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  • Writer's pictureLee Murray

SNAFU: Unnatural Selection

In SNAFU: Unnatural Selection (Cohesion) I was thrilled to have made the list of Many More authors. I’ve known writers offended to be lumped in with the Many Mores; the category imbued with a lugubrious quality. There’s the idea that Many Mores aren’t as polished. They’re the also-rans, the unsolicited, the stories only published to round out the Table of Contents. Those of us less down on ourselves imagine it’s because there is not enough space to squeeze a dozen double-barrelled surnames on a B-format cover and still have room for a kick-ass Dean Samed cover image. Sometimes it’s because we’re newer to writing, our stories have fewer words, or our readership numbers have yet to reach the level of John Green’s. Perhaps the editor has built the collection around a specific concept which is embodied by a particular author. Mostly, I like to think the Many Mores provide the solid black background against which the stars twinkle, the occasional glide before that star-filled burst into hyper-drive. Anyway, let me point you to Snafu’s stars…

Dave Beynon’s Here There be Monsters leads us out. A key character in Beynon’s story is one Lisa Murray, which is so almost-nearly my name, that of course, it had me at hello. Actually, it had me from the moment the exploration team to Ithalaco ventures into the jungle despite the warnings of their alien hosts. What they find—what finds them—is impervious to their weapons. Their armour is useless. Thirty-six leave the village, but will any return? Chilling and suspenseful and with glorious creatures that are so dark I almost didn’t read on, this brutal and macabre story provides the perfect opening.

A hard act to follow, but Justin Bell achieves it. Unborn takes its inspiration from the advancements in military science which arise in wartime. You never know just what the lab rats will dream up, do you? I particularly liked Bell’s depiction of his military unit, the Shadows—their banter, the derisiveness, the absolute loyalty. Bell’s story takes the soul of a section and cuts at its heart.

Weavers in the Darkness by James A Moore and Charles R Rutledge. Even before I saw who wrote this, its title told me it would be a little chiller. This sentence plucked from the middle sums it up: “The ceiling is the problem. The building is really one big room, partitioned off and with false ceilings added. There’s a crawl space above the entire office, and there is definitely something crawling in it.” Simple. Matter-of fact. It’s enough to make your knees quake.

Kill Team Kill another section deals mops up in the aftermath of a military scientific snafu. Bell’s earlier theme of teams which operate on codes of integrity, comradery and sacrifice is echoed here. It’s why we read this stuff, although gritty interior art by Monty Borror assures readers that less noble spirits exist. Author Justin Coates knows his weapons too, at least it appears that way to me. It was a treat to come across the Gustav recoilless and have it written just as I pictured it in my mind. With this one, you can pretty much taste the Afghan dust.

In A Hole in the World, by Tim Lebbon and Christopher Golden, professional soldier Demidov diverts her mission, high jacking a Russian chopper to search for her lover, Vasily, a climate scientist lost during a 6-month mission on Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula. It seems Vasily has disappeared into a sinkhole. Demidov will follow him into the depths of hell, and where she goes, her team will follow. As expected, Lebbon and Golden pull off this story with their usual collaborative panache, any seams gently smoothed away so the reader cannot detect where one drops off and the other picks up. To be fair, they have been practising. However, the strength of this particular gem is in the desperation on both sides of the species divide. When writing about otherness, it is the similarities which startle. Here, In a Hole in the World, the message to humanity ties nicely back to Beynon’s Here There be Monsters and clearly anchors this story at the heart of the collection.

It’s 1945 and army Corporal Gary Bronson is on the USS Portland somewhere just off the coast of Okinawa, where he has “one fuckin’ job”—to ensure that a certain door stays locked. And they say cats are curious. B. Michael Radburn’s Cargo is a Pandora’s Box that needs to stay closed. Bleak.

In Vermin, Richard Lee Byers takes the reader on a magical excursion into history where siege warfare between the Turks and the Franks hints of anise, whistles with flying arrows, and tastes like ichor with more than a pinch of scorpion thrown in. I desperately want to say that there is particularly satisfying twist in the tale of this one, but it is surely a cliché too far. A highlight. 

We revisit the dust, and the second World War, in The Valley of Death by David Amendola. Set in North Africa’s Qattara Depression, a German survey team come across of group of British soldiers, who have been stabbed to death. Odd that the assailants have left so much of the Tommies’ gear behind. With a style echoing the era of the story, this is a deliciously visual tale, perhaps because Amendola’s monsters are so universally known. Definitely no picnic.

And now we come to the last story in the collection, Michael McBride’s Venom. I admit to being a fan of McBride, his work always as well executed as it is researched. A former scientist, I always love a story with its inspiration grounded in science, and especially when that story mentions wet lab protein assays using ELISA, a method still in its infancy when I was at the bench. Venom is what you get when Sherlock Holmes has a biology degree. But don’t worry, this isn’t an academic paper, McBride’s prose as swollen with corpses as it ever was.

I realise there’s some taboo about reviewing a book in which you have a story yourself, but these stories are new to me and I was intrigued to see how other writers have tackled the topic. I can safely say that the other stories in Snafu: Unnatural Selection make great reading. Its monsters are wonderful, slobbering, phantasmas, the result of scientific accident or design, or casualties of the cracks in time. Most importantly, they are stories of soldiers, ordinary men and women pitted against the unimaginable, and the humanity they show in spite of such monstrous odds.

*Taine McKenna, NZDF, makes an appearance in SNAFU: Unnatural Selection in a short story titled, Restless.

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