It’s always challenging to sum up a short story collection: each story can be as idea-rich as a novel, and good collections show off an author’s range at least as much as they gesture towards recurring themes. Charlie Jane Anders is an inventive writer with a dazzling skill for short stories, and her new collection, Even Greater Mistakes, is a thoughtful and frequently hilarious delight, with deep goofiness running alongside potent examinations of depression, loss, and institutional bigotry. Resistance and persistence are woven through these nineteen stories, along with the power of change, the importance of community, and a rich and empowering imagination.
Two things (among many) that fascinate me about Anders’ work: firstly, more than most speculative fiction writers, her writing retains the kind of entertainer’s energy and timing that comes from live performances. And secondly, perhaps connected to that tradition of oral storytelling, her stories display a kind of purposeful, exploratory, and not-unpleasant messiness, for lack of a better word, often veering away from traditional plot structures or expectations. This is evident in both of Ander’s adult novels: part of the charm of All the Birds In the Sky is the palimpsest of earlier drafts peeking through; The City In the Middle Of the Night sets up a world of tightly-circumscribed paths, and then boldly and repeatedly stumbles off them. Both novels have companion stories here—“Clover” and “If You Take My Meaning,” respectively—and while I don’t mean to imply that the collection feels unfinished or unpolished, it does a splendid job of making “work in progress” a cardinal virtue at several levels.
That looseness, that unpredictability, that touch of improv—these manifest as a rejection of established norms and traditional binaries. While it might be most prominent in the collection’s queer characters—many of Anders’ stories are powered by trans, nonbinary, and genderfluid characters—it’s also part of a larger strategy. There’s a philosophy at work here, putting forward transformation as the sane response to inevitable change, that knows that totalitarianism has an elemental weakness to surreal acts and art, and one that has a keen understanding of how individuals define and find themselves with and without other people.
Transfiguration is often glorious here—the literally wish-fulfilling “The Visitmothers” ends the collection on a triumphant note of whimsical transformation—but Anders has a sense for the cost and pain of change, as well. As much as these stories are often marked by a vivid sense of place—Somerville coffee shops, San Francisco nightclubs—they’re also preemptively scarred by change: cities gentrifying, communities and relationships coming apart, and, of course, global warming and attendant disasters. Anders’ characters feel guilt, and terror, and sadness over these changes, but they also find a way to do things anyway: to revise themselves, to be more true to themselves, to better meet a shifting world.
One of the collection’s strongest stories, “Six Months, Three Days,” follows the relationship of a woman who can see many possible futures and a man who sees the only possible future. It’s a funny, insightful, and devastating look at the way that breakups enter a scripted, fore-doomed mode, even when both people care about each other. The same themes are echoed in “Power Couple,” wherein a success-tracked collegiate couple fall apart in strobe-light, time-lapse fashion thanks to alternating cryogenic suspensions. These stories are hashing out some huge metaphysical and political ideas through a sci-fi rom-com lens: not just that the future isn’t written, but that conforming to what’s expected can lock you out of joy, out of life.
And joy, as much as transformation, is one of the strongest threads in Even Greater Mistakes. We need “the power of silliness to make you believe in abundance again,” as the narrator puts it in “Because Change Was the Ocean and We Lived by Her Mercy,”, itself on the more serious side of the collection. Joy as abundance, silliness as resistance—this collection brims with it, from the madcap Mad Libs energy of “Fairy Werewolf vs. Vampire Zombie” to the intentionally groan-producing puns of “A Temporary Embarrassment in Spacetime” (two of several stories here that I suspect have been honed by raucous live readings). “Rock Manning Goes for Broke” challenges fascist dystopia with Chaplin-esque YouTube antics, while “The Time Travel Club” pokes at serious issues of addiction, fellowship, and hope, all within a gently humorous setting that’s kind of like the Society for Creative Anachronism, but in reverse.
“Falling in love with a community is always going to be more real than any love for a single human being could ever be,” to quote “Change Was the Ocean” again. Love for and between individual human beings is by no means wanting in Even Greater Mistakes, but it really shines in its love for communities—not in the abstract, but in the flesh, in the weird details and odd smells. There’s something really striking about the way that care within groups of people is a component of the happiest moments of the collection: sometimes literal polyamory, but always characters figuring things out with the help of multiple partners, romantic or otherwise. These stories are a brilliant exploration of how communities, of whatever size, are the context for change: not without not without tensions, problems, imbalances, but necessary starting places, or destinations. In a good live performance, there are those moments when the crowd comes together—not erased, but synced up somehow, individually, messily, sharing in the art’s feelings and ideas. Even Greater Mistakes is a command performance, and it’s a delight to be in the audience.
by Charlie Jane Anders
Published on November 16, 2021
Appalachian in the big city. Bookseller, specialty coffee pro, SF scholar.