(2012) Ian Watson, Newcon Press, £9.99, pbk, 302pp, ISBN 978-1-907-06939-0
Ian Watson is especially notable as an author for his novels of the 1970s and '80s. However the 1990s saw a fallow period and he does not seem to have had a novel published by one of the big four British publishers since… Sad news, but fortunately he has been published overseas and in the UK the small press Newcon have now done us great service in bringing us the Saving for a Sunny Day collection of Ian's shorts.
Ian Watson's talent as a writer may not at first be appreciated by those whose reading is largely focussed on hard SF. Hard SF – aside from demonstrably being based on scientific understanding albeit with a 'what if' or two thrown in – sees the logical exploration of an SF trope: aliens, space travel, artificial intelligence etc. Ian does not exactly do this in a conventional sense. Instead of largely science-bound, logical analysis, Ian's analyses are often founded on human perceptions as well as cultural and sociological nuance relating to whatever is the sense-of-wonder (sensawunda) at the heart of his story. And then for good measure he will throw in a hefty dollop of human observation. Reading Ian Watson, for some, requires a shift of gear: a step to one side to view his work in a different light. If you can do this then you will find reading his stories hugely rewarding.
And so we come to Saving for a Sunny Day. It begins with, I regret to say, a somewhat obfuscatory introduction by Adam Roberts but this intro would probably get good marks as an essay assignment for an arts course. So if you like artsy diatribes then whet your appetite with this introduction, otherwise jump straight on in with the stories:-
The Walker in the Cemetery is a dark, scary horror tale, very much in the vein of H. P. Lovecraft, concerning a group of tourists visiting a cemetery. Soon after their arrival the sky becomes grey and the ground trembles. A TV set in the cemetery's office reveals that monsters were trashing ships worldwide and also having a go at coastal cities. However our band of tourists also find that they are trapped inside the cemetery as when they try to leave they find themselves walking back into it. And then a small version of one of the monsters starts to stalk them…
Cages. In the not too distant future adults have parts of their limbs or an extremity mysteriously encased in a metallic cage. Apparently it is the work of aliens… This is perhaps the story that comes the closest along with Some fast thinking needed (see below), to pushing the buttons of a hard SF reader. Though it lacks much science it makes up for this with loads of sense-of-wonder, or in this case sense-of-the-unusual. Incidentally, this story inspired this book's striking cover by Ben Baldwin.
Weredog of Bucharest is a variation of the werewolf mythos. Intriguingly it is set in Romania, a country which Ian has visited a few times along with his occasional collaborator, the Italian writer Roberto Quaglia who, for the past couple of decades, himself has resided there a few months each year. So in addition to the packs of feral urban dogs (that were especially a feature of Romanian cities in the immediate years after the 1990 revolution) there are also some interesting incidental observations on typical Romanian myopia: living for the day without any regard to obligations past or future; a characteristic that can be as delightful as it is infuriating.
Palm Sunday takes the premise that palmistry is real. What would be the consequences especially if reincarnation were also true?
Some Fast Thinking Needed is the closest Watson comes to Greg Egan in this anthology. A huge artificial intelligence (AI) encompasses a black hole so that briefly (as it collapses into the event horizon) it can access the singularity's huge energy to drive computation. A team of astronauts (suicide clones) heads towards the event horizon hoping to communicate with the AI to see if they can ascertain what it is doing. However, due to relativistic effects, they need to do their work very fast…
The Globe of Genius sees an inventor tinker with the space time continuum… Now, this could have been a brilliant story that echoes Ian's classic, but different, short story The Very Slow Time Machine. Nonetheless readers can see with this tale a neat idea shine through, what is in my view, a story in need of refinement.
Nadia's Nectar A short, short story that originally appeared as one of the Nature science journal's 'Futures' stories (if which as it happens SF2 Concatenation has a small number selected by our editors). I do not want to shower this story with praise, but it is fair to say that this short is particularly golden…
Dee-Dee and the Dumpy Dancers. This story is a collaboration written with Mike Allen (editor of the US poetry zine Mythic Delirium). Recession seems to be becoming an increasing way of life. But when the aliens arrive and there is first contact, the economic implications are unforeseen…
A Nose for Such Things. Political unrest spawned by Greek economics serves as a backdrop to a haunting involving Lord Elgin in the shadow of the Parthenon. Published in 2011, this story was somewhat prescient that the then economic crisis would then become a catastrophe the following year.
Long Stay. This story is an absolute gem with a strong J. G. Ballard-ian feel. So much so that I felt I had read it before, and indeed I had in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction vol. 3. If airports keep getting bigger then they will need ever bigger car parks. Some car parks could become so big that they have an airport at either end. Of course getting to and from your car will be harder and the cars left there will need security. So what happens when you return if you can't find your car and are locked in a secure zone…?
Bohemian Rhapsody. Rudolph II, of the Holy Roman Empire, had wise men (and also the eccentric) visit him to explain curiosities. Tycho Brache was one such visiting savant who, encountering a Chinese takeaway (yes a Chinese takeaway), decides to let the mysterious oriental proprietor visit Rudolph…
Tales from the Zombible. Zombies are entitled to have a functioning culture too.
A Waterfall of Lights. This story is a lively take on the Fermi Paradox. Nice one.
A Walk of Solace with my Dead Baby is a story exploring grief.
Saving for a Sunny Day. Now it is always prudent to save for the future, especially if the future might be your next life. The flip side of this is that you accrue wealth and debt from your past lives… At least, that is the theory…
Intelligently written, varied, and with a decidedly fair share of hits Saving for a Sunny Day makes me all the more want for one of the four big Brit SF publishers gets a new Watson novel out. (And of course there's a good few books in the Watson backlist too that deserve a fresh airing.)
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