BOOK REVIEW: You Know What I Think?

You Know What I Think? by Stephanie Barnfather (Single Author Collection, 2022).

This is an uneven but often interesting collection of (mostly) SF/F/H genre works. Most of the stories take a satirical, if not absurdist then definitely quirky tack. Chaos generally ensues–often comedic, other times horrific, occasionally both at once.

As you can see on the cover, the book promises “thirteen short stories about futuristic what-ifs.” Well, not exactly.

Not all are futuristic. One isn’t even a ‘story’ in the usual sense.

“Predator” is actually a narrative poem–a sonnet, no less. As such, it does tell a story and it is well-crafted, so I’m being a bit picky here. Additionally, its account of a young woman’s tragic adventure via an online pick-up is well-crafted and darkly horrific. But futuristic? Nope–this effective, cautionary work is set squarely in our present era.

Other stories are clearly genre pieces, but not necessarily SF–again, being picky.

The book’s title story and finale is also my favorite entry overall. I’d describe it as a fantasy idea combined with SF-style world-building. It’s set in what seems a variation of our modern world, with a single darkly magical addition. People there have the ability to change reality by simply offering their opinion–potentially a seriously dangerous power. What if one was, for example, to say of an enemy “I think he’s a rat”–and the person thus described instantly transforms into a literal rodent? Yeah, one can understand why a culture would make spoken opinions taboo. And the punch line at the very end of this tale is both effective and evilly amusing.

“Paula is Dead” takes legendary rumors centered around the Beatles–especially the one where McCartney was supposed to have died and been replaced by a double–gives them a gender-swapped spin and plunks it all down in the emotional tangle that is today’s social media-drenched high school experience–complete with snarky commentary and click-baiting. The result strikes me as a bit too on-the-nose to dignify with the label of allegory. But it’s fun nonsense. I particularly enjoyed this Fab Four’s just barely mutated song titles, such as “Suzy in the Clouds with Emeralds.”

“Vanity Uprising” is an absurdist, satirical send-up of mystery fiction in which the investigators are so darn idiotic they can’t see the rebels they’re attempting to track down hiding in plain sight. Like many of the stories here, name-dropping various place names remind the reader that Barnfather is from Canada–or Canucka, as she playfully styles it.

A number of near-future stories do appear, however. These typically showcase strange changes in society and their resultant problems–a classic form of SF, though the author of course gives such tales her own unique twists.

“Do Not Talk To That Child” is sociological SF of a unique and rather grim sort. An experiment in social engineering has children being raised with no contact allowed with other youngsters. The idea is that kids raised in this abnormal isolation will not be subjected to the bullying or cruelty of others. But of course, it doesn’t work out as planned.

“Cargo Movement” is about car culture gone wild. All of society lives out their lives on the road. It improbably brought to my mind the 1973 novel On Wheels (a now-obscure book from before John Jakes abandoned SF to write the historical potboilers he was briefly famous for in the 1970s and 80s). While Jakes played the absurd premise straight, Barnfather naturally plays it as satire–and for my money, her version gets it more right than the future best-seller ever could.

“Balloon Beloved” is an amusing, kind of absurdist and, in the end, a moderately touching love story from a time when (at least) most of humanity has been forced into a permanently airborne existence by rising sea levels. The reluctant ‘best pal’ type unwillingly yet dutifully helped her foolishly obsessed partner, while pining for him unnoticed–not the most original dynamic ever seen. But Barnfather handles it with an unlikely combination of silliness and quiet grace.

Other stories offered here may very well appeal stronger to other readers–these were just the ones I liked best. But I think the above gives some insight into this writer’s style and subject matter.

Other tales feature offbeat encounters with AI-equipped lawn mowers who prove a bit too single-minded in their assigned tasks, monsters that stalk small town victims hidden beneath blankets, a world where posting playfully anti-feline memes can land you in a Kafka-informed nightmare, and assorted other quirky weirdness.

If such inventive oddities are to your taste, give this author and her 1st story collection a try.


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