People think I’m crazy, but they haven’t seen the things I’ve seen. – Charles Christian, ‘A Beretta for Azraella’
Proxima Books is a new imprint from those nice people at Salt who somehow – God alone knows how – manage to keep bringing out quality books at a time when the publishing industry is in upheaval if not out-and-out crisis. You would think they’d be battening down the hatches and getting ready to weather the storm but this is obviously their way of tackling the problem – diversification: Proxima Books is a science fiction, fantasy and horror imprint. Their other new venture, Embrace Books, was set to publish historical and romance titles but it didn’t take off as well as they’d hoped and Charles tells me they’ve decided to close it.
Proxima, however, is firing on all cylinders. The first books to be released under the Proxima banner are Jonathan Pinnock’s Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens, Aly’s Luck by Renee Harrell and Charles Christian’s short story collection, This is the Quickest Way Down. Charles kindly sent me a review copy to have a look at. On their website, Steve Haynes, the editor at Proxima Books, lists the eleven stories in the collection and says a little about them. His comments make up the headings that follow with my own responses below. Hope that’s clear.
The book is being marketed as a sci-fi and dark fantasy short story collection.
First a few words about me and science fiction. I’m a huge fan of science fiction; huge. If anything comes on the telly or if anyone makes a film that could remotely be classified as Sci-Fi then I’ll want to see it. Strangely though I have not read a fraction of the science fiction available in book form with the exceptions – and odd bedfellows they are too – of Isaac Asimov and Philip K Dick; I own loads of their books. But I’ve read novels, novellas and short stories by many of the greats: Ray Bradbury, Robert Silverberg, Brian Aldiss, Frederik Pohl, Alfred Bester, John Wyndham, Olaf Stapledon… writers of a certain period and therefore mostly dead or certainly not long for this world. I haven’t read anything you might call ‘contemporary science fiction’ since the seventies. That said, I have approached my science fiction in the same manner as I approached the rest of my reading: when I was only reading literary novels by people who had won the Nobel Prize I restricted my diet of science fiction to authors who had won Hugo or Nebula awards. So, as with the rest of my reading, I am not widely read but I’d like to think that I’m well read.
One of the problems with science fiction is that in every situation you have to explain the rules of that particular universe and exposition takes time so you’d think that short-stories would be avoided by writers of that genre. The odd thing is that it couldn’t be further from the truth. Short stories are the perfect vehicle for science fiction. When they work, they work well, but they only work well when people who can actually write write them. The key skills needed in being able to write quality science fiction short stories are the same ones required to write good flash fiction: knowing how much to safely leave out and what absolutely has to be kept in.
As far as fantasy goes (dark, light or whatever shade) I know very little. Bar The Hobbit, I have never read anything you could really label fantasy. George R R Martin, Steven Erikson, Anne McCaffrey, even Terry Pratchett – these are just names to me – so I didn’t know what to expect from ‘dark fantasy’ but I was willing to give it a go.
Waiting for my Mocha to cool has a killer first page, and is a primer for the themes explored in the rest of the book. It clearly has the author’s voice and is confidently written.
Okay, see what you think:
‘Listen,’ says Nikita, as she begins to unzip my jeans. ‘At work today I overheard a couple of the girls talking about me. One of them called me Concrete Eyes. What do you think she meant by that?’
Nikita looks up at me. I can smell the Jamesons on her breath. It’s obviously been another bad day at the office, so I lie. Well I am a man – and a pretty shallow one dimensional man at that. There’s stationery in my filing cabinet with more depth than me. And I am about to get a blow-job, so I make up a story I hope she’ll believe – or at least she’ll want to believe.
How do you tell a woman (a woman who at this very moment is tying back her long hair – using one of her Montblanc pens as a hairpin to keep it in place – and about to go down on me) that the reason the girls at work call her Concrete Eyes is because they are unusually perceptive? It took me the best part of twelve months to realise she’s possibly the most clinical, obsessed workaholic, emotionally sterile, empty, unlived-in woman to have ever walked the planet.
Sometimes I think this is the only reason why the sex we have is so good – because we both lose ourselves in the physicality of the action to escape from the world.
That’s the whole first page. It’s also the end of that scene those of you who realise that it’s nigh impossible to do justice to any act of sexual congress in just words will be glad to hear. Charles doesn’t avoid sex in this collection but neither does he make a either a meal or a dog’s breakfast out of it. Sex is part of life but it does tend to slow down the action.
This opening doesn’t quite have the power of William Gibson’s opening to Neuromancer – "The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel," or Orwell’s albeit now a bit dated, "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen," but as far as nicknames go, “Concrete Eyes” is a great one; I wanted to know more.
