As a rule, I loathe anthologies in which the stories are united by a narrow subgenre. A general editorial direction is something I appreciate, but I have had several experiences in which I was lured in only to throw the book across the room after two or three stories. “Self, what the hell were you thinking? Did you really want to read twenty some-odd stories in a row about the Lovecraftian mythos/sapient aliens/marketing gimmick du jour?”
It is therefore a great testament to the quality of the stories in Upgraded, a 2014 anthology edited by Neil Clarke, that I actually finished it.
Cyborgs seem to me to be a better subgenre theme than most, because if you’re going to read twenty stories with the same element in a row, best that it’s something that easily lends itself to the human condition. Upgraded includes stories that deal with the the classic sci-fi theme of tensions between science, humanity, and capitalistic interests and several stories that explore the potential conflicts of immortality, and futures in which people are unable, even by choice, to die — whether that’s a cyborg left alone for hundreds of years in a far future or a suicidal lover being kept alive, Frankenstein-style. In fact, a consequence (whether for good or for ill) of having a narrow theme for an anthology is that the commonalities between stories are amplified, and most of these cyborgs are pretty melancholy.
Not all, though. The protagonist in Yoon Ha Lee’s “Always the Harvest” begins in a state of desperation before she meets the sad-seeming creature that will become her savior. It’s a love story that’s as creepy and unsettling as it is lovely and enigmatic. In Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s “Synecdoche Oracles,” an engineer and a general are drawn to one another due to their cybernetic weaknesses and must learn to trust in a world of double-dealing and treachery. This story has immersive worldbuilding and wins the cyborg beauty pageant: after a terrible accident, Charinda’s life force is encased in a robotic peacock that lives within the cage built into her torso, with “titanium actuators and platinum feathers to contrast with the darkness of her limbs, ruby eyes and emerald beaks to complement the petals on her face… She cups its albino head in her palm. It is terribly fragile.”
“The Regular” by Ken Liu seamlessly blends futuristic technology into detective noir. It shares the tropes of the typical pulpish P.I. novel; the main character has a shattered family and a contentious relationship with law enforcement. It’s also got one of the most interesting speculative elements in the book; while most of the stories deal with replaced limbs and body systems and such — what we tend to visualize when we think “cyborg” — one of several available “upgrades” in this story is a Regulator, which stabilizes adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin for optimal emotional performance. It’s dependence on this device that puts a twist on the typical P.I. addiction narrative, and it’s the ocean of grief that threatens to overwhelm detective Ruth that gives her the wisdom to overcome desperate odds when all the electronic advancements on Earth can’t help her.
Xia Jia’s “Tongtong’s Summer,” one of Liu’s translations, is a bittersweet gem of a tale about the love between grandparent and grandchild. The technology in this story allows the elderly to feel useful even after their bodies or minds have declined. So many of the stories in this anthology deal with death in one way or another, and this one does so with an optimism that is all too rare in western fiction. Not gonna lie: it also made me cry a little. In a public place. Dignity = lost.
There are a few other nice surprises, such as the engaging and snarky character voice in Madeline Ashby’s “Come From Away”: “What the hell kind of James Bond villain bullshit… You’re building a fucking sun under this town?” But generally, the bone I have to pick with anthologies that center around a single subgenre is that when you surround, say, one brilliant post-apocalyptic story with twenty other post-apocalyptic stories, that story’s brightness is dimmed by the others’ proximity. Some anthologies are like symphonies and some are like rock albums, and this type is like later Radiohead albums where all the songs sound just a little too much alike.
Upgraded just happens to be a really good Radiohead album.