‘infinities’. edited by Peter Crowther, (Gollancz 2002)

This is the third Gollancz collection of novellas previously published as chapbooks by Leeds-based PS Publishing. I’d previously read the stories when issued in their singleton format, and here are those reviews again.

Eric Brown. A Writer’s Life.

Brown is a prolific SF writer. However, whilst his output matches that of the likes of Robert Reed, as his primary outlet is the UK magazine ‘Interzone’, he is somewhat lesser known.

This story is quite a change from most of his Interzone material, being a slightly supernatural, slightly horror, slightly gothic/romantic story.

A mid-list writer, living with a new partner, comes across an intriguing Victorian novelist of whom he has not heard. This is quite a surprise, and as he delves deeper into the author and his life, things become stranger, and darker.

Brown writes well, the quality of his writing engaging me more than the story itself.

Ken MacLeod. The Human Front.

MacLeod is an author with whom I am not at all familiar. The Scottish writer has published several novels since the mid-1990s, and this would appear to be his first shorter-length publication. Iain M. Banks in his introduction, warmly recalls their early attempts at writing some two decades ago.

The story in hand is an interesting one. It starts out evidently as Alternate History, following the life of a young Scotsman, John Matheson, in a world in which the outcome of the Second World War was quite different. For those of you with a limited knowledge of post-war Europe the story may be somewhat confusing – certainly as confusing as I find Alternate History stories set in the USA. Suffice to say that the USA and the Soviets are still at loggerheads, and it is Stalin’s death (he early survived the nuclear bomb dropped on Moscow by dint of not being in the city) in the mountains of the Caucasus at the hands of American soldiers which kicks the story off. The domination of the superpowers is also threatened by a pan-national movement – the Human Front, fighting for a global free humanity.

Sufficiently unsettled by the shift in history, the reader is then put into the situation of having to assimilate the crash-landing of a very strange bomber on an airfield. The ship is a flying-saucer, a peculiar craft whose development has been shrouded in a haze of mystery. The young boy witnesses the pilot being removed – a young child it would seem. But the boy is sworn to a most urgent secrecy.

As he grows up, John finds himself drawn to the Human Front, and becomes a guerrilla leader. An attack on a railway line goes from being a huge success to a desperate failure when one of the flying saucers arrives to tip the balance in the battle.

And here the story pitches into yet more bizarre territory, with John and his colleagues transported by the flying saucer to a most un-Earthlike location.

They are esconced in what amounts to a POW camp, with their captors the tall ‘Venusians’ and squat ‘Martians’. The story quickly rattles through to a conclusion in which all is revealed. (SPOILER: the Venusians/Martians are in fact far-future time travellers from different threads of Earth’s past/future. John meets and settles down with a woman from a version of history which the reader would recognise as ours.)

All in all a story which is at times quite powerful and grittily believable, although I think the story could have benefitted from greater length.

Alastair Reynolds. Diamond Dogs.

I’ve been a fan of Reynolds for some time now, both his short stories and his novels, ‘Revelation Space’, ‘Chasm City’, and ‘Redemption Ark’ .

This story, as others of his, is set in that same future history. One of the few issues I have with his stories is his naming of an orbiting group of cities above one planet as ‘The Glitter Band’. Reynolds is pretty much the same age as me, and I am sure that many of our era from the UK would immediately associate that phrase with Gary Glitter’s backing band of the same name [official website]. And of course ‘Diamond Dogs’ was a Bowie album of that era, the title song of which has been pointed out as having references to Samuel R Delany’s novel ‘Dhalgren’ [reviewed by Paul Di Filippo at SciFi Weekly].

The opening location is a familiar one – the Monument to the Eighty. Richard Swift is there, his parents one of that group of people which chose to enrol in Calvin Sylveste’s expiriment in uploading human intelligence into a simulation. The technique he was developing had one problem – the upload destroyed the original biological person. This became particularly problematic when the uploaded AIs began to malfunction.

