1/07/2010. Contributed by Patrick Mahon
pub: Twelth Planet Press. 285 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $27.95 (AUS). ISBN: 978-0-9804841-5-1.
check out website: www.twelfthplanetpress.com
Deborah Biancotti is an Australian who writes speculative short fiction. 'A Book Of Endings' is her début collection. I first heard of Biancotti earlier this year when two of the stories in this collection were long-listed for the British Science Fiction Association Awards. As the author kindly made them available to anyone who asked, I read them both and found them intriguing enough to want to read more.
The collection includes twenty-one stories. Six are new while the other fifteen have been published previously. In a brief afterword, Biancotti explains that she chose the stories in the book to illustrate two parallel themes, life versus death, and work or duty versus creative freedom. These themes do emerge from many of the stories, though not always in the way you might expect.
The stories themselves are quite a mixed bag, covering a wide range of genres, topics and situations. Two common points that run through several of them are post-apocalyptic settings and characters dying to no very obvious purpose. This may sound rather depressing but there is another strain of optimism and hope that threads through others, so there's probably something for everyone in here.
My four favourite stories in the book illustrate this diversity in microcosm:-
'Hush' is a Science Fiction story set in the relatively near future at a time when people can, when they get old, have their brains 'mashed' into an animal such as a horse or dog, so that they can live on beyond their own physical death. The story considers what happens when the animal you've been 'mashed' into gets old itself. Biancotti uses this idea to explore life, death and identity in an original way, creating a poignant story with a surprising twist ending.
'Silicon Cast' envisages a future where plastic surgery has been taken to its logical conclusion. The rich can now live almost forever, always looking young and beautiful, even if their muscles have atrophied so far that they require full-time servants to turn their heads and wipe away their dribble. Fascinating and horrifying by turns, this is a powerful allegory about our obsession with celebrity culture.
'The Tailor Of Time' is a Neil Gaimanesque fantasy of wonderful playfulness. The Tailor of the title spends his days sewing the cloth that covers each day's world. One day, he is visited by a stranger who asks if the Tailor could slow time down a little, just for one day, to allow him to spend a bit more time playing with his young daughter who is dying of chronic asthma. Deeply affected by the stranger's request, the Tailor abandons his post and heads off through the workshop to find today's world, so that he can slow it down as requested. This is an assured performance, which drew me in to a fantastical world and made me care deeply about whether the Tailor would succeed in his quest or not.
'Problems Of Light And Dark' is my overall favourite here. It was one of the stories long-listed for the BSFA Awards this year and I would expect to see it in some of the year's 'Best Of' anthologies in due course. It revolves around Lennie, a quiet character who never really gets over his father's early death from cancer. When Lennie grows up, he runs away to the circus and becomes 'The Amazing Electric Man', an act which involves him wearing bioluminescent paint so he looks as if he glows in the dark. However, Lennie's fear of the dark, which he identifies with the death of his father, eventually turns physical so that his skin bruises whenever a shadow falls on it. As his condition deteriorates, Lennie decides to see if he can use his circus act to beat the darkness permanently. This is a great story, combining off-beat characters, a strange plot and strong, humorous writing that forces you to keep reading to the end. Unlike many of the other tales in this collection, 'Problems Of Light And Dark' has a happy ending which also provides a deeply satisfying resolution to the conflict at the heart of the story.
At the other end of the spectrum, there were three stories that I didn't get much out of:-
'Diamond Shell', the first story in the book, is about the anonymity of living and working in a big city. It follows frustrated office worker, Shel, as she tries to work out where her best friend, Mishi, has disappeared to. It is well-written, at times atmospheric and at others positively chilling. However, when I finished the story, I was left wondering if I'd missed the point. This is one of the stories that was short-listed for the BSFA Awards, so I've clearly missed something. For me, though, 'Diamond Shell' left me wanting a greater sense of resolution.
'Life's work' is about a dysfunctional family, headed by Ruby, a single mother who starts getting new jewellery, seemingly out of thin air, before making a mud sculpture of Gaia, the Earth goddess, in her back garden. It turns out that Ruby has had a stroke. Again, the story is well-crafted, but it doesn't so much end as peter out. I was left unsure what I was supposed to have gained from the experience of reading it.
'The Razor Salesman' is an extremely strange story, in which a travelling salesman keeps pestering housewives until they buy something off him, with the underlying suggestion being that your children will get ill if you don't. I was intrigued by the storyline and looked forward to finding out how the salesman and the illnesses were connected. No such luck. The story ends with one housewife, having availed herself of the salesman's wares and used it to help her children get better, getting ready to pop round to a neighbour's house to persuade her to invite him in, too. This is a very disturbing story at times and yet the ending is so open-ended as to largely destroy the impact of the rest of the tale.
Taking the collection as a whole, its strengths are characterisation and invention. Biancotti draws her main characters with deft strokes, so that you quickly start to care what happens to them and then puts them into interesting and original situations. When everything comes together, you end up with a wonderful short story that bears repeated re-readings. The book's main weakness is that, for perhaps one story in four, I got to the end and thought, what was that all about then? Meaning is elusive in many of these stories. Sometimes that works. At other times, it doesn't or at least not for me. Nonetheless, 'A Book Of Endings' is well worth seeking out if you'd like to read something fresh and different. I look forward to seeing what this author comes up with next.
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Stephen Hunt's novels - USA