Monday, February 07, 2022

Parrish, Trenchcoats, Towers and Trolls (2022)

Rhonda Parrish (ed.), Trenchcoats, Towers, and Trolls: Cyberpunk Fairy Tales. World Weaver Press, 2022. Pp. 240. ISBN 978-1-7340-5455-2. $15.95 pb/$4.99 e.

Reviewed by Lisa Timpf

In Trenchcoats, Towers, and Trolls, the third and last in the “Punked Up Fairy Tales” series, which also includes Grimm, Grit, and Gasoline and Clockwork, Curses, and Coal, Rhonda Parrish brings together twelve cyberpunk tales in a collection that is both engrossing and thought-provoking. Edmonton, Alberta-based anthologist and author Parrish is no newcomer to the anthology game: she has edited a number of other themed collections, including one about swashbuckling cats and an “Elemental Anthologies” series.

I’ve never thought of myself as a cyberpunk fan specifically, although I have read and enjoyed stories and novels that might fit the description. Fan or no, I found that the stories in Trenchcoats, Towers, and Trolls stood on their own merits, offering intriguing glimpses into worlds of the imagination. The selections chosen for the anthology delivered unique and immersive settings, compelling plots, and, in many cases, humor.

Among the tales, Michael Teasdale’s “Stiltskin” stood out. In this story, certain models of androids were found to have a glitch in their programming that made them sentient. One such, Akimi, seeks out the aid of a tech-savvy dwarf named Stiltskin. Akimi’s friend Petra, another pleasure bot, is slated to lose her sentience soon thanks to an inbuilt expiry date. Akimi contacts Stiltskin in the hope of helping Petra escape that fate. Teasdale’s descriptive phrasing stands out, including this depiction of Stiltskin when Akimi first meets him:

He sat, legs dangling from the stool, picked out by the neon flicker of a nearby porno-joint. As my boots splashed through the foul-smelling puddles, I scanned his wizened features, illuminated as a grimly alternating rainbow in the gloom, first flashing pale green then jaundiced yellow amid the incandescent glow. The steel dome that partially crowned his head glistened from the raindrops that dripped from the tattered awning above him, pooling among the cracks in his face.

In “Cumulus” by Thomas Badlan, a consciousness from Cumulus has downloaded itself into the body of a young girl named Maya, much to the dismay of the girl’s father, Mateo. Badlan’s portrayal of the father’s reactions to the calamity are convincing, and the story is chillingly plausible.

In “Make Your Own Happily Ever After,” Beth Goder toys with the Cinderella theme. Protagonist Ella works for Digital Maids. While “defragging a client’s implant” she comes across a ticket to a fancy ball. “Just for once, she was going to see what it was like to be one of the elite.” At the ball, Ella hopes to find a patron who will help her purchase her favorite eatery, Tilda’s Chess Cafe. But despite her efforts to blend in, Ella doesn’t fool the PRINCE security staffer, a man named Charam. Ella and Charam team up to battle digital perils in an abandoned building before Goder brings the story to a satisfying conclusion.

Also noteworthy are “C4T & M0U5E,” by V. F. LeSann, a story about a girl named Mouse whose sister is in a coma after being part of a government experiment, and Laura VanArendonk Baugh’s “Neon Green in D Minor,” in which a noodle seller needs to decide whether to follow a Pied Piper-like call that invites her to aspire to a different life.

As is expected with the cyberpunk theme, most of the stories deliver visions of dystopian futures. For example, Nara, the 17-year-old protagonist of “Neon Green in D Minor,” lives in a place called “the Grimes,” the environs of which live up to the bleakness of the name. In “Cumulus,” Mateo buys an implant for his daughter so she can attend school virtually. He does so with the intention of protecting her: if she had to walk to a bricks-and-mortar school, he fears she might fall prey to implant harvesters or separatist bombers en route. In “Stiltskin,” androids need to be wary of a “luddite movement” that is gaining strength.

Advanced science and technology is a feature of many of the stories. In “Three” by Nicola Kapron, bridges are used for teleportation. Alena Van Arendonk’s “***********SK.IN” features a hacker who uses nanotechnology to accomplish a seemingly impossible task. The overlap between the “real” and virtual worlds plays a role in “A Beautiful Nightmare” by Sarah Van Goethem, as well as in other stories.

But not all of the tales deal with science; some have a magical or supernatural element. These include a giantess mixing potions in “Firewalls and Firewort” by Wendy Nikel, a Moon Goddess in Ana Sun’s “The Rabbit in the Moon,” and gnome-fairy teams helming ferries across Lake Ontario in “Drift-Skip” by Suzanne Church.

The authors explore the impact of technology on society as well. In “A Beautiful Nightmare,” one of the characters is affected by “technoshock,” the inability “to cope with all the changes in society.” In the world portrayed in “Stiltskin,” many “normal” human beings, or “norms,” have a negative view of those who are “other,” including androids:

It was not uncommon for a troll to take up lodgings with a dwarf; they had even been known to partner with runaway androids. We were all feared and hated for different reasons by the norms. Queer brothers and sisters of a kind, bound together as a family of freaks.

In “***********SK.IN,” the government demands that all humans are implanted with chips at birth. The protagonist explains the consequences of this move:

…sure, augmented reality can be fun, and it’s really convenient to be able to do everything with the swipe of a hand. But there’s a price for that convenience. It’s virtually impossible to go to school or get a job or function in society if you don’t have the right hardware, and for all that it’s supposed to give everyone equal access to system benefits, it does more segregating than unifying. And it’s unsettling. I never liked knowing that there was always someone watching, or that I couldn’t disconnect if it all got to be too much.

Some of the stories are grittier than others. “Stiltskin” provides a brief but grim depiction of the johns’ violence toward the pleasure bots, and “Drift-Skip” includes more profanity and sexual content than some of the other stories. These aspects make sense in the context of the stories, though depending on their sensibilities some readers may find some of the references disturbing.

Like the other books in the “Punked Up Fairy Tales” series, most of the stories in Trenchcoats, Towers, and Trolls have fairy tales or folklore as their jumping-off point. Among the stories echoed in these tales are Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, the Pied Piper, and the Three Billy Goats Gruff. One story provides an Alice in Wonderland vibe, while two play off the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale, albeit taking sufficiently different approaches that the stories stand on their own. The use of fairy tales and other cultural artifacts provides a deeper resonance to the stories. In many cases, the writers leverage parallels to the original stories to create humor. In all of the stories, however, the writers use their world-building skills to weave tales that are engrossing of their own accord. Whether you’re a cyberpunk fan or new to the genre, Trenchcoats, Towers, and Trolls is well worth a look.

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