Dagan Books, $3.99, ISBN 978-0-9831373-1-7
In Situ has aliens. That’s the single loose theme that unites the disparate stories in this anthology, as they can go from one end to another when it comes to the setting, tone, atmosphere, and what not. Most stories tackle the theme of xenoarchaeology, which is a fancy term to describe excavation of historic ruins on other planets or, if these ruins are on Earth, of alien origin. Not all stories put this theme as their central focus, however.
Reading this anthology, therefore, is like going on a trip – the first few stories and last few stories in this anthology are nothing alike, and reading it is like going from point A to Z with various stops along the way, and the scenery constantly changes along the way. The scenery is, of course, alien in nature.
The first two stories feel like an updated take on HP Lovecraft‘s favorite theme: there are primordial entities of unfathomable wisdom, age, and, usually, malevolence around us, but most of us are blissfully ignorant of these things. Dawn Vogel’s Donning the Helm and Daniel J West’s The Dig share the same issue: the stories end with a cliffhanger. Cliffhangers are fine… in stories where there had been enough build-up for me to get invested in the story, and where the cliffhanger drops after the story already has some semblance of wholeness. Which is to say, the cliffhanger should feel like an organic part of a story. Here, the cliffhangers just plop down at pivotal moments when I am at the edge of my seat, making me feel like I’d been led on by these authors for no reason, other than maybe a madman burst through the door at the last minute and threaten to murder some puppies unless the authors stop writing there and then.
Just when I am starting to fear that the stories would all be incomplete affairs, Rebecca Lloyd offers The Stone, which has a treasure hunter losing his beloved to his passion, only to find what he is looking for and… well, something happens, I guess. This story seems, to me, more like the author trying to show off rather than to tell a story. Yes, yes, life is profound and aliens are creepy. How enlightening.
Kelly C Stiles is next with Relevant Information from the Tel Najmah Site, which is basically excerpts from the journal of a pompous 19th-century archeologist whose wife becomes obsessed with an alien artifact. This one is not bad… until the ending arrives and the author basically shrugs, says, “Wbatever!”, and ends the story. Did editor Carrie Cuinn ban these authors from writing stories with actual payoff or something?
From “idiots digging and finding creepy alien things”, we move on into the gross and violent territory. Bear Weiter’s Seeds is straight-up horror, when a bunch of “caver” friends go into a deep black hole, stumble upon something alien, and the resident jerk just has to screw things up in an over the top comical manner. This one plays out like a wannabe of those horror movies involving idiots in dark caves. Nothing new or interesting here, although at least there is an actual ending here.
Mae Empson combines Alien and Cthulhu to give Vessels Of Clay, Flesh, and Stars, easily the most gruesome and exploitative story of the lot. Our undergraduate heroine helps a randy professor decipher the naughty images of some recent findings, lets him seduce her, and… oh boy, let’s just say that the man has some ulterior motives in using her like this. I’d have loved this one if the main character isn’t such an idiot that deserves her fate.
Recovery by Jason Andrew has a soldier surviving what seems like a deadly terrorist attack only to learn that the enemies are of a more otherworldly nature and he’s now changing. This one seems like a derivative first person zombie story forcefully changed into an aliens-are-coming tale; I won’t be surprised if it started out as one. At any rate, nothing new here either. I’ve read many stories that are similar in theme and execution to this one.
KV Taylor’s Chennai 5 sees a bunch of Earthside academics land on another planet, which had been colonized by humans, to study some a ruin left behind by the original inhabitants of the planet. This one is readable, although it’s nothing groundbreaking either. It does have some novelty value, in that, instead of white people in space, we have Indian – as in people from India – playing both lead and secondary roles in this story.
RS Hunter’s The Jewel of Tahn-Vinh is, basically, about a scavenger who stumbles upon a potentially lucrative wreck, discover that there are signs of disturbing alien presence everywhere, and is smart enough to avoid becoming the star of his personal space tragedy. This one isn’t bad, but it’s basically Cthulhu in Space, and it’s too short to be of much note.
Ken Liu offers the best story of the lot, You’ll Always Have the Burden with You. A young woman follows her boyfriend to another planet – he is going to study under a famous archeologist – and her accounting abilities lead her to discovering the true meaning behind a series of translated alien scriptures that had spawned several different religions in that galaxy. The true meaning of those scriptures have me chuckling, and it’s fun to read this story again to find out how all the pieces fit.
Paul A Dixon’s Requiem, about two brothers trying to steal an alien statue, starts out interesting, but then it’s downhill all the way. This story is a too short to be that convoluted, and the ending has both me and the main character shrugging and saying, “So what?”
Sarah Hendrix’s Rachel’s Journal, on the other hand, isn’t actually that long but it sure feels like it. It’s the obligatory “Science is awful, poor mother nature; heal the world, and appreciate what we have today, people!” story that every anthology with aliens must include,
Greg Burch’s The Assemblage of the Aeolians has a smart concept, but the author tries to be clever with the execution only to botch things up. The premise of a historical tour for aliens, into the devastating history of our world, is another “Pollution and civilization destroy the world – we must all hump a tree and make compost heap out of our poo today!” story, although I give the author credit for not being too preachy.
Graham Storr’s Salvage is one of the rare stories here that makes me sit up and chuckle. It’s about how two humanoid creatures ponder about escaping their current galaxy, ruled by superior alien beings that force them into servitude, but they aren’t sure whether there are planets out there that they can live happily ever after. The twist here, like that in Ken Liu’s story, has me chuckling. For a story with a pretty serious underlying theme, it’s actually… cute.
Finally, the last story. Alex Shvartsman’s story The Field Trip is another “World is dying from all that horrible science we are subjecting it to!” story, but the message is framed in an ingenious manner. Some otherworldly students are brought to a location on the now abandoned Earth. Their professor wants them to deduce the purpose of the ruin. Things are not what they seem, of course, and when the twist is revealed, especially the name of the ruin, my adoration of this story is cemented tenfold.
All things considered, the concept behind the anthology In Situ is more interesting than most of the stories contained within. There are some stories that see the authors doing a little bit more to make things interesting, but there are more stories here that feel too much like uninspired assembly of popular alien story tropes. It’s a shame, really.