Eighteen science fiction and fantasy scribes start the year with a bang as genres collide in the short story anthology, Robots vs. Fairies, edited by Domink Parisien and Navah Wolfe. Each author adds a short blurb describing why they have picked which side they did, although many found ways to combine both robots and fairies into their stories. The resulting collection presents a thoroughly enjoyable grab-bag of styles, plots, and characters.
I am declaring Annalee Newitz, Lavie Tidhar, and Ken Liu as Team Robot’s Big Three. Newitz cleverly gives us a fresh riff on Pinnochio in “The Blue Fairy’s Manifesto” where a drone called BlueFairy tries to convince factory workerbot RealBoy to join an anarchist movement, but underestimates just his independence. The two young protagonists of “The Buried Giant” find themselves caught up in a fairy tale about identify as Tidhar blends myth, fantasy, and futurism in his trademark style. Liu questions the humanity and consequences of human pride in “Quality Time” where a young engineer strives so hard to dig a niche in his burgeoning tech company that he loses touch with the relationships that separate him from the robots he builds. Team Robot’s most valuable writers present stories that focuses on character choices that build human relationships.
However, the Little Folk have a lot of big questions about the way we interact with the world around us. Crank up some Metallica when reading Catherynne M. Valente’s “A Fall Counts Anywhere” because this loud cage fight between fairies and robots starts conversations about the way we treat the things that aren’t people as it’s closing the game. While we’re splitting hairs, check out the everyday adventures posed by the material world around the way Jeffrey Ford does in “The Bookcase Expedition.” Leadoff writer Seanan McGuire sneaks a fairy world directly into our mechanical amusement parks in “Build Me a Wonderland” that raise questions about the wonders that we take for granted. Where Team Robot discusses the power of creativity, Team Fairy’s leading scorers take time to examine the source of human ingenuity.
As Team Robot moves to the middle of the lineup, they produce quality stories like, well, a machine. Switch-hitter Max Gladstone’s “To A Cloven Pine” provides a cocky, robotic Ariel with problematic relationships to Prospero, Miranda, and Caliban from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. John Scalzi’s “Three Robots Experience Objects Left Behind From the Era of Humans for The First Time” provides some much needed humor, although readers sick of cat memes might pass on it. Madeline Ashby’s enchanting story, “Work Shadow/Shadow Work” presents Nordic twists in the tale of an android orderly cares for an elderly witch.
The fairies erupt with a roar of protest. The loud noise turns into a deafening rock song in Kat Howard’s upbeat, suspenseful “Just Another Love Song” which sinks a hook into the reader with its magic. Sarah Gailey traps not just fairies, but mice and other animals in her twisted, heart stopping “Bread and Milk and Salt.” Meanwhile, birds gather around the Shadow world of Lila Bowen in her “Ostentation of Peacocks” which crosses channels the weird, wild West instead of science fiction.
As the fight rages, members of either side and some the readers grow fatigued. Mary Robinette Kowal shows us how a tired engineer can channel a robot to destroy a fantasy monster on another planet in “Sound and Fury.” Maria Dahvana Headley’s “Adriftica” echoes the themes of Shakespeare and music, but the story sometimes wanders around in the magic. The literary fairies present the power of their poetry in Tim Pratt’s “Murmured Under the Moon” but sometimes across a little over the top. Jim C. Hines eschews Shakespeare for J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan with a detective noir turn in “Second to the Left, and Straight On.”
Finally, two stories, both from Team Robot, that contemplate the reality and finality of death round out the collection. Jonathan Maberry’s “Ironheart” departs from his usual horror to explore a wasting future in agriculture and the sacrifices of a wounded veteran. Finally, Alyssa Wong uses the idea of AI to explore immortality in “All the Time We’ve Left to Spend” where a Japanese woman uses computer simulations to help her overcome her grief.
Overall, a great collection of stories. Parisien and Wolfe have curated a collection of stories that bounce readers from earth to the stars and back with leaving their armchairs on a freezing night. I, full disclosure, rooted for Team Robot from the beginning and feel well satisfied with our eventual masters in this challenge. However, I want to hear some other voices in the comments section: Team Robot or Team Fairy?
Four out of five stars.
Recommend for: Anyone new to the fantasy or science fiction genres. There’s a such a variety that it’s a great way to see how far eighteen people can twist three words.
Favorite quote from Team Robot: “The dreams that move people today are all soldered and welded and animated by code, or they’re just spells operating in the ether.” — Ken Liu, “Quality Time.”
Favorite quote from Team Fairy: “Before I saw him, I’d never felt the call to use the darker side of my inheritance and be an omen or sing a death, which, honestly, I had been fine with.” — Kat Howard, “Just Another Love Song.”