Subterfuge, the fifth anthology of new science fiction and fantasy from NewCon Press, defines its unifying motif as "a clever device or strategy used to evade a rule, escape a consequence, or to hide something . . ." Ian Whates has put together a wide-ranging selection of short stories in this, as in previous NewCon Press anthologies disLocations (2007) and Myth-Understandings (2008). There are fifteen original stories in the anthology, with an extra three (all previously published elsewhere) in the limited edition. About half of the stories are by women; rather more than half lie towards the fantasy end of the genre spectrum. Well-known authors such as Ian Watson, John Meaney, and Tanith Lee are balanced with less familiar names.
One writer, at least, did not expect to be included in this anthology. Ian Whates's introduction describes the selection of a shortlist of six stories—presumably reflecting, however tangentially, the theme of "subterfuge"—from recent output by members of the British Science Fiction Association's Orbiter workshops. Nick Wood's "Thirstlands," chosen from that shortlist by Ian Watson, is an understated and haunting tale set in a near-future Africa where even the Victoria Falls are drying up, and everyone is parched with thirst. Wood uses speculation about technology and media to frame a story that's more broadly concerned with communication, ecological issues and post-colonialism. For my money it's one of the most mature and subtle stories in the anthology.
Subterfuge got me thinking about what it takes to make a good contemporary genre story. It's no longer enough to have a neat idea, or a cunning twist: it's increasingly unlikely that an author will be the first or only person to tackle a particular notion. What makes a story stand out? I'm beginning to think that the author's voice, their distinctive style, is what counts—even at the expense of substance, of a plot in which significant events occur and a setting which reframes the familiar. Some of Subterfuge's contributors—Tanith Lee and Storm Constantine are the most obvious examples—have evolved styles so idiosyncratic that they sometimes border on pastiche. Other writers here may still be discovering their own unique voices: there are a couple of stories that are competently written and intriguingly plotted, but don't distinguish themselves (Sarah Singleton's "They Left the City at Night," Una McCormack's "The Great Gig in the Sky"). And then there are stories such as Neil Williamson's "The Moth," which layer language and imagery to produce an effect that's more than the sum of its parts:
The boy's name was Malcolm, the words said. But the paper added that he was a pale, sickly child. The meagre gutter margin, providing little safety between the words and the binding's fissure, hinted that he was never far from unsuspected danger. The thorny serifs contributed that he was prone to sudden and destructive jags of mood, that perhaps danger was what he sought . . . it was the ink that told you this story would end tragically, but compelled you to read on nevertheless. ("The Moth," p.99)
Many of the stories in Subterfuge have a twist or two, handled with the flourish required by the best of trickery and sleight of hand. Steve Longworth's "The God Particle" pulls a rabbit worthy of Asimov out of a story about the effects of the Large Hadron Collider, but he also uses fiction to explore the wilder interpretations of some questions raised by real-world astrophysicist Piet Hut about the nature of reality and fiction: indeed, the story quotes Hut verbatim.
"Copernicus upset the moral order by dissolving the strict distinction between heaven and earth. Darwin did the same by dissolving the strict distinction between humans and other animals. The next step is the dissolution of the strict distinction between fiction and reality . . ." ("The God Particle," p. 158)
Longworth plays with the tropes of quantum physics, positing reality and anti-reality "ambiguons" and their six flavours, and bringing vividly to life some current issues in physics. For all the up-to-the-minute discourse, though, "The God Particle" has an old-fashioned feel to it, an echo of genre classics.
Nik Ravenscroft's time-travel story "Time, Like an Ever-Rolling Stream" is built on the time-honoured trope of advice from the future, but there's an extra turn of the screw, an extra twist, that subverts expectation. And the reversals and deceits in Dave Hutchinson's "Multitude" pile one on another—all the more impressive given the story's first-person narration—until a rough kind of justice is served on the protagonist.
This is a distinctively British anthology. All of the authors are British by residence if not birth, and several of the stories are set in locations aglow with familiar detail: Cambridge (the setting for three very different stories), a small seaside town in Norfolk, a village on the south coast. There's often a British nostalgia for the bad old days, too, with protagonists reexamining their lost youth and realising that there was something strange afoot. The past is especially vividly evoked in Gary Couzens's "Jubilee Summer," set the week after the Golden Jubilee in 2003 but looking back to the summer of '77, when the narrator was growing up punk in a small town and feeling like an outsider—though perhaps without as much reason as her best friend.
Many of the stories range further afield, to fantastical lands where angels can be invoked to grant wishes or where simulacra are shaped from shadows to deceive the ignorant: and to more traditionally science-fictional settings such as the planet Capth, where two completely distinct types of life have evolved in parallel. Neal Asher's "The Rhine's World Incident" is set in the militaristic space-opera milieu of his Polity novels, while Pat Cadigan's "Lie of the Land" builds on existing stories set in the Big Dark, in an institution tending humans and aliens who've been abducted from their homeworlds by the mysterious Dacz.va. Like the rest of the anthology's contents, both stories stand alone, but lacking the context of the related earlier works, it's hard not to wonder if something has been lost, if there's more to the story than meets the uninitiated eye.
The theme of subterfuge has been interpreted in as many different ways as there are authors here: a deadly dose of hi-tech telepathy, a spy condemned for letting secrets slip, the latest news from Earth conveyed by a source that no one dares to trust . . . It's a broad enough theme to admit many different interpretations. So is there anything that ties these stories together, makes the anthology a book rather than a haphazard collection?
"I have always enjoyed stories with a twist," writes Whates in his Introduction. It shows in his selections. Some of the stories herein are reminiscent, in structure if not in content, of tales from Golden Age anthologies, the days when a story wasn't a story without a punchline. For me, a story that relies on its twist is the literary equivalent of a pun: the lowest form of fiction. Yet it's a technique well-suited to the theme of subterfuge, the author tricking the reader, hiding the truth behind a veil of misdirection and a sparkle of special effects—stylistic or substantial—until the moment when all is revealed.
Tanya Brown lives in Surrey and has been reading and arguing about books lo these many years.