Fiction Reviews

The Mark of the Beast & Other Fantastical Tales

(2006) Rudyard Kipling, Gollancz, 7.99, pbk, 785 pp, ISBN 078-0-575-0-7791-1


This is part of Gollancz rival series 'Fantasy Masterworks' to their excellent SF Masterworks and, coming in at 785 pages for under a tenner, this is excellent value. Of course Nobel Prize-winner Ruyard Kipling needs no introduction so I will not give one (but if in doubt then he is easily Googleable).

What we have here are over 50, yes 50!, offerings from the man. OK, so the English is a little different, but that's a century's worth of time travel for you and if anything it adds to the stories' charm (except perhaps 'Scotch' instead of 'Scottish'). These tales, and a poem, are introduced by Neil Gaiman who reminds us that Kipling's politics are not exactly PC for the 21st century. Gaiman cites as his favourite 'The Gardener'. This is a tale concerning the sole next of kin, an aunt, of a soldier who died anonymously in the war. Faced with a sea of anonymous crosses, how will she find her nephew's grave?

There is not time to review all the stories in this excellent volume but here is a flavour of a few. 'The Mark of the Beast', the title story, is itself a tale warning us not to defile gods, or mock them even humorously, as even if they are 'heathen' their wrath may be more than is bargained... Most of the tales are fantasy, rather than SF, but there are a couple of early SF offerings including 'With the Night Mail: A Story of 2000AD'. Here in the future London has a Post Office tower: actually several. Mail is sent across the Atlantic by flying boats: a sort of cross between a zeppelin and a plane. This mode of traffic is so common that there are in effect traffic lanes and air space rights (though no airspace control). In this future most people live to be over 100! Later in the volume there is a follow-up tale -- 'As Easy as ABC: A Tale of 2150'. By then Kipling foresees that there will be airplanes that travel at 300 mph! More interestingly the idea of privacy becomes a political issue and, read with hindsight from the early 21st century, one can see unintended allegories with modern day concerns of issues such as identity theft.

If all this were not enough, providing real added-value is a 21 page biographical essay on Kipling by Stephen Jones. Jones does mention Kipling's 1907 Nobel Prize for literature. However personally I am mindful for the reason given for presenting Kipling with this award. The official citation included, for his 'originality of imagination' and 'virility of ideas'. What better accolade could a writer of speculation want? This volume is a real tribute to the man's genre contribution and surely an essential read for any fantasy fan wishing to discern some of the genre's early roots.

Jonathan Cowie

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