I love interesting projects and publishing ideas so when I came across The Anderson Project, published by Tor.com, I eagerly dived in. Three novelettes united by a piece of art is the running theme here: inspired by a pre-existing painting, in this case the Richard Anderson painting that doubles as the cover for this collection, three authors create their stories. 

The story-inspired-by-art premise is not exactly a new idea, as editor David Hartwell explains in the introduction to the first round of such stories back in 2012, The Palencar Project, but it’s such an interesting one because of the different ways imagery can evoke and inspire. I am super glad Tor.com is bringing this idea back.

Kathleen Ann Goonan’s “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” is a multiple-viewpoint story about science, animal rights, and family. Meitner is an African Grey Parrot who has been experimented on and cross-bred with human DNA. As a highly intelligent, unique hybrid, Meitner stands at a crossroads, a voice that yearns and dreams for a place in the world. The story follows Meitner’s difficult past as well as her present—this, as a direct shout out to the painting that inspired the story, involves a project that will take this new breed into space. There is a little bit of a mystery in the story which is directly linked to Meitner’s human family, especially her sister Leilani. The difficult, deeply felt connection and relationship between Meitner and Leilani is the emotional core in a beautiful story of an imagined future.

Space Ballet” by Judith Moffett is an alternate history sci-fi story in which the science of dreaming/dream research is a reality and the analysis of precognitive dreams a necessity. A young promising student from the Psychology Department of the University of Pennsylvania, connected with the Center for Dream Research, brings a painting (the painting) inspired by his latest dream to be analyzed in class. The nature of the dream as well as its strange imagery warrants further study, leading the group to find a potentially lethal threat to the world. “Space Ballet” has a dreamlike expository narrative that is unfortunately not as provocative as its promising premise—its apathetic denouement offers a peculiar sense of let-down in contrast to the exciting setup.

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And then we have Ken Liu’s “Reborn,” the story that opens the collection. A reflection on questions of self and identity and the ways that memory impact these questions, the story follows a reborn man in a relationship with one of the invading aliens that have taken over the planet. A reborn human in this scenario is one taken away and stripped of certain parts of their memory, the ones deemed unhelpful or unnecessary by the alien overlords. Returned to the world cleansed of elements of their past, their innocence established in a new beginning, these people are given another chance at life: the part that committed a crime safely removed.

It’s difficult to express what worked so well here and why: it’s a short story with so many layers that are all the more impacting exactly because the many layers in the story beautifully mirror the layered thematic core. There is a sense of recurring horror: the truth behind what being “reborn” truly means, the ways that “criminals” are wiped of their memories, this idea of a compartmentalized self, as well as the visceral horror of witnessing a repellent, abusive romantic relationship that is accepted as benign by the main character, presented as benign by the alien, when we readers know far better. All of this left me speechless and uncomfortable in the best possible way.   

This story? It is remarkable. Thought-provoking, scary, touching, award-worthy (I am definitely nominating it for the Hugo Awards): I read it before going to bed, had nightmares about it and woke up still under its pull.

I highly recommend The Anderson Project both as an experience and as a good collection of novelettes.

In Book Smugglerish: an overall 8 out of 10 (it’s a 10 for “Reborn” alone).

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can also find them on Twitter.