Slave Stories: Scenes From The Slave State An Anthology, Edited By: Chris Kelso
I was asked to read this anthology for possible review and was subsequently sent a PDF copy by the editor, Chris Kelso. What follows is my appraisal of this book...
First off - what is the Slave State? Before reading this collection of diverse stories (and poems and selections of artwork), I was as much in the dark as anyone. After reading, I'm not sure I'm any the wiser...
I don't mean that in a detrimental way. What I mean is, the concept of the Slave State is very fluid, open to interpretation and, like many of the districts that reside within, this 'shared universe' can change at a moment's notice. Here is a quote from the introduction by its progenitor, Chris Kelso:
"The Slave State is a zone located in the 4th dimension – a prison planet run by
extraterrestrial human rights violators with a penchant for ironic punishment. The world
we’ve all come to know is merely a holding pen for our species, a prank of Andy Kauffman
proportions. When you cross the divide into the Slave State there is nothing left to do but wait
for your letter of conscription."
That's probably as good a description as any. It's a dark, mirror image of our own world, refracted through the lenses of dirty science fiction, punk aesthetics, Grindcore, Industrial, pinches of Bizarro, post-apocalyptic scenarios and a sense that there is something quite original going on despite its clear influences. It also has its own fully realised concepts such as Immitants (a lovely nod to Blade Runner and its Replicants), The Black Dog (the anthropomorphic realisation of depression as a virus) and various drugs, band names and so on that feel like real things even when they aren't...or are they??
What I shall attempt to do is highlight my impressions as received from my reading and give a shout out to those stories that most impressed me. I may not survive this process; you may not survive this reading. But hopefully, with a little luck and some skill in dodging The Black Dog, I'll see you on the other side.
Ready? Deep breath...
One of the big difficulties in reviewing an anthology (or even a collection) is how exactly do you do it? Do you take each story in turn and write a few lines, and with that, risk making the review completely unwieldy and too much for the casual reader to contemplate? Or do you give an overall impression of the book, highlighting particular favourites while potentially offending the other contributors? Well, I'm afraid I'm going to have to plump for the latter because this review is already getting too big. So, as I've stated above, I did find the concept of The Slave State quite overwhelming. This is possibly my one real issue with the book; it requires a pre-perceived knowledge of this world, one which I didn't have. There is the sense that you, as a reader, are missing out on subtle details due to this lack of understanding. Personally, I would have preferred a format where there are clear sections depending on which part of the world the stories take place, with a brief explanation/history of that region/sector. But that's just me.
As it is, there is a lot here. It's a kaleidoscopic, hypnotic, bad-acid-trip through the minds of Kafka, Dick, Ballard and Gibson, with nods to the stark, fascistic world of Dredd. Each individual author and artist bring their own flavour to this collection, with some stories that bear only the merest of connections to the universe (in that they could be set pretty much anywhere and would still work) and others that are fully dependant on its parameters.
Personal favourites include (and forgive me if yours isn't mentioned, it's most likely that I forgot to take notes as I read and have missed the name as I've gone back through) stories by Laura Lee Bahr - a bleak tale of the unrequited love felt by two separate humans and the Immitant targets of their respective obsessions; Simon Marshall-Jones - with a tale which recalls the mythic feel of Clive Barker; Dale McMullen - who presents a story that could be an almost frightening reality with airport security firm TSA...almost...; Gregory L. Norris - and his futuristic, Wild West story; Andrew Coulthard - who presents a tale that feels epic, almost like a fantasy and channels a nice sense of melancholic loss; John Palisano - with a story that reminded me of satirical writing such as Jeff Torrington or even Tom Holt; and Spike Marlowe - who gives us a story about a woman trying to escape a region with her very real, physical black dog because of its unfortunate associations with the depression virus. I felt real emotion with this one and trepidation at how it would turn out...
Now, there were a further three tales that I felt stood above the rest. These were by Andrew Hook - a beautifully written piece that has the most ambiguous ending I think I've ever read. It almost caused me to dislike the piece but dammit, the writing is that good, I can't; Richard Thomas - a gorgeously written tale of loss and pain; and Hal Duncan - who gives us an exhilarating story that reminded me of Ken McLeod's early work, shot through with black humour and an undercurrent of slipstream reality.
So, as I say, if I've missed out a contributors name, it's not necessarily that I didn't like the story, it's just that I felt these were the ones that grabbed me the most. I do think that the stories I liked best were the ones that felt most complete. There are a few here that feel a little unfinished, fragments of something bigger, yet within the concept of the anthology they just about work.
There's a lot here on offer for those readers who like a bit of dark satire with their dark fiction; despite the seeming science fiction setting, it is an anthology firmly rooted in a horror aesthetic. There is violence, dread, repulsion, bleak outlooks, all tied up in a sardonic black bow of tongue in cheek sarcasm. There are some excellent illustrations and, though I know next to nothing about poetry, the few verses that do appear are well written passages.
A mixed bag, inevitably, but with far more to entertain me than not and some real gems. It's certainly made me want to read more set in this universe. Can't wait to sully my mind again...
P.S. Hope you all made it this far...