The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination is the latest themed anthology edited by John Joseph Adams — and it’s another good one. This time, Adams has collected a set of short stories featuring the hero’s (or often superhero’s) traditional antagonist: the mad genius, the super-villain, the brilliant sociopath who wants to remold the world in his own image — or occasionally, maybe, just be left alone in his secret lair to conduct spine-tingling experiments that, as an unfortunate side-effect, may cause drastically rearranged geography, rampant mutation, or major extinction events.
Under the editorial direction of John Joseph Adams, this anthology offers an impressively varied view on this archetypical character. Some stories refer back to mad geniuses you’ll be familiar with (Frankenstein, Lex Luthor). Some of them feature wholly original villains. In some stories, you’ll feel sympathy for them; in others, it’s hard to find a shred of positive. There’s fantasy, SF, steampunk, humor, horror, stories referring back to historical events and fictional characters. This is one of the few themed anthologies that escapes the risk of monotony by changing direction so often that it rarely feels like too much of the same thing.
One aspect of this collection that needs to be highlighted is its presentation. The cover illustration by Ben Templesmith is perfect. The artwork’s color scheme is carried over in the title and the list of contributors, which is a wonderful touch that pulls the entire cover together. It’s simply a beautiful book.
Once you peek inside, you’ll see the anthology is structured like an actual guide book, with each story assigned a category (“Alchemical Explorations,” “Logistics and Support of Evil Programmatics”). The story headers also list a “Rule” derived from the story (“Rule 444.4: Every Genius Needs a Good Publicist”) and that Rule’s source (i.e. one of the story’s characters). The final line in each header is “Via:” followed by the story’s actual author. The headers are a lovely conceit that puts a neat spin on this anthology — even if, in one case, the “Source” happens to be a spoiler for the story’s eventual revelation. There’s also a small, postage stamp-sized piece of black and white art accompanying each story.
The lineup of authors is, as you’d expect for a John Joseph Adams anthology, impressive. For completion’s sake, here’s the entire list in order of appearance, after Chris Claremont’s Foreword: Austin Grossman, Harry Turtledove, Seanan McGuire, David D. Levine, Jeremiah Tolbert, Daniel H. Wilson, Heather Lindsley, David Farland, L.A. Banks, Alan Dean Foster, Genevieve Valentine, Theodora Goss, Diana Gabaldon, Carrie Vaughn, Laird Barron, L.E. Modesitt Jr., Naomi Novik, Mary Robinette, Kowal, Marjorie M. Liu, Jeffrey Ford, Grady Hendrix and Ben H. Winters.
Most of the 22 entries fall in the short story range, 10 to 15 pages on average, with the one notable exception of Diana Gabaldon’s brilliant novella “The Space Between.” As always, the editor has created a webpage for the anthology where you can find author interviews, excerpts, and links to some of the stories that are available online.
As for the actual stories, there are more than a few excellent ones to be found here, several good ones, and a few I could have done without. The quality of the book is uneven but, taken as a whole and on average, quite high. The sheer variety and short length of most entries helped offset some of the stories I wasn’t so crazy about. The pace and tone changes so frequently you’ll never be bored.
I’m not going to try and review every single of these 22 stories, so here are just a few of my absolute favorites:
- The anthology kicks off in style with Austin Grossman’s “Professor Incognito Apologizes: An Itemized List”, which is a point-by-point not-quite-apology note from a mad genius to his fiancée. Imagine something like the infamous roommate agreement by The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon, but twenty years into the future when Sheldon’s really lost his marbles.
- “The Mad Scientist’s Daughter” by Theodora Goss. The daughters of famous fictional mad scientists (Frankenstein, Moreau, Jekyll and Hyde, and so on) form a club and live together in London. This story is wistful and gorgeous, with a formal tone that somehow makes it even more touching. There’s so much material here that I really wish the author would expand it to a longer format. Stunning.
- “The Space Between” by Diana Gabaldon is the only novella in the anthology. It’s the initially confusing and sometimes moving tale of a young Scottish woman travelling to France to enter a convent, a recently bereaved family member accompanying here, and an alchemist who appears to have discovered time travel. It’s one of the few stories in the anthology that offers a fantasy twist and a historical perspective on the mad genius concept. It’s also beautifully written.
- “Blood & Stardust” by Laird Barron. I’m usually not one for horror, but this story about Mary, the young woman who fulfills the role of “Igor” to the mostly offscreen Frankenstein-analogue here, is just stunning. The prose, the imagery, the power of this character’s twisted but somehow understandable psyche — it all works together to create an unforgettable piece. I’m officially on the hunt for more stories by Laird Barron.
- “Captain Justice Saves the Day” by Genevieve Valentine offers a variation on a similar theme (the mad scientist’s assistant) but in a completely different register. It’s a funny little tale that’s perfectly introduced by its pre-story Rule: “Never Trust a Job Posting on Craigslist”.
Again, as you see from these five examples, this is a highly varied set of stories. Thanks to this, The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination is one of the few themed anthologies I enjoyed reading cover to cover, rather than dipping into it occasionally while reading other books. If you’re up for a dose of crazy genius, this anthology is definitely worth a look.