--Alan DeNiro, Ratbastard
Intrigued by Alan DeNiro's manifesto and the Ratbastards website, I ordered their two chapbooks, read one story ("The Blue Egg" by Christopher Barzak), which I thought was beautiful and elegant and poignant and ... well, a damn fine story.
And then the two chapbooks sat on my coffee table for a couple of months.
What was my problem? Fear of good fiction?
Well, in any case, I have since read them both cover-to-cover, and can say that if you want to read great stories by new authors, read these books. You get a heck of a lot more bang for your buck with these two chapbooks than you do with any of the magazines in the SF field (at least with recent issues of the major magazines, whose names I won't mention for fear of bringing shame upon my karma). These are not traditional stories of science fiction or fantasy, though a few of them might be considered traditionalish contemporary-esque fantasy. Don't hold it against them. But if you're looking for something that might feel at home in, say, Analog, then the Ratbastards are the wrong company for you. (They might just cause you to realize how dreadful Analog is -- oh, did I say that? Bad me, bad bad bad....)
Of the two books, the most recent one, Rabid Transit: A Mischief of Rats seems to me to be the stronger, more consistent and cohesive volume. There isn't a weak story in it. As I was preparing to write about the chapbook, this was, roughly, my thought process: "Okay, so I'll say 'Gramercy Park' is the best story, because it tackles the most ground and Haddayr Copley-Woods is a writer of great skill and insight. But I really liked 'Wally's Porn', too, and it made me laugh and almost cry, even though I saw the ending coming from a mile away. It wasn't a bad ending. And the structure and pacing of the story are extremely well done. I must give kudos to Victoria Elizabeth Garcia for writing it. And then, of course, there's Nick Mamatas's 'joanierules.bloggermax.com', which totally surprised me with where it was going -- it's been ages since a story surprised me in its first few pages quite as much as that one did. It's funny and clever, in the best senses of the words, and manages to be moving in the end -- I didn't realize I was as attached to the narrator as I was. Finally, there's 'Braiding' by David Hoffman-Dachelet, the shortest story, which made me glad, because after reaching the ending I had to read it again immediately, since, though there are clues earlier, the last page offers a bit of a twist. A good story, but short and not as resonant as the others, I didn't think. It's nice, though, to have a shorter piece in amongst the others. Did I forget 'The Headline Trick' by Douglas Lain? I loved that story! Anything involving magic and cons of any sort, even ones that work against the space-time continuum, appeals to me, and this one has the added benefit of being written well. It's entertaining, thoughtful, thought-provoking ... and even Ricky Jay would probably like it..."
How could I possibly turn such a mush of thought into a review (and I won't even begin to try to replicate my thinking about the earlier chapbook, which was even more conflicted).
The second chapbook doesn't contain stories which are as overtly experimental as some of the stories in the first chapbook. Does this mean the Ratbastards are getting conservative? Hmmm... And yet I liked the second book even more than the first. Perhaps this means I'm getting conservative....
Let me try this -- without slighting the other stories, because I do think these are extremely strong collections, and the tales balance each other well, I will say here that there are a few stories which no serious reader of SF, or of short fiction of any sort, should miss. They are [imaginary drum roll]:
Particularly Exemplary Short Fiction from the Remarkably Exemplary Ratbastards:What's the point of such a list? Ugh, there isn't one. I was just trying to be a good critic and be discerning. It's pointless. These are two excellent chapbooks, every story deserves at least one reading (with Alan DeNiro's requiring quite a few ... I'm still not sure I get it, but I so like the sentences and the chutzpah of it that it seems a standout to me), and if any major magazine rejects a story by one of these writers, that magazine's editor deserves to be fired and run out of town on a rail.
*"The Blue Egg" by Christopher Barzak
*"A Number of Hooves" by Alan DeNiro
*"The Headline Trick" by Douglas Lain
*"Gramercy Park" by Haddayr Copley-Woods
Update: My interview with Alan DeNiro is here.