Chris Beckett made his first American appearances in 2004 with two stories in Asimov's and his debut novel, The Holy Machine, which was published by Wildside Press. Most readers who know of him are likely to associate Beckett with Interzone. Since 1990, he has appeared in the pages of that magazine more often than any other writer except Greg Egan, and has recently been featured in a special issue (#218).
That close association may be one of the reasons why—as Alastair Reynolds points out in his introduction—Beckett is perhaps not as well known as such contemporaries as John Meaney and Reynolds himself. (Even Stephen Baxter has only been writing for three years longer. But Baxter published his first novel in 1991, and first appeared in Asimov's a year later). Writers who write primarily short fiction for only one or two markets tend to obscurity until something—be it a change in fashion or a specific event—makes them an "overnight success." Carol Emshwiller is such an author. After almost forty years of writing for small press, non-genre venues, and literary SF venues like New Worlds and Orbit, in 2001-2 Emshwiller published a novel, a collection, a half-dozen shorts in F&SF and SciFiction—and won a Nebula award at her "first" attempt.
Perhaps the publication of Beckett's first collection, The Turing Test, will provide such a catalyst. It comprises fourteen short stories, from his second published story in early 1991 to his nineteenth in late 2006, providing a useful sampling of to this most underrated of writer's careers. Omnivorous readers of the Gardner Dozois and Hartwell/Cramer Year's Best series will recognize four of the stories included here.
There is astonishing diversity. In the most recent story, "Karel's Prayer," a hotel guest awakes to find himself in a Kafka-esque situation. He has effectively been vanished from society and is now at the mercy of security forces who appear to answer to no one. In "The Gates of Troy" (2000), a time traveller and his best friend learn the truth about the Trojan Horse in all its unpalatable reality. "Snapshots of Apironia" (2000) is an anthropological lecture disguised as a presentation of a couple's holiday snaps which shines a light obliquely on our own relationship with the "developing" world. In "Valour" (1999), humanity has intercepted a transmission from Cassiopeans, 200 light years away. By the end of the story, Beckett has highlighted the folly of trying to decode alien messages when humanity can't even communicate among its own members.
But for all that diversity there is a web of connections between the various stories.
Most straightforwardly, there are two pairs of stories that share worlds. In "Piccadilly Circus" (2005) and its direct prequel "The Perimeter" (2004), humanity has been uploaded, but unlike many such stories, reality in the form of economics intrudes; with the drain on power that so many uploads causes there is a direct cost to the quality of the virtual representation, so that the poorest of the consensuals can only afford a low quality image, and the society is visibly stratified:
Lemmy and his friends were Dotlanders. They were low-res enough to have visible pixels and they only had 128 colours apiece, except for James that is, whose parents had middle-class aspirations, and had recently upgraded to 256. There were all low-res, and up in the West End they would have looked like cartoon characters—even James—but down in Grey Town they looked like princes, the objects of envy and hate. (p. 66)
Clarissa Falls is the protagonist of both stories, one of the few last remaining physical human beings, or "Outsiders" or "spooks" as the consensuals prefer to refer to them. In "The Perimeter," Clarissa cuts a hole in the Perimeter within which all consensuals in London live, allowing the physical wildlife to enter, and in "Piccadilly Circus," Clarissa drives into London in her car, and is stranded. Both events cause huge disruption to consensuals and humans alike. Clarissa ultimately realizes that for all their differences, both consensuals and humans may be more alike than she had previously realized.
Art gallery manager Jessica Ferne features in both the title story (2002) and in "We Could Be Sisters" (2004). Highlighting the ossified divisions of social classes, these stories are set in a near-future London split into "subscriber areas," compounds of the comparatively affluent managed by specialist companies. In "The Turing Test," a client sends Jessica an AI which is designed to act as her personal assistant, but which she quickly realizes has an agenda of its own. The incident highlights Jessica's uneasy relationship with both the cyberverse, and the world of flesh and blood. As she reaches crisis point, she asks both her lover and the AI, "What do you want?" but is really asking herself that question.
