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The Alsiso Project

edited by Andrew Hook

(Elastic Press, www.elasticpress.com, £6.00, 329 pages, paperback, published 1 January 2004.)

Review by Stuart Jaffe

When I was in the sixth grade, living in cover scanNew Jersey (a long, long time ago), my homeroom teacher, Mr Monroe, spent two days introducing us to creative writing. The first day, he placed a painting of a watermill in the front of the room and told us to write a story about it. The next day, he wrote a few numbers and letters on the blackboard, and offered the same instructions.

Of course, what amazed our little brains, at the time, was the great diversity of stories. Mine were both science fiction (surprise, surprise), while others produced romances, horrors, or simple one-trick stories. I have not thought about those writing assignments in many years, but then I had not read The Alsiso Project either.

This anthology brought together twenty-three authors, each given the same task -- write a story entitled "Alsiso". The word is meaningless, born of a typographical error, but the task was taken quite seriously by its participants. Part of the idea was to let the authors have free reign, nothing to hold them back except one simple rule -- Alsiso.

The idea sounds fun, and it seemed as if one of two results would occur. Either the concept would work beautifully and produce a rich tapestry of intriguing stories. Or it would become a burden that turned the anthology into little more than a sixth grade creative writing exercise.

And what happened?

Overall, quite a lot of good writing. The reader feasts on a wide range of stories, themes, and ideas -- wider than most anthologies ever dare. In The Alsiso Project, I found stories of magical trees, subversive rock bands, a mysterious word infiltrating languages century after century, dirty cops, and spontaneous combustion. Yes, that's right, spontaneous combustion.

Justina Robson's tale follows an expedition to a new world and the horrible native creatures who adopt the visitors' DNA -- a story made quite effective through the manner of its telling. Kaaron Warren wows us when she tells of a woman's sad existence because her pregnancies can help locate precious metals. Marie O'Regan's take is of a serial killer reawakening to what he is. John Grant's superb tale explores what happens when the dreamworld and physical reality annihilate each other over love. Conrad Williams introduces a paper thin, skin-like metal that has been used far longer than we realize.

There are plenty of other gems to be found. If anything, my only complaint is that there are too many stories taking the easy way out. Several chose to name a character Alsiso but didn't make much more of it. The other preponderance in choice was to make Alsiso a "magic word" of some sort. Of these, Tamar Yellin's stands out as the best, overcoming the problems inherent in such an overused idea.

In fact, now that I think of it, these two story types make an interesting study (so perhaps it's not a complaint at all). How often have writers read guidelines that warn them away from certain overused subjects? They often conclude with some remark about how if you want to write that zombie/vampire story with the twist ending, you better have some original take on it. Here you can see that in practice. And you can decide for yourself which "magic word" or "Alsiso's my name" stories work and which don't.

With twenty-three stories by twenty-three talented writers, however, the majority shine. That's what we expect from a good anthology. Not every piece will appeal, but in the end, there is a satisfying sensation of time well spent.

Most unique to this anthology, too, is how it fits together as a whole. Beyond the stories themselves, there is this word. Alsiso. When I picked up the book, the word, of course, had no meaning to me. It is, after all, a meaningless word (funny how that happens...). Yet after a few stories, it started to have a definition. After more and more stories, and more and more definitions, it began to conflict with itself. In the end, it was as if I'd taken a common word and just repeated it for ten minutes -- it had become meaningless.

Try the experiment. I'll wait...

See what I mean. The word becomes a texture in your mouth, and it is difficult to pinpoint why that texture should equate a specific meaning. To get this same strange experience from an anthology is certainly new, and one well worthwhile.

Alsiso. Alsiso. Alsiso. Alsiso. Alsiso. Alsiso. Alsiso. Alsiso. Alsiso. Alsiso. Alsiso. Alsiso. Alsiso. Alsiso.

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