TITLE: The Golem of Deneb Seven and Other Stories
AUTHOR: Alex Shvartsman
266 pages, UFO Publishing, paperback and e-book formats, ISBN 9781986220613
DESCRIPTION: (from Goodreads): 31 science fiction and fantasy short stories encompassing hard SF, fantasy humor, and everything in-between: Refugees with a salvaged mech suit find that family ties are stronger than armor. Two artificial intelligences in love turn the world into their playground. A modern-day Dante is guided through hell by the ghost of Bob Marley. Ancient gods and monsters stalk the halls of a 1920s night club. A young woman must save her planet by committing an act of terror. In the rekindled space race between the United States, Russia, and India, the winner might be the nation willing to sacrifice the most. And more.
MY RATING: Five out of five stars
MY THOUGHTS: disclaimer: I received a digital Advanced Reading Copy from UFO Publishing in exchange for an honest review. I’m also a bit late in providing that review, as the book has been available in print and e-formats since mid-March. But better late than never, yeah?
The Golem of Deneb Seven and Other Stories is Alex Shvartsman’s second collection of short stories, following 2015’s Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma and Other Stories. The new volume continues the first volume’s diversity and quality. The stories bounce across, and often combine, genres and frequently have a humorous aspect (sometimes subtle, sometimes slapstick). There’s a winking tone to even the most serious of these stories, a “we’re in this together, dear reader” style that immediately tells you it’s a Shvartsman story. I count this recognizability as a good thing, much in the way you pretty much always know if you’re reading a Neil Gaiman or Seanan McGuire story.
A good portion of the stories in this collection are flash fiction, roughly 1,500 words or less. So it’s easy to discern that not only does the author enjoy working at that length, he’s particularly adept at it. Every one of the shorter form stories tells a complete story and packs a punch (humorous or otherwise). I’m always impressed with authors who can squeeze so much into so small a space and still make me feel for the characters or connect with the setting. These shorter stories are also the more humorous, for instance “Noun of Nouns,” a send-up of epic fantasy tropes (at the opposite end of epic length) and “Recall Notice,” a Lovecraft pastiche. Sometimes, the humor is grim as in “Invasive Species,” which turns on human hubris and our penchant for thinking our way is the only way.
Several of the stories, “A Perfect Medium for Unrequited Love,” “Staff Meeting, As Seen By the Spam Filter” and “How Gaia and Guardian Saved The World” among them, look at Artificial Intelligence and how human-like, or not so, they might be. These three stories have distinctly different tones but share a belief that AI are not necessarily destined to turn on humans and eradicate us – a refreshing change from so much of the sf that focuses on artificial intelligence. (Although not every story about AI in the book carries that theme – “Fifteen Minutes” is a much darker AI tale.)
Shvartsman also excels at the “listicle” style of short story. “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Monsters,” “The Practical Guide to Punching Nazis,” and “Catalogue of Items in the Chess Exhibit at the Humanities Museum, Pre-Enlightenment Wing” are all told in list-form and yet contain both delightful twists on where the narrative goes and great social commentary.
The collection’s start-, mid-, and end-points are longer stories that showcase Shvartsman’s wonderful ability to marry character to plot and make the unusual recognizable. Opening story “The Golem of Deneb Seven” shows us frontier life in wartime and how the past influences the future through the eyes of a young girl distancing herself from parental idolization; “Golf to the Death” is a hysterical twist on interstellar Olympics and codes of conduct through the eyes of a soldier conscripted because he’s the only one available who is any good at the chosen sport; and closing story “The Race For Arcadia” brings the Cold War Space Race into sharp new perspective through the eyes of a terminally-ill scientist. All three stories comment on the way governments will go to any length to win (or at least, not lose) – whether what’s being sought is revisionist history, dominance over another culture, or bragging rights.
A review of this length can’t possibly comment on every one of the 39 stories in this collection, but hopefully I’ve given you an idea of the breadth of genres and depth of subject matter Alex Shvartsman covers; there literally is something for everyone between these covers. (There’s even one story that has no sf/fantasy/horror element at all, just a straight-up mystery!) Highly recommended.