No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

#22: Subterfuge -- Ian Whates (ed)

Copernicus upset the moral order by dissolving the strict distinction between heaven and earth. Darwin did the same by dissolving the strict distinction between humans and other animals. The next step is the dissolution of the strict distinction between fiction and reality ... (p. 158: 'The God Particle')

Two versions of this anthology are available: the limited edition contains an extra three stories (by Ian Watson, Storm Constantine and editor Ian Whates). Are these three stories worth the extra cost?

The theme of the anthology is subterfuge, 'a clever device or strategy used to evade a rule, escape a consequence, or to hide something ...' The authors collected here have approached this challenge from vastly different angles: about half the stories are fantasy, though boundaries blur, and they range from a rather joky, Golden-Age type story about the Large Hadron Collider to a hallucinatory tale of a world where love and hate are directions, and angels can be called down to answer supplications.

Recurrent themes include telepathy, twists in time, poetic justice (the tables turned). The subterfuges practiced here range from wishes that should never have been granted to treachery and treason, from hidden pasts to hidden agendas. This is a very British anthology; all the authors are British by residence if not birth, and several of the stories are set in locations aglow with familiar detail: Cambridge, a small seaside town in Norfolk, a village on the south coast. Whether comfortably, weirdly local or wholly fantastical, those settings are peopled by ... well, by people: by characters who are involved with the events that surround them, who are changed by those events, who are embittered or triumphant or despairing.

There's some impressive worldbuilding and some clever twists: though Whates has juxtaposed big-name writers with new voices, the quality is remarkably even. I shan't discuss all 19 stories (16 in the cheaper edition) here, just namecheck a couple of my favourites. Juliet McKenna's 'Noble Deceit' is a fantasy about a boy who can make substance out of shadow -- and how he learns that the things he creates aren't just toys. Dave Hutchinson's 'Multitude' is set in a near-future Britain where humans have been defeated (and slaughtered) by elves, who've returned from some mysterious 'other place' -- they were last around when the North Sea was still forest -- to reclaim their land. (Is it coincidence that the entire global economy, communication network and infrastructure has collapsed? I suspect not.) Hutchinson's protagonist, Kaz, is an intriguing character, and there's enough dimension to him to keep him sympathetic even once his nasty past's revealed. And Steve Longworth's 'The God Particle' feels just like one of those Golden Age short stories, complete with twist, but I like what he's done with astrophysicist Piet Hut's theories: reality and anti-reality ambiguons and their six flavours ...

I'd also like to mention Nick Wood's 'Thirstlands', an understated and haunting tale set in Africa when the water's drying up and everyone's thirsty. 'Thirstlands' was selected from a shortlist of six stories written by members of the BSFA's Orbiter workshops. For my money it's one of the most mature and subtle stories in the anthology.

Quibble, though a minor one: the book could have done with more proof-reading, as there are a number of small but distracting errors (missing punctuation; homonyms, such as 'discrete' instead of 'discreet'; plain typos).

I'll be reviewing this properly for Strange Horizons: review will be linked when it appears.

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