“No one can doubt that the wave of the future is not the conquest of the world by a single dogmatic creed but the liberation of the diverse energies of free nations and free men. No one can doubt that cooperation in the pursuit of knowledge must lead to freedom of the mind and freedom of the soul.”
—President John F. Kennedy, from a speech at University of California, March 23, 1962
In a world gone wrong, heroes and villains are not always easy to distinguish and every individual has the ability to contribute something powerful.
In this stunning collection of original and rediscovered stories of tragedy and hope, the stars are a diverse group of students, street kids, good girls, kidnappers, and child laborers pitted against their environments, their governments, differing cultures, and sometimes one another as they seek answers in their dystopian worlds. Take a journey through time from a nuclear nightmare of the past to society’s far future beyond Earth with these eleven stories by masters of speculative fiction. Includes stories by Paolo Bacigalupi, Ursula K. Le Guin, Malinda Lo, Cindy Pon, Daniel H. Wilson, and more.
(Reviewer’s Note: Our usual review format doesn’t really work for Diverse Energies because it’s a short story collection. Taking an aggregate Mohs Scale/Genre label and applying it to the entire book would be pretty meaningless, so instead I’m going to do micro-reviews for each story in turn, in the order in which they appear in my ARC of the book. My thoughts on the anthology as a whole will be at the end of the review.)
Atmospheric Analysis: Man, I love this cover. The font is great, the picture in the background is suggestive of the settings for a lot of the stories (spoiler alert: there are a lot of grim urban wastelands) and the pink-purple color scheme is strangely eye-catching.
The Last Day by Ellen Oh
Mohs Scale: 5 (This is alt-history, so the technology is all entirely plausible.)
Planetary Class: Alt-history World War Two, that most venerable branch of speculative fiction.
Expanded Report: The Last Day is the first story in Diverse Energies, and I’m sad to say that it doesn’t start things off on the right foot. It takes place in Japan at the tail end of a 15-year WWII that has seen the complete destruction via nuclear bomb of an unknown number of cities around the world. The Emperor has resorted to forcibly recruiting teenagers to fight in the army, so depleted are its ranks. The main character, Kenji, attempts to escape when the ‘recruiters’ come looking for him, with disastrous results.
My main problem here is with the prose. There are too many instances where it feels clunky or ill-suited to what’s happening, particularly during the darker moments in the latter half of the story. The alt-history backstory is also a lot more interesting than anything that happens to the characters, which is a bit of a problem given that we’re obviously supposed to care whether they get out of their situation alive. Having said that, The Last Day does make it clear that we’re not dealing with a string of ‘dystopian’ stories focused exclusively on white American kids, which I was slightly worried about despite the anthology’s mission goal of featuring (wait for it) ‘Diverse Energies’.
Freshee’s Frogurt by Daniel H. Wilson
Mohs Scale: 4 (Domestic robots going on a homicidal rampage? Sure, why not.)
Planetary Class: Low-rent World War Z knock-off.
Expanded Report: I have no idea what Freshee’s Frogurt is even doing in this anthology. It feels jarringly different to the other stories, and the only ‘diverse’ aspect I can see is that the guy who gets killed by a malfunctioning robot is Mexican.
Beyond that, the story just isn’t very good. The whole thing is nothing more than a blow-by-blow account of a robot violently attacking the main character and his co-worker, but dressed up as a police interview. The conceit could have made things a bit more interesting if not for the fact that Wilson frequently seems to forget that the main character is being interviewed, not writing a novel. Would you use a phrase like “Felipe’s dark mane [of hair]” while being interviewed about a murder?
Wilson wrote Robopocalypse, so his name is well-known at the moment, but that doesn’t make him suited to an anthology like this.
EDIT: Apparently this is actually just the first chapter or two of Robopocalypse, which doesn’t entirely sit well with me for some reason. It also makes me wonder what it’s doing in an anthology aimed at teenagers.
Uncertainty Principle by K. Tempest Bradford
Mohs Scale: 2 (It has time travel)
Planetary Class: Time-travel thriller.
