War Stories – J. Gates & A. Liptak – 8.5/10

When you pick up an anthology called “War Stories”, then you think you know pretty much what to expect. Violence, horror, machismo, pathos, grim humour. This collection, edited by Jaym Gates and Andrew Liptak, has all of these and more, containing within it explorations of the full sphere of human experience, in all its shades of glory and darkness. One of the strengths of the anthology is that its focus is clearly on war itself and its impact on its participants, not simply combat. Actual action is secondary to the psychological, cultural, societal and political implications of actions, attitudes and inactions, and the people who experience them.

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War Stories opens with the eerie “Graves” (Joe Haldeman), which is distinct from the rest of the collection by taking place firmly in the past, during the Vietnam War. Recounted by a veteran of “Graves Registration” (body collection and identification) with grim humour, the incident related has all the makings of a creepily ambiguous urban legend; even at the end the reader cannot be sure if they have just encountered an undead being or simply effective psychological warfare.

After this standalone story, War Stories is split into four thematic groups: Wartime Systems, Combat, Armored Force and Aftermath. Each group contains a good variety of takes on its respective theme, which makes for a reading experience where one knows what to expect but nevertheless is pleasantly surprised by twists and perspectives that were perhaps unexpected.

Wartime Systems is one of the more imaginative groupings, which tries to predict and explore the future technologies of war. Most of these, like Ken Lui’s “In the Loop” and Mark Jacobsen’s “The Wasp Keepers”, explore the murky ethics of drone warfare, with moving accounts from perspectives from both pilot/creator and target. Others explore the use of robotics in warfare. Susan Jane Bigelow’s “The Radio” is another morally ambiguous and redemptive tale about an abandoned piece of tech trying to find a place and a family, while James L. Cambias’ “Contractual Obligation” is a darker take on the use of robotic mercenaries in capital-driven warfare, and the brutal decisions made when lives are subordinated to money. A more optimistic tale is “Ghost Girl” by Rich Larson, in which an albino child in a near-future war-torn Burundi is watched over by a mysterious mechanical guardian. The final story in this group is Richard Dansky’s “Non-Standard Deviation”, which explores what happens when the soldiers within a virtual-reality training programme become self-aware.

Combat is a mixed bag of styles and ideas. It opens with the eerie, almost psychedelic “All You Need” by Mike Sizomore, which is as much a dialogue with an anthropomorphized weapon as it is a narrative. This is followed by Maurice Broaddus’ “The Valkyrie”. This story perfectly evoked the madness of war, and the madness of its socio-political motives to many on the front lines. The protagonist’s voice is world-weary, cynical and lacking in faith, in sharp contrast to the hyper-evangelical crusade that the Evangelical States of America wages in a futuristic Europe. While Broaddus explores the potential for religious conflict, Thoraiya Dyer focuses on the perils of climate disaster in “One Million Lira”, which tells of a sniper’s defence of a fallen airship against the denizens of a global-warming-blasted earth left behind by those who could afford escape. Civilians barely feature; for much of the tale we see only the sniper, the hard decisions she must make, and her coping strategies. After this, Jay Posey tells a gripping story of a hostage situation in space in “Invincible”. The main strength of this story, however, is its use of the idea of uploading the saved consciousness of a dead soldier into a new body (which I have seen increasingly used in recent times), and the philosophical and psychological implications of such a rebirth. Finally, Linda Nagata’s “Light and Shadow” delves into psychological drama once again with futuristic soldiers whose emotions are chemically supressed to ensure their competent service. As the title might imply, however, such a technique has its downfalls. Though combat is what ties these stories together, it is their psychological and philosophical discussions they have through violence that makes these stories so readable.

Where Combat explored violence in various ways, Armoured Force almost exclusively focuses on soldiers in powered mecha-armour of varying kinds. Two of these are fairly straight-forward; “Mission. Suit. Self.” by Jake Kerr is another good examination of ethics in combat, especially the ideas of self-sacrifice and grim rigidity of military mission parameters; similarly, Carlos Orsi’s “In Loco” tweaks the idea of a suited soldier instead as being a “feedback loop” in a squad of drones. The protagonist here is no hero, but rather a convicted murderer seeking redemption, or at least a shortened sentence. “Warhosts” by Yoon Ha Lee is perhaps the most original take on the idea of a war-suit I have come across; a situation in which humans (or humanoids) have become biological exoskeletons for an unnamed alien species is both fascinating and unsettling. The highlight of the group – and one of the highlights of the anthology – is James Sutter’s “Suits”. This is an unexpectedly heart-warming tale with a charmingly childlike tone that blurs the black-and-whiteness of warfare to those not on the front lines, forces innocent non-combatants to confront their part, and seek redemption.

