Review of “Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction” (Anthology)

Menial: Skilled Labor in Science FictionMenial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction by Kelly Jennings (editor)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Crossed Genres has released a great collection in MENIAL. Rating an anthology is always difficult, because my ratings for individual stories tend to vary. I would really like to give MENIAL a 3.5; alas, that is not an option, so I’ll go conservative and 3 it is.

Here’s the good. Firstly, I LOVE the theme of the anthology. MENIAL focuses on the people whose lives, hopes, struggles, and dreams would never have crossed the minds of the bridge crew of the Enterprise. They are the common folk, the laborers. The sometimes reviled, but more often ignored. And they are always at the mercy of the exploitation of those at the top of the food chain, and their own vulnerability to the vagaries of chance. Secondly, as with all of what Crossed Genres publishes, MENIAL features characters whose meta-identities are disproportionately ignored or invisible in the greater tapestry of speculative fiction (in authentic ways at least). By these I mean anyone but straight, cis, able-bodied, rich, anglophone, white males. Not that such characters (or writers) are bad or need be eliminated from the genre, I hardly mean that at all. Just that their stories should not be 99% of the stories being told. CG does a fine job of advancing the genre on that front, and MENIAL is no exception.

For the above reasons alone, I strongly recommend taking a look at this anthology, especially if you are a writer. Exposure to the perspectives of the speculative working class and the conflicts of identity presented herein will make your own reading and writing more aware of all facets of the human element.

Here is my complaint. I’m not one who believes that “speculative fiction” means that you can do whatever you want. Believable worlds (even imaginary ones) must be self-consistent, and I believe many of the stories in the anthology fall short on that count. Advancing diversity in the genre should not come at the price of diluted rigor.

Science fiction should most certainly speculate on what we think could be true; and certainly no holds barred on anything we do not know for sure cannot be true. But if you are writing fiction that blatantly violates known laws of physics, chemistry, or biology, there had better be a damn good (and explained) reason. Fantasy is not exempt: superheroes, wizards, and Jedi all must use their powers in particular ways, which are governed by rules that create consistent limitations (and interesting plot points).

As one example, if your story takes place in an asteroid belt (especially ours), then it is ludicrously improbable that one could be suddenly hit by one. The asteroids are hundreds of thousands of kilometers apart, with relative velocities perhaps in the tens of kilometers per second or less. It is highly unlikely that you would even be able to see another asteroid while flying near any particular one, and you’d have days or weeks to see one coming (especially with the level of technology required to have private spacecraft flying around). You’d have to intentionally try to hit one, and it it would be difficult to do so. This is simple math on facts that are not hard to look up. I’ll leave it there with this one example, but I highlighted close to forty instances.

In several stories, it was never really explained why such menial positions exist for humans at all, given the level of technology explicit or implicit in the milieu. Though several of these stories had interesting characters and consistent science and technology, it was hard to concentrate on the story when the engineering part of my brain would remind me every page or two that “we already have robots that could do this… faster, cheaper, and better.” This is of course a hugely unexplored consequence of the future trajectory of the “knowledge economy.” As Pournelle says, if you invent a technology that drives the truck for you, what do you do with the truck driver? No doubt this made writing stories for MENIAL quite difficult.

Props to the following specific stories that I thought did an excellent job of seamlessly integrating the theme into a solid story without sacrificing rigor or consistency:

  • Thirty-Four Dollars, by M. Bernnardo
  • Storage, by Matthew Cherry
  • The Belt, by Kevin Bennet (though I question the effect of one major collision)
  • Air Supply, by Sophie Constable
  • Leviathan, by Jasmine M. Templet<
  • The Heart of the Union, by Dany G. Zuwen (absolutely fascinating projection of nanobot technology into military use)
  • Ember, by Sabrina Vourvoulias

Props to the following specific stories that I thought did an exceptional job of rendering believable, authentic characters who promote diversity in science fiction without being gratuitous:

  • Thirty-Four Dollars, by M. Bernnardo
  • A Tale of a Fast Horse, by Sean Jones
  • Carnivores, by A.D. Spencer
  • Snowball the Rabbit Was Dead, by Angeli Primlani
  • Storage, by Matthew Cherry
  • Ember, by Sabrina Vourvoulias

And double props to the following stories which made at least one of the above lists AND did it through great prose (i.e., the writing itself was also enjoyable):

  • A Tale of a Fast Horse, by Sean Jones
  • Leviathan, by Jasmine M. Templet
  • The Heart of the Union, by Dany G. Zuwen
  • Ember, by Sabrina Vourvoulias

I note that Ember is the only one to make all three lists. I wish it were more science fiction than fantastic, but I can’t argue with how much I appreciated it as a work of speculative short fiction.

I will conclude with a positive as well. MENIAL has definitely been a strong influence on the process of planning a novella/novel I am working on, through which I am attempting to explore social justice issues projected forward into a near-future, space colonization setting. As one of my main characters would probably fit in with many of the protagonists in MENIAL, it’s easy to see how I have this anthology to thank for many new ideas which are now simmering.

In sum, notwithstanding my ranting about consistency, I think that MENIAL is worth the read (especially for the particular stories that I called out) and also to support the diversification of the genre.

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