Saturday, 19 June 2004

Peter Crowther: Infinities (2002)

Edition: Gollancz, 2002
Review number: 1246

This volume claims to be "the very best of British SF today", and its four novellas certainly represent the work of some of the most respected young authors in the genre. Ken MacLeod and Alastair Reynolds were already familiar writers to me (I had in fact already read Diamond Dogs, Reynolds' contribution, elsewhere), but Eric Brown and Adam Roberts I had yet to sample, science fiction not being a high priority with our local library service.

The first story, Eric Brown's A Writer's Life, is disappointingly unimaginative, despite being extremely well written. The narrator, a hack genre writer, becomes obsessed with a more or less forgotten novelist, not just wanting to reaqd all his books but also to solve the mystery of his disappearance. It is an old fashioned Gothic tale, and, save for travel by car and such dating evidence, could have been written by a number of writers from William Hope Hodgson onwards. Even though it lacks originality (and that is presumably because it is intended as a homage to earlier fantasy writers), it is still an enjoyable read, until the extremely predictable ending. That Brown handles the Gothic atmosphere and characterisation of the narrator and his sceptical girlfriend so well implies that he could have produced something much more inventive - and still stayed in the tradition he clearly admires.

Ken MacLeod's The Human Front is a little more unusual, an alternate reality story set in a world in which the Cold War turned hot. Here, Stalin survived an American takeover of the Soviet Union and became a Che Guevara figure, a famous guerilla leader and an inspiration to generations of radicals. Scottish teenagers are joining a secret terrorist organisation, the Human Front, within the Communist Party, ready to bring the revolution home. While this in itself would be an interesting background to a story of the life of a young Scot, MacLeod adds more - hints of a bizarre conspiracy, of secret advanced technology that has come from nowhere. This all very cleverly builds up to a conclusion which ends up arriving too quickly; The Human Front feels like a novel where the second half has been turned into a five page summary. (This is not unique in science fiction, for a variety of reasons mainly connected to magazine publication procedures in the earlier years; but I didn't expect to see an example today in a collection of this format.)

This is followed by Diamond Dogs - and this story may have seemed different to me because this is the second time I have read it. The story, a typical science fiction plot involving the investigation of an alien artefact, is extremely gruesome; the artefact is a tower, a sequence of rooms containing sophisticated mathematical puzzles, but each time an error is made a bloody punishment is meted out to the investigators. This could almost be the plot of a (rather intellectual) computer game, rather than a novel, except for the way in which Reynolds is able to give the impression of advanced mathematics without having to go into details. It is an extremely artificial scenario, but it is done very well.

The final story, Adam Roberts' Park Polar, is set in a depressing world, an ecological disaster area. Every part of the surface of the earth is used for food production, the interior of Australia covered in hundreds of square miles of unending soya. Wild animals only survive in the gardens of the ultra-rich, in gene banks, and now in forms re-engineered to thrive in the polar icecaps. There, herds of yak-like snow wildebeest feed on special algae, themselves providing food for snow lions - a small, artificial ecology. The story is one of murder in a polar research station, but it is the background which fascinates the reader; finding out who the killer is does not really matter.

While all four stories are extremely well written, they all (except Eric Brown's) share a common flaw of shorter writing in today's novel-oriented age - they seem uneasily compressed to fit the required length. In fact, they are pretty long novellas; by the standards of the fifties, say, they would be considered short novels. The four stories are very different from each other, and give a fair view of the variety in British science fiction at the moment, even if they do it uneasily in terms of form. There is no particular reason that I could see for the collection's title Infinities, but it is an excellent piece of editing.

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