Monday, February 01, 2021

Willett (ed.), Shapers of Worlds (2020)

Edward Willett (ed.), Shapers of Worlds. Shadowpaw Press, 2020. Pp. 368. ISBN 978-1-989398-06-7. $17.95.

Reviewed by Lisa Timpf

Shapers of Worlds is an anthology of 18 short stories ranging from military science fiction and space opera to fantasy and steampunk, edited by Edward Willett, which offers nine new stories by authors such as Tanya Huff, L.E. Modesitt, Jr., and Seanan McGuire, and an equal number of previously-published tales from John Scalzi, Julie E. Czerneda, Joe Haldeman, and others. Willett, a freelance writer residing in Regina, Saskatchewan, is himself the author of more than 60 books all told, ranging from nonfiction to science fiction and fantasy. He also hosts a podcast titled The Worldshapers, which features interviews with science fiction and fantasy authors. It is involvement in this podcast that provides the link between the offerings, with each of the authors whose work is included having been featured during the first year of The Worldshapers.

One of the book’s gems, for me, was “The Knack of Flying” by Shelley Adina. With a steampunk flair, the story revolved around clandestine races involving flying machines. The start of one of the races is described as follows:

With a snarl and a cloud of steam, the ornithopters lifted straight up into the air. The monowheel shuddered into motion, and as it circled its pilot at the centre, its vanes whipped around the circumference so fast they blurred … the bubble and the biprop passed it at a sedate pace, lifting higher as they went. The biprop pilot raised his top hat politely as he sailed by. (113)

In addition to touching on issues of gender equity, “The Knack of Flying” offered world-building (a steam-driven society), likeable main characters, inbuilt tension in the races and the lead-up to them, and a cause to root for. The story had a good-natured charm that I found appealing.

In “Call to Arms,” Tanya Huff portrays a different kind of world, one driven by magic instead of machines. Here, mages and shape-shifters take on an evil empire, in a story told with a generous dose of humor.

Thoraiya Dyer’s “One Million Lira” envisions a world where the rich have escaped to the sky collectives, where they live in massive skycruisers, leaving the poor below on a world “with no more fossil fuels to burn.” (144) At the outset of the story, we meet an assassin named Sophia. Sophia’s mother died as a result of a leaky breast implant, and in an ironic homage to that sad event, Sophia always shoots her victims in the left breast. The logistics of Sophia’s stake-out were believably described, and the ending is both surprising and fitting.

Like many of the other stories in the collection, Seanan McGuire’s “In Silent Streams, Where Once the Summer Shone” leaves us with lots to think about. Lyrical and ironic, the story focusses on humankind’s foibles, particularly as they relate to our seeming inability to act strongly enough when it comes to preserving the environment. It’s a theme other authors have tackled elsewhere, but McGuire does it in an empathetic yet humorous way without making it sound preachy. A sustained metaphor carried through the story lends a deeper poignancy. A taste of McGuire’s prose is provided in the opening section:

Everyone always assumed the end of the world would be big and flashy and impossible not to see, the Disney Apocalypse, writ neon-bright against a blasted sky. It was supposed to be the one party we were all invited to, no matter how popular we were, or how pretty, or how blessed by good circumstance and better genes … Everyone always assumed that when the end of the world came, we’d at least notice that it was happening. (172)

Also noteworthy was “Welcome to the Legion of Six” by Fonda Lee, which provides a different (and humorous) twist on the superhero story, looking at it from the view of a recruiter seeking to fill a vacancy.

I’ve read a number of short story collections, and can say that Shapers of Worlds is one of the most wide-ranging volumes I’ve encountered in terms of sub-genre. It’s rather like a speculative fiction buffet, offering steampunk, fantasy, military fiction, magic, space opera, post-apocalyptic, hard science fiction, and others.

Even the aliens are depicted with different flair in the different stories. In “Pod Dreams of Tuckertown” by Gareth L. Powell, they are inimical overlords. In David Brin’s “Shhhh…” the aliens are infinitely superior beings who aren’t quite sure what to make of humans. In Christopher Ruocchio’s “Good Intentions,” the alien giant is described as follows:

Thirty feet tall it stood, its mottled hide more clay than flesh, spongy like the substance of the native flora. It stood upon legs vast as tree trunks, its two feet round and flat and fringed with countless toes like roots. Its great arms trailed the ground like an ape’s, though they terminated not in anything resembling hands, but in a fibrous tangle of feelers more vegetable than animal. (200)

The stories also include a fair amount of diversity, with characters of differing ages, ethnicities, genders, abilities, and sexual orientations. For example, in Fonda Lee’s superhero story, one of the female superheroes has a same-sex partner. In “A Thing of Beauty” by Dr. Charles E. Gannon, the protagonist has physical impairments due to a xenovirus. D.J. Butler’s “The Greatest of These is Hope” features younger protagonists.

As might be expected with any multi-author volume, there were some stories I found more appealing than others. In a couple of cases, I felt the ending a bit lacking either due to deus ex machina or ambiguity. But all in all, each of the stories had their merits, and true to the title, each author “shaped” a world either subtly, or vastly, different from our own. Inventive and varied, the collection has a lot to offer for those seeking an interesting, entertaining, and thought-provoking read.

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