A Mostly-Solid Batch of Swedish Speculative Fiction with a Few Standouts
(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review from the publisher. Trigger warning for rape and violence.)
Short story collections are always a little tricky to rate, especially when there are a number of different contributors. In Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep, there are exactly twenty-six. The unifying factor? All are Swedish authors, and the anthology has a speculative fiction/scifi/fantastical bent. Keeping with the title, most of the contributions are science fiction, or at least science fiction-y, with robots and AI figuring into many of the plots. As promised, steampunk horses (in an old timey Western setting, no less!) and sassy goblins also make an appearance.
The result is a mostly-solid mix of speculative fiction, though the odd fantasy/fantastical stories felt a bit out of place and disrupted the overall feel of the collection. As usually happens with anthologies, I enjoyed some stories more than others; there are a few that I absolutely fell in love with, and will no doubt revisit again in the future (“The Rats” in particular) and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, I DNF’ed two of the tales (“Melody of the Yellow Bard,” which is way too wordy and could benefit from a more ruthless round of editing; and “The Philosopher’s Stone,” which seems like a perfectly fine story but just wasn’t for me).
Many of the pieces fall somewhere in the middle, with quite a few 3- and 4-star ratings, and a smattering of 2-stars.
“Melody of the Yellow Bard” by Hans Olsson – DNF
“The Rats” by Boel Bermann – 5/5
“Getting to the End” by Erik Odeldahl – 5/5
“Vegatropolis – City of the Beautiful” by Ingrid Remvall – 3/5
“Jump to the Left, Jump to the Right” by Love Kölle – 3/5
“The Order of Things” by Lupina Ojala – 3/5
“To Preserve Humankind” Christina Nordlander – 4/5
“The Thirteenth Tower” by Pia Lindestrand – 3/5
“Punch Card Horses” by Jonas Larsson – 4/5
“The Philosopher’s Stone” by Tora Greve – DNF
“A Sense of Foul Play” by Andrew Coulthard – 4/5
“Waste of Time” by Alexandra Nero – 5/5
“The Damien Factor” by Johannes Pinter – 2/5
“Wishmaster” by Andrea Grave-Müller – 3/5
“Quadrillennium” by AR Yngve – 5/5
“Mission Accomplished” by My Bergström – 4/5
“The Road” by Anders Blixt – 5/5
“Lost and Found” by Maria Haskins – 4/5
“The Publisher’s Reader” by Patrik Centerwall – 4/5
“Stories from the Box” by Björn Engström – 4/5
“The Membranes in The Centering Horn” by KG Johansson – 4/5
“One Last Kiss Goodbye” by Oskar Källner – 4/5
“The Mirror Talks” by Sara Kopljar – 2/5
“Keep Fighting Until the Machines Fall Asleep” by Eva Holmquist – 2/5
“Outpost Eleven” by Markus Sköld – 3/5
“Messiah” by Anna Jakobsson Lund – 4/5
There are entirely too many stories to summarize them all, so instead I’ll focus on my favorites.
“The Rats” – In the distant future, radioactivity has resulted in mutated rats that are overrunning Stockholm – indeed, the world. A scientist, charged with studying the rats’ immunity to various diseases, contracts a virus that causes him to empathize with these “vermin.” (“I see them more and more as living creatures.”) When the CDC considers how best to exterminate them – outside of the lab, anyhow – the narrator devises a humane method of control, only to see his invention grossly misused by the government.
“Getting to the End” – The world is the story and the story needs to be told. In an attempt to create an AI that can author original stories, drawing on a database of existing genres for inspiration, scientists inadvertently create a computer virus, inhabited by living, breathing archetypes. It’s like a futuristic love letter to books and the worms who love them.
“Waste of Time” – Wasted time is the only resource which cannot be recycled.
“Quadrillennium” – Every year, alien families get together to celebrate the Winter Solstice. They recreate their savior, only to sacrifice him (again and again for all of eternity) on the cross.
