Apocalypse Week: Review: Evolve Two

By Michael Matheson

Kilpatrick, Nancy (Ed.). Evolve Two. Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing, 2011. ISBN 978-1-894063-62-3.

I delight in Kilpatrick’s anthologies – even if I am not always drawn to the material in them. Kilpatrick is a romantic in the best sense. She believes in the darkest of beauties and seeks them out relentlessly. That attention and care show in a collection like Evolve Two, where Kilpatrick has assembled a welcome repast for readers seeking sanguine fiction that is not content, for the most part, to rely on familiar tropes or modern genre trends.

However, while I like much of the final product, Evolve Two is lopsided: exquisitely crafted stories exist alongside less-well-crafted works, casting the latter in stark relief.

There are 12 stellar stories, and 10 stories that do not work as their authors intended them to (though some of these come depressingly close to being great work, but never quite make it). This is even more fascinating when you consider that roughly half of the stories were solicited. Though I highly doubt that the division between excellent and less-so fiction is drawn along those lines.

In fact, the collection is quite literally “weighted” by the varying levels of quality evidenced in its contents.

Divided into three sections, Evolve Two is strongest in its last portion, with much of the work in the earlier sections failing to bridge the crucial gap between great idea and great execution.

Because the collection is divided into three sections, we’ll approach the rest of this review in categorical fashion, story by story:

Pre-Apocalypse

Section Overview: arguably the weakest section of the book, the first section contains eight stories – two of which are exceptional, the other six of which miss the mark (though some do come close).

The first story in the collection is Kelley Armstrong’s “The List”, focusing on Armstrong’s vampiric heroine Zoe Takano. This, immediately, poses a problem for me. Since her first appearance as a secondary character in Stolen,I have found Takano flat. Which is odd, since I have never found any of Armstrong’s other main characters from her Women of the Otherworld material unengaging. Still, whatever the reason, “The List” reads a lot like an “Introduction To” release about Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series. Not a bad thing necessarily, save that there’s not nearly enough story here to actually carry a short story. At best, it’s a long vignette. Which is especially irritating, as Armstrong can write truly fantastic short fiction. “Dead to Me”, included in Tesseracts Thirteen – also edited by Kilpatrick, along with David Morrell – is an excellent example of Armstrong’s masterful handling of short fiction.

Armstrong’s work is followed by Ivan Dorin’s “Nosangreal”. The core story idea, of self-generating life in opposition to living death, is well worth exploring, but Dorin has chosen to couch a fascinating concept in a landslide of rehashed, painfully juvenile Poli-Sci/Pop-Psych/Intro-to-Economics-and-Cultural-Modalities debates that obscure whatever narrative gold we might have had in the dross of a straight and intrusive polemic. Any of you who chose to subject yourselves to the film Cube will be familiar with the structural imbalance (and randomly occurring polemic outbursts between characters) present therein: great idea, horrible script.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “A Puddle of Blood” is a shining beacon in the largely dark and unlit sea of the anthology’s first section. It works on multiple levels. From the base positioning of “humanity” as a mutable moral concept, to the use of the tlahuelpocmimi (a breed of vampiric creatures native to Mexican folklore, with mythic roots dating back to the time of the Aztecs), straight on through to the story’s focus on lost and displaced souls, Moreno-Garcia’s piece is a powerful and, ultimately, very personal approach to the mythic structure in which her tale unfolds.

Eileen Bell’s “V-Link” comes close to being an excellent story. But somehow, what should be a story that focuses on gestalt consciousness, identity as a singular-versus-group concept, and humanity’s growing reliance on (and equally accelerating fear of) technology can’t sustain its momentum. In the end, the piece devolves into a story about personal revenge, literally walking away from the bigger issues at stake to delve into a meditation on one woman’s anger (internal and external) and awakened predatory hunger. If the entire point of the story was to suggest that communal consciousness and societal connections can only lead to a deeper sense of isolation and angst, it succeeds brilliantly. If not, then “V-Link” substantially missed its mark.

