Haunted Futures edited by Salomé Jones.

Haunted FuturesHaunted Futures is a KickStarter-ed (is that a verb yet?) multi-genre anthology of what might be described as weird fiction, taking a look at life, and sometimes more importantly, death, in a variety of futures. And maybe one present. The dedication at the beginning of the collection reads: To the future – yours, ours, everyone’s. May it be haunted by only the delightful specters. [sic]

The idea of being haunted is an interesting concept. Haunting usually has negative connotations. Someone who looks haunted might be anxious or distressed or worried. A place that is haunted is associated with death, often tragic. But it can also mean to be pre-occupied or obsessed with a memory or an emotion. So who and what has Jones compiled here with this crowdfunded collection of short stories.

Well, there are a couple of headline acts: Warren Ellis, Tricia Sullivan and Jeff Noon. And a bunch of writers I’ve not come across before. Let’s have a brief look at each of these stories and see what they came up with under the banner concept of haunted futures:

You’re Welcome by Felicity Shoulders

The collection begins with the story of a mother whose daughter has left home and is thinking of getting a dog. Darla, the daughter, disappears and Marit, frantic, tries to piece together the mystery. She uses a system call Genie (which I guess is the future version of Amazon’s Alexa) that provides for you using algorithms. This is an interesting take about control, and getting on with life. Shoulders’ writing is engaging and draws you into the story.

Retirement Plan by Pete Rawlik

We’re now in alien invasion territory. There are ships from somewhere else, but no actual aliens. Rawlik’s tale is like a disaster movie from the point of view of reasonably ordinary folk. There are plenty of ideas from the movies, such as the Mechs and the interiors of the space ships. The theme seems to be about population control. There is talk of terraforming Mars. A fun and satisfying read.

Split Shadow by SL Huang

Huang has written a powerful story about something you don’t usually come across in science fiction; mental health. This feels like a very honest telling. The story concerns friendships amongst what might be perceived as the underclasses – the mentally ill, the addicted, the homosexual. In the future, people can be split into the good parts of themselves and the ill or depraved part. That part doesn’t usually survive, but sometimes… Dora sets up a support group for the splits and finds friendship and hope. It is a very human story that reminded me of Never Let Me Go and Spares.

Futures Past by Thord D Hedengren

What is art? What is life if not art? I really like the premise of this tale, although the execution isn’t quite there. But that’s a personal preference as I’m not a fan of epistolary fiction. A serious of letters from a man to his wife interspersed with her coming out of some kind of medical condition. The slow reveal through the letters is great and the payoff is terrific and quite heart-breaking.

The Psychometry of Tuvan Currency by Tricia Sullivan

I’m quite a fan of Sullivans. She tends to have pretty sharp takes on technology. In this story she takes a look at the future of augmented reality. There is some proper darkness here, as the AR people use has attracted their dead relatives – who won’t leave our protagonists alone. How do we think about death and the dead, when they can still exist with us – but they’re not ghosts! While the previous stories have been good, Sullivan’s skilled prose really stands out in the collection (only really matched later by Noon).

Ghostmakers by Warren Ellis

I didn’t quite get this one. Ellis has written some of my favourite comic books but this is the first time I’ve read his prose. It is good, but left me a little cold, despite having an absolute cracker of an opening line. It reads like a fairly dry, almost technical story of death and doing a job, as the Exotic Crimes Squad goes about its business. It sounds intriguing, but it lost me a little.

Comfort Food by Alex Acks

Another epistolary tale; diary entries from someone who might be described as a network engineer. There are cameras everything and data on everything. Someone has to watched. But there’s a glitch. A ghost. But is it in the network or is it in the person? Half way through, this short also becomes a comment on celebrity worship, as the engineer spots the odd and repetitive behaviour of one of the most famous people on the planet. There’s interesting traces of past and/or future for the reader to ponder. My thoughts are that the ghost is more likely to be in the person than in the machine.

Salvation is a One Time Offer by Armel Dagorn

Another issue not normally found in speculative fiction (unless you’re Neil Gaiman): homelessness. This is an enjoyable story of how a rich and successful salesman of wonder footwear ends up on the streets. In this case, amusingly, he jumps on a health-food bandwagon which has an unfortunate effect! He tells the story to another successful protagonist…and has he infected her too?

