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A Step to the Stars

by Philip E High, edited by Philip Harbottle

(Cosmos Books, $15.00, 173 pages, C-format paperback; 2004.)

Review by Eric Brown

This is the second collection of cover scanHigh's work, edited by Philip Harbottle, to be published by Cosmos Books. The first was The Best of Philip E. High (reviewed elsewhere on this site), collecting together the highlights of High's writing career in the short form from 1956 to 1970. The present collection gathers stories written over the past few years and previously unpublished. As might be expected, when compared to the 'Best of' collection, these later offerings do not quite reach the standard of his earlier tales, though are remarkable for a writer approaching his ninetieth year, and are always entertaining.

The same themes and concerns are apparent in A Step to the Stars as in the Best of... collection: a sharp eye for the shortcomings and failings of humankind, and the explication of betterment through alien intervention.

In "Steps to the Stars", a mysterious portal opens up between Earth and a strange world; investigation discovers the world to be inhabited, and prey to invasion from barbaric alien hordes. Humankind rush to the aid of the oppressed, vanquishes the invaders and become heir to knowledge of life beyond death.

Again, humanity is transformed when subjects using virtual reality, in "Virtual Reality" unwittingly bring the events and experience of VR to existence in the outside world. It's a neat twist on the routine VR story. In "Tune out of Time", a time-traveller discovers that humanity is no more than an experiment 'dumped' on Earth in the far past, for epiphinal purposes. Again, it's a clever take, this time on the old time-travel and alien-intervention story, which High manipulates to his own ends.

In "Pioneer Plus", perhaps the best story in the collection, colonists unable to return to Earth from a well-realised, hostile alien world are saved by a unique form of communication with supposedly hostile aliens.

"The Thing at the Bottom of the Garden" begins with the hoary old cliché of an alien visitor to Earth and creates an interesting, and amusing, take on the idea: the authorities jump to the conclusion that the strange visitor is hostile, while quite the reverse is true...

The other stories in the collection, while not as intriguing as the above, are almost always readable and entertaining. The only story that didn't work for me was "The Price to Pay", the confusing story-lines failing to intersect satisfactorily in a story which, again, proclaims the salvation of the human race.

It's encouraging to have available the more recent work of this veteran writer, thanks to the hard work of editor Philip Harbottle and print-on-demand publisher Cosmos Books.

(A note on the cover: it's a vivid, stirring, 1950s homage by Ron Turner and admirably sums up the spirit of the stories in A Step To The Stars.)

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