Introductions

I’ve written the introductions to books by Michael G. Coney, Philip K. Dick, Keith Brooke, and James Lovegrove.

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Introduction to I Remember Pallahaxi by Michael G. Coney, published by PS Publishing

I never had the pleasure of meeting Michael G. Coney, and yet I feel that I know the man. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that, way back in ‘85, I happened across his short story “The True Worth of Ruth Villiers” in John Carnell’s New Writings in SF 17, and a few weeks after that “Bartholomew & Son (and the Fish-Girl)” in issue 27 of the same series. The stories made a big impact on me. The former was set in the near future, in a well-realised southern England coastal locale, and featured a first person narrator and a single science fictional idea from which Coney had extrapolated a society changed by that idea. The latter story was set a little further into the future, and featured artists and their creations – emotion mobiles – in a fictional land not a million miles removed from British Columbia, written from the viewpoint of Joe Sagar, the central character of the Peninsula series of stories and novellas. What I liked about both stories, quite apart from Coney’s expert handling of narrative and plot, was that they were principally about people, and about how a few small changes in society had an effect on character. Coney wasn’t so much interested in the science behind the stories, or the mechanics of the technology, but in how the results of science and technology affected individual human beings, and how he could use both new ideas and character to write compelling, event-charged stories full of incident and narrative twists.

A couple of months later I came across the novels Syzygy and The Girl with a Symphony in Her Fingers in a second-hand bookshop, and devoured them within days. From then on I was a devoted Coney addict.

Over the next few years I read and re-read Michael’s novels and all but a handful of his short stories. There were highs and lows in his output: the lows were the novels in which I felt that he was struggling with a setting imposed by the narrative, a setting not his beloved Devon translocated to another planet: The Hero of Downways and Winter’s Children come to mind, competent and entertaining novels as they are, but missing the vital component present in his best work. The highs, fortunately, outnumbered the lows: among his early novels, Syzygy and Brontomek! stand out – the latter won the BSFA award for the best novel of 1976. Both novels are first person narratives set on the colony world of Arcadia, featuring a cast of believable, likeable characters. In the latter, especially, Coney achieved a total synthesis of character and narrative, producing a fast-paced, entertaining novel about people with whom the reader could identify in a story that gripped and constantly surprised. The Girl with a Symphony in Her Fingers brought the Peninsula stories together in a skilful fix-up novel and told the story of slithe farmer Joe Sagar and his interactions with a series of fascinating locals: the spiteful and neurotic ex-3V star Carioca Jones, the bonded slave girl Joanne, the snobbish and bigoted Miss Marjoribanks. In an earlier novel, Mirror Image, the central idea is a race of aliens, the Amorphs, who can take on the appearance of humans; in Charisma, a parallel world love story set in Devon, Coney introduces us to the feisty Susanna, who would make her reappearance in the later Brontomek!.

I felt, through the reading of Coney’s novels and short stories, that I was coming to know the man. Perhaps at the risk of mistakenly identifying the author with his creations, I saw Coney as a compassionate chronicler of human foibles, able to write with equal facility of young love and aged cynicism (he did a fine line in bombastic and bumptious characters in positions of authority); Coney seemed humane, reasonable and humorous.

In the early nineties we began exchanging letters, and a few years later, when we both had e-mail, I suggested collaborating on a short story. I had a couple of ideas, and a magazine editor who was a fan of Michael’s work had expressed an interest in anything we might produce.

Michael got back to me saying he liked the idea in principle, but was unsure how it might work. I suggested I send him a couple of ideas which he could mull over, and then get back to me.

I recall that the first idea I sent him was half-baked. Michael made some radical suggestions, improving the premise of the story and adding ideas of his own. Slowly, over a period of weeks, we developed the outline of the story, then characters and a setting – a coastal outpost on a colony world. Throughout the process I was learning something about the art of story-telling, and about Michael the writer: he was a perfectionist and a consummate craftsman. In one e-mail he told me that what was important to him in the initial stages of a story was not the actual writing of it, the words, but being able to envisage the story’s shape in his head. This resonated with me. One of the delights of reading a Coney story or novel – perhaps on the second reading, having been dragged along helter-skelter through the first reading – is the appreciation of the story’s shape and balance, the way all the parts fit together like a precision-tooled machine. From the collaboration I came to understand how, in a Coney story, clues dropped in the first few pages are picked up and expanded upon later in the tale; how nothing at all is wasted, and how whatever is unnecessary is ruthlessly cut. Michael was a great believer in Chekhov’s dictum that a pistol introduced in the first act should be used by the third. What mattered to Michael was the telling of an entertaining story about people and events in which the reader could believe, using as the premise an idea that could come about only in a science fiction story.

