Charlie Jane Anders
Charlie Jane Anders

A Review of Charlie Jane Anders’ “Even Greater Mistakes”

Soft Vs. Hard Science Fiction

“Even Greater Mistakes” Book Cover
“Even Greater Mistakes” Book Cover

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with science fiction these days. I read a whole pile of it in high school (mostly space operas), and even tried my hand at writing some softer SF-ish type of stories. What I do enjoy reading these days is the kind of soft variety of SF of the sort that I was trying to write 20 years ago. I love magic realist novels generally, or that slippery sub-genre (pardon the forthcoming pun) that is known as slipstream. The reason why I enjoy these stories is that they have more of a literary bent and invest a lot into character development. Hard SF, on the other hand, tends to geek out too much for my tastes with endless descriptions and infodumps about how some imagined technology would work. I feel that this type of fiction leaves little room for the characters to develop, and reading hard SF is like walking into a movie halfway through without really knowing much about what’s going on. To this end, Charlie Jane Anders’ recent collection of 19 short stories and novellas, Even Greater Mistakes, showcases her mastery of both forms, like it or not (depending on your reading preferences).

As with any short story collection, there are bound to be duds — but, this time, I found the duds to be mostly subjective. It’s the hard SF that I found didn’t quite hit the mark for me, so perhaps that says more about my tastes than the actual writing quality. Make no bones about it, Charlie Jane Anders is a skilled, talented, and important writer — she writes about gender-fluid individuals, for one — who happens to be particularly good at writing a wide range of fiction. That’s the biggest takeaway I had from this book. It’s telling that, in the acknowledgments, Anders reveals that some stories that were published in Year’s Best SF anthologies were not included, favouring instead a broader view of her work. That includes — surprisingly, for a collection being published by SF imprint Tor Books — some stories that would almost classify as being literary fiction. There’s a whole big spectrum that Anders uses as her sandbox, and I have to say that I’m a bit envious of her ability to write such diverse fiction so well. However, I’m also saddened because I went looking for some of her books at the local library, and they seem to be only available as e-books where I live. It’s as though Anders isn’t enough of a big-name talent to warrant having a physical copy of at least one of her books on the shelves of the Ottawa Public Library. That’s a shame and should be corrected as soon as possible.

Anders is a master of the “what if?” brand of storytelling premises. I thought the fiction I had been writing had been weird, but I guess I can see that my stories weren’t as daring and as original as Anders’. (My mom has commented, upon viewing my bookshelves, that the stuff I currently read is quite out there, too. The fact that I’ve read Even Greater Mistakes will not dissuade her from that opinion. It may bolster that view.) Here, Anders wonders out loud what it would be like if the last living person on Earth discovered a genie living inside of a bottle that granted the traditional three wishes. Elsewhere, she ponders what it would be like if a straight couple individually went into suspended animation, so one person could focus on getting through university while the other partner slept. There’s also a tale where a fairy werewolf does battle with a vampire zombie. As you can see, the material that Anders writes is highly original, and, when she is in soft SF mode, she is compulsively readable — you won’t be able to put some of these stories down until you see where they wind up.

However, it’s the hard SF that I had trouble with. There’s one story here (“If You Take My Meaning”) that acts as a sequel to one of her novels. The thing is, you had to have read the novel the story is based on for it to make any sense — I’d like to tell you what it’s about, but I just can’t. I didn’t understand a single thing about it; it is so riddled with jargon that it’s an impossible read. (There’s another story in here called “Clover” that also acts as a sequel to another novel, but that one feels more stand-alone and makes sense for those who haven’t read the work that it is based upon. That it is more soft SF than anything probably helps to make it more memorable for me, too.) I can see why Anders would want to collect a sequel story or two, but it might have been better to have appended the story to a republication of the actual book it is based on for the benefit of newbie readers embarking upon Anders’ canon.

Despite this flaw, Even Greater Mistakes turns out to be a stellar book. A lot of these stories have a personal edge to them, as Anders is a transgender woman. Thus, it’s tales such as “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue” — which is about the nightmare of one trans person’s unwanted conversion back to the gender they were born with— that ring true loud and clear. I can see from this collection that the science fiction genre has come a long way in terms of inclusivity to those who might be seen as being more on the margins, and we certainly need more of that — in any sort of fiction. Anders has a powerful voice, and her personality and playfulness shine through in much of these stories, even the ones that tackle a particularly serious subject matter. I’m glad to have discovered this author’s writings — I might have a new favourite author to read as Charlie Jane Anders is a consummate scribe who is now on my radar. I hope her other works are as enjoyable as this one. This is the almost perfect introduction to her work for new readers and should be digested by anyone interested in reading various flavours of science fiction and beyond.

Charlie Jane Anders’ Even Greater Mistakes was published by Tor Books on November 16, 2021.

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Book critic, Fiction author, Poet, Writer, Editor. Follow me on Twitter @zachary_houle.