Review: Peter Crowther’s Postscripts, James Patrick Kelly’s Burn, and Justina Robson’s Silver Screen, reviewed by Sean Melican

Review: Peter Crowther’s Postscripts, James Patrick Kelly’s Burn, and Justina Robson’s Silver Screen, reviewed by Sean Melican

Postscripts, Peter Crowther, ed. PS Publishing

Burn, James Patrick Kelly, Tachyon Publications ISBN: 1-892391-27-9
Silver Screen, Justina Robson, Pyr ISBN: 1-59102-338-6

Reviewed by Sean Melican.

I don’t ordinarily review magazines since there are so many excellent magazines dedicated to short fiction: LOCUS (subscriptions available at Locus), Tangent, the Internet Review of Science Fiction. But Postscripts is a new magazine – only five issues thus far – and from the United Kingdom.

The magazine is a beautiful product. Unlike F&SF and Asimov’s, Postscripts is printed on high quality paper bound inside a heavy cover illustrated with superior cover art. It feels expensive and is, relatively speaking. But it’s worth it.

And the fiction is, for the most part, excellent. Curiously, the editor and assistant editor, Peter Crowther and Nick Gevers, include horror and suspense and a little bit of mainstream as well as science fiction and fantasy. The stories as a whole tend to have a more classic feel than some of the American magazines. While Asimov’s publishes endless stories of rehashed cyberpunk and pale imitations of Ursula LeGuin – and some good stories as well – and Analog mostly hearkens back to days when literacy was frowned upon, Postscripts straddles the line. Many of the stories feel classic in the sense that they explore a ‘What if?’ scenario, but they are also well-written.

Gene Wolfe’s “Comber” is very much an example. What if an entire city was on a rock floating on the ocean and was about to collide with another such city as it slid down a wave? A neat concept, lovingly written, but unfortunately marred by a thin story. Mr. Wolfe’s “Prize Crew” is your basic monster-in-space story but told in a unique and lyrical voice. Peter F. Hamilton’s “Footvote” wonders what would happen if a wormhole were opened and the opener wanted to create an idyllic world on the other side? (See my review of Burn below.) Is it worth the risk or merely a lunatic’s pipe dream? Eric Brown’s “A Choice of Eternities” questions not only the value of immortality, but also the morality of ‘fixing’ a mentally handicapped child. Rhys Hughes’ “The Old House Under the Snow Where Nobody Goes Except You and Me Tonight” (My goodness!) is an old-fashioned adventure story. Somewhere on a mountain a wealthy eccentric had a house erected by lunatics. Long since lost, two explorers go in search of it and discover a trap of enormous complexity. The ending turns, literally, on a basic scientific fact. Alastair Reynolds’ “Zima Blue” asks what sorts of ultimate goals an artificial intelligence might have, and, incidentally, what a return to the womb might be for such a creature.

Two of Joe Hill’s stories are here, including “Best New Horror,” a horror story in which the ending is telegraphed from the get-go, but it doesn’t matter because the voice (yes, again with the voice) is authentic. His “Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead” is mainstream. The eponymous character returns from a failed Hollywood career to be an extra in a Romero film to discover the woman he once loved has moved on. There’s nothing fantastic but it is beautifully moving. Lawrence Person’s “Starving Africans” is another beautiful horror story – the endless genocides in Africa are better considered horrific than mainstream – about two journalists. The story is marred only by an ending that thuds with an embarrassing lack of subtlety. Brain A. Hopkins “Peninsula Valdes” is likewise mainstream, and, like “Comber”, a bit thin, but is a lovely meditation on good and evil through an analysis of whale behavior.

And, starting with issue number two, Postscripts is publishing a Zoran Zivkovic story suite. Arguably the most absurd or surreal or slipstream or New Weird or whatever of the stories thus published, Mr. Zivkovic’s stories are a favorite of mine since they start out set in vague, nameless locales (a hospital, train or library), and rapidly become something weird. The weirdness is amplified by the transparent prose the translator’s chosen. (I’ve no idea if the original Serbian is equally transparent.) If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading any of Mr. Zivkovic’s work, Postscripts is a fine place to start.

Postscripts is a magazine whose contents cover the entire map of speculative fiction (except perhaps those subcategories which are ever-present in Asimov’s) and they are always lovingly written and very much exhibit a refreshing British gentility. If you read only one type of speculative fiction, chances are Postscripts is not for you. But if you enjoy quality writing regardless of genre, give Postscripts a shot.

———•———

It’s been eleven years since we’ve had a James Patrick Kelly novel, which is far too long, and also, if you’re like me and a little uncertain about his recent incursion into metaphysics (see “Bernardo’s House” and “The Edge of Nowhere”), a welcome return to a more traditional James Patrick Kelly story, a story of ideas.

Above, I mentioned Mr. Hamilton’s story “Footvote” which starts and ends with a steady stream of people applying to a newly found planet in search of utopia. Mr. Kelly’s novel Burn directly addresses such a supposed utopia. What if an eccentric billionaire (Are there any other kind?) purchased an entire planet and imposed the philosophy of Henry David Thoreau?

