(Golden Gryphon, $24.95, 218 pages, hardback, published 2006.)
an Eric Brown book I can enthuse about. I've heard many good things
about Brown's work over the last few years, but somehow the novellas
of his that I'd previously read hadn't quite clicked (Approaching
Omega, A Writer's Life). With the ten stories in this collection
I found it much easier to get a flavour of Brown's style and range,
and I feel the shorter form produces a punch in his stories that the
There are three broad categories of story here.
Stories about the Kethani comprise the first category. The Kethani
are aliens who bring humanity the gift of personality-recording technology,
so that when they die those people who are willing to have a small implant
tucked under their scalp can be sent up to the mothership and resurrected.
In the three examples here, Brown chooses not to examine the potentially
sinister aspects of the Kethani's methods and motives (the revived are
changed, the rough edges of their characters smoothed away, and many
repay their alien benefactors by acting as missionaries for them --
Brown presents this arrangement as wholly beneficial and altruistic);
nor does he peer into a post-Kethani future, where the world teems with
the re-animated dead. Instead he focuses on the generation who see the
Kethani land, the first to enjoy their gift, and considers the small
effects and moral problems that individual characters experience as
a result. I'm reminded of the Ndoli chip that features in a number of
Greg Egan's short stories, but while Egan's tales are purely intellectual
exercises, Brown's are warm and homely, centring around a group of drinking
companions in a Yorkshire pub. "Thursday's Child" is the best
of the three (possibly of the book), dealing with the fate of a dying
girl raised by parents of differing religious beliefs, one of whom has
prevented her from being implanted. It ends a bit too neatly, but the
issues it raises are examined closely and passionately. "The Kethani
Inheritance" concerns the dilemmas of a man whose overbearing and
unpleasant father is due to be resurrected, while "The Touch of
Angels" is more of a detective story, in which a policeman is confronted
with an apparent murder for the first time since the Kethani arrived.
Category two we might dub "SF stories of the old school".
Prime among these is "Ulla, Ulla" -- an astronaut returns
from Mars and is invited to England by an eccentric gentleman who wishes
to share a secret with him, and quite frankly the clue's in the title.
We see the protagonist's relationship with his wife and with his fellow
astronauts to begin with, but this is all pruned away and left hanging
until we're left with two men discussing the problem in a room, somewhat
in the "As you know..." style. "Instructions for Surviving
the Destruction of Star-Probe X-11-57" and "The Spacetime
Pit" are stories of the "spacemen in peril" variety,
well handled but familiar.
I'm not sure where (if at all) to place "Eye of the Beholder".
This is another highlight, in which a writer's inability to relate to
other people is manifested in his sudden inability to see anyone else
-- an inverted Invisible Man.
The remaining three stories are broader in scale, indulging in a spot
of world-building. "Ascent of Man" is an odd one, depicting
a radically different future human society, but not in enough detail
(or perhaps, without enough recognisable referents) for the reader to
really get to grips with it. "The Children of Winter" works
better, taking more time to set up a colony world where a young colonist
and a native fall in love in defiance of the discord the Elders try
to promote between the two communities. Probably the best (and best-known)
of these three is "Hunting the Slarque". Here an eminent tracker
is sent back to the planet where he died, to retrieve his wife and a
living Slarque specimen before the sun goes supernova. The atmosphere
on the planet Tartarus is one of Ballardian apocalypse, the native fauna
and human settlers taking no action as doomsday approaches, the hero
drifting into the jungle to witness the final wonders before the lights
go out. Offworld, there's a real sense of a wider society that we only
get to see the fringes of.
A mixture of styles and of subject matter, and if the quality is mixed
as well, at least there's more good than bad. Threshold Shift
is worth a read for anyone who enjoys ideas-driven SF.
Elsewhere in infinity plus: