Note: This piece also appears in slightly different form as the introduction to Deep Future (Cosmos Books, 2001 - see below for ordering information).
Okay, I'm biased.
I'm hardly going to agree to write a foreword to Eric Brown's new story collection if I dislike his work, now, am I?
But there's more to it than merely liking his work. Eric and I are friends and collaborators, and more than anything we share an approach to the genre, a belief in what it is that makes science fiction good and in what makes good science fiction.
I've been lucky enough to follow Eric's career from two perspectives. I await each new piece of work as eagerly as any fan, aware that while the novels are good, Eric's heart -- and his greatest talent -- lies in the area of short fiction.
But also, I see his work from another angle, an insider's view. I read drafts of his stories and offer what constructive comments I can muster. We have lengthy discussions about the many and varied processes involved in writing -- by telephone, by e-mail and over a pint or two of Timothy Taylor's Best Bitter on the all-too-rare occasions when geography and circumstance allow us to get together. And we write together -- short stories, a children's novel, a two-headed interview (first published in Interzone, now available online at infinity plus). It really is a privilege to be so closely involved with a great writer at work, and an experience that has added greatly to my own work and life.
I first became aware of Eric's work in the late 1980s when a mutual friend, the novelist Mike Cobley, mentioned Eric Brown among a few writers to watch. I sought out his early stories and was hooked -- by the plotting and craft but, more than anything, by the deep compassion in the writing.
Those familiar with Eric's work know that he is a writer who revisits and explores certain themes and moods: longing, loss, redemption; the lingering effects of events long past; the power of art to give life meaning; the quest for love and the questioning of love. This exploration and re-exploration gives his work tremendous resonance, unifying apparently disparate stories into a fictional universe that is as distinctive as any operating in the field of science fiction today.
I think it's possible to categorise science fiction writers into two schools: those who do SF and those who use it. Of Eric's generation of writers, perhaps Stephen Baxter, Greg Egan and Paul McAuley fall squarely in the former camp where the idea is the hero and if it doesn't work then the whole enterprise collapses (many of the writers in this school are great stylists, of course, but only in support of the Big Idea). Along with Ian McDonald, Eric is probably our finest example from the second school: his ideas are often striking, but they are always secondary to the exploration of plot and character -- he uses the tools of genre fiction to delve deeper.
In Deep Future you will find stories that range from the Victorian past to the far, far future, varying in setting from Eric's native Yorkshire to Greece, Asia and the far-flung planets of his imagination. You will find a colourful, atmospheric travel story, which also happens to feature first contact; a gentle and poignant love story that happens to be set in virtual reality; alien structures looming on the horizon of a wintery, near-future Yorkshire. You will find all the trappings of both modern and traditional science fiction, but always it is their effect and impact on the characters that is paramount, not the exploration of neat ideas for their own sake.
None of this should be taken to imply that the science-fictional elements are incidental in Eric's work: they're not; the stories twist and turn and burst with ideas as does the very best SF. The point I labour to make is that these are real and humane stories that contain far more than just aliens and telepaths and fancy rocketships.
One of the things that has intrigued me about Eric's work, as I have followed the progress of his career, is that it holds something special for many different readers. Often the stories singled out for awards and special mentions are not those I and friends would choose.
We each have our favourites.
For me, Deep Future rises above the merely good because of two stories.
In "Onward Station" we find a teacher in a difficult situation: increasingly drawn to an eighteen-year-old student. It is a story that could be mainstream if it were not for the science-fictional twist that it takes place in a future where aliens have taken control of the Earth, offering eternal life to all who accept an implant. The teacher is implanted, his student -- enigmatic, enchanting, wise beyond her years -- is not...
"Deep Future", the title story of this collection, offers an astounding vision spanning a mere billion years, a future so transformed as to be unrecognisable and yet the concerns of the story and its protagonists are deeply human. In a single bravado gesture, Eric discards the artificial distinction between author and story and yet... it's still a story, a fiction, but one made all the more powerful by auctorial intrusion.
As I say, Eric Brown's work holds something special for many different readers. You may not single out the same examples I do here, but one thing is certain: Deep Future contains stories that will surprise, delight and move you, stories that will lodge themselves in your mind, luring you back for further readings. I've been privileged to watch this author at work for the past ten or more years. Now it's your turn.
...Keith Brooke, August 2000