(Immanion Press, hardback £17.99.)
Cobley is best known for his darkly epic fantasy Shadowkings trilogy,
but over the years he has been steadily turning out stories which fall
broadly into the SF and fantasy categories, and others which slip between
the genre gaps. Iron Mosaic, a collection of seventeen tales,
collects all but two of his shorter published stories to date.
It's divided into three sections, Fantasies and Fables, Out of Caledonia,
and From the Wires to the Stars. The first contains five fantasy stories
cut from wildly contrasting cloth. "Writing for a Dying" is
a wry ghost-story from the point of view of a murdered writer. "The
Recondite Rebus" is a more traditional affair, a puzzle story replete
with wizards and apprentices and evil derring-do. The best of the first
section is the accomplished "Have You Heard the Word?" about
a writer craving fame who overhears The Word, which, passed down the
generations, confers a terrible price on the hearer's soul. It's a neat
take on the Faustian fable, well-written and nicely observed. "With
CoAxe in Tibet" reads like a meld of high fantasy and cyberpunk,
a vertiginous verbal riff that sweeps the reader along despite the slight
story-line. With "Travelling in the Dark" we're in more traditional
fantasy territory, as Cobley revisits the setting of Shadowkings.
Out of Caledonia contains four stories connected by their Scottish
settings. "Tactics at Twilight" is a quiet, contemplative
two-hander set in an alternate-world Scotland, in which opposing philosophies
are played out between captive and captor on the former's voyage into
exile. "Synopsis of a Looking-Glass Rebellion" is a fractured
narrative in the Ballardian style, a daring political treatise on rebellion
and revolution. "Heartbreak (with incidental music)" is neither
SF nor fantasy, but an inner space exploration of one man's feelings
on the breakdown of an affair: it's poignant and bleak and contains
some of Cobley's best writing. "Waltz in Flexitime", his first
professionally published piece, is a humorous time-travel romp through
a chronically fractured Glasgow which begins with the simple premise
of a hapless soul who loses his watch.
From the Wires to the Stars contains Cobley's hardcore SF. It's much
influenced, verbally and contextually, by the cyberpunk movement, and
presents two of the writer's very best stories. "Corrosion"
is out-and-out Gibson-inspired cp. It's got everything, a brilliantly
realised future London as you've never seen it before: driven characters
with damaged pasts, corporate shenanigans, a wildly-inventive techno-Maguffin,
a great plot and some fine writing. "The Undertaker Faker Caper"
is another incendiary take on high-tec SF, this time virtual reality.
Cobley paints a convincing portrait of what VR might very well be like,
from the brilliant nomenclature of the technology to its visual aspect,
and the complex consequences of being a download in a virtual world.
Iron Mosaic is a fascinating collection, though it's not without
its flaws. I'd quibble with the presentation order of the contents,
with two weaker stories opening the volume, and its two finest buried
away near the end. Also, in two or three stories, Cobley allows verbal
dexterity to come before the writer's duty to tell a story, resulting
in tales which are triumphs of form over content. (And while I'm nit-picking,
it would have been nice to know the date of each story's original publication).
For the many admirers of the Shadowkings Trilogy, the themes and dark
concerns of these stories prefigure those of the novels; for the historian
of the genre, Cobley's take on the cyberpunk ethos will strike a chord;
and the reader new to this writer will find stories across the genres
which are both entertaining and thought-provoking.
Elsewhere in infinity plus: