Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Review: Canterbury 2100, edited by Dirk Flinthart

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

Although Chaucer's Canterbury Tales was a mammoth undertaking--and one he never completed--at least he only had himself to deal with. Writer and Andromeda In-Flight Spaceways Magazine Maintenance chief Dirk Flinthart took on an even more difficult task, that of weaving stories by disparate writers into a narrative of a futuristic pilgrimage to Canterbury.

This anthology contains eighteen stories by eighteen Australian writers, all woven together using a framing story consisting of a letter written to his overlord by a Crown agent. If, at times, the conceit stretches at the seams, let us not complain, but rather marvel that the thing was done at all. Just as Chaucer sought to share with his readers the stories his pilgrims shared among themselves, so Flinthart set out to 'depict a fictional future by exploring the stories that the people of that future tell each other'.

These new Canterbury tales are told during a lull in train journey through a post-apocalyptic 'Engelond' of the year 2100, where Canterbury has become the capital city, seat of a King Charles V. (Asking where Charleses III-IV came from is one of those seams we weren't going to pull at, remember? In fact, despite being written from the opposite side of the world, these stories contain very few obvious mistakes. I will just say, though: the A1 is not a motorway.) Climate change and plain old human nastiness have taken their toll, Scotland is under ice, the population is much reduced, and the very fact that the train on which our pilgrims travel is nuclear-powered is a secret. Raising--or laying--the demons of the past is a preoccupation of many of the stories, and, for me, there was a little too much harking back to the past throughout. I preferred the stories that immersed themselves in the future rather than trying to explain how it had come about. YMMV.

The brief for this anthology must have been a tough one to write, and hard to undertake, and all the writers who succeeded in having their stories chosen deserve kudos for even trying. Yet I felt that too many of the stories tried to set the scene rather than being set in the scene. Compare this aspect with Chaucer's tales, and you see the difference: Chaucer's storytellers felt no need to explain their world to the reader. It was their world and they and the prospective reader were in it. Few of the writers in this anthology felt that comfortable with their task; it is after all almost de rigueur for the SF writer to give some explanation for how things came about. In this context--perhaps uniquely--that feels like a mistake.

There's a great selection here of professions from which the tale-tellers are drawn, although my favourite is definitely The Dead Priest, which manages to be funny and intriguing in itself while harking back to Chaucer's Nun's Priest. Who though could resist the Tingler, or the Gnomogist? It's almost worth buying this anthology to find out what the Janus and the Carbon-Knitter actually do. For the most part, these tales are not short on imagination in the telling, although sometimes perhaps a tad predictable in what they tell. The world they build, one of basic survival and growing ignorance, in which rape, murder, and callous exploitation are routine, clashes somewhat with the framing tale of the glossy and somewhat steampunky train. Personally, I'll take that train any day.

We're meant to be travelling on that train to Canterbury, on pilgrimage, but where do the pilgrims' stories take us?

In Geoffrey Maloney's 'The Tingler's Tale', we hear about "a Hangman and a Scribbler, and a most foul and evil murderer, or two." This tale throws the reader straight into a post-apocalyptic world that's strangely reminiscent of Victorian England. We could have walked one of Leon Garfield's foggy streets to meet the Scribbler who finds himself a little too close to the action when reporting on a hanging. Most of the characters in this story are treated like archetypes; they have signifiers rather than names. The exceptions are the murderers who have been or are to be hanged. With names, they stand out against the background as the only people in this story. Everyone else has their role, and nothing more. This makes for an atmospheric tale, especially as the focus is on the hanging that's to come, and little wordage is spent on scene-setting, but it's hard to care about the Scribbler's ultimate fate.

'The Nun's Tale' by Angela Slatter is one of the more futuristic stories in this anthology. Set in a city "built on a platform and raised high on gigantic metal legs, above the fumes and filth of a diseased earth", it tells of Terminal Six, a human cyborg who has become detached from the Grid that runs the city following a power surge. Half-lost in dreams and shorn of memory, she pretends to be comatose in order to avoid being reduced once again to a component in a machine. At the heart of this story is a betrayal. "I was your wife. I was your lover. But you loved your city more." The story-teller is present in this story, as witness, as participant, as embittered aspirant to the role Terminal Six is desperate to shed. A strong story that overcomes a shaky dream-sequence opening.

Next comes 'The Dead Priest's Tale by Martin Livings, which follows Father Thomas as he travels to Canterbury. The journey keeps taking strange turns as Thomas meets with strangers who, inexplicably, recognise him. "The woman opened her eyes, looked at him. Tears trickled down her cheeks. 'Do ye not know me, Thomas?' she asked. 'Has the Devil taken even that from me?'" The explanation for these encounters involves cloning and a curious plan to reignite public fervour for the Church and enable it to resume power. It's an odd idea, but then religion is perhaps the usual repository for odd ideas. The problem for me was the story didn't make me believe it, and portentous reminders that "Thomas was born to die" tended to awaken the sceptic in me rather than put it to sleep.

