Best Of British Science Fiction 2019 edited by Donna Scott (book review).

The best of British is an old-fashioned sort of concept now, especially in the days of coronavirus as the four nations of the not so United Kingdom deal with it in distinctive ways. I grew up British but we have separated over the years which saddens me so I’m glad to see the notion preserved in this anthology series featuring the best SF produced by British writers, be they resident here or somewhere else.

After an introduction by editor Donna Scott, which ponders these strange pandemic days, we begin the fiction with ‘The Anxiety Gene’ by Rhiannon Grist. The narrator has the gene and so can perceive her other selves in the multiverse as they die in many different ways. It enables her to dodge most mishaps but then there’s a bad day at the office. Slow start but it turned out well.

‘The Land Of Grunts And Squeaks’ by Chris Beckett is a fable about ant-like creatures who lose the power of communication so nobody knows what to do. This is a clever parable on the inadequacy of words that used them very effectively.

A man wakes up with no memory in ‘For Your Own Good’ by Ian Whates and is in for a big surprise. I can’t say more without giving it away but it was certainly thought-provoking. Best not to read it if you have that anxiety gene thing.

Lavie Tidhar is trending at the moment is appearing in ‘The Guardian’ means anything and he writes very nicely. ‘Neom’ is a slice of life in an ultra-modern Arabian city seen from the point of view of one of the lower orders. An interesting look at a very possible future.

Global warming is also trending and Mike Morgan explores a possible solution in ‘Once You Start’. Surely the United States would not be so selfish as to form a reflective screen in the atmosphere by spraying stuff in the airspace over China! Well, yes, they might. Pilot Podolinsky finds things going wrong when he’s teamed up with alcoholic Jocasta Jane Mallory on a three month mission. Neat twists and a realistically ruthless assessment of geopolitics.

‘For The Wicked, Only Weeds Will Grow’ by G.V. Anderson features many alien species being cared for by the Druggles of Requis but Arnold Burke, a Terran, is entrusted to the care of our narrator Mouh. He’s a damn difficult patient but Mouh does her best for him. A nice, quiet story about coping with the end of life, not an easy business, that effectively portrays a strange alien viewpoint.

The fat man, Alice and the Brain find themselves hunting a ticking bomb in ‘Fat Man In The Bardo’ by Ken MacLeod which is too mad to summarise but an enjoyable slice of lunacy.

When the union advises you not to sign a get-out clause the boss presents you with then you should listen to the union. Ventnor finds this out when he signs ‘The Loimaa Protocol’ to get ahead with his career. Author Robert Bagnall delivers a solid old-fashioned SF story of men working in space. It might have been published in ‘The Saturday Evening Post’ by Robert Heinlein before he turned right. I do like this sort of thing.

Stories in which an afterlife is real seem to be popular in the USA and you can get just that in ‘The Final Ascent’ by Ian Creasey. The Aridissans are primitive aliens with a special ‘ghost gland’ that lets them live on in spirit form after the body bites the dust. They don’t all want this and the ghost gland can be surgically implanted into humans so dying Lucian takes up the offer. Creasey rides this premise all the way. One of my favourites.

In ‘Snapshots’ by Leo X. Robertson, you can save past versions of yourself and interact with them in the SnapRoom. They are holographic representations that seem real, called by their age: Five, Nineteen, Twenty-One and Twenty-Five, who is the current model. This reminded me of the Ray Bradbury classic ‘The Veldt’ and may become a classic in its own right. Only time will tell.

‘Witch Of The Weave’ by Henry Szabranski starts with Skink and Percher making their way through a tunnel of weave having abandoned the Motherman. It plunges you straight into a strange world and doesn’t make any particular effort to explain it later. One just goes along for the ride. Somehow it works and very well, too, perhaps because of the close relationship between the two characters. This was another one of my favourites.

‘Ab Initio’ by Susan Boulton has people living in the aftermath of an apocalypse after a new virus attacked the world in 2020! Younger people grew up in the world after the Bloat but Trent remembers the times before and is somewhat bitter. The Bloat attacks the lymph system and killed most of the population but by dint of the right genes, some survive. Survival isn’t the theme, though. It’s art, which is also an issue in ‘Concerning The Deprivation Of Sleep’ by Tim Major. Here there’s a plague of insomnia, possibly caused by modern life, screen time, busy minds. Sleep time becomes a commodity but what about dreams?

Fiona Moore presents an alternate reality in which, by 1967, several nations already have moonbases in ‘Every Little Star’. Both the space race and computer development happened much faster than in our boring world. The heroine is Space Commander Evangeline Artemisia Quelch, in charge of the Commonwealth moonbase and trying hard to prove that women are just as good as men and maybe better. She’s a likeable character and her spoof magazine description of a male admiral as if he were a woman is hilarious. This was another favourite. Fiona Moore co-wrote the two volume ‘The Unofficial And Unauthorised Guide To Battlestar Galactica: Original Series and Galactica: 7’ and solo wrote ‘The Little Car Dreams Of Gasoline’ for On Spec # 103, another wonderful short story.

The Best Of British Science Fiction 2019’ is obviously editor Donna Scott’s selection and not definitively ‘the best’ but no matter. If this book is anything to go by then British Science Fiction is in good shape. I think there is a particularly British strain and it inclines to more thoughtful, literate, intellectual stories rather than gung-ho action-adventure. It can also be downbeat. If you’re in the mood, as we all are at times, for heroes and villains or blasters and energy shields then this will not satisfy your needs. If you want quality Science Fiction to make you think and ponder and dream then seek it out.

Eamonn Murphy

July 2020

(pub: NewCon Press, 2020. 280 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-91295-069-0)

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One thought on “Best Of British Science Fiction 2019 edited by Donna Scott (book review).

  • Eamonn, many thanks for the review, “solid old-fashioned SF”: I’ll happily take that! Robert


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