Even Greater Mistakes
by Charlie Jane Anders
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted November 7, 2021
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I received an advance e-book from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. Charlie Jane Anders' second story collection, Even Greater Mistakes, will be published next week. Nineteen stories, whose original publication dates range from 2006 to 2020. I had previously read six of them, either online or in other books. Two are sequels to novels. I normally like to read single author collections in chronological order, the better to track their creative progress, but I've read enough of Charlie's work to trust the random order they are presented here. Can't say I noticed any specific thematic progression, so the intent was probably to vary the styles as much as possible.
The first story, 2014's "As Good As New," is one I had read before. It's a variation on the three wishes theme. Marisol, a failed playwright, emerges from a fortified safe room to find a devastated world, with no way to determine if anyone else is still alive. Among the rubble she finds a dark green glass bottle, and pulling the cork she releases a man who looks around and says, "Oh, fuck, not again." He's not an ancient genie, but rather a one-time New York Times theater critic who had been trapped inside the bottle since 1958, apparently imprisoned there by the previous occupant. He had been released a few other times, during one apocalypse or another, and while the person granted the wishes restores the world of their memory, unforeseen ramifications set up the next apocalypse. Marisol takes a long time carefully planning what her wishes will be, hoping she can reverse the curse. This was in a previously published short collection from Subterranean Press, Six Months, Three Days, Five Others, which was a finalist for a best collection Locus Award in 2018. The title story, also included in the new collection, won a Hugo, and was finalist for Nebula, Sturgeon, and Locus awards. "Six Days, Three Months" is about a woman who can see multiple possible futures for herself and others, who falls in love with a man who can see only one future. He insists that future, including their breakup, cannot be changed. Another in that collection, "Clover," is a sequel to Charlie's Nebula-winning first novel, All the Birds in the Sky. It was written in response to readers' queries about what had happened to Patricia's cat Berkeley after she had been whisked off to the witch's school.
Other stories previously read include one I reviewed on its own three years ago, the novella Rock Manning Goes For Broke. Another novel's sequel, "If You Take My Meaning," recounts a perilous adventure undertaken by one of the characters from The City in the Middle of the Night. Originally presented online at tor.com, now also a Kindle single, it was a finalist for Locus and Sturgeon awards. "Don't Press Charges and I Won't Sue" appeared online at the Boston Review, also in print in their Global Dystopias issue. It concerns the horrific ordeal suffered by Rachel, a transgender woman subjected to chemical therapies and surgeries to revert her to her previous male body. It was conceived and written during a time Charlie feared the same fate, after the election of the forty-fifth president. Winner of a Sturgeon Award, and finalist for a Locus and Tiptree, it is a heart-breakingly brutal vision of something we must make sure never happens. Those are the six previously read stories, now for those new to me. I won't mention them all, just my favorites. There were two I didn't finish.
"Rat Catcher's Yellows" is another very emotional story, this time concerning a woman caring for her wife who has contracted the titular disease, a variation of leptospirosis, causing dementia. Grace hopes an online game called The Divine Right of Cats might help Shary retain, or regain, cognitive function. Shary becomes very proficient at the game, impressing many other online players, and gives her wife hope when she names a part of her cat kingdom Graceland. Appropriately enough, "The Time Travel Club" is told in a non-linear fashion. The titular club starts out more like a LARP, as the various members spin tales about their time-traveling adventures, in either the past or the future. Then someone approaches the club to claim they have invented a true time machine. The more analytical of the group start wondering about the physics of the phenomenon, of how if you travel in time, wouldn't you also be traveling in space as the Earth and everything else has moved in the interim. Thus they realize they also have the capability to travel in space, and plan to launch satellites using the time machine. "Love Might Be Too Strong a Word," is set on a generational starship filled with various genetically modified humans to fill the many jobs needed. Most are segregated from the others, although the dailys are allowed in almost every section of the ship in order to clean them. Mab is approached by the pilot Dot, who wants to enter a romantic, or at least sexual, relationship, but Mab is opposed to that. Mab is unique in that they have rejected the genetic design of dailys as being subservient to the other genders. Their situation becomes more complicated when Dot discovers the planet they are heading for is likely uninhabitable.
A couple of the stories had originally been intended to be part of a series about a future submerged San Francisco, although later edits made them more stand-alone. In "My Breath Is a Rudder," an artist has to decide what scene to paint as their part of a mural on a seawall around the city. "Because Change Was the Ocean and We Lived By Her Mercy" has the new US capital in Fairbanks. The main character travels from there to Olympia, then San Francisco, exploring the various islands that remain in the current archipelago. "This Is Why We Can't Have Nasty Things" has no speculative elements, but with a few tweaks it could have fit with the two previous stories. It's about the closing of yet another queer landmark in the city, the club Glamrock. The two stories I didn't finish read a lot like fanfic, in fact Charlie said one of them might have started out as Vampire Diaries fanfic. The other was from a space opera anthology, patterned after Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat stories, with a bit of Guardians of the Galaxy thrown in. They didn't click for me, but they may be just what other readers are looking for. There are several stories I feel I should re-read right away, but I'm way behind so that will have to wait. What would you do if you were haunted by your own ghost? How could your ghost travel back in time to haunt you in the first place? That's what is puzzling a struggling stand-up comic in "Ghost Champagne." Since her ghost is recognizable as herself, she has to assume her death is not that far in the future. The ghost doesn't talk, just stalks her wherever she goes. How can she figure out when her death will come, or how to postpone it?
"Power Couple" is about a man and woman who make a pact. In order for each to complete their studies and start their career without distractions, they agree they will alternately go into cryonic suspension, to be revived when the other accomplishes the goal, then they will marry. Of course, people do have a habit of changing their mind. "Captain Roger in Heaven" shows what can go wrong when a cult is formed from lies. The proposal is that energy can be gathered from orgasms and stored in vases. The originator of the lies fades into the background when someone else who believed the lies takes over, then they have to concoct even more lies to stay ahead of their followers. To add to their problems, an evangelical group protests against them, and someone has invented the "Visualizer," on which you can see the afterlife fate of those who have died. The penultimate story is among the best. First appearing in another John Joseph Adams anthology, "The Bookstore at the End of America" won a Locus Award. It reflects current trends toward a sharply divided country. "California" has seceded, the quotes used because I think it might include at least parts of other western states. The First and Last Page Bookstore straddles the border of California and America, catering to both, and acting as a sanctuary for those from either side seeking solace in books or company with like-minded folk. Ideology is not the only thing that separates the two countries. Tensions have been heating up over water rights, with California drilling laterally to extract more water for themselves. The only thing I didn't like about it is the very abrupt ending. That is a complaint I could direct toward quite a few of the others.
In her introduction, Charlie says she once swore she would not write novels, that shorter work is what she preferred and what she would concentrate on. That notion has been disproven by the three novels she has published so far, but that does not diminish her talent at shorter lengths. If her intent is to let the reader decide conclusions for themselves, she has succeeded, but I sometimes would like confirmation from the author. The stories include many different themes, and yet they also exhibit similarities. All of the protagonists show great strength against almost insurmountable odds, and most are able to find comradeship, perhaps even love, amidst the chaos of modern life. No matter how many more novels we can expect (another is due next April) I feel sure Charlie will be giving us many more short stories too. I am also sure I will read them.
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