2001: An Odyssey In Words edited by Ian Whates and Tom Hunter (book review).

To celebrate the centenary of Arthur C. Clarke’s birth, NewCon Press has produced a volume of stories that all contain exactly 2001 words. It’s a fantastic concept, giving rise to a great selection of brief yet entertaining stories but, even with a page count of around 200 pages, that still amounts to rather a lot of stories for me to cover in a single review.

Some of the contributions have a definite Arthur C. Clarke feel to them, others reference various of his well-known works, notably ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, and others are just great Science Fiction. There’s a chance that with so much to comment on, I could end up writing this review in 2001 words, too.

The collection kicks off with ‘Golgotha’ by Dave Hutchinson, the story of a cleric from an obscure parish who is thrust into the limelight when he is obliged to play host to a visiting alien. Before the eyes of the world and some twitchy generals and bishops, the priest accompanies the alien dignitary to visit the local miraculous dolphin. An interesting blend of philosophy, theology and politics.

Set in the same universe as his ‘Quiet War’ novels, ‘The Monoliths Of Mars’ is Paul McCauley’s homage to the eponymous Clarke novel. In the grand, sweeping style of the ‘Quiet War’, man’s genius at adaptation and construction throughout the Solar system is framed through a tour of the enigmatic man-made monuments and their profound impact on some people’s lives.

‘Murmurations’ by Jane Rogers harks back to golden age tales of exploration and colonisation. Reports brought back by two exploratory ships build a picture of wondrous worlds ready for habitation but, as the crews languish in quarantine, a worrying thought begins to develop in the mind of the doctor assigned to care for them.

There’s a nod to Clarke’s ‘The Nine Billion Names Of God’ in ‘Ouroboros’ by Ian R. MacLeod, in which a hacker is contacted by an inscrutable monk and commissioned to hack the universe. Oddly enough, the hacker has some ideas of how that might be done. Another interestingly cerebral tale.

‘The Escape Hatch’ refers to a black portal to another world in Matthew De Abaitua’s tale of the British public hoping to find a better exit than Brexit. The technical explanation is kept to a minimum, as is any gung-ho planetary exploration, as the ordinary citizens take the chance for an ultimate escape in this thoughtful tale.

‘Childhood’s Friend’ by Rachel Pollack centres on a group of biologically enhanced children who are gifted with souped-up intelligence and who provoke the usual backlash of outrage from the public. Misunderstood and feared, the children seem to be much more in control than the adults and, after firstly feeling sorry for their plight, we gradually come to realise that they seem curiously unafraid of their fates.

‘Takes From The White Hart’ is Bruce Sterling’s amusingly self-referential story that muses on the reasons that stories are no longer set in bars where possibly drunk narrators tell tall tales. On the good ship ‘Brexitania’, a journalist begins to think that this trend is about to be reversed and the story leads us along nicely in anticipation of the treat that is in store.

‘Your Death, Your Way, 100% Satisfaction Guaranteed!’ by Emma Newman postulates the opportunity to end your life in a virtual reality of your own devising. When you’re old and rich and powerful, that means you should be able to arrange things however you want, but Lucius finds that dying is not as straight-forward as he had planned.

Smiling at the innate sexism in stories of years gone by, ‘Distraction’ by Gwyneth Jones focuses on the long-term effects of zero gravity on certain parts of the anatomy when astronauts return to Earth. The relationship with their AI makes this at the same time a wonderfully touching story.

When the AI controlling the space station in ‘Dancers’ by Allen Stroud turns out to be called HAL, you just know something worrying is afoot. As the first long-term orbital habitat comes to operational status, some of the new crew suffer from violent psychoses and it’s up to the station’s doctor to get to the truth in this clever story.

‘Entropy War’ is Yoon Ha Lee’s fantastic mix of instructions for a dice-based game of universal conquest and the account of how various races have expanded and conquered and tried to preserve their heritage. Literal or figurative or both, it’s a strangely intriguing addition to the collection, leaving me wanting to know more about both the game and the war.

‘The Ontologist’ is the ultimate authority on classification in Liz Williams’ tale that blends Science Fiction, fantasy and filing cabinets. Called upon to classify a new and enigmatic object, the ontologist sets his mind to work on what could be his ultimate challenge in this original and quirky tale.

‘Waiting In The Sky’ is Tom Hunter’s touching and thoughtful story of a bartender who’s daughter has aspirations to be something greater. The exploration of Mars and the death of David Bowie make up the background to this lovingly crafted tale.

Adrian Tchaikovsky takes us into deep space for ‘The Collectors’, in which mankind has travelled to the stars to investigate the source of a radio signal. This is a classic piece of hard SF with a sweeping grandeur and sense of wonder, amazingly so for its short length.

‘I Saw Three Ships’ by Phillip Mann is set on a much-expanded International Space Station, where two old colleagues face both retirement and the continuation of the space race into a new phase. I was left somewhat bemused at the conclusion where developments took a somewhat unexpected turn, but the imagery and melancholic air were very effective.

