Imaginarium 4 is the fourth installment of ChiZine Publication's pursuit of the latest and greatest of Canadian speculative fiction. "Let's call these stories and poems ‘wonder tales,'" says the introduction by an always-charming Margaret Atwood. "They contain wonders, and they cause you to wonder. You wonder many things. Could it happen? What would things be like if it did? Or, for the more visceral kind of tale: what's under the bed?" (pp. 10-11)
While chasing the question of "what if?," the stories in the collection range from pure science fiction to fantasy to every shade between. The collection is often clever, with stories that showcase a singular concept, never losing focus, and following it through to the end. For instance, "The Full Lazenby," by Jeremy Butler, takes human gene mapping on a playful joyride into a future where you can go to a testing center and check if you're a genetic match with Beyoncé.
The purpose of the story isn't so much to build out an entire world; rather, it focuses on its protagonist and the way his life has been shaped by one singular event: discovering he's a 99.7% match for George Lazenby, the infamous one-time James Bond. He's plucked out of his humdrum life as a philosophy major and plunged into a world of upscale casinos, women, and deluxe cruise ships. It's a sweet life served up on a silver platter, drenched in vodka martinis and wordplay—until he's pitted against his old friend Dwight, who is a 100% match for Gert Fröbe, the actor who portrayed none other than the famous Bond villain Goldfinger.
"The Full Lazenby" is a mischievous take on a number of things, from celebrity worship to nature versus nurture, but most of all it's fun. Highlights include Dwight lamenting that he's only a 45% William Shatner; a 92% Roger Moore shocked at the idea of Lazenby taking the bus ("A Bond on public transportation? How the 17 Bournes would love that!" p. 98); and the ultimate tussle when Lazenby defeats Goldfinger with a puffer fish.
Other entries in the anthology excel at taking unusual perspectives and running with them. "Brains, Brains, Brains" is a poem from the perspective of zombies that makes you feel a little sorry for the walking dead. "The Exorcist: A Love Story" is a tale told from the perspective of a demon possessing a baby, darkly humorous and a deliciously twisted revenge story. "Kafka's Notebooks," by Jocko Benoit, is a surrealist poem about Kafka's notebooks and how the ideas within spread throughout the world and turn it inside out.
The only times when Imaginarium 4 falls a little flat are when the stories fail to let themselves breathe. "Giants," by Peter Watts, is chock full of details and technical jargon, for instance, describing how a huge ship in the future burrows through a star. A great deal of the story is made up of descriptions of the ship, of colliding stars, of an attack by plasma aliens. While the action is well written, the story ends up being a little difficult to read.
Glimpses of the backstory are occasionally alluded to, but never fleshed out. We know, for instance, that most of the crew is in deep freeze and that they mutinied; we also know that the protagonist is considered a traitor, though he feels that he acted to save them from themselves. However, instead of exploring the relationship between the protagonist and Hakim, one of the crewmembers who has been brought out of stasis, we get an action-packed sequence that feels almost claustrophobic. Hakim questions whether or not the protagonist is even truly human because of their neural link with the ship. This seems like something that could have been explored with more care, instead of throwing the characters into a life-threatening situation.
Indeed, the most successful stories in Imaginarium 4 are emotional examinations of situations that are immediately accessible, populated by pop culture monoliths or mythological figures. "From Stone and Bone, From Earth and Sky" is one of these. Another is "Sideshow," by Catherine MacLeod, which unspools the mythos of the Minotaur and weaves it once again in a modern context. It's a dark tale, examining themes of social ostracization and sexual assault.
Rumer, a woman with the head of a cow, is tricked by her coworkers into being brutally raped by the Minotaur. She's world-weary yet matter-of-fact; her mantra that all the cruelties she's suffered in her life are an "old story" relays the fact that she's used to the world and all its terrible truths. When she discovers that she's pregnant from the rape, she goes to Minos, who owns the sideshow labyrinth that houses the Minotaur. At first, he thinks she has come for retribution, but instead, she shows empathy for the Minotaur. "He's lonely," she says. "He's hungrier for touch than for food. And the lonely, you know, we tend to seek out our own kind" (p. 299).
Her choice to be empathetic—and to re-enter the labyrinth—is a defiant act of deciding her own fate, even if it might be potentially tragic. She can forgive a mindless animal act of violence, but she can't forgive a world that has tortured her for its own amusement:
"I know what I'm walking into," she tells Minos. "They say there's someone for everyone, right? And he's half-human, which is more than I can say for some humans." (p. 303)
There is a sense of resignation to "Sideshow," but also boldness. Rumer confronts Minos, tells him she knows who he is, and challenges him even when he points a gun at her. It's an intensely human story about vulnerability and the choices we make.
In this way, the highlights of the anthology are about storytelling itself. A.C. Wise's "From Stone and Bone, From Earth and Sky" features interview-style narration as the narrator converses their way through a traveling carnival in the grip of an American Gods-style occupation by deities of yore. The story features both a creation myth as well as different versions of the same story. At the end, we're unsure if the narratives we've just heard are true or a version of truth, one manipulated by Coyote, the ever-present trickster hero in Native American mythology. "Sideshow," meanwhile, contains a number of persistent tropes, examining how nothing has truly changed from the brutality of the past.
In the absence of a common theme running throughout Imaginarium 4, it does seem that the most successful entries are ones that are self-aware, examining old tropes from a different angle and playing up our expectations. The stories that are harder to sell in the collection are ones that rely altogether too much on high strangeness. They fall flat as simply surreal anecdotes that aren't unpleasant but are a bit unmemorable. "Demoted" by Kate Story, for instance, is well written and develops a surreal, tense atmosphere; but when the tale is told and done, it seems more like a prologue than an actual story. In "Demoted," Tom struggles with some personal demons as he travels toward New York, encountering green-eyed, redheaded angelic figures along the way who keep talking about ascension and mass retreats. The repetitive nature of the story is interesting, like an exercise in recursion, but it tends to feel as though it's talking at the readers. It would have been wonderful to spend a little more time with the story and have it divulge a few more of its secrets; as it is, it seems to sit just on the surface of some larger ideas that needed more fleshing out.
At the opposite of the spectrum is "The Inn of the Seven Blessings" by Matthe Hughes, which is a straightforward fantasy story complete with a thief who becomes a hero, magical talking talismans, a power hungry sorcerer, and man-eating orc-like creatures. Fantasy and science fiction stories have marinated so long in our collective imaginations that stories such as "The Inn of the Seven Blessings" feel a bit like treading water. The characters and scenarios are a little comfortable and a little too derivative.
The strength of speculative fiction is often that it's so delightfully self-aware, testing the boundaries of tradition and re-imagining old tropes. Imaginarium 4 really shines when its stories get a little weird and question their own nature. These are the stories that are offered up shaken, not stirred, from some bottom-of-the-ocean sleep: they are having out-of-body experiences and living not just as stories but as answers to the question "What if?"