Underground Reading: Conflicts, edited by Ian Whates
Thursday, December 29, 2011
Last week, I mentioned that genre literature has a tendency to downplay the horrors of war. If I had to guess, this is probably the twin legacy of a) its roots in medieval epics and b) the modern "kill to level up" gaming mechanic (tabletop and video). Either way, it was a rather flippant statement and has provoked a bit of discussion.
I still stand by this for fantasy. Even in the present wave of low fantasy grittiness there are only a few books that deign to point out that war is actually, you know, kinda bad. (First among those is probably Joe Abercrombie's The Heroes. Per usual, I'm also going to recommend KJ Parker as well, with the Scavenger series.) Kids, killing isn't cool - even when it is the nefarious subhuman Other.
However, when it comes to science fiction, I think I did the genre a disservice. Since the sixties, SF has actually done a fairly remarkable job of depicting the horrors of war and its many fellow horsemen. Two of the best examples are recent ones - Ian Whates' spectacular anthologies: Conflicts and Further Conflicts.
First up, Conflicts.
As Mr. Whates says in his introduction, Conflicts (2010) is "defiantly SF... with a space ship on the front" and everything. Although that's the ostensible limit to the book's rebellion, the selection of stories showcases well-written science fiction's power to encapsulate big ideas in small spaces.
Conflicts does begin with a fairly traditional war story, that is, if anything by Andy Remic could be called traditional. "Psi.Copath" is one of Mr. Remic's Combat K adventures, following a group of hard-shooting, hard-swearing hard men (and women) as they explode things across the universe. There's wise-cracking, general skullduggery and some inventive cursing ("the wobbling man-tits of donut-scoffing police" is a classic). Also, a gun-toting lunatic named "Pippa" which seems like the tabloids' ultimate wish-fulfillment. This isn't a story about the horrors of war, but, in a way, Mr. Remic's gleefully over-the-top encapsulation of the "macho men with guns" military SF ethos provides an excellent foundation for the discussion.
Michael Cobley's "The Marker's Mark" has all the hallmarks of Golden Age SF - silly alien names, warring one-note villains, ill-defined omnipotent technology and a fortune cookie ending. That said, it is also a strong examination of the potency of monopoly and the power of greed. Jamal, our hero, is in the possession of an alien thingummy that can produce anything. He bounces between faction and faction, providing whatever it is that the local despot wants. More often than not, this is some sort of weapon or political tool, and Jamal soon realises that he's created an arms race. Naturally, none of the players want their rivals to have access to Jamal and his talents...
Keith Brooke's "Sussed" follows Chan, a far future coder who works for a notorious crime lord, Geno. At the start of the story, he's fleeing his employer. Chan's been caught in flagrante with his boss' sister and knows he's in serious trouble. The Chan/Geno dynamic is the most interesting part of this sprawling tale. Even as Chan gets further and further away from Earth (and develops many new and interesting problems), his focus is always on his homeland nemesis.
Neal Asher's "The Cuisinart Effect" is a romp equal to the earlier story from Andy Remic. A hard-nosed officer leads a group of soldiers into the distant past in order to foil their enemy's plot to kidnap dinosaurs and use them as weapons of mass destruction. (Wow. The sentences I type sometimes.) The dinosaurs are, of course, awesome. And they provide an excellent backdrop for the story's real conflict: the inhuman "by the book" officer versus the flawed but empathetic soldiers. I'm not familiar with Mr. Asher's other work, but got the impression that this was linked into an existing world. I'm sure I missed a few nuances because of that, but, whatever. Dinosaurs.
Rosanne Rabinowitz's "Harmony in My Head" swiftly brings the reader back to the present day. Set on the morning of 7 July 2005, it features a young, love-struck mathematician. She's pondering the nature of infinity and reminiscing about her past when the bombs start to go off. The speculative element is used lightly in the story and could have been removed entirely. The tale is themed around the idea of possibility - moments passed by, opportunities missed and, ultimately, the anger and frustration of having the infinite potential of the future taken away.
"Our Land", by Chris Beckett, is a powerful, if somewhat raw, story about an alternate England - one divided by political tension and foreign occupation. The English bargain with the Brythons for a limited independence as the country is overwhelmed by roadblocks, barricades and suicide bombers. The story, with its obvious parallels, is a fairly harrowing tale, weakened somewhat by a lackluster framing device and its "well thank god that couldn't really happen here" denouement. Mr. Beckett does an exemplary job bringing to life the daily horrors and indignities of occupation. However, some of the political arguments are, by necessity, reduced to their bare essentials - slightly misleading when it comes to a topic (or metaphor) this inflammatory. Despite its flaws, this is one of the most ambitious and provocative stories in the collection and worth seeking out.
