The third anthology in as many years from Ian Whates’ NewCon Press. First up was his ‘Time Pieces’, marking a low-key British con. Last year’s ‘Dislocations’ was similar in style – a thinnish volume, but which gave equally good value for money. Click on the ‘Newcon Press’ tag above to find these.
This volume is an altogether weightier tome, and is issued to mark the 50th anniversary of the British Science Fiction Assocation, and has come big, mostly British names – from Aldiss to Watson.
So what of the science fiction?
The volume opens up with two Alternate History stories, which may or may not come under your definition of science fiction – as a rule I’m generally not overly keen on the genre. The two stories score for the British reader in having English settings and characters whom we are familiar with – overseas readers may be a bit fazed. First up is Stephen Baxter’s ‘The Jubilee Plot’ which gives a take on an England where the railways did not transform British society in the 19th Century, as forces opposed to the progress they offered made sure that neither they, nor Stephenson himself, were long lived. The plot is against Queen Victoria, arriving to start a motor race across a mighty bridge spanning the Channel, and one of the combatants finds himself party to knowledge which could threaten the race.
There are some neat touches, as we come to expect from the redoubtable Baxter, especially in the societal impact, or rather, lack of it, that the railyways didn’t bring, and the class and power divisions amongst the participatns..
Next up is Ken Macleod’s ‘Wilson at Woking’ and for me having the volume start with consecutive Alternate Histories isn’t an ideal start. Macleod has a stab at the Alternate History sub-genre of HG Wells’ Martian Invaders. The titular hero is none other than Labour PM Harold Wilson, and in the brief story Macleod has fun merging 20th century facts and faces and fictional characters, although without really great effect.
Kim Lakin-Smith’s ‘The Killing Fields’ is a near future post-Civil War Britain, but the background is sketchily described and leads into a shootout on a farm that doesn’t really grab as there hasn’t been that much time spent to engage the reader in the combatants.
In contrast (and it is a bit unfair to make the comparison), stalward Ian Watson’s ‘Having the Time of His Life’ does very much get under the skin of the protagonist, and whilst there isn’t much action, it is of a higher order – the man in question meets up with a woman with whom time stands still : literally. Initially this is used by her to fulfil fantasies of having sex in front of strangers. To my mind, this sounds more like a male fantasy, most women I know would probably want to shoplift around Marks and Spencers given the opportunity to act whilst everyone else is frozen! Anyhoo, in coming to terms with who his time-pausing paramour might be (ancient succubus from the earliest days?) he has to decide whether what is on offer is what he wants.
Tricia Sullivan’s ‘The Dog Hypnotist’ is a simpler, short wry tale, in which it turns out a man’s best friend is palpably not his dog.
Rather more fantastical is Jon Courtney Grimwood’s ‘The Crack Angel’, a very stylish sfnoir detective tale. What starts out like any other private eye story, with a beautiful blonde giving lots of money for a tricky job, unfolds into an altogether more unique story. The PI going under the pseudonym of Panama Red is currently living in the mean streets of London – streets lovingly and accurately described with a minimum of fuss but attention to detail. He is currently in London in the 21st Century as he has been in other places and in other times. Now retired from such travelling, his job is to monitor the cracks between times and places and to help people who shouldn’t be, or don’t want to be, where they are. The job : to find a macaque monkey is more complicated than it appears, and Grimwood cleverly doesn’t reveal all at any point. It’s an excellent story.
Even weirder is M. John Harrison’s ‘Keep Smiling with Great Minutes’ which provides a palpable sense of ennui in a short piece which is as slippery to describe as the strange Volsie which variously appears to the narrator as grape-like protuberances and railway ticket collectors, commenting on the strange life in which we live – a time both bland and rotten.
Molly Brown’s ‘Living with the Dead’ is a short take on zombie fiction, but her zombies are very British – none of this brain-eating nonsense, they just rather politely hang around, not wanting to be any bother.