This is a story told in vignettes essentially; a novel (okay, probably a novella) squished down to eighteen pages. It takes just over twelve years to tell their story and for most of that time they’re actually apart; Nikita appears at the beginning and then at the end where she tells him precisely how long the intervening gap has been – 4481 days. Up until that point in the story there has been very little science fiction, fantasy or horror and even when the reason for its inclusion in the collection appeared at a precipitous moment in his life (a ‘manifestation’ let’s call it which both saves his life at that moment and sets him on a course which will put his life back on track) I was a little underwhelmed.
Already Gone is a sharp piece of flash fiction.
This is two pages long, so about 500 words. I’m not the biggest fan of flash fiction. It’s trendy but I have seen it used to good effect even in a speculative fiction context. This particular one, despite its brevity, reminded me one of Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected. It’s not so much that there is a twist at the end, although there is, but so many of those tales leave characters on some kind of precipice. Again, as with the opening story, this is not what I’d call a science fiction story. It has a supernatural element and although it’s a decent story for what it is, it wasn’t what I was hoping for.
Kastellorizon is a good solid traditional sci-fi story.
This was much better; in fact I might have used this as the opening story if I’d been the editor. It begins:
I awake with a jolt – there must have been a sand fly crawling across my face – and for a moment I am disoriented. It is the same beach of my childhood dreams – and childhood nightmares? I look around. Next to me lies a dark-skinned woman, she is asleep and in her arms she is cradling a heavy calibre machine gun. Overhead an enormous sun, an enormous alien sun the colour of yellow ochre, blazes down through a cloudless, cerulean blue sky. No this is an entirely different nightmare.
This is how it begins…
At this point we jump back in time and through space, beyond the Oort Clouds, to his childhood and his sister, Aimee, with whom he used to play on the beach and just what brought him to this Dune-like planet. This looked like it was going to be a fairly classic story of the intransience of guilt and it is a bit, but the theme here is more one of redemption, of second chances. Like the very best science fiction stories if you filtered out all the sci-fi elements, maybe set the story in war torn Afghanistan or somewhere instead, it would still work.
More Important Than Baby Stenick has the vibe of an early Michael Moorcock.
I’ve only read a comic strip adaptation of one of Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné stories – not sure which one – and it didn’t grab me; I’ve never been much of a fan of sword and sorcery stuff. This five-page story couldn’t be further from that. It is set some time in the future during what sounds like World War III, "somewhere south of the former army base at Catterick. Not that the location matters.” A group of men including our narrator, a pilot, take shelter in an old garage workshop whereupon he chances on an old magazine still in its cellophane wrapper and, in a similar vein to the previous story, this triggers a reminiscence of how the world got to where he now found himself. They are clearly on the losing side if Fate has anything to do with it, which is ironic because there was a time not that long before when “there really was nothing more to concern [people] than the fate of Baby Stenick, the then “teenage darling and global superstar of the country and western music scene.”
The End of Flight Number 505 had the feel of an old-fashioned piece of sci-fi, a bit like The Twilight Zone.
As soon as you mention The Twilight Zone to me I think about the original series that ran from 1959 through 1964 not the later incarnations. I think of the bibliophilic Henry Bemis who is content to be the last man on earth as long as he has his books, that is until he shatters his glasses and is left virtually blind crying out, "That's not fair. That's not fair at all. There was time now. There was all the time I needed...! That's not fair!" Or what about William Shatner in the fifth season episode ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’, the only person who seems to be able to see a gremlin tinkering with the wiring under one of the wing flaps?
‘The End of Flight Number 505’ certainly has that feel and I think much of that comes from the first person narrator who says stuff like:
Oh? My name? It’s irrelevant. You won’t have heard of me before and you certainly won’t be hearing about me in the future. However you will have heard the phrase ‘the holiday of a lifetime.’ Well, this was to be the holiday of my lifetime. Which is kind of an odd thing to say, seeing as I’m only 16 years old, but in my case fate has determined I will not live to see my 17th birthday.
There is also a nod to H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds – you know how that ends: “The smallest creatures "that God in His wisdom had put upon this Earth" have saved mankind from extinction.” Well, that’s not quite how this one ends.
Empire State of Mind - Steve Haynes forgot to mention this in his blog
This one reminded me of two things, the final episode of the American version of Life on Mars and the pilot for a show called Virtuality. The storylines in both cases involve malfunctions to the virtual reality modules which are installed aboard spaceships to help crews endure long missions.
This story is in three phases under the general heading: AGENCY PROJECT-SYBOT#29. In this case it’s…
‘Eight men and four women crammed together into a tight space…? Sounds like a recipe for trouble.
‘Haven’t you heard? We’ve been warned to expect 50 percent casualties.’
Is Jack out with his mates enjoying curry and beer night as they have done “every third Thursday of the month for the past 25 years” or is he actually trapped in the North Tower of the World Trade Centre on that fateful day in 2001? Or is any of the above real because suddenly we have Diane with her tutor discussing how to round off these two stories “without resorting to a cop-out of clichéd ending.”
