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edited 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 Tomorrow’s 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 haven’t 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 it’s 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 didn’t 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 won’t stop there. Look at Finland with 95 percent penetration (only kids under five and old people over 90 don’t 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 won’t 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 others. Reality 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 you’d want to download them into your head, so they live on virtually, whether they want to or not...

I was immensely drawn to Watching Trees Grow 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.

Tendeleo’s 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 Tendeleo’s 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 people’s 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 world.

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.
Tendeleo 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 couldn’t 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

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