If you’re looking for transformative literature, an anthology that mixes history and alchemy may just fit the bill.
In the latest volume of the long-running Tesseracts series of speculative fiction anthologies, editors Lorina Stephens and Susan MacGregor have curated 23 stories set around the world and in many eras. The tales in Alchemy and Artifacts explore the use of artifacts that are some strange fusion of secret knowledge and artifice.
Throughout, the stories mix historical people, events, and context with speculative elements.
Leslie Brown’s “Cleaning House in Ithaca” shows classical hero Odysseus facing the legacy of his exploits in Troy; in “Blood, Lead, and Torchlight,” Cat McDonald explores the cause of the disastrous fire at the fabled Library of Alexandria.
“By a Thread” teases out the different levels of conflict between the Beothuk and the Norse on the East Coast of what would later be Canada, and Bev Geddes’s “The Witch of Glencoe” tells of an attempt to forestall what would become a legendary betrayal of the MacDonald clan in Scotland by the Campbell clan.
“The selection of the stories for Alchemy and Artifacts was a long process,” Stephens says.
“Susan and I read independently, and each came up with the 25 stories we felt were best. Our lists differed considerably. What informed my decision to cull or consider a story was an adherence to the presence of an actual historical artifact, and how that artifact might resonate with, and influence, the characters in the story.”
The theme of what an artist puts into their work, literally and metaphorically, plays a role in the stories as well. “The act of manufacturing an artifact is an act of creation, and while that artifact is an inanimate object, there’s no denying that if the person who created the artifact has done their job well, communication does indeed occur,” she says.
“And the user, or viewer, or listener, often is transported by that communication.”
That act of creation can hold serious consequences. In “Caligula’s Eagle” by Tony Pi, a cruelty visited on a mythical creature comes back to haunt none other than Claudius Caesar and Seneca, among others.
Knowledge shared also has repercussions: in Mary-Jean Harris’s “The Guardian of Wisdom,” Aristotle realizes too late that telling his young pupil, Alexander of Macedonia, of an artifact of great power hidden in Egypt will drive the future conqueror to great lengths to acquire it.
Alchemy and Artifacts certainly works an alchemy of its own: even as the characters in the stories gain wisdom, often to their sorrow, the reader is offered a new way to look at the past and to think about how things might have (or might well have) been.
“One of my favourite stories in the collection is ‘The Berlin Golem,’ by Geoffrey Hart,” Stephens says. “The theme is explicit: the creation of a golem. The transformation, however, is stunning and unexpected. Without giving away too much, it is a timeless cautionary tale, and it is because of the theme, the transformation, and the artifact I felt this is a tale that will stand the test of time, resonate, if you will, with future generations.”