Need a break from holiday commercialism? Want to send a much-needed gift to groups cleaning up one of 2010's worst disasters? Great! Check out Breaking Waves, an anthology featuring award-winning writers like Ursula K. Le Guin and Vonda McIntyre.
After the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April, YA fantasy author Tiffany Trent asked writers to contribute short stories, poems, and essays for a benefit collection to raise money for cleanup of the disaster. The result was Breaking Waves: An Anthology for Gulf Coast Relief, distributed as an ebook (in a variety of non-DRMed formats) through Book View Cafe. All proceeds from sales of the $4.99 book go to the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund — and yes, even months later, the effects of the spill are still being felt, even if it has largely faded from public consciousness.
As you might guess, most of the pieces here — 22 stories, seven poems, and five essays — center on the ocean. The book's title is a double pun, reminding us of the sea's ability to break us and our own, ever-growing capacity for damaging it. What's interesting about a collection like this is seeing how many different ways there are to riff on the theme.
For example: In her short story "Site 14," Laura Anne Gilman contrasts the indifferent, immense power of the deep, deep depths with the ingenuity and persistence of a hardworking crew of government aquanauts, to terrific effect. In "Black Gold," Trent gives us an exclusive tale from her Hallowmere mythos, with undines and kelpies and the vicious prince of the Fey Folk venturing into New Orleans. Elaine Isaak's "My Mother's People" introduces us to an Alaskan Indian whale hunter who gets more in touch with his heritage than he ever planned on. "Emergency" by Nancy Jane Moore — a series of (fictional) alerts from the National Weather Service — is brief and blackly funny. And "Shark Attack" by Sue Lange is a gripping (also fictional) account of one young lady's terrible decision and the consequences it entails.
Where there isn't a direct maritime connection, there's usually one to the environment at large. Fittingly, the centerpiece of the collection is an excerpt from Rachel Carson's classic The Sea Around Us, an explanation of how our oceans influence the climate as a whole — complex material rendered in clear, careful prose. "Christmas Count" by David B. Coe shows us a world where science has allowed us to revive extinct bird species, and asks whether that would be such a good thing after all; the theme isn't a new one for SF, but Coe's execution and particularly his characterization make it fresh. Then there's McIntyre's "A Modest Proposal for the Perfection of Nature," a bitingly mild essay that originally appeared in Nature, in which she suggests that a precisely regulated biosphere might be so pretty that it's just ugly.
There are also numerous references to New Orleans. Of these, my favorite was Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "Disaster Relief," the story of a very minor magician and his feline familiar helping a group of their peers relocate after Hurricane Katrina — honest and sentimental, without being mawkish.
Now, though Breaking Waves showcases both the splendor and the fury of nature, it is most definitely an anthology with a point of view, and that point of view is that human beings can do some pretty awful things to the environment, and that we ought to stop — or at the absolute minimum, think a little harder about them. There are, I imagine, readers who would prefer not to be exposed to such a collection — readers who will find some of the pieces here sanctimonious or oversaturated with "liberal guilt." And for sure, some of the writing here is too heavy-handed. Some of it is just not so great, trailing off into endings that feel unresolved. (And some of it is simply disappointing because you'd like more — only a poem from Ursula Le Guin? Alas.)
But this is nonetheless a big chunk of good work for a great price and an important cause. In my humble opinion, Randy Tatano's story "Backtiming" (deceptively simple, but keying into a fantasy I think a lot of us have entertained at some point), "Terra Incognita" by Camille Alexa (set in a deteriorating Antarctica in a dystopic near-future that is all too plausible), and Sarah Monette's "After the Dragon" are worth the price of admission alone. Vonda McIntyre personally recommended that last one when she told me about the anthology in October, and she was dead on. Strangely, of all the pieces, it probably has the least connection to Breaking Waves' general themes. But for sheer heart-grabbing-ness, vividness, and trueness, it is quite a feat.