Short & sweet: I liked Forbidden Thoughts, but I wanted to like it a lot more. Many of the stories are good, a couple are excellent, but a couple are over-the-top satire that doesn’t quite work, and a number of non-fictions essays didn’t work for me at all, but instead made me wonder: why are these here? What purpose do they serve? But, that said, there are a couple stores which alone are worth price. 4 out of 5 stars – go buy this!
I sincerely hope the collaborators try again, with better focus, sticking to stories that are more subtle. That could be a really good 5-star book. My fear is that this book just preaches to the choir. If I weren’t familiar with the works of many of the authors already, I might have given up early on. But I am glad I persevered, as there are at least 10 or 12 very worthwhile stories in there. Less would have been more, and also more likely to appeal to less-involved readers.
Now to the details: this collection is what you’d think it is, based on a quick glance at the contributors: an attack on PC limitations to storytelling. But rather than the pure attack – writing fun stories where men are men, women are women, bad guys are not merely misunderstood but rather, you know, bad and a hero can love God and country without having to explain it or come to a ironic and terrible end – the collection includes a lot of over-the-top attempts at satire or sarcasm which, frankly, don’t work.
If a reader is looking for good stories and lacks patience, he might not make it past the first third of the book. The forward by the head-detonating Milo Yiannopoulos is too long and only occasionally amusing – at half its length, just keeping the good parts, it could have been good. As it is, you find yourself shouting with the off-stage audience in Holy Grail – get on with it!
Next comes a suitable very short poem, and then finally the first story: in “Safe Space Suit” Nick Cole wonders what happens when affirmative action gets off-leash in a space program. He does a pretty good job – upon skimming through it for this review, it was, frankly, better than I remembered upon first reading. But it’s heavy-handed, even if not as heavy handed as it could have been or as, indeed, many of the later stories are. Given all the over the top inside-baseball stuff – the characters tend to be named after well-known puppy kickers – getting any real subtlety going is not likely even if the author wanted to. I’m not rushing out recommending it to all my friends, but not bad.
“Auto America” by E.J. Shumak is a forgettable trifle, which brings us back to the whole editorial criticism: why is this here? Nothing exactly wrong with it, but what exactly is right with it? How does it make the book better? More fundamentally, 4 items into the book and I’m still waiting for that ‘Ah! That’s what I’m talking about!” moment. In fact, I’m almost to the ‘keep reading out of duty’ point.
“A Place for Everyone” by Ray Blank fended off that point a bit by being slyly funny, if still, like everything so far, rather broad in its treatment of the ridiculousness of PC themes. What happens if everybody’s jobs are selected by machines designed to keep everything as balanced-by-quota as possible, including all flavors of self-determined identity? What if you needed hi-tech help just to keep who is what straight? What if the woman you love is assigned a job half way around the world from the one you’re assigned to? Throw in some typical bureaucratic shenanigans, and things get thick.
At this point, I’m wondering: is it just not possible to think forbidden thoughts without more-or-less heavy-handed bashing of PC nonsense? “The Code”, by Matthew Ward, while well-written, hews pretty much to the trend set so far. What if this nonsense about permissions and rape culture evolves into a Code of behavior, where one’s only hope of avoiding ruin is to follow Miranda-rights like legal formulas for permission to touch or kiss anyone? Would women play this system to the hilt, just to ruin some schmuck?
If I had to rate it at this point, I’m thinking that the collection is kind of OK – a 2.5 star-effort. Nothing has grabbed me yet, no ‘wow’ moments, and I’m almost 1/2 through. If I weren’t a fan of many of the writers, I might have stopped here.
Finally, Joshua M. Young’s “The Secret History of the World Gone By” is a satisfying story with an actual sci-fi premise executed with some verve. We have a bit of the noble savage straightens out a technological world run off the rails thing going, but with enough twists and character development to keep the pages turning. It’s also the first story to have a Superversive-style happy ending. A very good story.
“The Social Construct” by David Hallquist brings the tone right back down again, with a short tale about a couple whose desire for the perfect child cannot, ultimately, be met by the real child (or any child, really) they actually get, even though it is built to their ever-changing spec. It is well-written and short, which, given its dark tone, is not a bad thing.
Now we come to yet another odd editorial decision: the next story, “At the Edge of Detachment” by A. M. Freeman, deals with fundamentally the same issues – what happens when the idea that children exist solely to satisfy their parent’s desires, and the more sci-fi issue of what ultimately makes something human. While both stories tell of the same tension – what if the child fails to please? – Freeman’s story is told from the perspective of the child, which gives it much more power. Nothing is wrong about either story, but putting both in the same anthology, let alone back to back, is just odd – what is the point? If I had to choose, I’d pick Freeman’s as the stronger story because of the more developed characters and drama. Both are very sad and definitely Forbidden Thoughts.
So now, more than halfway through the book, we’ve gotten a few stories that begin to fulfill expectations. If the anthology had led with either Freeman’s or Young’s story, we’d at least know that we’re getting what we’re promised – Forbidden Thought – rather than mere broad mockery of PC pieties. I like seeing PC pieties mocked as much as the next red-blooded American, but such mockery is best delivered in quips and maybe cartoons – it takes quite good chops to spin it out into a longer story. But hey, we’re on a bit of a roll.
