Faction Paradox: Burning With Optimism’s Flame
I don’t have much time for blog posting at the moment, but I couldn’t let the release of the latest Faction Paradox short story collection go without at least a short review.
(Ob. disclaimer — I know several of the authors in this collection, as well as the publisher, in a friendly-on-Twitter-and-Facebook kind of way. However, I got to know these people, in most part, because of my admiration for their work, and so I don’t believe that me knowing them is biasing me towards liking their work more. But it’s better to say these things upfront.)
That this is a book geared to my tastes should be obvious from the very title. I love the Faction Paradox books anyway, but this is named after a song by XTC, one of my favourite bands. The table of contents confirms that the high expectations are justified — we have new stories by four of the authors of The Book Of The War, Philip Purser-Hallard, Simon Bucher-Jones, Jonathan Dennis and Kelly Hale, all of whom are writers whose other works I’ve enjoyed as well. There are also stories by Elizabeth Evershed and Helen Angove, two of the new writers from Purser-Hallard’s Tales Of The City whose stories I singled out for special praise when I reviewed that, and there’s actually a story by Aditya Bidikar, who first became interested in Faction Paradox after reading one of my blog posts about it.
Overall, the tone here is darker than previous Faction works. While the earlier Faction and Faction-related books are very much on the borderline between SF and Fantasy, with an admixture of historical adventure, here the stories are often little horror miniatures, of a type that would not seem too out of place in the old Pan Books Of Horror Stories — creepy little tales with a black sense of humour. Which, of course, fits the Faction milieu perfectly.
I won’t look at every story in the collection individually — there are some about which I have less to say than others — but all are worth reading. But I’ll talk a little about the ones that I actually have things to say about:
Raleigh Dreaming by Elizabeth Evershed is so different from the other story of hers I’ve read (The Socratic Problem) that it’s hard to believe they’re by the same writer. Some motifs reappear — famous people from wildly different historical time-periods coming together, for example — but the prose style here is very different, cleverly managing to suggest the 16th century patterns of speech of its narrator without ever slipping into archaism. And the method of time travel involved is a lovely little touch (I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read it — always a danger when talking about short stories much more than novels — but it’s funny, clever, and perfectly appropriate). A worthy opener.
Wing Finger by Helen Angove reminded me quite a bit of Lawrence Miles’ Grass in its central idea, but Angove takes the idea in a very different direction. The redemption of the narrator, who is a zealot, a coward and a fool until it counts, is beautifully done, and Angove does a wonderful job of pastiching Regency-era prose styles.
Squatter’s Rights by Juliet Kemp is one of the creepiest short horror stories I’ve read in a long time, especially because the trap in it sounds so seductive at first.
After The Velvet Eon by Simon Bucher-Jones is the story here that, more than any of the others, needed to be told as a Faction Paradox story. Probably the best-structured of the stories, this is time-travel, emotional storytelling and folk-tale combined in a way that Steven Moffat wishes he could. There’s a love of language here that’s characteristic of Bucher-Jones’ work, too — “St Vermis’ Star”, for example, is just a wonderful touch.
Remake/Remodel by Jonathan Dennis sees the welcome return of Faction Hollywood, one of my favourite things from The Book Of The War. A creepy/funny story about desperation for stardom, the film industry and changing tastes in superheroes, as well as about conceptual entities.
Dharmayuddha by Aditya Bidikar is the story I’d have written if I knew anything about Hindu philosophy. I mean that literally — I was scared by some of the ways this parallels something I’ve been writing, and it sparked off all sorts of ideas that had already been sort-of lurking in my brain. This story manages to meld the Hindu idea of the Yugas perfectly with something that’s been hinted at in various Faction books, and expands the mythology beautifully.
A Star’s View Of Caroline by Sarah Hadley is… problematic for me, in that the criteria I judge it by may not be the criteria other people do. As a Faction Paradox story it works very well, although there is an element in the character PJ of a sort of fetishising of learning disabilities that one sometimes finds and which I’m not entirely comfortable with. But it tells the kind of story one hopes for in a Faction Paradox story — one involving the way our thoughts affect the world, the way the media affect our thoughts, and how those things all affect what is possible — very well.
The problem is that it’s set in what seems to be a generic skiffy post-apocalyptic background, but it’s one which will be very familiar to viewers of a certain TV show. And the story’s conclusion, which is enormously powerful, draws much of its power from association with two scenes from old black-and-white episodes of that show, one from 1964 and one from 1965. And I have no idea how someone who hasn’t seen those nearly-fifty-year-old black-and-white episodes of an old science fiction programme will react.
Now in some ways, this is a good thing — there is nothing in the story that requires you to have seen, or even to have heard of, those old stories. It works as a self-contained story, as far as I can tell, and the resonances with those other stories only add to its power. But it does mean that I can’t judge how well this would read to someone who hadn’t seen them.
And De Umbris Idearum by Philip Purser-Hallard is the story I would have *liked* to have written out of all these. It’s the first time, I think, that Purser-Hallard has ventured out of his own section of the Faction ‘mythos’ — the City Of The Saved, which he created and has written several stories and a novel about — and written something based on some of the other ideas from the Faction books. Here he takes on the Remote and Remakes, two ideas I’ve been wanting to see more exploration of, and uses them to tell a multiply-nested story of three priests, from three different time periods, which revolves around a theological conundrum about the nature of original sin. Whether intentionally or not, it ties together several themes from other stories in the collection very cleverly (the interference with the Earth’s scientific development in Wing-Finger is similar to some of the events here, the story is structured like the Russian dolls from Office Politics, and so on), while dealing with many of Purser-Hallard’s own usual themes.
Those eight stories only make up a little over half the book — the other six stories all have things to recommend them as well. This is a very, very impressive collection, and you should all buy it. It’s available from Obverse Books as a hardback or an ebook