edited by Peter Crowther
Published by Gollancz
320 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Four by Four
Reviewed by Claude Lalumière
Halfway in length between the short story and the novel, the novella is well positioned to combine tight focus with expansive scope. This combination suits science fiction especially well. Indeed, SF has been enriched by, and in some ways built upon, its novellas. Roger Zelazny rose to prominence on the strength of his classic novellas "....And Call Me Conrad" and "He Who Shapes." Philip José Farmer's most famous series grew out of "Riverworld." Much of James Tiptree Jr's best work was done at novella length, for example "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" and the proto-cyberpunk "The Girl Who Was Plugged In." Similarly, SF's most prolific writer, Robert Silverberg, outdoes his own excellent novels and stories with his impressive catalog of novellas, including, among many others, "Born With the Dead," "Sailing to Byzantium," and "Going." Many of the most fondly remembered classics of the pulp era, such as C.L. Moore's "In Another Country," were novellas. And, most notably, the tale that arguably launched modern SF was a novella: "The Time Machine," by H.G.Wells.
Yet, in the current novel-dominated fiction market, no form has a rougher time than the novella. Too long for most magazines and anthologies, too short to be economically viable published singly, it is too often relegated to limbo. And so, when I saw Peter Crowther's Futures, a handsome anthology of new novellas by four of the UK's most prominent science fiction writers, I was irresistibly drawn to it. One note: these novellas have appeared once before. In 2000, each was singly published in a limited edition for collectors. This is the first time they are available to the general public.
The four SF writers gathered here -- Stephen Baxter, Peter Hamilton, Paul McAuley, Ian McDonald -- may all be British, but the similarity ends there. Each has his own distinctive voice, each presents a different style of SF. Each, also, writes in a context, well aware of the writers that have come before. In his introduction, Crowther emphasizes this aspect. The tension between the respect of tradition and the search for new ideas, new approaches, new metaphors fuels this anthology. As Crowther lists it, these four tales incorporate a host of sub-genres: "Space Opera, Future Civilizations, Alien Invasions, Scientific Advancement, Political Chicanery, Human Relationship and even Police Procedural -- they're all here." And so they are, both like and unlike what they have been before.
Futures is, democratically, sequenced in alphabetical order by author. So first up is Stephen Baxter's "Reality Dust." Baxter is well known for his Nivenesque stories of adventure and hard science, which have never managed to capture my imagination. Considerably more exciting to my mind are tales such as "Columbiad" and The Time Ships, in which he playfully evokes the scientific romances of the 19th century. "Reality Dust" (although it is set in the same universe as many of his Nivenesque tales) is a departure from both of these styles; sadly, not a successful one. It combines cosmic transcendence à la Arthur C. Clarke and Olaf Stapledon with mythological imagery à la Zelazny, but comes off as pretentious and dull rather than evocative and thrilling. Its attempts at poetic narration alternate clumsily with stiff scientific exposition. Nevertheless, it does achieve a peculiar voice that may appeal to some.
"Watching Trees Grow" by Peter Hamilton is a radically different affair. It's a murder mystery that spans more than two centuries, set in a fascinatingly imagined alternate history. I'm loath to give away too many details, because virtually every paragraph delights by combining revelations that inspire an ever-growing sense of wonder with hints that tease and stimulate the reader's imagination. The prose style is very workmanlike and that voice fits the narrator -- an uncommonly patient investigator -- perfectly. Besides, the story and its setting, a world where the Roman Empire never collapsed and where science progressed at an altogether different pace, are so exciting that they need no artifice. "Watching Trees Grow" is an old fashioned "gosh, wow!" kind of tale informed by contemporary concerns. It's a tour-de-force of mystery, scientific speculation, historical extrapolation and social criticism.
Paul McAuley is a much-praised and award-winning author. I have repeatedly tried, in vain, to appreciate his fiction. "Making History," I'm sure, will garner as much favorable attention as his other work, and, once again, I will be baffled as to why. This is a tale of political manipulation and treachery set on an alien world. I found the characters uninteresting, the plot tedious and the prose rambling. I must be missing something. Crowther compares this novella to Asimov's Foundation series. Although I must plead guilty to being no admirer of Foundation, I failed to see the similarities.
The book ends with the profoundly moving "Tendeléo's Story," by SF's bricoleur supreme, Ian McDonald. McDonald specializes in appropriating styles and genres and creatively recombining them. For example, his first novel, Destination Road, combined Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude with Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, spicing the results with Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun and Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. This time, McDonald recontextualizes 1960s Ballardian disaster novels (The Drowned Word, The Crystal World, etc.) within postcolonial discourse and evokes Wells' The War of the Worlds as if rewritten by Neal Stephenson and Octavia Butler. "Tendeléo's Story" is set within the author's Chaga series, in which Earth is slowly being transformed at the molecular level by an invading lifeform or substance. The novel charts the Kenyan Tendeléo's life from childhood to young womanhood, amidst the changes brought upon by the Chaga invasion and the conflicts created by Western fear and interference. It's a gorgeous and harrowing work, a magnificent capstone for this anthology.
One of Crowther's stated goals with Futures is to showcase the diversity of contemporary British science fiction. The four novellas here certainly do that: four different approaches to SF, four different visions of the future, four distinctive voices.
The book itself is a lovingly crafted object. The jacket is both sober and attractive. The square format is striking and comfortable both to hold and to read. The whole package is a fine example of the book as objet d'art. It invites exploration, wants to be held, to have its pages turned. And, even if I found two of its four tales not to my taste, not only were the other two exceptionally rewarding but the book as a whole was a pleasure to discover and experience. | June 2001
Claude Lalumière is a January Magazine contributing editor and the comics columnist for Black Gate. He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.