When I read Nina Allan’s latest novel recently, I noted that her work occupies two worlds, one is our everyday reality and the other is somewhere or somewhen else. We doubt this other world, but not sufficiently to dismiss it out of hand. There is an ambivalence which leaves the reader uncertain what to trust.

It is a delicate balancing act, but one that Nina Allan treads with remarkable aplomb. And it invariably leaves me wondering whether I am in fact reading mainstream fiction or genre fiction. No, that’s not quite right, better to say: it leaves me wondering whether I should read the work as mainstream fiction or as genre fiction. What matters in her work is not what the fiction is doing, but the perspective from which the reader approaches the fiction.

And now I have read The Art of Space Travel and Other Stories, which is, frankly, the best collection of short fiction I have read in years. There isn’t a dud here, but I remain uncertain what I have actually read. Turn to the back of the book and read the details of where these stories first appeared: Interzone and Clarkesworld and tor.com and so on. From the credits these are without exception science fiction or horror or fantasy or some such permutation of the fantastic. Yet I don’t believe I can read any of these stories as science fiction or fantasy or what have you. Oh the genre elements are there, but as a decorative detail hung in the background; what is in the foreground, what makes these stories what they are, is a strong sense of the psychological cost of living in quotidian reality. The genre doesn’t matter, we may be reading of a post-apocalyptic future or a landscape with fairies, but that is never what the story is about; what matters is the sense of reality.

The two worlds I talked about in relation to the novel are here, in practically every one of these stories. And what makes the story genre (if we are to approach it from that perspective) is invariably part of that second world, the world of doubt and uncertainty.

One of the things about stories is that they necessarily condense things that might otherwise be dissipated across the greater length and scope of a novel. You can see the shapes more clearly. So as I was reading these stories I became aware that my suggestion of two worlds was really too simple a reading of the work. The extra thing I noticed was that there is always an absence: somebody or something is missing from the protagonist’s picture of the world. More often that not that absence is family: there are missing parents through this book, but also siblings, friends, lovers. And the second world, the thing that promises to take the protagonist out of mundane reality, is connected with this absence, a way of coping with it. It is where the absent person has gone, or how they might be remembered. It is a place of doubt but also of hope, but it is a place that can never be reached, often because it is symbolically the place of death. Or perhaps it would be better to say it is the place where death would be if there were any certainty in this life. In “The Gift of Angels: An Introduction”, for example, the protagonist is a 50-odd-year-old science fiction writer, but the absence is his mother. When the protagonist was a child, she was part of what was meant to be the first manned expedition to Mars, but all communication with the ship was lost shortly before they were due to land on Mars. It is assumed she is dead, it is assumed they all died, but we don’t know; they may be there, still, just silent. And she is not the only character in this collection who is assumed to have died, but without anyone knowing for sure.

“The Gift of Angels: An Introduction” is a sequel of sorts (there are several stories in this collection that share characters and references without specifically continuing the same story) to the title story, which is, to my mind, perhaps the best story here. “The Art of Space Travel” is a perfect example of the generic ambiguity of these stories, and of the role that absence plays in the psychological reality we explore. At first blush, this seems perfectly science fictional (the story first appeared at tor.com): we are some way in the future. Years ago, the first manned flight to Mars was destroyed, perhaps by terrorist action; now, years later, a second expedition is being planned. Except that all of that is largely irrelevant to the story. The setting is a Heathrow hotel where two members of the Mars crew will be staying for just one night on their way to the launch facilities. The two crew members are celebrities, and so the hotel is besieged by cameramen and journalists. But none of this is centre stage, our attention is on Emily, the young woman who is in charge of the housekeeping staff at the hotel. There are two absences in her life. One is her mother, Moolie, who has dementia, which is a great demand on Emily’s life, as Moolie gradually withdraws from this reality. The second is the father Emily has never known. When younger, Moolie was a scientist peripherally involved with the first Mars mission, and there is a suggestion that the father might have been one of the astronauts who died, or at least one of her colleagues. The Mars mission, encapsulated in a book Emily has had since infancy called The Art of Space Travel, becomes the second parallel reality that helps her cope with the absences in this reality. The truth, of course, turns out to be rather more mundane than Emily might like, but that is often the way in Allan’s fiction as the non-mundane fades from view.

Much the same can be said for the other story that vies for my attention here, “The Science of Chance”. The setting is Moscow in an alternate reality in which an atomic bomb was dropped on the city during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Now, many years later, the city is pretty much back to normal when a child is discovered standing outside a subway station that miraculously escaped destruction in the bomb blast. The child cannot or will not speak, and the only clue to her identity is a purse she clutches ferociously, and which contains nothing but an old newspaper clipping. The clipping dates from just before the bomb, and by following up on it the investigator begins to sense that the child has actually slipped through time from the moment of the explosion. The absence in this story is, of course, the loss of an entire world that might have been had the bomb not fallen, and the child as a revenant from that world-changing moment is the secondary reality. Of course the truth is much more mundane, but we sense that giving up on this dream of a secondary reality is harder than facing up to the absence in quotidian reality.

Tempting as it might be to go on about how much I love each of the other stories in turn (I was particularly struck by “Heroes”, Microcosmos”, and “A Princess of Mars: Svetlana Belkina and Tarkovsky’s lost movie Aelita“), I will resist that temptation. But there is one last thing: what’s with all the spiders? They play a significant role in at least two of the stories here, “A Thread of Truth” and “Four Abstracts”, and I remember quite a few years ago when I was asked to blurb Allan’s novella, Spin, which also has an arachnid fascination. Someday I must find out what’s going on here.