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In the beginning was the word, and the word was anthology.

Just over sixty years ago, two fans decided to publish a book of the best science fiction stories published since Hugo Gernsback started Amazing Stories. This ur-SF anthology was Adventures in Time and Space, edited by Francis McComas and Raymond Healy. An epic tome, six times the then-average length of a paperback, it took most of its stories from John W. Campbell's Astounding. A British edition followed, but it was to be almost a generation before the first original anthology in Britain followed the lead set by Frederick Pohl a decade before with his Star Science Fiction series.

In 1964 EJ (Ted) Carnell had stepped down as editor of both New Worlds and Science Fantasy. Looking for new projects, he took Pohl's idea and launched New Writings in SF, which he continued to edit until his death in 1972, when Ken Bulmer took over for the last seven years and nine books of the series.

When New Writings ended in the year of the Brighton WorldCon, together with John Grant's stillborn Aries and George Hay's Pulsar series, the triple loss marked the death of the UK original anthology—at least until the next Brighton WorldCon—but not before it had established a style of its own, more cerebral and less pyrotechnic than its transatlantic cousin.

Charles Coleman Finlay has suggested that short stories are about ideas, whereas novels are about character. While this may be an over-simplification, it's true that no short story would have room for, say, Gully Foyle or Shevek, whereas SF's history is full of fantastic shorter works whose outstanding central conceit was lost amid a welter of plot, from Asimov's "Nightfall" to Spider and Jeanne Robinson's "Stardance."

Traditionally, British writers have tended to veer even further toward idea over action, and since the advent of Moorcock's New Worlds in the 1960s some British writers (such as David Masson) have written stories that are almost pure idea, but at the expense of characterization. Similarly, the archetypal New Writings in SF story as written by Colin Kapp was a solid, traditional, competent story with a problem whose protagonist resolved it—or was a story populated by paper-thin characters there solely to solve the problem their creator confronted them with. Since Evans and Holdstock's Other Edens and Roz Kaveney's Tales from the "Forbidden Planet" kick-started a British anthology renaissance in 1987, it could be argued that the typical British SF story has become less distinctive from its transatlantic counterpart, more action-oriented and with greater depth of character, while many American SF pieces have in turn become more thoughtful.

But Ian Whates's anthology Time Pieces, which was assembled to celebrate NewCon 3 in 2005, is a deeply traditional British SF anthology. The convention's theme was "Time," which explains the anthology's subject matter, but it's also appropriate given that it's less a throwback to a vanished era of printing presses and mimeographs than a (perhaps) conscious pastiche.

Several of the stories—Mark Robson's perfunctory future-caper "The Chalice," Stephen Baxter's "A Very British Paranorm," with its generic bureaucrat straight from New Writings, and Steve Cockayne's Minstrels Fold which, with its bucolic English village setting overlaying a darker secret, reminded me of early Keith Roberts—could have come straight from any Carnell anthology.

The afterword, the text of the convention's introductory speech by "HG Wells," picks up on the celebratory spirit, with Ian Watson magnificently lampooning his own "The Very Slow Time Machine" ("'Wells': Mr Watson once wrote a story entitled "The Very Slow Time Machine." If this was intended to be an homage to me, it seems rather a very silly one. The whole point about time machines is that they move very quickly").

Not all of the stories in the book can be quite so neatly pigeon-holed. Watson's own "The Globe of the Genius" features his usual machine-gunning of the reader with concepts. Liz Williams's "Caer Cold" has a 16th-century setting, but a fairy-tale feel, with only two references to the "real" world, and one of those to a legendary dabbler in the supernatural, while by contrast Jon Courtenay Grimwood's "State Your Name" feels like a standard cyberpunk story, until the surprising last paragraph; Grimwood's story never feels as if the setting is adequately drawn to support the numerous twists and turns of the plot.

But were there any doubt of the elegiac nature of the anthology, for the last story in the book Whates steps out of the shadows and even name-checks his own story's god-parents, and although I felt there was a logic-hole or two, it's a fun read.

Not quite the best in the book though:

The first story from the book I read was Sarah Singleton's, for no other reason than that she's a comparative neighbour of mine (we live barely twenty miles apart), and because I had just finished her excellent Century.

In "The Disappeared," a reporter who agrees to help a mysterious woman on the eve of the Second World War. The story is short, well written, and containing as it does the eponymous time piece, fits perfectly both with the anthology and also with the manifesto of many in SF (such as Bruce Holland Rogers), to make the reader see the familiar through new eyes. It is also strangely reminiscent of Christopher Priest's "An Infinite Summer" (1976). Not in treatment or plot, for Singleton has made this story her own entirely, but for the way she—using agents who are able to move outside of time in the "normal" sense—evokes a feeling of unease and to make us view our world through a lens strangely. However, there are significant differences too; Singleton's story with its eve-of-war paranoia is more constant in tone than Priest's La Belle Epoque, which gradually darkens, and Singleton has a sharper, darker, less ambiguous view of her world—unlike Priest, there is no doubt at the end of her villain's ultimate intentions.

Whates's intentions are noble—to pay off debts from the last convention and fund the next—but ultimately the anthology must be judged on its contents, not on its intent. To ask the reader to pay over £10 (US$20) for such a slim book (101 pages) is asking a lot, although for collectors the fact that it is a limited edition signed by all the contributors may make it a worthwhile investment. On the positive side, Time Pieces is a British anthology full of traditional SF that consciously bows to its forebears, and is chock full of ideas and brief characterization that's there not to delay the story but move it on. It's a book that's intended to be read for fun, and traditionalists may take a more sympathetic view. For those people, celebrate it, and in doing so celebrate the massed shades of Carnell, Knight, and Bulmer, and all the fans that have made SF what it is.

Colin Harvey is the author of the novels Vengeance and Lightning Days as well as the prize-winning story "The Bloodhound." His novel The Silk Palace will be published by Swimming Kangaroo Books in September 2007; read about it here.



Colin Harvey’s latest book is Winter Song.
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