Filler content with barnacles

Another review that appeared in Zest #4 way back in 1998:-

Author: Lucius Shepard
Publisher: Millennium
Price: £5.99 Paperback (292pp)

Widely acknowledged as one of the finest prose stylists currently writing Science Fiction, Shepard has the ability to blur and ultimately rise above genre boundaries. This is his third collection of stories. The two previous volumes, The Jaguar Hunter and The Ends of the Earth, received World Fantasy Awards, and the title story from this book the Nebula Award.

‘Barnacle Bill the Spacer’ is the story of a poor boy who did good, its eponymous hero a mentally handicapped outcast, reviled by the population of the space station on which he lives, but Bill manages to save them all from destruction. There’s a fairy tale quality to the story, rendered convincing by the cynical and world weary voice of its narrator. Equally impressive in ‘Human History’, in which the survivors of the human race battle each other and their secret masters in a grim post-Apocalypse world. Neither story has much to offer in the way of new concepts, but the sheer quality of the writing, the depth of characterisation and wealth of incident help them to triumph over the clichés inherent in the material.

These two long stories account for more than half of the book. The remaining five stories are not of the same high standard, and three are not properly regarded as SF, though still illuminated by that ethereal quality which is this writer’s hallmark. ‘Sports in America’ is the story of a contract killing that goes wrong, with dialogue as gritty as anything to be found in the pages of George V. Higgins, while ‘Beast of the Heartland’ is the swansong of a boxer at the end of his career, a poignant and memorable celebration of grace under pressure. Less convincing is ‘All the Perfumes of Araby’, about an American in the Middle East getting involved in drug smuggling. ‘A Little Night Music’ takes an interesting premise, zombie musicians playing jazz, and delivers a satisfyingly ambiguous ending, while ‘The Sun Spider’ is an oblique but highly readable account of the discovery of a solar lifeform.

Though not on a par with Shepard’s earlier work, much of which is being reissued by Millennium (I especially recommend vampire novel The Golden), this is nonetheless a collection that is well worth seeking out.

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