London Centric: Tales Of Future London edited by Ian Whates (book review).

In this new collection from NewCon Press, editor Ian Whates has drawn together tales of future Londons that range from near-future versions of the city that could be the city as we know it, to far-future glimpses of dazzling architecture and stunning technology. ‘London Centric’ is a real treat for fans of Urban SF and, although London is at the heart of each story, many of them don’t depend on any familiarity with the capital, especially those where the city may well have changed dramatically.

Some of the stories take part in the authors’ established milieus from their other novels, while others are bespoke to this collection.

The collection launches straight into the high-concept distant future with ‘Skin’, set in Neal Asher’s ‘Polity Universe’. In a world where people are linked and augmented, the ultimate transformation would seem to be a semi-legal sensory skin replacement that imbues the wearer with advanced abilities. Rhea, whose background remains uncertain in this tale, doesn’t really come to appreciate those abilities in this cautionary yet exhilarating story.

‘The Good Shepherd’ in Stewart Hotston’s contribution is a city-wide AI tasked with running London safely and efficiently, from traffic management to crime prevention. A glitch in the system leads it to suspect foul play in an intriguing tale of technology, crime and espionage that I enjoyed a lot.

A single yet ever-changing room is the setting for ‘Infinite Tea In The Demara Café’ by Ida Keogh. I thought the protagonist Henry came rather too quickly to the conclusion that he was travelling through alternate universes and acceptance of that fact, but perhaps he was an SF fan so it was the obvious conclusion. Putting aside this jump in cognition, the story was a charming and enjoyable trip through this trope focussing unusually on the very small scale of one man and his tea.

One of the most compelling stories of the collection, ‘War Crimes’ by M.R. Carey, is set in a peaceful future where the war-like past is enshrined as a reminder in whole regions of London that had been time-locked by powerful weapons centuries earlier. The concept is great. The denouement is chilling and profound.

I’ve always enjoyed Aliya Whitely’s somewhat whimsical tales when I’ve come across them and ‘Fog And Pearls At The Kings Cross Junction’ is no exception. Set initially in what seems to be a steampunk past, the story follows a girl called Connie as she moves to the big smoke and discovers a lighthouse keeper called Roderick whose home is a treasure trove of pearls and wonderfully arcane mechanisms. It’s a hauntingly beautiful story.

We returned to the marvellous world of Dave Hutchinson’s ‘Fractured Europe’ series in ‘Nightingale Floors’ in which we follow Anatoly on his fractured journey from the former Russia to London via the politically and geographically complicated landscape of Europe. Espionage, political intrigue, the enigmatic Coureurs des Bois and lots of fabulously convoluted tradecraft made this just as much fun as I was expecting.

‘Something Went Wrong In Heaven’ is Geoff Ryman’s poignant tale in which an elderly man reminisces about his life and loves in London and bemoans the modern world, while starting to see random, odd characters who seem to have emerged from earlier times. There are some chilling moments and some clever twists to draw this tale to its touching conclusion.

There’s a strange mix of retro-futurism, magical realism and Mary Poppinsism in Eugen Bacon’s ‘A Visit In Whitechapel’. The story is told from the viewpoint of two small children in a formal Victorian style, except for the modern-sounding dialogue. They recount their adventures in a London where mythical creatures are a reality and where a seemingly-alien spaceship has landed, but which turns out to be a portal to the plains of Africa. Between all these fantastical goings-on are rows between their mother and her boyfriend, trips to McDonalds and a dodgy family friend. It’s a whole bunch of inscrutable fun. I had a slight quibble with the opening scene which featured a man in tight pants; I presume from the contact this meant tight trousers and as this is a London-based anthology it could have done with using the British word.

Artificial Intelligences feature again in ‘Herd Instinct’ by Fiona Moore, which follows AI psychologist Noah as he helps out the police on a burglary case in which the intelligence that runs the garden has been left in a catatonic state. Lots of interesting extrapolations come together in this gentle and thoughtful tale.

‘Death Aid’ by Joseph Elliot-Coleman is set a few decades from now in a newly-reunited Europe. This was a very intense story full of bitterness and disillusionment with the state of society, the inevitability of war and the hardship of everyday life in this colourfully-described future derelict London.

Aliette de Bodard ‘s contribution is ‘A Dance Of Dust And Life’, in which rival Artificial Intelligences vie for resources and processing power and are able to take over human hosts. It’s a fast-moving tale that barely allows room for comprehension yet paints an intriguing picture of a cybernetic future.

‘Commute’ is a wonderfully satirical story by Andrew Wallace set entirely on the virtual commute to London, a trip on a virtual train with all of the discomforts and inconveniences of a real commute. While enduring this daily travail, interrupted by adverts, health warnings and irritating co-workers, one low-level employee starts to discover the truth behind why he has to commute to the virtual version of a city he already lives in and who controls everything behind the scenes. This was a hugely enjoyable story.

Jeremy Szal takes us back to the universe of his recent debut novel ‘Stormblood’ in the final story of the collection, the epic ‘Scream In Blue’. Sola and her two companions are Crawlers, smugglers who move illicit goods through the shady underworld of a far-future gothic, crime-ridden London. They are theoretically independent from and respected by the criminal gangs that control the streets, but when their next job involves smuggling Stromtech, the alien drug at the heart of Jeremy Szal’s novel, things start to turn dangerous. Woven subtly into the background of ‘Stormblood’, yet fully able to be read by itself, this is an explosive and thrilling conclusion to the collection.

Once again, NewCon Press has pulled together a fine collection of stories from an impressive array of well-known names, producing a very readable and enjoyable collection. The accompanying volume ‘Soot And Steel’, looks to be equally intriguing.

Gareth D Jones

December 2020

(pub: Newcon Press, 2020. 271 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-912950-73-7)

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