Monday 3 September 2012

Tales of the City

Philip Purser-Hallard (editor) Tales of the City (2012)

Leaving aside David Louis Edelman's Infoquake and Stephen Baxter's Coalescent, Philip Purser-Hallard's Of the City of the Saved... has thus far turned out to be my favourite science-fiction novel of the twenty-first century, roughly speaking. For anyone who might be unaware, the premise of the novel is a city the size of the Milky Way existing after death of the universe and inhabited by the reincarnated and immortal forms of every human who ever lived. It's Heaven built up with just the right blend of soft science to allow plausibility without so much as a whiff of heavy handed allegory; and Stross, Reynolds, and all the usual award winning suspects read like clunkers in comparison.

Tales of the City comprises short stories set in the same environment, six authors drawn together by Philip Purser-Hallard for a themed collection that reads like a novel in its own right. The theme would appear to be change and the consequences of change unimpeded by mortality, something which, rather oddly, was not explored in such depth in Of the City of the Saved..., at least not so far as I recall. Highlights for me would be Elizabeth Evershed's tale of a reincarnated and undeniably Neanderthal Socrates causing unwitting havoc in the philosophical institution he has inspired, and Dale Smith's About a Girl in which Kurt Cobain forms a relationship with Philip K. Dick's deceased twin sister, reincarnated here as a six-week old baby - which by all rights should have been an unreadable post-modern dog's dinner considering the ingredients, but is probably one of the most poignant shorts I've read in a long time: truly a phenomenal achievement.

For the sake of balance, there are a few fumbled balls here and there, but nothing too bothersome: the Jane Austen homage Highbury is absorbing and beautifully written, let down slightly by its presenting a species nourished by fear and related emotions - seemed a bit too bog standard Doctor Who for an otherwise decent story; Lost Ships and Lost Lands didn't quite seem to go anywhere; and whilst Happily Ever After Is a High Risk Strategy provides a terrific start to the book - all tingly ideas in sharp colours - the Ravey Davey stuff didn't really work for me, interrupting a great story like some glowstick waving stranger plonking himself down at your pub table to dribble on about the amaaaaaaazing time he had in Ibiza. Cool doesn't always communicate well beyond those already well disposed towards whatever is on offer, which is possibly why Dale Smith's story works so well in that he presents Kurt Cobain as a bit of a knob rather than the tortured poster boy to whom we are unfortunately accustomed.

Whilst a chain is generally as strong as its weakest link, Tales of the City is conversely of such quality as to negate those minor niggles  mentioned above. We need more of these authors and more of the City of the Saved.

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