Around the Dark Dial – J.D. Sanderson – Review

Around The Dark Dial

J.D. Sanderson

I’m always interested in collections that have some sort of unique theme or unusual angle to them; whether it’s a multi-author anthology or a collection of stories by a single author, if it has a distinctive concept behind it then you can be sure that I’ll be picking it up and giving it a chance. Such is the case with Around the Dark Dial, the debut short story collection from author J.D. Sanderson, and which has as its core concept the fascinating idea of basing its science-fiction stories around 1950s radio dramas. In particular, Sanderson looks to replicate the episodic nature of those serials, with their focus on self-contained stories told in a single sitting, rather than an on-going narrative spread across multiple episodes. It’s a highly compelling concept, especially when combined with the content and aesthetics found in the radio dramas of that mid-century period; and when combined with the brilliant cover illustration by artist and editor B. K. Bass, as well as the cover blurb by no less a personage than horror veteran David Wellington, it all made for an intriguing-sounding book that I was eager to dive into.

Split into eleven stories, Around the Dark Dial opens with Hello There, in which a mixed team of scientists and military experts investigate a mysterious force field that suddenly appeared around Yellowstone National Park in 2024 when an eruption occurred. Unable to enter it for a century, the field suddenly allows humans to move through it, and Major Park and her team move to investigate. But when team member Gerren has a panic attack inside the area covered by the field – livestreamed across the world – Park has to investigate. Gerren claims he saw a bizarre, alien creature lurking in the trees, but none of his suit sensors recorded what they claimed to see. Was it a mirage, or something real? Perhaps the pictures from the old-fashioned camera the crew member carried can tell – if anyone will listen to them. A short but sharply-written and intense story with a fantastic ending that had me wanting more, it’s an excellent start to the collection. Caller Four takes us to the people calling in to late-night radio station programme, Late Night Storey, with stories about paranormal experiences. But what starts out with the host and his colleague quietly mocking the calls off-air soon escalates into an unsettling discussion with a woman who claims to have been abducted by aliens, a mysterious voice that only the host can hear telling him to end the call, and terrifying consequences for attempting to uncover the truth. It’s a chilling and atmospheric tale, with a nice sting in the tail, and once again perfectly fits the theme of the collection. It’s followed by The Simulant which is an intriguing tale set in a near-future setting that opens with a terrorist attack on a fusion power plant, and suspicion falling on both a radical eco-terrorist group, and a group known as Simulants: androids living and working alongside humans. Haro is one such Simulant, and soon witnesses – and experiences – discrimination and hostility from humans against Simulants in the wake of the attack. The notion of whether to assimilate or resist in a dominant culture is an old and often hoary trope utilised throughout the sci-fi genre, but it’s also one that Sanderson uses to great effect here, imbuing it with an energy and imagination I rarely see these days, to create a compelling story that I’d like to see expanded upon.

Headline sees a young journalist eager for a story to make his career assigned to investigate a mysterious, anonymous package sent to his newspaper. It contains a series of complex and quietly sinister documents detailing attempts by the US government to forcibly transfer people from rural to urban locations alongside the new Interstate Highway system. The more that the reporter investigates the scheme, and its strange-looking proponent in government, the more terrifying the scheme becomes – and the more dangerous to the reporter and his colleagues. Once again, Sanderson provides a short but powerful story with an unexpected twist that meshes perfectly thematically, and feels like an unaired episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. Daughter – well, Daughter hit me like a freight train if I’m honest; it caught me unawares and blew me away with just how well-written and thought-provoking it was. Once again, one of Sanderson’s stories take a common, over-used sci-fi trope and reinvigorates it with emotive writing and an engaging imagination. Daughter stands out as the best story in the collection by far – an impressive feat given their overall high quality – and single-handedly demonstrates just how talented Sanderson is as a writer. I’ll say no more – because genre fans should be buying the collection just to read this story alone. Hello Again is a direct sequel to the first story, and sees Major Patel’s team head into Yellowstone to try and locate the mysterious creature spotted by Gerren. Unfortunately they’re joined by a member of the Intelligence Corps who seems to have hostile intentions towards the creature, and Gerren has to take drastic steps to try and make peaceful contact with the creature.

