"Trees. Tall trees and short trees, trees in autumn colours and trees winter-stark, branches bared against the sky. Trees with needles, trees with leaves golden, brown and every possible shade of green. Trees in sunlight. Trees weighed down with snow. Trees that covered this land from the mountains to the see with only a few clearings cut in the m where men huddle. At first I could see nothing but tees. Nothing else stayed still for long enough."- from "On the Wall" in Starlings by Jo Walton.
Starlings is a collection of speculative fiction short stories and poetry by Jo Walton, author of the novels Among Others and My Real Children. In the introduction, the author says that despite having won multiple prestigious awards for her novels she felt it took her a long time to get the hang of writing short stories. As she warns, some of the short stories in this book are actually extended jokes, poetry with the line breaks taken out, or the first chapter of a novel that didn't get finished. However, I think she is selling herself short a bit since a couple of the stories in this book are incredible. Even the ones that aren't really stories are pretty interesting, and the poetry is beautiful and evocative.
Some of my favourite stories were:
The Panda Coin
This one reminded me of the short stories of Nalo Hopkinson, another speculative fiction writer and one who should be better known than she is. It's like one of those essays they give children in the first week back of school after the holidays about the life of a penny, if they were written by a talented adult author. It follows the journey of a gold coin stamped with a picture of a panda as it travels from hand to hand through the population of a space station. This gives a slice of life at the station, from the workers moving cargo, to drug dealers, android prostitutes gradually achieving sentience and longing for freedom, and the AIs who control it all. A Burden Shared
Technology has been invented that allows people to share the pain of loved ones. A mother whose daughter was born with a congenital illness that causes constant pain takes on the pain for her child every day, until she can no longer tell if she's experiencing pain of her own. Fans clamour to share the pain of celebrities, and there is a stigma attached to the use of pain killers.
This one felt a lot like an early Kurt Vonnegut short story, focusing on the social implications of new technology in a relatable way.
On the Wall
On the Wall is a retelling of Snow White, told from the perspective of the magic mirror, who is in this version as much a victim of the Queen's lust for power as the young princess will be. It's an eerie, tragic tale. Sleeper
I love how subversive this story is. It reminded me of the Dennis Potter mini-series Cold Lazarus, in which a dead writer's mind is revived by scientists in the 24th century in order to profit from broadcasting his memories.
In Sleeper, in the year 2064, a young researcher named Essie simulates the consciousness of a director for the BBC named Mathew Corley, who died in 1994. This new version of Mathew is created as a marketing gimmick to accompany the biography Essie has written of him. Readers will be able to interact with him and ask questions about his life but he is not supposed to be truly conscious. However, Essie has another agenda, and believes that a genuinely conscious version of Mathew might be willing to help her bring it to fruition.
A group of young people aboard a generation ship bound for another planet have grown to love life aboard the ship, and come to realise that the opportunities they have there might not be available to the colonists once they reach their destination. Fedra is a dancer, who adores Ballette, a version of ballet which can only be performed in partial gravity, and she hates to think that one day the art she loves will be no more. Her friend Jay loves the art and music aboard the ship and doesn't like the idea of a future focused mainly of farming. The friends discuss whether the Turnover, the point when the ship stops accelerating away from Earth and starts decelerating towards the new planet is really inevitable after all.
What Would Sam Spade Do?
This is another story that had a bit of a Vonnegut vibe to it. In the future, cells taken from the shroud of Turin have been used to clone Jesus Christ. Many clones of him were made, so that all the different churches could have one, and while some are religious leaders, others take up other jobs and lead different lives. The hero is a Jesus clone who chooses to keep his hair cut short and his face clean shaven and operates a detective agency. This time the case he has to solve is one where traces of Jesus' DNA have been found at the scene of a murder, making the detective himself technically a suspect.
Starlings is an interesting mixture of bits and pieces, some a bit flat, some brilliant. It's well worth a read for those stories in it that are real gems.
Disclaimer: I was given a complimentary copy of this book by Tachyon Publications, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
Published: 13 February 2018