Guardian of the Gate by Lynnea Glass

This is the second story in the collection that I just didn’t get. Again, more of a preference thing. This is a second person grand vision of ancients and abysses and galactic gates. I’m not even sure that the story is here as I was totally disengaged.

Spy Drug by Greg Stolze

Meanwhile, this was proper fun. A very short story about the titular drug. I love Stolze’s idea of a drug that can give you the confidence of a Bond-like spy. This is about infidelity and the very nature of existence told via the medium of drug control – or the lack thereof. A confident and entertaining read.

Shift by Liesel Schwarz

Shift is another entertaining piece; this time about a civil war. Humanity has been split into two – the pure humans and animal-human hybrids caused by the integration of animal DNA. More spying and suchlike too. I think that this is also a story of teenage love in adversity. And with the graffiti too, just the struggle of being a young outsider… I love the idea reveal of the gran character. Lots to like here, although I’m not sure of the science in this science fiction – a human to a wren?

Greenwood Green by John Reppion

A real oddity in this collection. Reppion’s story feels like an old-fashioned horror. Set in an abandoned railway station in the middle of a cemetery it is creepy and surprising. The theme turns out to be plants versus animal and it so very effective – especially the scenes ‘out of time’. Readable and enjoyable as a standalone, and while the theme might just resonate with the idea of haunted futures, the style and tone are out of place here.

Future Noir by Michael Grey

The title says it all. This is science fiction noir at its most entertaining. The afterlife has been proved. So how does that affect religion, technology and life itself, when everyone knows that there is more after this existence. But there’s a problem. Of course. How do you solve the first murder in 20 years, when you can communicate with the dead. Grey handles the dilemnas well. A great read.

Remember the Sky by Gethin A Lynes

I have no idea what happens in this story. There are at least two Arks. People want to see the sky. There are leaders. There are population issues. Each passage starts with a meaningless date and population numbers, which don’t seem to relate to the prose. Either I’ve completely missed the point or this is too smart for its own good. I could not find a way into this story at all. Not for me.

Mercury Teardrops by Jeff Noon

Back on deliciously safe ground with Noon. Nobody writes quite like him. We’re in a post-human world. Mind-body duality is considered alongside machine-flesh duality. Technology has failed, so what happens to the technology within a person? And what happens when someone dies and someone loves that person? A key to the success of this story is Noon’s descriptive prose, and his integration of music and the emotions it engenders. Powerful stuff.

As usual with any collection of short stories, some stand out and some simply don’t work for me. That doesn’t mean that they won’t work for you. Tastes vary, but there’s something for most fans of speculative fiction here. And the best thing about collections like this is that they give voice to new or unknown names. I’ll be looking up Greg Stolze, John Reppion and SL Huang for sure… Alex Acks is definitely one to keep an eye on too. For me, the best in this collection come from Noon, Huang and Reppion. Nods to Schwarz, Sullivan, Grey and Stolze.

Haunted? In some case I think these stories hit the brief. The stories about death are particularly germane. There’s not a lot of optimism to be found, but maybe as a species, optimism is undeserved. I think this is an interesting collection of ideas and styles that, with the one contextual misstep, is worth any fan of speculative fiction’s time.

 

 

Note: I contributed to this project via KickStarter. Find out more: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/960264226/ghostwoods-books-our-2014-15-list-of-6-to-8-books

The end of my Winter of Weird: Thoughts on The Weird

the-weirdAnd so it comes to end. On 31 October 2016 I embarked on a mission to read the short story anthology The Weird (2012) – edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer – from cover to cover, averaging a story per day. I almost achieved the goal, hitting the 110 stories in 117 days. Not too bad, considering all the other stuff I read during the same period, too.

It feels, well, weird, now it’s come to an end. Stories of ghosts and monster, aliens and demons have been with me almost as a comfort blanket for the past 4 months. And yet, as I’ve said before as I’ve marked this quest, it didn’t have any kind of effect on me. I wondered if I’d get creeped out, or even have nightmares. I never get nightmares. Maybe because the stories didn’t get under my skin in the way I’d hoped. I certainly didn’t find a new favourite writer, although some of the authors featured within this anthology will be added to my to-read list.

