I provided translations for the titles of the stories in this collection. These translations are mine and any errors in them are mine as well. Should any of this ever be translated there is no guarantee that the translator will even opt for a direct translation of the Dutch title so don't get attached to them.
Earlier this week I received the copy of a collection of Dutch language science fiction and fantasy I won at Fantasy Realm, which despite the English name is a Dutch language site for speculative fiction readers. Generally I am not impressed with the level of speculative fiction written in Dutch. Considering I am not that well read in this area, that may be a bit of a preconception so I make a point of trying once in a while anyway. Someone might surprise me after all. This collection published by the Belgian publisher Kramat seemed like a good candidate. It contains stories by authors you'll frequently come across in the local scene. I have only read books by two of them, one of which I put down after fifty pages because I couldn't get into the story.
By American standards this collection is something of a strange thing. It does not state who is the editor for instance. It does not seem to have a particular theme either. The fifteen stories in this collection range from far future SF to stories set into a more traditional fantasy setting. I suppose you could consider it a showcase of what the field has to offer at the moment. The result is mixed. There are a couple of very good stories in Time Out but also a few that should not have made the cut.
The collection is off the a very bad start with the foreword by John C. Vermeulen. He has a number of English language works on his resume so you may have heard of him. In the introduction he laments the state of science fiction in general, he appears to be a fan of the golden age authors but not much beyond, and of course the very limited recognition for the genre in Belgium. I disagree with his assessment on a number of points but what really puzzles me is why he chooses to kick off this collection on such a negative note. The editor then makes the critical mistake of following this introduction with Vermeulen's own story Vrouw met staart zoekt man (literally: Woman with Tail Seeks Man). It is by a fair margin the worst story in the collection. A combination of wish fulfilment and a cliché UFO story seen from the point of view of a very unsympathetic character. After reading this story I began to fear the worst for this collection.
Fortunately the next story by Guido Eekhaut is one of the best in the collection and probably the single reason why I didn't put this book down. His De angst in de ogen van de Millennium Mens (translating this one is tricky, perhaps "The Fear in the Eyes of Millennium Man") is a wonderfully dark post apocalyptic tale. What drew me to this story in particular is the prose. Eekhaut's use of the Dutch language is some of the finest I have come across in the genre. He manages to create a very dark and resigned atmosphere, a sense of the inevitable approaching. Eekhaut put himself on my to read list with this story.
Next up is Nico de Braeckeleer with his story Extase (this shouldn't need a translation). The main theme of the story is virtual reality. The main character is addicted to committing suicide in a virtual environment over and over again. A kick she thinks far exceeds even the best sex. It's a very interesting concept but unfortunately the end of the story is quite predictable. Despite that I rather enjoyed it.
W.J. Maryson's contribution is a story called De Zee (literally: The Sea). Maryson is a big name in Dutch fantasy with a dozen or so published fantasy novels. He's a very versatile artist. Maryson is credited with the cover for this collection for instance and also has also released several fantasy themed symphonic rock albums. I'm not sure about this story though. It is set in a kind of Waterworld like setting. It could be either fantasy or post apocalyptic. Or perhaps both. A group of people are making a living of rafts drifting on the endless sea and looking for what they refer to as the great raft. It turns out that not everybody on the raft is entirely committed to finding this mythical place. I must admit it is an entertaining read but it also looks more like the first chapters of a novel rather than a piece of short fiction. I had the feeling the story was just about to get going when Maryson concluded it.
In De Goliath (again this should not need translation) Johan Deseyn offers a tale with a classical theme. The artificial intelligence of a great spaceship about to be decommissioned objects to being terminated and turns on the crew preparing it for its final journey. Not a terribly good story. Personally think the process of an artificial intelligence going mad can be (and has been) used to great effect in science fiction stories. Deseyn doesn't show this however. He presents us with a machine already insane and never offers the main character any hope whatsoever of escaping doom. This story didn't work for me.
Peter Schaap is the only author in the collection I have finished a novel of, his 1999 fantasy Het Woud van de Maker. I think the emphasis of his writing is more on fantasy but in the story in this collection, De zesde poort (literally: The Sixth Gate), turns to science fiction. The story revolves around a high risk experiment that goes awry after the test subject passes the sixth gate. Schaap does not focus on the experiment itself but rather the motivation of the main character to take part in it. It mostly succeeds in distracting us from the technical side of things. Solid story.
