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.