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New Worlds edited by David Garnett, consulting editor Michael Moorcock.
(White Wolf, $12.99, 357 pages, paperback. Published 1997.)

In his introduction, editor David Garnett writes about the current glut of theme anthologies, and the shortage of the Real Thing: the original anthology where the only theme is quality. As always with Garnett's anthologies, this - perhaps the last ever New Worlds (and how often have we heard that?) - is certainly the Real Thing.

Having said that, there are certainly sub-themes, or undercurrents, in this volume. The anthology opens and closes with different takes on The Emperor's New Clothes, for example; and several of the stories explore the evils of capitalism - a final New Worlds joke, perhaps, as this is the first volume to be published initially in the USA, that bastion of the laissez-faire market economy.

To the fiction...

The anthology opens with Pat Cadigan's "The Emperor's New Reality". This is a nicely done piece of entertainment, but it's a story with few lasting qualities (for me, at least - however, this story was shortlisted for the BSFA short fiction award...).

And the anthology closes with William Gibson's "Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City", a series of vignettes which is full of impressive writing and imagery and devoid of anything to hold the reader's interest. Like plot. Or character. Or action. So often, when we're faced with art we don't understand, the temptation is to nod and say, "Yes, this is cool." So yes, "Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City" is cool. And totally beyond me. And you look fine in that new suit, Mr Gibson.

Both these stories serve to mislead. This volume of New Worlds isn't about one-shot entertainments, or artsy doodling: it's packed with good, solid science fiction, with an overall effect as satisfying as any Year's Best.

Eric Brown's "Ferryman" has an off-the-peg misanthropic Brownian protagonist who lives in isolation in the Pennines, only leaving his cottage when he has to ... usually to tend to the recently dead. The arrival of his estranged daughter breaks his solitary devotion to his work, reopening old wounds. This is Brown near his peak: taking familiar characters and themes and transforming them. This is unfamiliar Brown, too: a story set in a near-contemporary Britain with an alien presence - a setting revisited in a new story for Interzone, "Onward Station". Above all, it's a passionate evocation of loss and hope and human failing; a reflective story with a bittersweet and relentlessly apt conclusion. A fine piece of work.

Another highlight is Kim Newman's punningly titled "Great Western". This first appears to be a historical tale of rural Somerset, then apparently casual anachronisms begin to intrude - references to mad cow disease, rail privatisation (that capitalist sub-theme), hippies and motorbikes - and we realise we're actually in a particularly appropriate alternate present: when New Worlds goes to the New World, the Wild West comes to the South West. Only Kim Newman (or perhaps Howard Waldrop) could take a play on words and turn it into a full-blown piece of whatiffery, fit to burst with his usual zest for sharp dialogue, helter skelter plotting and thoroughly convincing realism.

Noel K Hannan's first professionally published story, A Night on the Town is a breathtaking exercise in mystery and atmosphere. It's Saturday night in Nuevo Caracas, Miguel's botanist parents are away in the rainforest, his older brother off on a school trip, and Miguel is alone in the family apartment with the beautiful Maria Del Fuego. But what, exactly, does it take to turn her on? Determined to impress, Miguel takes Maria out into the barrio in search of a legendary restaurant. But in the barrio the people have nothing - which means they have nothing to lose and everything to gain from a rich kid like Miguel...

Consulting Editor Michael Moorcock's London Bone is a tale of shabby capitalism (and Andrew Lloyd Webber): the story of Raymond Gold, a ticket tout or scalper or, in his own terms, a "culture dealer". It's witty, sharp and grim - often in the same breath. It's a love song to London and it's a superb piece of writing.

Elsewhere, in the seedy capitalism department, Garnett serves up Ian Watson's "A Day Without Dad", a smart unravelling of shabby behaviour in a future where all that matters is how much things cost and how much you can save and invest. Andrew Stephenson offers a quaintly retro story of a greedy capitalist bastard invited to invest in an enormous country estate - a vaguely Greenlandish story, and equally sharp and wry. And Graham Joyce and Peter Hamilton collaborate on the story of a yuppie bastard's encounters with a gang of street entrepreneurs who offer to supply a range of exotic gadgetry. It's not as smooth as other stories in the anthology, but it's intriguing and well-constructed, nonetheless.

The remaining stories include:

  • Brian Aldiss at his most playfully obscure, or obscurely playful.

  • Howard Waldrop on another of his historical diversions (not up to his usual standard, but still a fine story).

  • Garry Kilworth's story/script of a film of an invasion of alien Charlie Chaplin lookalikes - something of an ironic and offhand remix of the far superior (and far more weighty) "Filming the Making of the Film of the Making of Fitzcarraldo" by the same author.

  • A fairly routine sex wars story from Christine Manby.

  • And Graham Charnock's "A Night on Bare Mountain", a sassy fin de siecle shabby-future story with an unconventional structure that sucks you in. Stories like this make you wish Charnock was more prolific.

In his introduction, David Garnett says, "This is where I continue my 'miserably rancorous' and/or 'keenly perceptive' (according to Locus and Asimov's SF Magazine) editorials about science fiction."

I'd go with the latter verdict.

Garnett is no miserabilist: he's a man who has been part of sf in various guises since the early 1970s. He's a realist. And he's a man who cares about a genre that is increasingly diluted, distorted and prostituted.

He's a man who cares enough to have devoted enormous amounts of effort to promoting the best short sf (something we're doing our best to carry on with infinity plus), and has recently called it a day, not yet knowing if he's been on the winning side.

The battle to keep short fiction viable is a continuing one. We need more David Garnetts.

Review by Keith Brooke.

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© Keith Brooke 21 August 1998