'The Veteran's Tale' by Stephen Dedman was probably the least successful story in this anthology. It's set during a period of transition, when warlords in a particular area are trying to move from settling disputes by the use of force to a more structured single-combat style of resolution. The story is hampered by the introduction of a National power that tries to push their society towards a more democratic regime that it's clearly not ready to embrace, thereby taking much of the ability to develop the society out of the hands of the story's characters. Unfortunately, although the National powers are faceless, the warlords too are pretty much ciphers. One's called Odi, and he's bad--odious, in fact--and another's called Edrich, and he's the good guy, and then there are a lot of names with not much else attached to stand for the others. By the time they're all fighting each other again, there's no way to know who to root for, if anyone.

Further, to be honest, Edrich the good guy is only good in a relative sense. He pleads with his rival warlords to check their depredations before "the men raiding the villages are killing their own sons and raping their own daughters" purely for their own sakes. "That's an abomination too, do you think God won't punish us?" Judging by what seems to have been going on in these villages, I'd say God was dragging his feet more than a little on the punishment front.

Perhaps this was simply too big an idea for such a short story--it can't even be three thousand words long. Certainly there are too many characters for the reader to engage.

Shortage of room to develop may also have harmed Laura E Goodin's 'The Miner's Tale', which has a strong voice and convincing characters, but which resolves its central conflict far too easily. The story's nicely told, using the device of having the hero's sidekick, rather than the hero, as the narrator. Thus we learn about Thomas Griffiths, or 'Griff', who has the peculiar but useful ability to detect the stresses in the layers of rock above the heads of miners digging for coal. Forced to take up work with an outfit mining "dirty" and possibly illegal coal, Griff and narrator Mike find themselves at risk not only from their dangerous work, but from a suspicious and secretive management. Griff particularly doesn't like the stabilisers used in the mine; he'd rather rely on his own abilities, which do turn out to be useful in the end. There's a lot to like in this story, but the resolution comes too easily to be satisfying.

Sue Isle's 'The Sky-Chief's Tale' has the feel of developing myth, which is rather fun in itself. A small group of people hidden away in Bath, where the hot springs enable them to survive the man-made Ice Age, discover that a ship from the moon is about to land near them and bring them a new, if semi-crippled, population. The story felt top-heavy to me, perhaps because a lot of time is spent on whether these moon people are going to be accepted, when, frankly, it's a foregone conclusion that they are. This kind of shadow conflict can be a bit irritating, especially when it's being used to disguise set-up. I love the hidden community idea, and Chief Camilla, the community leader, is a strong, pragmatic, and believable character, but is this her story? Or her son Davin's? Or the story of the people from the moon? It's all a little confused. Again, too few words to tell too much story may be to blame.

Kaaron Warren's 'The Census-Taker's Tale' is two tales sandwiched together: the tale of the Census-Taker's parents and their role in immunizing the population against the Great Plague, and the more interesting tale of the Census-Taker's work taking a full census of the English population, both living and dead. This is a man who not only can see dead people, but who counts them, and finds out how they died. "Yet here was a whole brood of boys, killed by their mothers away from home. I needed to know their number." Whether or not the story that he learns is true is up to the reader to decide; if interviewing ghosts is possible, then perhaps boys who can raise fire from their fingers can be a true tale, too. A good story, even though it meanders a little at the start.

Another story involving ghosts is 'The Mathematician's Tale' by Durand Welsh. It's the better story, perhaps because it focuses on one tale and tells it well. The Knot Man, last of his trade, is approached by a Jailor to untie the ghosts of prisoners left to die on an icebound ship. Old and still puzzling over a knot left him by his last apprentice, who was imprisoned on that ship, the Knot Man is reluctant. "He didn't miss the rapists, murderers and thieves in their rusty, water locked tomb; he only missed the children." Go he must, however, or allow his apprentice to continue his tortures even after death.

This story builds strongly towards a satisfying conclusion. Although it works well in context, it's also complete in itself. Great stuff.

'The Doctor's Tale' by Ben Bastian returns to one of this anthology's preoccupations: brutal men who run small communities through violence and, especially, the abuse of women. It doesn't make for comfortable reading. The narrator, a doctor, arrives in a small town run by a thug named Ripley and his henchmen where the doctor's old friend Virgil is trying to protect his adolescent daughter from the gang-rapings that have befallen more than one woman in this 'community'. It's an unpleasant set-up that borders on caricature (surely some aggrieved relative would simply stab Ripley in his sleep?), but perhaps what's most offensive is the idea that all that needs to be done is rescue this young woman. She matters because her father is the doctor's friend. As for the rest of the women--well, what about them? The story doesn't say.