I applaud the attempt made by Michael Lorenson in “Six Underground” to rework the film 12 Angry Men. Unfortunately, the restrictive length of the short story format makes it difficult to tell that kind of drawn-out character development piece in under 7,500 words. This story doesn’t manage it. “Six Underground” is too rushed, with little-to-no character development outside of the protagonist, and we are deprived of one of the most powerful set pieces of the film that this story emulates: Lee J. Cobb’s brilliant performance, depicting a man at war with himself and punishing an innocent man out of his own personal pain. The rushed nature of this telling means that the equivalent character is not focused on his own mistakes, but on an external horror visited on a beloved brother, leading to reactionary fear and hatred of the thing that turned his family member into a monster. The trade-off of self-loathing for racism just isn’t powerful enough in this instance. Unfortunately, this piece also suffers from a major narrative inconsistency that isn’t rectified. On page 57 (the first vote), we’re told that the count is “[o]ne guilty, and eleven for acquittal”. This reversal of the film’s structure is intentional. But then on page 60 (the second vote), we are told that the count is now “nine guilty votes and two in favor of reviewing the evidence.” That’s not a typo; that’s a jarring full stop that completely pulls us out of the story, while we sit back and say, “Wait, what?” since only two characters have changed their vote to guilty. I want so badly to like this piece, but Lorenson – though he is a good writer – bit off more than he could chew here.

I’m not entirely certain what to make of Sandra Wickham’s “Outwitted”. This is the only story in the collection that falls to tropes to move the story forward. It lacks originality, relying on standard set pieces: a captured protagonist who’s not as weak as he/she appears, submerged memories driving the protagonist to succeed against all odds and get revenge on behalf of a lost family, and a cold and impersonal society that can’t cope with what it doesn’t understand, that will succumb to the protagonist because the underdog(s) are planning long-term for the coming war. My most basic objection to this story is that I should not reach the end of a narrative and be thinking, “That’s your point?”

Peter Sellers’ “Toothless” is an interesting look at the morally ambiguous black market in body parts, only, in this case, the narrative concerns itself with vampires and their iconic fangs. Actually, this story feels out of place in the “Pre-Apocalypse” section, with its description of a world dying under the broil of an unfiltered sun’s light and heat. Also, I find the story cannot decide if it wants to be angsty, noir, or simply going for dark and grimy. In stretching too far in all three directions, it never finds itself. The ending also does not have the impact the author would like it to carry, though it’s a damned good try.

The last piece of the first section, David Beynon’s “Symbiosis”, is one of the stronger pieces in the book, largely because of its streamlined (emotionally potent) structure and extraordinarily effective writing. It’s a prototypical “down and out” interchange between two characters in a world gone mad with paranoia, that’s chosen to focus its wrath on an easy target: vampires. And it’s got a great premise, which Beynon himself put best in his wrap-up: “‘Symbiosis’ arose from a news story about thermal imaging used to screen for spiking levels of fevers of clientele at a nightclub in Singapore. I wondered what they would do if they discovered someone registering as room temperature.”

Post-Apocalypse

Section Overview: While stronger than the previous section, this still has stories that don’t manage to pull their weight. And, interestingly, all the stories that work in this section are fiercely character-driven (and largely personal catharsis) stories.

Unfortunately, the first story in this section – Heather Clitheroe’s “Forest-Bathing” – is on the wrong side of that equation. Though the piece is beautifully written, and for the most part well-executed, it lacks weight. There should be potency in the slow, personal, downward spiral of a character adrift in a foreign land, succumbing to that other culture’s mythic darkness. But, for all the story’s beauty and clean, nearly-effortless plot progression, there is something lacking. I am hesitant to claim exactly what, but the story leaves one feeling dissatisfied with what is clearly intended to be a story about a release from worldly suffering. It’s frustrating that Clitheroe’s story is yet another “near miss” in a collection too full of them.

Then we encounter the opposite effect with a story like Erika Holt’s “The Deal”. A piece equally as much about the bonds forged in friendship as about inevitable outcomes, “The Deal” telegraphs its conclusion from the beginning. And here, given the nature of the story, that works. It’s a deeply personal, painful story and emotionally solid, never overplaying its hand. It runs a very effective “nowhere left to run”, “one, last, glorious, defiant act of friendship” vibe, and manages to succeed brilliantly through the kind of depressing, noir inevitability that made the original film version of D.O.A. so compelling.

Ryan T. McFadden’s “Homo Sanguinus” is another piece that captures the personal catharsis mode and runs with it. But, unlike Holt’s piece, McFadden’s uses the notion of the “victim reborn”, rather than the “final promise”, to drive its dark, revenge-fuelled heart. McFadden’s work is upfront about the nature of its central character, and the crucible used here to bleed new life into the protagonist is one of rage. It is a story of the caged beast unleashed, of the monster set loose to wander the night. And McFadden’s work leaves us in no doubt that we have reason to fear the darkness.

I’m not sure why William Meikle’s “Out With the Old” doesn’t work for me. I am quite fond of Meikle’s body of work, but there is something off about this particular story. I cannot fault Meikle’s premise. Though it’s not a new idea (apocalyptic world, tight but failing community, stranger who arrives and resurrects the community in order to bring it under their rule), it does work and the ending follows quite naturally from the story’s progression. And yet. Ultimately, I can’t help wondering if the problem with “Out With the Old” is that, in order to make this kind of story work, you have to be unaware of what the newcomer’s nature is going to be. And you simply can’t avoid guessing that outcome in a vampire-themed anthology. Again, a shame, because this is an otherwise excellent story.

Though I like what David Tocher has done with several classic elements of the vampire mythos in “Chelsea Mourning”, and the central premise is sound, Tocher’s story owes too much to Gemma Files’ “Nigredo” – which is still fresh in genre memory, having appeared only seven years ago in Files’ collection, The Worm in Every Heart. Unfortunately, though Tocher’s piece utilizes a different story and setting, it borrows atmosphere and portions of transplanted mis-en-scene, without delivering the same level of emotional involvement, or brutal payoff, that marks Files’ piece. I cannot imagine the imitation to be intentional, but ultimately, there is simply too much overlay to be able to properly distinguish the two tales. And, as Files’ work is the much stronger of the two, it subsumes Tocher’s piece. Which is a damned shame, because “Chelsea Mourning” could have been something very special, but Tocher is just walking too far in Files’ shoes.

No such problems can be found with Jason S. Ridler’s “Blood That Burns So Bright”. The story is pitch perfect. From its obsession with the underdog, and the crucible of the ring (a recurring theme in Ridler’s work), to its potent-but-not-in-your-face use of class struggle and the enslavement of humanity by vampires, this piece, like its title, burns so bright. It also helps that the piece’s finish is a classic “blaze of glory”, keeping the story on par with some of Ridler’s best work, like “Last Waltz”, found in Chilling Tales: Evil Did I Dwell; Lewd Did I Live.

And while I love Ridler’s work in this collection, I am ambivalent about the Leanne Tremblay story, “Survival of the Fittest”, which follows it. Though Tremblay’s premise – which relies heavily on the “history is written by the victors” trope – could well have carried the story, Tremblay’s choice to abandon it midstream for a more traditional “We have evolved and will reclaim our rightful place as rulers of this world” feels as disjointed as it sounds. Still more unfortunate is that this could well have worked (There’s a nice twist in here in regard to that second trope), but Tremblay chooses to end the piece with one of the most widely abused pulp era flourishes (Hint: it involves an ellipsis preceding a single word) that drove this piece six feet deep for me. And, unlike the anthology’s subjects, this story just couldn’t claw its way back from the grave.

Interestingly, this section finishes on a bridge note rather than with a coda. Steve Vernon’s stellar “The Faith of Burning Glass” is a burnished gem, mined from a deeply apocalyptic “lone wanderer in the desert of the now” vein. Vernon’s artless, gorgeous prose underscores the madness and emptiness left behind in the wake of a world that tore itself apart. But mostly, it’s the desert and the emptiness that shine through, the burning air and the slowly receding image of the lone figure walking the wastes of the world, blurring in the heat haze until he, too, disappears and the world is truly empty.

New World Order

Section Overview: the previous section’s finishing theme of emptiness blurs perfectly into the larger sense of open space, emotional emptiness and loss that fuels this last – and arguably strongest – of the anthology’s sections.

John Shirley’s “Soulglobe” opens the section by moving us out into space, specifically, aboard a captured asteroid used as a giant catacomb, where zero gravity plays host to a “ballet of the dead”. The concept alone is stunning, but it is the tale of slow loss, and still greater hurts that follow, that truly haunts us as the tale progresses to a delicately balanced tale of loss and hope. Though, ultimately, we are given the sense that, even in hope, loss can still burrow out a home. It’s a potent metaphor, not for being unable to move on, but for not wanting to. In that sense, it hits even harder than a straight story about vampires stealing one’s loved ones would have done.

