Friday, July 2, 2021

"Around the Dark Dial" by J.D. Sanderson--Short Story Collection Review

It’s review day, folks, and we’re harking to the stylings of an earlier era in science fiction with J.D. Sanderson’s “Around the Dark Dial.” It’s a collection of short stories of a soft sci-fi bent that I rather enjoyed.

J.D. Sanderson

What I love about this book:

This is a genuinely sublime collection of short sci-fi stories, in the style of the old “Star Trek” model but without a consistent cast of characters—sorta. Many of them focus on a social issue or what may soon become a social issue, and Sanderson develops a clear and easily understood morality tale around that issue. It’s especially effective on me because I suspect we share similar values, such as all life should be respected—also fear and suspicion, in of themselves, are not virtues.

From an emotional standpoint, Sanderson’s writing was powerful enough to cause me to mist up a few times. “Around the Dark Dial” especially got me in “Daughter” and “Rearing.” I’m comfortable saying that I liked every story in this collection, but it was about the middle of the collection for me when Sanderson starts knocking each and every story out of the park.

I’m a big fan of the variety of stories Sanderson manages to tell in this collection, while all still feeling as if they’re all part of the same whole. He plays off contrasts particularly well between the Margaret Atwood-Esque “The Snowstorm” to a lighter but still serious—in its own way—story that reminded me a little of a sci-fi version of Dr. Dolittle in “The Circus Peanut Gallery.”

Overall, I think that “Daughter” was my favorite story because it played the strongest with my emotions—and after all, if you’ve spent some time reading this blog, you know I’m a sucker for sad stories. “The Snowstorm” might be a close second for me because I believe ignorance is just as detrimental as hatred, but “Daughter” speaks to my belief that bigotry is ugly in any form.

What I don’t love about this book:

This collection is a bit mismarketed, in my opinion. Based on its cover, it suggests an experience more heavily influenced by horror, such as “The Twilight Zone.” However, in practice, “Around the Dark Dial” is more of a meditation and speculation on the human condition and mindset as the world changes around new technology. Certainly, stories in this collection such as, “Caller Four” and “Headline,” have a stronger horror theme, but overall the collection is predominately a series of science fiction stories.

I’m not saying any of this is a bad thing per se—personally, I love sci-fi that comments on our contemporary society through the lens of the future or near-future. What I am saying is that I would have never gotten that from the book cover art alone. Sanderson’s sales copy does try to prime the audience for the intended experience, but it’s working against the cover art and title, not with them. 

The only thing all design elements agree on is that this collection is trying to replicate the old radio drama format but in print. On that front, I think it does OK—with its short stories and quickly, but memorably, sketched-out characters. However, when you listen to a radio drama, the predominant style is for all narration to be conveyed through dialogue. Which. Is. Hard. I don’t know about you, but if I’m being chased by, say, a giant mutant spider from Mars—I’m way less concerned about describing it to my friend in the moment than running away while screaming. It’s a kitschy unrealistic thing characters do in radio dramas because the format is distinctly non-visual. There’s nothing to read or see to describe the scene in a true radio drama. But to be true to the nostalgia of that format, one would expect the stories of “Around the Dark Dial” to engage in something close to that dialogue-soaked storytelling method—but they don’t. They’re sublime short stories heavy on dialogue, but not scripts of dialogue.

Also, and this is maximum nit-picky, but technically, this is a short story collection, not an anthology. Short story collections are written by one author, anthologies are written by multiple authors. So, unless J.D. Sanderson is a penname for more than one author—and still, I don’t know if that would count technically—this is a short story collection.

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“Around the Dark Dial” would do far better to emulate at least the aesthetic of a radio drama if the author ever has it produced as an audiobook. I’ve certainly heard and loved a variety of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories reimagined as radio dramas. 

Even though these stories are all self-contained and differ in intensity and subject matter, they all have specific callbacks and recurring themes. There is the obvious set of three with “Hello There,” “Hello Again,” and “Welcome,” but—and maybe this is only my interpretation—I read “Choice,” and “The Simulant” as being the same universe, possibly even “Daughter,” and “Rearing” as well.

Like with a lot of excellent soft science fiction, there is more of a focus in “Around the Dark Dial” on human interaction with technology as it develops, rather than how the technology itself might plausibly function like in hard science fiction. What resonated the most with me were the values that were expressed through the various narratives.

What I respected the most is the sober and tacit admission that ideals sometimes demand sacrifice, sometimes even the ultimate sacrifice of one’s own existence. That martyrdom might come while resisting creeping authoritarianism, ignorance, or even simply to protect loved ones from violence.  

Parting thoughts:

I am always in awe of a skilled short storyteller. It’s a mode of fiction writing I wish I were better at, and it’s something, if I’m honest, I’m a bit envious of writers such as J.D. Sanderson, who is good at writing short fiction.

Certainly, I start a lot of projects that I intend to be short fiction but somehow, most of the time, they seem to burst beyond their original outlined scope and become novellas in length. I think this is why as time has gone on, I’ve become much more inclined to plan out a story in broad strokes more than freewheel through it like I used to when I was younger.

Telling a compelling story with few words is way more challenging, in my opinion, than writing “A Game of Thrones” length epic. My reasoning is you need a set of sharpened skills to recognize what you need plot-wise to achieve the effect you’re going for while introducing and persuading your audience to care about your characters, all in a short amount of time. Suppose you’re writing a four-hundred-thousand-word super book. In that case, you have a lot more time to balance the plot while fleshing out characters, which in my opinion, is more a test of patience and perseverance than a true demonstration of keen insight into the human soul. 

I don’t want to get anyone in a twist over this, so let me disclose that, yes, I’ve found examples of hyper-long stories that have been incredibly profound. I’m not trying to imply that they can’t be. It’s just that I find that they’re almost always an aggregate experience for me, meaning I don’t get totally invested until a lot of the story has been told.

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