Misdirection in stories is great; I love misdirection. There's a fine line however between misdirection and cheating. This story doesn't just cross that line; it takes a run-up and then leaps merrily over it and is gone far into the distance. Don't cheat. It will make the reader hate you.

Talking of cheating makes me wonder if 'The Hunter's Tale' by Grant Watson cheats as well. On the face of it, it's a straightforward tale about a hunter who comes into conflict with a wolf that he believes has murdered his daughter. "It was winter that brought the wolf close to the village, I suppose." Unable to kill the wolf itself, he takes his revenge on its mate and their cubs. Only then does he discover that the wolf may not have been guilty after all.

The problem for me is that the story drops absolutely no hints that might point to the identity of the true perpetrator. It's one thing to bury clues so subtly that the reader becomes aware of them only afterwards, the 'oh of course!' moment; it's another not to plant any clues at all. Then again, there is a strong hint before the killing even happens that the hunter should not tangle with the wolf. "Something made me to [sic] say it again: 'You don't want to hunt this wolf.'" So the jury's out. Read the story and decide for yourselves whether I'm too harsh.

I'm honestly not sure whether Thoraiya Dyer's 'The Peat-Digger's Tale' is meant to be funny. On the face of it, it can't be; it deals with a woman dying of bird flu and her husband's and son's desperate attempts to save her, attempts that result in the son's death. Yet it has a rollicking feel that suggests the reader is meant to laugh here and there. "If the needle was an awful great needle, so was the haystack an awful great haystack." When the narrator mounts a handy nuclear-powered robot horse and goes in search of a cure for his wife, it's hard to continue to take the story seriously.

Despite the sadness wound through it, this one's a great romp. It does make a bit of a hole in the framing story, though--presuming you believe a word the narrator says. I get the impression this story may be the one that gave the editor the greatest headache when he was trying to make it fit with the narrative arc.

"What a place I find myself in. A rich man flavours his meats with herbs and spices, and tells such lies in the name of selling dog as pork, and he meets with nothing but favour and success." So speaks the Metawhore of Lee Battersby's 'The Metawhore's Tale' (or 'Love Story' if you go by the page headers), in riposte to a merchant who has insulted her profession.

The Metawhore seems to be similar to Ray Bradbury's tattooed man; she is a mass of scars and each evokes a different story, for which she is paid. She describes her work as mere rote learning and recall, yet you wonder what there is in that to bring down upon her such disdain. And why whore, anyway? This story succeeded in presenting a set of social mores that are familiar (one constant being of course that women are always wrong) but nonetheless baffling to outsiders. The narrator--a young novice on pilgrimage--is surprisingly sympathetic towards the Metawhore, but we discover towards the end of the story that he has his own reasons for empathising.

The Metawhore is an enigmatic and intriguing character, one who makes and takes her own way; she insists on leaving the train to make the 'proper', Chaucerian pilgrimage from the Tabard Inn, or, at least, "a ruin I can pretend is the right place." Yet the story is bitty and fragmented, and the youthful narrator's decision at the end not well developed. Rough but readable.

I got a little lost in the course of Penelope Love's 'The Janus Tale' as I wasn't sure at first whether the "veiled woman" was the same person as "the girl". It was also a tad confusing that this apparently naive character turned out to be on her third lifetime. Some aspects of this story didn't gel for me. However, once it gets going properly, this develops as a great tale with a fascinating central conceit: that God keeps sending the Janus' component parts back to Earth after they die, horribly and together. "So when the husband and wife appear before God, so mixed up and muddled that neither can be told apart, God throws up hands and sends them back to the world, to have another chance. 'Don't mess things up this time,' God warns them. So here my story starts again."

It's an intriguing conceit, this "divine mistake", so much more so than the mundane idea that the Janus is 'just' a clone built on peculiar lines. Here again we see myth being created right before our eyes.

Trent Jamieson's 'The Lighterman's Tale' is perhaps the most Chauceresque in this anthology, not just for the subject matter but also for its free, confident, and unabashed use of language. It's a solid tale of love and how one mistake may cost you everything...or will it? "I've seen things come post-storm, out of the mist, drifting dead and serene down the Stour. I've seen 'em, as I wait for my cargo, and blessed am I that I'm still to drift myself...because I know there'll be tears all the way along to Canterbury proper, because the ships are the lifeblood of this island." This story summons familiar myth without making the reader conscious of harking back to 'our' past, perhaps because it's part of a collective past, something we and the storytelling Lighterman share despite the distance between us. A job well done.

