Besides being the first anthology that I've written a review for, this
is also the first anthology I've actually read for several years.
I've read short story collections more recently---some of my all-time
favorite science fiction works are short stories, in fact, and I
revisit them occasionally. When I saw "If I Were An Evil Overlord" on
the new books shelf, however, there was no question: I was going to
read this, and read it now.
Anthologies are their own separate species of book, very different
than even a single-author short story collection. When you read a
single-author collection, the unifying theme is the style of the
writer, and despite broad variance, the stories all have much the same
"taste." When you read an anthology, on the other hand, the unifying
theme is the whim of the editors and whatever subject they've decided
this anthology will focus on. Sometimes, as in the case of "If I Were
An Evil Overlord," the stories were written in response to requests
from the editors, and their role looms particularly large.
"If I Were An Evil Overlord" sticks its probes directly into a
particular pulsating lobe of the geek collective imagination: the
behavior of the stereotypical villain. I'd long ago discovered the
"Evil Overlord List" Peter Anspach wrote, floating around the
internet, with its commandments to have the five-year old child
advisor for pointing out flaws, destroying all those pesky time-travel
devices, shooting is NOT too good for my enemies, and so on. This
book specifically references the list, and indeed all of the ones I
mention (plus many more) are explored by stories in the collection. I
love the theme and possibilities because, well, because I'm a geek,
and Evil Overlords are an evergreen source of geek meta-humor (a
favorite example of mine from the comic strip "Casey & Andy": in one
story, the tide turns against the villains and the guest villain
threatens to shoot the main villain, assuming (correctly) that it
would cause his lair to explode and kill everybody).
The thing about an an anthology is, there's guaranteed to be stories
in it that you don't like. It's just a consequence of the number of
different authors, and the fact that the editors are going to want
lots of diversity, something for everyone. Maybe this hit me
particularly hard for "If I Were An Evil Overlord" because of the
specificity of the subject matter: it's a laser-focussed topic,
really, and so there were a lot more opportunities for me to end up
disagreeing with an author's take on it.
I've noticed a lot of these turning up on our bookshelves recently,
and that's part of the reason I don't end up reading many
anthologies---when you're making collections called "Space Cocktails"
and "Cat Fantastic" and "Christmas Bestiary" you're looking for a much
more specific audience than you are with "Starships" or "Intergalactic
Empires" (all real titles in our collection). I also wonder whether
there's a quality control problem when you solicit for a specific
topic, rather than cherry-picking from a collection of previously
published stories. If one of your solicited authors turns in a piece
the editors don't like, do they reject it, tell the author to rewrite,
or just accept it since they invited it?
Whatever the case may be, "If I Were An Evil Overlord" felt like an
incoherent collection to me. Six of the fourteen stories are out and
out funny takes on the subject, much in line with the standard
tradition. The others are evenly split between dark fantasy and
seriously bizarre. The stories are not arranged in any particular
order, and the editors have mostly recused themselves from discussing
their own collection, so there isn't a vision presented for how these
discordant themes fit together. The basic message to the reader is:
"We asked people to write about Evil Overlords and, um, they did.
All told, I enjoyed three of the stories immensely: "Gordie Culligan
vs. Dr. Longbeach and the HVAC of Doom" by J. Steven York and "A
Woman's Work..." by Tanya Huff are both wonderful humor, and "The Sins
of the Sons" by Fiona Patton is an excellent piece of grim fantasy
that I could see growing into a full novel. The rest ranged from
bland to gratingly weird and overblown.
If you've noticed that I've spent an awful lot of time talking about
the concept and format, but not much about the stories themselves,
there's a reason: like most things based on jokes, the concept of the
collection is more rewarding than its actual execution. In the end,
looking it over, I'm not sure if I can even sum up my opinion of the
book very clearly. It's just too incoherent. But read the good ones:
your take on which they are may be different than mine, but it'll be
pretty obvious in the first couple pages, one way or another.