Saturday, 31 January 2009

A new novelist

Though my fiction reading only rarely returns to the same novelist, my science fiction reading regularly returns to authors I've read before, sometimes for years before (Iain M. Banks, Alastair Reynolds, ...). So it's always interesting to read a new author, in this case Chris Beckett and his short story collection The Turing Test.

The collection of 14 stories ranges quite widely taking in a number of common science fiction themes including artificial intelligence (as the collection title suggests), virtual reality and time-travel. But rather than revel in the high-tech, the stories always focus on individuals and their experience in the worlds that the author creates.

While most explore quite separate universes, a few make repeat returns to the same universe, typically following the same characters. The most intriguing of these is set in a future, abandoned London which is roamed virtually by disembodied minds but also houses a few remaining "physicals". As well as being good science fiction, these stories put real characters at their core; in one, a young boy has his "virtual-ness" demonstrated to him by an elderly physical; in another, the same physical makes a melancholy journey deep into London to reminisce about her childhood.

While all of the stories are entertaining, a number suffer from a common problem. The author doesn't seem content with introducing a single idea which is then explored, the normal pattern for science fiction short stories. Instead, he sets up with one grand idea then, before working this one out, introduces another one but, because these are short stories, is then unable to do either justice. For example, one story ("Jazamine in the Green Wood") gradually sketches out a future in which a disease has killed almost all men. The story begins brilliantly, with the world viewed from the perspective of a boy growing up in this gender-distorted world. Then, just as things are getting interesting, the novelist throws in another character who has travelled to this "reality" by using mind-altering drugs. Huh? In another example ("Valour"), an exploration of virtual relationships in a segregated future suddenly, and unconvincingly, introduces the philosophy of an alien culture, and manages to defeat what was shaping up as an interesting premise. This problem only occurs in a few of the stories, but it's a strange quirk for a short story writer. Introducing such disparate ideas would work well in a novel, especially since they're quite imaginative, but it just doesn't work in the handful of pages available here. It's also a shame to see what were great openings sidelined by inexplicable plotlines.

That said, most of the short stories work well, and all (bar an opaque time-travel one) create really imaginative worlds. I'll definitely be tracking down Beckett's first novel now, and will be on the lookout for more of his short stories.

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