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Entanglements (SF) - Ed. Sheila Williams ***

It's important to say up front that the star rating here is an average: there are some 5 star stories in this collection and there are some that would only get 1 star.

It's very brave to put together a collection of science fiction stories with a message - in this case, the impact on relationships and families of emerging technologies. There is something very dampening about an enforced message that can so easily kill a story by making it feel like little more than propaganda. It's to the credit of many of the authors here that this doesn't usually happen.

This is a collection of ten SF stories. A few really stand out. The opening story Invisible People, by Nancy Kress was excellent, exploring the tangled concepts of gene editing and designer babies with a fascinating twist on the subject of altruism. My only criticism would be that I think writers rather let their reader down when the story pointedly ends just before a major decision by a character, leaving the story incomplete. I don't buy the 'it's down to your imagination' argument - if you're telling a story, you should finish it.

Two others deserving of high praise were Rich Larson's Echo the Echo and Sparklybits by Nick Wolven. In Echo the Echo there was a combination of a fascinating idea of an AI personal assistant that knows you so well it can audition dates for you (or rather can audition their avatars), plus some interesting thoughts on the nature of memory and personality. Although Wolven irritated me by the 1950s-style SF failing of unnecessary overuse of weak-sounding future technology names - why make an oven an 'ovenex'? - it's great fun with a twist on Ghostbusters where we're dealing with what amount to ghosts in the machine.

My favourite overall was Suzanne Palmer's Don't Mind Me, set primarily in a school in a chilling near future America where, at their parents' request, some students are provided with textbooks with everything excised that is 'controversial' (such as climate change or the Earth being more than 6,000 years old), and where brain implants prevent memory storage whenever the students hear things their parents don't want them to hear. It's a great read.

Every short story collection will have some pieces that work better than others. (It helps if there are rather more stories - only having ten meant some were over-long, and there were fewer opportunities to find favourites.) But, I suspect because of the weight of that imposed message, there were more that didn't work here than is typical. Three of them I had to give up on entirely. They simply didn't engage me as a reader - this hasn't ever happened with so many stories in a collection for me before. Two others were simply the right-on message wrapped in a fictional context - readable, but not much to write home about as storytelling. The other five were excellent.

Considering the difficulty imposed by the need for a message, this collection does well - but it could have been so much better if the prime decision-making factor for inclusion was whether or not there was a good, engaging narrative, rather than whether or not the story ticked the right boxes for the theme.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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