The Plenty Principle by Colin Greenland (HarperCollins Voyager, £5.99, 427 pages, paperback. Published 1997).
This is the Plenty Principle: to make each book as full as I can pack it of places and adventures and images and dreams and stories.
Perhaps more memorably, at a convention a few years ago Colin Greenland described his approach to writing sf as rather like standing at the salad bar in a Pizza Hut: "I'll have this, and this, and this, and..." Carrying on until your plate is heaped high and still you want a bit more.
This is a perfect metaphor for the process that delivers, for example, his Tabitha Jute series of novels, Take Back Plenty, Seasons of Plenty and the forthcoming Mother of Plenty. And on the surface, it also applies to this collection of his short fiction: "I'll have a bit of trad sf, some teen horror, one or two mad scientists, some slices of contemporary life, and..." And he still manages to squeeze in a fairy tale and a few shared worlds.
Yet, in a way, the Plenty Principle is quite contrary to Greenland's approach to an individual piece of short fiction. "The Traveller", for example, takes place almost entirely within the confines of a single house as a girl and her mother nervously await the return of her scientist father from one of his regular expeditions. The man has seen great wonders, but all we see are a few curios he brings back. The story ends on the brink of another great journey which the reader, again, does not witness.
Where's the world-building in that? Where's the plate heaped high at the genre salad bar?
Few writers would risk such a flouting of genre rules, and few are as skilful as Greenland when they do it. At his best -- as he is in "The Traveller" -- he doesn't need to layer on the skiffy backdrop. "Trust me," he says, between the lines of his deft, cool prose. "It's all there."
And we do. It is.
In "The Traveller" Greenland locks on to the nervous anticipation of his characters as their fears gradually spiral out of control to produce a stunning piece of gothic sf.
And he does it again in "A Passion for Lord Pierrot". Once more, this is a claustrophobic and subtle story, steering well clear of the explicatory fetish that typifies a lot of modern sf. Greenland's coolly mannered voice here is perfect for the steady build-up of menace that lurks behind many of his better stories.
This isn't a uniformly successful collection, with "The Travelling Companion" (modern day fairy tale, with no great twists or surprises) and "Nothing Special" (shared world story existing only to flog a single half-joke to death and back again) falling squarely into the limp lettuce category.
In fact these two examples highlight one of the weaknesses in Greenland's eclectic approach: a number of the stories in this collection dip into other people's worlds -- an Elric, a Luther Arkwright derivative, a revised fairy tale, two Midnight Rose shared worlds -- and in a proportion of these some of the life seems to have ebbed away from the auctorial voice. Colin Greenland is quite clearly at his best when he is being Colin Greenland.
(Although to counter this argument, his Rose Wylde -- lover and companion to Bryan Talbot's Luther Arkwright -- is superb in "A Bunch of Wild Roses", and his shared world Weerde story, "Going to the Black Bear" is a powerfully evocative masterpiece of menace.)
The Plenty Principle concludes with two spin-offs from Greenland's Plenty series: a story only previously published as a convention chapbook and an original novella.
"In the Garden" features a group of five children -- two of whom are the Zodiac Twins from Take Back Plenty -- romping about on an apparently idyllic grassy hillside (which sounds remarkably like Tellytubbyland -- another case of sf as prediction). But this is a Colin Greenland story and the darkness soon seeps in as one morning they wake up and there are only four of them... This is a lyrical and sinister tale and, as we have come to expect by now, a lot goes unsaid, implied, and it is little more than a fragment. But a striking and eerie fragment, nonetheless.
In "The Well Wishers" we find Captain Tabitha Jute landing her newish spaceship, the Alice Liddell, on Umbriel to pick up some artworks -- dream images made solid by the mysterious actions of the Wells of the title. This story is slow to get going, with the author succeeding all too well in evoking Jute's bored wait in a local bar, but eventually it cranks up into an enthralling murder adventure.
Greenland's good reputation has been sealed by the Plenty novels and they certainly have a lot of appeal (a bit of this, a bit of that), but for me this author's greatest moments come in his shorter works, when he's drawing us in with his innocent charm, undermining us, subverting our expectations, a friend or favourite aunt whispering sinister threats in one ear...
In an age marked by the increased Clarionisation of sf (a levelling up, admittedly, but also a levelling off) we should treasure those writers whose voices stand out from a uniformly professional crowd. Colin Greenland is one of these few. Go on: treasure him.
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© Keith Brooke 14 March 1998