indeed. Admittedly, the Dutch Jetse de Vries's "Transcendent Express" is a little didactic (and if a character is going to distract her boyfriend with sex, she really shouldn't do it more than once in ten pages; after the first time, it stopped being cute and became irritating), but it's still great fun. Carmelo Rafala of Italy's "Repeat Performances" has a rich, fascinating world and a satisfyingly twisty plot, replete with unpredictably human characters. Ukranian Vladimir Arenev's "The Royal Library" feels like a mini-anthology in its own right, more like three stories on a shared theme than a single work, but it is no less entertaining for that, spinning variations on the theme of the magic of books in a delightful and very funny way.
By far the best stories in the collection are by the two authors with the best-known names in the English-speaking SF scene. From Hannu Rajaniemi of Finland, author of The Quantum Thief (2010), we have "The Server and the Dragon" —which is a tour de force, beautifully written and breathtaking in its imaginative power. The story has no human characters—no characters who are even close to being human—and it does not need them. It is a kind of poetic tragedy written in a new idiom. It is a little demanding to read, because it is so new, and the beings it describes are so alien, but it repays the effort handsomely. This story is exactly what science fiction is for.
In a different way, the same could be said for the last story in the collection, the French Aliette de Bodard's "Starsong," though De Bodard's characters are human—painfully so. "Starsong"'s main characters live in a deeply racist society—not the same racism normally seen in Europe, since the society is culturally Aztec and has relocated to a different planet, but still pernicious and hateful. The portrait of a friendship torn apart by peer pressure is exquisitely written and deeply moving. De Bodard has a gift for the telling image, as here:
They were tacky by Mexica standards, but the half of her that Mother had taught knew them to be beautiful—polished wood and the calligraphy of masters, flowing like water around their length. They had been hers, and their loss hurt more than she'd have thought.
But it wasn't that which hurt most; never was. What did; what twisted in Axatl's heart like a sacrificial knife, is what she saw when she rose, the chopsticks against her chest: Mayauhqui's face, frozen halfway between contempt and shame—his eyes shifting, already turning away from the Chink, the tainted half-breed. (p. 117)
And so the anthology ends on a high note, with a story so painfully true it brought tears to my eyes. I can honestly say that I laughed and I cried while reading these stories, that I was kept wondering what would come next, that I discovered something new with every story. Some of them resonated more strongly with me than others; some of them excited me more than others; some of them gave me more to think about than others; but they were all good, all interesting, and all enough to make me want more from the authors—or, indeed, from the editors. This is the first anthology of European SF that I've come across. I hope it won't be the last.
Katherine Farmar is a writer based in Dublin, Ireland. She blogs about the arts at Pansies and Nettles.