When you thumb through an anthology, you normally expect for there to be a central theme that each of the stories revolves around: something to tie them together, however loosely. But when you come to a collection made up of stories from a single author, you might expect these themes to be even more obvious, conforming to a consistent style that rarely breaks from or deviates from a given aesthetic. This is definitely true of Alex Shvartsman's diverse collection of stories, which has an underlying approach that runs throughout almost every story: humor. From satire to situations of pure irony, from fiendishly dark humor to quirky little scenarios, almost every style of humor is covered, which is a feat in of itself. The title alone is an achievement, perfectly encapsulating the quirky spirit of the collection.
As Ken Liu's foreword tells us, humor is something that's damnably difficult to nail down: an image of pinning smoke or jelly to a brick wall comes to mind. Humor, of course, is something that's quite subjective. One alien's funny bone is near another's sac of indifference—and this is assuming that they even enjoy the darker and sharper (and the one I would call the best) side of comedy. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that not all of these stories are hilarious. Not all of them are even intended to be funny; simply quirky. Some of them, moreover, only serve to provide a punchline at the very end. But the ones that do hit home are good enough that the misses don't matter.
There are a variety of genres at play here. Everything from supernatural horror to space opera to cyberpunk and fantasy, and even a handful of stories redolent of the Golden Age are thrown in. It's unfortunate that this subgenre is so rarely seen in the short fiction market, writing homages to ages long past. Others of Shvartsman's stories are pure works of genre-blending genius, such as the collection's title story, "Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma," combining mythology, fantasy, science fiction, and a large helping of that humor. Shvartsman's explanations of how the stories came to be—provided in short introductions to each—are also fascinating to read, and provide a welcome insight into the process of their writing: for example, the author confesses that Twitter, of all places, seems to have been the source of many of these stories' concepts.
There are also, however, one or two problems that niggled. Unfortunately, much like Shvartsman's humor, these problems appear somewhat consistently throughout most of his stories. Certain characters will spout exposition by way of background information and history. They will explain these backdrops in dialogue, and at times it almost felt as if they were speaking to me as the reader, as if their words were solely for my benefit so that I didn't trail behind. The other characters are obviously aware of the situation in which they find themselves, yet their interlocutors routinely felt compelled to frame it verbally. It all felt slightly jarring. In "Doubt," for example, a character simply pops out of nowhere, and doles out a large helping of exposition in the direction of the main character, reminding him of something that he already knew, but that, alas, the reader did not.
Of course, plotlines do not exist in a vacuum and Shvartsman is merely giving the readers some firm ground on which to stand on. Some of his stories take place in a future alien civilization, complete with a hierarchy and intense political machinations, so some exposition is certainly required. But I did feel that concealing the world-building a little better, and most especially imparting it outside of dialogue, would have served the stories better. However, these are not novels, and every writer of short stories is painfully aware of the limited space they have to work with. It can be tricky to balance brevity with ambition and scope, and for the most part, Shvartsman is able to do this quite well, as in "Price of Allegiance," in which we are introduced to a galaxy-spanning space opera complete with multiple alien races all trying to outmaneuver each other politically. He rarely drops the ball, but thanks to miniature successes like "Price of Allegiance," when he does fumble it's much more obvious than you'd like it to be.
These hiccups are perhaps more noticeable in that the majority of Shvartsman's stories lean towards the more light-heartened, optimistic side of speculative fiction, reminiscent of the unapologetically pulpy Golden Age stories. There's certainly some moments of mild cynicism, but for the most part these stories tend to be grander and less condensed, painting a brighter future than is present in much contemporary science fiction, and yet one that it is not without its fair share of conflict. These include "Price of Allegiance," "Dominoes Falling," and quite possibly my favorite of the collection, "The Dragon Ships of Tycho," in which aliens and humans clash over games of deadly politics, communication, and domination, and where entire populations hang in the balance. Shvartsman also isn't afraid of condensing his work into a tight, minimalist format, as seen in "Ravages of Time," in which events are recalled by a seemingly indifferent character; by the end the hidden backdrop of the story comes into plain sight, yet is never explicitly stated. Flash fiction is difficult to write, and for Shvartsman to include such scope within such a small span of words is a skill indeed—and suggests that with further work his occasional slip-ups may be eliminated.
For all his glorious, galaxy-spanning space opera, there are also some slivers of more subtle stories. It's even more surprising, given the often action-oriented bent of the genre, that these more understated moments come in the form of Young Adult fiction. "The Far Side of the Wilderness," for instance, is a slow-moving, but strong, story that lingers in your mind long after you read it. Shvartsman could have kept the momentum going with this story, and I would have gladly kept reading, but the story ended just when it needed to, heavily implying future events that slowly unspool in your mind the more you think about them.
This isn't all. The medieval fantasy stories were also excellent, although there were less of them than I would have liked, given their quality. There were, on the other hand, a tad too many experimental stories for my taste. There's a drabble, a story written in the second person, a voice that will always be hit or miss, and even a story that consists of one single, run-on sentence. It takes guts even to attempt this sort of writing and Shvartsman is to be praised for his ingenuity. However, none of these tales really worked in the way that his traditionally told stories did. They lack that tangible substance that makes so many of these stories compelling: in the long run, ingenuity alone isn't good enough to give a story its edge. Indeed, many of these more unusual pieces are clipped and short, backing off before they outstay their welcome.
Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma and Other Stories is a well-rounded collection of stories that's bound to have something for everyone—and, in its broad range, appeal to all senses of humor, however innocent or twisted. None of them, alas, particularly stand out as incredible, but perhaps that's because almost all of them are so consistently creditable. It's easily one of the most impressive short collections I've read in a long time, and, perhaps in its relative novelty in the current field, the strong aesthetic of homage and throwback to the classic pulp sci-fi simply leaps off the page. There's something in here for fans of almost every subgenre. There are stories that are enjoyable little entrees that can be digested within a few minutes, and there are stories that leave a pleasant flavor long after you finish chewing. And, let's be frank: any title that combines the words "Cthulhu" and "Grandma" in a single sentence is bound to be a winner.
Jeremy Szal has had over thirty publications in various venues, including Strange Horizons, Bards and Sages, and Grimdark Magazine. He's earned an Honourable Mention from Writers of the Future and a nomination for the 2014 Parsec award. He is also the assistant editor of Hugo award-winning podcast StarShipSofa, and has worked with authors such as Peter Watts, Robin Hobb, Ian Watson, and David Levine. He's nineteen years old and lives in Sydney, Australia with his parents, sister, and the world's most hyperactive Jack Russel. Find him at http://jeremyszal.wordpress.com/.