This collection purports to be the best of British Science Fiction from 2016. Reading ‘Interzone’ many years ago has left me with a fixed notion that British Science Fiction is bleedin’ miserable so while not avoiding it, I do not seek it out. I was interested to know if this anthology would update my prejudice.
The first story is ‘Arrested Development’ by Joanne Hall. Kai is cage-fighting with a Grond. The creature is tall with green skin, a tail and a forked tongue. Kai’s a tough loner who lives in a slum and gets through the fights by taking painkilling drugs. The Grond have taken over Earth and don’t care too much about humans. This is a slice of life story set in a tough future.
‘Ten Love Songs To Change The World’ by Peter F. Hamilton. The Fey have different abilities but the ones who can dream backwards in time are the elite. A young Fey wonders why they can’t change the past to eliminate bad stuff like Hitler. More fantasy than Science Fiction but enjoyable.
‘Beyond The Heliopause’ by Eric Brown and Keith Brooke. The heliopause is ‘a nominal boundary line where the force of the solar wind is counterbalanced by that of the stellar winds of our neighbouring stars’. A mission to get there has interesting results. Fun sort of SF which reminded me of an old Asimov story about the dark side of the Moon, not because the conclusions were the same, though.
‘The Seventh Gamer’ by Gwyneth Jones has the notion that aliens might try to get in touch by turning up as avatars in VR games. The computer provides avatars to assist and advise players but what if one of them was actually an alien intelligence? An interesting concept but I’m not a gamer and it didn’t grab me.
‘Dream-Hunter’ by Nick Wood. Peter works in law enforcement as a Dream-Hunter and he’s the best. Doctor Liz attaches electrodes to the criminal while sedating him to an REM state. Then Peter uses his talent to control the others dreams and find out the truth. This was a hard-hitting story and the staccato-style narrative with swear words, reminded me of Harlan Ellison’s work. Excellent.
‘Shooting The Messenger’ by Robert Bagnall features Dave Kite, an ambitious young journalist looking for a story in Pakistan, a war zone with the Taliban. I get the impression that Bagnall made this up as he went along, which you can do with a short story. It’s certainly unpredictable! I liked it. Authors having fun is something I’m glad to see in ‘the heavy industry that professional writing has become’ as Bernard Berenson wrote to Ray Bradbury.
‘The Lightship’ by Neil Davies is one contender for my favourite in the book. Commander Aldo Kinnear and a small crew are working to decommission an old lightship that’s rumoured to be halted. They’re interrupted by an attack of the Fris, aliens with whom Earth has been at war for two hundred years. This is classic SF. Interestingly, it appeared in a small magazine, ‘Electric Spec,’ yet made it into the big time ‘Best Of’ book. There’s hope for us all.
‘Ana’ by Liam Hogan is a short story about a psychologist treating a little girl who knows there is a monster under her bed. Neat twist ending.
‘Liberty Bird’ by Jaine Fenn uses an aristocrats’ space yacht race around a gas giant to examine the problem of sexual taboos in a far off future.
‘Joined’ by Sarah L. Byrne is a warning tale of true love. In the nearish future, couples can have a chip implanted which will enable them to feel everything their other half feels, minute by minute throughout the day. Sex is twice as good. It also picks up and transmits emotions and thoughts which can get uncomfortable. What if your partner dies but lives on in your head in the chip? A clever story that reminded me of the classic Robert Silverberg novel ‘Second Time Around’.
I can’t say much about ‘Heinrich Himmler In The Barcelona Hallucination Cell’ by Ian Watson without giving away the plot but suffice to say it was smart and the historical background was accurate as far as I can tell, which is quite far as I’ve read ‘The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich by William L. Shirer twice and recommend it to you.
In ‘Taking Flight’ by Una McCormack, the first person narrator is rich and bored. He bumps into an old friend who’s working as a civil servant on a remote, backward planet and decides to go and visit him. Some uncomfortable truths are discovered. This reminded me of those old travel tales by Somerset Maugham. It has the same slow, deliberate, low key style and it contained the word ‘hitherto’ which is one of my favourites. I love a slam bang adventure as much as the next moron but a change of pace like this is delightful, especially when it’s so well handled.
‘People, Places And Things’ by Den Patrick has people, places and things vanishing for no apparent reason. Soon after they disappear, all records of them are gone, too. It was more like a fantasy than SF but there were hints that the Large Hadron Collider might be to blame. The emotional hook is a wayward son’s reconciliation with his father. The exact details of everyday life in London gave this an air of verisimilitude and it worked well.
‘Staunch’ by Paul Graham Raven tells of a dismal British future where the country is split into several warring states in which drug addicted outcasts with bio-implants struggle to survive. It’s packed with well-imagined detail and Elaine Stainless, the leader of one pack, is a sympathetic character. At one time, British SF seemed to comprise little else but miserable dystopian futures and there are still plenty about but if they’re as well-handled as this once shouldn’t complain.
The same applies to ‘Montpelier’ by Ian Whates and ‘The Apologists’ by Tade Thompson. In the latter, the miserable future is brought on by aliens who accidentally destroy almost all life on Earth. ‘How to Grow Silence From Seed’ by Tricia Sullivan lost me half-way through. I could make nothing of it. These are all good stories but I can’t say I enjoyed them.
‘Between Nine And Eleven’ by Adam Roberts is my other favourite in the book. First person narrator Ferrante is in command of the ship Centurion 771 in a war against the Trefoil, an alien culture that clashes with humans. They attack Trefoil supership ET 13-40. ET doesn’t stand for the cuddly little alien but for Enemy Target. The space opera surface of this story is underpinned by a genuine Science Fiction idea, a brand new one as far as I know. Brilliant!
‘To Catch A Comet’ by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley is my third favourite story. It’s told in the form of letters between Samantha Schandin, an astronomer and various European agencies. She’s trying to warn them of an impending meteor strike but the bureaucrats pass the buck from one to another. This was a hilarious satire that might come true. I’m against Brexit but there’s no denying the flaws of the superstate.
Ranking in the top four of my favourites herein is ‘The 10 Second War’ by Michael Brookes. An alien AI arrives via radio signal and infiltrates our computer systems. The time span of the story is less than eleven seconds but, as it works at super-speed, there’s a lot of activity. The worrying thing is that this might happen with one of our home grown AIs.
What do you do if you have cancer and the research that may find a cure is about forty years from fruition? ‘Possible Side Effects’ by Adam Connors offers one solution, a kind of time travel and no, it’s not cold sleep. The quiet emotional impact makes the story work.
‘Front Row Seats To The End Of The World’ by E.J. Swift has an asteroid about to hit the world. Nellie the narrator is a black woman aged forty-four with a failed marriage and an estranged daughter in her past. She’s living in Manchester and watching Professor Brian Cox on the telly explaining the end of the world in ten days’ time. The sob story about family break-ups and make-ups was well done if you like your heartstrings pulled but what I enjoyed were the wry comments about present day life, especially Trump. An enjoyable read and realistic, too.
Of the twenty-four narratives here only five could be classed as bleedin’ miserable, not including the last one which was oddly cheerful. Since they were all good stories and it’s hard to write a jolly story about a dystopian future, I liked them, too. If this volume represents the current state of British Science Fiction then we’re doing well. For less than £13, it will yield many hours of pleasure, interest, enlightenment, wonder and yes, even fun. We don’t allocate stars on SFCrowsnest (which is odd for an SF magazine) but if we did I’d give it four out of five. Damn good.
(pub: NewCon Press. 336 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-910935-41-5)
check out website: www.newconpress.com