(2018) Chris Beckett, Atlantic Books, £15.99, hrdbk, 295pp, ISBN 978-1-786-49050-6
Okay, true confession time. Chris Beckett is one of my favourite writers both in novel and short story form, ever since I read his novel Marcher so I was really looking forward to reading his latest collection. He is perhaps better known as a novelist than a short story writer, given that he won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 2013 for the first of his 'Eden' trilogy – Dark Eden, and the other two books that make up the set - Mother of Eden and Daughter of Eden - have both been short-listed for the British Science Fiction Association Award, Best Novel category. However, lest we forget, his first collection of short stories The Turing Test, published by the late lamented Elastic Press, won the Edge Hill Short Fiction prize in 2009, and NewCon Press have also published a collection of his short fiction called The Peacock Cloak.
But what’s this, the blurb on the back has three quotes from The Guardian, The Sunday Telegraph, and The Daily Mail about the Eden books, but there is no glowing praise about the stories herein, apart from the publisher’s own blurb. Further investigation fails to discover a credits page, listing where the stories in this collection have previously been published, and there clearly is none. No story that appeared, in, say Interzone, or in a themed anthology. These stories have not been published elsewhere. Does that set the alarm bells ringing? Obviously not, for a writer of Beckett’s standard, but be warned, not all of the stories are speculative in nature, and some of them are gentle, observational tales.
What we get for our £15.99 are 21 stories taking up almost 300 pages of text, and they almost start and finish in the same place with the opening story – ‘The Cellar’ and the closing story ‘The Sky’. One is almost a sequel to the other when a man annoyed by a sagging carpet, moves his furniture and pulls the carpet back only to discover a hatch leading below his house. What’s below? No spoilers here, but it’s pretty amazing and quite fantastic. Unreal, actually. So what is Beckett trying to say here? Is he commenting obliquely on social media and withdrawing from society. Or obsession, or mental illness, or loneliness? Discuss. Suffice to say that in the last story we move away from the first person narrative into the viewpoint of our former narrator’s would-be rescuers. My only quibble with ‘The Cellar’ is that it could have been a great tale of unease, had I been the narrator, I would never have opened that hatch again, and probably would have moved house.
As for the stories in between, they are a mixed bunch – mixed, because some are definitely in the speculative camp such as the tale of the main character in ‘The End of Time’ where a creature, Eli, experiences the lives of every creature that has ever lived, even long after whole species have died out, he continues to live their lives until the end of time. However, in ‘The Kite’ we get the non-speculative story of big man, Darius, striding to the pub to meet his friends, his head and his heart full of regrets and lost opportunities. He could have been someone, a top sportsman, perhaps, but he married far too young because a baby was on the way, and all his hopes and dreams were dashed because of it. Or were they? Is he an unreliable narrator? And how does his life mirror a kite being flown in the park? As someone who has dabbled in writing about the art world and also with different narrative devices, my favourite story would have to be ‘Creation’ for the subject matter and the way it unfolds. I could almost imagine Rod Serling standing introducing the tale in a Twilight Zone episode given the way the story starts.
With his social work background, Beckett has always had a keen eye on how we live now, where we are heading and giving a voice to the marginalised. All of that is here in this collection, but perhaps also a cry for us to stop, take stock and notice the little miracles all around us, even if it just condensation gathering on a greenhouse windows on a hot summer’s day.
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