That was also the problem Charles faced here and the problem with science fiction is that there is very little that hasn’t been done before. He opts for the old standby of the science fiction short story writer, the open ended conclusion.
This is the Quickest Way Down is my favourite – it’s a sharp Harlan Ellison type story, that’s very dark and very sexy.
This was not my favourite; I’ll get to which one was in a bit. Ellison I know primarily for three things, the Star Trek episode ‘The City on the Edge of Forever’, the film, A Boy and his Dog, based on his novel and an issue of Detective Comics (#567) where Batman spends the entire issue running to the aid of people who don’t need saving.
This is another short one; three pages long. It is an expanded version of the flash piece originally published in Micro Horror which you can read here. For my money this version would have worked fine in the collection. The Hellevator is a common trope appearing in everything from Angel Heart to Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry. That the Hindu goddess Kali is the bad guy here is a novel twist, I suppose, but I really don’t see why this was Steve’s favourite.
A Beretta for Azraella is great fun, written in a kind of ‘cybernoir meets the devil’ style.
I didn’t see any noir elements in this one at all on first read. It felt more like a high-octane horror film, something along the lines of Doom, with guns a-blazing, and it has that too, but with the presence of the first person narrator and the femme fatale
‘My name’s Azraella,’ she says, ‘but you can call me Ella.’
Yeah, right, I think. As if Momma and Poppa Goth would have named their little girl after the Angel of Death.
I can buy it; there’s a touch of the Rick Deckard here, the film version anyway. I will agree with Steve on this one: good fun, nice surprise (as opposed to a twist) ending and some sharp dialogue:
Dawn is just breaking as we walk through the still open gate. ‘You choose,’ I say pointing at the abandoned Hummer and the Porsche that Retro will never drive again.
‘The Hummer’s got the coolest plates, but the Porsche is more ecologically sound,’ she replies.
We both laugh and get into the Porsche.
The Hot Chick is a very funny and naughty satire on sci-fi authors and conventions.
Fun and funny don’t necessarily mean the same thing – funny that – and Steve is perfectly right when he says that ‘A Beretta for Azraella’ is a fun story, exciting as opposed to humorous, whereas ‘The Hot Chick’ is intentionally comical. Science fiction and humour mix well when done right – just think about Red Dwarf – and it can also be a disaster – remember Morons from Outer Space or Red Dwarf in the hands of the Americans. But I do like a writer who doesn’t take himself too seriously and that’s what we have here. Not Charles Christian, although I’m sure that applies to him too, but the narrator of ‘The Hot Chick’ who describes himself as “a C-list science fiction writer … I write meat-and-potatoes sci-fi.” A taster of his style:
Flushed from drinking too much blood wine, the Klingon warrior maiden threw her puny Earthling prisoner onto the bed. Tossing aside her fearsome bat’leth blade, she tugged open the top half of her tunic, allowing her firm, ample breasts to fall free. ‘jiH DichDaq non IljHab Quch yab tlhej wIjneH,’ she growled. (‘I will blow your smooth-foreheaded mind with my lust.’) Then, grabbing her prisoner’s engorged penis with both hands, she plunged it deep within her mouth. As he watched the Klingon’s head rhythmically bob up and down at his crotch, the Earthling smiled. All was well in his universe.
So you have to wonder what kind of guy writes stuff like that for a living and, hey, we have the return of the guy from the opening story because this fellow also describes himself as “a typical, shallow, one-dimensional male” who has had several encounters of the kind described above even if the particular Klingon warrior maidens involved in his case have sported some less-than-fetching prosthetic enhancements. Where does he meet these extraterrestrial beauties? Where other than the many, many science fiction conventions he attends.
You may have wondered about the fetching blue creature on the cover of this book. Well, she’s n’Drangheta and even though I thought she was supposed to suggest one of the Na’vi from Avatar apparently that’s not the case; well, probably not. He’s seriously impressed with her make-up:
I’d expected her colouring to be limited to the parts of her body not covered by her clothes – but after she gets naked with me (and we get naked quickly), I’m amazed to find that every part of her is blue.
I can see the scalp beneath her short-cropped blue hair is blue. As is her tongue and, well, even those parts of her anatomy on which the sun doesn’t usually shine. They are all bright blue. It’s not a normal pan-stick or body-paint either. It must be some sort of spray-on body-dye as nothing runs, smears nor smudges, no matter how hot, sweaty and moist we get.
Then again she might just be an actual alien and I suppose if he had not thought his (space) ship had come in he might have actually considered that as a distinct possibility – where best to hide in plain sight if not a science fiction convention? – but the furthest he gets to wondering about her is why she chose the name n’Drangheta (apparently it’s “one of the names for the Calabrian mafia”) and what were all those cameras doing pointing at him?
