The Songbirds of Pain
(Gollancz SF, hardback, 1984, £8.95, 187pages; ISBN 0-575-03511-0.
Unwin, mass market paperback, 1988, £2.95, 187 pages; ISBN 0-04-440217-1.)
Garry Kilworth -- I hope he won't mind me saying this, it's a compliment
-- has been writing sf and fantasy for a while. The Songbirds of
Pain was his first collection of
short stories, published in 1984, but some of the stories herein date
back to the mid-seventies, when I was still wearing nappies.
Some things have changed a lot since then; punk and cyberpunk have
both been and gone, and I don't wear nappies any more. Science fiction,
most of the good stuff anyway, is different; it has evolved, as it must.
We've gone ecological, (more) political, nanotechnological, -- even
neo-space operatical now. A lot of the old guard have died: Asimov,
van Vogt, Heinlein and Frederik Pohl to name but four. So how does this
rather anachronistic-looking, slim, bright yellow (the look was recently
revived, for nostalgic reasons, by Gollancz) hardback stand up to the
new kids on the block? Do they kick away its walking stick and leave
it bruised, confused and considerably poorer in a dark alleyway somewhere?
No. No, they don't.
On the front cover of The Songbirds of Pain a Mr J.G. Ballard
is quoted as saying that '"Sumi Dreams Of A Paper Frog"', one of the
stories in this collection, is 'the best short story I've read for many
years'. If J.G. Ballard, of all people, thinks you've got a hit on your
hands then Ladbrokes will stop taking bets upon it, and rightly so,
for The Songbirds of Pain is an exceptional collection of stories.
The weakest is probably the title tale, a story of a young woman's
strange plastic surgery to make her not merely beautiful but 'breathtaking',
and the changes this wreaks upon her soul. 'The Man Who Collected Bridges'
and 'Almost Heaven' each reminded me of Doris Lessing's sf work in their
sparse, straightforward narratives and barest nods in the direction
of sf. Similarly 'The Rose Bush', a haunting tale of a dying love amidst
a dying humanity, is first and foremost about people, the sf-nal aspects
are strangely muted backdrops against which the strangeness of humans
(let alone aliens) stands out all the more boldly. No matter how awful
or peculiar the situations Kilworth's characters find themselves in
it is their human emotions, failings and actions that drive the stories
to their understated conclusions.
For my money I have to agree with Mr Ballard -- 'Sumi Dreams Of A Paper
Frog' is an exceptional story. This carefully crafted, simmering six-page
meditation upon the lot of the soldier is a remarkable addition to the
sf genre, or any genre for that matter, and a not dissimilar piece,
'Oubliette', about a man who thinks he's a rat, or a rat who thinks
he's a man, is also very fine, inventive and unsettling, if not quite
in the same class.
Of the others, two stories utilise Kilworth's knowledge of more exotic
parts of the world: the bizarre premise of 'Blind Windows', that a new
colour exists somewhere in the wilds of Cambodia, was a bit too outré
for me, although the tale was well told, and 'The Dissemblers' began
as a promising Borges-lite tale but sadly fell at the very final hurdle.
None of these stories is weakened by the intervening years; in fact
this collection just goes to show that good science fiction and
fantasy doesn't rely on the latest technological tricks and hackneyed
plots but on people.
Review by Stuart Carter.
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