This is the second collection of short stories from acclaimed science fiction author Chris Beckett, following 2008’s The Turing Test (winner of the Edge Hill Prize). His most recent novel, Dark Eden, has been nominated for a BSFA award for 2012. The Peacock Cloak brings together 12 short stories set in a variety of science fiction worlds. Worlds which you will definitely want to find out about.
There are two things that strike you when you have finished reading this collection. The first is that you appreciate just how clever Beckett’s writing is. The second is simply appreciating how good a collection this is – how well it hangs together – as some of the stories feature the same versions of the future. In most collections of short stories, there are a few misses as well as a majority of hits. In many anthologies, some stories simply aren’t as good as others, and maybe don’t really hang well in the collection. And while it’s true that some of the stories here are stronger than others, each brings something to the whole.
So, the stories then? Beckett begins with Atomic Truth, which sets the tone for the collection. We are in a world where our reliance on smartphones and augmented reality has gone so far than most people no longer interact with the real world, wearing glasses called bugs. The story follows Jenny, who lives in this world, and Richard, who shuns tech and appreciates foxes.
Two Thieves tells of the titular characters who are sentenced to hard labour and find a portal to other realities, and a few lessons too. Johnny’s New Job is set in a totalitarian nightmare of a future where social workers are blamed for the murder of children, and the voice of the mob is loud. This one is the most chilling of Beckett’s tales, knowing he has experience in social work. In The Carmel Forest, we are in a future fairy tale, where goblins can read your mind, whether you want them to or not. There is more to the forest than meets the eye. Greenland is an eco-tale but also speaks of the problem of immigrants. Meanwhile, The Famous Cave Paintings on Isolus 9 features the idea of travelling vast distances in under space and is also a bit of a love story. Rat Island also addresses ecological concerns, set in the same world as the first story while Day 29 is another tale set on the world of Lutania, home of the carmel forest. It also hints at the inevitable conclusion of the technology developed in Greenland. Our Land is perhaps the least effective tale; it features a reality shift for a teacher into an alternative reality where ancient tribalisms and Tony Blair feature. The Desiccated Man is an interesting tale of loneliness and an inventive alien species based on the real life oddities that are commonly known as waterbears (look them up, they are fascinating little things). Poppyfields – another eco-comment – left me a little cold. Descriptively it was gorgeous, but even in this collection where endings can feel like larger beginnings, the conclusion, when a woman from a different universe disappears from Angus’ life, left me wanting more, but only because it was insubstantial. Finally, the collection’s title tale seems to be a comment on the nature of the universe itself, in all its grandness. A summary of the whole collection. I also wonder if it also goes back to the previous stories in its duplication of the self?
Beckett’s writing style is deceptively simple and therefore highly effective. His storytelling almost feels like he is an adult telling a tale to a child in the hope of both entertaining and educating. Each of the stories feels as though it’s an introduction, almost a chapter one into a wider world – which I found a tad frustrating. I like an open-ended conclusion, but I wanted more from these worlds and these characters. Luckily, as I progressed through the book, I was delighted to find some of the worlds were re-visited. There is also something very British about both his writing and his viewpoint. He is clearly a force to be reckoned with. This is proper science fiction, both in the individual shorts and the collection as a whole. It talks about our past, present and future. It is speculative and extrapolative. Many of these tales have been published in Interzone or elsewhere, but that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying the collection as a whole.