RogerBW's Blog

The Mad Scientist's Guide to World Domination 26 July 2014

SF anthology edited by John Joseph Adams. Twenty-two stories on the general theme of mad scientists. Nominated for Best Editor (Short Form).

And a very varied bunch they are; most of them have a contemporary or near-future setting, though several are at various points in the twentieth century or earlier, and one reaches back as far as pre-Revolutionary Paris. Some deal with superheroes, others with more conventional destroy-the-world and heh-heh-heh tropes.

As one might expect, quality is very variable too. None of the stories really stood out to me as excellent, though there are some very good lines here and there. Many suffer from the usual contemporary problem of not actually having a story to tell, giving instead a slice of life, with beginning left to be filled in by back-reference and ending only hinted at. Some are short single-idea pieces, such as David D. Levine's effective Letter to the Editor (in which a not-Superman's arch-enemy explains why he does what he does); others are if anything over-long, like Diana Gabaldon's The Space Between, which feels like the first couple of chapters of a longer work. Surprisingly many (Marjorie M. Liu's The Last Dignity of Man, Jeffrey Ford's The Pittsburgh Technology, Naomi Novik's Rocks Fall) seem to have nothing to say at all.

Seanan McGuire's Laughter at the Academy would have been much more effective if I'd never read A Miracle of Science and its approach to Science-Related Memetic Disorder. That was so much better at dealing with the ideas raised here that it cast a constant shadow over this work, which being shorter had no possible scope for going into such depth.

Probably the best of the stories, and it's one that comes at the brief quite sideways, is Theodora Goss' The Mad Scientist's Daughter, in which the daughters (creations, relicts) of various figures from other fiction (including Justine Frankenstein and Catherine Moreau) come together after the defeat of their parents/creators to try to lead something like a normal life.

I think this may help to explain the problem, in fact, since we're told all these stories were first published here and therefore at least some of them may have been written specifically for this anthology: the figure of the mad scientist is one steeped in cliché, and while engaging with that cliché can produce some amusement (Heather Lindsley's The Angel of Death Has a Business Plan) it's very hard to write an original and interesting "straight" story from such a concept. "If you want to get there, I wouldn't start from here at all."

Obviously it's hard to apportion blame between authors and editor, but while the individual stories here are mostly rather better than the ones nominated for the Short Story Hugo I can't feel that it's much cop as an anthology; it doesn't hang together well, some of the stories are only tangentially related to the theme, and the fact that the best story is among them (as well as arguably the worst story, the Diana Gabaldon escapade which deals with alchemy and magic) suggests that the theme itself wasn't a good choice.

Oh, and the editor's introductions to each story sometimes contain significant revelations that the story's author was presumably hoping to make at his/her own pace.

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  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 10:43am on 26 July 2014

    I second the recommendation for A Miracle Of Science webcomic. A fine piece of work.

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