Brian Stableford’s ‘Next to Godliness’ has as its setting a very suburban backdrop, a dinner party with friends old and new, used to look at the impact of neural drugs which are commonly used to provide the middle-class with pleasure from success. The party host, so successful is her dinner, succumbs to a seizure as a result of the drugs. The story is a bit like a dinner party – from my limited experience I tend to find the endless witterings beyond the pale, whereas those happy to engage in the discussions clearly enjoy the evening much more.
Next up is Dave Hutchinson’s ‘Mellowing Grey’, an entertaining look at a world, or rural Britain, reclaimed by the elves. Not the green-clad poncy elves of Tolkein, but a violent, rumbustious lot, several of whom have parked themselves in a countryside pub and are drinking the landlord dry. We find out more about the impact of the return of the elven folk, leaving human society without the technology that we have relied on for many years.
Liz Williams’ ‘At Shadow Cope’ is the most straightforward fantasy story in the collection, with a powerful mage visiting an old college contemporary who is very much down on his luck. The mage finds that someone, or something, is after him in his fellow mage’s house.
Brian Aldiss’ ‘Peculiar Bone, Unimaginable Key’ is a near-future story, set in a world in which Islam and Christianity have come to an understanding – one that involves the Europeans forswearing alcohol (like that’s going to happen!). A potential Second Coming of Christ is being investigated – and a fish-smoking shed in Whitby is the unlikely location.
Martin Sketchley’s ‘Deciduous Trees’ is one of the more mainstream stories in the collection, describing quite vividly the domestic background to a man coming to terms with the imminent death of his wife’s father. Fearing she will not cope with his loss, he comes to an understanding with Jesus Christ, and when the father-in-law dies, the man has to face that challenge in dealing with his end of the arrangement.
Towards the end of the collection we finally see some star-spanning science fiction, courtesy of Alastair Reynold’s ‘Soiree’. Awoken after centuries in hypersleep, the crew of the first interstellar spaceship to have left Earth are welcomed by those who left after them, but arrived earlier due to better technology and faster journeys. However, all is not quite as it seems, as is gradually, and chillingly revealed.
Ian R. Macleod’s ‘On the Sighting of Other Islands’ is a two-pager, simply describing a strange world in which the inhabitants live in cities afloat on islands above the seas, occassionally catching glimpses, or not, of other islands.
Christopher Priest’s ‘Fireflies’ is set in his long-running Dream Archipelago sequence, and like many stories in the series, paints a small piece of detail in the larger map.
Last up is Adam Roberts’ ‘The Man of the Strong Arm’ and it has to be the last in the volume as it finishes with a pun so outrageously appalling that no story could be expected to follow it. The story has a far future setting, in which Man is supreme and Woman subservient, and in finding fragments of digital data from their bygone days, history and fiction has become blurred, and whilst some men, such as Charlton Heston, are seen a paragons of humanity, others, such as Neil Armstrong are seen as fictional characters. The story felt a bit awkward, with the conflation of fact/fiction seeming somewhat broad, until the final sentence put the story in context.
This is a good collection featuring some strong stories by many of the biggest names in British SF. What for me stops it being a truly excellent collection is that fact that so many of the stories are contemporary, with the exceptions to that being a couple of stories being backward-looking Alternate History, and only a couple being forward-looking science fiction.
In marking 50 years of the BSFA ideally there would have been much more of the forward-looking, anticipating where we are heading, rather than the reflective this is where we are now, and this is where we have been. Is SF pausing for reflection, girding its loins, about to embrace the myriad opportunities for advancement and exploration that are in our grasp? There are so many SF giants on whose shoulders today’s writers can stand, but at the moment it feels as if the writers are becoming more introspective and relfective. Harrison and Watson’s stories captures this feeling to some extent – writers who over the years have very much been ‘out there’ isn probing the extreme edges of what it will be to human, but who are very much more reflective here. And Baxter and Ken Macleod who can very much be relied upon to look to the future in terms of biology/technology/societal change open the volume with alternate histories.
But having said that, there’s a lot to be had from this collection, and I commend it to you.