The Short: I read “Cosmic Powers: The Saga Anthology of Far-Away Galaxies” (John Joseph Adams editor, 2017, Saga) recently. I checked it out of the library as it was the best way for me to read a Becky Chambers story for my recent Chicon 8 panel on epistolary speculative fiction. I was a sucker for reading this anthology anyway (I’ll explain below), and I’m glad I read it. I rated it a “Very Good” 3.69/5. I recommend it, but you should read the TOC and consider.
The Full Story: I did a lot of reading for the Chicon 8 panel on epistolary speculative fiction.
One of the ways I used to find possibly epistolary stories was to search the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDB) for “epistolary” tags. I found out that there were 4 different tags with that term in them, and I searched using all 4 of those tags.
One of the stories was the short story “The Deckhand, the Nova Blade, and the Thrice-Sung Texts”, by Becky Chambers from “Cosmic Powers: The Saga Anthology of Far-Away Galaxies” anthology (2017, Saga Press, John Joseph Adams editor. I am familiar with Becky Chambers, but had never heard of the story. I was able to check the book out from my regional library consortium.
I started by reading that story, which I enjoyed. I confirmed it was epistolary. The percentage of ISFDB stories tagged as epistolary correctly, but there a few that were not that I’ll correct on ISFDB. There were also a number of epistolary stories that were not tagged in ISFDB that I’ll edit for that.
After reading “The Deckhand, the Nova Blade, and the Thrice-Sung Texts”, I went back and read the Dedication and Introduction by John Joseph Adams. I usually read dedications, as it typically says something interesting about the author or book or both.
The Dedication here read, “”For Jim Starlin, Ron Marz and Ron Lim, Heralds of Wonder”. Those are significant names, to me and others.
In the Introduction John Joseph Adams wrote:
“The foundation of science fiction and fantasy is sense of wonder. And nowhere is that sense of wonder more prevalent than in stories of larger-than-life heroes battling menacing forces, in far flung galaxies, with the fate of the universe at stake.
My love for these kinds of stories began in the pages of comic books like Silver Surfer and other ‘cosmic tales’ of the Marvel Universe.”
Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created Galactus in Marvel’s “Fantastic Four“. Jack Kirby created the Silver Surfer, who originally worked for Galactus. They were both very cosmic, with first appearances in Issue 48. Note that neither Galactus or the Silver Surfer appear on the cover of Issue 48. Galactus ate the energy of worlds to exist, and the Silver Surfer traveled the spaceways to find planets for Galactus to eat.
After that, the other “cosmic tales” of the Marvel Universe are substantially the creation of Jim Starlin, one of my favorite comic book artists/writers. Starting with Issue 55 of Marvel Comics “The Invincible Iron Man” in October 1972, Jim Starlin introduced characters that were revealed to be minions of Thanos, one of the cosmos threatening uber-villains of the Marvel Universe.
Although Starlin has had an occasionally rocky relationship with Marvel, he has gone on to create amazing comics with cosmic threats and heroes, including his version of Marvel’s “Adam Warlock” (first in Issue 178 of “Strange Tales featuring Warlock”) and “Captain Marvel” (first in Issue 32 of the Marvel “Captain Marvel”) who have both opposed Thanos. Also, and apparently not Starlin’s doing, Issue 179 of “Strange Tales Featuring Warlock” including a modified “Comics Code Authority” icon on the cover. As noted at the Grand Comics Database, “Per Tom Orzechowski, the change in the Code name was his idea and that he, as the letterer of the cover, did the revision”. Tom Orzechowski was the letterer for that issue. The Comics Code Authority Icon was changed to read, “Approved by the Cosmic Code Authority”, and no one at Marvel or the Comics Code Authority noticed.
Some of these were with Ron Lim and Ron Marz, hence the dedication.
Jim Starlin also created Dreadstar, another cosmic superhero, who is not part of the Marvel Universe.
The cosmic that John Joseph Adams is talking about is far galaxies and perhaps other universes, and cosmic threats.
I was and continue to be a fan of these “cosmic” stories by Jim Starlin and others in the comic books, so I was definitely interested in the stories here.
The stories in “Cosmic Powers” do give a good shot at the stated goals of the anthology. There are 4 reprints, with the rest original. My average rating for the stories here are a “Very Good” 3.69/5. I enjoyed it. At the same time, there were a few stories down at 3.5/5, at “Good” but not “Very Good”, “Great” or above.
My favorite stories included:
- “Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance”, a short story by Tobias S. Buckell. This received a fair amount of recognition, Locus #3, Sturgeon finalist, and included in Best Of anthologies by Strahan, Clarke, Kaster, Dozois, and Jemisin/Adams. I had read this before, perhaps in a 2018 Hugo voter packet for best editor. I rated this a “Great” 3.9/5.
- “Wakening Ouroboros”, a short story by Jack Campbell. This was my favorite of the stories I had not previously read. I rated this a “Great” 3.9/5.
- “Golden Ring”, a novelette by Karl Schroeder. I rated this “Great” at 3.8/5.
- “The Dragon That Flew Out of the Sun”, a Universe of Xuya short story by Aliette de Bodard. I had read this before, not sure where. This was reprinted in the Dozois Best Of. I rated this 3.8/5.
SPOILERS FOLLOW! My story reviews follow, in the TOC order.
- “A Temporary Embarrassment in Spacetime”, a novelette by Charlie Jane Anders. Definitely a wild, humorous romp through some amazing stuff for a monster and a unicellular being created to look human for a pleasure planet. Rated 3.6/5, or “Good”.
