Edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Ben Payne

Twelfth Planet Press (2008)

ISBN: 9780980484106

Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce (this review was first published in April 2008)

Writing near-future science fiction, especially giving it a particular date, requires a certain amount of bravado, as well as all the necessary imagination and skill of sf writing in general. In giving their eleven authors a specific date to write to, Krasnostein and Payne have been – to my mind – exceptionally daring, and demanding. In order to address this topic, authors have had to put themselves out there, on the line, and make a stand as to what the world might be like in four (from when I read it) or five years’ (from their writing) time.

Before I read this anthology, I tried to think about some of the changes that have happened in the last four or five years, to get some perspective on what sort of changes I would be happy to accept. The issue of water was something that sprang to mind immediately: it has become a much more pervasive issue in Australia in that time, as has the topic of climate change on a worldwide scale. On a universal scale, the Mars Rovers were launched in 2003 and reached their destination at the start of 2004; Voyager got further away from the Sun than any other known object in the solar system. Australia got a new government. Battlestar Galactica came back to the TV screen. So some things have changed a lot; others, not so much.

Overall, the stories presented in this anthology are highly enjoyable. They all have different styles, with quite different takes on the year in question – although having some common threads, which will be mentioned below. I do think, however, that as an anthology about the year 2012 it is not entirely convincing. Some of the stories do not, to me, ring true for a future just four years away. Ten years – quite possibly. Four … seems like a stretch.

Deborah Biancotti’s “Watertight Lies” is one of the stories that seems frighteningly plausible. I really had no idea where the story was going in the first few pages, with two cave explorers bandying jokes around – but it dragged me along quite easily, until it surfaced into a world where water is an even more precious resource than today, in 2008. This is one of the less overtly science fictional of the stories in the collection, and perhaps seems more credible for that very reason.

Tansy Rayner Roberts turns her hand to a fairly frightening domestic drama in “Fleshy” – where ‘domestic’ is in no sense pejorative, but describes the fact that almost the entire story plays out in what seems like an awfully small house. Kelly and Matt end up sharing their house with Fleshy – derived from Matt’s DNA. Things, naturally, do not go as planned. This is one of the stories I thought did not seem realistic for 2012 – although perhaps I am ignorant of the true state of genetic engineering these days (I wouldn’t be surprised). Nonetheless, it is an intriguing story, and one that definitely gave me the creeps. Especially coming from Roberts, whose work has previously been much less nasty.

Again with the domestic scenario, this time paired with global issues, is “Oh, Russia” by Simon Brown. Frederick – half-Russian, half-Australian – watches Russia disintegrating on TV, at the same time as his wife is dying. This is a beautiful story (I was moved to tears, almost, at one point), of one man’s reaction to global politics on the one hand teamed with his personal grief on the other. It explores family dynamics, and the interconnectedness of people – even when they don’t want to be. As a story, it’s probably my favourite of the anthology for its simplicity, as well as its breathtaking implications for everyday relationships.

Following Brown’s gentle story with “Soft Viscosity” by David Conyers was a brutal decision on the part of Payne and Krasnostein. It’s like watching a chick flick that suddenly morphs into Rambo. Set in the jungles of Ecuador, this is a brutal story of America doing its best to stay on top of the world, and the individuals who get caught up in and brutalised because of those actions. I didn’t enjoy this story – I don’t think it’s a story you’re meant to like. Most of the characters are unlovable and the story is not nice. However, I can certainly appreciate its character portrayals, and its exposition of politics. Sadly, this is another of the stories that I can see as being possible for 2012.

Not really a story, Lucy Sussex’s “Apocalypse Rules, OK?” isn’t as funny as the Goodies reference makes it seem like it should be. It’s written possibly as a Wikipedia entry, or something similar, and is a play on the Moscow Rules apparently developed for use during the Cold War. I’m not entirely sure what the point of it is; it seems partly instructions on precipitating an apocalypse, and partly a teaser to conspiracy theory nutcases the world over. There are some quite clever entries (I particularly like “Keep your options open”, the penultimate rule), but they don’t quite build up the overarching picture I was hoping for.

