by Peter Crowther
Review of the new British Science Fiction anthology by Sam North
ISBN: 0-575-07023-4 £12.99 Gollanz 2001
Packaging, to state
the obvious, is just as important in the selling of books as the book
itself. I stopped reading science-fiction around the time every damn
book cover featured a semi-naked vixen with a ray blaster in her hands.
It always struck me that no one in publishing took the future or science
very seriously, yet the genre had an enormous amount to tell us about
ourselves and where we are headed.
I love discussing the future, I love reading WIRED Magazine, the ideas
of Bruce Sterling (Wild Palms), Douglas Coupland Girlfriend
in a Coma, and William Gibson All Tomorrows
Parties. All of them sell their fiction without necessarily
being confined to some ghetto shelf and stigmatised by the word science
in front of their fiction. Before them and still occasionally when I
come across one I havent read, I read Philip K Dick and constantly
marvel at how his paranoid vision of the world has really translated
into reality. Never mind we never actually had World War Three (his
constant obsession was the world altered by this event). Of course now
the Americans have (kind of) elected George W Bush, WW III has certainly
been dug out of its grave and even now stands blinking in the harsh
light of a Star Wars shield, hardly able to believe its luck.
Dick would have appreciated it, predicted it and is no doubt laughing
even now in whatever parallel world he fetched up in.
Gibson is pretty remarkable too. Starting in 1984 with Neuromancer
he conjured up a world so fully realised that we have slipped into his
groove and co-opted his language. We may not quite yet be living a virtual
life, but it is getting closer and it is his blueprint we follow. Of
course, even Gibson didnt predict the take up of mobile (cell-phone)
culture. It is worth noting that today, May 12th 2001 that the Chinese
overtook America as the nation with the most cell phones at just over
a hundred million. Of course it wont stop there. Look at Finland
with 95 percent penetration (only kids under five and old people over
90 dont own a phone). In the UK almost 70% of the population have
a cell phone so it is extremely unlikely that the Chinese will settle
for their current rate of ten percent. Expect a four hundred million
people in China to own a mobile phone within three years and it may
not stop there if they can keep pace with transmitter masts. (It may
alter China in unforeseen ways. After all, if everyone has a mobile
phone, they can all find out the truth now. They wont have to
believe everything they see on TV or read, they can call each other
up. Can communism survive freedom of speech and communication? They
can control access to the Net, but monitor 400 million phone calls or
text messages at the same time?)
Change happens at a pace that is much more rapid than we can see just
standing in its midst. We cannot see or hear the crystals forming around
us. Which brings us to FUTURES
- the very best of British Science Fiction edited by Peter Crowther
and featuring the works of Stephen Baxter, Peter F Hamilton, Paul Macauley,
Ian Mcdonald. Published by Gollanz this May, I realise that it is the
first Gollanz book I have bought in years, the first I have read since
they gave up the yellow jackets. They have probably been there all the
time, but their cover designs or lack of them always kept me away.
The books format is landscape, the cover futuristic, yet quite industrial
and I knew from the moment I picked it up in Waterstones that
I wanted, no needed, to read this book. Sometimes your instinct is in
tune, even if you are not.
The book is made up of four novellas, each remarkable, some more than
Dust by Stephen Baxter is perhaps the most traditional science
fiction and although striving to be strange, it is seems rooted in older
sci-fi ideas. The QAX came and destroyed earth culture, they eliminated
history as well and created proxy human leaders who did all the dirty
work for them in return for what seems eternal life. Only, their children
live normal lives, so naturally youd want to download them into
your head, so they live on virtually, whether they want to or not...
I was immensely drawn to Watching
by Peter F Hamilton . This is an amazing Inspector Morse episode
that takes place over at least a hundred years. We are in 1832, an England
still ruled by the Romans, or at least the Romano-Christian elite led
by descendants of the Borgias that have maintained their grip not just
on England but the whole world. America discovered long ago is now a
country of some one and half billion souls. Oxford is still a university
town but under Vatican rules. Business and Science are led by prominent
families such at the Caesars, Raleighs, or Pitts. The Percys control
London, the Ceasars Southampton.