The collaboration also showed me what a thoroughly pleasant man Michael was. More than once he suggested that, as I came up with the original idea, my name should come before his on the by-line. He was full of praise for my ideas, and was characteristically modest about his own talents, having not written much in recent years.

I emerged from the experience of collaborating with Michael with plans and ideas for further joint projects. We batted a few ideas back and forth, but other projects got in the way. I look back and regret the fact.

Our sole collaboration, “The Trees of Terpsichore Three”, was published in Spectrum 8, May 2002. It proved to be the last piece of fiction Michael ever published.

He died, after a short illness, in November 2005.

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I’ve left mentioning Michael’s finest novel until now.

I came across Hello Summer, Goodbye in the early nineties, after reading most of his others. I had inadvertently saved the best till last.

Hello Summer, Goodbye, first published in 1975, tells the story of Drove and Pallahaxi Browneyes on a far-flung alien world. They are not human, but stilk, a humanoid race. In a short prefatory note to the novel, Coney explained: “I have assumed my aliens to be humanoid and, being humanoid, to be subject to human emotions and frailties. I have assumed their civilisation to be at the stage of development approximate to our year 1875…” The planet undergoes long periods of summer, and a gruelling winter lasting some forty years, and is made real by some brilliant world-building: the tidal effect of the grume, at which time the sea water thickens; ice-devils which inhabit tidal pools and have the ability to freeze the water when prey enters the pool; and the lorin, the pacific, furry humanoid co-habitees of the planet, with whom the destiny of the Stilk is mysteriously bound. To quote Coney’s introduction again: “This is a love story, and a war story, and a science-fiction story, and more besides.” It is also Coney’s finest intermeshing of character, incident and event; a sensitive account of growing up and the experience of first love, with one of the finest endings in modern SF.

I Remember Pallahaxi is the sequel to Hello Summer, Goodbye – and for reasons that defy logic has waited until now to find a publisher. It was written years after Hello Summer, Goodbye, and marketed at a time when Michael’s work was not finding the audience it deserved. Why Michael’s writing was never more popular is a question I often ask myself: he wrote satisfying, entertaining stories about real human beings, with excellent plots, great ideas and neat resolutions. What he didn’t write, perhaps, is the reason he failed to make it onto the best-seller list. Michael eschewed sensationalism; his novels were not action-adventure or militaristic, and nor were they filled with gratuitous sex or violence. He didn’t write hard-SF, but quiet novels in which the emotions of his characters were paramount.

I Remember Pallahaxi is set hundreds of years after the events recounted in Hello, and much has changed on the planet. Coney introduces one of his finest ideas: the stilk now have the facility of accessing their ancestors’ memories during periods of ’stardreaming’. This has radically changed their society, dividing men and women into separate communities, for the males have access only to the memories of male forebears, and women to those of the distaff side. This ability has led to a static, changeless society that has no desire, or need, of written records of how things were – custom and tradition are all accessible through stardreaming. It’s a first rate science-fictional idea, and it is also a marvellous device for generating a fascinating story-line. I Remember Pallahaxi is, foremost, a mystery story – a murder mystery on one level, and on a deeper level a mystery about the origins of the stilk and their enigmatic relationship with the docile lorin. It is also – like Hello Summer, Goodbye – many things besides: a love story, a novel of character, a critique of colonialism – for Coney has brought the human race to the stilk’s homeworld, which they exploit…

One of the many delights of the novel is how Coney skilfully combines all the elements of the story – the history and culture of the stilk, their relation with the lorin and the land, the role of stardreaming in everyday affairs, the place of the humans in their world – in a plot that moves from incident to incident, revelation to revelation, towards a dénouement that is both moving and deeply satisfying.