Swift is met by Roland Childe (not to be confused with ‘Childe Harolde’, the poem written by Lord Byron, whose daughter, Augusta Ada Byron, became Countess Lovelace, and who assisted Charles Babbage in his work on computers, and whose middle name has been used for a programming language). Byron also wrote ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’, a title used by James Patrick Kelly for a story about a man locked within his own obsessions in a castle. But I digress…

Swift is met by Roland Childe, a childhood friend, long believed dead. Childe states that he has spent many decades in cryogenic suspension. A theme of identity is continued from ‘Chasm City’, in that Swift has had memory of his ex-wife, Celestine, wiped from his brain, and a recently recruited colleague of Childe is Dr. Trintignant, who has taken bodily modifcation to an extreme.

Childe is putting together a team to explore a very, very alien tower on a distant planet, and Swift is sufficiently intrigued to join them.

The group begin their exploration of the alien construction, somewhat unnerved by the body parts which lie around, testament to failed attempts by others. Passage from room to room towards the top of the building is dependent upon solving increasingly difficult mathematical puzzles. Failure to solve a puzzle leads to instant and grotesquely violent punishment. Two of the lesser characters die in this way (the equivalent of the red-shirted ensigns from USS Enterprise).

As the team is whittled down in numbers, Childe’s obsession becomes so intense that he undergoes grotesque bodily modification by Trintignant. And finally Swift succumbs to the obsession. The ending, or near-the-ending, is a macabre scene of Child, Swift and Celestine reduced to grotesque parodies of humans, pitting their intellect against the alien tower. And we find just how obsessed Childe has been – the story of the previous expedition is false, and the body parts spat out by the building – they belong to previous clones of Childe.

What would have been my end to the story, with Childe continuing ad infinitum to reach the top of the tower, is followed by Swift and Celestine returning to the ship to find that Swift cannot be returned to his normal state, as Trintigant has committed an almost ritual suicide, so that he cannot be required to undo his greatest work.

And then we have a final, final scene, in which Swift tries, and fails, to live as near normal a life as possible and to forget the tower.

As with the first two of his novels (I haven’t read the third, yet) – his endings don’t quite live up to the preceding story. Although perhaps as I am reading short stories almost exclusively these days, ending a novel is probably not quite as straightforward as ending a short story.

Notwithstanding this quibble, another excellent story, creating gothic vistas and believable far-futures.

[Subsequent to posting this review, I have been informed by a more erudite personage that the literary reference is in fact to Robert Browning’s ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’ (online here). I’m glad I didn’t follow my Childe Harolde reference through to the Goon Show episode ‘Child Harolde Rewarde’. That would have made me look really silly.]

Adam Roberts. Park Polar.

A bit of a disappointment, more so by being read shortly after the Paul Di Filippo novella from PS Publishing. But perhaps that is a bit unfair – comparing a fairly new storyteller with one with a much different pedigree.

The story starts out with an interesting premise: relatively near-future, with global warming leading to large expenses of land being used for soya and wheat crops, and the human population squeezed into the temperate zones. The Antartic is being used as a testing ground for genmod cattle, with a genmod green algae covering the ice and supplying their nourishment.

Arriving at a commercial research station, the female protagonist, McCullough finds herself part of a team which includes three male scientists, two female ones (one with a genmod beard!), and three guards toting weapons. No sooner have the characters been introduced then all manner of things happens. A lesbian tryste between McCullough and the bearded ‘Natty’ takes place (call me old fashioned, but I do prefer my sapphic sexual fantasies not to feature facial hair on the participants!). Then the three guards are gunned down and we are pitched into a situation straight out of ‘The Thing’. Are eco-terrorists to blame, or is it one of the scientific crew?

We then have a fairly routine thriller, in which all the characters evidence enough strange behaviour for them to be the murderer. The three women attempt to escape by ski-sled, but one is mauled by a genmod lion (beasts of prey having been introduced to keep the livestock numbers down).

The protagonist (who really can’t be seen as a heroine) brains the scientist who she thinks is the murderer (he isn’t). Another scientist then attempts to kill her (he isn’t the killer either). But the bearded lady kills him.

We are told in a pell-mell recap of who did what to whom and why, by the bearded lady, for it is she who was the murderer. The beard should have given the game away – never trust a woman with a beard.

A bit of a head-scratcher to be honest, as the story is some way below the standard of other published by PS Publishing.

Conclusion.

This is a handsome hard-back book which would grace any shelf (albeit that the shape of the book will require a deep shelf!). The stories are of varying quality and SFness, but work together well. A recommended purchase for those of you who haven’t got the stories in their PS Publishing format.

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