The Snowstorm follows the elderly resident of an isolated cottage as it’s assailed by a snowstorm so fierce that it buries the walkway, effectively trapping the woman and leaving outside forces as her only hope for survival. However, the arrival of a stranger who chances the wind and sleet and temperatures to bring his infant daughter to the old woman changes everything, and it soon becomes clear that this is a very different world to our own, with its plague quarantine shelters and a death toll so high entire areas are depopulated. And then, in a twist that would be less chilling and stomach-churning if it didn’t seem to be becoming so prevalent across the world today, it becomes clear that science and progress have been replaced by regressive forces who have banned things like vaccines and proper medical treatment, and replaced it with ultra-conservative religious indoctrination and death penalties. It’s a timely, quietly disturbing and above-all worryingly plausible story, and one of the best in the collection. The Circus – Peanut Gallery is another near-future tale set in a research facility on the outskirts of Mumbai, where scientist Mohan has managed the feat of speech conversion, giving a number of animals in the facility the power of speech. They’re a fascinating and colourful bunch, Sanderson giving each of them a unique and memorable personality suited to their species, and they’re what makes the story so memorable. What could have simply been a quietly amusing or even openly comedic story – a bunch of talking animals! – is imbued with far greater depth and emotional heft when Sanderson delves into the feelings of the animals themselves on Mohan’s invention – and the moral and ethical issues that even this brilliant scientist had not imagined.

Moving towards the end of the collection, Rearing tackles the complex and thorny issues of Artificial Intelligence and robotics, and the ever-present question of whether just because one can do something one should do something: in this specific case, create an AI that can absorb the entire contents of the internet within a few hours, and also give it a powerful robotic body that can bend steel at will. As the story progresses, Sanderson intertwines two narratives of different ways of rearing an individual new to this world, and in doing so creates a story that is simultaneously hopeful – and concerning. The penultimate story – Choice – focuses on the search for intelligent life in space, and another fascinating ethical conundrum from Sanderson. In a near-future world riven by tensions between humans, and humans and humanoid Artificial Intelligences that have resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, what would be the result of announcing concrete proof of extraterrestrial intelligence? Would it unite a fractured planet once and for all? Or permanently and irrevocably widen those fractures? It’s a tense, thought-provoking narrative that creates more questions than answers, and is another of Sanderson’s stories that I’d like to see expanded to novella or even novel length. The collection closes with Welcome, the third part of the triptych involving Major Park’s team and the mysterious force field around Yellowstone; after a brief, tense action sequence, Sanderson ties up the story in a delightfully up-beat and engaging manner that bodes very well, both for the characters in the story, and the collection as a whole, as it’s a fantastic way to close out the book as a whole.

Around the Dark Dial is one of the most original, engaging and memorable collections of science-fiction stories that I have read in a very long time, and a frankly incredible achievement by author J.D. Sanderson. With each of the eleven stories in the collection, Sanderson uses his wit, boundless imagination and vivid writing style to deftly bring to the written page the feeling of listening to one of those period radio dramas. As he pulls into near-future worlds populated with synthetic humans, artificial intelligences, and beings from other worlds – and realities – you can almost hear the hiss, crackle and popping of the radio as the stories progress and come to their climatic and often disconcerting endings. Each story is populated with three-dimensional characters that jump out of the pages at you, and are accompanied by atmospheric and vibrant prose that blends with Sanderson’s prodigious imagination to create memorable, thought-provoking and hugely entertaining narratives that stay with you long after you’ve finished the collection. In fact, two stories have stuck with me for quite some time after moving onto other titles in my review pile: Daughter is a simple yet multi-layered story that deftly inverts and then reinvents a common sci-fi trope and invests it with a huge amount of emotional energy and a quietly shocking ending; and Choice is a story so bursting with imagination and potential that it feels like Sanderson managed to pack an entire novel into one story. Around the Dark Dial is an absolute delight to read, and certainly deserves to attract a wide and appreciative readership based on the quality of the imagination and prose found within its pages. I intend to promote it wherever I can, and greatly look forward to seeing what J.D. Sanderson produces next – he’s a writer firmly on my radar.

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