One of the more obviously science fictional pieces in this anthology is “The Last Word” by Dirk Flinthart. It explores the use of science, whether there can ever be, or should be, solely science for its own sake or whether commercial interests always interfere – and whether this ‘interference’ has ethical implications, or if that comes down to the individuals involved. This science/commerce friction is played out between two individuals, with quite different takes on its answer – and their own personal issues to deal with. Enjoyable, and feasible (frighteningly) for 2012 – it left me still unsure of the story’s implications long after I finished reading it.

Kaaron Warren’s “Ghost Jail” is one of the odder stories included in this collection. I liked it as a story, although I am not sure whether it fits the 2012 theme – it could as easily be set in 2008, or before or after. It deals with ghosts and a worsening political climate, and the two themes come together in an unexpected way. I really wasn’t convinced by the conclusion. It is a fascinating world she’s developed, and the writing is lovely, but ultimately I was left confused by what the ending actually implied (in an annoying way, not in a fascinated way).

“I Love you like Water” (by Angela Slatter) is the most poignant title I’ve heard in a long while. Another story that I don’t think will be quite 2012 – but maybe a decade after that – this picks up the climatic theme already exhibited in “Watertight Lies” and “Soft Viscosity”. Here Slatter uses two narrators – Cato and Sophie – with different takes on the world to explore how, faced with the same reality, people can have different reactions and attitudes. It also, of course, looks at what the issue of water – and lack thereof – could bring the world to. I don’t think that the climax is entirely plausible as reality – at least I hope not – but it certainly highlights the extremity of the situation Australia, at least, may be faced with in the near future.

Martin Livings’ “Skinsongs” is a deceptive little story. It starts off ominously, builds pace, and then … does something very nasty. I’m told I shouldn’t be surprised at this, from Livings. This is the only story of the collection that deals with art in 2012: all the others are primarily science/politics or people driven. Which is not to say that this story isn’t about people: it is. But it takes the theme of art, and the audience’s desire for the new and impatience with the old, and takes them … scary places.

The penultimate story, “David Bowie”, is written in a Ben Peek trademarked style: two interlocutors, their respective dialogue right and left justified on the page and in different font. It’s a very clever style – and one that allows for a story that is solely dialogue, which in a conventional format would be both boring and more difficult to read. That said, it does require some work, to remember who/what each of the participants is. The story told is almost solely concerned with the personal, and is different from the rest of the stories by not being obviously set in 2012. Instead, it’s looking forward five years – it could be looking forward to 2012, or to 2017. It’s one of the few stories in the collection that withstands an almost immediate re-read, to explore its ideas again with greater insight.

The final story of this anthology is possibly my least favourite: “Oblivion” by Sean McMullen. It’s well-written, but coming after the gems in the rest of the collection it did not stand out for me. There a few indications of it being set in 2012, but it’s more concerned with an old man, Mitch, being in hospital desiring to connect with the world on his own terms one more time, before bowing out. Mitch is a well-realised character – I can easily imagine meeting someone just like him – but Arthur, the nurse, not so much. McMullen’s ultimate assessment of the world’s situation also seemed unconnected to the rest of the story.

I had thought of dividing this review into “ultimately optimistic” and “ultimately pessimistic” stories, and examining the eleven under those two umbrellas, but I decided against it. While some of the stories seem more obviously pessimistic than others, in fact what all eleven share are aspects of both optimism and pessimism. You have to dig a bit deeper in some to find the optimism, but I think it’s there nonetheless (as the editors themselves point out, in their introduction). This, I think, is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the anthology. None of these authors have an unalloyed, bright-and-cheerful view of our near future. In some ways, this concerns me – should I be more worried? Should we be doing more to try and stop these sometimes-horrific visions from coming to fruition? On the other hand, are these authors simply gloom-and-doom Jeremiahs, thundering from the mountain – but with no reason to do so? You probably need to read the anthology to figure that out for yourself.