The Weird, as mentioned, features 110 short stories. Not quite 110 authors as some are featured twice. It is the very definition of a weighty tome; my edition coming in at more than 1100 pages (and featuring two page 800s!). Some of the stories are relatively long: novellas or novelettes almost, depending on your definition. Others are just a few pages. Each story comes with a brief introduction about the author, their notable works and where-else they’ve been published. We have big names and relative unknowns, novelists and short-story specialists. Authors who are known for a particular genre writing in a different one; authors treading familiar ground. The first in this collection is Austrian Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side (1908) and the last is Australian K.J. Bishop’s Saving the Gleeful Horse (2010). Nations covered include Iran (Reza Negarestani), Czech Republic (Michal Ajvaz), Nigeria (Amos Tutuola, Ben Okri), Poland (Stefan Grabinski), Japan (Hagiwara Sakutaro), Benin (Olympe Bhely-Quenum), Italy (Dino Buzzati), Guatemala (Augusto Monterroso) and many others. This is truly a global story of weird fiction. Of course, the usual suspects are all present and correct too: Gaiman, Miéville, Kafka, Barker, Borges, Carter, Aickman, Lovecraft, Peake, Bradbury, King, Walpole, Russ, Ellison, James, Blackwood et al. The oddest name on the list might just be Joyce Carol Oates.

And in the 110 stories, there is something for everything I’m sure. But also probably something for everyone to not get along with too. Out of the pack, while I didn’t engage with a fair few, I can say only one left me completely cold: Singing My Sister Down (2005) from Australian Margo Lanagan felt like an exercise in confusion with no coherent message, plot or empathy for any of the characters, as a ‘weird ritual’ takes centre-stage. It would take too many words to describe and nod to each story on display here. Suffice to say that I enjoyed the classics: Don’t Look Now, Daphne Du Maurier (1971); The Snow Pavilion, Angela Carter (1995); The Brood, Ramsey Campbell (1980); The Willows, Algernon Blackwood (1907); Casting the Runes, M.R. James (1911); Mimic, Donald Wollheim (1942) and others.

A couple of nods should go to George R.R. Martin’s Sandkings (1979) and Daniel Abraham’s Flat Diane (2004). The former is a totally enjoyable and unexpected sci-fi romp from the master of fantasy, while the latter demonstrates that you can write about horrible and brutal subjects with poignancy, warmth and beauty. One of the best in this collection…Looking back over the list of stories here, I recall enjoying this little oddity (Hogfoot Right and Bird-hands (1987) by Garry Kilworth) or that complex exploration of weird writing (such as Finland’s Leena Krohn with Tainaron (1985)). In the end, however, there are just dozens of great, odd, disturbing or interesting stories that I will return to in time, such as Brian Evenson’s The Brotherhood of Mutilation (2003) or Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s The Hell Screen (1917).

While science fiction, specifically, evolves as a form of literature over time, reflecting the times and ideas of the culture it comes from, I found that many of the themes here haven’t evolved so. The writing styles have, for sure, and a willingness for experimentation in language and form. However, with one or two exceptions – such as the excellent In the Lion’s Den (2009) from Stephen Duffy that uses CCTV as a plot device – many of the stories that feature later in the anthology could easily have been written in years gone past. No evolution of theme or creepiness or weirdness. A rare comment on our times (war being the most obvious theme here). T.M Wright’s The People on the Island (2005) seems to feature a trapped colony that could just as well come from Kafka or Borges for example. Meanwhile, Hagiwara Sakutaro’s The Town of Cats (1935) could be a companion piece to Thomas Ligotti’s The Town Manager (2003). It is interesting, however, that I’m always on the lookout for original and unusual styles of writing, and yet it is often the most traditionally written that I’ve enjoyed the most. So maybe it’s the originality of the subject that I’m craving. Something I’ve never read before, such as Mark Samuels’ creepy The White Hands (2003) a metafictional gothic chiller or James Tiptree Jr’s witty The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Terrible Things to Rats (1976).

My absolute favourite: I couldn’t possibly pick one…

Enough! I can’t mention all these stories, although flicking back through my edition I remember some of them fondly and look forward to reading them again. Which probably says a lot about me. Stories of battling cities, creepy cages, ghoulbirds, mysterious strangers and stranger houses, death, captivity, rats, autopsies, devils and a whole lot more have had no adverse effect on my psyche. Which is both odd and deeply satisfying. My Winter of Weird doth conclude, but my personal weirdness continues.

