Over the course of the next year or two I’ll be posting infrequent reviews of the short stories of one of my favourite science fiction writers, Michael G. Coney. If my records are correct, he published sixty two stories in his lifetime: some remain unpublished, and it would be nice to see them in print one day. I’ve read most of his output in the short form, and hope to read all of them in the next couple of years or so.
Coney became a fine short story writer, just as he became a fine novelist after a few early, entertaining books.
Michael G. Coney’s Short Stories 1
“Ultimatumbra” (Vector 52, Winter/Spring, 1969.)
Coney’s first story appeared in a special fiction issue of Vector, the journal of the British Science Fiction Association, along with stories by Robert P. Holdstock, J.G. Chapman, and George Gibson. I suspect that Vector was not a paying market, so “Ultimatumbra” cannot be counted as his first professional ‘sale’.
It’s a slight story, and quite unlike the kind of plotted, character-driven narratives we’ve come to expect from Coney. It’s a first-person account, in the form of journal entries, of a sixteen year-old’s dawning awareness of his world and the world Outside. The unnamed narrator has lived for fifteen years in the “square room. Square walls, square ceiling. A hollow box, a cube of nothing among eternal, infinite solidity.” He lives with his mother who ventures outside every day to gather sticks for the fire, and they eat from cans stored in a big cupboard. He’s fascinated by his own shadow and muses on the world of the room he knows, and the unknown world Outside. Come the day he turns sixteen, and his mother allows him out. What he describes confirms the reader’s assumption that this is a post-apocalyptic scenario: “And other shadows on the walls, thrown by nothing I can see, always there unmoving, photographed for eternity.”
The story closes when he returns inside with his mother, and mistakes his own shadow for that of a man trying to get into his room.
“Ultimatumbra” is a squib, interesting only as it marks Coney’s first appearance in print.
Michael G. Coney’s Short Stories 2
“Symbiote” (New Writings in SF 15, edited by John Carnell, first published by Dobson Books, 1969.)
Coney’s second published story, and very likely his first professional sale, “Symbiote” is set in a future when humankind has devolved to little more than a ‘village idiot’, thanks to the Chinto. The aliens were first introduced to Earth as pets: “As the years went by, the Chinto became more popular, less of a status symbol, more of a universal pet. They sat on the shoulders of their owners; it was convenient. Before long everyone had one.” And, over time, the human race has become reliant on the intelligence of the Chinto, while the aliens – their limbs atrophied – rely on humans for transportation. The Chinto have become the benign dictators of their pack-horse humans, even choosing who individual humans may mate with.
The actual story is slight: Joe is travelling through rural Devon with his Chinto, Tu; he recalls a girl he once met, though he can’t recall when the meeting occurred. He comes to a village wrecked in a storm, and along with a group of humans helps to clear away the debris. But first they set their Chintos down on a raised slab of concrete, from which the aliens direct the operation. However, all the aliens are washed away in the storm, and Joe and the other humans are bereft. He wanders, disconsolate, until he happens across a girl whose Chinto has been stolen by one of the villagers. It is the girl he met earlier, who tells him, “They [the Chintos] said I was brighter than most people. My IQ is 118.” (Joe’s is 86.) “They said I represented a real hope for humanity. They felt very bad about the way people had lost their brains. In a way, they felt responsible.”
The story closes with the girl’s promise that tomorrow she will take him fishing, an independent action that suggests a new start for the human race.
“Symbiote”, while skimpy on actual story, and a little heavy-handed in its imparting of information, is nevertheless an intriguing and original glimpse into the far-future, and a nice take on the theme of (albeit inadvertent) alien invasion. It’s early Coney, and over-written (it should really begin with paragraph four, and could be trimmed of some exposition). It’s also short on what would become Coney’s strengths: character interaction and a complex plot. For all that, it’s an enjoyable read.