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Blue Shifting Eric Brown (Pan, 4.99, 264pp, pb). 1995. Cover by Paul Youll.

After years of learning his craft, Eric Brown stormed onto the SF scene in the late '80s with a succession of hugely popular stories, published mainly in Interzone. These were collected in 1990 in his first book, The Time-lapsed Man and Other Stories. His fourth book is another collection, although you'd need to look pretty closely to work that out before buying it. Perhaps it's understandable that a publisher should want to disguise a collection as a novel - nowadays it's greatly to Pan's credit that they still publish collections, after all - but ultimately it's a disservice to both author and reader.

In terms of setting, form and mood there's much that might seem repetitive in Brown's work - a few well-worked seams. This limitation of range is less evident in Blue Shifting than it was in his first collection: this time there is a little more variety to setting and tone, with less dependence on his early cyberpunk-derived nada-continuum stories. Now, the lack of range is more of a mood thing. Much of Brown's work has a tone of wistfulness and loss - perhaps epitomised by the opening story, 'The Death of Cassandra Quebec', where Dark Secrets loom large, and events hidden in the past are explained and, at last, resolved. It's a familiar riff, but Brown does play it very well indeed.

Over the five years since his first collection, there is a lot of material to choose from - Blue Shifting isn't a collected works, it's a greatest hits. Even at his worst, Brown is usually at least workman-like, which makes it all the more surprising to find a story like 'Piloting' included here - melodrama taken to soap operatic extremes, relying on a twist that's telegraphed early and still needs a page and a half of overwrought explication at the end... Maybe it's included as a contrast, to illustrate just how good some of the other stories are.

Of the reprints, 'The Death of Cassandra Quebec' still has the power to surprise and move, and both 'Elegy Perpetuum' and 'Epsilon Dreams' retain their slickness, but it is 'Disciples of Apollo' that really stands out. It tells the story of a man who has never really lived, who learns he's doomed to die within months, the victim of a rare and mysterious syndrome. Uncharacteristic, in its near-contemporary setting and its gentle tone, it's one of Brown's finest stories, a tale with a twist that well repays re-readings even when you know what's coming.

Blue Shifting also contains two major originals, each of which is well worth the cover price. The title novella tells of a reclusive country ranger who wakes up one morning in an Indian mortuary... He's shut himself away for so long, yet now a strange phenomenon is forcing him to face the world in all its diversity and mystery. Marred by one or two convenient pieces of plotting, 'Blue Shifting' is a powerful story of redemption, without suffering SF's compulsion to explain everything away.

'Song of Summer' is another archetypal Brown story about the reinterpretation of past events: a middle-aged man returns to the place where he found and lost his first love - more melodrama, more slightly convenient plotting, but regardless of that, a stunning and poignant evocation of adolescent suffering and misunderstanding.

It's possible to roughly categorize SF authors into two schools: those who do SF, and those who use it. Of the newest generation, perhaps Stephen Baxter, Greg Egan, Paul McAuley and, increasingly with each novel, Peter Hamilton fall most squarely into the former camp: 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 idea). Along with Ian McDonald, Eric Brown 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 (and a particular type of character). His fiction isn't Neat Ideas SF, he uses the genre for his own concerns. And when he gets it right he uses it as well as just about anybody out there.

Review by Keith Brooke.

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© Keith Brooke 6 April 1997