Don’t let the name fool you, The Best British Fantasy 2014 (ed. Steve Haynes) plays it both fast and loose with its definition of “Fantasy”. Which I like. I would actually categorize the majority of these stories as Science Fiction, but by using the moniker “Fantasy”, Salt Publishing enable themselves to include stories that are less easily defined, and this anthology contains a multitude of fantasy types, from supernaturalisms, to horror, to mythology. Editor Steve Haynes addresses the ever-shifting nature of genre borders in his short introduction, and in this regard the book feels bang up to date; the collection as a whole, as well as the stories individually, functions as a snap-shot of the current state of literary genre writing and its recent penchant for blurring traditional genre distinctions and mashing-up literary styles. Similarly, the list of contributors is nicely diverse, especially with regard to the number of women writers represented. At the end of a year which has seen greater-than-ever debate about gender in SF writing, this is to be applauded, and is, hopefully, finally, a sign of a paradigm shift within the genre community.
As with any anthology, there are hits and misses. But I’m pleased to report that the former outnumber the latter. Here’s what I thought about some of them:
Triolet – Jess Hyslop
The first paragraph of Triolet begins with the prosaic “An elderly lady lives at the end of our street”, and ends with the estrangingly odd “She grows poems”. This dissonance between the everyday and the weird is a kind of microcosm for the entire story, which uses a supernatural conceit (plants that speak poetry) to both trigger and examine the breakdown of a seemingly ideal, if actually mundane, suburban marriage. I liked this for lots of reasons, but mostly because Hyslop has managed to write a genre story about poetic form, wherein the form of the poetry itself is the fantastical element (there’s also some very clever punctuation stuff going on – the plant-poem’s meaning changes when it drops its commas like so many dead leaves). I’m not sure if casting poetry as something fantastical and estranging is a wry dig at the genre community’s lack of engagement with the medium, but that kind of subtextual joke definitely presented itself to me.
Stylistically, Triolet reminds me of M. John Harrison: there’s a convergence of psychological and literary realism with the supernatural, occasionally interrupted by moments of imagist beauty. It’s great.
I don’t go to work that day. I don’t go home either. I just get in the car a drive. I take the A-road out of town, and then I take every back road I come across until I’m way out in the countryside. There are no clouds in sight, and the air is a pale winter blue.
Build Guide – Helen Jackson
Bit nit-picky, but my problem with this story is that there’s no point in it actually being science-fictional. I like my SF to be inexorably so, by which I mean, the story should be impossible to tell without the parts that make it science fiction. The narrative should be inseparable from, to quote Darko Suvin, its “novum of estrangement”. This tale about a construction worker embezzling company funds on a moon hotel is perfectly serviceable… but it could have been set on any building site. The Moon stuff is just window dressing, which feels a bit like a wasted opportunity. The prose is good and the characters do what they need to, but the ending let me down by not exploding into the volta that I’d anticipated. It’s kinda refreshing to find an SF story focusing on menial labour, though. So there’s that.
Zero Hours – Tom Maughan
This is post-recession SF satire, in which desperate workers must bid, e-bay-style, for shift work in shops, coffee houses, factories etc. Whoever bids lowest, that is to say – whoever will accept the lowest pay for the shift – gets the work. Zero Hours is notable for being equal parts funny and downright terrifying. The satire is biting: the image of people trying to screw each other out of work by under-cutting their colleagues is an obvious exaggeration of current neo-liberal business ideals. The deployment of present-day technology (bidding websites, tablet computers, the gamification of work etc) makes the whole thing alarmingly plausible-seeming. This is the story’s greatest achievement but also, of course, its point.
Aspects of Aries – David Turnbull
Another satirical one, set in a future in which society is divided along astrological lines, with Earth signs waging war against Water signs, Taureans murdering Pisceans etc. The ever-shifting allegiances and comical swapping of accidentally-born-under-the-wrong-sign babies between star sign nations highlights the arbitrariness of war, as well as the bullshit that is astrology “astrologers on both sides were keen to insist that the portents of the stars were on their side”. The juxtaposition of comedy with utterly horrific depictions of war is deftly handled. But the ending makes it feel as if the entire story is nothing more than ground work for a particularly over-laboured and borderline-offensive pun. Would’ve been better without its final paragraph, maybe. Not sure. Kinda fun.
Ad Astra – Carole Johnstone
Incredible Science Fiction Horror story (and why is this such a rare sub-genre?) that takes a modern theory about prolonged space travel (that missions to Mars(/wherever) might be best undertaken by married couples whose relationship can weather the months of claustrophobic close-quarters living) and really runs with it. A husband and wife are travelling through space in a small capsule that may-or-may-not have some horrible alien living in its walls. As the narrative progresses, paranoia and distrust being to permeate, until not even the reader can be certain of what’s going on, of who is mad and who is just lying. The story is impressively crammed: there’s Hard SF discussions of zero gravity, intense psychological realism, sex, violence, mind-games: the busy and jam-packed form of the narrative mirrors the claustrophobic, cluttered, cramped nature of its setting. Ad Astra is both genuinely frightening in its un-spoken suggestions of alien horror and conspiracy, and genuinely sad in its examination of marital distrust.
iRobot – Guy Haley
Nice title. This is more of a vignette than an actual story. A short description of a far-future desert Earth after some non-disclosed apocalypse has wiped out all life on the planet. The writing is highly stylised, replete with repetitions, internal-rhymes, non-sequiturs and imagism, it’s a rare example of Science Fiction prose poetry. A domestic robot, uncovered by a storm and temporarily brought to life when the sun touches its solar panels, begins to ask questions to a leathery human corpse. The story is dripping with pathos and manages to highlight both the transience of human endeavour and our potential for self-destruction. The ornate nature of the writing is nicely contrasted to the emptiness of its landscapes and the lack of any human characters. Atmospheric and weirdly moving:
‘You are quiet’ it says. ‘Are you sad?’
Again the machine falls silent as its worn brain searches for something to cheer this last master.
Cat World – Georgina Bruce
Cat World is a deeply sad story about two homeless sisters, both children, living in some future metropolis. The elder sister, Oh, engages in sex work in order to provide her and her younger sister (the narrator) with small amounts of food and “gum”, a kind of hallucinogenic drug that lets them temporarily travel to a shared dream-world of suburban comforts and safety. The emotional gut-punch of the story is the younger sister’s inability to comprehend the disappearance of Oh, who has most-likely been murdered or kidnapped by one of her customers. The narrator worries that Oh has abandoned her, or has been adopted alone by some benevolent (and imaginary) mother figure. The pathos of the story is found in its corollaries with real-world child sex trafficking, and the realisation that ‘Cat World’, the girls’ escapist fantasy, is really nothing more than a simple desire for a safe home and loving family. Bruce manages to construct all of this in a gritty, dark and blunt and unflinching way: the story’s strong emotions develop from the well-realised voice of its narrator, rather than any overly-sentimental use of manipulative language. Utterly brilliant, and very timely in using genre fiction to highlight prevalent modern-day concerns.