Some writers are prolific to the point of saturation. Every time you open a magazine there they are, lurking in the contents page, until you can’t make out the signal from the noise. Others are slower, less easy to find, a rare truffle nestled amongst the mountains of common dirt. Chris Lawson is one of these (although I’ll bet you real live actual Australian dollars he’s never been called a truffle before).
Lawson’s writing is superb. This collection of ‘hard’ SF stories from MirrorDanse Press is imbued with the kind of deep, personal, insights many other hard SF writers can only dream about. Lawson’s ability to infuse his technologically-based work with a deep understanding of humanity marks Written in Blood as an extraordinary collection, far superior to many of his contemporaries. If he were more prolific he would rightly be considered the finest writer of technological SF Australia has produced. As it is, there are only 6 stories in this slim volume, although they are joined by 5 essays from his “irregular pseudoblog for both cultures”, Frankenstein’s Journal.
Don’t think you’re being shortchanged, though, by these essays. Lawson is as adept at the opinion piece as he is at fiction, and while some may grinch at the thought of spending money on something they can trawl the web archives for in their own free time, the fact is they form a perfect counterpoint to the often heavy themes presented in the stories, and are thoroughly entertaining in their own right. In particular, ‘Evolutionary Pressure on Creationists’ is an acerbically fun take on a subject dear to my own heart, and provided your barely-humble reviewer with more than a few “Yeah!” moments along the way. But it’s the stories that are the crux of the matter. And the stories are, without fault, brilliant.
“Chinese Rooms”, which opens the collection, is a masterful examination of the ramifications of artificial intelligence, and what may happen when the mind that controls the mind has an ulterior motive. “Unborn Again” is a truly unsettling tale, a skin-crawling mixture of medical technology, human weakness, and moral bankruptcy that had me putting the book aside for almost a fortnight while I attempted to contemplate the ramifications Lawson presents. “Lacey’s Fingerprints” is a straight-out detective story, on the surface, but the secret lying at its heart once more displays Lawson’s uniquely bleak view regarding the results of technology handled by the inept and greedy. “Matthew 24:36” is an all-too-plausible dissection of the effect of religious fundamentalism (and let’s face it folks, if you’re religious, you’re a fundamentalist of at least one description) on the kind of folk who believe in things like Y2K and the Millennium. My personal favourite, “Faster, Higher, Stronger” falls into Lawson’s own field of expertise, the medical profession, to give us a human, and humane, account of the effects of performance enhancing drugs on athletes, and the price they have to pay to stay clean in a world founded upon cheating. And then there’s “Written In Blood”, the story that gives the collection its name, a tour-de-force effort that brings together many of Lawson’s personal hobbyhorses: religious fundamentalism; the ability of technology to both enhance and inhibit our lives; the damage that can be done to the human condition by those small-minded power-cravers we allow to run our lives. It is a fitting summation of Lawson’s power as a writer, and a marker to the great talent he can exhibit at will.
There’s something rotten in the writing state of Denmark when the shelves are filled with firelighter after firelighter of the brands Jordan, Feist, Wurtz, and all the other boring sub-Tolkein hacks who clog the arteries of literature like low grade cholesterol, and skilled practitioners like Lawson are consigned to small press, small run editions that are only accessible if you meet someone in the know. You’ve read this review. Now you’re in the know. So go buy it.
From the Old Shelf
Continuing the small press theme, I’ve been trawling my way through Ghost Seas, the collection of Steven Utley short stories published by Russell B. Farr’s Ticonderoga Publications a few years ago. This is a fantastic book, brim-full of the wonderfully gonzo creations that have always marked Utley out as a genuinely fabulous nutcase to read. If you’re unaware of his work, (and if you are, ferpetesake put down that crap Jordan book and pay attention!) then you need to get hold of Master Farr and get yourself a copy. He tells me he has a bunch left, so they’re there for the taking.