Ian Whates's The Gift of Joy is a Whitman's sampler of eighteen stories, some award winning, capable of being enjoyed in any order and suited for a variety of moods. Variety in such a collection is a must. To paraphrase David Malouf, a chap who tells the same story the same way eighteen similar times is just begging to be introduced to a shovel and a few feet of dirt.
Old-timers know that Ian Whates is one of science-fiction's gluons. He helps organize conferences, produces quality anthologies through his NewCon Press, edits the BSFA's Matrix magazine, and is a regional director of both the SFWA and the BSFA. This collection reflects his enduring interest in SF over the last twenty years. The tales run the entire gamut from golden-age SF ("It's About Time!") through Twilight Zone ("In Fear Of Fog"), new British SF ("The Sum of Parts") and Blade-runner ("Flesh and Metal") before ending with the anti-war polemic ("The Laughter of Ghosts"). Two stories ("The Final Hour" and "Darkchild") had a musty whiff about them, perhaps because they reminded me of Star Trek episodes.
Ian Watson's excellent foreword could also serve as the book's review. In particular, his comment that the narrators in Whates's tales are more like raconteurs, and that they provide "an engaging sense of an intimate conversation," captures the essence of Whates's voice. In the first-person stories, the intimacy is a result of the talking-to-the-camera style adopted by intrepid TV hosts. In the third-person stories, there is this sense that the grave events being recounted happened to a friend of a friend, in London, in Mozambique, in Brunei, in America, and that the next round of beer is perhaps—sure, why not?—definitely your turn, mate.
The strategy works well in the flagship story, "The Gift Of Joy." The story deals with a shape-shifter, Conrad, who learns the hard way that when you can be anyone, you may have to be. One of Conrad's routine transactions—with a woman called Joy—goes as expected, but then the past catches up with the shape-shifter and everything goes to hell. It's told from Conrad's point-of-view, and the confessional voice erases distance, making the reader an accomplice. When Conrad turns out to be an amoral shape-shifter too, it's too late for the reader to start having regrets.
On the whole, however, this sense of cozy intimacy is a problem. It defangs the world, and the substitute fake teeth (for instance, the Mata Hari women, the climactic betrayals, the African Artifact) only highlight the problem. There is not much sense of any real danger, real anguish, real retribution, or real despair. It's only a recounting after all, and doesn't the narrator sit here, safe and sound, safe and now, in good old Britain, far from all those hollow-eyed places where story-tellers never outlive their stories and history never happens?
The story "Ghosts In The Machine"—the most emotional one of the lot—is a case in point. The first-person account is set in a future world and is of an Eloi who comes face to face with the Morlocks. It is one of speculative fiction's most flexible contact situations—the future with the past, new world to old world, human with sub-human, the Haves with the Have-nots—which perhaps explains its power to inspire such great work. When it happened to the Buddha, he went out and started a new religion. When it happened to Le Guinn, she wrote "The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas." When E. M. Forster had his Matrix moment, he produced "The Machine Stops." In Whates's telling, two very different encounters take place: the decadent protagonist comes face-to-face with the God-like Machine that makes his world possible and with the wretched who have fallen through the gaps. Thus, in a sense, his encounter is with the God-of-the-gaps. The quality Whates wants us to savor is "a nostalgic feel with a surprisingly dark aftertaste—a sugar-coated bonbon with a hot chilli center." Nostalgia is an odd choice, since we who live in the narrator's past cannot be nostalgic for that past. But even odder, Whates only devotes a page to the critical encounter. The rest of the fifteen-page story is taken up with landing-in-world, exploring-world and escaping-from-world, and the talking-to-the-camera voice turns an encounter tale into an adventure tale. The Morlocks and the Machine are only props, about as real as the monsters that pop up on Disney's Haunted Mansion ride.
Perhaps the stories are meant to be approached differently. Ian Whates's notes indicate that, by and large, his stories did not originate in a desire to cause particular experiences in readers, but instead, were the effect of particular experiences on Ian Whates. Some stories originated as explorations in style and subgenre, others of curious facts, some inspired by current events, and others simply by why not. A few stories were written to suit the frames of particular outlets; as all writers know, sometimes a story has to be seven-hundred and fifty words because seven-hundred and fifty-one words is most assuredly a reject.
The stories in this collection are distinct items, and though there are patterns, I didn't detect any conscious use of linkages from one story to the next. In particular, the plot of the last story ("The Laughter Of Ghosts")—it makes an ingenious use of the Gurkha regiment in Brunei to launch an attack on the United States—offers an opportunity to link the first story with the last one, but Whates chooses not to take it. I like the standalone quality of the stories. It's difficult to read a story-collection these days without bumping into liaisons, motifs, themes, parallels, contrasts and other authorial extrusions. But this collection is an Irish stew, and much like that user-friendly dish, is capable of being sampled in full or in part, at quick pace or in slow crawl, in order or at random. Different moods calls for different foods, and this one is for a reader in the mood for something simple, varied and classic.
Anil Menon worked for about nine years in software R&D worrying about things like secure distributed databases and evolutionary computation. Then he shifted to a different kind of fiction. His stories can be found in magazines such as Albedo One, Chiaroscuro, Interzone, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, New Genre, Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as TEL: Stories, Shockwave, and From The Trenches. He was nominated for the 2006 Carl Brandon Society's Parallax Prize and the 2007 Million Writers Award. His YA novel The Beast With Nine Billion Feet (Zubaan) is scheduled to appear in Fall 2009.