At Interaction, the 2005 World Science Fiction Convention, there was a panel on the aesthetics of science fiction. The panelists, John Clute, Ian McDonald, Robert Silverberg, and Ian Watson, settled on the notion that the aesthetic of sf was epitomised by "pessimistic transcendence." In the introduction to Gareth L. Powell's first collection, The Last Reef and other stories, ex-Interzone editor Jetse de Vries says of short story "Distant Galaxies Colliding" (2004) that "what gives the story its SFnal edge is the superposition of humanity's insignificance against a huge, dark Universe [...] against a bleak cosmic canvas we still carry on our little paint jobs, hoping to find, or even create, small spots of beauty in an otherwise black existence." This seems to me to be an excellent articulation of the concept of the aesthetic of "pessimistic transcendence" as exemplified in Powell's fiction.
The fifteen stories in The Last Reef, all written and published between 2004 and 2008, are at their best when they successfully communicate the vastness of the universe in comparison to the scale in which human life and knowledge exist. They do this only intermittently, however, due in most part to a failure to create engaging human characters involved in emotionally realistic human endeavours. In order to successfully convey transcendence there needs to be a clear articulation of what, exactly, is being transcended, which Powell doesn't always manage to communicate.
The strengths of Powell's work, as displayed in this collection, are the ideas he's working with, the settings he chooses in which to explore those ideas, and the structures he uses to communicate those ideas, particularly the manner and point at which he chooses to end his stories. His ideas work both on the abstract philosophical level, and at the plot level, in the way those abstracts are embodied in the story. The level they don't work on is the emotional level: the level at which the reader is invited to personally engage with the story.
The first story in the collection, "Sunsets and Hamburgers" (2005), is an example of this. Its narrator is, apparently, the last man on Earth, resurrected, together with a woman of course, from a past era by robot medics for unrevealed purposes. The core idea and aesthetic of the story is summed up by the final couple of paragraphs:
"This will be my last diary entry.
These giant ships seem to be arks, of a sort. I can't tell you where they're going, or what we're going to do once they get there. I can't even tell you why we're here, alive, at the end of time.
All I can do is repeat the same conclusion that every man or woman has reached since the dawn of time: I don't know why we're here, or how long we've got. But we're here.
And we're going to survive."
The sentiment is a powerful one, and the device of using the last humans alive to explore the existentialist idea that the meaning of life is unknown, perhaps even unknowable or non-existent, but that humans can and do choose to go on living their lives regardless is a powerful and effective one. And the story's structure maximizes the impact of the idea: just like the resurrected narrator, the reader is waiting all the way through to find out the purpose of his resurrection, and the ending of the story at the point at which the narrator realises that a satisfactory explanation will never be forthcoming and gives up waiting for one is appropriate. The reader has similarly been waiting for the reveal that never comes, and is left with the final certainty that it is never going to come. The reveal itself is that there is no reveal.
So in the overall plotting the idea of the story is well communicated. But in the details "Sunsets and Hamburgers" is lacking. The narrator is never clearly characterised, the woman who is resurrected with him similarly appears to have no real personality, and their relationship is extremely unconvincing. The narrator concludes that they must have been genetically tweaked during their resurrection to want to be together, but there is no complex battle within the characters between their intellectual belief in this fact and their biological drives, as one might expect. And there is surprisingly little emotional reaction from the narrator to his circumstances, aside from his relationship with the other resurrectee. How might a person react to finding themselves almost alone in the universe, at the end of time? One might think that moments of anguish, despair, and even suicidal thoughts might creep in, but not with this character. How much more powerful would the choice to simply go on living that he makes at the end of the story have been if we as readers had seen and felt him considering the alternative, only to reject it? "Sunsets and Hamburgers" is filled with this sort of unrealised potential (the setting is similarly under-explored), which is why, despite its virtues, it ultimately disappoints.
Poor characterisation is not a just a problem for the opening story. Although there are minor details here and there that should mark Powell's protagonists and their female counterparts out from one another, the actual fact of the matter is that none of them have enough emotional meat on their thinly sketched bones to allow the reader to relate to them as individuals. Something is amiss when characters who are obviously supposed to be different in various ways (Pod from "Pod Dreams of Tuckertown" sounds like he's intended to be working class, in contrast to the characters in other stories who are mostly unrooted in class terms, and I'm guessing from the name that Kenji in "The Last Reef" and "Hot Rain" is of Japanese extraction, in contrast to the characters of unspecified race but European-sounding names in other stories) all give more or less the same impression to the reader.