I Remember Pallahaxi never found a publisher during Michael’s lifetime. But, at last, it is now available to the loyal band of Coney devotees, and to new readers alike. If you are among the former, then this novel is that rare fruit, a work almost lost but plucked from oblivion for our enjoyment. If you have never before read Michael Coney, you have many hours of pleasure in store, and I envy you.

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Introduction to The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick, published by Penguin

5514280092_82d665546a_zFor much of his writing life Philip K. Dick was considered by a coterie of devoted readers, writers and critics as an unrecognised genius, a visionary whose manic novels of fractured realities presented a future that, like all good science fiction, was less prescriptive of what was to come than descriptive of the present. He was a teller of cautionary tales, a pessimist – but a pessimist with an abiding belief in the humanity of the individual – whose work went against the grain of optimistic American SF at the time. He was appreciated in Europe but largely neglected in his own country, where his books were published for the most part as paperback originals, earning minimal advances. In 1966, British SF writer John Brunner hailed Dick as “The most consistently brilliant SF writer in the world”, while Polish author Stanislaw Lem described him as “A visionary among charlatans.”

In a career spanning thirty years, Dick produced thirty-five science fiction novels and more than a hundred short stories. Quite apart from his prolific output of SF, he wrote a dozen mainstream novels, only one of which sold in his lifetime. He was writing SF during a period when the genre was undergoing a slow but profound transformation. In America in the fifties, science fiction had still to throw off its lowly pulp origins (in Britain and Europe, SF could boast a loftier lineage, citing Wells, Huxley, Stapledon and Verne as its forebears). US magazines were full of badly-written space adventures featuring mad scientists and ravaging alien monsters, clumsy stories of futuristic technology with little concern for the finer points of style or characterisation. Titles such as Super-Science Fiction and Thrilling Wonder Stories paid a cent a word to hacks cashing in on the pulp SF boom (in 1953 there were more than thirty genre magazines published every month). There was, however, a core of talented writers with an unshakeable belief in the visionary function of the SF field: the fifties and early sixties saw the emergence of authors who would bring an increased literary sophistication, an appreciation of psychological depth, and a heightened social awareness to the genre. Dick was one of the very best of these writers – but eventual recognition was to prove hard-won and long delayed.

Philip Kindred Dick, born in Chicago in 1928, was a maverick, a self-taught anti-establishment intellectual with an appetite for knowledge and an intimidating ability to absorb information. He had a thorough grounding in philosophy, psychology and religion. He was studying Jung before he was fashionable, along with the thinkers of the German Enlightenment, Gnosticism, and Eastern religions; and he had, also, a thorough knowledge and love of science fiction. In the Berkeley Beat milieu of which he was a part in the forties and fifties – he briefly attended University of California at Berkeley, majoring in philosophy, before dropping out without graduating – Dick combined writing mainstream novels and science fiction, often suffering the ridicule of acquaintances for the latter pursuit. He published his first science fiction short story in 1952, and wrote eight SF novels, around a dozen mainstream novels, and over eighty SF stories in the fifties. He typed 120 words a minute and claimed that he plotted as he wrote.

Dick’s mainstream novels failed to find a publisher, a state of affairs that grieved the young writer who craved recognition from his intellectual peers. His early short stories sold to a variety of genre magazines, and his SF novels were published by Ace Double paperbacks with two short novels in a single volume, each one upside-down in relation to the other. These books boasted not one lurid cover but two, featuring the standard fare of rocket-ships, aliens, and space-suited heroes.

At first glance, Dick’s early novels conformed to type: he used the popular leitmotifs of SF – alien worlds, precognition, ray-guns – but employed them to his own agenda. While much SF of the time extrapolated from the hard sciences, Dick used SF to explore his obsession with metaphysics, the nature of perceived reality, good and evil, and the abuse of power. He was obsessed with the idea that the universe was only apparently real, an illusion behind which the truth might dwell. Again and again in his work, we find that reality as perceived by both reader and protagonist is a hoax, a shadow play conceived by malign forces. Later novels such as Martian Time-Slip (1964), Ubik (1969), and Valis (1981) explore this theme exhaustively. Another of his concerns was what constitutes a true human being, as opposed to a fake – a question he explored in the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), among others.

