Menial (book review)

I’m going to start by giving it to you straight: I haven’t read this book in its entirety.

Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction, edited by Kelly Jennings and Shay Darrach, is an anthology of 17 SF stories. I’ve read the first six. My feeling is that they should constitute a reasonable sample of the whole, that there might be an exceptional story or two among the other eleven but that most general observations about these six should apply to the whole. You are free to disagree, of course, and if you feel my not having read the entire book disbars me from saying anything valid about it, well, guilty as charged, go ahead and disregard or even condemn this review.

I’ll also say that I came into this book with a prejudice. I read very few short stories these days, especially anthologies. I used to read them a lot more. Not sure what’s changed, me or the fiction — well, obviously both have. But for whatever reason, I find less appeal in SF short stories nowadays.

The sense I get is that SF writers are increasingly interested in using the short story form to create an effect — to paint a mood — to sketch a situation. As opposed, by my way of seeing it, to telling a story. Now, I’m not going to tell you there’s anything wrong with creating effects, painting moods, sketching situations. All I’ll say is that’s not what I open a book to find. What interests me is stories; tales, if you like. A story is not a plot, but it’s hard to have a good story without a good plot, without a beginning, middle, and end, a conflict and a resolution. Good characterization is a plus, of course, and skillful (which is not the same as artful) use of the language. They serve and enhance the story; but when the story itself is lacking, or incomplete, I usually lose interest.

I have a peeve, too, regarding narrative: It seems to me that present-tense narrative has become increasingly popular the past few decades, and I don’t like it. I have no reason to dislike it, I just do; I find it inexplicably irritating. I have the feeling some writers regard it as a tool for creating effect, painting mood, sketching situation. Maybe not. Maybe they just like it. I don’t.

So given those prejudices, you know where I stand, and how I reacted to the fact that of the first six stories (for the record: “Diamond in the Rough” by A. J. Fitzwater; “Thirty-four Dollars” by M. Bennardo; “A Tale of a Fast Horse” by Sean Jones; “The Didibug Pin” by Barbara Krasnoff; “Sarah 87” by Camille Alexa; and “Carnivores” by A. D. Spencer) in this anthology whose theme is working class people and the work they do, I would regard not one as telling an actual, complete story. Of the first, third, fourth, and sixth, to a greater or lesser degree every one makes a decent start at a story, and then in one way or another ends by sort of pulling up short and saying “And that’s how it all began”, leaving the middle, the end, the development of the conflict, and the resolution all to be filled in by the reader. The other two don’t seem to bring even the start of a genuine story to the table.

Oh, and the first, third, and fifth are narrated in the present tense.

I wouldn’t say any of the six was badly written; all the authors seem to have at least a good degree of skill with the language, though probably Jones was the only one whose prose style really (aside from the present tense thing, sorry to bring that up again, I’ll try not to mention it any more) appealed to me. I didn’t spot any glaring editorial problems aside from truncation of Fitzwater’s bio. This was an advance review copy and the omission probably will be fixed.

Maybe I’ll take a look at the other eleven stories sooner or later; there may be a gem there. But I’m not highly motivated by what I’ve read so far.

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