“Radars revealed the full extent of the kikixi’s abilities. They could pick off a man’s eye five miles away – even when the gun’s range was far lower. There was some strange confluence between their vision and precision that made them understand and use guns as intimately and effectively as if they were another limb. Their understanding of bullet-drop, wind, each gun’s idiosyncrasies was beyond even what human computing could achieve.” – From “The Bear Will Eat Salmon“
Synopsis: Lifeforms is a collection of science-fiction short stories which span a variety of sub-genres; each story is independent of the others and examines a different theme, the unifying element being alien contact of some sort.
I’ll admit it: I tend to get stuck on novels, and overall they are my favorite reading format. When I get started on a book, I tend to burn through it at a very fast pace and novels are the perfect delivery system for that extended hit of narrative I crave. That being said, I still have an enormous appreciation for other formats such as the poem, novella, or short story. The short story in particular does receive the credit it is due; a well-crafted short story is an excellent way to flex one’s narrative chops, as it has little to hide behind. A good short story draws in a reader, makes them care, and then closes in a satisfying way, all in a limited space; they are a challenge! J.H.M. Okthos’ short story collection “Lifeforms” delivers a number of clean literary gut-punches in rapid succession, and the work as a whole is a coup-de grace; I was floored by the quality of this book. This person knows how to write a great short story.
The challenge in reviewing this sort of collection is that due to the compact nature of the stories, it becomes extremely easy to reveal too much; to avoid this, I will only touch loosely upon each story and instead discuss what Okthos has done overall here. First, the only true unifying theme of the collection is “alien life”; this translates into numerous scenarios for humanity past, present, near-future, and distant future. Similarly diverse are the settings: in some cases we are on Earth, and in others humanity has left Earth behind; in some stories the setting delves into the far reaches of space, and in others we are taken through strange urban sprawls. I deeply appreciated the variety presented to the reader in “Lifeforms”, as it keeps the sense of discovery high, and does not allow one to settle into complacency: this is a reading experience which demands one’s full attention and delivers the goods. Even genre is fluid in this collection, as Okthos deftly bobs and weaves through the gamut of science-fiction sub-genres with grace and aplomb: alien invasion, cyberpunk, hard sci-fi, slipstream… many forms are represented well.
As far as the writing itself is concerned, one need not be worried: Okthos presents tight prose along with well-written dialogue and steady pacing. It’s a smooth read, and very easy to burn through in a day if you’re ambitious (it certainly kept me engaged). What really stood out to me though was how thoughtful this compilation was. While these stories seek to entertain (like any good fictional narrative), they also all punctuate their existence with a question: “what would happen to Earth if all metal disappeared entirely tomorrow?” or “what would it look like if humans ceased to be the apex predator of their environment?”. Each story is simultaneously thoughtful and thought-provoking, and it is clear Okthos put a great deal of love into his work. While I dislike speaking of “literary merit” (come on… it’s pretentious), this collection delivers a good amount of bang for your buck if you’re the sort who enjoys literary discussion and analysis!
Would I recommend “Lifeforms”? Yes, absolutely. It is punchy, well-written, and while it unavoidably touches on sci-fi themes which have been explored before, it does so without being boring, derivative, or cliché. The book is well-priced (especially so if you have a Kindle device), and well worth your time. Check it out!
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