In 'The Carbon-Knitter's Tale', Rita de Heer tells us of failing technology, and the lengths to which people will go to keep it--or a semblance of it--going, whatever the cost. There are gorgeous hints here, again, of myth emerging from ignorance, or perhaps reforging ignorance into a new, useful kind of knowledge. "The red angel takes with war. The black angel with ash." It's a shame that this is confined to the opening, and the rest of the story takes a more conventional turn.

Ram is thought to be safe from the recruiters for the gameshell at Stoke because he is a 'yellow-angel-addled child'. Times change, however, and soon Stoke needs him--and others--to stand in for the avatars and computer-generated monsters that no longer work. It's pitiful work. A knight standing by a boy who's trying to fight another boy while under the knight's direction is no training for knighthood, nor even for fighting. It's fascinating and more than a little sad to see the people of Stoke trying to hold together their one asset in this fashion. Who would believe it could work? Only the desperate.

I felt Ram was a little too-good-to-be-true in this story, although that perhaps is meant to come of his addling. He'd rather starve than kill the monster he's replacing, yet he has a quest to fulfill, and how can he fulfill it if he's dead? The story strains credulity with its determination to make Ram the really good guy, who's prepared only to sacrifice himself. A thought-provoking tale that might have worked better without the character of Juttie, who doesn't really do much, and keeps obtruding at unexpected moments.

LL Hannett's 'The Evangelist's Tale' brings two crazed individuals into direct conflict. Oule is a perfectly ordinary hunter until he wanders into 'Mother--' and encounters a surviving sales pitch broadcast on myriads of tiny screens.

"I've seen a message of hope my friends, written in electric light."

Unable to make sense of what he's seeing in the context of his own life up until then, he becomes fired with Belief. Poor fellow. Trying to spread his Belief brings him into conflict with, well, just about everybody, until he meets Lilah, who has gathered around herself a group of misfits and lost souls who help guard a warehouse with mysterious contents. Lilah, it turns out, is a similarly-crazed evangelist with a quest of her own.

This story relied a bit too much on telling rather than showing, which is a shame, as the writing is strong enough to work without that. There are definitely moments when Hannett tells us something they have already shown us. Overall, although it's a good tale, Oule seems a bit out of place as an evangelist. He doesn't take nearly enough pleasure in nobody listening to him at all.

'The Gnomogist's Tale' by Matthew Chrulew is, by a narrow margin, my favourite of this anthology. It's a rambunctious, shameless, romp of a tale, an entire world's mythology all by itself.

"In those days Mamont ranged through not only the park but all of Beria. And Mamont re-formed Aerth again: he pushed down trees and trampled shrubs; he cleared the snow and tore up the mosses. Wherever Mamont grassed, there grasses grew. And though Aerth was still angry, and the waters still rose, wherever Mamont ranged, the boggy ground became firm again, and the hollow scenery was once more plentiful."

So much thought and work has gone into this story that it's a smooth pleasure to read. Only at one point did it jar on me. We learn about Sapien-Ape, the people of this apocalyptic world, then in only three words the author betrays that all along he's been writing about men, not people. It's a slight flaw, but one that could easily have been avoided. Still, it's worth buying this anthology just to read this one story and learn about Mamont and his dead children. It would also be worth seeking out what else Chrulew has had published.

The anthology concludes with 'The Conductor's Tale' by Lyn Battersby, the story of a man whose very self-effacement is his means of keeping control of the passengers on his train. He's a driven, haunted man, and his story is Faustian in concept. With his story, we arrive at last in Canterbury, despite an attack by raiders from Londistan--whose story is hinted at, but not told here--and an attempt to destroy the locomotive, and Battersby takes us on a brief tour of that city.

"I, I want to make the pilgrimage, but I don't know what God requires of me."

The Conductor is seeking an expiation beyond the norm; walking through the Buttermarket to the Cathedral simply doesn't feel like enough. Is he perhaps doomed to doubt God's forgiveness even while he desperately yearns for it? We don't know, but at least this time he does manage to get off the train. A sad, sad story on which to conclude.

The amount of work that's gone into this anthology is impressive. Almost every story is worth reading. It is sometimes hard to reconcile the worlds of the storytellers with that of the shiny nuclear train, but the stories themselves work together surprisingly well, and that's no mean achievement. There's also enough imagination here to fill several novels, and it's possible that some of the stories would work (even) better at a longer length.

Even the handsome cover art seems to wink and invite you in.

Worth buying.

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