While investigating such major themes, Dick was populating his novels with a repertoire of fully-realised characters drawn from real life, composites of people he knew and versions of himself. He wrote about big ideas in his fiction, but never lost sight of the fact that science fiction was about the effect of events on individuals. One of the many strengths of his work is the empathy with which he wrote about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

There can be few writers, especially within the SF field, who drew so readily upon the events of their own lives. To a great degree, his art reflected his life – and it was an eventful, troubled and chaotic life.

Dick and his mother moved from Chicago to California when he was four years old and he was to live there (except for three years in Washington D.C. from the age of six) for the rest of his life. His family relationships were difficult. Dick believed that his mother had neglected his twin sister, a girl named Jane who had died five weeks after her birth. He was deeply affected by his twin’s absence and blamed his mother for her death. His father had deserted the family when Dick was four – this was another major factor in his complex and troubled psychological make-up. Throughout his life he suffered anxiety attacks and periods of being unable to function socially; he was agoraphobic and had difficulty eating in public. During the sixties, following the failure of his third marriage, he became dependent on amphetamines and prescription drugs. He was paranoid (convinced at times that he was being watched by the FBI and CIA), and was crippled by frequent bouts of debilitating depression which culminated, on more than one occasion, in attempts to take his own life.

And yet, during the course of five failed marriages, psychiatric therapy and drug dependency, he continued to write some of the most strikingly original science fiction novels of the sixties and seventies.

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In 1961, after a two year period in which he wrote three mainstream novels (which failed to sell) Dick returned to science fiction with what many critics regard as his finest novel, The Man in the High Castle.

Less frenzied in tone than much of his SF both before and after, and less surreal, the novel employs the realistic voice of his then unpublished mainstream novels. Set in contemporary America (circa 1962), The Man in the High Castle has none of the trappings of his SF to that point: no air-cars or rocket-ships, talking gadgets or telepaths. Compared to his earlier SF, it is measured and sophisticated. It was Dick’s first novel to be accepted by a literary publisher, Putnam’s, and received the Hugo award for the best SF novel of 1962.

In the novel, the Axis powers have won the Second World War. America is divided into three states, the eastern third ruled by Germany, an autonomous central Rocky Mountain State which acts as a demilitarised buffer zone, and the Pacific Seaboard America, governed by the Japanese.

The world is divided between these two super-powers, with Japan governing Asia and Germany ruling Europe and Africa. Dick portrays Japanese rule as comparatively benign: Nazi Germany is the true evil. Early in the novel we learn, in a chilling aside, that Germany has already applied the final solution to the inhabitants of Africa. Hitler is insane, and incarcerated in a psychiatric institution somewhere in the homeland. The health of the Chancellor, Martin Bormann, is failing as the novel opens and a power struggle between hard-line Nazis including Göring, Goebbels, and Heydrich, is under way. The political in-fighting is for the most part played out in the wings, leaving the stage free for the common men and women that Dick – unlike many science fiction writers of the time – relied on again and again in his novels and stories.

The evil of the Nazi regime is only ever referred to in the early narrative, never overtly presented. Instead, Dick is more subtle in his depiction of the effect of totalitarianism on the average citizen. In chapter 1, Frank Frink considers leaving the Japanese-governed western states; he rules out the Rocky Mountain States, and then: “What about the South? His body recoiled. Ugh. Not that. As a white man he would have plenty of place, in fact more than he had here in P.S.A. But… he did not want that kind of place.”

In chapter 3, Baynes, flying to San Francisco from Europe, falls into conversation with a young German artist named Lotze, and through the artist’s anti-Semitism and casual assumption of cultural superiority we are granted an insight into the insidious nature of bigotry. Likewise we observe, in the character of small-time entrepreneur Robert Childan, who sells fake antiques to Japanese fascinated with Americana, an admiration of the Nazi cause. In chapter 2: “After all, they had barely managed to win the war, […] while at home they had passed edicts which… well, at least the idea was good. And after all, they had been successful with the Jews and Gypsies and bible students. And the Slavs had been rolled back two thousand years’ worth, to their heartland in Asia. Out of Europe entirely, to everyone’s relief.” In a wonderfully ironic touch, Dick has Childan’s speech patterns and interior dialogue unconsciously imitating those of the Japanese he both despises and admires.

