Reviewing an anthology is always a bit more difficult than reviewing a novel. So is rating it. Does one poor story deserve to bring down the entire anthology? Should I mention every single story?
I gave this anthology a 5-star rating on Goodreads. I did not do this because every single story blew me away; they didn’t, although I don’t remember any story that I loathed, which is impressive in its own right. Partly I was predisposed to being impressed by the anthology because of the theme: the menial. That is, no heirs-misplaced-at-birth, no admirals or planetary governors or princesses starring here; instead, it’s the miners, the sewerage workers, the grunts who feature. Not to say that the stories don’t feature action or adventure – they do – but largely it’s action that happens in the course of everyday work, and often because of accidents: the sorts of things that you’d really rather didn’t happen. The anthology points out the dignity in the menial tasks, as well as acknowledging the sheer back-breaking work that’s likely to still be necessary in the future; it points out the importance of the menial while remembering the danger. And even though the menial workers shine in the stories, it’s clear that for most of them, this isn’t going to lead to a huge change in fortunes. It’s part of a day’s work, or it’s not but it’s not enough to propel them out of drudgery – or indeed it’s something that leads to them getting fired and the consequent uncertainty of unemployment.
This anthology shows that good SF can be escapist in letting the reader escape from their own immediate situation, but can simultaneously speak to the reader who is unlikely to be a spaceship pilot or lead an army, but may well have a dead-end job that they hate. It can provide ways to imagine a different world but also reassure and comfort that even people in crappy jobs can actually have interesting lives, and do interesting things – something much SF ignores.
This anthology imagines a range of possible futures. They’re mostly fairly far future, and involve space travel of some sort; some have humanity spread far and wide, others are a bit more restricted. Because of its focus on the working class, there is less emphasis on the political or military than one often finds in SF, because really, when you’re scraping to get food on the table who has time to worry about the expansion of the empire? Many of these stories are united in their focus on the nitty-gritty details, those details that make up the everyday. Some of them are very familiar, some are familiar but in foreign contexts, whilst others are utterly alien. And the best stories make this work in clever and occasionally utterly bemusing ways.
I was initially dubious about the possibility of making an entire anthology based on the concept of skilled labour; not because I thought the concept was boring but because I wasn’t sure how there could be enough variety within that to keep having different stories. This is because I am not an author. There is, of course, infinite variety in the stories you can tell from the menial perspective – because there’s an infinite variety of stories to tell about humanity.
You can get Menial from Fishpond.