The title of this collection, taken from the final story in which paparazzi journalists use telepathy to steal stories from the minds of hapless celebrities, is an apt one. Keith Brooke writes the kind of intelligent, empathic science fiction that uses a variety of circumstances, including alien environments, genetic modification and behaviour modifying drugs, to examine a range of human emotional states. In the fourteen tales collected here, presented like a narrative photograph album displaying snapshots of the characters' lives, he's interested in the people.
The opening story, "Witness", is set in a future England where genetic manipulation has made many things possible. Ruig is a Witness - a sort of travelling judge who is brought to settlements to arbitrate over local disputes. It is a well-favoured position, an easy life. His travelling companion is his "son", a winged bird-boy created from his own genetic material. Brooke uses this set up, and the appearance on the scene of a stranger who also claims to be Ruig, to examine the transfer of parental hopes and ambitions. In a world where you can alter your own physical make-up as easily as you can choose what genetic information you pass on to your offspring, can there be any excuse for trying to live your ambitions vicariously through their lives? If Ruig wants to fly, he realises, he must give up his comfortable life, and modify his own self, and allow his child to live the life of his own choosing.
"Queen Bee" portrays another variation on the theme of emotional dependency. On the colony planet, Rhapsody, the dominant form of life is the parasite. Offworlder, Colvin, undertakes a journey into the wilds in search of his headstrong, runaway girlfriend. At first he is repelled by the strange creatures that leech onto his body, but he grows used to them. Ultimately he discovers that when it comes to feeding off others, humans are as adept and far more dangerous.
While Brooke's exotic locations are colourful and well-imagined - for example, Io's sulphur seas in "Hotrider", or the alien volcano-scape in "Queen Of The Burn Plain" - he really excels nearer to home. The most effective stories here centre around his extrapolation of today's England, where technological advances are consistently misused, and relationships abused.
Pharmaceuticals feature in two tales. In "The Greatest Game Of All", a deeply insecure drug company executive forces through the development of a drug that enforces faithfulness at a biological level so that he can be certain of his wife's devotion. Her refusal, and protestation that he should simply believe her when she tells him that she loves him, made the point adequately. However, Brooke takes the story a step further, having the drug administered first to an admiring assistant then to the executive himself. This slight overworking doesn't spoil the story, but I felt it was unnecessary.
"Easy Never Pays" is another frightening take on the potential of mind control chemicals. In this case, a number of people have been injected with an encoded serum that causes them to attempt suicide at the same time, in identical ways, in a number of English towns, the initial letters of which spell out a ransom demand. Ruby, having managed to break the programming, teams up with another escapee to track down the man who did this to them. Like "The Greatest Game Of All", this is a story about trust. If we tamper with our ability to determine our own path, make choices based on morals and ethics, who can we trust?
Brooke's near-future England is a gritty, unpleasant place. In "Missing Time", a girl is implanted with a bomb that will explode when she comes in close proximity to her gangster boyfriend. In "Head Shots", a young reporter is forced to take artificial boosters to get ahead of the game in the sleazy world of paparazzi telepaths. And in ".zipped", a man is rushed to hospital to have his compressed and edited memory straightened out.
But it's not all bad news. Most of these gloomy scenarios end with a glimmer of hope, and one or two of the tales are positively optimistic. The best of the tales in this collection is one of these, although it may not sound it at first. In the England of "Beside The Sea", society has suffered a severe collapse. Franky and his family live in near-squallor in a ruined town close to the coast. Not far away, however, he discovers a place where everything transforms - a pier stretches out into the sea, and is populated by promenaders in clean, well-made Victorian-style clothing. This is a localised consensus reality, a nostalgia made real, harking back to the days of Empire, when England was at its peak, before everything dwindled away. At its heart, "Beside The Sea" is a story about fiction, about the power of imagination in the face of reality. If we are to survive, it says, someone needs to care. Inside each of our heads we are dependent on that fact.
Keith Brooke is an imaginative writer who cares. In Head Shots he tells us that the future may be a strange and scary place, but he also tells us there is hope. And that's good enough for me.
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© Neil Williamson 20 April 2002