The Faction Paradox series of books has been one of the most consistently good and interesting series I’ve ever read – certainly the best multi-author series, but it’s had a relatively troubled history. Starting out with a series of novels published by Mad Norwegian (a small press in Iowa, devoted mostly to ‘cult TV’, but with a surprisingly high hit-rate of decent books), when Mad Norwegian stopped publishing new entries in the series, a small SF publisher in New Zealand, Random Static, took over.
However, Random Static have only published one novel in the series, the excellent Newtons Sleep. and their FAQ says “When’s the next book coming out? We can’t say yet, but expect an announcement early in 2009.”, so we’ve been waiting a while for anything new.
Luckily, another small press, Obverse Books, which specialises in short stories rather than novels, has stepped up, and the result is this, my favourite book so far this year.
For those who are unfamiliar with Faction Paradox, the series is originally the creation of Lawrence Miles (who, with Stuart Douglas, co-edits this volume) , although it’s had much input from other writers. The books don’t share a setting, characters or background, but all take place in the same shared universe, which provides a certain consistency of tone.
This universe is dominated by the Great Houses, a race of near-gods who can travel through space and time in their Timeships, but who prefer to simply exist on their Homeworld. In a very real sense, they *are* the universe – they embody its physical laws and history, and the universe mostly exists just because they have chosen to observe it in this form.
However recently the Great Houses have gone to war… to War, in fact, against an Enemy as powerful as them. Nothing is known about the Enemy, except what can be found by reading between the lines, except that they are the Enemy, and that for them to win might well mean not only the Great Houses ceasing to exist, but it might completely rewrite the whole universe – not even just its history, but its fundamental logic. The War covers all of space, all of time, and quite possibly those regions beyond either.
The War is in a kind of stalemate, but it has led to the involvement of several minor powers, including the Celestis (a race of malevolent conceptual entities), the various posthuman races, and Faction Paradox, a time-travelling voodoo cult who delight in playing both sides off against each other.
Faction Paradox: A Romance In Twelve Parts is a collection of twelve stories set in this universe. While the twelve stories are very different, they share a few themes. Primarily, they’re about story and its power – fans of Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman might well enjoy this book (despite its co-editor’s well-known antipathy towards Gaiman’s work) – but here story is seen as a far darker, more malevolent force than their comparatively safe work.
Many of the stories also seem Lovecraftian – not by using words like Cthulhu or shoggoth and hoping people get the reference and feel geeky, but by evoking the same feeling he did at his best, of existing in a world fought over by blind, impassive forces that can crush you without even noticing. In fact, some of the stories remind me even more of Lord Dunsany, the great 19th century fantasist who inspired Lovecraft, than of Lovecraft himself. Certainly most of the writers here have a prose style far removed from Lovecraft’s ponderous overwriting.
The stories here are a mixed bag, of course, as in any multi-author collection, and many of the best stories have only a tangential relationship to the Faction Paradox back story – several of them could have been published with only minor changes in a non-FP collection – but they actually feel, to me, more evocative of the Faction Paradox spirit than the ones that concentrate more directly on the Faction and its doings.
Storyteller by Matt Kimpton is one of those. A pseudo-Viking saga about what happens when a storyteller goes looking for stories to be part of, this is one of those “I wish I’d thought of that” stories that feels like an old folk tale. Gramps by Jonathan Dennis can similarly be read with no previous Faction knowledge, though this creepy little short-short about a cat called Gramps with a missing leg is *definitely* a Faction Paradox story.
I won’t deal with every story in the book, but what I will say is that those I enjoyed less are just those I enjoyed less, rather than bad stories – the quality level is remarkably consistent. In fact, the stories I enjoyed least tend to be the ones that were the kind of thing I was expecting when I bought the book – the good ones were just *better* than that.
That said, I don’t have as much to say about every story, so I’ll just look at a handful to give a flavour of the book. Mightier Than The Sword by Jay Eales, about the prison where they put the writers and a very familiar-seeming comic artist, Now Or Thereabouts by Blair Bidmead, which starts as a satire of The Apprentice before turning somewhat stranger, and Print The Legend by Daniel O’Mahony, which manages to have Charles Dickens and John Ga(u)lt team up with a shoggoth without, astonishingly, turning into AWESOME!, are all standouts.
But best by far is the closer, A Hundred Words From A Civil War, the long-awaited sequel to Of The City Of The Saved by Philip Purser-Hallard.
A Hundred Words… is a ‘drabbleplex’ – a hundred separate one-hundred-word stories that work together to tell a much bigger story. In Of The City… Purser-Hallard established an incredible setting, a city between this universe and the next where all the dead humans live forever. Here death has come to that city, and so has civil war – though not The War; this only involves the death of four trillion people, and is nothing like as all-pervasive, though it’s clearly a small part of the overall War.
A couple of examples (I hope PPH doesn’t mind me sharing these bits – if he does I will of course take them down):
Remakes make lousy soldiers.
I tell you, you build a person based round a character from some media fiction, they’re gonna have some pretty odd ideas about reality.
They’re terrible strategists. They make big, symbolic gestures, then act surprised when that doesn’t win the war outright. They abandon vital operations just to rescue one person. Usually a kid.
Yeah, sometimes it’s a dog.
They sacrifice themselves heroically over and over, knowing someone’s gonna Remake them every goddam time.
Did you know the rebels run an entire POW camp just for John Rambos? There’s something like 500 of him there now.
When the most sophisticated of the posthuman civilisations are co-opted into the Civil War, it becomes a rarefied affair. Five Districts are carrying out hostilities entirely through the medium of music, exchanging shifting tonalities and rhythms which delightfully reprogram the senses with revised systems of aesthetics.
Representatives of two more rival cultures are vying in Flautencil’s Plaza, their societies’ respective destinies invested in a single combat which appears to the ordinary human spectator (of whom there are thousands assembled) to consist of sniffing orchids and exchanging significant glances.
The apparent flirtation is in its seventh month, and approaching no resolution.
Purser-Hallard’s story also contains short stories featuring many characters from other stories in the book, giving many of the stories a final extra twist. But even without that, this pushes so many of my buttons it might as well be called “ten thousand words to excite Andrew Hickey” – a piece of eschatological science fiction which references the ideas of Nick Bostrom and has Philip K Dick talking about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, along with the final deaths of all the dying-and-resurrected gods? That’s my kind of thing, as regular readers will no doubt realise.
And the ending of Purser-Hallard’s story, and of the book, is absolutely chilling and puts the whole book in another light. I won’t spoil it for you, but… just read it, OK?
Faction Paradox, A Romance In Twelve Parts, is available in hardback for £11.99 from Obverse Books.