When Brian Stableford was interviewed at a British Science Fiction Association meeting last autumn, he was less than delighted by the current state of SF publishing in the UK. He felt that major publishers of SF are in retreat, and contrasted their situation with the success of the likes of PS Publishing, a small press specialising in limited editions—usually totalling no more than 500 copies—aimed at least in part at collectors. It seems to be a successful model for PS and, with NewCon Press, Ian Whates appears to be following the same path. NewCon's first publication, Time Pieces, received generally good notices and award nominations. DisLOCATIONS is another short story collection in a run of 500 copies signed by contributors—now with 50 hardbacks as well. Fortunately, this is a book worth reading as well as collecting.
Whates's theme for the book is "displacement," and this is honoured by all the stories present even when a number of pieces would also fit into a book like Dozois and Strahan's recent anthology, The New Space Opera. This might be less than astonishing when it comes to a writer like Ken MacLeod, but Pat Cadigan channelling Alastair Reynolds is rather more unusual. This is just one reason why Cadigan's "Among Strangers" is a great opener. The story uses the huge scales available in space opera to tell an intimate, amusing story. The result is sharp, sassy, and funny; Cadigan pours affectionate ridicule on such diverse targets as chlorine breathers, alien abductions, and the remarkable belief that beings from Cincinnati and Kansas City might be similar.
Chaz Brenchley also plays against type, "Terminal" is apparently "only his second out-and-out Science Fiction story". It is set on a distant planet where the natives are sentient gas bags, as unknowable as the human heart. The piece is told from the perspective of an old hand at galactic travel, functionally immortal as long as he keeps moving on. The human bureaucracy for maintaining proof of identity where travellers transfer to new bodies is set out succinctly beside reportage on the world's inhabitants and the story of the drifter and his new companion. Brenchley does an able job of defining the protagonist's character through his responses to the world and driving the plot on the those reactions.
Hal Duncan's six-page "The Drifter's Tale" takes the form of one side of a pub conversation, and Duncan does an excellent job of building both setting and character purely through the speech of his narrator, as he sets out his idea of the Drifter Myth—"you never mess with the Drifter because he always wins" (p. 45). Duncan also effectively builds tension over the handful of pages, both in the manner in which the speaker is clearly upsetting others at the bar and in the expectation that the story will fulfil the myth which it describes. The narrator is so clearly an unpleasant character that, despite its brevity, the story comes close to outstaying its welcome.
Having left space behind, disLOCATIONS continues into a dodgy estate somewhere in Britain. Brian Stableford has a knack for characters overwhelmed by their own lives. Here, Sheila is confronted in her flat by one of "The Immortals of Atlantis," who used to be an oceanographer and who claims that she is another immortal. He is here to bring her to her true self. Although the style is comic, the story is bitter: "Your false self would be bound to refuse to realise your true self, no matter how worthless a person you presently are or how wretched a life you presently lead, because selfs are, by definition, selfish." (p. 57) The levity threatens to undercut the awfulness of Sheila's pathetic life, but eventually allows the possibility of hope.
"The Glass Football" by Andrew Hook, by contrast, describes the end of hope. The narrator recognises a gap in his life, a place where the pieces don't quite fit his ordinary suburban existence. The story is a classic piece of slipstream, rooted carefully in mundanity—the narrator has to catch the train because his car is at the garage—but sliding into very personal catastrophe. That this is seen to be repayment for a mistake decades past adds a cautionary aspect to the story. Set beside Susanna Clarke, we would read this as fairies balancing the books; in SF surroundings, it is more unsettling for being less easily explained.
Adam Roberts' "Remorse (R)" returns to the monologue format, and is as successful as "The Drifter's Tale" at building a narrator, though this one is not so directly obnoxious. Through this narrator's conversational tics, as well as his direct description, we get a picture of a world where empathy has been chemically enhanced, with the aim of eliminating crime. Roberts takes only four pages to create a setting and a situation then bring it to a satisfying conclusion, giving us a latter-day example of "Tharg's Future Shocks." Yet the implications of the idea he presents run on. How much remorse can we bear? Where is the balance between crime control and pacification of the populace?
The last story to be set close to home is Amanda Hemingway's "The Convention." It is a lightly told description of a newly successful writer's first experience of a big convention. As a non con-goer, I can only say that the story is only slightly more ridiculous than some con reports I've read—amusing and unlikely as it is, his experience rings true. I suspect that the story will have more legs within that segment of fandom.
"Impasse" is a rather ponderous tale of metal warriors fighting each other in a distant future. I immediately visualised the protagonists as Transformers, but the balance between Swift Might and the Aumon Brotherhood is so even that, after the initial fury, they are limited to philosophical debate as a means of gaining advantage. The argument successfully illuminates the universe which Andy West has created, providing sufficient foundation for the elegiac writing, and the arrival of a human on the scene undercuts the high style to provide a prosaic end.
This slim volume ends with "Lighting Out," a Ken MacLeod story set in the same universe as "Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?" in The New Space Opera. The closure of the story even suggests a connection to his novel Learning the World, although this could just be the last joke in a story which plays with multiple tropes from the big bag of science fiction. MacLeod is enjoying himself, with viruses in the smart paint, the earth a frozen ball and an interstellar society loosely bound by sub-light speed travel. Amidst all this is a smart young woman who is still not as smart as her mother, even if the latter is mostly represented by a partial personality running on a card.
DisLOCATIONS is firmly in the middle ground of current British SF. It could be accused of being a little unadventurous, but that's is almost a way of saying that none of the stories are failures. This is a satisfying collection of well written, fully imagined stories.