Confessions of a Teenage Ghost-Hunter is a neat and pleasant ghost story.
Okay another not-strictly-science-fiction story – what’s that, four? – and it has a similar tone to a couple of the other stories. Charles lets us think we’re heading in one direction when actually he has something else up his sleeve. Seriously, though, who calls their dog, Woolfgang? Georgia and her boyfriend, the narrator, are strolling home one night, at least they’re trying to stroll, but Woolfgang is having none of it; something in the wood has scared him, his “ears are slicked down onto a head that never once glances back in the direction of the wood.” But the couple have sensed something too and once safely back at home Georgia brings the matter up; they share their past experiences of all things spooky and for a while I wondered where it was all going until the big reveal at the end that has Woolfgang’s “eyes rolling white in fear.” Somewhat similar in approach to the prologue to Twilight Zone: The Movie.
By The Steps of Villefranche Station is a great long-story to end the collection. A confident piece of a gentle apocalypse, very J.G. Ballard, that combines many of the themes that run through the book.
Loren Eaton in his blog I Saw Lightning Fall writes, “Even those only fleeting familiar with science fiction know the genre took a dark turn a few years ago and has kept the course since. Post-apocalyptic rules bookstore shelves…” I wouldn’t know. But I do have a soft spot for this kind of fiction so I was pleased that the last story in this collection takes place after a most unusual apocalypse. No nuclear holocaust, no alien invasion, no biological disaster. No, people just start dropping dead of, as far as anyone can tell, natural causes.
This was my favourite story without a doubt. I was a great fan of the British series Survivors devised by Terry Nation, the guy who gave the world the daleks. I also quite enjoyed the recent remake but I hold a soft spot for the original. In this short story, Lex, a journalist, decides that rather than staying “in the grey cold and wet on an English spring waiting for death [he] could head for the sun.” Which is what he does. (I presume this is the same Lex from the opening story.) He drives down to the Channel ports in Kent, blags his way aboard a yacht heading for France and then, driving a succession of abandoned cars, heads off through Provence along the Route Nationale N98 until he reaches Villefranche-sur-Mer, a town he knew from before, a place which brings back some good memories when he thinks about it; somewhere he’d once been happy. The community is welcoming: he buys his way in with a bag full of morphine – “[p]robably enough to kill off everyone still left alive on the Riviera – and is granted “life membership of the Club Civette.”
This is a gentle story. Life is peaceful there. The community is self-sufficient and friendly. Things have not degenerated enough at this stage for them to be afraid of road warriors or bands of cannibals. They fish, they drink good wine, engage in convivial conversation and, every now and then (apparently when there’s an energy spike from some dying reactor) they can even be entertained by the occasional e-mail including one from a Russian mail-order bride, Tasha, who, for the hell of it, the community invite to visit.
I pointed out at the start how derivative and self-referential science fiction has become and although this isn’t the most original science fiction story I’ve ever read it is a different take on the classic dystopian view of the future, a peculiarly continental one. Interestingly, in his short review of this collection, R B Harkness cites this story as his least favourite:
If there is one slight smudge on the shine, it’s the last story. ‘By the Steps of Villefranche Station’ is not a bad story, but it doesn't quite have the polish of the others. It feels as though it might have been written some time before the others.
All I can say is that it takes all kinds to make a post-apocalyptic world.
Overall then? This is a well-written collection of stories and considering the fact that it mixes fairly traditional science fiction stories with others that have a more supernatural bent I think he pulls it off. None of them wowed me – I didn’t feel the need to pull Carrie away from her editing to tell her what I’d just read – but I think that’s more because most science fiction these days underwhelms me. The best compliment I can pay these is that if they did decide to produce another anthology science fiction series along the lines of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits then several of these would be worth looking at adapting. Oh, one thing to watch out for: the sly reappearance of the mocha in many of the stories; that and Prisoner mugs, and probably more – a nice touch.
Charles Christian is a former practising barrister which he quit because, as he puts it on his blog, “the work I was then doing was t-e-d-i-o-u-s-l-y sucking-my-soul-from-me-dull and that I would go mad if that was all I had to look forward to for the next 35 years.” From there he moved into PR and is currently a freelance journalist and writer.
He is the editor and publisher of the Legal Technology Insider newsletter and The Orange Rag is the newsletter's official blog and breaking news source. In addition he is the former editor and publisher of the Ink Sweat & Tears webzine, which is where I first became aware of him. He has also had a number of poems and short stories published in the UK and USA. This is the Quickest Way Down is his first collection. Currently he is working on “a revision and re-MacGuffinization of” his novel featuring a Russian nightclub gun-check girl and is “thinking about converting one or two of [his] stories into a graphic novel format. [He’s] therefore currently looking for a hot-shot manga-literate artist with good figurative skills as a starting point.” If you know one or are one, drop him a line.