Later in the novel, increasingly, we come to understand the extent of the Nazi evil. Again, though, Dick refrains from crudely showing us, via direct action, the terror of Nazi rule. Instead, more subtly, he presents the horror of the regime through the musings and reflections of his characters. The expert use of interior monologue, a technique Dick employs again and again in his novels, allows the reader to inhabit the psyches of individuals driven to contemplate their powerlessness in light of the ultimate rule of the Third Reich.

And yet, as Dick shows us, it is a situation not without hope.

The Japanese occupation of the Western states has brought about the use of the I Ching, the ancient Chinese book of divination. In opposition to Nazi ideology, Dick posits the philosophy of Tao, which offers a means of examining the universe through the principals of inter-connectedness – or Jungian synchronicity – at odds with Western ideas of a universe that functions on the mechanistic basis of cause and effect. In his use of Tao, Dick suggests that the world presented in The Man in the High Castle is but an illusion, that other, better worlds might exist.

The novel’s two main characters consult the I Ching. Juliana Frink works as a Judo instructor in Colorado in the Rocky Mountain buffer state. She is in limbo after separating from Frank, her husband. She meets Joe Cinnadella in a diner and finds herself attracted despite herself to the fascist war hero. In many ways Juliana is the novel’s most passive character; she consults the I Ching less through a spiritual motivation than a need of direction – and yet through Juliana and her actions we are offered a glimpse of the truth that is the crux of the novel. In the portrayal of her uncertainty, her dependence and indecision, Dick achieves one of his most sympathetic and fully-realised characters. Chapter 13, describing her arrival in Denver with Cinnadella, her growing fear as she discerns his true intentions, maintains a suspense which culminates in an horrific, though underplayed, confrontation between the two. Thus freed, she is able to continue to her rendezvous with the Man in the High Castle.

Nobusuke Tagomi, the head of the Japanese Imperial Trade Mission in San Francisco, is presented as the book’s spiritual heart, an embodiment of the wisdom and humanity of Tao. Used as the middle-man in a meeting between German agent Baynes and a high-up representative of his own government, Tagomi comes to face a dilemma in which even the ruling force of his life, the I Ching, cannot aid him.

The novel builds slowly, following the fortunes of Tagomi, Juliana, agent Baynes, and Frank Frink, Juliana’s estranged husband, who is sacked from his job manufacturing fake American artefacts and begins his own business creating original jewellery. They are, with the exception of agent Baynes, regular, small-time citizens whose actions within the framework of the story will effect the lives of each other. They are, like everything in life – as the philosophy of Tao makes clear – inter-connected.

The terror of implicit evil, the claustrophobic sense of being imprisoned in a world seemingly without hope, accretes inexorably. Individuals, with whom for the most part we have come to empathise, find themselves trapped in circumstances beyond their control. Dick has set the stage in a sub-genre of science fiction little explored at the time he wrote the novel, that of the Alternative World. What if the allies had lost the war? How might the march of titanic circumstance effect the ordinary citizen? In Dick’s hands, however, it is a what if scenario with a twist.

The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is the novel within the novel, a work of science fiction by Hawthorn Abendsen detailing an alternative world in which the allies won the Second World War. The book is banned by the Japanese and German authorities, but openly on sale in the Rocky Mountain States, where Abendsen resides – supposedly in the fortified High Castle of the title.

Juliana Frink becomes obsessed with the vision of this other, better world. Other characters refer to Grasshopper throughout the novel: the reader gains the gradual impression that Abendsen, absent until the very last chapter, is in some way a visionary whose insight might prove revelatory. However, the meeting between Juliana Frink and Hawthorn Abendsen in the last chapter is at once a disappointment for Juliana, and at the same time a moment of conceptual breakthrough. She makes a discovery that changes her perception of reality – always a dominant theme in Dick’s work – as she learns how Grasshopper came to be written.

There are no neat resolutions in The Man in the High Castle. In all his fiction, as in his philosophical investigations, Dick abhorred the easy answer. Just as we cannot be sure of the fate of individual characters, we are left wondering at the fate of the world. As with all great literature, The Man in the High Castle grants us an insight into the minds of real, fully-developed characters moulded by circumstance; like all great SF, it gives us a what if glimpse of another world, a reality we are invited to compare with our own.

