10.24.2009

Future Bristol from Colin Harvey

Future Bristol, edited by Colin Harvey, is an anthology of short fiction by nine British writers connected to a city they love, respect, and want to see flourish. And rightly so, for Bristol, England, is a city worthy of both real and fictional exploration, and this volume is a perfect travel guide to get us started. Each story propels the reader into both the near and distant future of the United Kingdom’s famous industrial city of Bristol.

While the significance and historical import of this port city in South West England is probably unfamiliar to many American readers, these speculative pieces immediately bring life and color to its past and present, while painting surprisingly vivid and imaginative scenarios of its future. In a sense, this volume represents not only a future look at what might be in store for Bristol, but a hopeful looking forward to what the city may become.

Through a wonderfully accessible selection of stories and genres — from steampunk to biotech suspense to superhero fiction — this anthology is entertaining, compelling, and thought-provoking. As for the writing itself, the craftsmanship of each story is superb. Editor Colin Harvey did a fine job of compiling a diverse yet complimentary collection of short fiction that celebrates, in his words, “the city that we moan about but also love. A city that, like British SF, believes in itself again.” Well, if the authors of Future Bristol continue to write at this high a level, then the future of British speculative fiction — and Bristol itself — is secure. This volume is a delight for science fiction fans of all stripes.

Liz Williams begins this anthology with “Isambard’s Kingdom,” a first-person tale that alternates between two narrators: Olaudah Jea, the future’s “Welcomer” and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the famous 19th-century engineer. The story flips between past and possible as well, nicely blending a bit of steampunk with future history and social commentary. The plot centers on whether Isambard will be able to complete (in either age) the Clifton Suspension Bridge, a distinctive area landmark and architectural triumph. The engineer faces a choice—to act on the utopian vision he’s received from Olaudah or simply accept the status quo. What underlies the story is the theme of cultural repentance for the role Bristol played in expanding the slave trade from Africa to the Americas. Brunel stands in for Everyman; Olaudah represents an offer of redemption. Tackling the concept of “collective sin” is a challenging feat, but Williams handles the issue deftly and avoids turning this into a moralistic tale by focusing on an original plotline that brings two intriguing protagonists together.

The title of John Hawkes-Reed’s offering,”The Guerilla Infrastructure HOWTO,” was a little off-putting, but his fast-paced and action-packed opening sequence dispelled any hesitation to put the story down. Hawkes-Reed quickly introduces an interesting concept (what’s the reverse of bio-terrorism, bio-aid?) through witty dialog and believably modern characters. While certainly a science fiction piece, “HOWTO” combines suspense and conspiracy with an antiestablishment message that doesn’t overwhelm the story. The disruptive biotechnology that the guerillas introduce will transform public transportation—to the delight of the masses—but Corporate Britain will fight to prevent it or control it. I’m not doing justice to the plot; it’s much more subtle and complex than that. The author, however, maintains intrigue and interest throughout; and what’s more, who wins is a mystery until the end. An enjoyable read.

“After the Change” by Stephanie Burgis is a modern-day superhero story with old-fashioned beat-the-bad-guy morals and a feel-good ending. I admit I’m partial to this traditional storyline, but the challenge is finding quality storytellers who handle it without resorting to cliché. Burgis is one such writer. She includes the right mix of relational conflict, love triangle romance, kidnap suspense, and internal moral crisis which, when set in a speculative context, makes for good fantasy reading. Andrew encourages his girlfriend, Neve, to discover the reason behind her angel-wing mutation. But like any transformation, the partner who hasn’t changed is often left behind. As Neve warms up to her new role as crime-fighter and city protector, Andrew feels disconnected and hurt. What he does with that hurt is what makes “After the Change” worth reading.

Genetic manipulation is at the core of Christina Lake’s “A Tale of Two Cities.” The title, of course, evokes a Dickensian relationship between France and England, which the author skillfully weaves throughout this first person flashback narrative. Another anti-corporate tale, this story involves a French pharmaceutical company owned by Valèry Evrémonde, competently cast as the manipulating mogul who is frantically searching for his rogue niece Charley—and her cloned daughter. The reader slowly unwinds the connection between Syd (our storyteller who works in Bristol) and Charley, as well as Syd’s sister, Lucie (the clone), and Valèry Evrémonde (the owner of their “parent” company, hint hint). While a bit confusing at times due to the number of characters and the flashback structure, the plot resolves nicely, and the purposeful complexity simply showcases the competence of Lake’s skill at handling such an intricate story.

