NewCon Press, 2013, 239p. Reviewed for Interzone 247, Jul-Aug 2013.
This is Beckett’s second collection, containing twelve short stories – with a few commonalities in background – that have been published during the past five years. Four are from the pages of Interzone. They span a wide range of perennial SF concerns – social or technological extrapolation, global warming, enigmatic aliens, their strange worlds, parallel universes, stargates, altered histories – plus a genuflection to Arthur Clarke’s The Nine Billion Names of God.
Atomic Truth contrasts the seeming connectedness of the digital world with the distancing it carries along with it. Everyone wears bugeyes, interactive goggles that form an interface between the real and virtual worlds and display emails, ads etc. Everyone, that is, except Richard, who has no need of goggles to see visions. His encounter with Jenny provides a small moment of humanity in his disorientated world.
The style of Two Thieves is reminiscent of a fairy tale – a form which has less than cosy attributes. The thieves, exiled to a remote and totally secure penal colony, start work on an archæological site, where they uncover a relic of the Old Empire. It’s a spatial gateway, which of course they jump through. There is some nice foreshadowing here that is both blatant and subtle at the same time.
Johnny’s New Job is set in an Orwellian society with a Stakhanovite labour force and a justice system to gladden a tabloid newspaper proprietor’s heart. Offenders against the public good (who all seem to work in Welfare) are demonised by the authorities. These unfortunates are named and worse than shamed, guilt by association is afflicted on their families. Johnny goes along with the general mood, then gets an unrefusable job offer.
On the planet Lutania lies The Caramel Forest, a malodorous place of grey, brown and pink vegetation contrasted by the bright green of settlers’ lawns. The Lutanian indigenes nicknamed goblins can project settlers’ thoughts back into human minds. The Agency running the planet tries to protect them but the original human settlers have their own way of dealing with them. Cassie, the child of a constantly arguing Agency couple on a tour of duty, is influenced to escape the rows by running off into the forest.
Greenland. Juan Fernandez is a refugee from Spain scraping an ever more insecure living in a slowly submerging south-east of England flooded both by global warming and the so-called beachrats, illegal immigrants lucky to escape the machine-gunners on the shores. He loses his crap job but his future is determined by a lucrative offer to copy him in a hazardous matter-replicating machine.
The Famous Cave Paintings on Isolus 9 depict a God fashioned, as all gods are, in the image of the locals. He is imprisoned and can only dream of escape. The narrator’s Uncle Clancy, a famous womaniser who has finally fallen in love, sees them, and is terrified.
Rat Island is a take on our reckless consumption of fossil fuels. A child whose civil servant father confides to him the inevitability of the consequent crash and likens us to introduced rats on an isolated island eventually eating all the seabirds’ eggs, finds his only consolation is the taking of photographs.
Day 29. Lutania again. Stephen Kohl is coming to the end of his tour of duty for the Agency and is frustrated and worried by the thought of the memories of 29 days he will lose when he undergoes Transmission back to civilisation.
England is occupied, taken over by Brythonic Celts expelled from Britain by the Romans into France, Iberia and the Americas. They have come back to the land they claim that God gave them. The scenario has implicit and explicit parallels to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and, in common with that, isn’t resolved. Beckett’s framing device lets its story, Our Land, off that hook, though.
Jacob Stone is The Desiccated Man, transporting cargoes over the solitary spaceways, accumulating money till he can retire to a life of indulgence. But old habits die hard.
In Poppyfields, a brownfield site subject to a development delay, waif-like Tammy Pendant – who has taken slip, a drug which pierces the membranes between universes – materialises in front of bird-watching Angus Wendering. Angus is easily led.
The creator of a fabricated world called Esperine finally enters it. The copy of himself he installed there comes to confront him wearing The Peacock Cloak, a shimmering all powerful device he has used to rebel against Esperine’s tameness.
Some of these tales have an overly conversational tone, parts have a tendency to be told rather than unfold, info dumping can be intrusive and there are occasional disjunctions where story elements seem to clash but, in all of them, Beckett never loses sight of the humans he is writing about. Here we are in all our folly – and occasional glory.