Tuesday, August 03, 2021

Jones, Mirrormaze (2021)

Cliff Jones Jr. (ed.), Mirrormaze: A Dreampunk Anthology. Fractured Mirror Publishing, 2021. Pp. 384. ISBN 978-1-7352171-3-0. $16.99 pb/$8.99 e.

Reviewed by Gwen C. Katz

Fractured Mirror, a newcomer in the publishing scene, has turned out one of the most intriguing and unusual anthologies of the year with Mirrormaze: A Dreampunk Anthology. Dreampunk, coined for this anthology, is an intentionally slippery term to define, but it centers on the sense of unreality created by dreams. It has the deliberately exaggerated aesthetic associated with other punk subgenres, but instead of being defined by a particular era or type of technology, the commonality is the delirious imagery and the underlying feel of not-quite-rightness. It is surreal not just in the colloquial sense of “weird stuff,” but in the original sense of a Jungian journey into the subconscious. Bringing together 20-odd different authors around a concept this nebulous is an ambitious achievement, and I was impressed by how coherent the resultant anthology turned out to be. While I’d never heard the term “dreampunk” before picking up Mirrormaze, within the first couple of stories I immediately had a sense of what it entailed.

This is not an anthology to be horked down in one sitting (as I did with Calvino’s Invisible Cities in college; learn from my mistake). Nor is it something to be nitpicked by readers who demand a full explanation of every event. This is a book to be dipped into a little at a time, letting each story float around in your mind before moving on to the next. A bedtime read, maybe, to collide with your own dreams. A choose-your-own-adventure framework ties the whole thing together, but it functions less as a game and more as a way to set the tone with prompts like “There seems to be music in the air. If it reminds you of an opera, turn right for room 26. If you think it’s something more like a carnival or a magic show, proceed straight ahead to room 24.”

In a world saturated with overexplanation and straightjacketed to formalized plot structures, the stories in Mirrormaze are blessedly free of exposition and unanchored by the usual rules of storytelling. Many of them read more like vignettes, glimpses of another world as you travel through the maze. It’s not the plots that stick with you, but the images. Advertising slogans from a world obsessed with drinking milk in “The Future Is Milk” by Courtney Locicero (“milk.ly: It’s simple. It’s easy. It’s milk.”). A slow-motion description of a car flipping end over end in “The End of Michael Clement” by J.R.R.R. Hardison. A leopard and a jackal growing to behemoth size as they run together into the sky in “Origin” by Yelena Calavera. The conceits, too, which are wide-ranging and invented: In David Pierre’s “Transmigration” (a work in translation, which I’d like to see more of in SFF), a woman whose brain has been transplanted into a new body returns to her home village in search of the girl she once loved. In “Somnium” by Jeb R. Sherrill, a composer buys bottled nightmares to write operas for a mad emperor. And Steven R. Brandt’s “Martian Spirit Quest” is exactly what it says.

This style of storytelling won’t be to everyone’s taste, and I expect it’ll have its fair share of readers whining that they didn’t get it and the stories didn’t go anywhere. But that’s no fault of the anthology, which is smashingly successful at what it sets out to do. My only real quibble is the unwieldy overall length and the number of authors who appear multiple times (I doubt that any anthology needs five stories by the editor). But even there I understand the choice, because the quality of the stories is such that it would be very, very difficult to decide what to cut.

If you’re willing to leave your logical mind at the door and plunge headfirst into the surreal, check out Mirrormaze. It’s a compelling dawn for a promising new genre.

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