Burning Brightly: 50 Years Of Novacon edited by Ian Whates (book review).

From 1979 onwards, every Novacon SF Convention featured a free special with a short story donated by that year’s guest of honour. This anthology features a selection from those specials.

Stephen Baxter’s ‘Chiron’ is set in his ‘Xeelee Sequence’ universe but stands alone just fine. Anna Gage is a top pilot who was lucky enough to be in space when the alien Squeem conquered the Solar System. She finds a colony of free humans on Chiron, ‘a dirty snowball two hundred miles across’ that loops between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus.

Should they fight or run away? The story stretches so far beyond this premise, in time and space, that a summary would be pointless, but it certainly evokes that good old sense of wonder.

‘The Spheres’ by Iain M. Banks was part of the first draft of his novel ‘Transition’ but he cut it when his plans changed. With some revision, it makes for a complex short story with multiple points of view. The spheres, glowing balls of light, float over the surface of a shallow lake and sometimes down the streets of Last Resort, the steam age city on the shore.

They seem to be intelligent. This, too, goes off in unexpected directions but that’s the joy of short stories.

In ‘Acts Of Defiance’ by Eric Brown, Britain is under a tyrannical regime that bans books. On a remote Scottish island, two old men seek to live quietly with their libraries but the Party is relentless. Features an impassioned plea for the value of literature which ‘allow me to share the visions, the thoughts of others besides myself. They show me that I am not the centre of the universe, that my psyche is not the only one that matters.’ Happily, Brown does not specify the political bent of the Party. The extremists of both left and right want to ban dissenting opinions. See Twitter.

‘Heatwave’ by Anne Nicholls is a novelette about a time-travelling expedition to the distant past to study climate events and Neanderthals. In 2091, floods plague northern Europe while everywhere south of the Pyrenees suffers drought and forest fires. A lot happened but somehow it didn’t grip me.

Paul McAuley’s ‘Alien TV’ has aliens broadcasting television programmes to Earth. From the information therein, scientists have learned vital stuff and our technology has progressed by leaps and bounds. Alan, a working scientist, meets with Howard, his best friend from Cambridge who took a science degree but went into freelance journalism. A subtle story about life choices.

‘Canary Girls’ by Kari Sperring is a prose poem about the role of women in the history of Coventry with an afterword by the author explaining who’s who. Different and a pleasant read.

I think ‘Softlight Sins’ by Peter F. Hamilton is my favourite in the book. The death penalty is back in Britain and a madman called Reynolds who slaughtered his entire family, due for execution, is sentenced instead to a personality wipe by means of softlight, a technique that uses lasers to erase a person’s memory and behaviour patterns.

The experiment takes an unexpected turn but the judge in charge decides to continue. There seems to be some confusion between Christianity and Buddhism in our hero’s mind but it’s worth it for the ending.

Justina Robson’s ‘Erie Lackawanna Song’ concerns a virus brewed in a laboratory that might have devastating effects if released into the population. ‘The end of the world as we know it,’ says Doctor Celia Glick to Jackson, her commuting companion on the Hoboken to Manhattan ferry. A slow, stately story, rich in similes and character.

‘Through The Veil’ by Juliet E. McKenna is an enjoyable fantasy novelette in which an organisation of priestesses work to prevent unreal creatures from stepping through the veil to enter the tangible world. If enough people believe in an imaginary creation, it can become real, like Sherlock Holmes.

Geoff Ryman does something a bit different with ‘The Coming Of Enkidu’. A creature takes shape in the dust, nourished by a lioness, rises and discovers the world. Ryman is involved in promoting African SF and this piece may reflect that influence. I liked it.

In ‘Red Sky In The Morning’ by Adrian Tchaikovsky, society has fallen apart due to floods and crop failures but Welsh people are building back better. Then the English soldiers come and it’s up to Rhys Ap Owain, the last descendant of Owen Glendower, to help the locals. Pure fantasy, of course, but my Celtic blood surged with pride.

‘The God Of Nothing’ by Iain R. MacLeod starts with the humble Chief Administrator being summoned by the king and told to work out an accurate system whereby tariffs, henceforth just one-tenth of what the people produce, can be accurately tallied. The current system is too primitive.

Clueless about how to do this, the Chief Administrator seeks help amid the temples to various gods on a nearby mountain. He stumbles into a small place which, the sole attendant tells him, serves the god of nothing. A charming, humorous story of the slow rise of civilisation.

Jaine Fenn’s protagonist also ends up a long way from his starting point in ‘The Ships Of Aleph’. Lachin is a fisherman’s son but curious about the world beyond the village. When a duke comes and launches a ship to sail out to the open sea, perhaps to the edge of the world, Lachin is keen to go. He goes far beyond his wildest dreams. Lachin is self-centred, self-contained, probably selfish, but he follows his own path and is content. I liked him.

‘Bloodbirds’ by Martin Sketchley concludes this volume. 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. Then she falls in love. There’s a hook, an infodump, a flashback to the body of the story and a perfect twist. Super.

On reading in Rog Peyton’s introduction that writers gave these stories free to Novacon, I worried. Might not ‘It Came From the Trunk’ be a more apt title? Maybe it would but great stories often don’t sell at once to the fickle market and these are by some of the biggest names in the field.

‘Burning Brightly’ is an excellent collection of varied Science Fiction tales with a few fantasies thrown in for good measure. More solid fare from Newcon Press and certainly worth your time and money.

Eamonn Murphy

November 2021

(pub: Newcon Press. 256 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-914953-03-3)

check out website: www.newconpress.co.uk

2 thoughts on “Burning Brightly: 50 Years Of Novacon edited by Ian Whates (book review).

  • I was a bit disappointed that there is no mention of my cover art, which I also donated!

    • Apologies. The cover art is super.


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