Although Chimerascope is Douglas Smith's second collection, Impossibilia, his first, was a much more modest affair, containing only three long stories together spanning just under 100 pages. Chimerascope, on the other hand, offers us 16 stories from the last dozen years or so—with a "bonus" one in the limited edition hardback—and they are stories that run the generic gamut, including urban fantasy, horror, space opera, post-apocalyptic science fantasy, dabblings in "fabulism," and even a bit of sword-and-samurai (samurai-and-sorcery?). Nevertheless, from this wide range of genres and settings a fairly consistent voice emerges, and indeed Smith's voice proves one of the more endearing features of this sampling of his work, which holds true even in his individual story prefaces—an authorial vice that can be distracting, but in Smith's hands remains charming, if probably ultimately superfluous. I should also mention that Smith is a Canadian, and that, if you're not, you may not have read many of his stories, if any: he seems hyperconscious of both of these facts himself, helpfully glossing the Aurora Award as "a Canadian thingy" in his introduction (p. 13), although the stories in this collection have appeared in a modestly wide cross-section of Canadian, U.K., and American markets. While several of the selections have won various laurels, there are some definite misses, including the single original story, "Nothing," a vignette of a private apocalypse that remains too slight and familiar in subject to become a fruitful "experiment," as Smith himself identifies it (p. 134). If, however, the stories in Chimerascope occasionally fall into overfamiliar patterns of plot or cadence, they never sink to the sloppy or outright cliché, instead simply failing to live up to their substantial promise; throughout Smith shows a real gift for truly "cinematic" description and turns up now and then with arrestingly inventive premises in a field where really interesting new ideas are harder and harder to find.
The collection opens with what I consider its most successful story by far, "Scream Angel," which also happens to be its only Aurora winner, although for what it's worth more than half of the stories included seem to have been finalists. And the strongest point of this strongest story is its central novum, Scream, a drug that, to oversimplify a little, converts pain into pleasure, and does so in proportion to the intensity level of the sensation. Of course, the drug is highly addictive, and strictly regulated by the military arm of one of those politico-economic conglomerates that we're led to believe will one day rule the known universe. Smith describes a disturbingly plausible military application for the narcotic: turns out Scream addiction makes for good soldiers, if you don't care too much about the side-effects. The basic concept behind the drug strikes me as one of those rare ideas that seems at once so perfect and so natural that someone must have come up with it before; but if someone has, I haven't heard about it, and regardless Smith exploits the potential of the idea extraordinarily well here. His plot involves, among other things, a bizarre alien love triangle that only grows more bizarre if we understand it as a quadrangle, counting the drug as a key player in the relationship: this latter circumstance, which occurs so often outside of science fiction, is further complicated here by the fact that the titular "Angel" secretes the substance when mating with her own kind. My one minor complaint about this story is that the oddly unselfconscious verbal architecture of its universe becomes a little too reminiscent of Margaret Atwood's own Oryx and Crake universe in its abuse of punning acronyms and cutesy portmanteau neologisms—perhaps that's simply another Canadian thingy? (See Martin Lewis's review of Year of the Flood for a similar criticism of Atwood's puns.) For example, Atwood's unfortunate name "CorpSeCorps"—for "Corporate Security Corps"—not only resembles Smith's "Merged Corporate Entity," but its inexplicably punning resonances match those of Smith's "Rippers," members of the (groan) RIP force, meaning Relocation of Indigenous Peoples, themselves nicknamed "ips"; the former wield StAB rods and pilot LAShers, Low-altitude Attack Ships. We can forgive both authors the indulgence, to be sure, as the habit is only occasionally distracting.
Unfortunately, other sorts of distractions crop up in Smith's writing, and none of the stories that follow quite match "Scream Angel." Another piece set in the same universe, "Enlightenment," concerns the drug itself far less, and to its detriment, I think: when the main character's ostensibly incurable addiction is more or less "magically" removed for the sake of the plot, it takes with it what I find most interesting about that universe. Also unfortunately, "Enlightenment" reads like a total rip-off of Avatar—I suppose because Avatar is in its way a rip-off of everything—and the fact that Smith published his story half a decade before the film's release doesn't make its premise any more original, if you take my meaning: an evil megacorporation employing violent shock troops makes landfall on a planet with the intention of strip mining an invaluable mineral, only to discover impeding their progress a bunch of towering, long-limbed, low-tech natives that live in perfect harmony with the universe. The plot moves forward when the grizzled commanding officer orders the good-natured grunt of a protagonist to become a kind of liaison with the natives and learn how they tick; there's no need to tally all of the parallels, but you can guess how things turn out: "I knew he'd discovered my duplicity, my failure to inform him of all that I'd learned" (p. 184). ( . . . And did I mention that the term for the native humanoids consists of two syllables separated by an apostrophe?) Finally, the officer only makes headway against the natives when he threatens to destroy their sacred places, which actually function as a giant network of past generations of Be'nan.
I dwell on these similarities at such length not only because the story's failings also parallel or prefigure precisely what I believe (some of) Avatar's failings to be, but because, as with a significant segment of Smith's work on display here, the failings disappoint so much because so much else of what he writes is so excellent. Essentially, in "Enlightenment" Smith simply seems, like Cameron, a touch too madly in love with his carefully constructed new planet, and especially with its beyond idealized race. Again, as in some of Smith's other stories, the prose itself is by turns disarmingly beautiful and disconcertingly heavy-handed, with the contrast making the latter stand out all the more: we don't need to be told, for example, that the protagonist thinks of himself carrying the corpse of an alien in Christ-like terms, "bearing her like my cross" (p. 177). Such cavalier Christ imagery recurs throughout the collection, but another example of a far too unsubtle allusion comes in "State of Disorder," a decent reverse revenge story about entropy, time, and the manipulation of both that nevertheless made me cringe when, early on in the narrative, a gullible dinner guest of an old "friend" notices a book opened conspicuously to "The Cask of Amontillado," and then proceeds to have a sci-fi Montressor job done on him.
