A sci-fi anthology delivers 22 short stories, vintage novel excerpts, and nonfiction essays on the theme of robotic/cybernetic beings modeled after animals.
Strange flowers indeed bloom in this garden, gathered and creatively arranged by sci-fi/fantasy editors Chambers (Calls for Submission, 2017, etc.) and Heller (Strange Stars, 2018, etc.). They offer a particularly unusual subject via brief works based on (or tangential to) the idea of animal robots, cyborgs, or automata. Such a narrow focus might limit the appeal and quality of the material, and indeed there is a preponderance of eco-dystopic, what-happens-after-all-the-wildlife-becomes-extinct tropes. But the variegated imaginations of the writers burst off the page nonetheless. Here and there among the newcomers (and seemingly cued by pop historian Jess Nevins’ eponymous essay about animal simulacra in fiction and folklore going back centuries) are nested heirlooms from the early masters of fantasy. There are pieces by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Robert T. Toombs, Hans Christian Andersen—the one about a Chinese emperor’s clockwork nightingale, a classic not yet adapted by Disney—and, of course, Jules Verne. A steampunk influence shows up vividly in Delia Sherman’s “Brass Monkey,” which is mock-Victorian in its setting, voice, and sentiments, as a faithful faux simian helps its creators stop a counterfeiting ring. More troubling and timely is Jesse Bullington’s “Stray Frog,” envisioning a future in which police brutality is countered (theoretically) by making cops wield toxin-spitting GMO organisms that they must care for and nurture rather than cold, steel firearms. Seldom does the technology venture into the nuts-and-bolts descriptions of hard-sci-fi territory (the major exception: An Owomoyela’s “The Hard Spot in the Glacier,” a space-survival piece starring a centipede-shaped mecha). More often, there is science speculation transmuting the hows and whys into poetry, magic, art, or fairy tale, more effective in some literary experiments than others but always rewarding. From the doom-laden to the heroic, attitudes toward the concept of robotic animals at large run the gamut (although no stories seem to reflect Japanese anime and manga culture’s giddy positivity over robo critters, especially android cats). But the collection ends on an up note with Carrie Vaughn’s “Closer to the Sky,” a Western yarn featuring a bionic horse, arguably the most accessible entry for mainstream readers.
Mind-stretching tales of synthetic fauna, not to be confused with the Marilyn Manson rock album of the same title.