82 Weird stories in 93 days

young_daphne_du_maurierSo, in the 93 days since 31 October I’ve managed to read 82 stories from weird fiction compendium The Weird. So odds are that I won’t read the remaining stories in the next 7 days. But hey, I’ll keep ploughing on. There’s actually 110 anyway, so I think they’ll be done by end of February. I’m a little disappointed, to be honest. I thought the process would affect me more. The stories themselves haven’t penetrated me the way I thought they might. Sure, I’ve been inspired and I’ve wrote a short story myself, one that I’d hope would be classified as weird.

I’d kinda hoped that weirdness might infect my dreams and my waking thoughts. I’d wondered if imaginations of ghosts and aliens, strange cities and nightmare futures would creep into the corners of my vision. But nada. Nothing. Not a peep. Not a nightmare. Not a strange dream or an odd occurrence. Damn fiction for promising so much and delivering so little.

I’ve not really ‘discovered’ potential new authors yet. There’ve been a couple who’ve piqued my interest enough to investigate further. Elizabeth Hand and Kathe Koja among them. I enjoyed the imagination and description of Hand’s story, and her prose style generally and the passion and oddness of Koja’s. I’d already planned to read some more Robert Aickman.

But still, as a collection of short stories, there’s been plenty to enjoy. So with 28 stories remaining, here are some of my favourites thus far:

Algernon Blackwood, The Willows, 1907

Daphne Du Maurier, Don’t Look Now, 1971

Donald Wollheim, Mimic, 1942

Elizabeth Hand, The Boy in the Tree, 1989

Paul Wilson, Soft, 1984

Garry Kilworth, Hogfoot Right and Bird-hands, 1987

George R.R. Martin, Sandkings, 1979

Karen Joy Fowler, The Dark, 1991

Kathe Koja, Angels in Love, 1991

M.R. James, Casting the Runes, 1911

Ryunosuke Akutagawa, The Hell Screen, 1917

 

Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Young_Daphne_du_Maurier.jpg

The Race by Nina Allan

The RaceAllan’s debut – The Race – is a brave novel, hard to categorise and in some ways hard to describe. It is, essentially, four short stories from four different characters’ perspectives. It begins in a fairly standard fashion; a science fiction tale from the point of view of Jenna.

Kent, and by extrapolation, England, has been ravaged. Fracking has caused an environmental collapse. Life has reverted back to almost 1970s style existence (shillings are the currency, trams are the main transport), except that the major past-time is smartdog racing; a futuristic version of greyhound racing, where the dogs are connected to human runners. Jenna makes gloves for the runners. The story takes place in Sapphire, on the edge of the future Romney Marshes. Not a lot happens at the outset. Jenna describes her life and her narrow world view. Her brother, who is dodgy, runs a race track. His daughter gets kidnapped and he must win the big race to find the money to pay the kidnappers.

Next up is Christy. Her story is much more contemporary. In fact, it appears she lives in our world. It perturbed me a little early on as her voice and her story seemed a lot like Jenna’s. Christy’s brother is Derek, Jenna’s is Del. They are both wrong’uns. Again, not a lot of plot to talk about, as Christy describes her relationships with the people who come into her life as she heads off to university. One of Derek’s girlfriends is called Lin. She goes missing…Alex is Lin’s ex-boyfriend and is the narrator of the third, and shortest story. He visits Christy in Hastings, where they must confront their pasts. He also ties up a loose end of Christy’s tale.

Back in the future, the final story features the orphan Maree, an empath on a strange journey to a new home across the Atlantic. Some of the places seem to be those of our world, and some seem to be the world of Jenna – smartdogs are a feature too. There’s a lot of mythology in this story, especially about gigantic whales that cause consternation to the travellers. Relationships are the order of the day in this segment, and Maree has plenty of them to negotiate. One of the passengers on her ship discloses that he is an investigator hired to find her. Maree is the kidnapped niece of Jenna. It is revealed that she is to work on a project which is attempting to translating some potential alien languages. There is an appendix too, which is a third person story of Maree, several years later. More about how the stories throughout the novel are interwoven is revealed. I especially enjoyed the link to the mirror scene in an earlier section of the book.