The weakest link in this collection, although still somewhat charming in its own way, is “Trespassers” by Nick Walters. It’s a predictable and campy over-the-top time-warp specimen-hunting human-meets-alien yarn that works reasonable well if you enjoy those type of cult classic, Doctor Who-style stories. In fact, Walters is the author of a number of Doctor Who novels, so I’m not disparaging the writing; it’s full of pithy dialog (though it has a bit too much vulgarity for my taste) and four fanciful characters. Two human “urbex” gamers are exploring an ancient underground train station and encounter two strange creatures who seem to be doing the same thing…imagine! Of course, the reader knows what will happen (it has something to do with a zoo)—once Matt and Simon convince themselves they aren’t dreaming (oh, what a tiresome device). The pulp-inspired plot makes up for the lack of suspense, so if that works for you, then the story works as well.

My favorite story was “Pirates of the Cumberland Basin” by Joanne Hall. As mentioned earlier, the variety of sub-genres represented in this collection is refreshing—and this swashbuckling SF mystery on the high seas (an ocean-covered England the result of global warming) is a nice change of pace. Each story in the anthology alludes to something Bristolian, and the famous ship, the SS Great Britain, is referenced here. None of the historical or cultural icons steal the show, however; they simply add place and context for well-developed plots and characters—especially in “Pirates,” which features detective Harry Muller, a dead socialite, a missing baby, a crime boss, child slavery, artifact smuggling, and, of course, pirates. Hall maintains interest as the reader sleuths along with Muller and, by story’s end, ties up all the loose strings in typical British fashion. Entertaining, but with an underlying message that gives one something to chew on after the caper concludes.

Colin Harvey offers an expansive telling (in the unique first-person present voice) titled, “Thermoclines.” Although this is another mutant story, the setting is far future with winged humans scavenging for food in a postapocalyptic world that is sliding back toward barbarism. Young Garyn, our protagonist, is the most agile hunter among his small village among the trees. He returns from a foraging expedition to find a pair of rare visitors, who turn out to be a father/daughter team traveling and tricking gullible hosts out of their scarce resources. Despite the con, Garyn falls for Kazia and chases after her upon their midnight escape. The dangerous flight forces them to pass through dangerous thermoclines that threaten to push them into “the Grey”—the vast ocean of atomic and chemical waste that covers the Earth and which long ago forced mutant humanity to the skies. Yet this lethal ooze has another role to play—the transformation of humanity yet again, as Garyn finds out when Kazia is exposed to the poison. Themes of death and resurrection, love and forgiveness, and danger and hope undergird this narrative. Harvey has a powerful story here and one worthy of expansion into novella form. I hope he considers this or writes a sequel since the conclusion was a bit compressed and left me feeling that the word count played a factor in wrapping up the story prematurely. Still, one of the best offerings in this collection.

The title, “What Would Nicolas Cage Have Done?” by Gareth L. Powell, is a humorous nod to the movie, It Could Happen to You, where Cage’s character, dining at a coffee shop, promises to split his possible lottery winnings with the waitress in lieu of a tip. In Powell’s story, John, fresh from a breakup, meets Bobbie at a café, and they strike up a friendship. In a fit of whimsy, Bobbie makes John promise that if he wins the lottery, he’ll split the earnings with her. Well, lightning strikes, and a choice appears—in this case the world comes to an end and John is reconstituted in a utopian future. He’s allowed to resurrect one other person…Indeed, what would Cage have done? The story is short enough (and surreal enough) to allow the reader some patience in order to endure the inevitable predictability of the plot. But overall, this is a well-told story strong on relational dynamics.

The final story in Future Bristol is by Jim Mortimore, “The Sun in the Bone House.” This is a weird and operatic feature that somehow manages to cap the collection off in a complete and satisfying manner. I like to read anthologies straight through, for I assume the editor is creating an overarching narrative or thematic arc for the reader’s benefit. I sensed that was the case in this volume as each of the stories flowed nicely together, with “Bone House” wrapping up the various genres, themes, and ideas and transporting them into the vast and distant future of not only Bristol, but of humanity itself. The story takes us on a journey from the early days of Bristol (Briggstowe in Anglo-Saxon times) through recent history (alluding to famous area landmarks and discoveries) to the far future via the mind (the “sun” in the bone skull) of a child-turned-timeless woman. The pace picks up as the ages pass, characters come and go like actors on a stage, and still the sun offers wisdom, guidance, and direction to the town she loves. It’s an inventive tale that has many layers and, as mentioned, nicely rounds out this anthology of a city the authors “moan about but also love.”

My Personal Rating: 8 out of 10
Published by Swimming Kangaroo Books (April 2009)

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