You can read Charlie Jane Anders’ As Good as New here.
As Good as New is Anders’ unique combination of the ‘genie in a bottle’ scenario played out in a post-apocalyptic setting. The story follows Marisol, a premed student who has cast aside her dreams of being a playwright. She is in the middle of her part-time housecleaning job when global catastrophe hits. Conveniently enough, the owner of the house had a bunker prepared for just this sort of situation, and Marisol is able to duck in and lock herself into safety.
After spending several months watching reruns and eating frozen dinners, Marisol ventures out to find that the world had turned into a chilly wasteland covered in a white fungus responsible for taking out the human race. A corked bottle catches her eye, and upon uncorking it, she meets Richard Wolf, the theater critic turned genie.
Seeing the desolation all around him, Richard seems more annoyed than anything else. “Not again,” he says, which Marisol catches and interprets to mean that the last owner of the bottle had inadvertently brought about humanity’s demise. In classic genie fashion, Richard neither confirms nor denies this.
The two become friends of a sort. Richard is wry as genies go, and Marisol, as a former playwright herself, is eager to win his approval. In between their banter and discussions of theater, Marisol tries to puzzle out what exactly had gone wrong with the previous wisher and how she could frame her wishes to undo the catastrophe without causing another.
Well, she succeeds, much to my surprise. It turns out that this is one genie story with a happy ending. With careful phrasing, she is able to put everything back as it once was and finds herself transported into a coffee shop with her friend Julia.
And that’s… it.
No twist, no lesson, no nothing. Marisol comes out of her apocalyptic experience unscathed and largely unchanged.
I’m struggling to find more to say about this story because there doesn’t seem to be much more to it than that. The setting is left unexplored and the events leading up to the story turn out to be inconsequential. The main character amazingly manages to avoid any sort of development as a human being through an experience that surely must have been quite harrowing. The genie, for all his insistence on remaining silent on the topic of how the apocalypse happens in the first place, turns out to have nothing up his sleeve at all. And Marisol manages to succeed in turning the world back to normal by simply phrasing her wishes in careful, and not particularly clever, manner.
My expectations may have been too high. After all, I found out about this story through a list of “6 Brain-Bending SF/F Stories You can Read on Your Lunch Break” on Barnes and Noble’s blog. If this was the list creator’s idea of “brain-bending,” then I hope for his sake he never watches something like LOST, since that’s sure to kill him.
As Good as New is not a horrible story. It just mixes two classic scenarios in an interesting way and then doesn’t go anywhere with it.
I don’t have to like a story to come away with lessons to carry on with me as a writer. What I’ve learned is this:
A story’s main assets are its setting, its plot, and its characters. If a story does not offer much in the way of those, it better deliver something else, otherwise the reader is bound to walk away empty handed.