Allan’s voice is strong. Her prose is very readable and her characters very engaging. The style of the first two (Jenna and Christy) is deliberately similar, and once you work it out, is satisfying. Despite the individual sections not having a whole lot of story, the completed work exposes the bigger picture nicely. Not everything works perfectly – such as the narrow focus of the world building in the science fiction tales, and the half made-up, half relatable future. Although I suppose as they are first person tales, the narrow focus is understandable.

The main focus of The Race is not science fiction, or even plot. It is relationships. Especially between brother and sister, but also, and unusually in science fiction, between boyfriends and girlfriends (and same sex couples) in the early stages or short-term partnerships. Not much happy ever after or soul-mates to be found here. People come and go in our lives and Allan describes this with aplomb. I could have done with more plot, personally. I would have liked an explanation of why the gloves where so important. I would have liked more thematic completion, especially around the title – although I guess it might be the human race as opposed to the smartdog race. Alex seems to exist only to solve Christy’s suspicions surrounding the missing Lin.

Allan’s deft touch is nice – when the hints she drops about Christy’s voice is made clear, it is almost casual, as if unimportant. There is an undercurrent about Allan’s view of language and what books generally and stories specifically mean to her, culminating in the terrific passage which includes the memorable line: “what the hell is a fucking squirrel”. There are hints of Allan’s feelings on war, and the science fiction has a nostalgic quality. And so there is a lot going on in The Race, lack of plot notwithstanding, and most of it hugely enjoyable. And you can thank Allan’s brilliant prose style and very likeable characters.

Originally published here: http://nudge-book.com/blog/2016/09/the-race-by-nina-allan/

On reading short story collections: Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville

Three Minutes of an ExplosionShort fiction is a very particular art which can stand or fall by its presentation – within either the collection or the standalone. Great collections, where every story hits the mark are rare, and rarer still from a single author. Three Moments of an Explosion is the latest collection by literary master of the imagination China Miéville. Best known for his complex science fiction, this body of work might be seen to be exploring a different side of his mindscape.

Presented here are 28 short stories of varying length, style and quality, from what amount to narrative poems stretching for just over a page, to transcripts of trailers for (yet to be made?) films (on 3 occasions) up to much longer explorations of the human condition and the world around us.

Very few of these stories could be called science fiction. What you have, in the majority, is a version of us, and our planet and our existence, but just off kilter; slightly or sometimes totally outré. There is fantasy and horror, surrealism and just plain weird. Which I love. There are some classically styled stories and others that can be only be described as experimentation in language and understanding. Which is, to this reviewer, a slight problem. Some of the stories, most notably The Dusty Hat, are almost beyond comprehension. Sure you follow the plot but some of the sentences are filled with either gibberish or words of such obscurities than renders them almost pointless. Descriptions are beyond the ken of most. I imagine, however, most critics who would fawn over Miéville would not admit their own ignorance with this admission. It’s a shame, because the majority of the stories are excellent: thought-provoking, highly imaginative, almost like nothing you’ve ever read before. Miéville either sees things we don’t see, or describes those things we do from a completely new perspective. Witness:

The opening eponymous description is 2 pages of, well, I’m not so sure. While The Condition of New Death is almost reportage of horror which is beyond description. In the Slopes is a glorious take on the rivalries of scientists which focuses on bizarre techniques and unexpected outcomes. Interestingly, many of Miéville’s stories don’t end in the expected way. There is often no clever twist or neatly wrapped up conclusion. Repeatedly, they are almost introductions to a wider story and he lets our own imaginations ponder on what might happen next. Säcken being the perfect example, when the disappearance towards the conclusion is only the beginning of the genuinely creepy and disquieting story. The animal horror of the twisted future in After the festival and the creative brilliance of The Bastard Prompt are my favourites in the collection, showing Miéville off at his peak. These tales show thoughts and constructs almost beyond comprehension, but based in a relatable and readable narrative. Well written characters allow the reader in to the bizarre musings; while the oddities of the zombie animals and medical training practices become clear. A final nod to the genius of A Second Slice Manifesto – literally looking at art from a new perspective – and Covehithe, which perfectly taps into a child’s darkest imaginations and draws it to a spectacular conclusion, as inanimate objects become animalistic, returning to draw from the earth what we taught them.