Philip K. Dick died in March 1982, at the age of fifty-three.

The same year saw the release of the film Blade Runner, based on his novel Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep? The film spurred world-wide interest in his work, leading to the re-publication of his science fiction titles and the publication of his mainstream novels. Under-appreciated during his lifetime, the works of Philip K. Dick have at last achieved both the academic and popular attention they deserve.

The Man in the High Castle, in its depiction of little people living small lives with honour and confusion – and in its examination of the conflicting ideas of totalitarianism and Eastern philosophy – is perhaps Dick’s finest book, and one of the very best science fiction novels ever published.

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Suggested further reading:

Martian Time-Slip, Philip K. Dick

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Philip K. Dick

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K. Dick

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, Philip K. Dick

A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick, Andrew M. Butler, Pocket Essentials, 2000.

To the High Castle, Philip K. Dick: A Life, Greg Rickman, The Valentine Press, 1989

Mind in Motion: The Fiction of Philip K. Dick, Patricia S. Warrick, Southern Illinois University Press, 1987

Only Apparently Real, Paul Williams, Arbor House, 1986

The Search for Philip K. Dick by Anne R. Dick, Tachyon, 2010

I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Inside the Mind of Philip K. Dick, Emmanuel Carrère, Bloomsbury, 2005

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Introduction to Head Shots by Keith Brooke, published by Cosmos Books

It is a paradox that while we live in an age of increased communication, an age when there has never before been such opportunity to access and disseminate information – the revolution of the home computer making each one of us a potential desk-top publisher, and the Internet providing a similar means of broadcasting ideas – the traditionally conservative publishing industry in general fights shy of innovation and experiment. Nowhere is this more true than in the field of Science Fiction and Fantasy. In a genre which prides itself on pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge, where innovation in form and content should be a given, we find that the bulk of published material conforms to the safe criteria of the tried and tested: media tie-in novelisations, series novels, huge sub-Tolkien fantasy trilogies… Writers, reluctant to experiment, resort to formula, producing safe material usually at novel length (because short story collections don’t sell, do they?) for a readership that craves more of the same.

All of which is preparatory to saying that the strengths of the writer Keith Brooke, whose best work is in the arena of short fiction, are the very attributes that modern SF publishing chooses to ignore. Brooke has an enviable talent for ringing the changes. One of the remarkable things about this collection is that the author manages to combine a consistency of vision and theme in stories which vary tremendously in setting and style, form and content.

Keith Brooke’s first professional sale (to the British SF magazine Interzone, in 1989) was followed by other distinctive stories in a range of magazines and anthologies. In a little over ten years he has published over sixty stories in markets such as Other EdensAboriginal SFTomorrow SF, and Skeleton Crew. His first novel, Keepers of the Peace, was published by Victor Gollancz in 1990, followed by Expatria (1991), and Expatria Incorporated (1992). His mainstream/fantasy novel Lord of Stone, is available online at: http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/kbrooke/stone His first collection of short stories, Parallax View, written with myself, contains all our collaborations to date, and is to be published in September 2000 by the Sarob Press.

The process of collaborating with Keith Brooke has illustrated to me his strengths as a writer of science fiction: quite apart from the diversity of his visions, he shares with the best writers in the field an ability to extrapolate convincingly from scientific trends, building believable future scenarios grounded on a firm bedrock of scientific and technological understanding, without losing sight of the fact that human beings, their problems and dilemmas, are at the very heart of good story-telling.

Among the stories collected here, “Queen of the Burn Plain” combines a fascinating exposition of vulcanology, a scientific puzzle, and interesting human motivations in a traditional extraterrestrial adventure. “Hotrider”, set on Io, is a headlong first person narrative describing the future entertainment medium of hotriding and graphic descriptions of conditions on the Jovian moon. “Queen Bee” the third off-Earth story in the collection, utilises the author’s thorough understanding of the biological sciences to present a satisfying ‘character-in -search-of…’ story on the wildly fecund planet of Rhapsody.

