It was with no small amount of glee that I downloaded Tales From The Fathomless Abyss, as I was instantly caught up in the idea of a shared world project, via a posting on Jay Lake's blog. He advertised it because he was one of the authors, one of the world-builders. Basically there is a wondrous core concept of this world (so to speak) – there is this whopping great big vertical shaft that appears to have no bottom. It always exists, but periodically the top of it opens in some random where and when. Including alien planets – not just Earth. Stuff fall down – not everything all the way. Creatures, people, plants, you name it, can live on the inner face of the Abyss, or in tunnels, ledges etc. A fantastic tableaux for writers to spin stories on.
And so Philip Athans, the central control in this project, gathers a stellar collection of writers, including himself, and spin six stories: aside from Philip, we have J.M McDermott, Mel Odom, Mike Resnick/Brad R. Torgersen (co-writers), Cat Rambo, and Jay Lake. This was another reason to purchase this e-tome. These are 'tales' and what will follow will be longer works, published as single monographs – my understanding is that they will be roughly novellas in size. I will certainly partake of some of them.
Before I get into a qualitative spiel regarding the tales themselves, I want to mention two things about the ebook that annoyed me. Firstly, being an ebook as a sole platform (as opposed to print), the quality of the formatting was terrible. While they got the hyperlinks right, the centering of stuff needing centering, and the full justification – why in hell didn't they indent the first lines of the paragraphs? It amazes me they didn't. It really was distracting and in places even lowered the impact of some of the passages. Secondly, only the last two stories in my estimation (Rambo and Lake) were truly self-contained tales. The others were preambles to bigger stories. While this, on the surface, is not necessarily a bad thing, I felt mildly cheated that four of the six stories didn't quite have endings. I think this should have been made more clear to the reading public.
Having said what I said about 'incompleteness' of the first four stories, I should state for the record that all the stories were well written. I didn't expect any less from seasoned and talented writers. However, it does rankle me that the first four stories were prologues to other stories. Another thing that rankled me a bit, in terms of the plots, was that such a large percentage of the writers chose to write with alien races as the protagonists. Each were done admirably – in the case of Cat Rambo, stupendously well – but from an editorial point of view I just felt that it was a bit lop-sided, out of balance in terms of overall content. This was an editorial weakness, not a writing failing.
To some extent, by lack of coincidence, I'm sure, the two stories that were complete stories: Rambo's A Querulous Flute of Bone, and Lake's That Which Rises Ever Upward (I can spot a Lake title anywhere!), were also the best tales in the anthology by far. They were SHORT STORIES, by any decent definition, and had a lot to say, and to entertain. Rambo's take on the world, the microcosm of the protagonists and antagonists (in fact, showing there is a blurry line there), is nothing short of uber-unique, and her command of descriptive narrative was an absolute pleasure to read. Jay's story is also quite unique (on a par with the other four stories) but he constructs a wondrous short-epic journey through a man's life, spinning all manner of emotions in such a short number of words. These two authors were worth the purchase.
I don't want to belittle completely the other authors. Each story had me captured in their prose and the quality of their writing. But I…well, I've already said it. I have also deliberately left the detail out of each story so the reader can read them sans spoilers.
All in all, this work is good, within a growing world-building project that really is already great. Rambo and Lake's stories are gold.