Not all these stories are brand new, but the important thing is that they work well as a collection. This is partially because of the commonality of Miéville’s descriptive style and ideas (even the complex stories with seemingly made-up words and nonsense sentences) – floating icebergs above cities, burning stags, feral humans wearing a pigs head and one of the few genuine pieces of science fiction which features decaying space-elevators. As noted, there are a variety of styles of prose – some more successful than others. It feels more natural when he is telling stories rather than playing with language. Although the writing is generally terrific; featuring wit, social concerns, intelligence, beauty and flair. But strip away these facts and concerns and Three Moments of an Explosion represents what all good fantasy and horror does: what is that shape in the dark corner; what lies just beneath those waves; where did that disease come from and what was that, just over there, beyond our understanding? The horror works, the fantasy works, the collection of short stories works.

This is a collection I would like to come back to in the not too distant future. Like that difficult second album from a favourite band, it is a collection of stories that at first read (listen) makes you nod in appreciation most of the time, but frown on occasion (does this really work, is this a story(song) experiment too far?). However, sometimes a little effort is required and I expect a re-read of Three Moments of an Explosion will bring ever greater rewards. But I’m still not bringing a dictionary!

Original review version: http://www.nudge-book.com/blog/bookgeek/2015/08/12/three-moments-explosion-china-mieville/ 

Unnatural Creatures

Unnatural CreaturesShort story collections are an odd beast. Often they are a selection of disparate stories thrown together by a publisher for reasons such as best of the year compilations, or seasonal treats. Within a collection, there are usually stories that appeal to some but not all; some great and some average. So, when a book comes along with no apparent agenda called Unnatural Creatures and they are selected by Neil Gaiman, well, colour me curious.

What we have is a collection of new and old tales chosen by Gaiman and co-edited with Maria Dahvana Headley – best known for Queen of Kings. They also both contribute. The stories pretty much all fit together in terms of genre, despite them ranging from mythology to science fiction to horror. For these are stories of make-believe creatures; not necessarily monsters. Gaiman himself in the introduction alludes to the idea of a Museum of Unnatural History, which might house specimens found within this book. Gorgeous idea. The introduction suggests “a number of stories featuring unnatural creatures along with several other creatures who are either unlikely, impossible or do not exist at all’. Which sums it up nicely. As well as the theme, this collection has a narrative style. Old-fashioned story-telling. Make believe. Once upon a time in a land not so far away, but where magic is real.

The book itself is thoughtfully presented with each story accompanied by a few words from Gaiman informing the reader about the author and a short introduction. Each then begins with an appropriate illustration by Briony Morrow-Cribbs.

The stories then, briefly, are the tale of a mysterious plant-like creature from Gahan Wilson, which includes his oddly threatening illustrations. E. Lily Yu presents the reader with sentient bees and wasps. Frank R Stockton’s story, The Griffin and the Minor Canon, feels like the closest to traditional westernised mythology, while Nnedi Okorafor taps into Nigerian lore with Ozioma the Wicked, who is the girl who talks to snakes. Gaiman’s contribution is a wonderful story of the Sunbird and the infamous Epicurean Club. Next up is a tale of gods and dragons from Diana Wynne Jones: The Sage of Theare. Saki tells a tale of a boy and a beast…or is it? Meanwhile, the comically delightful story of the Cockatoucan comes from E Nesbit. Co-editor Headley’s contribution is Moveable Beast, an intriguing piece about a beast who can be found in a mini-forest. Larry Niven combines science fiction with the magical in The Flight of the Horse and fellow science fiction author Samuel R Delany presents Prismatica which is about a creature in a trunk and is a story of colour. Megan Kurahige is influenced again by this idea of Natural History museums with her story The Manticore, the Mermaid and Me. The longest work, and probably the most fun, is a story by Anthony Boucher called The Compleat Werewolf. Nalo Hopkinson presents more traditional mythology with The Smile on the Face based on the idea magical trees. Avram Davidson’s creature is perhaps the most unusual and intriguing of all. Read Or all the seas with oysters to see why. Finally, as Gaiman says, the concluding tale features the most ‘natural of unnatural creatures’ in Peter S Beagle’s Come Lady Death. So as you can see, a refreshingly diverse set of storytellers brought together under a common umbrella.

