Monday, December 19, 2011

Digital Domains

Between 1996 and 2005, leading speculative fiction editor Ellen Datlow selected original fiction for three different online-only publications: OMNI Online, Event Horizon, and SCIFICTION. In Digital Domains, Datlow reprints fifteen stories, many of them award winners or nominees, culled from those outlets. As the anthology's theme is place of publication rather than content, the stories are remarkably diverse, from near-future science fiction to mythic fantasy to a very modern ghost story. I could say that these stories, uniformly well-written and often excellent, prove that great fiction can be published online, but I think that in 2011 most people know that, even if they would prefer to read that fiction in paper formats. So I'll make a broader and equally accurate statement: these stories demonstrate the strength and range of turn-of-the-century speculative fiction, period. That's why the subtitle is "A Decade of Science Fiction & Fantasy," full stop.

With contributors like Kelly Link, Jeffrey Ford, and Kim Newman, Digital Domains doesn't lack for big names, but the stories by less familiar writers are just as good, from the inimitable Howard Waldrop's "Mr. Goober's Show," an eerie tale about the dangers of nostalgia and the history of very early television technology, to Simon Ings' "Russian Vine," a quietly poetic piece of science fiction that meditates on the mechanisms of imperialism. A fine companion piece to "Russian Vine" is M. K. Hobson's "Daughter of the Monkey God," in which an unusual form of outsourcing is the basis for a moving demonstration of the power of forgiveness and emotional catharsis. And then there's Severna Park's "Harbingers," where the instability and violence of contemporary Africa is the backdrop for a mind-bending story about two young women caught up in events beyond their comprehension, involving aliens, time travel, and more disturbing things. These are the elements of science fiction, but Park uses them in an eerie, suggestive manner that gives the story a welcome flavor of dark fantasy.

Some stories speak directly to the concerns of the modern world; others have timeless, unearthly settings. Almost a prose poem, Jeffrey Ford's "Pansolapia" echoes the Odyssey, providing a sense of the epic and the numinous in only three pages. Kelly Link's "The Girl Detective" is an unclassifiable, difficult to describe melding of elements from myth, fairy tale, and twentieth-century juvenile fiction into a surreal, strangely evocative story about the search for meaning and emotional connection. Plus it's pretty funny. Actually, there are a few funny stories in the mix here, like Paul Park's "Get a Grip," the concept of which has aged in the years since its publication, but which remains a pleasure because of the ironic sharpness with which Park imagines its details. Or Kim Newman's "Tomorrow Town," in which a utopian society based on the ideas of classic science fiction turns out not to be quite what was hoped for.

Although Datlow has edited and enjoys all types of speculative fiction, she's most strongly associated with horror, not least because of her long career identifying the genre's best stories, which will hit the quarter-century mark with the 2012 volume of The Best Horror of the Year. Unsurprisingly, several of the stories in Digital Domains are dark enough to be called horror. Most striking to me were Nathan Ballingrud's "You Go Where It Takes You," with its potent, upsetting metaphor for the flight from responsibility, and Richard Bowes' "There's a Hole in the City," a story about the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks that demonstrates the author's ability to write fondly but unsentimentally about New York City, and to evoke the tragic force of memory and regret.

Although there were a few stories that resonated less for me, like James P. Blaylock's "Thirteen Phantasms," a World Fantasy Award winner that I thought was well-crafted but driven by hollow, unconsidered nostalgia, there was nothing I thought was so outright bad it brought down the total grade for the anthology. I'll admit that I bought Digital Domains on a whim at a bookstore liquidation sale, and didn't expect to enjoy it all that much. But as is so often the case, a retrospective covering a longish span of time turned out to offer the cream of the crop. As Datlow's dedication mentions, there was a time when online publication was seen as a risky, vaguely unprofessional proposition. But a group of great writers took the risk, and the positive results, of which this book is just one, are all around us.

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