Versteend Verlangen by Bianca Mastenbroek, (again a difficult translation, perhaps "Petrified Desire") is one of the highlights of this collection. A community is being manipulated by dragons into an unusual form of population control. It uses a classic fantasy trope and an ecological principle to build a very interesting story. Add to that a character with one of the strongest desires know and a nice non linear narrative you get a great story. My only critique is that there is perhaps a bit too much into this relatively short story. There is material for a novella there at least. Mastenbroek is also someone I am going to have to keep an eye on.
The next story Noodstop (literally: Emergency Stop) by Rudy Soetewey is one of the most unusual stories in the collection. The main character is desperately trying to get to an important meeting on time but it frustrated by Antwerpen's rush hour traffic. The hurdles he has to take and the situation he finds himself in become increasingly surreal as desperation takes hold of him. It is a very well paced story building up from a regular case of road rage to a complete disconnection with reality. Very well written.
Another very imaginative story is Kees Krick's De Maatopnemer (Perhaps "The Measurement Man"). I suppose you could say it is about a man caught in an awful marriage getting rid of his wife. A nasty specimen she may be, this is not a very nice thing to do. The concept of staying on the edge of life and death is interesting enough to ignore that for the duration of the tale. One of the more original stories in Time Out.
Pijn (literally: Pain) is Thirza Meta's contribution to the collection. It's a very short story about a woman struggling with an unnamed illness causing her great pain and fatigue. I suppose she escapes the reality of her situation to deal with the pain. It's an intriguing story but it does leave the reader with a lot of questions. Perhaps the glance she offers is a bit too brief for me to fully appreciate it.
Frank Roger and his story De kloof in de toren van hoop (literally: The Rift in the Tower of Hope) is something of a critique on our consumer society. It is also a clear miss in my opinion. The author depicts a society where the faults of consumerism are much more pronounced than in our own. Despite that all the main characters are blind to it. They are prepared to make unbelievable sacrifices to obtain material wealth for their families. For me it strains suspension of disbelief beyond the breaking point. His point is clear enough but I didn't really like this story.
De Droomfiguren (literally: The Dream Figures) by Mel Hartman is another virtual reality themed story, this time seen through the eyes of a PI. He is hired to investigate the disappearance of a wheelchair bound antiques dealer by his worried wife. His condition seems to rule out the usual motive and it soon turns into a very unusual case. De Droomfiguren deals with some pretty heavy themes (which I won't mention, it would spoil the story). At first I feared it would be a rather cliché story but it turned out very well.
Written by a man who's pseudonym still makes me wince but accurately states his ambition, De laatste akte (literally:The Final Act) by Brad Winning is one of the more interesting stories in this collection. It deals with a travelling judge and a band of stage actors meeting in a small rural town. None of them appear to be above a little robbing and cheating but when the opportunity arises one of them is prepared to take it one step further. A wonderfully wicked main character makes this story very much worth reading. According to the author introduction preceding the story, an English translation is going to be published but I have been unable to find any useful information about the collection that should contain this story.
I am going to be very brief about Robot op Mars (literally: Robot on Mars) by Luc Vos. It commits the deadly sin of having the main character wake up at the end, finding it was all a dream. Ouch!
That takes us to the final story in this collection Gestolen Tijd (literally: Stolen Time) by Tisa Pescar. I have rarely read a future where the lives of people are depicted as being as meaningless and empty as in this story. There does not seem to be any room to deviate from the rigidly controlled standards society imposes on the people. Naturally the protagonist does not wish to conform to these standards and rebels. Very depressing story with an equally depressing conclusion. Of course I have a weakness for bleak or post apocalyptic futures so I like this story just fine. I'm not entirely sure if I would choose to end a collection with this one though. Maybe something that would leave the reader in higher spirits might have been better.
With collections like these there is never a hundred percent score. I guess that if the stories you liked are more numerous than the once you didn't it is a good collection. For me that is the case for Time Out. I do think that the level of the stories varies too greatly and that another look by a good editor would have done this collection a world of good. On the whole I did enjoy Time Out. There are several authors in this collection I want to read more of in the future. It is always a good thing if an anthology makes your to read list grow. Another aspect I also enjoyed is the difference between the language of the Dutch and Flemish authors. It is not so clear as in spoken language but it's still there. Should any of this ever be translated that is a point that is probably going to be lost. This collection has its weaknesses but all things considered enough positive points to gain my stamp of approval.
Title: Time Out
Author: Various Authors
First published: 2009