Charles Stross remarked at a recent convention on a newfound confidence in British SF, which he ascribed to writers having seen that there was "life after the end of empire." Whether or not that is the reason, there does seem to be such a mood. Sean Wright is only one of the many new names following in the wake of the first wave of Interzone- and Asimov’s-groomed neocelebrities such as Stephen Baxter, Paul McAuley, and Stross himself (who, after debuting in Interzone in the same year as Baxter exactly twenty years ago, sold only sporadically until suddenly taking off at the start of the decade).
For years after New Worlds imploded in 1970, it seemed that the legacy of Michael Moorcock and company’s obsessive brooding about inner landscapes was casting a shadow like a nuclear winter over the British SF landscape. At its best, New Worlds had encouraged its readers and contributors to look beyond the narrow influences of the (American) magazine-dominated early 1960s and revitalized the whole field. But its demise created shock waves that were exacerbated by the economic downturn, and for nearly two decades British SF struggled with a malaise as much directional as economic.
Only with the economic upturn of the 1980s, the launch of Interzone in 1982, and the 1987 WorldCon did British SF start to rediscover its voice. Initially this was expressed in the space opera renaissance of the early 1990s—headlined by McAuley, Baxter’s Xeelee series, Iain M. Banks's Culture novels, and Peter F. Hamilton’s monumental trilogies—but now it’s fragmenting in the same way that American speculative fiction has.
Jaarfindor Remade opens some three centuries after the Merging, when the sky melted. The Earth was all but destroyed in the so-called "Great Final World War" (which proved to be anything but), its remains swallowed by the inter-dimensional realms of Elriad, Finnigull, and Jaarfindor. Queen’s Lynn is a metropolis the size of New York City on the site of present-day King’s Lynn in Norfolk, although such comparisons are meaningless, so changed is the landscape. Lethal smog swirls around the city, rendering the world beyond a mystery; the seemingly world-girdling Grandlian Ocean is a great void of nothingness; below the city shamutants, albino telepaths, lurk in threatening secrecy. The city is ruled by Lia-Va, a despot who claims to be human, although her sometimes lover Domino Fortune doubts this.
Fortune is an artist-assassin hired for a hit by Lia-Va, but when she rings his colleague’s cell phone as they lurk in ambush, Fortune is convinced she has double-crossed him. Nonetheless he survives the ensuing gunfight and returns with the trophies she wanted, sure that he is going to his death. Instead she offers him one last job at such a price that he will be able to retire, should he so choose.
This last job is to kill Lia-Va’s rival, who is set to take power, and at the same time steal from a museum the severed head of an arch criminal, Dr. Lars Handel, decapitated two centuries earlier but still conscious through the preservation of his "root," an organism that retains the memories and consciousness of the individual—only when the root is beaten to a pulp does the individual truly die.
Lia-Va tells Fortune she has a spy in the museum. Fortune’s paranoia makes him suspicious of the tour guide, who seems obsessed with him, and at the end of the novel’s first part—again fearing a double-cross—he kills her.
But just when it looks as if Jaarfindor Remade is simply a caper with gaudy dressings, the novel's second part abruptly takes off in a completely unexpected direction, and for a hundred pages or so we share the memories of the woman Fortune has killed, which, as he pulverises her root, fly up like dust. In a series of cameos reminiscent of Brian W. Aldiss's Enigma stories from the 1970s, with their almost portrait-miniature fascination with details (such as a half-page scene in which one character spits into the sink while worrying about his mental health) and off-kilter view of the world, Wright reconstructs the last hours of someone who seemed at first to be simply a supporting character while cheerfully giving the finger to the "how to write" school with deliberate point-of-view shifts within scenes. It only takes a little while for the trick to become almost unnoticeable, but at first the jumps stopped me in my tracks.
I suspect that Wright set out to be provocative in this way. He uses SF images as tokens, making his world-building shallow, a thin veneer transposed over our world. His prose technique is to pelt the reader with imagery, which works well initially but gives no respite for acclimatisation, as if trying to gloss over plot deficiencies. It’s a little like interviewing a particularly hysterical witness to a catastrophe. Somewhere in all the gibbering there’s a story, but getting at it is hard work.
Such bravura is at once endearing and deeply, deeply annoying, and all of Wright’s strengths and weaknesses are similarly shown in Love under Jaarfindor Spires, his first collection of short stories. It is short, at times stylish, and at other times an utter mess. Each story is in a different font from the others, presumably for visual impact. If so, it succeeded, but the impact wasn’t positive—it simply grated on me. Unsurprisingly, Wright’s shoving together of disparate elements works better on a novel-size canvas than in short bursts, as there he at least has the benefit of cumulative image-pelting to convey description.
The contents are jumbled. "Fortune’s Fool" is the first chapter of Jaarfindor Remade. In Wright's defence, it makes a useful sample, but while competent, it ends without any sense of the emotional completion a reader usually gets from a short story. The same is true for "The Object" and "The Transmutation of Jamey O’Rooke," which are parts of a novella, Wicked or What?, and "Crack Boy," reworked into a portion of Dark Tales of Time and Space: all suffer from the same problems of starting in the middle of a longer story and finishing with nothing resolved.
This is not so much a short-story collection as a half collection, half sampler reflecting Wright’s prose style, an ill-disciplined Frankenstein’s bastard of parts bolted together from contemporary fiction (buses and hospital wings and churches) and strangeness (shamutants and insectoids). It may be that what appears to be contemporaneous is meant to be futuristic, but Wright can’t be bothered to waste words and slow the pace of his narrative by spending time on too much description.
He has racked up award nominations, so clearly there are those such as Gabe Chouinard who rate his work highly, and his "flaws" seem consistent enough to be deliberate rather than accidental. But his cause isn’t helped by poor editing that allows him tautologies and overrepetition, presumably under the guise of cadence. This from "The Object":
They knew things that would happen in time because they existed in Space. Not outer space, neither inner space, simply space—free from time. Because they were free of time, it did not exist for them. But when they occasionally breeched into time, they felt as a hive mind creature might feel, an exacting pain and trauma that perturbed them greatly. (p. 51)
I’m also too much of a rationalist to like the frenzied yet studied looniness of "Journey’s End," with its brain-snatching protagonist. “Can’t we stop this stupid game?” one of the characters asks, and I felt much the same way.
Still, there is some good stuff in this collection. "The Numberist" works after a fashion, although the superb imagery is undermined by the story’s parts never really adding up to a coherent whole, while the title piece is one of the few in the collection that is a straightforward love story—many of the others prefer to call obsession love—and one of the best, bookending beautifully with the last, another tale of love recognized only when it is about to be lost. "Fade Away" and its prequel, "Gone beyond My Love," tell of the eventual demise of a former actor, now looked after by his home helper, first from one character’s perspective, then the other's. These are the best pieces in the book, the very few that actually presented rounded characters who engaged me and a narrative that was a fully functional stand-alone story.
Taken as a whole, Love under Jaarfindor Spires feels several years too early to be a debut short-story collection and is a very slender sampler.
Colin Harvey is the author of the novels Vengeance and Lightning Days as well as the prize-winning story "The Bloodhound." His novel The Silk Palace will be published by Swimming Kangaroo Books in September 2007; read about it here.