Yesterday, I went through Conflicts (2010), a collection of flamboyantly science fiction stories from NewCon Press. Further Conflicts (2011) is, if anything, even better.
While Conflicts took thirteen different views of war in SF, the sequel is a slightly weirder, much more challenging anthology. There are very few tales of the military SF "status quo" in Further Conflicts. The stories all take exception to traditional notions of heroism and glory.
The collection kicks off with Dan Abnett's "The Wake". Mr. Abnett has examined military SF from every angle, but this low-tempo, low-key piece came as a surprise.
A group of two dozen soldiers await their next assignment at a remote relay station. A popular member of their crew has just been killed in action, so in defiance of all regulations, the team treat themselves to a boozy wake. Things, of course, go wrong. There's a bit of action, but the real twist comes in Mr. Abnett's final lines. The enemy "Scaries" are pretty creepy, but the chilling disdain that the soldiers' distant commanders show for their own men is far more horrifying.
The second story in the collection is from The Kitschies & Arthur C. Clarke Award winner, Lauren Beukes (seriously, we need to reduce that to some sort of acronym. TKACCAW?). "Unaccounted" features Staff Sergeant Chip Holloway, a soldier of the future in a situation outside the bounds of his training manual. Chip was a military liaison to the ittaca, a race of squishy alien entities - now at war with humanity. The military base is now a prison, largely off the books, and Chip's ambivalence (and occasional admiration) for the ittaca is now officially inappropriate.
As the conflict degenerates, Chip retreats into the forms of bureaucracy, making lists, nodding blankly and doing his best to ignore his comrades' descent into barbarism. He tries to hide behind the manual, but the rules and regulations don't cover the harsh realities of war.
"Unaccounted" is simply amazing. Horrible... but amazing. In this instance, Ms. Beukes stretches the language and conventions of military/hard SF to depict the hideous reality of off-the-books contractors, prisoner violation, riots and disorder. This is the asymmetrical warfare of the future, where humanity descends to the occasion by treating the Other as horribly as we do ourselves.
Wish and ye shall receive. When reviewing Gareth Powell's "Fallout" in Conflicts, I said it was the story most deserving of a sequel. I feel oddly prescient. "The New Ships" doesn't (sadly) follow the charmingly ignorant boy-band from "Fallout", rather it serves as a follow-up adventure for their savvy handler, Ann. Ann is now a government agent, working with the shadowy powers that be to avert the next alien attack. "The New Ships" finds Ann bailing her geeky cousin, Max, out of a nasty situation. He's hacked his way into some naughty places, and now the government want him silenced. Ann needs to bring him in before other, rival powers do. "The New Ships" is a great sequel to "Fallout", something that develops Mr. Powell's world in an intelligent and realistic way - unscrupulous governments are doing Whatever It Takes to prepare for interstellar war. My one complaint (somewhat ironically) is that "The New Ships" doesn't quite stand on its own. Poor Ann has to summarise the set-up of "Fallout" before she can move on with her new story. On a positive note, if you needed yet another reason to read both these volumes, Mr. Powell has provided it.
Kim Lakin-Smith is another Pornokitsch favorite. If you've not encountered her work before, "The Harvest" provides an excellent, self-contained introduction to her stylish prose. Ms. Lakin-Smith often cites music as an inspiration for her writing and, if you'll forgive the pun, "The Harvest" is distinctly metal. The story takes place in a blighted Wiltshire school. Clouds of acid rain have ruined the surrounding countryside and poisoned the land (references to chickens with gray legs = eew). For the hell of it, a group of loons have gone around augmenting themselves with semi-radioactive metal and bits of living tissue. They're known as the "Harvesters" and they're big fans of children. They're extra-useful, what with their young organs. Mmmmm.
If the previous stories are about more specific horrors of war, "The Harvest" is about a pervasive atmosphere of terror. Granted, even in the worst scenarios, life goes on - but it isn't a very pleasant life, and it does involve shambling baby-snatching monster-men. "The Harvest" is packed with cinematic, shotgun-swinging action, but that doesn't detract from its primary message: this isn't a story of heroism and triumph, it is a tale of desperate, rodent-like survival in a dismal future.
"My name is Brian Garlick and I carry an easel into battle." Thus begins Tony Ballantyne's "The War Artist", a very clever, tightly-composed story about an imperialist (US? UK?) army and its occupation of Europe. Following hacker attacks, each European country dissolves into anarchy and ruin. The army comes in to restore order, but then never leaves. Garlick is attached as an instrument of propaganda. As he explains, his painting can communicate a range of emotions that mere photography cannot - plus a bit of added context. As Garlick gets stuck in with the fighting in Italy, he becomes charmed by a (slightly ridiculous) Scandinavian soldier and her seditious arguments. Mr. Ballantyne wraps it up with a particularly cunning twist, one easily worthy of a good detective novel. As the artist himself points out, it pays to watch closely.
Stephen Palmer's "Brwyder Am Ryddid" fuses fantasy and science fiction to create a bizarre slipstream short. Initially established as a pseudo-medieval minstrel's tale, the story very quickly spins into something much more complex. Duelling narrators compete to tell the (slightly embellished) story of a lover's quarrel in a Shrewsbury inn and an infestation of poisonous hounds. As the tale grows, the elements of the story grow ever more science-fictional, so what starts as a Chaucerian yarn turns into a cyberpunk wrestling match. The titular "battle for freedom" (if Google Translate has done its job) takes place on several levels. The primary narrator is competing to tell his/her tale as theatrically as possible, the story's antagonist is looking to forge a life outside of slavery and, finally, there's a subtle discussion of Welsh independence. An exceedingly clever (if utterly bizarre) story, and one of the anthology's most interesting.
