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The Periodic Table of Science Fiction

by Michael Swanwick

introduction by Theodore W Gray

(PS Publishing, £25, 274 pages, signed, numbered, limited edition hardback, ISBN: 1904619002. Also available as signed, numbered, limited edition slipcased hardback, £60, ISBN: 1904619010. Published August 2005.)

Review by Lawrence Osborn

cover scanThis volume is a collection of 118 short-shorts that first appeared weekly on Ellen Datlow's late lamented Sci Fiction website. The unifying theme, as the title indicates, is the chemical elements -- every one of them from hydrogen to the probably non-existent ununoctium!

Having been duly amazed that anyone (even a science fiction writer of Swanwick's originality) would come up with the barking mad idea of such a collection, I was then completely blown away by its content. In spite of the very clear unifying theme this is an incredibly diverse collection. The stories range from humorous ('Jane Carter of Mars') to chilling ('Angels of the Apocalypse'). Some of the stories are simply based on the properties of the element in question (though sometimes the property owes more to Swanwick's imagination than to any chemistry textbook). Others exploit uses of the element (e.g. the entry for barium is a no holds barred account of the barium enema -- readers may find it a little disturbing!) or play with infamous misuses of the element (why did Lucrezia Borgia poison her husbands?). In some cases, the story is a play on words (e.g. germanium and yttrium) or merely uses the element as a prop in an otherwise unrelated tale. He even manages to squeeze the odd alternate history into less than a thousand words (e.g. 'The Era of the Iron Horse').

Underlying the variety and helping to unify the collection are a variety of secondary recurring themes. Several of the stories are connected as they follow the fortunes of Summergarden Specialty Ores and particularly its star employee Adrienne Wong-Hepworth (affectionately known as the Dragon Lady). Another recurring theme is artificial intelligence in various forms.

The stories may be too short for Swanwick to do more than hint at characterization and description, but he manages to maintain the readers' interest by varying the style and genre of the stories -- switching between first and third person, making extensive use of allusion and direct reference to historical and fictional characters. Among the genres used in the collection are hard SF, sword and sorcery, fairy tale, myth and folk tale (e.g. an AI version of the little boy who plugged a hole in a dyke with his finger). There is a good deal of humour in these stories and I particularly enjoyed the satirical element in many of them, often directed at our perennial tendency to think of ourselves as the centre of the universe.

The icing on the cake is that PS Publishing have made a really nice book out of the collection. They have taken pains to make the page design as attractive as possible with a font that is easy on the eyes, attractive chapter headings that pick up the periodic table theme, and each story beginning on an odd-numbered page (or fresh recto in the language of the trade -- an eminently sensible tradition that has been abandoned by too many publishers in the interests of economizing a little). The hardback looks and feels good. I wish more publishers took such care over their products.

In summary, this is a fascinating collection that illustrates what the short-short is capable of in the hands of a first-rate storyteller.

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