Sean McMullen. The Twilight Year.
A historical tale with the merest whiff of the fantastical. England in the mid-sixth century is the setting, with the populace struggling under the few remaining vestiges of Roman rule, and under the blanket of volcanic cloud spewed from the eruption of Krakatoa. In such times perhaps a mighty hero needs to come forth, and McMullen posits King Arthur taking such a role in encouraging the Saxons to fight against oppression. The main protagonist is prone to sing of the heroic deeds of Arthur, and it seems, by the end of the story, that rather than Arthur himself, a simple belief in him is sufficient for the peasants to flex their collective muscle in his name.
Not a story to really grab you, unless you like historical fiction – it smacks of generic cod-fantasy (travelling bard, priest, warriors) and the dialogue smacks of made-for-TV early Britain, rather than transporting the reader back to long distant days.
Michaela Roessner. It’s a Wonderful Life.
A mop-wielding cleaner has been working in the subterranean scientific complex for several years, observing more than the labcoated scientists might expect. He is savvy enough to realise that the young men who go into rooms, which are subsequently sealed, are taking part in time travel experiments, and that, sadly, it appears that whilst the outbound journeys appear to be working ok, the return journeys have yet to be successful. Rather unbelievably, he is the only one on hand to witness the belated return of one vessel (sans crew), and he is able to do what the boffins have failed to do – go back in time and return. And we find out in the end that his trip back has been to put right some smaller wrongs – in the casting of Hollywood movies.
It’s a bit of an imbalanced story, for the most part a serious lead-up to the journey back in time by the janitor, and rather than an exploration of what happens, how he is successful where others have failed, we quickly move to the finale when the outcome of his trip is revealed.
John Kessel. Pride and Prometheus.
What I believe the younger generation call a “mash-up”. Kessel puts the Bennet family from Pride and Prejudice together with Victor Frankenstein. Kessel does a more than passable rendition of the writing style of Miss Austen, which will doubtless please those who like their fiction written in a style now two centuries old, although it can at times err on the pastiche, and I for one was reminded of the classic French & Saunders pisstake on such costume dramas on TV (“You suppose? You suppose? Madam, I find you very suppository!”)
The two unmarried Bennet daughters, Mary and Kitty, are in London, the younger, prettier, out to catch herself a man, like Mr Darcy, of some six thousands pounds per year. However, it is Mary who is smitten – by Mr Frankenstein. The creature also lurks, and the story leads a leisurely pace until a dreadful denoument, when young Kitty dies of a fever, and her body is resurrected by Frankenstein, to furnish the creature with a mate.
Actually, this is a false denouement, as we find through means of a newspaper clipping a year hence, of the likely fate of several of the characters, although this rather wraps up the story post-haste and with less satisfaction than one would like.
Ruth Nestvold. Mars : a Travelers’ Guide.
An altogether more modern writing style – the output from an expert sytem – an AI-controlled travellers’ guide for those on Mars. As the topics being chosen are revealed, it becomes clear that the system is responding to a traveller in great need. However, the guidebook is unable to furnish what is needed, with increasingly circular references dooming the user reliant on help that is not forthcoming. Very clever indeed.
James Powell. The Quest for Creeping Charlie.
In which we follow the life of one George Muir, a bookish cover, who happens upon mention of the megamensalopes, a race of creatures who have so far eluded identification by man. George devotes his life to finding these creatures, armed with little but their name upon which to base his search. In and admirably short tale (Powell does not outstay his welcome or attempt to stretch a neat but simple conceit too far) we see George finally get within touching distance of his quarry, only to fail. The megamensalopes are safe once again, but George is to be remembered by the creatures as the man who came closest to finding them, in a neat turn of phrase which echoes the opening paragraphs. A neat, nicely constructed story.
Alex Irvine. Mystery Hill.
Now this story would get Analog readers worked up – a foxy boffo female scientist who just talks real dirty : “..a universal trans-brane grammar of phylogeny..”. Professor Fara Oussemitski turns up at Ken Kassarjian’s place – a tourist trap based on an optical illusion suggests that water can run uphill. Except that there is indeed something very strange about his place, with creatures from an altogether different brane slipping through to Earth.
It’s a light-hearted piece, featuring a range of well-drawn characters, although it does suffer from being rather too long, and ending in a slightly less satisfactory manner than the preceding story deserves.
As usual a good mix of well-written stories spanning the genres.