Colin Harvey's "Occupation" puts humanity on the back foot. When aliens arrive, the human race is delighted, but the Qell and Nzaghi are displeased with the destruction of "near-sentient" species such as whales and chimpanzees. The aliens' disdain and humanity's violent reaction leads to a short and nasty war. "Occupation" takes place in the aftermath, with the world already reduced to near-barbarism by the loss of its organised infrastructure. Hue, a doctor working on a remote island, saves (reluctantly) a Nzaghi outcast from drowning. The two have a rare chance to converse and find, if not a meeting of minds, at least some sort of empathy. "Occupation" is masterfully done, as it contains a novel's worth of story but never feels ponderous.
Eric Brown's "The Soul of the Machine" is also a sequel to his story in Conflicts, "Dissimulation Procedure". Like its predecessor, "Soul" is a space opera romp, with Ed, his engineer Karrie and the (foxy) AI, Ella, trying to evade sinister corporate spider-droids. Again, this isn't a high-concept story. There are laser fights, space chases and attractive robot ladies (I picture them all looking like Winona Ryder in "Alien: Resurrection). Mr. Brown is capable of doing the serious stuff when he wants (see: The Kings of Eternity), but I'm delighted to read his pulp romps as well.
"Extraordinary Rendition", by Steve Longworth, takes place in a Chinese prison... on the moon. Huang, the warden, is leading the interrogation of Li, a valuable political prisoner. It is a battle of wills between masters, as both are the top of their game. The moon makes for an intriguing location, so remote that the two men are the only human beings within hundreds of thousands of miles. That's a great deal of pressure to put on the story's dialogue, and "Rendition" did not always bear up to it. The two characters trade snippets, quotes (odd ones - Chinese operatives swapping Voltaire seemed out of place) and the occasional diatribe back and forth, but I never felt like I was in the presence of two geniuses of espionage and counter-espionage. The most powerful portions of the story were the sections with no dialogue at all, with the two men eyeing one another from a distance, always aware of the ultimate desolation of the prison's location.
Andy Remic is at his wildest in "Yakker Snak", a dark comedy in the suburbs of the future. Poor Anne tries so hard to be normal, but her neighbours have a) noisy sex and b) noisier dogs. Between the oooh-ing and aaah-ing and YAKKING and SNAKKING, Anne's starting to lose her grip on things. Although the twist ending of "Yakker Snak" introduces a slightly unforeseen element, the real joy of the story is Mr. Remic's rapid-fire pace and attention to dystopian detail. Anne's life is awful, as is everyone else's, as evidenced by a hundred little throwaways like Fast-ButtHeal Cream and Save the Whale donations) (the latter is not a typo).
Philip Palmer's "The Legend of Sharrock" is a companion piece to his recent novel, Hell Ship (which will be reviewed here in 2012 - suffice it to say, it is pretty awesome). Sharrock is a man's-man uber-warrior from his tribe of manly-man warrior-people. The tale is from his point of view, as recited from one warrior to another (the audience, Cuzco, is another character in the novel, but that's fairly irrelevant to the short story - oral history it is!). Sharrock crawls from one bloody conflict to another, spreading hatred and violence, showering himself in glory and triumph. He is the very picture of barbaric heroism, which makes the story's final twist all the more poignant. Mr. Palmer is an author I was pleased to read for the first time in 2011, and will be following closely in the future.
I'm a sucker for a good submarine tale and Adam Roberts' "The Ice Submarine", provides all that and more. The story is set in an alternate present where the nuclear submarines of the Pan-Islamic People's Republic prowl the waters (kinda). The oceans, however, are too well monitored by the Western powers, so the ancient Cold War game of cat-and-mouse has now moved underneath the Antarctic ice. Super-heated subs crawl beneath the pole, including the one commanded by Captain Sayyid. Sayyid is a thoughtful man, a failed poet and fairly traumatised widower. Although not keen to fulfill his ultimate duty of launching a nuclear warhead, he's extremely devout and refuses to put his mission at risk. When the submarine, deep in the polar unknown, encounters first a remote science base and then something even more bizarre, Sayyid's faith is put to the test. Another cracking story - one that captures the introspection and the loneliness of the submarine setting.
The final story, Tim Taylor's "Welcome Home, Janissary", is one of the collection's longest. In the far future, humans (natural and augmented) and their alien allies are fighting a war against another alien species while Earth struggles in the grasp of tyranny. Escandala, a slave soldier fights a series of seemingly meaningless battles. She finds it hard to choose a side and is motivated only by loyalty to her youngest son - a son who is rapidly becoming something other to her as his modifications kick in. The story's reliance on hard SF jargon makes it a little cold, but even without understanding the full scope of the interstellar conflict, Mr. Taylor makes Escandala's predicament clear. "Welcome Home" is an excellent conclusion to the anthology, indeed, to the pair of anthologies. Although there is a sprawling and wildly imaginative science fiction setting, the story ultimately takes place on a very personal level.
Further Conflicts is an outstanding collection - an anthology of some of science fiction's most provocative minds, tackling one of literature's oldest topics.
Further Conflicts, from NewCon Press, edited by Ian Whates, is available in print from the NewCon Press site.
By Jared (@pornokitsch) who really enjoyed finding Forbidden Planet's secret shelf of NewCon titles.