The next two pieces are completely gratuitous, and fell flat with a splat. Sure, maybe somebody buys a book called Forbidden Thoughts hoping to catch up on “A History of the Sad Puppies.” But why? I’d hoped we’d all just decided to ditch the Hugo crowd and just write good stuff – at least, that’s what I was hoping for. Instead, we get here a recap, followed by a truly awful spoof of If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love, which perhaps would have been tolerable (I doubt it) if not for there being at least 2 much better ones I’d already read. So, here, again, I’m starting to wonder what the point of this anthology is? Don’t we readers want to win by just having better stuff to read?(1)
“Imagine”, by Pierce Oka, gets big points for mocking the lame song by the same title. Then, he quickly whips up, in outline, several interesting characters – while there’s no place in a story this short for any kind of in-depth development, the two cops, the two young women and the sister and the monk are human beings, who behave as human beings – good writing to pull this off. And you not quite sure where the story’s going until it gets there. Forbidden Thoughts abound. So we’re back on track.
Up next, “Graduation Day”, is mockery, pure and simple. Given the topic – out of control political correctness on campus – it would be hard to go anywhere else. It’s short, which is good, but seemed like an interruption. Whatever is trying to be advanced here did not get advanced.
Fortunately, we quickly get back on track. Next come two longer stories by two very good writers, who also manage to treat some forbidden thought in interesting Sci-fi ways. Brad R. Torgensen’s “Hymns of the Mothers” answers the question: what if some of the more radical feminists got what they wanted – a world run by them, with men doing exactly as told? But instead of satire or mockery, he functionally imagines and fleshes out such a world and how it might look to a young girl growing up in it. It’s a very good story, with good character development and twists a-plenty
Next comes John C. Wright’s “By His Cockle Hat and Staff”, which – no surprise – takes a bunch of Sci-fi ideas and rolls them out in a different, unexpected way. This is Wright’s M.O. more often than not. Here, he imagines a PC Hell, then imagines it as one of many parallel worlds. A nice twist: the PC world views it as their duty to enlighten all the less PC (and therefore much happier!) worlds via a technology that allows people to move into – possess – the alternate version of themselves in those parallel worlds. It’s a love story of sorts, with a pretty cool twist ending. Not up to the highest Wright standards (which are ridiculously high, after all) but a solid read.
At this point, taking these two stories plus the best 3-4 earlier stories, we’ve got enough reason to buy and read this book. We’d have more reason, and, more importantly, more hope for future anthologies, if the other materials had simply been omitted.
Tom Kratman’s “The Rules of Racism” are trenchant, sometimes amusing – and superfluous.
The last 5 stories are good-to-great, which means we could have had an anthology with 10 to 12 good to great stories in it. It would have been shorter – and much better. Here’s hoping there’s a sequel, and that it sticks to a dozen or so better stories.
Each of the last 5 stories is written by a pro with some serious writing chops, so it’s not surprising they’re good.
“World Ablaze” by Jane Lebak is the story of an undercover nun and a possible stool pigeon told with obvious reference to how people really deal with oppressive governments. Its forbidden though might be summed up as: your most demonized opponent just might be a saint. Good characters, nice twist, well written.
“Amazon Gambit” by Vox Day does what many of the earlier stories fail to do: create a gritty, believable world and situation from which the mockery of PC stupidity arises organically. Told backwards, the story would merely be satire; as it is, it’s a pretty good story in itself, which both is more pleasing and packs more punch.
Next up is my current favorite from this book: Brian Niemeier’s “Elegy for the Locust”. Set in his Netherial Universe, it is the story of a man who feels life has dealt him a bum hand and is consuming himself with thoughts of revenge. He want everything his master has. He must become his master! When the opportunity to do so arises, things don’t go exactly as he planned. The Forbidden Thoughts are here portrayed subtly and artfully, and the suspense is maintained until the end. I’m sure the author would be happy to know “Elegy” reminded me of Lovecraft.
“Test of the Prophet” by L. Jagi Lamplighter takes another Forbidden Thought – that some religions might be better than others – and spins it out with remarkably good characters for a short story. You actually care about them! Imagine! The ending goes from totally mundane to apocalyptically surreal in a couple pages without losing the reader – very good writing. As a bonus, I suppose, the story contains the only mention in a SFF story I’ve ever come across of Mary Baker Eddy. (It works, more or less.)
“Flight to Egypt” by Sarah A Hoyt is a story of forbidden love – forbidden by racial prejudice hiding behind genetic testing for criminal intent. Seems a male black child in the womb is just too big a risk. I loved how the lovers are very different in experience and culture (and race!), but rather than being a barrier, these differences actually increase their interest in each other – you know, like how it often works in the real world, but never works in theory, where nobody can ever understand or identify with a character who doesn’t look and think exactly like them! Good place to end the anthology.
- In an odd way, this brings to mind how, in Catholic circles, there are always some (usually older) people who just cannot let Vatican II go – even though, for just about everyone younger than 50, it’s just ancient history, and the battles described are not their battles. Ends up taking the wind out of the sails of people genuinely interested in the Church. Anyway, how about we (people who’d like to see better sci-fi) not do that?