There is a good consistency of story-telling across all of these, but as in all collections, some stories stand out and others are weaker. Yu’s is perhaps the most forgettable, but only because in a menagerie of such wonders, cartographer wasps and anarchist bees are the least wonderful. Gaimen’s entry is enchanting; Boucher’s was the most enjoyable to read. Larry Niven’s mix of science fiction and myth really worked for me, and it was delightfully witty. However, my favourite story was Stockton’s take of the griffin. It made me smile, think about the way mythology is presented and made me want to read more of his work. Okorafor and Nesbit had a similar effect. Some people use short story collections as gateways into new writers and if anyone isn’t familiar with any of these, they should really check this collection out. There isn’t a moment of brilliance, but there’s nothing to disappoint too. A solidly enjoyable walk about the best of museums; that of the imagination.

All the authors in this collection have allowed their work to be used for free for the benefit of Dave Eggers’ literacy charity.

I don’t relate to reality: On the nature of a short story. Considerations after reading The Unreal and the Real by Ursula K Le Guin.

Unreal and RealI like Le Guin. I do. I’m no fan, though. In fact, I’ve only read the obvious novels previous to reading this collection. I really enjoyed The Left Hand of Darkness for both its world-building and characters. I found The Dispossessed to be ok. Technically good but it left me a little wanting. Can’t put my figure on it. So with that, I set out to read The Unreal and the Real Volume One: Where on Earth, Selected Stories of Ursula K Le Guin. Le Guin introduces the collection by saying she selected these particular stories herself. She also says this isn’t her favourite form of presenting a story. As the title suggests, these are set on Earth. Maybe not all of them are our Earth, but close enough. So these aren’t her science fiction tales. These range from realist to magical realism with a hint of dream and fantasy thrown in.

There are many ways to tell a story. There are many thoughts to what a story actually is. To me, it is a narrative that takes the reader from one point to another via a character or characters. A story is primarily to entertain with a strong secondary raison d’être to inform. It is generally accepted that most stories consist of extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances or the reverse, ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. For the most part, it seems to me that this collection fails to entertain as it consists mostly of ordinary people in ordinary circumstances.

I love a short story. I don’t read enough of them to be honest, and I try to write them on occasion. I believe, however, that they should fulfil the job of any tale, which is to have a beginning, middle and end, and yes, not necessarily in that order.

Endings. Interesting creatures. A Cambrian Explosion of evolution has defined the story ending as almost indefinable. Which is fine. I love an ambiguous ending or an unreliable narrator. The conclusion to a short can be the birth of something bigger or the death of hope. Personal preference leads me to look for darkness, unease, bleakness and doubt. But I want to see what I’m looking for. And I certainly don’t expect and want a happily ever after to what I read. What I do need is the satisfaction of understanding the point of the story. When researching this piece I found something that Ali Smith said in a 2010 interview, which makes sense to me:

“The thing about the story form is that it is completely wide open. Its end is never an end, it’s always some kind of middle or beginning. It just is. It doesn’t trace an arc in the way that a novel does. It’s a different kind of journey.”

But to me, the end of a short story should be clear. It might be the first step on a new path, but that path shouldn’t need hunting for.

I recently read a collection of short stories edited and chosen by Neil Gaiman. Each of the stories introduced the main characters and the world with efficiency and clarity. They took the reader on a short journey during which the reader learned something about the characters and the world they lived in, the imagination was fired and in almost all cases, a little light was shed on the nature of humanity. Each concluded with a satisfying full stop. In some cases, I was intrigued enough to wonder what happened beyond that point, as I am with any length tale, but mostly I felt it was a tale well travelled and the destination – whatever that place looked and felt like – was reached. So to me, a short story should be a way in to a wider world, whether it has been written about or not.