In "We Could Be Sisters," Jessica the AI is never mentioned; instead Jessica meets a woman who bears an astonishingly close physical resemblance to her. This woman, Tamsin, is a Shifter, someone who crosses between alternate realities by taking a drug.
"We Could Be Sisters" is one of two Shifter stories in the collection and one of several such stories Beckett has written, including a couple not in this collection which have been reprinted by Gardner Dozois, and expanded into his forthcoming novel Marcher, due out early in 2009. "We Could Be Sisters" highlights the different courses that one person's life can take, in a myriad of possible outcomes, with Jessica again questioning the nature of her identity. The other Shifter story, "Jazamine in the Green Wood" (1994), features a matriarchal post-plague society, and shows the effect that one outsider has on an alienated adolescent boy.
One of the subtler threads running through these stories is the presence of art, from the Jessica Ferne duet, through "Monsters" (2003), in which a journalist visits what seems to be a bucolic colony to write a series of profiles on the local artists, with devastating effect, leaving the reader clear just who the monster is. "La Macchina" (1991—later expanded into The Holy Machine) features a tour of Florentine museums and churches by the narrator, who encounters a rogue robot on one such visit—a robot that has unexpectedly developed self-awareness.
One of the recurring concerns of much of Beckett's work is the next stage of intelligent life, be it the AIs, robots and "synthetiks" of "The Turing Test," of "La Macchina" and "Valour," or the quasi-immortal superhuman warrior of "The Warrior Half-and-Half" (2000). This latter story is SF so far-future that at times Clarke's Law is invoked. Helicopters sit alongside gun-platforms, airships, and suspended animation; yet this same techno-society encompasses a man who can shape-shift and has "apparently magical powers." Reluctantly, the Empire which is represented by the Major-Cardinal must release the warrior from imprisonment to fight a war on behalf of a cause he "betrayed" centuries before. That at the end the warrior dies in mysterious circumstances—or not, as the case may be—is entirely appropriate.
Another of the notable features of Beckett's work is setting, which is sometimes so powerfully evoked as to be a character in its own right. This is most notable in "Dark Eden," and the almost hallucinatory power of the description of this strange world—
that we could now clearly see to be gently glowing over much of its area, as if the planet was covered by a huge candle-lit city. But it wasn't a city. It was a forest. It was a shining forest of glowing trees and luminous streams and pools (p. 162)
—is the single redeeming feature in what for me is the one comparative failure in the book. But others may like its reliance on plot contrivances and strident characterization, and its ironic return to a simpler, freer life may work better as the novel that Beckett is working on.
Over half of the others are set in either a near-future London, or variations (in "Monsters" and "The Marriage of Sky and Sea") such as The Metropolis, and are determinedly British in their quiet understatement. Even the colony worlds have a very self-effacing quality, but where Beckett really stands out among SF writers is in understanding and showing us the way bureaucracy is likely to evolve (privately managed compounds in London, or police divisions specifically responsible for robots).
These are almost contra-libertarian stories, in that unlike many American fantasies of a simpler—less regimented—society, Beckett realizes that as our world, even our universe shrinks, so we become more and more known to the various authorities, companies, and individuals who have a stake in information-gathering and application, and who use it for good or ill—for Beckett does not necessarily endorse or condemn this trend; it simply is, he implies.
Like a British Philip K. Dick, with whom Beckett has been compared, the protagonists of these stories, whether they inhabit bucolic colonies, dark Edens, or world-spanning metropolises, must cut through the (often literally) shifting nature of reality to strive to understand their place in the universe.
As Karel concludes:
Dear God forgive me, he tried again. I just didn't know. I didn't know who I was.
Colin Harvey is straddling genres a lot lately; his new novel is Blind Faith, featuring a partially-blind PI who can "see" people's emotions. And he's edited Killers, an anthology of original stories by Bruce Holland Rogers, Eugie Foster, Lee Thomas, Paul Meloy, Sarah Singleton, and Jonathan Maberry. Both are spec-fic/crime-thrillers.
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