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Jo Walton - StarlingsThis is Jo Walton’s first short story collection, containing “two short stories I wrote after I knew what I was doing, two I wrote before I knew what I was doing, some exercises, some extended jokes, some first chapters of books I didn’t write, some poems with the line breaks taken out, a play, and some poems with the line breaks left in”. Her words…
Jo Walton is a Welsh-born writer living in Canada. She has won a wide range of awards for her writing, including but not limited to the John W. Campbell, Prometheus, World Fantasy, Nebula, and Hugo Awards. I used to think of her as an SF Poet, but looking at the list of her publications (and awards for them!) I very much stand corrected. Still, per her statement above, the one thing she struggled with were short stories, which is rather different to how many (most?) other SF writers hone their craft, and move into the field of published authors. But, as they say, different strokes for different people. And here we have, within her own definition per the above quote, her first collection of short fiction.

Starlings starts with a poem on the topics of the birth of new stars - thus the title of the poem, and of the collection overall. It’s a lovely poem, too. And ways too clever for me…
This is followed by an introduction, by the author, on the topic of herself, and her approach to writing short stories. I guess I can safely summarise this as not her forte, but she’s better at it than she used to be.

Reading the collection I can confirm that she definitely does just fine with the format, even if she does not think of most of the contents here as ‘short stories’ herself!
Most to all of the content has been published before over the years, so unless you are completely new to her oeuvre you will most likely trip over the odd story or poem you’ve seen before - I did, occasionally.
I’ll provide short capsule reviews on topics and my impressions for the individual stories below - if you’d rather enjoy this without too many spoilers then you might want to stop here, and go get the book, it’s worth your time and money!

Those Twilight Tales
A run-on collection of stories set in a rural village. Highly evocative, with an ending as beautiful as it is abrupt…

Jane Austen - To Cassandra
Here’s a conceit - one of Jane Austen’s letters goes astray, and is answered, instead of by her friend Cassandra, by the famed lady of the same name present during the siege of Troy. In the same voice, style, and tone as Cassandra would have. Delightful.

Unreliable Witness
This is a 1st person account, nominally transcribed from tape, by a senile old lady in an old people's home who is visited by an Alien.
It's short, delightful, thought provoking, and ever so slightly emotional as most of us have family members in similar situations (minus the Alien, in most cases, I presume. But how would I know, or believe them?).

On the Wall
A Snow White Story, about the origin/youth of the Evil Queen. Not a happy childhood, to put it simply. Told from the perspective - hold it - of the mirror. Splendid.

The Panda Coin
A potpourri of follow-on stories, a kaleidoscope set on a space station populated by humans and artificial beings, with its very own, stratified society. What holds the stories together is that they follow the path of a specific coin, originating in Eriterea-O, with a Panda on it.
We see a closed society run by AIs (called Eyes), with humans and Andys (guess…) being shunted about, and kept down. But the coin … no, that would be spoiling it.

Remember the Allosaur
A director, talking to his (intelligent) Allosaur actor, who wants to play Hamlet. “What a piece of work is man”.

A story about an ex-BBC bod, documentary maker, and life-long Soviet undercover sleeper agent. Set in 2064. So, rather, a story about a simulation of an ex BBC bod, …
Rather neat, if slightly stilted I found. But that might have been on purpose, of course. This raised echoes of Ken McLeods Corporation Wars stories, both in topic and in politics.

Relentlessly Mundane - for Nancy Lebovitz
A tale of 3 friends who went to a magical parallel world as children, and have been preparing ever since to go back. Kinda Narnia, but not. Bringing Narnia out of the Wardrobe? Post-Narnia Stress Disorder?

Escape to Other Worlds with Science Fiction
News snippets and personal first person accounts interweave to paint a picture of an America in the thrall of repeated downturns, depressions, and rising paranoia. In a world where Germany and Japan are dividing up Russia. Depressing, and scary.

Joyful and Triumphant: St Zenobius and the Aliens
“Of course God could have made the universe without pain, but a universe without pain is a universe without change, without stories. God could have contemplated nothing but their own glory for all eternity. They chose to have a universe with stories, and there are no stories in Utopia. “
On the topic of religion, Saints, God, and the Great Work of Heaven. Wow…

A story set on a Generation Ship, around midpoint (thus the title), and one woman’s plan to save her art, Balette ( think zero-g Ballet), when the ship arrives at its destination in 125 years. Fascinating, and I want more of this, please let this be the first chapter of an actual novel Jo writes!

At the Bottom of the Garden
“Katie May was sitting cross-legged on the lawn carefully pulling the wings of a fairy.”
Do you need, besides this first sentence, any other motivation to want to read this story?

Out of It (for Susanna)
Good deed, bad deed, and the good in a bargain with the devil. Only a fragment, sadly.

What a Piece of Work
Hamlet strikes again in the title… but this is a story about Google search as a conscious entity. Right and Wrong. Censorship. Enlightenment. A fascinating train of thought.

Parable Lost
“There’s everything in the Universe in this story, except answers.”
A parable on the big (and small) questions in the Universe.

What Would Sam Spade Do?
A PI/Gumshoe/Sam Spade persiflage, set in a world where, quite a while back, it was fashionable to have a clone of Jesus as a babe (!). Times have moved on, and this world is now awash with Jesi (not a plural you see every day, either…). Writers, Chefs, Bums… PIs. But now one of them has been murdered. By another one, it appears.
Not much of a story, really, but an absolute cracker of a setting and atmosphere.

And how they happen. And how we forgot what they were invented/good for, in the first place. It made me smile…

What Joseph Felt
As the title says - Joseph's internal monologue around conception, trip to Bethlehem, and Birth of Jesus. It’s been done before, it’s been done better, IMHO.

The Need to Stay the Same
An SF story. Or, to be specific, a review of one. Pure Intelligences/AIs (?), writing and reading about humans, ‘touch’, physical life, leaves with ‘photosynthesis’ (what a fantastic alien concept!).
As meta as it is fun!

A Burden Shared
Written in the shape of a Play - the story of the heroic quest by 3 Irish siblings, paying compensation for killing the king’s father. Taking in, amongst other things, Japanese Mechs, the Gardens of the Hesperides, the Pope’s Alchemical Gun which can kill a 1000 warriors in 1 shot, and a variety of other mythological artefacts from a bewildering array of cultures and ages.
Something I’d have expected from a Sucharitkul, not a Walton. Heaps of fun.

Poetry Section
I’ll not review every poem separately - some are longer, some are quite short, nearly all are rather impressive and evocative in the right way. There are Songs of Dragons, there are Country Ballads, there is retelling of classics, newly framed Myths and Legends from various cultures, and more…

“For oaths will only bind the honour-bound
Which Odin never was, no that I heard” (from Advice to Loki)

“Godzilla, shuffling closer, know what is what
Size matters.
But then so do prose and plot.” (from The Godzilla Sonnets - Godzilla vs Shakespeare)

And I still think that her poetry is stronger than her prose!

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

More Jo Walton


Title: Starlings
Author: Jo Walton
Reviewer: Markus
Reviewer URL:
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Publisher URL:
Publication Date: February 2018
Review Date: 180206
Pages: 187
Format: ePub
Topic: Short Stories
Topic: Poetry


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