Pros: Amazing combination of off-the-wall and ordinary
Rating: 5 out of 5
Naomi Kritzer’s collection Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories is absolutely wonderful. There wasn’t a single story I didn’t fully enjoy, despite the fact that I have little interest in historical fiction, and some of these fit that genre. These stories masterfully combine absolutely ordinary, believable, everyday details with crazy and creative flights of fancy, bringing the most amazing ideas to life.
The titular story, Cat Pictures Please, gives us a glimpse into the mind of an AI who’s trying to figure out how to interfere in people’s lives so as to improve those lives. It’s a hilarious and fascinating little piece. Artifice explores what might happen when someone makes the leap to trying to date an android, and how it would fit into their social lives. I love how this one ends. Perfection introduces us to a future in which one group of humans strives for genetic perfection. It’s so wonderful to see an image of the “perfect human” that isn’t blond, blue-eyed, and white, and the main character’s journey of self-discovery is believable and intriguing.
Ace of Spades introduces us to Natalie, a journalist covering a Chinese civil war. It’s an exploration into what makes people take risks. The Electric Foot-soldiers (“Peacekeepers”) allow distant controllers to do damage in a manner such that they don’t have to worry for themselves and can have a nice day off now and then. Natalie’s own diagnosis of Huntington’s Disease has allowed her to feel that she isn’t risking much by spending time in a war zone. This is a powerful personal story. The Golem takes place in 1941 Prague. Hanna and Alena create a Golem and ask it to protect the Jews of Prague, but there’s only so much it can do. When the golem realizes it somehow has free will, what will it decide to do? In Comrade Grandmother, Nadezhda decides to approach Baba Yaga to ask her to stop the Germans who are marching on Russia. The story unfurls in a series of difficult choices she must make. The Wall asks the question: if you could tell your past self to be present for the defining historical moment of her generation, what would she do? And how would it affect her life? We get to see the fall of the Berlin Wall here, but the story is really about the little and not-so-little ways Maggie’s life changes as she gradually comes to listen to her future self.
Wind is a sweet and poignant little fantasy story. Sisters Gytha and Dagmar exchange portions of their souls so that they might be imbalanced and thus capable of magic. But nothing is so easy about unbalancing your soul. Also, dragons! In The Good Son, a Fey man creates a life and a family for himself in order to woo a human woman, and discovers that he’s the one changed by the experience (I might have shed a tear or two). Scap Dragon is a unique fairy tale that goes back and forth between the narrator and an audience, as the narrator builds the tale and the audience shapes it. In it, a young woman named Heather finds herself in the position of trying to figure out how to stop a dragon from destroying the city. This is hilarious, utterly charming, and very clever.
In the Witch’s Garden is a sci-fi version of “The Snow Queen.” It manages a fairy tale feel despite the trappings of technology, and it’s quite beautiful. Cleanout also has a bit of a second-hand fairy tale vibe. A trio of sisters have to clean out their dying mother’s house, and they’re reminded of just how little they know about where their parents are from. In Isabella’s Garden, a young girl has an unusual ability to get unique things to sprout in the garden. Where she goes with this is utterly believable and delightful!
What Happened at Blessing Creek introduces us to a group of settlers who try to displace some Osage when they find a spot to settle. They have a Reverend with them who can bless the town, protecting it from both Indian attacks and the marauding dragons. When the town decides they want the Indians’ power over the dragons, though, they unleash something they can’t control. It’s nice to see a story involving Native Americans that doesn’t involve a white savior, and doesn’t try to sugar-coat what the settlers are doing.
Perhaps the most hilarious story in here is Bits. It involves a sex toy company that finds itself obliged to branch out when aliens come to live with humans and the inevitable intermingling occurs!
Honest Man portrays Iris, a very honest woman, and an immortal(?) con artist who has the second sight. The two of them develop an unusual relationship. My favorite story, though, is So Much Cooking, the final story in this volume. It’s presented as entries in a cooking blog, complete with some very delicious-sounding recipes. However, at the same time that the narrator is writing the blog entries, a very bad case of bird flu comes around. It ends up being a story, told mostly around food, of how a couple and a bunch of children they take in survive the apocalypse.
I can’t recommend this one highly enough. The combination of the everyday with the zany makes the most unbelievable situations plausible.