And we start with Infinity Plus Two edited by Keith Brooke and Nick Gevers with a (somewhat perfunctory) introduction by John Clute (PS Publishing 2003).
There are many arcane reasons for the particular selection of stories that appear in a reprint anthology. They might represent some measure of ‘best’, they might represent some specific theme, they might be stories rescued from obscurity, they might simply display the individual taste of the editor(s). What they usually do not do is represent the taste of the contributors. But that is the premise of the Infinity Plus anthologies. A bunch of regular contributors to the infinity plus website have been asked to choose one of their stories for the anthology. The result is decidedly curious. There are stories here that are clearly long-time favourites – Vonda McIntyre’s ‘The Genius Freaks’ was first published 30 years ago, in the glory days of Damon Knight’s Orbit series, while Lucius Shepard’s ‘The Arcevoalo’ is nearly 20 years old and I refuse to believe it hasn’t been collected before now. Other contributors, however, seem to have gone pretty much for their most recent story, or for something from relatively small circulation sources. The variation in quality, therefore, is marked.
Paul Park’s ‘Untitled 4’, for instance (first published in Fence in 2000), is a confused and confusing mishmash of ideas in which a writer imprisoned by a peculiar form of totalitarian state edits a couple of stories by the student who betrayed him, and in them finds an account of the real crime he committed. If this is what he has chosen to represent him, one can only assume he hasn’t been producing much of real rigour lately. Adam Roberts, on the other hand, probably doesn’t have that much in the way of short fiction, but this still feels like a poor representation of his work. In an alternate Victorian England where the lands discovered by Lemuel Gulliver were real and Liliputians are used as slaves, a story that starts off being about slavery and industrial exploitation, turns into a story about guilt and betrayal, and ends up as a straightforward tale of invasion, without satisfactorily tying together or concluding any of these strands. Michael Moorcock probably does think that ‘Cheering for the Rockets’ is a good representation of his work, since it brings back Jerry Cornelius and others from the familiar repertory company, though what they do doesn’t actually make much sense and Moorcock seems to believe that using the name Jerry is all that is required in the way of characterisation.
But if these are the weaker stories, there are others which are much stronger. Stephen Baxter, indulging yet again his recent obsession with the mammoth, is not quite at his best with ‘Behold Now Behemoth’: the story of the possible survival of a mammoth as a family pet in Cornwall really needs a better resolution than it is given, but it deals interestingly with a subject that is actually becoming a little too familiar. Much the same can be said of Brian Stableford’s ‘Emptiness’, which takes him back to the theme of vampirism. This is a small-scale piece about a poor, poorly-educated woman in a run-down inner city who, for a few weeks, adopts a vampire baby. It is beautifully observed, but again feels like the story simply ends rather than being resolved.
Both Charles Stross, in ‘Bear Trap’, and Eric Brown, in ‘Dark Calvary’, offer stories that are bursting with ideas and with life. Perhaps too much so, it is hard to keep track of all the novelties that fizz and sparkle in the Stross story, so that in the end you’re not entirely sure whether everything ties together or not. While Brown’s tale of fevered religiosity in a fevered jungle setting builds to an horrific climax that still feels rather a let-down after all the invention that has gone before.
It also does Brown’s stories no favours to place it immediately before Terry Bisson’s ‘The Old Rugged Cross’, which takes the same idea of crucifiction and makes it both funnier and crueller, and more politically telling; and only two stories after ‘Dark Calvary’ is ‘The Arcevoalo’, written by Lucius Shepard when he was capturing the sweaty, foetid, garish romance of the jungle with almost ridiculous ease. These two stories together bring the collection to a powerful, vibrant conclusion.
Though I have to say that perhaps the best story gathered here is ‘The Rift’ by Paul J. McAuley, which is also set in the Amazon jungle, where a disparate (not to say disfunctional) group of climbers are descending a strange canyon where, in an inversion of Conan Doyle’s Lost World, they meet their ancestors. Here is one story that really does know how to resolve itself, even if it does so, appropriately enough, with a cliffhanger.
First published at Livejournal, 30 July 2003.