Aftermath is the largest group of the anthology, and the most emotional. Most of them deal with the difficulties of returning home after war. Both “Coming Home” (Janine Spendlove) and “Where We Would End a War” (F. Brett Cox) explore the effects of PTSD from different angles; the former of a military ambulance driver coming to terms with not being able to save everyone, the latter a veteran seeking escape from a banal home life, while also exploring the effects of a teleportation system on mental health (having, for example, a split second to adjust between the home front and the front lines). Both are deep and effective treatments of a difficult theme. Nerine Dorman’s “Always the Stars and the Void Between” focuses more on relationships with family, as a veteran returns to South African after nearly two decades to find her family ungrateful and resentful, and herself unable to relate to their renewed apartheidal attitudes. In a reversal, “Enemy State” by Karin Lowachee (perhaps the most moving story in the anthology) relates the view from home during deployment, of a lover waiting, unsure that their partner will return whole, sane or at all. Lowachee effectively evokes all the yearning and despair, and also effectively conveys the soldier’s inability to articulate their own frontline experiences. Two other standout stories in this section (and, again, in the anthology) are “War Dog” (Mike Baretta), the story of discarded bioengineered soldiers maligned as abominations by the ultra-Evangelical America that they fought to protect, and “Black Butterflies” (T. C. McCarthy), about a war-hero (or war-criminal) of a war lost by humanity trying to escape eerily realistic dreams of genocide and outrun the vengeful winners of the war. The final piece in War Stories is Keith Brooke’s “War 3.01” which has a neat premise of the weaponization of social media in an age in which all are connected and believe its content unquestioningly.

As I said before, the strength of War Stories is not its focus on war, but the people involved. In his foreword to the collection, Gregory Drobny writes that veterans are not broken people, but people who are unusual in that they can do what they do, and that their experiences should be learned from rather than pitied or seen as brainwashed. If the intention of these stories was to convey that, then they were successful.

Highlights:

Mike Barretta – “War Dogs”

Richard Dansky – “Non-Standard Deviation”

Nerine Dorman – “Always the Stars and the Void Between”

Karin Lowachee – “Enemy State”

T. C. McCarthy – “Black Butterflies”

Janine Spendlove – “Coming Home”

James Sutter – “Suits”

(edited 24/8/17 to correct author names)

Stay Crazy – E. L. Satifka – 8.5/10

Erica Satifka’s Stay Crazy is an invasion story with a difference. It tells the story of Emmeline Kalberg, a paranoid schizophrenic with depressive tendencies (as she constantly reminds the world and the world constantly reminds her), as she is discharged from hospital and takes up a minimum wage job at the local Savertown USA megastore to try and rebuild her life. She finds herself at the centre of an interdimensional conflict; an entity is feeding off the life-energy of the employees, driving them to suicide in the process, to power itself into a higher plane, consequently destroying reality. Only she, the voice coming from the stock tells her, can prevent this. Only she, and her co-worker Roger, are able to hear the voice, because they are both recovering schizophrenics. But how can she convince the world that she isn’t deluded? And can she convince herself? This uncertain relationship with reality is maintained throughout Stay Crazy, as we see life through the uncertain eyes of Em; parallels can be drawn with the perspective of Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the effect is much the same, albeit in a corporate, rather than medical, prison.

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A major theme of Stay Crazy is that of exploitation and manipulation. Savertown USA itself is a caricature of banal corporate megacapitalism – everything is under one roof, highly affordable, mega convenient and, above all, proudly patriotic. No need for small businesses anymore; everything is done in service to the company, under the guise of service to the customer and, by extension, America itself. While Em is trying to save the world, the store is trying to rule it, one small town at a time. Within the store is Escodex, an interdimensional being instructing (and at times commanding) Em to do his will, with the promise of information about her missing father dangled tantalisingly before her. His enemy, the unnamed Entity, is clearly manipulating the workers, but what is it’s true purpose beyond being a metaphor for the soul-sucking drudgery of wage-slavery as it zombifies Em’s colleagues?

The theme continues outside the store. Em’s sister Jackie has fallen under the sway of a local charismatic evangelical pastor, while her mother binge-watches self-help DVDs which Em is convinced contain hidden messages keeping the would-be patients depressed so they keep buying them. And then there’s her uncle, who throws his money and success around to belittle others around him. Stay Crazy is as much about the dangers of those who feed on the needs of others (be they financial, psychological or social) as it is about mental health.

In the later stages of the book especially, family comes to the fore. Em’s family life is fractured – her father is missing, she is a recovering mental health patient, her sister has been taken un by what can only be called a cult, and her mother is depressed and at a loss of how to help those she loves. The whole family yearns to help one another – either through therapy, God or Em’s quest to find her family that drives her actions, but none of them know quite how to do so. Yet as conflicts grow and wane, and as Em especially gives up trying to pretend to her former friends and family that her life is normal, that they begin to heal. Again, Stay Crazy is about healing, about coming to terms with difficulties and overcoming them, but without any platitudes about the journey being easy.

Stay Crazy is a unique and perceptive novel with rounded, believable characters and a plot that perfectly wracks up the tension to draw the reader in. It’s nomination for the 2017 British Fantasy Award is well deserved, and I highly recommend it.