Fiction Reviews

Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep

(2015) Peter Oberg (editor), Affront Publishing, £11.99 / US$17.50, pbk, 324pp, ISBN 978-9-187-58531-9


I have to say I do tend to look out for anthologies translated from other languages; it is interesting to see how similar and different SF is in other cultures than early 21st century Anglo-American. Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep is one such and provides a taster of the range of SF being written by Sweden's latest generation of SF writers.

Of course, one does as a reader have to come with a hefty dose of understanding and tolerance to such anthologies. 'Understanding' because on a purely stochastic basis, the demographics usually do not work in such anthologies favour. Sweden's population is only around 9.6 million (2013) which compares to that of the English-speaking British Isles of nearly 69 million, and the combined Anglo-N. American total of 354 million So, taking a simplistic Bayesian approach one might even be surprised if of 26 shorts, as we have here, were in the top 10% of quality (however one measures that) then of Swedish SF it is barely likely that even one fall within the comparable quality range to that of the top 10% of Anglo-N.American SF.  Hence the need for not just 'understanding' but 'tolerance' because we should not come to such a collection with personal expectations. This doubly so as this collection is a collection of shorts by young authors: folk who by definition have not had time to hone their craft let alone literally been around long enough to have read much elsewhere. But what we get in return is a sense of Sweden's current SFnal culture.

Now, I do have to say that here I was a little concerned as to the type of contributing young authors; many seemed to have come from the computer gaming community, most were firmly arts orientated. Indeed, of the 26 only three exhibited science training: a couple were computer scientists, and one an applied physicist, while a fourth had only an 'interest' in astronomy (so is presumably a science amateur even if an enthusiastic one). Of course there is nothing wrong with SF readers or writers having an arts background, nonetheless this author mix being so firmly arts orientated is perhaps a little of an odd balance for a genre whose foundations solidly rest on science, but there you go.

The good news for those who do read anthologies translated by non-primary-Anglophones to English, is that the standard of English is good and from this perspective the stories are very readable. (I have come across some really dire linguistic offerings in my time.)

It has to be said that there are some turkeys in here. Indeed, the quality of the stories tended to improve as the anthology progressed (perhaps with a bit of a peak two-thirds in), so if you have a critical approach do not be put off by the opening tales: there is better to come.

To my mind, the more notable stories included:-

'Vegatropolis – City of the Beautiful' by Ingrid Remvall in which near-perfect artificial humans seek out the imperfect for their own nefarious purpose.

'The Order of Things' by Lupina Ojala. Following an android uprising successfully put down by humans, those living beyond the city walls dreamed of being chosen to become a city citizen. One such outsider thinks there is a way in…

'Punch Card Horses' by Jonas Larsson provides a neat steampunk yarn with a decent horror twist. Set in a world of mechanical animals, our protagonist is off to the market.

'Waste of Time' by Alexandra Nero gives us a short, short demonstrating a welcome economy of words. Time does not just flow, it can run out, among other things…

'Wishmaster' by Andrea Grave-Muller. Set seemingly in the present day, but in a world with mythical creatures, there is an encounter with a goblin. This is a well told urban fantasy.

'Quadrillenium' by A. R. Yngve. Another short, short. (Yey!) In the far future religious fest days are still family occasions. Good news for some, but not necessarily the Saviour…

'Lost and Found' by Maria Haskins sees the lone survivor of the crash of a small exploration vessel struggle on a previously uncharted world.

'Keep Fighting Until The Machines Fall Asleep' by Eva Holmquist is set in the future with humans subjugated once the androids took over, but some plan to strike back. This story was a reasonably fresh take on an old approach that one might have come across in the 1970s. (I won't cite examples as that would provide a spoiler for those long versed in SFnal short stories.) But there is nothing wrong in using old tropes and old story treatments if one's take is reasonably fresh.

'Outpost Eleven' by Markus Skold. In the far future humanity has spread to the stars. But there is a cloud, literally, on the horizon. A cloud spanning light years not far from mankind's region of space. Surrounding it are outposts that constantly monitor it for any signs of change. Aboard one such outposts something does not seem quite right… This tale, while firmly space operatic, does convey a sense of fear that is almost Lovecraftian. I suspect that this story might even serve the basis for a novel if (and this is an important proviso) the author is up to building on his premise's implications.

So there you have it. My all-too-brief teaser selection of what I consider the more better offerings, but there are others there and who knows, some may be more suited to your tastes.  Yes, I know that the above cannot properly begin to entice you, but at least they do illustrate the range of stories on offer.

Looking at the collection overall, and not just my personal preferences, I was struck by two things. First, compared to some non-British/N.American anthologies I have read in my time, this one does not contain much that allows a Swedish cultural stamp to shine through. Now, I do not know whether this is because just as the philosophy of science (particularly mathematics) should largely be universal (literally across the universe) hence SF is increasingly becoming homogenised internationally, or whether this is an inevitable emergent property of late 20th and early 21st century (cultural?) globalisation?

Second, it seemed that many of these stories focused on the image of their respective stories' settings, and not on the actual plots, let alone their respective plot trajectories through to a solid conclusion. I do not know whether or not this was because the authors are all young – billed as Sweden's new generation of writers – and so have not actually read, hence absorbed, much from the best-selling writers of the latter half of the last century, or whether or not it is because (as noted earlier) many of them seem to come from the computer gaming community: a format that focuses largely on scenario (not plot, let alone story, arc). Or even whether, because in this God-forsaken age of Twitter, Facebook and other such social media feeds, we have an upcoming generation of superficial surfers who quite simply, and innocently, do not know better? But this anthology certainly got me wondering, and if any book gets the reader to think then surely that is no bad thing.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see if in a decade's or so's time whether or not one or two of these authors manage to get published by a commercial British imprint. If they do then you will have come across them first here and get a sense of the personal journey they will have by then made.

Jonathan Cowie

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