Filler content of unknown provenance

Here’s a review that almost certainly appeared somewhere, but I’m not sure where and am too damned lazy to dig into my records and find out:-

THE LIFE TO COME by TIM LEES

Elastic Press pb, 200pp, £5                                       www.elasticpress.com

Tim Lees is a name that should be familiar to any long standing reader of TTA, and nine of the sixteen stories that form this collection have appeared previously in either TTA itself or sister magazine Crimewave, while an eye catching cover from artist Richard Marchand underlines the connection.

Lees is a writer whose influences at times seem a little too close to the surface, but he wears them lightly. Aliens, spacecraft, other dimensions and all the tropes of Science Fiction are a vital ingredient of his craft, but the end product is a kind of superior kitchen sink drama where these things serve as catalysts for a minimalist and emotionally acute form of storytelling in which human beings are always central. His prose is subtle, detailed and rich in observation, with an eye for nuance and shades of feeling. If he has a fault it is that occasionally the stories seem to end long before any resolution is reached, but this shortcoming, if it is that, is a by product of a narrative driven by character rather than plot.

‘Home in the Light’ is in many ways an atypical Lees story, its central character an alien who echoes Vonnegut’s Trafalmadorians in the ability his race have to manipulate time and spend their entire lives in a single, happy moment, but this particular alien has overshot and is stranded on Earth where he struggles to fit in. The story, as witnessed through the eyes of a woman who rejected his advances and now feels responsible for what happens to him, is not so much about what it means to be an alien, an outsider, but how the extraordinary is rendered null through association with the mundane, and with a hint of the redeeming power represented by love. In ‘Boomtime’, which could easily be the mirror image of this story, Lees presents the opposite scenario, with the aptly named Man from Mars flooding the Earth with cheap consumer goods and humanity reduced to cargo cultists, ignorant of the true cost of this material bounty, the story convincingly told from the viewpoint of an ex-con and alcoholic. At back of both stories is the observation that the miraculous and the ordinary cannot co-exist without irrevocable harm to one or the other.

This theme is reprised in a series of stories that bring to mind the classic novel Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, in which alien technology abandoned on Earth holds no more significance than the rubbish left behind by a family out on a day trip in the countryside. Title story ‘The Life to Come’ depicts a world in chaos, where an alien blob appearing in the living room and taking up residence is no more remarkable than the phone ringing, as the unrealised future seeds the past in the hope of ensuring its own reality, while in ‘Relics’ a young man from the city comes to the islands and scavenges for artefacts from an alien craft that crashed in the sea. In both stories the science fiction elements, engaging as they are, play second fiddle to the human relationships, with John in the former story prompted by force of circumstance to rekindle his relationship with old girlfriend Hannah, while the protagonist of ‘Relics’ is revealed as essentially shallow and incapable of commitment, to either the search for artefacts or the beautiful Julia, who he loves, and as a result he loses the only things that are worth having. In ‘Homeground’ the rural enclave of Stickley Grange is changed by the presence of an alien spaceship and the distortion of reality that follows, with the miraculous trivialised and reduced to tourist attraction as the less scrupulous locals attempt to cash in, a marvellous work of fiction that speaks of the serpent to be found in every Eden, because it nests in the human heart.

Another trilogy of linked stories, both thematically and by common characters, feature the doings of the iconoclastic hobbyist as inventor, Uncle Edward. In ‘Starlight’ he captures a stellar being, an event that transforms the life of his nephew, who is given a glimpse of the numinous only to see it cruelly snatched away leaving him dissatisfied for ever after. Beautifully written, with compelling characterisation and a sense of wonder, this is a superb story, but also something of a closed circuit, and by using the characters again Lees somewhat dilutes the effect. Each story stands alone but comparisons are inevitable and not wholly beneficial, as with ‘Oi’ which changes most of the details but can’t disguise the fact that, in all of the essentials, it’s basically ‘Starlight’ all over again, using a different mechanism to attain the same end. That’s certainly not true of the third Uncle Edward story, ‘Jinner and the Shambly House’, which has that worthy recounting a childhood adventure in which he and some friends went to a local edifice with an inauspicious reputation and what came of their visit. The story is a tour de force of invention, Lees packing the narrative with telling detail and giving a whole new twist to the genre standard in which children visit a haunted house with dire results, the bittersweet but chilling denouement a masterpiece of wry understatement.

At least initially, ‘The Anti-Fan’ brings to mind the King novella Secret Window, Secret Garden as a successful comedian is accused of plagiarism by a fan, with even the character’s name (Mike Downey) echoing that of Mort Rainey, but as the story progresses something different emerges, an unsettling evocation of the true price of fame that in its closing moments shifts closer to Bradbury classic The Crowd but is uniquely Lees’ own.  Another highlight of the collection, ‘Everybody’s Crazy in the West’ shares a similar concern with the fragility of popular culture, as an on his uppers film writer called Jimbo is drafted in by Hollywood to write the story behind this year’s big movie, which features real dinosaurs, and given a chance to test his theory that film has so permeated life there’s a kind of seepage from one to the other, resulting in a friability of the collective consciousness itself and blurring of the boundaries, as Jimbo is reduced to bit player in the film of his own life.

With six more stories as part of the package, this is a strong collection from a talented new writer, and may well be the most significant volume to come from Elastic Press since Marion Arnott’s Sleepwalkers.

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