I enjoyed Chris Beckett’s first collection, the award-winning ‘The Turing Test’ and his recent novel, ‘Dark Eden’, so I was very happy to get a copy of his new collection ‘The Peacock Cloak’ to review. This volume collects together all of Chris Beckett’s stories published over the past five years, from such venerable venues as ‘Interzone’ and ‘Asimov’s Magazine’, a total of twelve stories written with his characteristic attention to character, science fictional subtlety and keen insight into human nature. There were no stories I didn’t like in this book, so let me tell you about a few of my favourites.
‘Two Thieves’ is set millennia in the future, after a galaxy-spanning empire has collapsed to leave isolated pockets of humanity on many planets. Two thieves with fabulous puritan names, Dismas and Gestas, come across that favourite artefact of the Science Fiction world, an ancient wormhole network connecting their home with other planets. As is often the case with Chris Beckett’s stories, the focus is not on the technology, but on the two characters, their interaction, motives and the way they deal with the marvellous discoveries they make. They are ordinary, everyday people, faced with the unfathomable and they make their choices based on their own experiences and feelings. It’s a marvellously crafted story.
Young Cassie lives in ‘The Caramel Forest’ with her family, visitors on the colony world Lutania, haunted by mysterious indigenous beings who bring fear to the lives of most of the human colonists. Although written from a child’s viewpoint, this story captures both the wonder of the alien landscape and the dreadful mundaneness of her family’s life. Competing opinions are woven together nicely to form an intriguing tale.
The same planet Lutania is the setting of ‘Day 29’, in which Agency worker Stephen nears the end of his tour of duty and prepares to be transmitted back to Earth, a process that will wipe out his memory of his final weeks on the planet. The eerie setting of the planet harmonises well with Stephen’s melancholy mood as he contemplates what the loss of memory will mean and tries to come to terms with the looming deadline. A quiet tension builds throughout this absorbing story.
‘Greenland’ gives us a fascinating vision of a flooded, swampy Britain overrun by immigrants from the rest of the uninhabitable world. A wad of money and tickets to Greenland tempt one desperate man to volunteer for a medical experiment that could ultimately save humanity. The tale that unfolds is a personal and intimate account that makes use of the grand themes of global warming while focusing on how they affect that one individual.
Global ruination is also the background to ‘Rat Island’ in which, through a series of photographs, an old man recounts his youth in the time before the Earth was ruined. Each picture brings a wealth of emotion and detail that transports you through time while avoiding any dramatic apocalyptic detail. Again, it’s a very effective tale.
A quote on the front cover compares Chris Beckett to a British Philip K Dick, and ‘Our Land’ most strongly brought this comparison to mind. Thomas Turner is a history teacher who finds himself inhabiting an alternate history where descendants of the ancient Britons have returned to claim Britain as their own and turned the country into tightly controlled occupation. There’s a nice mixture of confused history as well as reflections on other historic invasions to give this a solid feel, with the varying reactions of the downtrodden English lend the tale an air of grim determination.
‘The Dessicated Man’ has a much simpler plot and a small cast of two, but one can’t help but be drawn in to the sad and squalid world of cargo ship pilot Jacob Stone. Years alone in the voids of space have led him to adopt a simple view of life, which is upset when he comes across another captain on a lonely far-off space station. It’s hard to feel any sympathy for such a pathetic figure, but an unhealthy curiosity will keep you transfixed.
It’s a fabulous book that kept me entertained throughout, a whole collection of strong stories that did not let me down. I will definitely be on the lookout for the next Chris Beckett book that comes my way.
Gareth D Jones
(pub: NewCon Press. 240 page hardback. Price: £ 8.09 (UK). ISBN: 978-1907-069-48-2)