This review originally appeared in The Third Alternative #41:-
THE ELASTIC BOOK OF NUMBERS Edited by ALLEN ASHLEY
Elastic Press pb, 278pp, £6 http://www.elasticpress.com
As with the previous Elastic Press anthology, Alsiso, this also is a concept volume, potential contributors being asked to create a story with a number in the title and central to the plot, a challenge which was accepted by twenty three writers.
And, again as with previous Elastic projects, a goodly number of the contributors will be names familiar to readers of TTA. Joel Lane gives us ‘Where None is the Number’, the tale of a man who wins a large sum of money on a lottery and finds that it doesn’t bring him the happiness that was promised on the tin. This is an unusual piece for Lane in that, while every bit as downbeat as much of his other writing, it demonstrates an enviable comic talent, with a witty and laconic narrative voice that fires off a number of satirical barbs with pinpoint accuracy. ‘Two Moon City’ from Tim Lees is at the same time a witty pastiche of ERB’s Barsoom novels and telling reflection on the possible effect on a culture of having two moons with, as in all the best SF, human behaviour thrust under the microscope. Neil Williamson’s ‘The One Millionth Smile’ is beautifully written and the characters have a real depth to them, with a warmth and touches of detail that engage the emotions, but the story didn’t quite work for me; the scenario, in which a family uses numbers to extend life was too contrived for the necessary suspension of disbelief. Editor Allen Ashley, the Dodo himself, and Tim Nickels join forces for ‘While We Were Sleeping, Numbers Took Over the World’, a catchy riff on the theme of CHIP and PIN, giving us civilisation as calculus and the collection’s most innovative piece, using typographical effects to provide a story as visually appealing as it is readable.
There are plenty of other good stories as well. ‘Approaching Zero’ by John Lucas is a deftly told account of a new plague that sweeps the world, causing people to ‘slim’ down their possessions and, obliquely, questioning our own attachment to material things. Mark Patrick Lynch’s ‘Breach of Contract, Clause 6A’ is an assured slice of Horror fiction, the chilling tale of a man involved in a rather suspect form of employment (or possibly a late night game show on C4), the attention to detail, the phlegmatic prose style and the protagonist’s apparent indifference to what he is doing all adding to the sense of unease. ‘Twenty One Again’ is the best thing I’ve seen from the pen of Neil Ayres, one brief but pivotal moment in the lives of twenty one people in the saloon bar of a public house presented in compelling detail, the writer capturing perfectly the feelings of his characters, their individual concerns and distinctive voices, and showing the way in which their stories overlap to create a gestalt piece in which the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts. It’s a tour de force of social mimicry and observation, reading like nothing so much as Geoff Ryman’s 253 intercut with an episode of East Enders. In ‘Sixty Thousand Pieces of Glass’ a mosaic artist and her boyfriend fall under the spell of a charismatic cult leader, with a resolution that’s not for the faint hearted, author Sam Hayes demonstrating the same ability to get under the skin of her characters and draw the reader in, almost against his will, with a raw and painful emotional honesty that typified her novel Out of Mind. Donald Pulker’s Kafkaesque ‘Dial 1-800-2-To-Live’ presents the intriguing scenario of a dying man forced to jump through hoops in a vain attempt to save his life, while Phil Locascio’s ‘The Square Root of Two’ is the first person narration of an embryonic serial killer, a man obsessed with accuracy and cleanliness, the tone of voice never faltering for a moment and with a wicked twist at the end, though perhaps it does spread its madness a little bit thin to convince totally. Joy Marchand’s ‘The Sympathy of Five’ has a Russian émigré trying to establish a connection with his dead brother through the help of a gifted tattoo artist, but finding the cost rather more than he expected, an engrossing and moving account of loss and addiction. ‘Mine the Primes’ by Julian Todd is a delightfully tongue in cheek SF fable, presenting us with a future in which travel across the galaxy is achieved by exploiting prime numbers, a non-renewable resource, the story rising above the prevailing air of unreality to deliver a telling parable of ecological abuse and exploitation. Toiya Kristen Finley’s ‘7.33’ is a tale of voodoo curses and tangled emotional relationships, skilfully told and with some nice touches of detail, though I recoiled slightly from its somewhat old-fashioned denouement.
And then there’s the one that works so well it throws everything else into the shade. You often see a particular story described as ‘worth the price of admission alone’, and usually it’s just hyperbole, but The Elastic Book of Numbers has a story which justifies the hype, Marion Arnott’s wonderful ‘When We Were Five’ which will probably turn up in every Horror genre Year’s Best that’s published (but I advise you to get the book now, just in case Ellen, Stephen et al are asleep at the wheel). The story is told from the viewpoint of a man remembering the days of his youth when, as a student, he visited Communist Russia and met the woman Valentina, a cleaner at the hotel where he stayed and graduate of the Siberian prison camps. Through a series of incredibly vivid dreams the protagonist experiences the most significant events in her life, bearing witness to the heartrending tragedy at its core and becoming caught up in Valentina’s revenge on the commissars who murdered her loved ones. This is a story in which, despite the supernatural elements incorporated seamlessly into the text, the real horror arises out of the actions of human beings. Arnott’s sense of place, her depiction of Mother Russia’s troubled past, is completely assured, with scenes and people who come alive on the page and sear their place in the reader’s memory, while the storyline is both emotionally harrowing and totally involving, holding the reader’s attention in a grip of iron until the final word has been read. It’s a landmark story in her career, another Prussian Snowdrops or Marbles, and, trust me, you are going to want to read it.
Arnott’s story is the jewel in the crown of a book that’s remarkable for the range and strength of the fiction on offer. Okay, not everything is of an equal fineness and there was at least one story that I hardly liked at all but, on balance, The Elastic Book of Numbers continues this publisher’s fine tradition of providing quality fiction at affordable prices and deserves to sell like it’s going out of fashion.