- “Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance”, a short story by Tobias S. Buckell. Previously read, certainly in one of the Best Of anthologies. Locus #3, Sturgeon finalist, included in Best Of anthologies by Jonathan Strahan, Neil Clarke, Allan Kaster, Gardner Dozois, and N. K. Jemisin/John Joseph Adams, and perhaps in a 2018 Hugo Awards voter packet. A great story of how a being has indentured itself as a sentiment robot for several hundred years doing starship maintenance. One day, a high level human with CEO privileges on the run appears and demands to be taken to safety, overriding most other programming even if he is a bigoted shit of a man. The robot does end up figuring how to comply but not allow the asshole to escape. Great on reread. Rated 3.9/5, or “Great”.
- “The Deckhand, the Nova Blade, and the Thrice-Sung Texts”, a short story by Becky Chambers. Definitely epistolary, a log, by a very reluctant hero with no friends and a diary being read by somebody who can cause disciplinary action. She ends up perhaps saving the human race from giant, almost invulnerable interdimensional aliens. I loved the “Not bad for a lowborn hick” sign at the victory parade, perhaps held by whoever was reading her diary. I rated this 3.7/5, not “Great” but “Very Good”.
- “The Sighted Watchmaker“, a 2011 short story by Vylar Kaftan and one of four reprints in the anthology. Included in Rich Horton‘s 2012 Best Of. A very good story by an author new to me. An artificial being, created by absent Makers, watches and guides the evolution of an intelligent and frightening species. In an the end, it decides it must not be found, and erases itself. Rated 3.7/5, “Very Good”.
- “Infinite Love Engine”, a short story by Joseph Allen Hill. A cyborg type saves the universe while considering lots of deep thoughts. Rated 3.5/5, or “Good”.
- “Unfamiliar Gods”, a short story by Adam-Troy Castro and Judi B. Castro. In a universe where humans depend upon many gods for interstellar travel and other aspects of civilization, humanity is losing and about to be eliminated by aliens with very powerful gods. A military vessel has been sent far out of human space by those gods, to search for help surviving. To survive and help the human race survive, the captain takes a bad deal from be a powerful god. Humans survive, but are dwindled. Rated 3.6/5, or “Very Good”.
- “Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World”, a 2015 short story reprint by Caroline M. Yoachim. A very good story of a researcher who ends having an outside of time child with a far future AI. Rated 3.7/5, or “Very Good”.
- “Our Specialty Is Xenogeology”, a short story by Alan Dean Foster. A good story of xenogeologists who discover a giant alien structure in space. There may be huge benefits, or devastation and death. They decide to leave, and defer the decision to others, but struggle with not knowing. Rated 3.6/5, or “Very Good.”
- “Golden Ring”, a novelette by Karl Schroeder. A story of his lockstep worlds and a threatening truth about the universe, the News about the universe which causes many to lose hope, and then a new News which gives hope back. Rated 3.8/5, or “Great”.
- “Tomorrow When We See the Sun”, a Sun Lords of the Principality 2015 short story reprint by A. Merc Rustad. A very good story, by an author I am not familiar. Far future conflict, and escape at the end, by a being that dies so others can live. Rated 3.7/5, or “Very Good”.
- “Bring the Kids and Revisit the Past at the Traveling Retro Funfair!”, a short story by Seanan McGuire. A fun story of a clone sister who operates a traveling (spaceship) old time arcade. She is mistaken for her criminal clone sister, but things work out. Rated 3.7/5, or “Very Good”.
- “The Dragon That Flew Out of the Sun” a Universe of Xuya short story by Aliette de Bodard. Previously read, perhaps in 2108 Hugo voter packet for editor or semiprozine. I really loved the challenging ways two people’s relate and don’t relate, especially over the loss of a solar system in a conflict with blame on both sides. Rated 3.8/5, or “Great”.
- “Diamond and the World Breaker”, a novelette by Linda Nagata. A good story of an interesting network of orbitals. Society includes authorized Revolutionaries and Hunters, to ensure there is not too much harmony. Rated 3.6/5, or “Very Good”.
- “The Chameleon’s Gloves”, a “The Machineries of Empire” novelette by Yoon Ha Lee. A very good story of an exile on the run, and working as a partner in theft as a lifestyle, from a very interesting culture, asked to go back and avert catastrophe. Rated 3.7/5, or “Very Good”.
- “The Universe, Sung in Stars”, a 2015 short story reprint by Kat Howard. I really liked this short short of pocket universes and their guardians, and the music involved. Rated 3.7/5, or “Very Good”.
- “Wakening Ouroboros”, a short story by Jack Campbell. Wow. Perhaps my favorite story here I had not read before . This kind of reminded me of what happened in the last volume of “The Cities in Flight” series by James Blish , “The Triumph of Time” albeit in a different way. The last man born lived in a Dyson sphere, unimaginably old, and encounters the oldest woman. We find out that they are the last people alive. She convinces him to help “fix” the world/universe. He does, and he is also opened up to real life and change, not just with simulated people. Rated 3.9/5, or “Great”.
- “Warped Passages” “, a short story by Kameron Hurley. A good story of a marooned generation ship fleet and the attempt to escape from the gods that are changing the ships and people. Reprinted in Hurley’s 2019 collection “Meet Me In The Future“. Rated 3.7/5, or “Very Good”.
- “The Frost Giant’s Data”, a short story by Dan Abnett. A good story of industrial espionage in outer space. In the end, starting a war is better than a bad peace. Rated 3.5/5, or “Good.”