The Alsiso Project
(Elastic Press, www.elasticpress.com,
£6.00, 329 pages, paperback, published 1 January 2004.)
When I was in the sixth grade, living in
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
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.
Elsewhere in infinity plus: