Conflicts. (Ian Whates, NewCon Press, 2010.)

The latest in a series of anthologies from a British small-press publisher, featuring stories from mostly British small-press published authors.

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Andy Remic. Psi.Copath.
I’ve reviewed several of NewCon Press’ anthologies (click the ‘tag’ above), and this is the first which is purely an SF anthology. As with the other volumes, the anthology is themed, and the first story gets into ‘conflict’ through the ‘military SF’ genre. It’s a ‘Combak-K Adventure’, and I’ve seen novels by Remic advertised in the back of some Solaris books. The adverts gave me a feeling that it wasn’t quite the kid of SF I’d really like, and the first couple of pages of this story confirmed that.

Maybe I’m being a bit uncharitable, but the opening pages felt rather like a pastiche to me. The motley crew of soldiers are introduced, including ‘Franco Harris – adventurer, demolitions experts, sexual athlete’, who bursts into the hold ‘like a ginger tsunami’. It feels like the stuff I was writing in my mid-teens (and stopped writing in my mid-teens). I liked the Aliens films, I liked played Doom/Quake in the 90s, and if I had time I’d probably be playing the just-released Starcraft 2 (except my eldest son has taken the computer game playing mantle from me – with aplomb).

So, suffice to say, a story which didn’t encourage me to get beyond a couple of pages. I’m sure others will enjoy it. But I’m equally sure it won’t be appearing in any of the Year’s Best anthologies, or troubling the Nebula/Hugo panels, and that is, after all, my benchmark.

Michael Cobley. The Maker’s Mark.
A young man is fortunate enough to find an alien creature which can create exact copies of items which other species desire, and in reaping the financial benefits thereof is similarly lucky to be confronted by an assassin who fails to carry out the most basic Assassin’s 101 rule (kill them straight away, don’t chat). The protagonist is a cardboard character who we don’t engage with, an entire city and it’s innocent inhabitants is destroyed as an aside, the alien turns out to be more than it appears (without any hints prior to that point) and the ending is fairly juvenile. The story doesn’t ask anything of the reader other than to keep turning the pages. Even that was a chore!

Keith Brooke. Sussed.
A young coder working for a employer who isn’t the kind to cross, decides that using his skills to flee a long way away is preferable to facing the consequences of sleeping with boss’s sister. Trouble is that he ends up, after a long trip in suspended animation, in an equally risky situation, at the front line of a war with a branch of humanity recently diverged from us, and he has to choose which war he wants to fight. The story nips along quickly, with a vivid image of a scarred city to start with, but doesn’t quite hit the heights.

Neal Asher. The Cuisinart Effect.
Excruciatingly poorly written military SF, based around a crack team of humans on a mission which involves killing a large number and wide range of ravenous dinosaurs. If you had asked me to read it as a manuscript, I’d have put it down as the work of a schoolboy, rather than the work of an author with several published novels to his name.

Rosanne Rabinowitz. Harmony in my Head.
A story with a very definite sense of time and place. The time is the day after London’s bid for hosting the 2010 Olympics was chosen as the successful one, and the place is Russell Square, in the Bloomsbury area of London. And as some readers will spot straight away, that is a fateful combination of time and place. Rabinowitz doesn’t labour the link, and the story follows a young female mathematician, currenlty doing post-grad study on infinity, as she struggles with tinnitus, and a relationship that may be stalling. But there’s more to it, and the story arcs towards a resolution that appears to going to be a happy one, but when the sirens start going off, the underground passengers are evacuated, and the boyfriend phones to say he’s going to hop on the number 30 bus, the alarm bells go off for the reader. Or at least. many readers, for whom the closing scene comes as no surprise. For others, less familiar with the time and date, the closing scene will be a shock.

After a couple of wearker stories, nice to see one that is up to the usual standard of NewCon’s anthologies,

Chris Beckett. Our Land.
A slightly more thoughtful story than a couple of the predecessors in the volume, as befitting a social work academic. He sets his story in East Anglia, as he often does, populating the story with pretty average kinds of people in pretty strange circumstances. The main character here is a history teacher, suddenly, horribly disorientated by the realisation that the history he is teaching, English history, is shifting to a tectonic extent under his feet even as speaks.

It’s a horribly unnerving experience, as the new history on which his life is predicated gradually becomes the norm, and he finds himself in an England in which he, and the rest of the ‘English’ population, are suddenly seen as incomers, despite having lived there for several hundred years, as older claimants on the territory are re-asserting their rights. It’s a horrible depiction of the realities of what -is- happening elsewhere on the planet, bringing it home, to those who need it spelling out, the horrors of occupation, ancient wrongs ‘put right’ by new wrongs, and man’s inhumanity to man.

Gareth L. Powell. Fallout.
An intriguing setting for a short story, and one that you could see being worth the investment of more time from the author. The south west of England has been laid to radioactive waste – by a gigantic alien spaceship crashing to Earth and causing several nuclear power stations to irradiate large areas of the country.

Arriving at the lip of the impact crater, a young security guard to a teen pop group finds her past catching up with her, as more about the alien ship is revealed. The central idea, and the characterisation are the stronger elements of the story. The weaker one is the timely co-incidence that brings two old friends together, and the duel at the end is a tad staged.

Martin McGrath. Proper Little Soldier.
Sometimes a story has simply too strong a resonance with another story, or, in this case, a film, to really be comfortable with. Here humanity has been reduced to a fraction of its previous numbers by alien invaders. Travelling by night to avoid detection, and having to avoid making any noise when the aliens are about, as sound is their means of both finding us, and killing us, a couple come across a young boy who has managed to outwit the aliens. The scene of them hiding in an attic, listening to the booming noises of the aliens, and then, when inadvertently making an noise, having tentacles lash out at them, came across to me as being just too close to Spielberg’s WotW for comfort.

Una McCormack. War Without End.
The ghosts of battles long past come back to haunt an ex-soldier. There is a central mystery as to exactly what happened when he led an army of occupation on an another planet, and the role of a now dying politician in that conflict. Deciding he has to put the record straight, he finds that in fact he is confront some long dormant demons.

David L. Clements. In the Long Run.
Humanity is on the run from an ages-old enemy which is very protective of its status as the only intelligent life in the galaxy. A long, long way from home a small ship hosts the data of the last survivors, trying to find a far distant refuge. However, a small emergency crew is ‘revived’, their digital selves told of a new threat, from within. They have to identify the threat, and deal with it – which they do through an intriguing range of virtual locations, multiple instances of themselves, and a trick to capture the traitor within. Fine, without being great, as it’s stylistically let down from time to time – the use of ‘they’d’ve’ a couple of times jars. The ultimate enemy helpfully explains everything before his bwahahaha moment, but he’s tricked in the end, so end’s up with the usual noooooooooooooo.

Jim Mortimore. Last Orders.
In an anthology with a theme of conflicts, you can’t get more conflicted that a spaceport bar with several hardened (both by space and by genmod) spacers knock each other senseless. It is told in great detail, complete with dialogue from broke-nosed combatants along the lines of “-dod do dat agaib!” which gives you a clue as where Mortimore is pitching the story. There’s some ‘love’ interest embedded in as backstory.

Martin Sketchley. Songbirds.
One of the better stories in the volume, a story of alien invasion as seen through the eyes of a teenage girl, whose normal teenage concerns are rapidly overtaken by trying to save alive out of alien sight. The story captures her perspective well, although the closing pages which reveal what exactly the aliens are after lacks that bit of subtlety that the majority of the story provides.


Not the strongest NewCon Press anthology – unless, I guess, you’re much more into militaristic SF than I am. Use the tag at the top of this post to see the previous anthologies.

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