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Threshold Shift

by Eric Brown

(Golden Gryphon, $24.95, 218 pages, hardback, published 2006.)

Review by John Toon

cover scanHurrah, an Eric Brown book I can enthuse about. I've heard many good things about Brown's work over the last few years, but somehow the novellas of his that I'd previously read hadn't quite clicked (Approaching Omega, A Writer's Life). With the ten stories in this collection I found it much easier to get a flavour of Brown's style and range, and I feel the shorter form produces a punch in his stories that the novellas lack.

There are three broad categories of story here.

Stories about the Kethani comprise the first category. The Kethani are aliens who bring humanity the gift of personality-recording technology, so that when they die those people who are willing to have a small implant tucked under their scalp can be sent up to the mothership and resurrected. In the three examples here, Brown chooses not to examine the potentially sinister aspects of the Kethani's methods and motives (the revived are changed, the rough edges of their characters smoothed away, and many repay their alien benefactors by acting as missionaries for them -- Brown presents this arrangement as wholly beneficial and altruistic); nor does he peer into a post-Kethani future, where the world teems with the re-animated dead. Instead he focuses on the generation who see the Kethani land, the first to enjoy their gift, and considers the small effects and moral problems that individual characters experience as a result. I'm reminded of the Ndoli chip that features in a number of Greg Egan's short stories, but while Egan's tales are purely intellectual exercises, Brown's are warm and homely, centring around a group of drinking companions in a Yorkshire pub. "Thursday's Child" is the best of the three (possibly of the book), dealing with the fate of a dying girl raised by parents of differing religious beliefs, one of whom has prevented her from being implanted. It ends a bit too neatly, but the issues it raises are examined closely and passionately. "The Kethani Inheritance" concerns the dilemmas of a man whose overbearing and unpleasant father is due to be resurrected, while "The Touch of Angels" is more of a detective story, in which a policeman is confronted with an apparent murder for the first time since the Kethani arrived.

Category two we might dub "SF stories of the old school". Prime among these is "Ulla, Ulla" -- an astronaut returns from Mars and is invited to England by an eccentric gentleman who wishes to share a secret with him, and quite frankly the clue's in the title. We see the protagonist's relationship with his wife and with his fellow astronauts to begin with, but this is all pruned away and left hanging until we're left with two men discussing the problem in a room, somewhat in the "As you know..." style. "Instructions for Surviving the Destruction of Star-Probe X-11-57" and "The Spacetime Pit" are stories of the "spacemen in peril" variety, well handled but familiar.

I'm not sure where (if at all) to place "Eye of the Beholder". This is another highlight, in which a writer's inability to relate to other people is manifested in his sudden inability to see anyone else -- an inverted Invisible Man.

The remaining three stories are broader in scale, indulging in a spot of world-building. "Ascent of Man" is an odd one, depicting a radically different future human society, but not in enough detail (or perhaps, without enough recognisable referents) for the reader to really get to grips with it. "The Children of Winter" works better, taking more time to set up a colony world where a young colonist and a native fall in love in defiance of the discord the Elders try to promote between the two communities. Probably the best (and best-known) of these three is "Hunting the Slarque". Here an eminent tracker is sent back to the planet where he died, to retrieve his wife and a living Slarque specimen before the sun goes supernova. The atmosphere on the planet Tartarus is one of Ballardian apocalypse, the native fauna and human settlers taking no action as doomsday approaches, the hero drifting into the jungle to witness the final wonders before the lights go out. Offworld, there's a real sense of a wider society that we only get to see the fringes of.

A mixture of styles and of subject matter, and if the quality is mixed as well, at least there's more good than bad. Threshold Shift is worth a read for anyone who enjoys ideas-driven SF.

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