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Celebration cover

There are two questions that you ask yourself as a reader, or reviewer, of an anthology. Are the stories any good? And, do they amount to more than the sum of their parts? That is, has the editor—by the way she has arranged the stories or by the extra material she has provided—created a context that enriches the experience of reading each individual story? This might be through a well-argued theme, or through editorial matter that makes you understand where the authors are coming from, or simply through care and thought in the choice of stories. Somehow we demand more from an anthology, in terms of coherence or consistency, than we do from an issue of a magazine. It may be unfair, but there it is.

Celebration is, as its subtitle says, published to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the British Science Fiction Association. It leads off not with an editorial introduction but with a brief piece by Pat Cadigan noting some of the achievements of the BSFA and British SF in the last half-century. There then follow two unashamedly retro stories. Stephen Baxter's "The Jubilee Plot" is set in an alternate-world 1887, where Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee is marked by an "inaugural autocar race" across a bridge spanning the English Channel. Baxter's rather dim racer protagonist discovers a plot to assassinate Her Majesty. A serious point gets made, about the movements that Victorian England brushed out of its way, but unfortunately Baxter delivers it in his most didactic way:

"Look [one character says], for decades every attempt at reform in this country has been thwarted. The last attempt at parliamentary reform failed in 1832. The Chartists were prosecuted in 1838. Laws about factory inspections and the hours you can work a child were defeated or repealed in the 1840s. Efforts to repeal the Corn Laws were defeated in 1846, and the poor stayed hungry..." (pp. 21-22)

By contrast, Ken MacLeod's "Wilson at Woking," which follows, is pure fun. The Martians from Wells's The War of the Worlds (1898) have landed in the 1960s, and Harold Wilson defeats them with his tactical brilliance and socialist hovercraft commanded by Tony Benn. It's not one of MacLeod's deeper works, but it's denser with jokes than anything I've read by him.

The Baxter and the MacLeod are an example of an editorial trait prominent throughout Celebration. There are a number of similar stories that wind up grouped together. So, for instance, two stories about islands (by Ian R. MacLeod and Christopher Priest) appear next to each other, as do two fantasy-inflected ones (Liz Williams and Dave Hutchinson), and two pieces of borderline surrealism (M. John Harrison and Molly Brown). We even get a story that ends with the image of a dog barking (by Ian Watson) followed by one about a dog hypnotherapist (by Tricia Sullivan). So you wind up thinking of the book as being composed of several pairs of stories, rather than individual ones.

The Watson is one of the weaker stories here. It's not particularly that its premise (a woman who is able to stop time and enjoys having sex in the frozen intervals she creates) isn't original: see Nicholson Baker's The Fermata (1994), for starters. But the treatment isn't at all convincing: the dialogue reads as affected, and the conceptual nugget at the story's heart—why the woman wants to do this—doesn't feel worth the time spent discovering it. Other stories here also feel second-hand, to their detriment. Liz Williams's "At Shadow Cope" tells a story of historical wizards that, although set more than a century earlier, suffers by contrast with Susanna Clarke's similar tales. Kim Lakin-Smith's "The Killing Fields" describes a post-catastrophe England governed by resource scarcity and swathed in gloom: it may well be that we should be as gloomy as her story suggests but, compared to what's in the papers these days, I didn't get a sense that the story advances that argument.

As I read more, though, I find myself thinking that the originality of a story, or otherwise, matters less than voice: what do the style and choices made by the person narrating the tale tell me (or seem to tell me) about them? So it doesn't matter so much to me that, say, Alastair Reynolds's "Soiree" treats a very similar idea to Ian R MacLeod's "Starship Day" (1995) or, doubtless, many other generation-ship stories. Reynolds is never much of a voice-driven author, but "Soiree" stands on its own because it reaches its central darkness with competence and punch.

M. John Harrison is a voice-driven author, and even if "Keep Smiling with Great Minutes" has a relatively small compass, it embodies two trends in his work that have been growing in importance lately. The first is a tendency to out-and-out surrealism (as also in, for instance, "I did it" (2003)), and the second is a far more explicit political engagement. A paraphrase of the story—a weird grape-like growth called Volsie bursts out of the protagonist's leg during a visit to Paris, and then starts talking back—doesn't get anywhere close to its dreamlike strangeness, its sense of perfectly chosen arbitrariness. The Harrison makes a nice pairing with Molly Brown's "Living with the Dead," a kinder, gentler zombie story. Both are susceptible to allegorical readings, but both are harmed by them. You have to accept that they are as they are, irreducible.

