Jeapes Japes by Ben Jeapes (book review).

February 24, 2015 | By | Reply More

There is frequently a complaint made that there are insufficient markets for short stories. This may be true but people like reading them and, for the best writers, there are magazines out there. The rest of us have to persevere. Sometimes it is not just the writer but the editor of a particular magazine that is important. Editors are human, they have their likes and dislikes but the good ones are also able to recognise quality. When an author and an editor connect, there can be a string of publications in a particular magazine. Ben Jeapes and ‘Interzone’ are one such pairing. Of the seventeen stories in this volume, nine of them have a first airing in that magazine. It is always worth looking at the kind of stories an editor likes, especially if your aim is to persuade them to publish your own efforts. The marquees of a successful short story writer need to include quality and originality. To do it in Science Fiction also means having to keep ahead of the game.

JeapesJapes

A number of these stories, published between 1990 and 1999, revolve around the ideas of AIs as part of our future society. ‘The Data Class’ concerns the activities of an unpatroned AI at large in the data-net. Now it has shaken off the shackles of ownership and is attempting to foment dissent amongst the other AIs, taking for his charter the writings of Karl Marx. The story looks at the way material can be interpreted and gives the sense that there is more than one logical approach to achieving ones ends.

‘Digital Cats Come Out Tonight’ is a totally different take on the idea of AIs. Consider a world where AIs run virtually everything electronic. There will be glitches, like mice, that will infest a system. If you want to get rid of mice, you get a cat. In this case, an AI which will hunt down and disable the fragments which are causing the glitches. The story was written in 1990 but the idea is very much like clean-up software eradicating a virus infestation.

‘Memoirs Of A Publisher’ is told from the perspective of an AI loose in the Net, whose creator has been taken out of the system, leaving it with a lot of data. The AI decides to publish it in hard copy and this story describes the trials and tribulations of setting up a publishing business from scratch, something Jeapes would be very familiar with as the owner/editor of the former small independent press, Big Engine.

‘Crush’ is a fourth AI story. In several of these stories, there is reference to the Net War. Although the details are deliberately vague, one result is that there a number of AIs loose in the system that now have no purpose as their owners are no longer part of the system. Jim runs a refuge for these entities, rehabilitates them and finds them new places to work. All goes smoothly until Pita turns up. Whoever created her gave her a warped personality and she causes havoc in the refuge and shows all the symptoms of falling in love with Jim, a situation that cannot be allowed to continue. This is a story where the AIs have to be handled by psychological methods, demonstrating the narrowing gap between human and AI.

The AIs in ‘Jacqui The Giantkiller’ have a specific purpose to be a barrier between the household and the door-to-door salesman. It is Jacqui’s job to find a way past the virtual guard dog and gain customers.

The other stories in this book are very different but often deal with aspects of psychological behaviour. ‘Pages Out Of Order’ highlights how the mind and personality can change with maturity. It begins as a typical school story with the misfits as targets of the school bully. The theme behind it is a kind of ‘if I knew then what I know now, I would have handled things differently’.

While this story concerns the bully ‘seeing the light’, ‘Spoilsport’ is a spat between siblings. This sibling rivalry also plays a part in ‘Getting Rid If Teddy’ but here the childishness can be accepted as those quarrelling are four and seven. As many of the arguments centre around the younger child’s teddy, their mother decides it has to go. The best stories always make the reader think that the characters in it behave as real people would. These children, Colin and Adam, would make any reader familiar with the interaction of children nod sagely and remember the ones they have met that behave just like that.

The problem with scientific experiments, especially those involving complex issues such as memory and personality is that controlling all the nuances is very difficult and the unforeseen consequences might not be apparent for a long time. ‘The Robson Strain’ depends in a number of coincidences for its effect. These give the narrative shape.

