Apocalypse and trams

Future Bristol
edited by Colin Harvey

This collection of short stories was compiled by a local writer (who sadly died earlier this year) to showcase science-fiction writing from in or around Bristol, so all the authors either live here or nearby or have done at some point. Though the depictions of the future are very varied, there are some common themes that say something about both Bristol and the preoccupations of the present.

I must say that in general I was more impressed by the ideas in this volume than the writing. This is mostly a taste thing. I like to have good strong characters and will happily forego storyline if the characters are written well enough. This volume conformed to that common criticism of science fiction that character comes second fiddle to ideas. I don’t actually think that’s true of the very best science fiction, but it was certainly true here. If I haven’t got to know a character, how am I going to care when crazy future apocalyptic things start happening to them?

That said, I really liked all of the ideas in these stories. I preferred the subtler futures where the city has changed and future generations have slightly different words for places and landmarks, and only vague ideas of where a name like “the Circus” or “Canesh’m” has come from. Meaningless to an outsider of course but brilliant for anyone familiar with the city.

Futures varied but tended toward the pessimistic – manmade or environmental disasters, global warming, spiralling crime – and even the more positive ideas had negative aspects. There’s the hackers who use stolen nanotechnology for the common good, only the corporations are watching their every step. There’s the urban explorers who encounter aliens in Clifton Rocks Railway. There’s the flooded city where pirates are back in full force and the police must tread carefully (possibly my favourite visually, though obviously heavily reminiscent of The Drowned World).

I think my favourite story, or at least the one that I have kept thinking about the most, was the one written by Colin Harvey himself. It’s called “Thermoclines” and is about a future when humans have evolved into winged creatures because they cannot touch the ground for fear of “the grey”. From a small community in south Wales, young Garyn is a star hunter but is tested to the limit when a rare visit from outsiders takes him on the long journey to “Brisel”, or what’s left of it. I liked that this story doesn’t try to explain everything, its hints and suggestions raising more questions than answers. It’s also one of the better examples of characterisation in the collection.

This was an interesting project and as an adopted Bristolian I loved the insider’s views of the city (and indeed disliked the more touristy moments, lingering on Clifton and the suspension bridge). I loved that multiple authors mentioned bringing back trams to the city, or found uses for the derelict Parcelforce building next to Temple Meads railway station. This definitely answered my search for stories set in Bristol, but I’m not convinced I’ve found any great new voices here.

Published 2009 by Swimming Kangaroo Books.

On location

I have lived in Bristol for a few years now and am coming to really love it. Like most things I love, I want to get to know it better. There’s a few ways of doing this, like going for random walks and attending community events, but one that particularly appeals to me is finding some books that are set in Bristol to read.

I mean, when a book’s setting is an important element of the story, when it’s evocative and detailed, it invariably makes me want to go to that place and walk in the footsteps of the characters, visit the same cafés and cinemas. I love that feeling. But what makes an author choose their setting? Any writers among my readers want to comment?

I don’t think, as far as I can remember, that I have ever read a book set in Bristol. There must be a few. It’s a reasonably sizeable city and a particularly creative one. But the majority of books I’ve read that are based in Britain use London for a setting. I know it makes sense in terms of mass appeal. At any given time around 10% of the UK population lives in London, possibly more. If you consider how many of those people spend only a short part of their life there, then the proportion of Brits who have either lived in London or regularly visit friends or family in London has got to be pretty high. It’s certainly the UK city that non-Brits are most likely to have ever visited. And I’d guess the number of authors who have lived there is also pretty high. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if some agents have persuaded authors to change the setting of a novel to London so that it has wider appeal.

But I want to read some books set in my city, so I’m going to compile a list. What should be on it? Please leave some ideas in the comments below. I did find this list (PDF, page 2) but I haven’t heard of any of the books on it. If you have and can recommend or indeed warn me off any of the titles, let me know!

The list so far:
Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar
Dead Innocent by Maureen O’Brien
Gone Without Trace by Caroline Carver
Selfish People by Lucy English
A Respectable Trade by Phillippa Gregory
Future Bristol edited by Colin Harvey
A Penny for Tomorrow by Jeannie Johnson
The Last Llanelli Train by Robert Lewis
Where’s My Money by Mike Manson
Life and How to Live it by Daniel Mayhew
The Sun is my Undoing by Marguerite Steen
Shawnie by Ed Trewavas