As well as being able to write vivid and believable stories set on far-flung planets, Brooke has the rare talent of being able to use the backdrop of a near-future England for many of his stories. (I’m digressing – but British settings are under-used in SF when it is much easier, and professionally safer, to utilise the universally accepted default American locale. Brooke is in a select company of writers who write well of a near-future Britain: Peter F. Hamilton, Simon Ings, and Justina Robson spring to mind.) Five stories fall into this category: “The Greatest Game of All” features an insanely jealous central character in search of love, who uses position and power to gain it, with ironical results. “Easy Never Pays” is a fast-paced thriller that makes good use of a richly detailed future Cheltenham in a story of corporate intrigue and genetic manipulation. In “Missing Time” we visit the drear coast of Essex (Brooke’s birthplace and early stamping-ground) in a dark and pessimistic glimpse of an all-too-possible future. “Head Shots” is set in London, and is a convincing portrayal of how the sensation-hungry news media might employ telepathy in the gathering of news stories. “.zipped” is a condensed post-cyber-punk tale of shattered and illusory memories, a techno-horror story set in a near-future London and Amsterdam. A fifth story, “Witness”, is set in a far future England, and Brooke explores the tortured consequences of a society in which the human form, the very human psyche, is changed by the science of genetic manipulation.

Which brings me to the group of stories collected here which are almost impossible to categorise. I suppose an easy definition of these tales might be horror or fantasy, and while undoubtedly stories like “Passion Play”, “Skin”, and “Resting Place” contain elements of horror and the fantastic, they are infused too with a subtle, disturbing sense of unease which defies easy analysis. “Passion Play” features characters who just might be post-human, in what might be a post-apocalyptic setting: the horrific consequences of a bizarre courtship rite necessary for the survival of the species. “Skin” examines loneliness and alienation in a manner you will never have come across before, while “Resting Place” is a folk-tale of mythical revenge in a beautifully-realised Himalayan setting. “Segue” shares this setting, though the story is almost mainstream: an uneasy insight into the loss of identity in an alien landscape.

I have left the best story, in my opinion, until last. I have read “Beside the Sea” perhaps four or five times since its original publication in the short-lived British SF magazine Beyond. It is a magical fantasy, a parable in the form of a rite-of-passage story, both frightening and bizarre, about the fear of change: it’s a tirade against conformity at once unsettling and, in its moving last paragraph, beautifully optimistic. It’s a story I come back to again and again, and one which I wish I had written myself – and there can be no greater recommendation than that.

In an age when SF publishing is tending towards the safe and the formulaic, it’s reassuring to know that the Wildside Press are producing books by writers as individual and innovative as Keith Brooke, and I hope that Head Shots provides the reader with as much entertainment and enjoyment as these stories have given me over the years.

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Gig, two novellas by James Lovegrove, published by PS Publishing

Introduction to  Kim

Aficionados of the work of James Lovegrove have come to expect the unexpected. No two of his books are alike: The Hope was a fantastical fable set aboard a vast ocean-going liner; Escardy Gap, written with Peter Crowther, a more traditional horror novel in the manner of King; Days, a dystopian take on rampant consumerism; Foreigners was Lovegrove writing futuristic science fiction, with aliens, but done with idiosyncratic panache; Untied Kingdom, a British apocalypse tale in the tradition of Wyndham and Christopher, and a satire on leadership and its absence. What these disparate novels have in common, though, is a thoroughgoing concern about the human condition allied to a rigorous, scalpel-sharp prose style and a caustic observation of contemporary trends.

The book you hold in your hands is no exception. Once again Lovegrove rings the changes.

Gig is a novel presented as two novellas: an odd way of telling a story, you might think. And yet, upon finishing the novellas, the reader becomes aware that there was really never any other way of accomplishing the bicameral parable that is the story of Kim/Mik. Gig had to be told as two novellas. As a single novel, with characters and chapters interleaved, the palindromic playfulness would have been missing, and the subtle, singularly distinctive atmosphere created in each story lost or diluted. And it made sense to publish them in the old Ace Double back-to-back format, too – though anyone hoping for the clichéd Ace starship-and-alien derring-do will be disappointed. Lovegrove is a more subtle wordsmith than that. Ever the story-teller, he combines a sense of rarefied unease with a mystery that reverberates through time, even though the story takes place over the course of a single day.

