One of the claims most frequently laid at the door of SF by mainstream authors and critics is that it is ultimately a rather parochial form of expression. This is the view that informs the idea that SF is a ghetto, cut off from the wider literary world by virtue of being composed of authors who only ever write SF. Of course, this is a gross exaggeration, but it does touch upon part of what it means for someone to be an SF author. Most SF authors pick a genre, or even a sub-genre, and stick with it until the muse stops calling. Mat Coward is not that kind of writer. While his short story collection So Far, So Near might well be his first book of SF, it is not his first book. In his career as a freelance writer, Coward has written children's fiction, a column in a socialist newspaper, a series of crime novels, a column about organic gardening, and a book about classic British radio sketch show Round The Horne. I include this seemingly arbitrary bibliographic sketch not in order to pad out my review or to highlight my mad research skillz, but to draw attention to the fact that Mat Coward is a man whose career has been spent writing about a wide array of different things, few of them science fictional. This cosmopolitan career history has clearly served to determine his writing style.
The sixteen stories in So Far, So Near fall into a number of thematic categories (partly determined thanks to the DVD extra-style comments Coward includes at the end of each story), but they all share two distinct characteristics.
The first is that while they may contain some trope or idea that you might recognise from the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres, they do not completely fit into any of these literary pigeonholes. This is partly due to the nature of the short story format, which, leaving little room for intellectual self-indulgence, forces writers to choose their priorities carefully. Coward's decision is to limit the exploitation of his ideas to the absolute minimum required by each of his stories, leaving him with more space in which to establish character and mood. An excellent example of this is the last story, "Remote Viewing" (first published 2002), which effectively sets a warm and vibrant love affair against a story of CIA-sponsored psychic espionage. Coward never explains why the female CIA operative is there or even whether her powers are real ... he just introduces the idea of psychic powers and leaves it at that. It is not surprising to learn that most of these stories got their first airing with long-standing British short fiction magazine Interzone, as the enigmatic, knowing and yet straightforward style of Coward's stories continues to be popular in that publication to this day.
The second characteristic is perhaps less obvious. In his notes to an early story, Coward points out that nearly all of his early influences were comedy writers. This is an intriguing comment, as few of Coward's stories are actually funny. Nonetheless, it is easy to see in each and every one of Coward's stories the touch of what theatre critic Kenneth Tynan called the "comic spirit": the delicately poised relationship between coincidence and absurdity that makes comedy possible in the first place. Good comedy walks a fine line between the amusing and the patently ridiculous that prompts us to laugh when a concussed Basil Fawlty decides to imitate Adolph Hitler in front of his German guests, rather than throw up our hands and declare the whole thing completely unwatchable in its contrivance. We laugh at series such as Fawlty Towers because their writers take a normal situation and introduce just enough coincidence and weirdness to make it funny without crossing the line into grotesque. This attitude to the Other is clearly present in So Far, So Near. For example, one of the book's standout stories (as well as arguably the most science fictional) is time-travelling romp "The Second Question" (2001) that sets out to find out why we don't meet any time travellers by sending an incompetent boob back in time. The absurdity of the traveller's antics as he tries to lure time travellers out into the open beautifully knits together circumstance and absurdity and wraps them both up with a surprise ending I'm sure Charlie Stross would approve of.
As it happens, "Remote Viewing" and "The Second Question" are perfect illustrations of Coward's broader concerns and style but—ironically—by virtue of being a love story and a quite traditional time-travel story, respectively, they are different from most of the other pieces in So Far, So Near. The rest of the collection divides roughly into four groups: a group that deals with the Other intruding into everyday life; a complementary group that deals with everyday life intruding on the Other; a group that is comprised of attempts at political satire; and a group that is primarily concerned with labour.
In the first group we have "Those Things" (1995), in which a man finds a ghost sitting on his lavatory only to realise that it was his soul that died. Two other stories in this group are among the book's strongest: "Jilly's Fault" (2000) and "One Box of Books" (2001). "Jilly's Fault" is an initially upbeat and aspirational story about a group of students living in a flat until one flat-mate's bad luck starts to turn everyone's life rotten, metaphorically suggesting the manner in which illness, both physical and mental, can tear a group of friends and even a family apart. Meanwhile, "One Box of Books" tells the tale of a man who loses a box of books every time he moves. The kind of unfortunate occurrence that is both frequent and universal enough to have a degree of cultural resonance (like losing a sock at the launderette), this loss is presented as a sacrifice or tax intended to keep information free from the nasty people who buy books, read them once, and then refuse to part with them. Another strong contender for best story in the book is "We All Saw It" (2000), an account of a group of friends who see a UFO only for each of them to react differently to the sight. Surprisingly touching and deeply humane, this story beautifully complements the other stories in this group by focussing at some length upon the psychological impact of the Other and how one brush with it can go on to impact on a number of different lives in a number of different ways. We also have "Clean and Bright" (1994), a story that deals with a person who realises the wisdom in his grandmother trying to wash the air in her house. This is clearly intended as a commentary upon how the strange rituals our parents performed in our youth can quickly become quite normal as we age. From the strength of the stories in this category, it is clear that Coward is most comfortable when dealing with a world similar to our own in which a little bit of weirdness creeps in. This theme is present in all the stories included in this collection, but in these stories the theme is simple and unadorned with the political and social agendas that creep into some of his other stories. The more successful of these stories attempt to make the normal person into the Other.
