October's issue of the SFF magazine might be regarded as the "Chris Beckett special", as it includes a long interview with the British author plus three of his short stories. I have to confess I hadn't been aware of him before, but was intrigued by his background (as a social worker and now a university lecturer) and his transgenre approach to fiction. Not an easy interview to summarise, but I share his liking for marginal territories and other, hidden, worlds.
Poppyfields (by Chris Beckett, illustrated by Vincent Chong) concerns the relationship between Angus Wendering, an unambitious office worker, and two women; his ambitious wife and a mysterious girl who appears out of nowhere in a patch of wasteland called Poppyfields. This wasteland is central to the story; a large development site, locked in a legal tangle, which has reverted to a natural haven which attracts birdwatcher Angus to spend time there. The girl comes from an alternate Earth and has her own particular agenda. The story has charm, especially in the descriptions of Poppyfields, the flavour of which brought to mind Grahame Wright's Jog Rummage (reviewed on this blog a year ago) despite that being very different in other respects. My only criticism is that I found the ending a little too pat to be satisfying.
The way in which the compliant Angus is ruthlessly manipulated by both of the women in his life is amusing, and there is an echo of that in Beckett's next story, Greenland. This is illustrated by Warwick Fraser-Coombe, the illustration being repeated in colour on the cover. It is set in a grim future in which global warming has turned England into a semi-tropical land swamped by refugees from countries made uninhabitable by climate change. Juan Fernandez is one of these refugees, an educated man struggling to find any employment to enable him to support his demanding wife and their young child. The dream of everyone is to escape to Greenland, which is now a pleasantly habitable land. An opportunity arises to achieve this if Juan agrees to participate in an experiment using a matter replicator/transmitter to send a copy of himself to an orbiting space station, but there is an unforeseen consequence.
In Rat Island by the same author (illustrated by Daniel Bristow-Bailey) a man looks back at the photos he took as a young boy in an England which is only slightly in our future. The man's circumstances are not explained other than comments which indicate that fundamental changes have taken place; he describes our time as a period of:
"Incredible folly, blind recklessness, it all now seems – blazing electric light for no purpose at all except advertising and decoration – but it was a golden age, one of the pinnacles of history. We lived in a great global empire of light and plenty, fuelled by the ancient energy of ancient suns stored up over millions of years and burned up by us in one great, glorious hundred-year binge."
The focus of the story is on the boy's experiences as he and his younger sister visit their father, a prominent civil servant in a London which is, all unknowing, on the verge of disaster. His life is changed forever when his drunken father reveals to him exactly what is happening.
These last two stories were as intriguing and well-written as the first, but I found their dark mood a bit depressing; I don't mind reading such stories occasionally, but I prefer them to be surrounded by less gloomy tales.
There are three other stories in this issue.
IF, by Daniel Akselrod and Lenny Royter, concerns a brain insert known as the IF Chip, which creates an imaginary speaking companion (usually in toy animal form) programmed to teach, guide, and be a friend to children; a great boon for busy parents. The problem is that when the chips are removed in adulthood, the companions refuse to go away. The plot concerns the attempts of Richard, a medical scientist, to cope with his intrusive toy camel while struggling to develop a serum which will banish such companions for good. An amusing tale, well told, with a rather old-fashioned feel (which is not a criticism).
His Master's Voice by Hannu Rajaniemi, illustrated by Paul Drummond, is a strange tale of an intelligent talking dog and his equally modified cat companion who are searching for the master who adapted them and who has been incarcerated for his crime of creating a clone of himself. I never did entirely figure out what was going on.
The Corner of the Circle by Tim Lees (illustrated by Warwick Fraser-Coombe) is offbeat in a different way. A teenage boy occasionally visits a relative in a near-future New York, and forms a relationship with an intriguing woman who becomes an honorary aunt. The focus is entirely upon this relationship, and the visits by aliens using a nearby portal as a transport nexus for their spaceships seem peripheral to the plot.
The rest of the magazine contains the usual news and reviews, including an interview with Charles Stross. At least the stills from the films reviewed include only two pictures of characters holding guns this time; last issue there were four, which seems a little excessive (especially since one picture included two of them). I have nothing against guns – I shoot them when I get the chance – but I do find Hollywood's preoccupation with them somewhat tiresome.