‘Cathedral No. 3’ was written in 1996 and in the present climate could be regarded as worryingly prophetic. Coventry has been laid waste by a nuclear bomb in the name of Islam. A Muslim reporter has come to interview the Dean of the cathedral which lies in ruins. His hope is that a new building will rise from the ashes as a symbol of just that: hope. In the hands of some, this could be an angry story but this is a meeting where the differences between the characters don’t matter. The way forward is more important.

‘The Grey People’ can be interpreted in two ways. Either it is an example of a character, Malcolm Lloyd, descending into mental illness, or the increasing blandness and sameness of modern life is enabling the supernatural beings he refers to as the Grey People, to suck his memories out of him. On the one hand, only he can see them and know what they are capable of or it is a subtle descent into blandness of the whole population that hasn’t been recognised as it is happening to all if us. Either way, it is unsettling.

‘Pages Out Of Order’ could be described as time travel with a difference as only the mind travels but between the same body in different times. ‘Wingèd Chariot’ is more conventional. When Dr. Morgan turns up in an isolated parish in Cornwall, he is fleeing from the future. He sees ills amongst the community which would have been easily cured in his own era. Being a compassionate man, he wants to help. To do so would mean using techniques not yet developed. This is not, however, a simple narrative. In several of his stories, Jeapes effectively intersperses the main story with interludes which explain how the protagonist ended up in their current situation and allowing a side-step into an unexpected ending.

‘Correspondents’ is another time travel story, with people being sent back to strategic points in history to observe in detail. Readers of Kage Baker’s ‘Company’ novels will see some similarities in the problems the passage to the past has. Baker’s first novel of the series was published in 1997, Jeapes story in 1998, suggesting that both writers had the same idea at similar times.

Whereas most of the stories in this volume can be regarded either as Science Fiction or contemporary supernatural, ‘The Fireworker’ is overtly fantasy. Cegario and his assistant Shan arrive in a town pretending to be able to make dreams come true through fire. In reality, Cegario is a con man and Shan is a thief. These are not the charismatic rogues that often turn up in fantasy novels but self-serving villains. They get caught. Again, don’t expect Jeapes to present a straight forward narrative. Be prepared for reverses of fortune for all the main characters.

Authors rarely let a good idea go to waste. Lovingly created planets, social systems and aliens can be utilised on more than one occasion. Often it is a series of short stories that form the process of familiarisation for the writer. ‘Trial By Alien’ took the opposite approach. In his novel, ‘His Majesty’s Starship’, Jeapes had created a quadripedal sentient race known as Rusties. As the story begins, we find Neil Cardoso as the only human survivor of a disaster that has crippled the Pathfinder. The Rustie members of the crew were unaffected but decide that Neil must be put on trial, accused of the human deaths. Neil not only has to prove his innocence but to work with the Rustie social system. This is an excellent addendum to the novel.

‘A Holiday On Lake Moskva’ is the only story in this volume that has not previously been published but it stands up to the quality of the others very well and is not just a make-weight to fill out the pages. It is an alternative history story in which the Western European countries didn’t get involved with Hitler’s land-grab policy and let him walk all over Communist Russia. As reprisal for resisting, Moscow has been flooded creating huge lake. Robert Miller goes there with his girlfriend, the daughter of the state governor. The Russians who believe it is still their country and whose resistance movement occasionally launches violent attacks on the government has resonances with today’s Europe where countries still resent times when they were annexed.

‘Go With The Flow’ is just a delightful story. If you have ever wondered why traffic slows on a major route and then speeds up again without any apparent reason, then maybe this will provide an explanation. It is deliberate and the narrator’s Gran is one of those who regulate traffic flow by driving appropriately for the circumstances.

Overall, this is a volume packed with clever stories from an intelligent writer. Jeapes shows the necessity of being able to twist the straight-forward into unexpected directions in order to make a pleasant story into something thought provoking.

For those curious as to the origin of the title, it isn’t that the stories are intended to be funny, though there is humour in them, try putting Jeapes into a spell-checker.

Pauline Morgan

February 2015

(pub: Monico, UK. 348 page enlarged paperback. Price: £ 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-909016-19-4)

check out website: www.clarionpublishing.com

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