In this collection, the ‘realist’ stories aren’t just ineffective, but are plain dull. Technically, Le Guin writes beautifully, with well crafted sentences and well realised fine detail. However, in the first few stories, I just wasn’t hooked in. I couldn’t care less about the characters and their lives. I was bored. I don’t expect to be bored when I reading a technically well written story. This is a confusing dichotomy. How can good sentences make a bad story? I had to read passages more than once because I’d drifted away, and I still wasn’t sure what was happening. Or I didn’t see the point. Or I just didn’t care what was happening to the characters. Maybe it was the characters. Not interested. Is that my fault, or Le Guin’s? I tried to care about them or at least be interested in them, but now I couldn’t care less. In the entire collection, only one story worked for me and while yes it was the most fantastical, it was also the most coherent: Buffalo Girls, Won’t You Come Out Tonight. Simple, effective, beautifully told, meaningful, conclusive. Nowhere near the best short I’ve ever read but miles better than everything else in the collection. Others had moments of quality and imagination which I liked, but mostly I found this book an exercise in style over substance. There are a couple of pieces towards the end which feature short character vignettes, which show how well Le Guin can switch character voice and still build a coherent world. She understands, more than most, the importance of detail and she is versed in many a style, from fairy tale to historical tale. But I just didn’t understand the point of the stories. In fact, I’m not sure most of them were stories. Essays, exercises, random thoughts? But maybe I’m not smart enough. Maybe I don’t relate to reality.

 


 

Afterthought: Le Guin’s collection is not for me at all. That much is clear. I do like magic realism and have enjoyed Borges, Bulgakov, Rushdie for example. It is not the theme but the stories. However, in the old adage that you should leave the reader wanting more, Le Guin has succeeded. I want to read her next collection to see how I feel about those.

The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself by Ian Sales

What is the difference between a short story, a novella and a novel? In the case of Ian Sale’s The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself it doesn’t actually matter, because it’s a story and that is the only consideration. What Sales manages to achieve in a 48 page story (with additions – more of which later) is more than some people achieve in a 300 page book.

The book opens with a list of technical abbreviations, some of which I wasn’t familiar with, and to be honest, this initially raised my suspicions. Was this to beaq2_released_cover something that was too hard to read? Would I constantly have to refer back to it in order to work out what the narrative was all about? My fears, fortunately, were unfounded. The Eye… is the second story in the Apollo Quartet. Essentially, these are stories concerning some classic elements of NASA’s Apollo program, which was an early American mission to people humans in space and ultimately, on the moon. Sales speculates on how the program would have panned out if a few things had gone a little different. In this, story number two, the Russian’s made it to the moon first, but NASA found its way to Mars. The story features Elliot who is a Brigadier Colonel for USAF. He has been sent to an exoplanet in a distant system to investigate what appears to be a missing human colony. And this is 1999. Which means things are very different from our reality. Because in 1979, Elliot was the first man on Mars. [Spoiler alert ahead]. Elliot found something on Mars which almost cost him everything, but led to scientists discovering faster-than-light travel.

Sales has said he deliberately set out to write it as a ‘puzzle narrative’. The story covers various timelines – going back and forth between them – as the plot develops, giving the reader tantalizing glimpses of the mystery. In such a short piece of prose, Elliot is a fully rounded character with an intriguing back-story and motivations which are believable. Which results in a wallop of impact when the story concludes. The writing is very technical, but Sales’ prose is clever enough so you soon get used to it and can see beyond it. There’s a lot of jargon – both scientific and military – and references to real events and people. Dialogue feels realistic, indicating Sales has probably read (and listened to) some NASA and military conversations (indeed, the book comes with a bibliography).

As the story concludes, the puzzle doesn’t feel like it’s solved. We are left with the aforementioned wallop of Elliot’s situation. Which left me harrumphing a little. Then there is a glossary of which starts of listing the real Apollo missions. It soon, however, becomes clear that it also contains fictional elements. It is part of the story, which needs to be read. Because despite everything else (its length, its narrative structure, the appendices), this is first and foremost, a story. All the elements come together to complete the tale. And that includes the Coda, which is the final piece in the puzzle, allowing the reader to see the picture. My only concern would be that people who have little or no understanding of complex theoretical physics may struggle with the concepts and feel a little cold by it all. But I could be wrong. For me, Sales has created a true and complex story in just a few pages, with his clever additions. It started cold but soon became an entertaining and interesting voyage. The Eye… feels like classic science fiction where ideas are explored. Which in modern times, is a rare but welcome thing.

The Peacock Cloak by Chris Beckett

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 a17447267 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.