‘Before They Left’ by Colin Greenland is set, I think, though it’s a long time since I read it, against the background of ‘Childhood’s End’ where alien visitors of a rather chilling appearance are actually quite friendly. A young girl has ambitions to visit Mars after learning about it in school, but a subsequent encounter with an alien Overlord has a profound effect on the course of her future. It’s a sweet and nostalgic tale.

In ‘Drawn From The Eye’, Jeff Noon describes the work of a collector of tears, a connoisseur who has collected the lachrymatory extrusions of many famous faces. It’s an entirely convincing story of an obscure hobby and the elderly collector is a wonderful protagonist.

Referencing Scandinavian folklore, ‘Roads Of Silver, Paths Of Gold’ by Emmi Itäranta postulates that perhaps the myths of nature gods were based on the appearance of an alien energy being of some sorts. Told from the alien’s perspective, this is a story of loneliness and longing, as well as sadness and hope that gives an interesting fantasy twist to what is essentially a Science Fiction based plot.

One of the highlights of the book for me was ‘The Fugue’ by Stephanie Holman. An old woman suddenly wakes up wondering where she is, why she is so old and who she is living with. She was living under cover but seems to have been abandoned and lost her memory. Her panicked reactions and her husband’s loving concern turn the story from an alien invasion to an attack of dementia and back again with astounding depth and effectiveness.

Chris Beckett’s ‘Memories Of A Table’ is another captivating story that stood out for me. I’ve come across the concept of recovering memories from inanimate objects before but, in this tale, several of such items have been collected in a museum so that visitors can effectively step back in time to experience the scene captured by the object. One of the museum’s visitors is a lonely old man who has a particular interest in one of the displays and, although I guessed the reason why, watching the scene play out was astoundingly compelling.

In ‘Child Of Ours’ by Claire North, a group of Eos70 robots come up with the idea of creating a child. The networked conversation, explained sometimes in words and sometimes in mathematics is both funny and touching as they struggle to come up with the best recipe for creating a new version of themselves.

‘Would-Be A.I., Tell Us A Tale! #241: Sell ‘em Back In Time! By Hali Hallison’ is the manic contribution from Ian Watson. The A.I. in question must learn to tell a story that is entertaining to humans and proceeds to attempt just that, weaving the confusing story of a burger bar chain owner’s attempts at world domination while constantly interrupting its own story with health warnings, puns and asides. It’s a real head-rush of a story.

One of the most touching stories of the collection is ‘Last Contact’ by Becky Chambers. It’s the account of a scientist’s last attempt to make contact with the semi-intelligent species who communicate via scent and live on a planet that has been under surveillance for years. As the mission is cancelled, Thea is determined to bring meaning to their time there.

Ian Whates takes us to the pub known as The Fable, the setting for the Clarke-inspired anthology ‘Fables From The Fountain’ which emulated Clarke’s ‘Tales From The White Hart’. In ‘The Final Fable’ we listen in on a combination of tall tale and conspiracy theory that posits an oddly realistic concept in answer to the Fermi paradox. It has a classic feel to it, with a great twist and a question left hanging.

Ian McDonald paints ‘Ten Landscapes Of Nili Fossae’ as a mission to Mars struggles against breakdowns and despondency and an under-utilised geologist turns to painting to capture the essence and grandeur of the planet. It’s a thoughtful and philosophical piece that encapsulates and condenses an entire mission into a series of impressions.

‘Child’ by Adam Roberts centres on the Star Child, a giant orbiting embryo who gazes down at the world, oblivious to the panic it may cause and unperturbed by any attack against its serenity. It’s a story that starts off with a large-scale and bizarre phenomenon and then continues to grow in scale and profundity.

A damaged colony ship with no way to slow down is heading for the new planet ‘Providence’ in the concluding story by Alastair Reynolds. Faced with a doomed future as they come to terms with the knowledge that they will see but never attain their dream, the crew decide to devote their energies to a final act of redemption. Stories of doomed colony ships have long been a staple of Science Fiction and in this story Alastair Reynolds once again astounds with his novel take on the concept.

The first of three non-fiction pieces, ‘2001: A Space Prosthesis – The Extensions Of Man’ reflects on man’s advancement via the use of tools of many and varied descriptions. Reflecting on the theme of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ where the Monuments were credited with this effect, author Andrew M. Butler discusses how this played out in the film and book and how it was reflected elsewhere in Arthur C. Clarke’s work.

In his essay ‘On Judging The Clarke Award’, Neil Gaiman reflects on the unique nature of what has come to be one of the premier awards of the speculative fiction field, as well as his experience as a judge on two occasions. The award considers every SF book published in Britain in any given year and, even though I’ve read 85 books each in the past two years, I can hardly begin to imagine the mammoth task of those judges in, not only reading such a huge selection of books, but narrowing them down to a shortlist.

Finally, ‘Once More On The Third Law’ by China Miéville explores in entertaining and knowledgeable fashion the old argument of genre boundaries and how much distinction there is between literary and genre fiction, as exemplified by the eclectic choices of past Clarke Award judges.

I would sum up the book as a whole, but have just hit 2001 words.

Gareth D Jones

January 2019

(pub: NewCon Press, 2018. 199 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-910935-76-7)

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