Welcome to my new weekly blog post, where I’ll be reviewing short stories. There are thousands and thousands of them available – in magazines, podcasts, online anthologies, with hundreds more dropping every month. Every week, I’ll listen to and/or read one or two so you don’t have to. It won’t just be scifi either; I’m completely genre agnostic, and will go for any story that piques my interest.
This week: a middle-aged, mom-jeans-wearing assassin…
One of the annoying things about this year – well, one of the many annoying things – is that it’s become fashionable to shit on Extended Universes. There’s been a recent pileup of articles proclaiming that the interconnected cinematic universe of Marvel/DC/Star Wars/Universal Monsters/Whatever is finished and played out, soon to be as ancient and forgotten as Britney’s bald-head phase.
It’s a little difficult to figure out if the writers of these pieces genuinely believe that Extended Universes are a bad thing or if they’re just being overly opinionated for clicks, but it doesn’t make it any less annoying. Fortunately, one of the things you won’t find in this particular corner of the Internet is a tirade against Extended Universes. I adore them. Always have. They were a terrific idea to start, and I feel like they’ve just gotten better over time, as more and more characters have been introduced.
Admittedly, they are hard to do right, and that’s why almost nobody other than Marvel have actually managed to do it. Say whatever you like about Marvel’s movies, but they have a deft touch at placing each story in context within a wider world.
Case in point: SpiderMan Homecoming. The inclusion of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man could have been the worst sort of shoehorning, the kind of thing that was only there because the Extended Universe demanded it. Except, it wasn’t. It made total sense within the story, both thematically and in terms of plot, and the filmmakers were smart enough to never let Downey get in the way, knowing that the few scenes he showed up in would be enough to do everything they were supposed to. It connected the film to the wider Marvel Universe without ever making it feel forced. Result? One of the summer’s biggest blockbusters, and a 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Whether or not you believe in that particular site’s method of aggregating reviews, you’d have to be the world’s biggest misanthrope not to get a kick out of how smart, fun and capable the Spidey flick was. Also, Tom Holland is fucking adorable.
Of course, for every Marvel, there’s a DC, who think it’s perfectly acceptable to create different universes starring the same characters but played by different actors, and who, when they actually have a hit (the fantastic Wonder Woman) turn around and hare off in the opposite direction, right for the cliff, ignoring the startled pleas from the audience. Or Universal, who found a load of old properties knocking around in the basement – Frankenstein, The Mummy, Wolfman – and decided that they should try their hand at this Extended Universe nonsense too, forgetting that you need things like decent plots and characters, as well as stories that are actually fun to watch. Anyway. Point is: even when it’s done in a half-assed way, I still love the concept. I wish we could have more of it. Preferably by Marvel.
Books have a weird relationship with Extended Universes. Usually, they are used to extend a universe already present in another medium, like Timothy Zahn and Chuck Wending (among many, many others) writing books set in the Star Wars universe. Sure, you’ll see the odd author writing a long series of interconnected books all taking place in a single universe, with characters and stories that don’t necessarily interact with each other – J.R.R. Tolkien comes to mind, as does Stephen King – but rarely do you see an iteration of what Marvel are doing.
Imagine if you had one author writing a trilogy set in a particular universe, while other authors write other novels and short stories, set in the same universe, with occasional crossover? What if you had multiple creators working with the same set of building blocks? God knows if it would ever happen – or if a publishing company would ever be up for such an act of authorly hubris – but that’s a universe I’d love to spend time in.
(Further thought: it occurs to me that this might have already happened somewhere, and I just haven’t noticed. If it has, let me know in the comments.)
I did a radio interview a few years ago with Antonia Honeywell, both of us newbie authors, both of us appearing on a radio station in Wandsworth with maybe like one listener. I’d just put out Tracer, and she’d just dropped The Ship, a really cool novel set just after the end of the world (and which was later picked up by Orbit Books, meaning we now share a publisher). She mentioned to me that she almost felt like her story took place in the same world is mine, only about a hundred years apart. It’s a concept that blew my mind then, and it blows my mind now. It’s one of those “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” moments; think of the Easter eggs. Think of the in jokes, the locations could be shared between books. Think of authors phoning each other up, obsessively checking details, working together to create these shared experiences for readers. Someone turn up the heat in here, because I just got goosebumps.
For now, I’ll have to settle for authors writing novellas and short stories set in the world they create in their novels. I’ve done this a little bit myself, and it was great fun. And so, when I was cruising for a story to read this week, I was excited to come across Nice by A.E. Ash, published online by The Book Smugglers, a superb book blog that recently turned to publishing. Nice is set in the same world as Temporary Duty Assignment, a novella by the same author that the publishers released a couple of weeks ago. It’s framed as a prequel, and it shows a confidence in the world and the characters that I really like. Although the main character, Yukiko, isn’t the star of Temporary Duty Assignment, this story mentions that star, and fills in some details of her backstory. It’s a nice trick.
Maybe I’m just biased, having done it myself. Who knows? But whatever you think of my opinion, there’s no denying that Nice is a fun little story: an amuse-bouche to nibble on, and see if you want to order the main course. And for the record: I would absolutely be down for an Extended Universe here.
Although Yukiko is the focus, it’s the world that will draw you in. Ash paints a convincing picture of a post-climate disaster world that is somehow still managing to hang on, and her real trick is making it somewhere that you might actually want to visit, if not necessarily live for an extended period of time. The details that fill in the world, and the kind of life that Yukiko leads, are carefully placed, never getting in the way, doing their job without obscuring the story. A bit like Iron Man in the SpiderMan movie, come to think of it.
While the world feels realistic, there’s no doubt that the story being told in this particular short is cappuccino-frothy. Yukiko is an assassin, with a list of jobs behind her and an annoyingly-helpful, syrupy AI companion. Much of the story is concerned with her day-to-day life, and while it’s certainly interesting, there’s a sense that this bit could have been a little bit streamlined. Still, when the action starts – our middle-aged, mom-jeans-wearing assassin taking on a job that sets off her internal alarm as being a little too perfect – it flows at a good clip. And it leaves you wanting more: the crucial element of any kind of extended universe, be it a Marvel movie, or a simple prequel short story. Plus, it helps that Ash is a fluent and graceful writer, with a clean, economical style that is a joy to read.
There is, however, at least one pretty egregious error. Halfway through, the first-person story changes to third person, and then abruptly back again: a pretty obvious whoopsie that should have been eliminated in the editing process. It was frustrating to see an otherwise enjoyable story being marred by such a glitch.
Still, there’s definitely life here. The story that Ash builds might be a quick fix, but she’s embedded it in a universe that I’m really looking forward to spending time in. If we’re going to rank this by comparing Extended Universe novels to Marvel movies – because why not do a complicated, Bill-Simmons-style pop culture metaphor to end this off? – where Chuck Wendig’s Empire’s End is SpiderMan Homecoming and Michael A. Stackpole’s Iron Jedi is Iron Fist, then Nice is Ant-Man. Fun, light-hearted, skipping across the brain and leaving only the barest trace. Then again, Ant-Man himself got one of the best moments in the recent Captain America movie with that whole “I do it all the time. I mean, once… In a lab. And I passed out.” moment, so who knows where this is going to go?