Expanded Report: I’m torn on this one. The premise is intriguing, involving a girl who experiences frequent reality warps that leave the world subtly (or not so subtly) changed around her, and the writing is good. It just feels more like the kernel of a novel than a short story, and I found myself struggling to stay invested as the plot rapidly grew in complexity.
In terms of diversity, Uncertainty Principle is interesting. Main character Iliana is mixed race, as are many of the protagonists in the anthology, and one of her early traumatic reality shifts (actually the effect of time travelers) involves the USA’s first Muslim president abruptly being replaced on the night of her election. It’s interesting stuff, but I could have done with a bit more exploration of the identity politics at play here. Again, this aspect of the story would have worked better with more room to breathe.
Pattern Recognition by Ken Liu
Mohs Scale: 5 (All technology featured is plausible, if explained in slightly vague terms)
Planetary Class: Near-future SF of the down-to-Earth variety. I’d call this Social SF, since it’s more about the people than the technology.
Expanded Report: This is the first of two stories about children in Asian countries being taken from their villages under the pretense of improving their lives. The reason for the kidnappings is a bit difficult to take seriously in Pattern Recognition, but that’s not really the point. It is, ultimately, a story about self-discovery, with the main character slowly piecing together his true heritage as he discovers more and more about the world outside of ‘school’ he’s been raised in. It’s not bad, but also didn’t leave much of an impression on me.
Gods of the Dimming Night by Greg van Eekhout
Mohs Scale: 1 (See below)
Planetary Class: Neil Gaiman-esque science fantasy.
Expanded Report: This one is frankly bizarre. It starts off as a post-apocalyptic story where the Earth has been ravaged by climate change, then takes a hard right into far stranger territory. It’s based on one of Eekhout’s books, and Like Freshee’s Frogurt, it feels incongruous compared with the rest of the anthology.
Next Door by Rahul Kanakia
Mohs Scale: 4 (VR and Nanobots, both of which are handled consistently)
Planetary Class: This would probably get labelled ‘dystopian’ if it was a novel, but it’s more akin to cyberpunk of the grungy variety.
Expanded Report: Like several of the other stories here, Next Door imagines a future where society is divided according to access to certain technology. In this case, there’s an upper class of ‘owners’, who live in massive houses that they almost never see because they live in virtual reality dreams. Many of them never engage with the real world at all, to the point where entire families can squat in rooms of their houses.
Akash, the main character of Next Door, has an uneasy relationship with the people who live in ‘his’ house. They’re aware that he and his family are there, but refuse to program their nanobots to kill the insecticide-repellant bugs that torment his family day and night. Tired of living under someone else’s roof, he makes a plan to escape to a new home with Vincent, his boyfriend. To that end, they enter into a dangerous alliance with the boy whose family owns Akash’s house.
This is easily my favourite story in the anthology. The premise sounds bizarre in summary, but Kanakia manages to pull it off by being very careful about how much detail he goes into about the society’s outlandish sociology. He also avoids having his poverty-stricken characters come across as being entirely at the whims of the wealthier classes, which can be a problem in this kind of story.
Good Girl by Malinda Lo
Mohs Scale: 5
Planetary Class: Near-future SF.
Expanded Report: I’d been meaning to check out Malinda Lo’s stuff for a while (I have yet to read any of her books, although I plan on changing that with Adaptation, so I was excited going into this one. Thankfully, Good Girl did not disappoint.
It’s set in a time when being mixed race is illegal, which is a problem for the half-Chinese main character. She goes to a shady criminal type named Nix looking for information on her mission brother, thinking that he may have run away to the underground Tunnels beneath the city, only to slowly develop romantic feelings for her. Nix shatters her illusions about the government’s propaganda campaign, convincing her that she can’t be a ‘good girl’ if she wants to live her own life.
I almost wish Lo had kept this idea for a full novel, because there’s obviously a lot more to the setting than what we see here. Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t work as a short; it absolutely does, being one of the best-paced and most well-written stories in the whole collection.
A Pocketful of Dharma by Paolo Bacigalupi
Mohs Scale: 4 (Only dropped from a five thanks to one piece of highly speculative technology)
Planetary Class: Also near-future SF, with a slight cyberpunk edge.