Also consider the case of the vexingly artful "The Red Bird," a spellbinding piece of writing set in a Japan-that-never-was that is both well-plotted and elegantly paced, but somewhat distastefully medievalizing and Orientalizing. Likewise, "By Her Hand, She Draws You Down"—a Best New Horror selection about an artist possessed by one of those inscrutable, probably cosmic entities—left me lukewarm in spite of some haunting passages and scenes. That I found it less than superlative may only reflect my own general disinclination towards horror, but the story has the kind of twist ending that, far from surprising, seems almost inevitable for narratives of its species. It's also regrettable that the title, as lofty and poetic as it aspires to be, still revolves around a bad pun, which tends to break the spell really great supernatural horror can cast. Puns aside, at times, indeed, some of the stories in this collection border on the ridiculous: "New Year's Eve" will seem quaint not because it treats the Y2K bug, but because what is ostensibly a piece of science fiction doesn't in the end make much sense, even if we adjust our expectations for the finale and rethink it as more of a "science fantasy." The reality-bending premise reminds one of Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven or Zelazny's The Dream Master, but without the psychological depth or social import of either. The story that follows this one, "The Boys Are Back in Town," renders more explicit homage to Zelazny, whom Smith identifies as his favorite author in its preface; here Smith specifically parrots the late great master's pan-mythological proto-urban fantasy, though the story seems closer to a kind of Star-Wars-Cantina amalgam of Western mythologies than Zelazny's careful meldings. Nor does it help that the humor sometimes falls rather flat: ". . . and professors debated hydras. Tough bet, that last one. Hydras aren't too bright, but just try getting in a word against multiple heads" (p. 95). Moreover, it's difficult to take seriously even a lighthearted story that insists on playing phrases like "ebon tendril" and "No! It burns!" completely straight (p. 107, p. 111).
Yet it should come as no great surprise to learn that Smith is no Zelazny—who is? Even his better stories, aside from the few outstanding exceptions, tend to fall into one of two categories, either setting up a fantastically innovative premise that peters out by the end, or proving a well-crafted but overly derivative production. I would place "Going Harvey in the Big House" in this latter category: I don't dislike the story, but Smith adds less than he might to the esteemed dystopian genre with this tale of a massive, oligarchy-controlled arcology. His placement of a protagonist in service of the dystopian law enforcement body establishes a basic situation, and ultimately a plot, that remains too derivative of familiar dystopias like Logan's Run and Fahrenheit 451, although 1984 perhaps guides Smith more in the end. "The Dancer at the Red Door," an initially intriguing meditation on escapism, similarly takes a mix of familiar fantasy turns—evoking Gaiman's Neverwhere, the obligatory helping of Lovecraft, plus a touch of something like Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut—but promises to do something a little more interesting with them, at least right up to the somewhat predictable ending. In addition, Smith doesn't always handle his exposition with the greatest skill or subtlety, and too much of it ends up recounted dispassionately in dialogue. In "Symphony," for example, a character first tells her spouse about both her synaesthesia and what first attracted her to him in dialogue—after they already have a two-year-old son together.
Since Smith has not arranged the stories in Chimerascope in any semblance of chronological order, it's difficult to trace any kind of development or maturation simply by reading straight through them. Even so, many of his earlier stories appear to have slid towards the middle of the collection, where it seems weakest to me, and the more recent stories show fewer problems with the kinds of clumsiness I've described. Fittingly, the book concludes with an apocalypse, and one that I'd have to describe as midway between bang and whimper, though definitely closer to the former. I don't mean to do Smith any disservice by saying that "Memories of the Dead Man," a respectable post-apocalyptic tale of a mother, her son, and their adoptive protector, feels a whole lot like a Canadian Mad Max. If this story can't truly be said to stand out among the recent glut of post-apocalyptic narratives, it nevertheless again shows off Smith's flair for the cinematic, and the story would at least make a much better film than, say, last January's The Book of Eli or any number of other recent Hollywood apocalypses. In his preface to the story, Smith announces his plan to write a novel about the Dead Man, and the scope of the world and backstory is such that it would probably work much better in longer form—I do look forward to reading it.
I also look forward to reading more stories like the absolutely masterful "A Taste Sweet and Salty," a kind of much, much creepier Quantum Leap: the amnesiac protagonist awakes in a new body each morning only to die in it by nightfall. His dejected wanderings around the same isolated, inescapable village capture the infinite despair of living a fixed, fated life in a finite world, and his final attempt to break the cycle proves much more morally complex than it first appears. The story's more subdued tone provides a strong counterpoint to the violent agony of "Scream Angel," but that Smith manages to craft two such superb yet different stories again speaks volumes of his range and future potential. For all of his work's unevenness, on the evidence of Chimerascope and Impossibilia Smith is definitely an author who deserves to be more widely read. It's quite possible that he—and we—would have been better served if he had waited a little longer to amass a larger body of stories from which to select a more consistent crop of his "best," but the few outstanding ones here make the collection worth picking up, especially if you haven't had the chance to read much of Smith's work.
T. S. Miller is currently a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, where he studies Middle English literature. Of course, genre fiction has been the secret vice of many a medievalist before him. His non-fiction has also appeared on The Internet Review of Science Fiction, and another article is forthcoming in Science Fiction Studies.