(ob. disclaimer — I know both the editor and publisher of this book online, in a “friendly on Facebook/Twitter” kind of way. However, I got to know them because I like their books, so don’t think this is biased by that).
I haven’t been very good about reviewing the books I’ve read recently, mostly because I’ve been barely functional for a while — last night I ended up having to go to bed at half past seven in the evening, for example — but I’ve wanted to bring more attention to this one, as I think people who like my blog will really like it.
Despite his having confined his writing almost entirely to Doctor Who spin-offs, Philip Purser-Hallard is one of my very favourite science fiction writers of the last decade, in part because the preoccupations in his writing match up so well with my own (though he is genuinely good at writing about these subjects, too). From his wonderful Stapledon pastiche/critique Peculiar Lives through to the book he’s best known for, Of The City Of The Saved… and beyond, he deals with the Really Big Issues of teleology and eschatology, in a manner that is somewhat reminiscent of a saner Philip K Dick (a big influence on Purser-Hallard, who features him as a minor character in more than one of his works), but one perhaps more influenced by Teilhard than Gnosticism.
Purser-Hallard’s main vehicle for looking at these ideas is The City Of The Saved, a setting introduced in the Faction Paradox book The Book Of The War, and featured in Purser-Hallard’s only full length novel, Of The City Of The Saved…, as well as in a few short stories. Influenced by the Omega Point of Teilhard (via Tipler’s more technological version), this is a location at the end of the universe, in which every human or human-descended lifeform is resurrected, to live forever in an undamageable body. Posthuman cyborgs have to live in the same society as the oldest Australopithicenes, with all being equal and no-one being able to cause anyone else any physical harm.
Here, for the first time, in a collection edited by Purser-Hallard, other authors are allowed to play in the City, although they stick very closely to Purser-Hallard’s established style. Some new themes are introduced — in particular, there’s a recurring sense that great myths, especially the Greek myths, are being lived out in a ‘second time as farce’ kind of way, with a Cyclopean barman, the Trojan war continuing as “an endless beach party of banana-boat races and drinking bouts”, and an Icarus-alike whose wings are shoddy body-modifications.
Purser-Hallard himself provides the bookend stories, which set up and resolve several threads in the other stories, but almost everything in here is good. My particular favourites are Blair Bidmead’s Happily Ever After Is A High-Risk Strategy, a selection of traveller’s tales told by hitch-hikers and the vehicle they’re travelling in, The Socratic Problem by Elizabeth Evershed, in which a university specialising in philosophy is disrupted by the visiting Professor Sokrates, and Helen Angove’s Highbury, which starts out as a Jane Austen parody before descending into something a little darker, with a very Gothic explanation for the cultural stasis imposed on its main characters.
As with all short-story collections, Tales Of The City has its faults — some of the stories are better at atmosphere than at plot, and Dale Smith’s About A Girl, I’m afraid, leaves a bit of a bad taste (the idea of a band consisting of the various famous musicians who died aged twenty-seven isn’t a great one, but then adding in appearances from every celebrity from Albert Einstein to Philip K Dick starts to give the impression that far from being inhabited by a hundred undecillion people from throughout the history of the universe, the City Of The Saved is merely the green room for a TV chat show).
But the overall quality of the stories here is extremely high, and this is easily a match in quality for the Faction Paradox collection Obverse put out last year, which I loved. It definitely leaves me hoping for more of these collections (though I’d also like to see some more long work from Purser-Hallard in this setting).
Tales Of The City is available from Obverse Books as both a paperback and a DRM-free ebook. Buy it, not just to support an interesting small publisher, but also because it’s probably the best collection of SF stories you’ll read this year.
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