Expanded Report: Bacigalupi is another ‘big name’ inclusion in the anthology. He’s made Asia his subject matter for a while now, so I guess he was something of an obvious choice, but I have to admit to being slightly tired of the depiction of near-future China on display in A Pocketful of Dharma. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: China is full of corrupt officials who keep the rich wealthy while ensuring that the poor starve on the streets and live in perpetual squalor. Sound familiar? It should, because it’s how an alarming number of Western writers view present-day China. I really don’t think the genre needs yet another story like this. Can we not have a more optimistic view of China’s future?
That aside, the story isn’t terrible. The prose is good (aside from Bacigalupi’s habit of referring to characters as ‘the Huanese’ or ‘the Tibetan’), and the plot is relatively engaging. It’s a reprint of something he’s published elsewhere, so you can check it out for yourself if you’re curious.
Blue Sky – Cindy Pon
Mohs Scale: 5 (Augemented reality helmets are all but guaranteed to be a feature of the real world in the near future)
Planetary Class: “Dystopian” in the YA category sense.
Expanded Report: I’ve never entirely understood the appeal of Cindy Pon despite her many fans, so I went into this with some trepidation. But it’s not at all bad. The story involves one of those meetings of two worlds that YA authors love so much, in this case involving a young man from the technological ‘have nots’ getting involved with a girl from the technologically-priveleged ruled class. Oh, and it’s also set in China. Sounds neat, right?
Well, it would be, except that he ‘meets’ by kidnapping her. Yes, I realise he doesn’t intend on hurting her. No, that doesn’t make it any less weird when their relationship starts veering dangerously close to pre-romance-subplot territory.
What Arms To Hold Us – Rajan Khanna
Mohs Scale: 4 (The mind-linked robots are pretty fanciful, but they’re handled consistently and are well-written enough to be believable)
Planetary Class: Again, “dystopian” in the YA sense, not in the actual-dystopian sense. Also robots.
Expanded Report: This one is similar in plot to Pattern Recognition, but feels a lot more fleshed-out. The main character is a boy ‘recruited’ by a mining company to control mining robots through a neural link; predictably, he discovers that all is not what it seems.
This is probably my third favourite story in the anthology after Next Door and Good Girl. It’s well-written, the characters are consistently likable, and it manages to pack a decent amount of (coherent) plot into its limited page count. It looks like Khanna has published quite a few other short stories already, so here’s hoping he puts out a novel at some point. I’d definitely read it.
Solitude by Ursula K. Le Guin
Mohs Scale: 4 (Interstellar Travel)
Planetary Class: Speculative anthropology. Wait, is that a genre? Screw it, it is now.
Expanded Report: And finally we come to the last story in the anthology, which is by some lady named Ursula K. Le Guin. I guess they stuck her in the back because she’s just starting out or whatever?
I kid, I kid. I’m actually not nearly as familiar with Le Guin’s work as I should be, but even I can see her hallmarks here. Solitude is a complex, richly-detailed story about a family of anthropologists studying a human society on a distant planet. The society is sort of matriarchal, in an odd way, and the plot involves the main character coming to fully understand her adopted people as she grows to adulthood. This one is also a reprint, from The Birthday of the World, but it’s well worth reading if you haven’t come across it yet.
Final Thoughts: Overall, Diverse Energies is a mixed bag. A few of the stories are very good, one or two feel completely out of place, and several are just not all that great. Is it worth it for the good stories? I’d say yes, particularly if you’re not used to reading short fiction. It’s been received wisdom in YA circles that you just can’t sell short stories to young reders, but there’s no reason why that necessarily has to be the case. After all, didn’t most SF writers of the previous generation first become interested in the genre by reading the likes of Asimov‘s Science Fiction in their teens?
Tu Books should be commended for taking a risk on this – and make no mistake, it probably was a risk. ‘Diversity’ is something that YA readers and editors seem to want, yet publisher’s catalogues’ remain packed with books about straight white American kids.I don’t think Diverse Energies is going to be the beginning of a sea change in the industry, but it’s good to know that someone out there is committed to catering to audiences that might feel sorely under-represented by the market.
If you’re willing to take the good with the bad (and that’s something you almost always have to do with anthologies), then you should check this out. There’s likely to be something in here that will appeal to you.