Prosper Gregory Leung, Spur to his friends, is in a hospital recovering from serious burns incurred while fighting forest fires set by terrorists on the planet Walden. (It’s tempting and trendy to extrapolate something about current affairs, but I think such analyses are usually too forced.) He lives by strict rules which disallow the use of technology except for basic needs, but while in the hospital, the rules are suspended. His doctor is a human mind entangled in quantum foam and given physical substance through a telepresence robot. Idle minds being the devil’s playground, Spur uses the tell (a fancy version of the internet) to look up other people with his last name. One of Mr. Kelly’s strengths is his particular attention to names. It turns out Leung is a common name, as common or more so than Smith or Jones, but instead of falling on American-centric names, Mr. Kelly invokes a more inclusive universe. (There are other writers who do so as well, but many are lazy.)

Spur accidentally contacts the High Gregory, a child prodigy and sort-of-clone who has memories of previous High Gregorys implanted in his own mind. When asked what he does, he says, “I make luck.” It turns out he doesn’t make luck so much as make trouble. He travels to Walden to make luck, but he’s an ‘upsider’, with access to technology forbidden on Walden.

What you would more or less expect to happen when high technology meets a simpler lifestyle does. More or less. One of the great strengths of this novella is that the science fictional parts – quantum-entangled minds and so forth – are portrayed in quick-and-dirty infodumps – and you’ve read this sort of thing before – while life on Walden is given depth and an alien feel with seamlessly integrated discussions of the various types of apple trees, their flavors, and the different challenges in growing each type as well as a detailed explanation of forest firefighting techniques. Not the stuff of ordinary life or ordinary science fiction. But chances are you, like me, know more about fancy science than the stuff of parochial life. If the best means of portraying an alien society is through the small details of daily life, Walden is truly an alien society. And the baseball game, which is anything but baseball and much more like Calvin ball, is as alien as it gets.

And the terrorists? Aliens, of course, who oppose the forestation of their planet. Imagine a world trying to make more forest rather than less. But they’re not truly alien – no more than Spur and his society – they’re only humans who have lived on Walden before it was Walden and have no interest in accepting the simple life. So, they start forest fires, usually immolating themselves in the process, which is equally as dumb as strapping a bomb to the chest.

The accident which burns Spur is no accident, and the identity of the traitors is obvious. But Mr. Kelly does not rely on standard plotting techniques to drive the story. (Note to beginning writers: This is often the difference between publishable and unpublishable stories.) He relies on the complex interaction between Spur and the High Gregory, and the High Gregory’s entourage, to examine the shortcomings of utopia even in a super-advanced universe.

———•———

Justina Robson’s Silver Screen isn’t new. It was first published in the U.K. in 1999 and was shortlisted for the BFSA Best Novel Award, which is why Pyr is now publishing it in North America for the first time. (Before the internet, repackaging popular books made sense; but now, with the ease of buying books through Amazon and so forth, I wonder if this is still necessary.) Is the book worth it? Depends.

I first picked it up because it promised a lead character, a woman, who wasn’t thin and gorgeous. I felt I owed the book a chance since I had picked on the implicit correlation between innate goodness and outward beauty when I reviewed The Iron Tree. In Silver Screen, I was disappointed because her figure plays no role. Her weight is as much a factor as if a character has brown eyes. (How many books do you finish and not recall the characters’ eye colors?) I felt as if I’d been misled, thinking part of the story would discuss the impact of weight on women in our society. So, is it merely enough to have an overweight heroine, or should it impact the story? It probably is simply enough to have a non-traditional heroine, though the fact that there is a heroine at all – and not a hero – is, by historical standards, non-traditional.

I’m also somewhat hesitant to read first novels. Ideas in first novels tend, for obvious reasons, to be derivative. Characters are often defined by one or two overwhelming characteristics, or worse, are cardboard cutouts. And transitions tend to be choppy. All of these flaws are found in Silver Screen.

The novel opens with Anjuli O’Connell at a corporate school, where children are groomed to be cogs in the corporate machine, and meets Roy and Jane Croft. Anjuli cannot forget anything, but has great difficulty comprehending the meaning of what she knows. Roy is a socially-inept super-genius. Jane is his cold, less socially-inept, but probably more intelligent and very bitter, sister. The novel cuts to much later, when Anjuli is a machine psychologist on an orbital platform overseeing an AI known as 901. She’s ostensibly watching for any deviation from normality because at least one previous AI may have had a psychotic break. However, all she knows of 901’s actions are fed to her by it. Jane is living in a commune dedicated to avoiding all but the very simplest of technology.

Anjuli discovers Roy is dead.

High jinx ensue. It quickly becomes apparent that Roy was attempting to maneuver the courts into a hearing that would determine if 901 should be considered an autonomous entity. The corporation, naturally, is opposed. Did they kill him? Or was it his efforts to upload himself into a virtual community? Why did Jane run to the commune? Does Roy’s diary contain the secret machine code that will unlock self-consciousness? What’s their monomaniacal, evangelical father got to do with it? What malevolence hides in his monastery? What malevolence hides in Anjuli’s boyfriend’s AI-powered military combat suit? Who’s trying to assassinate Anjuli? What does her bicycle-repairman brother have to do with all of this? (Read any new idea yet?)

There are, however, exciting set pieces, particularly one in which Anjuli and her boyfriend use the military suit to invade Roy and Jane’s father’s monastery in search of Roy’s diary. And I have never read anything like the impossible orrery Roy builds as a child.

There are plenty of ideas, some of which are interesting, but the novel is choppy and uneven. However, it is a first novel, and Ms. Robson has more novels available. I won’t be running out to get them, but I’ll read them sooner or later.



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