‘cities’. edited by Peter Crowther, (Gollancz 2003).

This is the fourth Gollancz collection of novellas previously published as chapbooks by Leeds-based PS Publishing. As with other issues, the hardback is a handsome volume, the cover illustration is excellent, and it promises ‘the very best of fantasy comes to town’. I’d previously read three of the four stories when issued in their singleton format, and here are those reviews again, alongside a ‘review’ of the Michael Moorcock novella.

Paul Di Filippo. A Year in the Linear City.

My only complaint about this slim novella is that both the author and publisher have set themselves an almost impossibly high standard against which future outputs will be judged.

The cover of the 80-odd page booklet is laminated, and the cover artwork by Edward Miller is top class, a quantam leap ahead of previous artwork.

The story? Where to start?

The setting is reminiscent of R.A. Lafferty’s ‘The World as Will and Wallpaper’, which was written in 1973, and the comparison with short-story master Lafferty is praise indeed. Lafferty postulated a globe-encircling city, and here Di Filippo describes in just enough detail a truly linear city : a central road with a city block on either side, the back of one block abutting a strange railway track, and the back of the other pressing against a river. The railway and the river are the means of transport, and what lies beyond is known only to the dead. And in this most nightmarish/dreamlike milieu, the sky is inhabited by ‘Pompastics’, creatures which bear away the bodies of the dead. These creatures come in two varieties, the brutish Yardbulls, who threaten an afterlife of torment, and the beautiful gossamer Fisherwives, who promise a more heavenly destination. The nature of the beliefs of the city inhabitants, who are aware that they are inhabiting a city not of their making, is used to gently but wickedly show up our own religious beliefs.

The city itself is somehow built upon a lizard-like living matter, whose scales are precious, although dangerous to harvest. The characters are larger than life, resonantly named, and only slight distortions of a contemporary modern American city. The protagonist, Diego, writes not science fiction, but Cosmogonic Fiction. His paramour is an amazonian firefighter (the author’s writing does suggest a penchant for somewhat domineering beauties). The language is rich, and when visiting another city block, many days travel away, throws up cultural differences delightfully (and fatally).

There is more invention in this short story than I have come across in a long, long time. A shoo-in for the next Year’s Best collections.

Michael Moorcock. Firing the Cathedral.

I’m not at all familiar with Michael Moorcock. In the sixties, when Moorcock and his creation Jerry Cornelius were making New Waves, I was a schoolboy in short trousers. In the seventies I did read his ‘Warlord of the Air’, and in the eighties his excellent Alternate History ‘Gloriana’. More recently his short story ‘London Bone’ was in Hartwell’s ‘Year’s Best SF #3’, the novella ‘Ravenbrand’ which appeared in Interzone #151, January 2000 (an issue celebrating Moorcock’s 60th birthday) has been turned into a novel.

So I’m doubtless not getting the full benefit of this Cornelius story, in which Cornelius is in the middle of a London in the noughties which is dark and threatening and not a million miles from the true London. Moorcock prefaces each chapter with newspaper snippets in a telling manner, and the characters are many and larger than life. Doubtless many of the characters will be familiar to Cornelius devotees. I was only a few chapters through when I had a sudden image of Cornelius, a man very much of the sixties now in a new millenium, as none other than Austin Powers, and subsequently had a mental picture of him which made taking the story seriously somewhat problematic.

If you’re familiar with Cornelius, you will doubtless enjoy this hugely. Otherwise you have a slightly episodic, dark, satiric and disorienting view of London and the world we inhabit now.

China Mieville. The Tain.

The pleasure of reading Mieveille’s trio of well-received novels (King Rat, Perdido Street Station, The Scar) is one that awaits me. Mind you, on my current rate of reading novel-length fiction he will probably have a couple of dozen titles published by the time I start the first of them.

The opening passages, set in an almost deserted City of London were very reminscent to me of the likes of Wyndham’s ‘Day of the Triffids’, or Ballard’s enervating London lain-waste stories, and the memorably 70s BBC TV series ‘The Survivors’. Doubly chilling for the rarity of the London setting – I’m sure that whilst I was freaked out by some of Stephen King’s horror fiction (eg The Stand), the fact that a lot of that genre, both fiction and filmic, is set in the US, makes the horror a little more distant.

Mieville’s setting is perilously close to home for me – in fact, the Brunswick Shopping Centre, which features at one point, was a literal stone’s throw from where I worked for the best part of 15 years!

The story is taken from Jorge Luis Borge’s ‘The Book of Imaginary Beings’ – which ponders the nature the reflections in our mirrors.

This conceit is doubly chilling. Firstly in that whilst the story is a post-apocalypse/post-invasion scenario, it is one which does not have a rational explanation (viruses, alien invasions etc). Secondly, the fantastical explanation is simply proferred and the reader has to accept it without any scientific explanation for its occurrence.

The plot interwines the story of Sholl, a man who has to date survived the horrors of the beings that previously were constrained on the other side of mirrors, but which now are raping the city and those of the population which have yet to flee, and that of one of the creatures with whom humanity is battling.

Sholl meets up with an army unit, and they march on the British Museum, where a final confrontation is to be made. The ending is not a textbook one, and the image of the slobbering monsters descending the stairs to ravage the soldiers, is a macabre one which sticks in the memory.

A slight volume, but (especially so for those living or working in London) a disturbing, vivid one

Geoff Ryman. VAO.

Ryman continues PS Publishing’s run of high quality novellas, as you might expect from an author whose short story output is limited in volume but almost invariably of the highest quality. VAO is one of the shorter of the stories, but Ryman fits a lot of ideas into a neat little story.

VAO is Victim Activated Ordinance – near-future electronic equivalents of land-mines are being used as security measures. As has been postulated before, in the near future the elderly are becoming, or seen to becoming, a burden on society. The older people in Ryman’s stories are our contemporaries, some decades hence. With the threat of Alzheimers Disease still a major problem, life can be pretty cruddy.

The protagonist, Brewster, is an ex-security systems IT geek, now keeping his hacking skills alive despite the surveillance in his retirement flat – a geriatric version of Charles Stross’ Manfred Mancx.

He is brought up to date with news of the self-titled Silhouette, a leader of a gang of senile delinquents who are fighting back. They would be like Robin Hood, except that they hurt and maim indiscriminately.

Brewster is suspected of being the Silhouette, and after secreting his digital hacking evidence in a most unusual place (-wince-), he and his friends attempt to find out the leader of this gang of criminals. The answer is surprisingly close to hand.

The story is packed with ideas (toilet bowls analysing urine streams and making spot-diagnoses, etc.), in a most believable setting, and with a small case of interesting characters the story could well have been longer than it was.

Conclusion.

You won’t find many volumes this year with such a high quality. The first three stories are all set in vividly described cities, giving a solid theme to the collection. But once again, Gollancz and PS Publishing showcase the best in British SF/fantasy. More!

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