Love in the Time of Starships: The Grunts in the Engine Room (Menial: Skilled Labor in SF)

Kelly Jennings & Shay Darrach, eds. Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction

The premise sold the book to me: the grunts in the engine room (and elsewhere) are seriously neglected in traditional SF. Also, I love anthologies the same way that I love boxes of assorted chocolates. I have 50-some anthologies queued up on my ebook reader, and they’ve been my gateway to the work of many new-to-me writers.

This is my first time reviewing an anthology of short stories, though, so this post took much longer to write than anticipated.

So at the first step, there’s the table of contents. My personal favorites are in bold. To be clear, these are the stories that resonated the most with me (analysis and further thoughts below). As a reader, I enjoyed the variety of trades and vicarious experiences, from romantic comedy to horror to humor to adventure. All of them ended on a not-fully-resolved note, required by the richness of the world-building.

  • Diamond in the Rough – very much behind the scenes in a space environment, POV the tech (non binary) who looks after the facilities. Interesting sensory details, handling of protagonist with a disability (who deals with it by spending rather a lot of time in low-g)
  • Thirty-four dollars: story told by attendant at a wind farm on Hudson Bay. Death and remembrance in a lonely place after the apocalypse.
  • A Tale of a Fast HorseIn post-apocalyptic Arizona, military veteran Courtney Fast Horse flees from her ex-girlfriend’s armed compound in a hover-bike converted from a car, and almost doesn’t get out alive. She’s taken in by a Navajo mechanic and his family. Lots of loving attention to landscape, family dynamics, as well as welding and metalwork. Sardonic, dryly humorous narrator with an unconventional view of life.
  • The Didibug Pin – harvesting operation on another planet, gathering cliff crawlers whose venom is refined into a useful medical product. POV Lize, who has been born into the company compound, but remembers a visit to a fair near the spaceport. Theme: workplace hazards and the company store, more than familiar from labor history past & present.
  • Sarah87 – asteroid miners, POV Jo (Josephine). Features seriously creepy world building with an off-stage alien species that uses human gametes to make soldier-drones. The titular character is a … bio-sexbot? Anyway, creepy into creeptastic, the more you think about it after.
  • Carnivoresfisheries under the surface of Titan, and anomalous people born in space. Fishery tech Simon discovers that there are various definitions of “intelligent” and “slow” including the unexpected location and kind of non-human “intelligent life” Features neuro-atypical protagonist and older side-character, Simon’s supervisor, the old fisherwoman Mags.
  • Urban Renewal – POV Alex, animal/human hybrid and unemployed service worker (coffee shop). Genetic minority, assimilation vs resistance. Realistic scenes of the hell that is customer service.
  • StoragePOV Spell, a highly trained inspector aboard a huge spacecraft on a 5-9 month trip between Earth and Mars. Very creepy psychological effects in one of the more alienated SF environments I’ve read recently.
  • Snowball the Rabbit was DeadPOV Lakshmi, teenage daughter of a small-restaurant owner. Features an enigmatic visitor, an impending super-storm, and a whole lot of details of immigrant family life and restaurant back-stage that make it utterly convincing.
  • Leviathan – animal keeper Frank, just another ordinary day at work, training the new guy. Well, until you see what kind of animal is being kept. I spotted more than a few references to horror greats, and I’m non-expert; you’ll probably see more.
  • All in a Day’s WorkPOV Careen, one of a team of three women repairing cracks in the dome city that humans have built under a hydrocarbon atmosphere. Safety, chronic  hazard and potential catastrophe run under this one like an underground river, alongside a realistic portrait of a small contracting partnership.
  • The Beltminute-by-minute POV Javier who has fallen into the conveyor belt at a mining pit on Titan, and his brother Chavez, who attempts to rescue him. Horrifically suspenseful with a closing line that slams like a bank-vault door.
  • Far, Far from Land – Capn Jacq (Jacqueline) and her fishing crew, trawling among the asteroids for spacedwelling creatures named after mathematical objects (enjoyed the math in-joke I confess). Slice-of-life plus a daring EVA rescue and family life among space-fishers.
  • Big Steel in the Sky – written like a feature article, on extravehicular construction crews. unlike many other stories in this collection, assumes that construction work in space will remain all-male with a macho attitude toward safety and harassment/hazing of women.
  • Air Supply – Jenson is a diver on a naval submarine, using artificial gills to breathe oxygen in seawater. Raises questions about safety/experimentation on military personnel. Great dynamics between Jenson and his fellow divers past and present.
  • Heart of the Union – asteroid mining station, two lovers with the same name, and some dark hints about the state of the empire.
  • Ember – alien planet with sentient trees and four castes who manage the ecosystem (singers, traders, cullers, and nameless). Some analogies to forestry but some things very different — in any case, suggests a long-lived culture with complex social structure, catching glimpses of the direction in which it is changing.

Why were my favorites my favorites?

With the usual disclaimer that all art is interactive, and someone else’s favorites list likely won’t be mine:

Diamond in the Rough stood out for me because of the nonbinary protagonist, whose accommodation to disability (spinal injury) is very much in the background in a gravity-variant environment. Their romantic opposite number, a rookie security guard, is vivid and well drawn. Great workplace dynamics and a sympathetic captain. Smell predominates, though not in the way you think it will.

A Tale of a Fast Horse packs incredible amounts of story into a short space, and has lots of technical juicy bits about technology both fictional and nonfictional. Very physical feel to this story, with flashy visual track.

Carnivores filters story through a very unconventional consciousness, in third-person close point-of-view, with some really disturbing questions raised. Again, lots of grungy detail, so I had a kinesthetic sense of the work Simon was doing. Dominant senses for me as I read this story were sound, smell, and touch.

Storage reminds me of a black-and-white horror film, with its deep darknesses, spaces reaching beyond the perimeter of artificial light, and a really spooky “am I imagining this?” vibe. Is it the unpleasant workmates playing a prank, or is something disturbing lurking in the hectares of storage cubicles? Visual predominated, with a kinesthetic undertow of physical anxiety.

Snowball the Rabbit was Dead pulls its point-of-view character in multiple directions, with family responsibilities, oncoming crisis (superstorm), and difficult strangers. As with many of these stories, I sense a whole world reaching beyond the borders of the story. Temperature, touch, sight predominated.

All in a Day’s Work and The Belt both unrolled narratives of disaster, with spectacular visuals and lots of kinesthetic input. These would both make excellent films (All in a Day’s Work in full color and The Belt in grainy black-and-white).

A glimpse of the anthologist’s art

The first thing I noticed about the stories as a whole is the open-endedness; they’re all stories that occur in particular worlds. In the case of my favorite stories, I’d read a full novel set in the world with those particular characters. Short stories can be germs for novels, or they can be free-standing entities. Like poems, they linger in memory for their flavor, their arc, their language, or the personality of the speaker.

All of the stories have complex layers beyond the predominant note: the funny break-room placard “In Space, No One Can Hear You Bitch and Moan” in the otherwise creepy Storage; the brush with gruesome death in the garbage-choppers in the shipboard romantic comedy Diamond in the Rough. The predominant tone shifts through the anthology, through stories with claustrophobic or agoraphobic settings. It’s a fine balancing act, which makes the collection feel like a whole while setting off each story against contrasting tales.

As a reader, I’m going to return to my favorites, and then as a writer, I’m going to take apart the story arc and look closely at the stage-management. Short stories are on my artistic to-do list for this year, so look for more anthology reviews in the months ahead.

After all, I have no shortage of them.

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