In this second group of stories we have "Little Green Card" (2002), in which an alien diplomat living as a human suddenly faces the arduous task of dealing with a member of the human public despite his alien identity being a secret. As well as professional alien visitors, So Far, So Near deals with one of the Roswell aliens being put out to pasture by the British government in "Time Spent in Reconnaissance" (2002). That these stories focus on military and diplomatic state-employed aliens is no accident: Coward is clearly trying to point out the extent to which the workings of the state are aloof from the individual, whether it's a soldier returning to civilian life or the faint disgust on the face of diplomatic staff who have to deal with passport renewals and visa applications, as their training and expertise have reduced them to having to deal with people from everyday life. The link between these stories and those in the first group is "Now I Know Its Name" (2002), the strange story of a person completely ignorant of our world who is given a pet cat to look after, only for the cat to melt into the TV and start eating the people that appear on screen. Here Coward is making a point about how we can alienate ourselves from our own world, particularly if one does not go out and experience it directly. Watch too much TV and what's in that box starts to take on a life of its own. The story serves as a link between the two groupings as the cat is an interloper into the protagonist's life, but the protagonist himself is someone deeply Other who is forced to deal with normal people in a normal setting. What is interesting about this second group of stories is that it manages to make interesting, almost political points, simply by slightly modifying Coward's basic style. Unfortunately, the author is not content to leave the politics in the subtext. In the third group of stories he attempts to address political and social themes by tackling them directly.
The third group of stories in So Far, So Near is comprised of arguably the weakest stories in the book. Far and away the least interesting piece in the collection is "Offenders" (2003), a near future tale in which the British police investigate tellers of offensive jokes under pressure from an American government who sub-contract bombing Edinburgh out to a private company. So heavy-handed and simplistic are this story's politics that they come across as a parody of what happens when ill-informed people try to talk about current affairs. British sitcom fans will instantly be reminded of Citizen "Power to the People!" Smith and Jeremy from Peep Show, such is the stunning lack of wit and subtlety in this story, which is a real pity as the underlying murder investigation plot is as competently handled as you would expect from someone who has written as much crime fiction as Coward. The situation improves somewhat with "Knee Deep" (1998), which is the tale of a family bringing in pest control to deal with "infestations" of trees and horses. Clearly intended as an environmentalist satire, this story so exaggerates man's tendency to kill things that aren't convenient that the story almost functions better as a tale of mental illness than it does as a satire. In order for satire to work, the piece has to pick its targets incredibly carefully so as to make sure that it connects with something real. Too often, Coward's more political stories aim not for real political positions but grotesque and distorted parodies of said positions. For example, the US government sub-contracting out the bombing of Edinburgh in retaliation for some minor slight by the local council paints a picture of an America that goes to war on a whim even against its allies. To launch a vicious satire at such a target is easy. To work out America's real attitudes towards its allies and the use of force is less easy and a good satire, therefore, that much more difficult to construct. As a satirist, Coward's effectiveness is in inverse correlation with how acute his angle of attack happens to be. For example, the story "Room to Move" (2003) looks at a poor burglar who breaks into rich people's flats in order to steal space, it being the only thing you get more of the more things you give away. Weird and contrived, this story is intended as a deconstruction of the concept of ownership and, while it is not completely successful, it nonetheless works better than "Offenders" precisely because it comes at the subject in a less heavy-handed way. This is also true of the fourth group of stories, which look at political issues through the prism of labour.
The least effective of the final group of stories is arguably "Early Retirement" (2002), which tells of a group of co-workers being taken on a team-building exercise only for things to get out of control very quickly indeed. While the story ends with people eating their dead colleagues, it sees Coward deploying his satirical tools in a far more controlled and deliberate fashion than the examples above, sticking closely to the truth about silly team-building exercises and getting the jabs in before things get strange. This more sedate but more accurate form of satire also forms the basis for "We Have Fed You All For A Thousand Years" (1999), the tale of a TV executive trying to convince a champion of an obscure sport to come out of retirement so that the executive can televise people banging their heads against walls until one man drops dead or unconscious. Clearly intended as a critique of governments putting back the age of retirement, the story has a strange melancholy edge that makes its rather blunt symbolism seem all the more powerful. The third and final story in the group is another excellent piece. "By Hand or By Brain" (2003) deals with a man who meets a woman in a call centre. The two hit it off and the woman explains that the call centre is run by a witch. After a colleague is summarily sacked, the two decide to form a union, forcing a confrontation with the witch. As an attack on hideous working practices in call centres, the story is restrained enough to be credible, but what really sells the story is the relationship at its heart. Coward has a talent for writing about women through the eyes of men. By this I do not mean that he objectifies them or stereotypes them, rather that he is uncanny in his ability to capture that moment when you see a woman and decide that you're attracted to them. It might be the laugh, the smile, the way they pronounce a certain word, their weird sense of humour, or their taste in clothes. When you are attracted to someone, these minor and arbitrary characteristics suddenly loom large. Coward perfectly captures this slightly strange phenomenon.
So Far, So Near is, with a few exceptions, an excellent collection of stories. Funny, touching, intelligent, and challenging, the stories in this collection show how much can be accomplished in a short story as well as the value to be gained from an author refusing to settle into a niche. One can see in Coward's writing not the footprints of genre authors that have come before him but rather the wide array of subjects about which Coward has written over the years. Between his writings on comedy and crime, Coward has developed an attitude to strangeness that means that he is invariably at his best not when exploring ideas directly (as with his political work) but rather looking at them through their impact upon the lives of believably mundane characters and situations. Coward's strength lies not in an ability to come up with abstract original ideas for strange gadgets or aliens, but rather a deep understanding of humanity that makes this collection both refreshingly cosmopolitan and surprisingly accessible even for people who are not familiar with the SF canon.