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Parallax View

by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown

foreword by Stephen Baxter

(Immanion Press, £13.99, 188 pages, trade paperback, 2007; ISBN 978-1-904853-42-8.)

Review by Stuart Carter

cover scanParallax: 'the apparent shift of an object against a background caused by a change in observer position.' So says Wikipedia, and thus enlightened I'm inclined to think Parallax View is a good choice of title for this collection of jointly-written stories by Brown and Brooke. In their particular parallax the apparently shifting object is the human, the background is our future, and it's Brooke and Brown's storytelling skills that cause the change in position, revealing familiar situations and addressing them from unfamiliar directions. For with the future or fantastic elements removed these are very traditional short stories, delicate little vignettes that carefully twist the gem of an idea this way or that, watching to see which way a single ray of truth might be reflected. It's a subtle title containing some gently hidden meaning, very much like the stories it jackets.

Parallax View was originally published back in 2000, collecting all the Brooke and Brown collaborative stories, plus some solo efforts. This updated edition, in paperback for the first time, is trimmed of the solo efforts and adds a new story, 'In Transit', produced specially for this collection, bringing the total number of stories to seven.

And quite a seven they are.

Biology rather than technology is the central science fictional idea here. Even when there are actual spaceships at the heart of a story, as in 'The Flight Of The Oh Carrollian' they're living constructs; and the huge, but only vaguely alluded to, galactic civilisation they support is mere detail compared to the dysfunctional family at the story's heart. 'The Denebian Cycle' follows a planetary survey team accidentally denuded of all its wonderful technology struggling to survive and to understand an alien race -- it's a biological detective story with a satirical edge of misandry to it. 'Under Antares' combines elements of both the previous stories, following a guilt-ridden father whose xenobiologist son has transgressed against an alien race with some harshly prescriptive and unfathomably complex religious rules.

'Sugar And Spice' questions the value of murderous revenge, asking if, in the long term, understanding and forgiveness cannot fail to fare better than Hollywood-style violent retribution. 'In Transit' also does something similar, and specifically brings religion into the mix, pitting a virulently fundamentalist and militarised mankind (probably the very worst kind) in an interstellar war against the mysterious Kryte, although the story itself predominantly features one man and his Kryte trying, in their own ways, to comprehend each other.

In fact, I don't think there's a story in this collection that doesn't promote the ideals of understanding and empathy in one form or another. Which isn't to say that Parallax View is full of sugar and spice and all things nice -- quite the opposite. There's an awful lot of misery absolutely entrenched in these stories -- a lot of struggle, grief, betrayal and loss -- but what Brooke and Brown do superlatively well is turn this negativity around, and show how we can learn from such experiences, so as not to be doomed to repeat them. Addtionally, while the loss of children and family members is a recurring plot device, none of these stories revel in grief for grief's sake: the central theme here is redemption; that noble striving for forgiveness wherein the best and the worst of our humanity is revealed in all its bloody glory. For it seems that even with the stars in our grasp our frailties and frequent wilful stupidity will still conspire to bring us down.

At best, Brown and Brooke seem to be saying - at best - we have only a chance of redemption, not the certainty of it; and most of these stories end with merely the offer of that chance and not its realisation.

This is serious science fiction for the more thoughtful grown-ups amongst you.

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