Here's a cause for celebration: a thick, meaty collection of short stories with no overall introduction, no artful blurb preceding each tale, no one telling you in advance what the stories are about or how you should greet them. These are naked stories, going trusting and undefended into the world. And we greet them similarly without defence: nothing prepares us for the tales except the ambiguous term "cross-genre" emblazoned upon the back cover. We must take them as we find them, learn the language of each story for the first time as we read it. Anthologies used to be like this, fiction in the raw. When did it change? When did it become a truism that readers could not be trusted with a story unless it came came clothed in paraphernalia to guide them?
Here's further cause for celebration: the stories gathered here bear the scrutiny. That is not to say that they are perfect, that what we encounter here will stay with us for life as a measure of the freshness bold new fictions can achieve. There are 31 stories here, by 33 different writers (one is a three-handed collaboration—"Gillian Underground" by Michael Jasper, Tim Pratt, and Greg van Eekhout, which is nowhere near as spatchcock as that genesis might lead you to expect). Any such conglomeration is certain to include stories that are better or worse than others, or that simply (since tastes do vary) do not work for one particular reader; but the standard is high and there is no contribution that strikes this particular reader as an out-and-out dud.
As to what that slippery term "cross-genre" might actually mean, it is not that easy to tell. Is this slipstream? It could well be, since "slipstream" tends to serve as a catch-all term for anything we are not comfortable slotting into clearly defined genre pigeonholes, which means in effect anything that strays away from the tired and overworked genre heartlands. But that still doesn't tell us very much. With a couple of exceptions, they are not avant-garde stories, at least as I understand the term, since that tends to imply literary experiment, games with structure. Typical is "To-Do List" by Nick Mamatas, which finds the tug of narrative too strong to overcome, and as a result is one of the weaker pieces in the collection, but which is interesting as a demonstration of what this new generation of writers do not do: they do not eschew story.
I say new generation deliberately. There are few firmly established writers here: Jeff Vandermeer, Leslie What, Mamatas possibly. Mostly the contributors are familiar from the American small presses. They are the sort of writers who might pride themselves in being outside the mainstream, and there are certainly few stories here that can be said to follow traditional genre patterns. But they are not, apparently, out to break the mould in the way that earlier generations of "new writers" did, upsetting the old fuddy-duddies with ripe sex or crude language or a disregard for story. Let's take, as an example, the story which opens this anthology, and which brilliantly sets the tone for all that is to follow: "Single White Farmhouse" by Heather Shaw. In one sense this is unconventional storytelling, because the basic idea of an ambulatory and intelligent building crossing America to meet up with a sexy skyscraper it met in an Internet chatroom breaks the narrow norms of what we tend to expect of science fiction and fantasy. But in terms of language and characterisation, narrative structure and the like, it is as conventional as they come. You may find what is being told here weird, but you are not going to be alienated by the way it is told.
In some respects this is a collection that harks back to the late '60s, the last time we had a major outbreak of new writers playing with genre tropes while using them to usurp genre traditions. There are an awful lot of stories here about drugs, or in which recreational drugs are a casual, unremarked part of the background. The finest of them, "Nine Electric Flowers" by Sally Carteret, in which a rock star in an abusive relationship films a video in what may be the graveyard of an underworld legend, reads very much like a 60s story with a few modern devices (the video) tacked on. And if they are not specifically on drugs, many of the leading characters are dropouts in one form or another, usually highly intelligent people who have not completed their education or are otherwise settled into dead-end careers. The guy who has settled into an unambitious position as an assistant in a failing art gallery, who gets a glimpse of magic in "The Green Wall" by Robert Freeman Wexler; the anthropologist who did not complete her PhD because she encountered a genuine shaman in "Dusty Wings" by Nancy Jane Moore.
Actually, to talk of genuine magic in these stories is slightly misleading. A few of the stories are unabashedly fantasy, taking us into a distinct and distinctive other world, as in Alexander Lamb's very good debut, "Ithrulene." A couple are clearly science fiction, such as "Redundant Sue and the Billy Goat Blue" by Blake Hutchins, or M.K. Hobson's curiously disturbing piece, "The Woman in the Numbers." A number of pieces, rather too many in fact, take us to South or Central America, as if the location alone is enough to lend them a magic-realist cachet. But in the main these stories avoid straightforward genre categorisation, and settle for a sense of the numinous that may resolve into the fantastic or into the real depending on how we wish to interpret them.
If there is a failing in this, it is that too many of the authors seem uncertain themselves how the story should pan out, and end with irresolution. I am not asking for a big climax, but simply for more of a sense that the story has reached its end instead of just petering out. Jay Caselberg handles an irresolute ending superbly in "Fugue," one of the best stories in the collection, in which an aging man sees angels and monsters as a manifestation of his wife's depression; on the other hand Forrest Aguirre, in "Among the Ruins," sets up his story of a possibly ghostly encounter in the shattered landscape of war beautifully, but ends too abruptly to carry the full weight of his message. This impatience with conclusion may be part and parcel of the enthusiasm for writing that the overwhelming majority of these stories display; they are written with a genuine energy and verve that makes a long and dense collection come across like a short and lively work. They are also pieces that are in love with the idea of story: overt reference to myth, to story patterns, to fictionality are scattered throughout the book. In "Gillian Underground" by Jasper, Pratt, and van Eekhout the central character's actions are guided by her knowledge of myth, while Bruce Holland Rogers's "Story Stories: A Suite of Seven Narratives" (the only piece beside the Mamatas that plays with structure) wittily casts "story" as the hero of its brief stories.
We have met the drug-addicted dropout characters before, we have met stories which overtly plunder myth, we are familiar with the narrative structures and voices we encounter here; to that extent Polyphony 5 is not doing all that much which is different. But it is the openness to story in all its possibilities, the exuberance in telling, that makes this collection feel so fresh and enjoyable.
Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.