01/03/2012. Contributed by Patrick Mahon
pub: NewCon Press. 237 page signed limited edition small hardback. Price: GBP 29.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-907069-23-9).
check out website: www.NewConPress.com
Last year marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, given annually for the best Science Fiction novel first published in the UK in the previous twelve months. To mark this silver jubilee, well-known anthologist Ian Whates decided to produce a volume of eighteen short stories written in homage to Clarke’s classic 1957 collection, ‘Tales From The White Hart’. ‘Fables From The Fountain’ is the result. The central organising principle behind the anthology, following Clarke’s model, is that each of the tall tales within is recounted amongst a group of SF writers and fans who get together every Tuesday in a fictional London pub called ‘The Fountain’.
In common with many other volumes produced by Whates’ own imprint, NewCon Press, this book comes in three versions, a £30 hardback signed by all the authors, a £10 paperback or a £10 Kindle edition. I reviewed the hardback version. If you are interested in signed editions, this is well worth buying for the quantity and quality of the authors whose signatures you will get.
Without doubt, the star draw of the anthology is Neil Gaiman, whose story ‘And Weep Like Alexander’ tells the tale of the wonderfully named Obediah Polkinghorn, who is an uninventor. As the name suggests, his job is to uninvent things that seem like a good idea initially but turn out to be a nightmare later on, like personal jetpacks and telepathy machines. This is a wonderfully whimsical little story with an amusing twist in the tail.
Alongside Gaiman’s tale, there were two other stories by Eric Brown and Tom Hunter, that I thought were exceptional. Eric Brown’s ‘In Pursuit Of The Chuchunaa’ packs a lot of story into its fifteen pages. The story is told by a Russian SF author who tells the pub crowd that she’s on the run from her government. They have cottoned on to the fact that her last published short story was a thinly disguised report of her own encounter with a crashed extra-terrestrial whilst on a research expedition in Siberia searching for the fabled Yeti. This is an excellent story featuring a strong female protagonist, a believable alien encounter and an interesting twist at the end.
‘The Girl With The White Ant Tattoo’ by Tom Hunter is told by one of the Fountain’s regulars, who meets the girl of the title one morning when she hands him a flyer for the opening night of her brother’s new nightclub. His DJing is gaining a lot of attention as he seems to be able to improvise his sets in ways that appear either impossible or the work of the devil. In fact, he’s getting his abilities from the White Ants of the title, actually a species of termite which their biologist father started researching decades earlier. The hive-mind of each White Ant termite mound has achieved genuine intelligence and if they aren’t kept amused by intellectual stimulation such as his DJing exploits, they may just decide to destroy the global economy to see what happens. This is an original and offbeat story which is in turn hilarious and thought-provoking.
I enjoyed almost all the other stories and want to highlight three more here to illustrate the range of ideas that are covered by the authors. ‘Transients’ by Stephen Baxter is a hard SF story which explores what might happen if SETI’s first real signal from an alien civilisation came from within the onion layers of a massive star near the end of its life, about to go supernova. Liz Williams’ story, ‘The Hidden Depths Of Bogna’, puts The Fountain and its Polish barmaid Bogna at the centre of an intriguingly dark fantasy. When a cracked pipe floods the pub, one of the regulars goes down to the cellars with Bogna to help clear up the mess but gets more than he’d bargained for.
Finally, ‘Book Wurms’ by Andy West takes the concept of viruses and gives it an unusual spin. The story is about a young woman who buys a strange and beguiling hand-made art book in a second-hand bookshop, then proceeds to go slowly mad as the book takes control of her, forcing her to produce daughter versions of the book with her own hands.
There is a lot to like in this anthology. Ian Whates has brought together eighteen very diverse stories told within the constraints of the common universe of The Fountain and its regulars. This could easily have backfired, producing a series of disparate stories with nothing in common. However, the framing device of the fable, shared amongst friends in the relaxed atmosphere of a pub, works well, creating an atmosphere that pulls you in to each story and makes the narrators seem like familiar friends. Readers who are long-time fans of British SF will gain extra enjoyment from the in-jokes that are dotted through the book but relative newcomers will not, I think, feel excluded as a result. There is a warmth, generosity and gentle humour to the whole book that makes it a pleasure from start to finish.
My sole criticism would be that in an anthology of eighteen stories, it seems a shame that only one was from a female author. I know that Ian Whates has published a lot of female authors in his other anthologies, so it’s quite clearly not deliberate. However, in an ideal world I would have liked to see a few more stories exploring the pub fable idea from a woman’s perspective.
‘Fables From The Fountain’ is a humorous and entertaining homage to Arthur C. Clarke’s collection of pub-based SF yarns, ‘Tales From The White Hart’ and a fitting tribute to the silver jubilee of the Clarke Award. Warmly recommended.
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