The more outrageous sf fantasies give way to soft dystopias

17 February 2018

9:00 AM

17 February 2018

9:00 AM

Science fiction, as any enthusiast will tell you, is not just about gazing into the future but also about illuminating the present. In a new collection of short stories by the veteran sf author M. John Harrison, lurid visions of aliens and spaceships play second fiddle to melancholic snapshots of plodding suburbia. Many of the tales in You Should Come With Me Now (Comma Press, £9.99) are set in leafy south-west London, amid the banality of modest affluence: from Putney to Chiswick, Twickenham and St Margarets, and along ‘the endless heartbreaking sweep of the A3 to the sea’.

In ‘Cicisbeo’, a husband ensconces himself in his loft, and will only communicate with his wife via notes. ‘You found people like Tim all over London,’ the narrator explains. ‘They had rowed a little at school. At the weekend they wore chinos and a good quality sailing fleece… They never seemed to age: instead, their self-deprecation matured into puzzlement.’ In ‘Animals’, Susan rents a seaside cottage from an elderly couple and imagines the dullness of their conversations: ‘Do you remember… the year we planted the daffodils and nothing came up? What a laugh we had over that!’ ‘Psychoarcheology’ riffs on the discovery of Richard III’s remains to send up the culture industry. The relics of dead kings are ‘a geological resource… each containing enough energy to power a couple of careers, a biography, an MA course, a BBC4 series’.

Harrison hails from a family of engineers, which may well account for the prevalence of construction and home improvement scenarios in these pages. They include asides on chemical grout and the deployment, by one particularly enterprising builder, of goat’s dandruff as filler between buttresses. His novels have been likened to J.G. Ballard’s, but these stories are more like satirical set pieces than brooding psycho-fictions: genial and generous, finding wry mirth in absurdity. Harrison is an occasional literary critic, and in ‘Imaginary Reviews’ he pokes fun at this métier: ‘A butterfly landed on page 52 while I was reading it in my garden. From that single event I learned nothing about the book, or reading, or writing, or anything at all.’

The American novelist T.C. Boyle is also interested in ‘soft dystopias’ — visions of the near future conjured more by extrapolation than fantasy. ‘Are We Not Men?’, one of the more memorable tales in The Relive Box (Bloomsbury, £18.99) begins with the violent death of a micropig at the hands of a cherry-coloured pit-bull. The latter has been genetically engineered, following a liberalisation of restrictions on gene editing; the streets reverberate with the screechings of mongrelised birds, and the family pet of choice is something called a dogcat (advertising tagline: ‘Dog person? Cat person? It’s all moot now’). Aspirational couples tailor their offspring as though shopping for the Christmas turkey (‘We opted for a big baby in the 11-pound range, wanting it — her — to have that advantage from the start’), a trend driven by global economic competition: the Chinese started it ‘and, of course, we had to keep up’.

In a similar vein, the volume’s title story tells of a father’s addiction to a digital device that enables him to relive his youth. Hooked on the Relive Box’s ‘In-Flesh Retinal Projection Stream’, the narrator neglects his daughter and his job, preferring to inhabit his memories. This brand of pessimistic futurism recalls early episodes of Charlie Brooker’s TV series Black Mirror, which has been running since 2011. Though not yet hackneyed, it’s certainly starting to date: it is a testament to the pace of change that the very nature of our ambivalence alters almost as rapidly as the technology itself.

Though competently told and perceptively on-point, Boyle’s sardonic portraits of embattled masculinity — weary breadwinners beleaguered by hen-pecking wives and mid-life ennui — are ten-a-penny in contemporary American fiction. The Nachman Stories (Daunt Books, £9.99) by the late Leonard Michaels, offers a more compelling take on male vulnerability.

The eponymous protagonist is a Californian maths professor, an inveterate loner who suffers occasional pangs of intense yearning for human contact. If he’s had a drink or two, Raphael Nachman feels flickers of intimacy with strangers and colleagues; but, unable to overcome his diffidence and form proper relationships, he finds other outlets for his pining. A pampering at the hairdresser’s is such a blissful treat that he wishes he has ‘a ton of hair, so this fine delirium could last longer than 45 minutes.’ In ‘Nachman at the Races’ he takes pleasure in jettisoning the pragmatism of mathematical logic in favour of the lottery of chance, so that he can ‘feel like everyone else, regular, not like a freak’.

At a prestigious conference of elite mathematicians, our unassuming antihero spots a mistake in the solution to a landmark maths problem put forward by a scholar named Lindquist, an acclaimed doyen in his field. Nachman has the chance to usurp his rival by flagging up the error, but he takes pity on Lindquist and decides to let him have his moment.

In one particularly poignant story, Nachman is diddled out of a tip by the caretaker of a synagogue in Cracow, who falsely claims to have met his grandfather. His Polish guide and translator initially goes along with the ruse, inventing anecdotal recollections on the caretaker’s behalf; when they leave the synagogue, Nachman’s giddy joy becomes unbearable to her, and she snaps: ‘He said your grandfather could bend nails with his teeth. He could fly.’

The blend of neediness and tortoise-like timidity gives Michaels’s creation a rare pathos. When loneliness is chronic and debilitating but hasn’t quite driven you over the edge, this is what it looks like.

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