Gareth Powell's "Fallout" is another contemporary tale. This time, Britain has been devastated by an exploding alien craft and the ensuing nuclear meltdown as the ship crashed on top of reactors. The story follows an American boy band and their savvy handler, Ann, as they tour the ruined landscape for publicity and photo ops. They soon run into trouble in the form of a nasty scavenger, looting the ruins in search of a valuable alien weapon. Mr. Powell creates a complex setting without resorting to infodumping, but the plot is slightly weakened by the inexorable march of plot twists. Any one part of "Fallout" (Ann's past, the boy band tour, the scavenger's mission, the big reveal, the fight, the other fight, etc.) could have been expanded into a self-contained story. Personally, I found the introductory pages the most interesting: an American boy-band tours the radioactive corners of Britain, ushered by a mercenary refugee who fled that same area years ago... tempting, isn't it? If any story in the collection begs for a sequel (or expansion), it is "Fallout".
Martin McGrath's "Proper Little Soldiers" follows a young woman and her friends as they prowl a post-invasion landscape, fleeing their alien hunters. Mr. McGrath's succinct prose leaves the horrors of the recent past to the imagination and instead focuses on the current predicament. The aliens hunt by echolocation and the scene where they've pinned down the protagonist is one of the most harrowing in the entire collection. Mr. McGrath concludes on a properly cinematic "we will rise again" sort of mantra, including the mandatory partner note of "...but at what cost?".
Una McCormack's "War Without End" features Mark Shard, an elderly military officer, and former commander of a massive war almost four decades in the past. Shard, furious with his political overseers and worried that his legacy will be rendered meaningless, consents to an interview with an archivist. As he tells his side of the story, the truth begins to out... "War Without End" is an odd throwback of an SF story. With its aging officer and military-political bun-fighting, this seems like military SF based on the Vietnam era. This is no bad thing, but it has an oddly dated feel - perhaps the author's intent. "War Without End" has a slow start and a slightly florid denouement, but the core of the story - Shard's interview - is marvellous. Shard, with all his decrepit arrogance, is a compelling figure.
"Dissimulation Procedure", by Eric Brown, is more of a romp. A vaguely roguish space captain is lured (not unwillingly) into helping a beautiful young woman escape from her family and the drones they've sent after her. There's not a huge amount of substance to the story, but that doesn't prevent it from being a good old-fashioned pulp tale of dodging evil robots in the Scottish Highlands. There's even a proper "tentacle monster menaces half-naked woman" sequence, which seems like an intentional homage to the Astounding covers of yore. Mr. Brown is an exceptional storyteller, and if the story is a bit fluffy, it is also all fun. Another one of the anthology's highlights.
David L. Clements' "The Long Run" is a (very) hard SF tale of the last survivors of the human race, hurtling through the universe in cryogenic sleep. The ship's guardians are abruptly roused in "codespace", the craft's virtual world. The ship is under attack and, worse yet, most of its mission parameters are gone. The code itself is corrupt, meaning that the guardians themselves are unreliable. The story flickers from one virtual reality to another. Not only do each of the guardians have their own way of perceiving the situation, but there's also a neutral "whitespace" and, in the background, actual "meatspace". This is one of the longer stories in the collection, and the space is necessary - just getting one's head around Mr. Clement's prodigious use of jargon takes a half-dozen pages. But once the story gains momentum, the pace is surprisingly brisk - especially for a tale that takes place over millions of years. The only lull is when the enemy does a bit of villainous info-dumping, but even the incongruity of that speech is turned to the story's advantage (monologue as semantic warfare - Warren Ellis would approve!).
Jim Mortimore's "Last Orders" is completely batshit crazy - and easily my favorite story in the anthology. A group of power-suited uber-commandos are drinking in an off-world bar when tragedy strikes. A bar brawl ensues, one that goes spiralling further and further out of control. Mr. Mortimore plays fast and loose with the English language, creating a far-future vernacular appropriate for the drunken, near-omnipotent soldiers of SF. Half broad Rabelaisian comedy, half bleak tragedy, this is the weird fusion of Vonnegut and Heinlein. Two planet-crushing thumbs up.
Finally, Martin Sketchley's "Songbirds" is another ambitious, contemporary tale of alien invasion. The reader follows Kate, the young protagonist, as her world rapidly expands from social media follies to alien gas attacks. This isn't a conventional coming of age tale. The story describes the emotional and physical acclimatisation of someone raised in our protected, comfortable, contemporary world who is suddenly cast out into a science fictional maelstrom. Mr. Sketchley's realistic portrayal of Kate and his stark descriptions of the alien invasion are both excellent.
If "Songbirds" overreaches at the end, it is because it is a little too ambitious for the short format. Mr. Sketchley establishes Kate's world, disrupts it with aliens, inserts a rather macabre twist and then follows that with a second twist into a two-part denouement. It is effectively two stories in one. The first is about the fragile "songbird" and her exposure to war; the second follows up with the physical transformation of Kate and her innocence into something impure.
Ian Whates has repeatedly shown himself to be the UK's finest editor of science fiction and Conflicts is no exception. The theme is undoubtedly broad and many of these stories merely revel in the joy of being unabashedly SF. However, the collection showcases how genre fiction can identify and extrapolate on key ideas; examinations of greed, guilt and madness among them. There's nothing wrong with a spaceship or two, but the best stories in the collection are focused less on the symptoms of the future than the psychology of people living in it.
Next up, Further Conflicts, which is, if anything, even better...
Conflicts, from NewCon Press, is available in print or in an eBook from the publisher's site.