Best Of British Science Fiction 2021 edited by Donna Scott (book review).

Here are twenty-three stories that appeared in various publications last year, collected for your delectation and delight because they represent ‘The Best Of British Science Fiction 2021’. The writers are ‘British or British-based’ but the work may have been published in foreign magazines and anthologies, usually American. Here are some stories I liked.

‘Distribution’ by Paul Cornell has a government operative named Shan Tiree going out into the sticks to check on an old scientist called Dr. Kay. I think Dr. Kay is meant to be the villain but it’s Shan, the self-righteous bureaucrat with limitless legal authority hypersensitive to the slightest cultural offense, who scares the crap out of me. I can see her coming in all our futures.

‘Me Two’ by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown is the story of Danny Madison, a nice middle-class London boy growing up after World War II who, on alternate days, is Cristina Velásquez, a poor girl living in Barcelona. One morning, he wakes up as Danny, the next as Cristina. It’s always been that way. It took him a while to find out this wasn’t the same for other people. The story is a fantasy really but authors Brooke and Brown find a scientific rationale for it and the characters’ dilemma is interesting. The emphasis is on different circumstances rather than gender, so it’s not pandering to current controversies. To my surprise, I liked it.

Martin is a quiet piano-tuner living in a small mining town and playing the organ in church on Sundays. He has a wife and a daughter but he is a machine. A very complex machine. I loved the quiet tone of ‘The Andraiad’ by Tim Major and it reinforced Asimov’s idea that a robot or android would make an excellent husband and a fine human being generally.

In ‘Bloodbirds’ by Martin Sketchley, Nikki works for Vanguard, finding and killing humans who carry, unknowingly, the embryos of the Quall. That alien race came to Earth, enhanced humans with biotechnology to fight wars for them, then got fed up with human resistance and left, leaving the technology behind and the embryos. Nikki’s bloodbirds can detect the alien presence and she kills the carrier. All is going well until she falls in love. There’s a hook, an infodump, a flashback to the body of the story and a perfect twist. Super.

‘Okamoto’s Lens’ by A.N. Myers is a weird story about a camera that once belonged to a famous Japanese performance artist that takes very odd photos. It’s also a Covid lockdown story with family tensions. It captures the reader effectively but if it’s Science Fiction at all, it’s pretty far out.

Peter Sutton lives near me in the Wurzel west country of England, so it’s appropriate that he writes about a farmer. In ‘The Stone Of Sorrow’, Matthew is trying to keep his family together and his farm going and neither is easy. His father has become a useless alcoholic and given up. His younger brother is severely disabled. Another brother was conscripted for the war and died mysteriously in training. The others help out as best they can but the farm’s soil is so depleted that crops won’t grow. Can he be saved by signing up for an experiment with a big corporation using new robot farm machinery? It’s his only hope. A gripping, tragic story set in a believable dystopian future.

‘The End Of All Our Exploring’ by Gary Couzens is the story of Barbara, born in 1948 and aged fifteen in 1963 when Kennedy was shot. She meets a tall man named Adam in the street who assures her she will remember that day. Later, she finds him in the reference section of the library researching television programs, especially ‘Doctor Who’. As the story is in an SF anthology, it soon becomes obvious to the reader that Adam is a time traveller. This cosy, domestic milieu doesn’t fit my usual notion of what SF should be but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Perhaps it’s just the nostalgia.

Two other stories challenged my old-fashioned notions. In ‘How Does My Garden Grow’ by David Cleden, Elke is on an intergenerational ship where every resource has to be recycled for future use, there being no more available until they reach their destination. One concession is a soul garden where some crew members can grow small plants on shelves. When such luxuries have to be scrapped to save the mission, Elke doesn’t like it. There are consequences. In ‘The Ghosts Of Trees’ by Fiona Moore, a woman working on a terraforming project based on an old atom bomb site doubts the value of her mission.

When I was a lad, many Science Fiction short stories were about Man colonising other planets. He was generally white, middle-class, well-educated and purposeful, rather like the chap who wrote the story. Like most young readers, I was pretty gung-ho for the conquest of space by clean-cut American engineers and looking forward to holidays on moonbase. Not only didn’t that happen, alas, but the tone of Science Fiction has changed to one of pessimism about humanity. More realistic, no doubt, but disappointing. Even so, both these stories make you think.

Humans suck. You’re better off with a robot and you get one in ‘A Spark In A Flask’ by Emma Johanna Puranen. On Moonbase, working hard is SPARC, the Self-Sufficient Primordial Atmospheric Robotic Caretaker. Long departed humans set up an experiment to simulate the conditions of early Earth’s atmosphere in flasks. Each one holds some combination of hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, methane, carbon monoxide and ammonia and might produce life.

The Best Of British Science Fiction 2021’ is a mixed bag, as usual, and showcases the various types of stories in the genre that are being published in our time. Short stories, like drama in general, are becoming more intense and more emotional. All of it is well-written. There’s quite a lot of first-person present tense narration which can sometimes make it feel more like doing your English literature homework than having fun. However, it’s still better to read one solid idea compressed into a short story than plough through ten thick volumes following a hero’s journey. Quicker, too.

The Best Of British Science Fiction 2021’ is a book for intelligent, literary readers who want new ideas relayed through interesting characters via polished prose.

Eamonn Murphy

August 2022

(pub: NewCon Press, 2022. 290 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-910953-25-6)

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Eamonn Murphy

Eamonn Murphy reviews books for sfcrowsnest and writes short stories for small press magazines. His works are available on Amazon and on Kindle Unlimited.

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