Adam Roberts's "The Man of the Strong Arm," which closes the anthology, isn't so much susceptible to certain readings as a text that carries its readings in a ring-binder by its side. On a pastoral far-future Earth, the inhabitants derive meaning from reading the fragments they can rescue from old science fiction. We have to infer things about their culture, and ours, from differing responses to SF. So, for instance, one character says to another, "Take Robert High-Line; he was a contemporaneous writer of imaginary voyages and his stuff is full of gadgets and technical digressions and the like. This Armstrong story is just like that. It's a perfectly impossible adventure, of course, but it's told with a straight face. And that combination is just, is just a thing that I—and I'm speaking only personally of course—love about all this work" (p. 225). This piece of ironic detachment about SF is heightened by our own ironic detachment (we know that it's "Heinlein," not "High-Line"), and the further ironising gesture that this irony about science fiction is embedded in a science fiction story. To ironising there is no end. It's the sort of work that demonstrates how problematic self-consciousness is for the pulse of story.

I said earlier that the Baxter story was didactic, as is the Roberts in its more complicated way. The same is also damagingly the case with some of the other stories here, like Brian Stableford's "Next to Godliness." Stableford has always tended to use stories as a vehicle for thought experiments, but he seems more and more tempted by Fanthorpean word-spinning: "Nick, like Adam, was conscientiously clad in drab plumage; a superficial glance might have rated them as nearly alike as two peas in a pod, although Adam saw things very differently" (p. 112). His story, "Next to Godliness," embodies a perfectly interesting debate about biological mood management technologies but, like the Watson and Baxter, the dialogue fails the read-aloud test and it's not nearly as distinctive as the similar stories Stableford collected in Sexual Chemistry (1991).

In fact, that's the main charge to be made against the stories in this anthology. Very few are actively bad, and plenty of them are perfectly competent, but only some are distinctive enough to really stay in the memory. The Ken MacLeod, within its joky frame, is one; so are the Harrison vignette, and the Brown. Jon Courtenay Grimwood's "The Crack Angel" is another, despite a weird and wrenching tonal shift halfway through, from urban detective story, to intensely imagined SF. In fact, that discombobulating jump ends up seeming not like a flaw but a virtue, an enactment of the protagonist's estrangement. And the story has a chewy cognitive density that makes you realise what too many of the other stories are missing.

Dave Hutchinson's "Mellowing Grey" is worth remembering too, for its intriguing placement of fantasy tropes in an SF frame, or maybe vice versa. It's also one of the few stories here to be distinctively British, to actually make use of the country's landscape and history. Brian Aldiss's "Peculiar Bone, Unimaginable Key" does the same. It's pretty clearly the riskiest story in the book; I'm by no means sure that it works, but it's extravagantly wasteful of ideas. It starts with a depiction of a public beating in Whitby, Yorkshire: a modified version of Islamic law has been imposed across Europe. It then heads off to the idea that Christ, not Dracula, set foot in Whitby, and to larger questions of science and culture, before taking in several other territories and ending on an authentically science fictional slingshot. (Martin Sketchley's "Deciduous Trees," which follows, is another Jesus story, and suffers by comparison.)

You could argue that a short fiction anthology is the wrong place to be looking for what's most characteristic in British SF right now. Many of our most prominent authors are either barely short fiction writers at all (Richard Morgan, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Justina Robson), or seemingly much more comfortable at novel length (Ken MacLeod, Tricia Sullivan, Christopher Priest). It's heartening that some of the authors I've just named have provided good work for this book, but that doesn't alter my sense that, say, MacLeod or Grimwood are more at home setting up their arguments across a much bigger canvas. But that brings me back to my initial question of how you form an impression of an anthology as a whole, and how that relates to the goals the editor sets for it. In his afterword, Ian Whates sings the praises of the BSFA, justifiably, but gives the book no stronger a remit than celebrating. He also says that the book was produced against "an unreasonably tight schedule." You can't help feeling there'd be more in this book to celebrate if they'd taken more time.

Graham Sleight lives in London, U.K. He is editor of Foundation, and writes for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Locus, and Science Fiction Studies.

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28 Nov 2022

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