by Tania Hershman
Chris Beckett's award-winning short
story collection is bursting with imagination, enough to fill ten
books, and once you read it, you may never be content to read anything
"realist" again. For the worlds of Beckett's stories are not the ones we
are familiar with, although they are never too far removed. The
characters are, well, to say "human" would be limiting, but I mean it
in the sense that we can identify with them, with their needs and
desires, if not with the exact circumstances in which they find
themselves. Isn't that the beauty of good
fiction? You may be
reading about a place you have never been, a situation you have never
been in, but you feel what the characters feel, you go through it with
them, and you are changed as a result of having read it. Well, this is
as true for Beckett's
fiction, although we may be in the future or on a different planet
rather than in Alaska or in the head of someone off the opposite sex.
These rich and compelling stories deal with issues that concern us all:
love, war, identity, desire, loss, the nature of existence
Of these fourteen stories, written
between 1991 and 2006 and almost all published first in British science
fiction and fantasty magazine Interzone
(see our blog for an interview with Chris
his 20-year relationship with Interzone),
there are three pairs of stories that feature the
same characters. One of these pairs of stories, The Perimeter and Picadilly Circus, I
found extraordinarily moving. In it, Beckett has painted our
world in the near future when we realise that our planet cannot sustain
all this human life. The majority of the population has chosen for
their brains to sit in a vat while they live in a "consensual world"
created by The Field and superimposed on the "physical world". In this
consensual world, each person is given a virtual body, and the
resolution of the image (high-res or low-res) depends on how much they
are willing to pay:
"Lemmy and his friends were
Dotlanders. They were low-res enough to have visible pixels and they
only had 128 colours apiece, except for James that is, whose parents
had middle-class aspirations and had recently upgraded to 256. They
were all low res and up in the West End they would all have looked like
cartoon characters - even James - but down in Grey Town they looked
like princes, the objects of envy and hate."
Lemmy has no idea he is
"consensual", but then he follows a white hart wandering through town,
meets Clarissa Fall, one of the few "physicals" who decided
not to have their brains put in a vat for eternity, and learns the
writes with simplicity and elegance, never ramming home to the reader
just how this new society has exacerbated class divisions rather than
narrowed them, limiting people's freedoms rather than enhancing their
In the second story, Clarissa
herself is the heroine, elderly and longing once more to see the lights
of the Picadilly Circus of her childhood. Her interactions with the
consensuals, whom she can choose to see via an implanted switch, make
this extremely poignant - she both wants not to be lured into this
false world and to see the lights again, which only exist virtually,
now that London is just a burnt out shell of itself.
The remaining stories range far and
wide. There is the wonderful story of The Warrier Half-and Half,
"the love child of an angel and a demon", immortal and possessed of
immense powers, but destined always to balance out any good he does
with equal evil so that the result is always zero. In Dark Eden, when a
planned space mission to seek new life is cancelled due to the
President's new priorities, the crew, comprised of a Turkish Air Force
Officer, a devout Christian and a serial womanizer, decide to go
anyway, but their illegal action has unintended consequences when the
space police vehicle chasing them is destroyed and they and the two
space cops are marooned. And The Gates of Troy,
in which spoiled rich kid Alex longing to escape from his overbearing
father, takes a cruise with a new schoolfriend and, he hopes, soulmate,
but Alex's father turns up with time-travelling technology and Alex
sees the truth about his friend.
Macchina is set in a future Florence where
robots are the norm, but one robot, a museum security guard, seems to
be breaking free from its bounds. The story begins:
"On the first day I
thought I would go and see David
at the Accademia but what really
my imagination wasn't David
at all but The
Captives....They were intended for a Pope's tomb but
Michelangelo never finished them. The half-made figures seem to be
struggling to free themselves from the lifeless stone. I liked them so
much I went back again in the afternoon. And while I was standing there
for the second time, someone spoke quietly beside me:
'This is my favourite too.'
I turned smiling. Beside me was a
Suffice it to say, the fate of this
robot, which the Italians call la
macchina diabolica, is not a happy one, but Beckett never
quite goes where you are expecting, wrong-footing the reader
delightfully, and never wrapping stories up neatly. He forces you to
look at things differently, never telling one story in the same
way as the next (first person, third person, alternating two
characters' points of view).
There are stories I found less
compelling, in fact the ones that were closest to our reality didn't
hit the spot for me as well as the stories in which Beckett truly lets
his imagination go. Perhaps I was simply spoiled by the unfamiliar
wonders in the other stories (fire horses, the Apiranians and their
Motherhouse, the game of sky-ball, the language splice). Beckett sets a
high standard for himself to live up to.
The philosophies that his stories
introduce are thought-provoking (in Valour
we learn of
a race which believes that everything comes in threes: three genders,
and, instead of good and evil, Goodness, Valour and Evil.) Yet these
are not manifestos nor vehicles for Beckett to educate us about his
worldviews. They are gripping tales, which rarely allow you to put them
down once you begin.
Beckett's surprise win in the 2009
Edge Hill Short
Story Prize, a small-press-published "genre" collection, beating heavyweights Anne Enright, Ali Smith and
and Gerard Donovan, really should not come as a surprise to anyone who
has read his work. This is the essence of great storytelling. It is
only a shame that the small press that published The Turing Test,
Elastic Press, ceased its publishing operations in 2008. We need more
small presses like these.
Read the title story
from this collection on Chris Beckett's website
is the editor of the Short Review. Her short story collection, The
White Road and Other Stories, is published by Salt Modern Fiction.
2009 Edge Hill Short Story Prize
bio: Chris Beckett's first story was published in
Interzone in 1990, and his stories have since appeared in Britain, the
US and Russia. His novel The Holy Machine was published in 2004 by
Wildside Press and his second novel, Marcher by Leisure Books, in 2008.
He lives in Cambridge with his wife and three children and lectures in
with Chris Beckett and read more about his relationship with Interzone
on our blog.
this book (used or
The Author's Recommended
Bookseller: Elastic Press
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you in the US
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