The idea of mad scientists seems so overdone, like an old relic of serials from the Cold War era, which is why it was so surprising to see such nuance in a new anthology edited by John Joseph Adams, called The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination.
The obvious expectation is a bunch of short stories about white-haired men in lab coats, cackling and rubbing their hands nefariously over a workbench covered in bubbling vials. There are a few of those in here, but the authors have given us a surprisingly wide variety of characters, goals, and motivations. Sure, there are guys, but there are also good guys with good intentions gone wrong, normal guys who are misunderstood, geniuses with broken hearts or broken minds, even children who don’t understand their own power. Another laudable choice was to include stories where the mad scientist is a woman, instead of the traditional stereotype.
A refreshing aspect of the anthology is the variety of story forms. There’s the traditional tale of world domination, told in third person. But there are also stories that use flashbacks, or unreliable narrators, or multiple twists to keep things interesting. In fact, one the most delightful stories is told in the form of an itemized list. Trust me, it works.
To Adams credit, the stories form a nice ebb and flow. He has ordered them so that one particular trope or writing style doesn’t get too repetitive. Humor is interspersed with drama. Large plans of world domination are separated by more introspective, personal tales. And despicable protagonists are tempered with more lovably mad scientists.
The difficulty in reviewing an anthology such as this is that the quality of writing varies from story to story. The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination is no exception, although it’s worth saying that the low points are few and far between here. And they’re also not all that low. A few stories suffer from a slightly tortured premise or an unusual detour, but for the most part they are all well written and utterly compelling.
Such quality shouldn’t be so surprising. Adams has managed to pull together stories from some famous and up-and-coming authors in the science fiction and fantasy world, including David Farland, Mary Robinette Kowal, L.E. Modesitt Jr., Naomi Novik, Austin Grossman, Seanan McGuire, and many more.
The greatest benefit of an anthology, and this one in particular, is that you can get a large variety of hilarious situations, fascinating characters, intriguing ideas, and compelling plots. But perhaps the largest difficulty in reading this anthology is that there will inevitably be characters that you don’t want to let go. I promise you will want to read an entire novel about some of these mad scientists. But it’s not a bad problem to have, and Adams has certainly given us an anthology that will have you saying “I’ll read just one more. It’s only 2 a.m.”