It was also somewhat tiresome to find that many of the female characters were primarily objects of love or lust for the main (male) character. Kenji's love object Jaclyn in "The Last Reef" (2005) is basically comatose for most of the story, and when eventually she does enter the story actively she's essentially a catalyst for Kenji's personal transcendence (though she does at least have enough agency to decide that the two of them are not going to end up together for all of virtual eternity). Kai, the object of Pod's desire in "Pod Dreams of Tuckertown" (2006), a desire which is the driving force for all of his actions in that story, is likely dead even before the story begins. In "Ack-Ack Macaque" (2006) one problem compounds another, and the central relationship becomes immediately implausible and unconvincing if considered from the perspective of the female character. Tori inexplicably takes back the mopey, suicidal, and somewhat stalkerish Andy despite having been set up as the kind of character who is more wrapped up in her art than her relationships and who could casually walk out on him in first place when a new prospect came along.
Ironically, the showcasing of a number of Powell's stories side by side with one another in a collection like this actually serves to highlight this weakness in his writing. If I had read some of these stories separately, perhaps in the context of their original publication in a short fiction magazine such as Interzone, then the lack of characterisation might not have bothered me so much. I suspect I would have been aware that the characterisation may not have been the strongest part of the story, but the ideas and structuring would have stood out enough that I probably would have overlooked any weaknesses in other areas.
There are a couple of stories in this collection that I can imagine would have been the stand-out stories of an issue for me if I'd encountered them in a magazine setting. In particular, "The Last Reef" and "Arches" (2008) have intriguing science fictional conceits and high-concept conclusions that pack a good punch.
"The Last Reef" is set in a world of nanotechnology gone wild. The reef of the title is an artificial intelligence that has evolved out of a sophisticated telecommunications node. Anything the reef touches, including human beings, is technologically transformed by the nanotech that the AI has developed, and corporations descend to exploit the products of such contact. After a tussle for control over the reef, main characters Kenji and Jaclyn (who has already turned into some sort of trans-human through earlier contact with the reef) are absorbed into the AIs virtual world. Kenji's final decision at the very end of the story is to become a permanent part of the AI and transcend his humanity altogether.
"Arches," meanwhile, is a story of teleportation and planet-hopping. Ed and Alice take a trip through the mysterious arch that has appeared on Alice's property, in pursuit of Jack, Ed's brother and Alice's husband, who disappeared through a similar arch a few years earlier. The arch transports them to another planet with another arch, which transports them again, until they reach a planet where other human travellers through these arches (mostly military) have made a base from which to investigate both the planet they're on and the network of arches. Ed is put to work in an alien data repository with his brother Jack, and the information they extract indicates that some sinister substance is travelling through the arch network towards them and ultimately Earth, obliterating everything as it comes. Ed and Alice choose to make an attempt to return to Earth with the intelligence that has been recovered from the data repository, in the hope of preventing Earth's obliteration by this mysterious purple substance. The story ends as they make a final desperate hop through an arch, travelling in the direction of Earth, the purple substance hot on their heels.
In the context of a magazine, balanced by stories of different styles and with different strengths and weaknesses, these two stories would have provided an intellectually and conceptually satisfying reading experience. "The Last Reef" is a powerful depiction of the deep unknown into which one individual steps when he decides to transcend the human, and "Arches" ends on the brink of an intergalactic catastrophe, with the fate of the Earth in the hands of two humans who are on the verge of understanding the threat but nowhere near comprehending the forces behind it. However, in the context of this collection, the flaws in these stories are brought to the fore by the similar flaws in the works that surround them, and though they remain intellectually and conceptually interesting, they become less satisfying to read because it's clear that they are somewhat one-dimensional, missing the personal and emotional aspects that would make them truly satisfying. There should be a power in Kenji and Jaclyn's relationship that makes their decision to leave their human lives and relationships behind that much more poignant, and the personal dramas between Ed, Alice, and Jack ought to ground the intergalactic catastrophe in personal sacrifice and tragedy, but none of these characters and their relationships are drawn strongly enough for this to work.
This collection may not have been the best showcase for Powell's writing, but his is a name that will pique my interest, should I see it on a magazine cover in future.
Gene is sub-editor for the AS if! (Australian Specfic in Focus) website, which he also reviews for. Reviews of his have previously appeared in Vector and Foundation.