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

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4 Responses to Faction Paradox: Burning With Optimism’s Flame

  1. Sarah Hadley says:

    Hi Andrew!

    My name is Sarah Hadley, and I found your review through the great and modern joy that is Google (a.k.a. The Finder of Everything). It’s been several months since our collection was published, and we haven’t had a lot of public response to the book, so on a whim I went hunting for reviews. And lo and behold – I found yours.

    I’d like to respond to a couple of your points regarding your story, if I may. I’m not going to try and debate whether they are problematic (they are), or how you should judge the story (that’s your call). But I thought maybe I could offer just a tiny little insight or two on the hows and whys of its writing.

    First of all, ho ho, you’ve caught me out at my nearly-fifty-year-old, black-and-white little game. And it is meant to be a game – a frivolous little folly to amuse those who figure it out. Homogeny and Hegemony were meant to personify that idea of The Person Who Might Have Been; you know, the person you might have been if you took the shortcut to the office last Wednesday, or began collecting bottle caps when you were six. When Jay Eales (the editor) contacted me to pitch a story for the collection, he specifically suggested I return to an alternate universe I devised for him a long time ago, in an entirely different and unrelated anthology – a universe made up of those People Who Might Have Been, having just survived an Invasion that one heroic traveler and his machine were unable to stop. I liked the idea and Hegemony and Homogeny, who I dreamt up a few years back, decided they wanted to play in that universe for a while. And so it seemed quite obvious to link the two together, at least for those who could spot what was going on. The story is supposed to function outside of those little hints and references, with my only interest being that it’s *more* horrible and *more* strange for those who understand them.

    …Plus, one idea I wanted to leave open is that if this isn’t *our* universe, Homogeny and Hegemony must exist here, too. And who knows where they are, or how you might find them, or when they might find you…?

    More directly, I’d also like to briefly address the idea of “fetishising of learning disabilities.” I can see how you might come to that conclusion, although it wasn’t my intent. If anything, as someone (physically) disabled myself, I was trying to say how misplaced that type of hero-worship is and how the media likes to push that idea – the concept that those who can’t communicate or who function differently than mainstream society are somehow “heroes” or “closer to God.” And, of course, that they are no such thing. (Although to be perfectly literal, PJ and the other saints are not meant to be learning disabled – they’re more like veterans with PTSD, irretrievably changed by the explosion they all witnessed. But the misplaced hero worship still applies.) Additionally – and very simply – PJ is a tribute to Philip K. Dick’s “pre-cogs” in his story “Minority Report.” I came up with the very first version of Izzy and PJ back when I read that story almost ten years ago.

    Anyway. Should you happen to see this reply, I hope you will take my little note not as a criticism to your review, but merely a conversational response. I’m honored that you took the time to grant the story your careful consideration and write a few words about it!

    Sarah Hadley

  2. Sarah Hadley says:

    Ouch – two blinding typos in that comment, I’m afraid. I should learn to finish breakfast *before* I go trawling the internet. :)

  3. Hi Andrew. In your paragraph about “De Umbris Idearum”, an irrelevant and spammy-looking sentence has been bizarrely inserted. Is that deliberate? (Weirdly, it’s also on the Goodreads version. I don’t remember seeing it there before…)

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      No, it definitely *wasn’t* deliberate — it’s a rogue link from the spammers that compromised my blog last May. I thought I’d got them all, but I found one last week, and this is another. Thanks for pointing it out. It was in the Goodreads version because I c&p’d from here without rereading. I’ve fixed that too.

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