On the evening of Tuesday, 20 November 2012, the New York Review of Science Fiction Readings Series showcased After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia, the latest original anthology from Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, who also served as guest curators. The event, held at the Series’ current venue, the SoHo Gallery for Digital Art on Sullivan Street in Manhattan, featured readings by three of the volume’s contributing authors, N.K. Jemisin, Genevieve Valentine, and Matthew Kressel.
The theme is certainly timely. Hurricane Sandy and the subsequent Nor’easter gave those in this region a taste of apocalypse, and The Hunger Games and NBC’s Revolution – like After, young adult-focused – provided their own visions of post-collapse worlds. (That audience sets After apart from the similarly themed Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, edited by John Joseph Adams, previously reviewed in SFScope.)
The Series’ Producer/Executive Curator, Jim Freund, host of WBAI’s (99.5 FM) Hour of the Wolf radio program on sf and fantasy (Thursdays 1:30-3 am, when not pre-empted by pledge drives, and undeterred by downed phone lines), greeted the audience, again thanked last month’s substitute reader James Ryan, and announced upcoming readings: 4 December (back on first Tuesday) will be the annual traditional Family Night, with readers Delia Sherman and Ellen Kushner, and guest host (and former curator) Claire Wolfe Smith; Ron Hogan will be guest curator for 8 January’s Readings. He also noted the following evening’s Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading (co-hosted by Datlow and Kressel) and a newcomer to the scene, the Kindred Reading Series (the next reading will be 28 November, featuring writers Linda Addison and Alaya Dawn Johnson). Freund concluded by turning things over to guest curators Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling.
“Ellen,” he said, has been editing sf/fantasy and horror for over 30 years. She was fiction editor of Omni Magazine and Sci Fiction, has edited or co-edited more than 50 anthologies, and “has won every award given for editing in the genre,” including the Hugo Award, the World Fantasy Award, the Karl Edward Wagner Award and the Horror Writers Association’s Life Achievement Award. Terri Windling, he continued, has been an editor specializing in fantasy fiction for over 30 years, winning the World Fantasy Award, the Mythopoeic Award, the Bram Stoker Award, and the SFWA Solstice Award for outstanding contributions to the speculative fiction field, and has co-edited a number of anthologies in partnership with Datlow. A former New Yorker, Terri now lives near Dartmoor in England, making her appearance here special indeed.
At the podium with Datlow, Windling spoke of their shared passion for short stories as a literary form. There is some dispute, she said, about what constitutes a dystopia, whether it’s limited to utopias gone wrong or may be simply any dark-toned setting, thus After’s double-barreled subtitle. Aimed at young adults, the collection presented a range of apocalyptic, world-changing events, such as war or plagues. With that, Datlow brought up the evening’s first reader, Matthew Kressel.
Kressel read from “The Great Game at the End of the World,” which has been described as “good, but weird.” Not long after a mutagenic bomb, two teams, one shadow of themselves and the other monsters, play a game of ball. Next, Datlow introduced the second reader, Genevieve Valentine, author of the Crawford Award-winning and Nebula-nominated novel (her first), Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti. Her story, “The Segment,” was a chilling look at a wartime world where a casting agency provides actors – the protagonist is a 16-year-old actress – to perform in propagandistic staged news segments. Their slogan is “Let those who would be fooled be fooled,” but the deaths are real.
In keeping with the spirit of the evening, world-shattering calamity, during the recess, several Sandy stories were exchanged. (On the whole, ours was a lucky group compared to some; power outages ranged from three hours to four-to-five days. The SGDA itself was without power for the better part of a week, which is doubly troublesome for an art gallery showing digital works on video screens.)
Around the room, the SGDA’s screens displayed a selection of photos of the editors and authors, and covers of their anthologies and novels. Returning to the podium, Datlow expressed her pleasure with the cover of After, which she described for the benefit of a blind audience member: a young man, seen from the back, standing on a cliff, looking out at a cloudy, destroyed city (“a lovely, gorgeous catastrophe,” heckled Rick Bowes, who, by the way, is also represented in the anthology). She then introduced the third and final reader of the evening, N. (for Nora) K. Jemisin.
N. K. Jemisin’s short fiction and novels have been nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula Awards, shortlisted for the Crawford and the Tiptree Awards, and won the Locus Award for Best First Novel. She expressed her admiration for the present editors’ inspirational body of work and said that she was “proud to finally be in a Datlow-Windling anthology.” Her story, “Valedictorian,” was haunting and disturbing. Set centuries after their loss in a war, in a society that has retreated behind a firewall and whose people are periodically “culled” by the enemy, a high school senior who challenges herself to be the best is interviewed pre-graduation by one of the enemy, no longer human. Her brilliance, and her attitude, she realizes, makes her different, sets her apart from others, makes her nearly as inhuman in a way as the enemy.
A brief Q-&-A with Datlow and Windling followed. Other types of apocalypse presented include war, flood (imagine New York City underwater! … prescient, and a bit easier to do this month), vampire-zombie invasion, metal-eating bugs, even the Rapture; they tried not to repeat catastrophic events. In an aside, Datlow remarked that many of the stories were in first-person; does the genre particularly lend itself to that viewpoint?) An author who was not in the anthology asked how they had decided which authors to invite – “Depressed people?” Some of the usual suspects and authors interested in dystopias, said Datlow. (Among other contributors are Jeffrey Ford, Carol Emshwiller, Jane Yolen, Steven Gould and Gregory Maguire.) Windling concluded the evening by observing that the way to get adult readers of short fiction is to introduce kids to reading the form, and exhorted the audience (with the gift-giving season here) to give kids short story collections.
With that in mind, copies of After were for sale by the Corner Bookstore at the back of the room (with its editors and those authors present offering to sign them), and sample copies of issue #3 of Kressel’s World Fantasy Award-nominated speculative fiction ’zine Sybil’s Garage were on the freebie table.
The audience of 35 included Richard Bowes, Karen Euler, Liz Gorinsky, Kim Kindya, David Barr Kirtley, Barbara Krasnoff, Ellen Kushner, Lissanne Lake, Robert Rodriquez, James Ryan, Delia Sherman and Terence Taylor. After the traditional folding-up of chairs (counter-intuitively), the curators, readers and members of the audience adjourned, as customary, to Milady’s, a nearby pub.