The murder of a young man is the device which Hamilton uses to show
us a world that is much more progressive than our own, repressed perhaps,
but obsessed with growth and to find somewhere for human life to expand
to. Spanning more than a hundred years we see the total change that
comes over them, the exploration of space and technology, the perfection
of such techniques as reversing DNA, for this world is obsessed with
age. The elite want to live forever, the rest, the shorts,
live a normal three score and ten. Watching trees grow is a remarkable
novella and in a way, I am sorry it is so truncated, ( the idea could
have spanned a complete novel and would be more fully realised). Nevertheless
it is mesmerising, full of little nuggets of alternative history and
asides. It makes you think that if Rome not melted away and we had not
wasted centuries on needless wars and stupid disagreements, this Romano
Britain should have been the true history of this isle. It is logical,
extraordinary and well crafted with some poise. Of course you might
already believe an Inspector Morse episode lasts a century but this
one truly does and of course, when people tend to live lives three hundred
long, no case is ever closed. As technology accelerates, one can gain
hints of a seething discontent somewhere in the background of this story
as society has to be make a change from being work centred to one of
leisure. As the text moves into space and tells of their fantastic ambitions
and what their world achieved, we can only be humbled by our reality.
Of all the stories this is fully imagined and breathtaking in its scope
and vision this one leaves you wanting to know more, to want to return.
It reminds me too of the work of Philip Pullman whose Northern Lights
is a beacon to follow.
Tendeleos Story by Ian Mcdonald is a remarkable, poignant,
yet vivid novella. To set an alien invasion in Africa is always going
to be interesting, to have an invasion that is impossible to defeat,
that literally terraforms the land and cannot be engaged with is interesting.
It is less an alien, more animated, intelligent lichen of many colours.
In reality it is not organic but nanotechnolgy run riot. It lands near
Tendeleos Christian village, Gichici, in Kenya. She is a tender
13 year old girl when it arrives and sets about ruining her life. The
microcosmic invader is simply called Chaga, and can only thrive in the
southern hemisphere. It arrived in Africa when she is nine and at first
it is ignored by her village, it is other peoples problems. Later,
one dramatic night when the Chaga lands explosively twenty miles from
her home, they soon feel the effects. When it finally spreads its tendrils
towards her village, her life takes a tragic turn. The UN force the
fleeing villagers and towns folk into the Nairobi camps which are cruel,
sinister, lawless. Tendeleo grows up quickly, she is resourceful , speaks
English and knows instinctively that she has to survive in this UN controlled
She becomes a runner, secretly taking samples of the Chaga to the US
Embassy - secreted in her own body. She has to learn fast and sees her
parents unable to adapt and giving up. All the time the Chaga is growing
and will soon engulf Nairobi. The violence is everywhere, cruelty and
rape can come at every turn, at any moment. When the time comes, Tendeleo
manages to save her own skin but not her parents or little sister. She
is mortified and feels guilty for surviving.
At age 18, after many refugee camps, she is transplanted to Manchester
in England, where Sean, an part-time accountant falls for her when he
sees her singing on the stage in a little bar. He takes care of her,
she falls for him, but he does not know she is infected with Chaga.
But is the Chaga all bad? What is everyone so afraid of?
After a random terrorist bomb in the bar nearly kills Tendeleo, the
hospital discovers her secret and she is instantly deported. Sean is
devastated. He has no idea of where she has gone or if she is still
alive and so begins his awakening and his search for the young woman
who has suffered so much in her young life.
is a wonderful surprise, beautifully written, tender yet bruising. It
does not shy away from uncomfortable truths. This is an African story,
but it could have been a Vietnam story or a sixty years ago, a resistance
story. There will always be invaders, always others willing to exploit
suffering, indifferent to cruelty and this novella is remarkable, poetic
and moving. You couldnt ask for more. The entire volume is refreshing
and it is great to know that new writers of this calibre are working
in this genre.
Buy it here
© Sam North 2001
See Stephen Baxtersbrilliant new book COALESCENT
Pub Oct 2003