Following Shirley’s meditation on loss is Bev Vincent’s “Red Planet”, which doesn’t so much meditate on loss as it does on how expansion is really a cyclical notion: The farther we go away from the world we leave behind, the more we are drawn back to it, out of both necessity and familiarity. This is especially true if you’ve got vampirism in the tale, as the contrast between the feeding ground of Earth and the relatively barren deserts of Mars prompts some eminently sensible choices. And, though Dorothy may not have meant it this way, Vincent will have you agreeing with Baum’s statement that “there’s no place like home.”

Moreso than many of the other stories in Evolve Two, Anne Mok’s “Beacons Among the Stars” looks at the understanding of what makes a monster. Mok’s piece also deserves special mention for managing to create what is not only a believable, but compelling, world in which long-term space exploration and colonization have given vampires the option to spiral out into a neverending night, not in dominance, but in co-existence with Humanity. But the story’s core is the way in which it looks, not at vampires, but at Humanity as monstrous. This is aided, but not overshadowed, by the fascinating technological background Mok gives her story, which, for me, invoked the best elements of the Classic and Next Generation Star Trek series. And probably because of that – if not for the excellent story itself – it gives me immense pleasure to note that those core concepts that resonate so well with readers like myself are, as Anne Mok states in her wrap-up, going to be expanded on in a novel set in the same universe.

Going more in and down than out and up, Thomas Roche’s “The Big Empty” is anything but. An exquisitely full story, Roche sets it far enough ahead in time to allow for the natural evolution of Humanity’s subterranean excavations and the genetically engineered “humans” that Humanity perfected to keep the post-surface world going. Toss in a handful of thawed-out soldiers, a subterranean spire of stairs leading down into the darkness, a massive seed bank at its base, and a protagonist who is so far from human as to be an almost entirely different species, and you need a writer like Roche to pull off that dizzying combination of elements. He takes it all from the potentially absurd and grounds it in a distinctly primal fear: What lingers in the darkness, ever hungry? The resolution is perfect, the path to it crafted with an eye to both minor details and the carefully-played-out gap between emotional and emotionless characters, and Roche gives us a fine conclusion that leaves us fearing what comes next, but still clamouring to follow along past the tale’s grim finish.

There is something utterly compelling about Tanith Lee’s work. Whether you love it or hate it for its earthy sensuality and focus on the unabashedly erotic, Lee crafts a mean story. “Beyond the Sun” is no exception. It fits well in the slot Kilpatrick has given it – coming right before the final tale at the end of the anthology – because Lee has chosen to give us a story about the inescapable nature of love and loss, and how they entwine, even in the cold, cold black of space. Perhaps “Beyond the Sun” is so effective because it begs the question: “How do you deal with loving someone you’ve lost for the rest of eternity?”

And, given the preceding question, it is somehow appropriate that the anthology’s last story addresses eternity, and the cycles of the world, in an entirely different, if related, context. Sandra Kasturi’s “Slowing of the World” is also notable for being unequivocally the best story of the anthology. Tight, precise prose poetry makes for a compelling read and Kasturi gives this world-ending, world-beginning piece a sense of glacial beauty. The slow change of a character who gave up one world (Humanity) for the form of his desire (vampirism) into something impossibly other is a slowly unfurling statement about metamorphosis and perspective. There is much to be said about this story, but I suspect it speaks much better for itself. If there is only one story you are going to be reading in the anthology, read Kasturi’s.

So, at the end of all things, how does this anthology acquit itself?

Kilpatrick has assembled a fine set of authors, all of them having come bearing marvellous ideas. True, some of these ideas can’t quite make the leap from brilliant idea to brilliant execution, but that is so often the case in the anthology format that here, I am happy to forgive those less-potent interludes and focus, instead, on the glories to be found in this collection.

I had a chance to catch up with Kilpatrick at the 2011 Toronto Word on the Street Festival, and she delighted in the fact that Evolve Two had received so many positive and rave reviews. And with good reason. It is an excellent collection, worthy of praise, for even when it missteps, we know there is something wonderful just beyond the next turn of the page.

Bio: A full-time writer, freelance editor, and sometime lecturer, Michael Matheson is a native of Toronto. The editor of the Friends of the Merril Collection outreach publication, Sol Rising, he has fiction published or forthcoming in several venues, including Aoife’s Kiss and Innsmouth Free Press’ Future Lovecraft anthology. He maintains an online presence at: michaelmatheson.wordpress.com.

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IFPApocalypse Week: Review: Evolve Two