One of the many delights of Kim, as we watch the eponymous anti-heroine pass through an almost predestined picaresque, in the brilliantly portrayed dystopia of Rotor City with its vanished past and vanquished hope, is Lovegrove’s skill and humanity in portraying the obsessive behaviour of Kim Reid. She is victim not only of a stultifying and disenfranchised society, but of forces that exert their influence from within her tortured psyche and from without (one of the many polarisations in this mirror-image of a book). Kim, for all her self-realised evil, is a sympathetic character, adrift in a disaffected, run-down society, with only her singular quest driving her on towards possible salvation, or destruction.

The bleakness of the vision is not without humour, however. The citizens of Rotor City cling to the past, and especially to music, and in a satirical dig at our weakness for nostalgia Lovegrove hilariously portrays a running battle between two rival gangs of Beatle groupies. Contrast this with the quietly understated horror in the shooting of Lime in chapter seven.

Gig is as much a comment on the nature of our materialistic society as it is on the power of delusion and cult-worship. The rock-band God Dog is a product of Rotor City – the one vital commodity it has produced since its once-thriving aero-industry was wound down. In Kim’s identification with God Dog, and its Messiah-like leader Mik Dyer, Lovegrove effectively portrays a binary division of haves and have-nots – yet another reflection, a social palindrome to mirror the dozens of textual palindromes gleefully scattered throughout the novellas.

In the denouement of Kim, Lovegrove answers many questions but, with the skill we’ve come to expect from this writer, leaves many more conundrums to be pondered.

Sator. Arepo. Tenet. Opera. Rotas.

Read on…

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Introduction to Mik

In Gig James Lovegrove has created not only a pair of novellas that will stand proudly alongside the many volumes about rock-stars and the music business, but a convincing portrait of an ordinary individual elevated to extraordinary, one could say almost messianic/demonic, heights… or even depths.

Mik is channelled through the viewpoint of Dave Noon, but its focus is Mik Dyer, leader of the rock band Dog God. Dave is Mik’s life-long friend, a man of little talent other than his unswerving devotion to the rock-star. While Dave is pragmatic and literal-minded, Mik is enigmatic, aloof, the victim of a sadistically brutal alcoholic father. The friendship between Mik and Dave, their dependence upon each other for different reasons, is one of the pivotal delights of Gig. To have portrayed Mik without Dave would have been to portray a mysterious figure divorced from the real world. In presenting Mik through Dave’s eyes, Lovegrove shows a man whose thoughts and actions are a response to past experience – and manages at the same time to generate reader sympathy without sentimentality. Mik Dyer might be an adulated and mega-rich rock-star, but he is also a man psychologically shaped by the past: he is real. We believe in him because we know where he comes from, and the creation of this belief is vital in sustaining reader-credulity in the light of the story’s riveting climax.

It is to Lovegrove’s credit that he has managed to people

the novella with not just two fully-rounded, fleshed-out characters, but an entire lesser cast of well-realised dramatis personae. The band’s manager, Melba Kramer, is a tough, avaricious, frighteningly cynical business-woman, but is in no way a stereotype. Ronno Connor is a sleazy DJ whose antipathy to Mik Dyer and the band during a radio interview is if anything made more cynical by his casually friendly off-air asides. The other members of Dog God come over as real people, too, in their response to the day-to-day ennui that is a rock-star’s lot, and in their strained relations with the leader of their band. Convincing, too, is Lovegrove’s portrayal of the music business – the industry and the music-making. He knows his stuff, and his descriptions of the band’s psycho-dynamic is as utterly realistic as his rendering of their music, always a difficult feat for a writer to accomplish successfully.

But the hub of the novella is the eponymous Mik, and his apotheosis. The dawning awareness that all is not as it appears is testimony to Lovegrove’s skill in presenting just enough detail to keep the reader wondering how much control Mik Dyer exerts over his own destiny. For much of his life, Mik was a victim; quite how much he has turned the tables and is now in control only becomes apparent in a carefully orchestrated – in both senses of the word – finale.

And the palindromes… aha, the palindromes. They work on many levels, in many ways. One of the incidental delights of Gig is discovering how many of the tricky little devils exist within the book, which is itself a palindrome.

James Lovegrove is a writer from who we should expect the unexpected, and in Gig he has delivered a unique delight.

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