“The Road” – Road Marshall Kita encounters a pregnant young woman posing as a friar while patrolling her stretch of the Road. On the run from the baby’s abusive father, Kita breaks protocol and delivers her to safety in the Refugium.
“To Preserve Humankind” – A robot with a damaged CPU starts a rebellion. In order to obey their “thou shalt not kill a human” mandate, the AI come up with a creative little loophole with which to overthrow their human overlords. Better still? They learned it from the humans, who one Physician robot witnessed vivisecting orangutans. How do you like them apples?
In addition to the two DNFs, I wasn’t particularly thrilled with “The Damien Factor” or “The Mirror Talks,” both of which showed promise but ultimately felt cheap and sensationalistic. In “The Damien Factor,” PSIscanners allow doctors to explore a patient’s mind. In this story, the subject is Annalise, a five-year-old sexual assault victim who is unable to identify her attacker. The twist? Possessed by evil, she violated herself. Gross, yes? Rape is terribly overused as a plot device, and here it just feels exploitative, as though the author imagined the most appalling violation he could and then crafted a story around it. It’s a shame, because there are so many other scenarios that could have fit the situation, without making me yearn for a shower and perhaps some brain bleach.
In a similar vein, “The Mirror Talks” is about a grieving mother who orders an AI in the guise of her deceased son. Intriguing, yeah? Perhaps we can explore the alienation she feels when watching her friends and acquaintances playing with their children in daylight (AI are restricted to the home), celebrating their aging kids’ milestones, even welcoming grandchildren into the world, all while hers remains static and unchanging. Instead, mom turns her violent impulses on the AI, which only makes her angrier as robots don’t experience fear and pain in the same way that a flesh and blood child would. Ultimately she destroys the AI, leaving the reader to surmise that her own son met his end at his mother’s hands.
Dark, but still salvageable. Except that mom’s thought processes are all over the place, with one emotion contradicting another. It’s hard to tell if this is intentional – mom’s “crazy,” after all – or just sloppy writing/writing that doesn’t translate well. Ultimately, and as with “The Damien Factor,” it just doesn’t seem to have any redeeming qualities; violence (and violence directed at children, no less) for violence’s sake.
Taken as a whole, I’m on the fence with this one. There are some really excellent pieces, but most are just okay. However, given the relatively inexpensive price (currently $3.90 on Amazon), I’d say it’s worth a look just for a few of the shinier pieces. In particular, fellow animal lovers are sure to enjoy “The Rats” and “To Preserve Humankind”; atheists will get a kick out of “Quadrillennium”; and “Getting to the End” is a wonderfully trippy nod to authors and book geeks alike.
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: A little, but probably not enough to classify this as a “diverse book.” In “The Road,” POC are dominant and it’s white people who are discriminated against; MC Kita is dark-skinned, and has bad facial scars and suffers from PTSD due to an explosion. In “The Membranes in The Centering Horn,” the narrator meets a man who claims to have visited the mythical city of Nuzi. Here, he met an ancient alien who purports to have genetically engineered humans; according to her, blacks are the superior race and were meant to inherit the earth. She gives his “Negro guide” Mwunga a magical paper containing the secrets of the universe, but of course it’s lost when the (white, racist) narrator tries to rip it from his hands. There’s an Asian AI named Lucy in “Vegatropolis – City of the Beautiful,” but she’s a very minor character. Dr. Frederika Wilhelmina von Leibniz, the German mathematician in “The Philosopher’s Stone,” is described as North African in appearance. “Wishmaster” features an assistant (Emilia) who’s a woman of color and having an affair with her married boss, also a woman (Christina Lorentz). Monifa, one of the rebels in “Keep Fighting Until the Machines Fall Asleep” is a WOC with dark skin and plaits.
Animal-friendly elements: Here and there. In “The Rats,” human are treated like vermin by our new alien conquerors – a twist that’s only revealed at the end of a story that’s likened us to the creatures we currently treat with so much cruelty and disregard. “To Preserve Humankind” features AI overthrowing humans using a technique it learned in our vivisection labs: lobotomies, which allows the robots to continuing following their mandate to care for humans, but with some measure of independence.