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Songs of Leaving
Peter Crowther
Subterranean Press, 240 pages

Songs of Leaving
Peter Crowther
Peter Crowther was born in 1949 in Leeds, England, where he attended Leeds Metropolitan University. He is the editor of the World Fantasy Award-nominated Narrow Houses anthology series. He lives in Harrogate, England, with his wife and two sons, and works as communications manager for one of the UK's biggest financial organizations.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Cities
SF Site Review: Mars Probes
SF Site Review: Foursight
SF Site Review: The Hand That Feeds
SF Site Review: Lonesome Roads
SF Site Review: Moon Shots

Past Feature Reviews
A review by John Berlyne

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This new collection of stories by Peter Crowther offers real nourishment for all connoisseurs of short fiction, for the author is a master of the form. Though prominent and highly respected in the fields of dark fantasy and crime fiction, Songs of Leaving brings together a group of Crowther gems that are thematically science fiction -- stories that have appeared in various anthologies over the last ten years or so. What is perhaps most striking about these works is that Crowther is using the genre not to extrapolate futuristic ideas per se -- though indeed there are some wonderful and inventive concepts at work here -- but moreover, he explores the effects of these concepts on his characters, sometimes in isolation, sometimes as part of a larger society. Consequently these stories are about humanity, whether it be defined as the simple fact of being human, as mankind itself or as the quality of being humane.

The collection opens with "Some Burial Place, Vast and Dry." The last survivor of a doomed space mission lives alone on a strange planet where he receives an annual visitation from some alien airborne structure. Quite what this is, we are never explicitly told and this allows the manifestation to be as exotic and strange to us as it is to our protagonist. The thing swirls into the story and, before the eyes of the survivor, it coalesces into a hybrid of every conceivable architectural creation he has ever seen -- the thing is vast, a panorama of buildings... "Stuccoed walls, tiled roofs, loggias, open courtyards; wooden sash windows decorated with thin strips of white marble trim along their sills; dolman windows enriched with crockets and finials... square towers, tall chimney stacks, ornately carved balustrades and a million-and-one gargoyles resting, sitting, flying, hiding." Crowther paints a haunting and ethereal picture of staggering proportions and, when we learn that this creation is peopled with younger versions of the protagonist, it becomes clear that it is created from past memories. Where the story goes, I will not ruin for you, but it left a real impression on me as a reader and it stands as an elegant and fitting homage to the work of Ray Bradbury, an acknowledged influence on Crowther and to whom this story is dedicated.

In a piece of deliberate symmetry, the final story of the collection and the one from which it derives its title, is also one that is more about impression and atmosphere that any plot driven situation. "Songs of Leaving" is underpinned by a particularly solid prime mover -- that of a pending asteroid collision with Earth in contemporary times. Crowther tells us of the scramble of many to build space ships and of the accompanying exodus, but the story is really about those left behind. Far from the predictable panic and pillaging that might be depicted in some Hollywood movie, Crowther tells a story of hope and of the wonder of the human spirit. He suggests that we might meet such a fate with dignity and celebration and not have to do so within the doctrines of established religions or some weird fringe cult. Rather he allows us to explore the truths of what really matters -- all the rest is mere chattels.

When he chose to employ it, the unexpected turn is always subtle in Crowther's work, never signposted for the reader and never thrown in for effect. When it is used as the hook for a the story, as in "Surface Tension," a pulpy tale about a space crew being eaten by a bunch of alien rock creatures, Crowther creates something that is simultaneously truly horrible and great fun.

The story that appealed to me most was "Heroes and Villains." Here the conceit is a familiar one to those of us who, like Crowther, have a fondness for comic book heroes. In this world, these characters are part of the fabric of society but in an example of his sheer brilliance, Crowther inverts the established tropes -- yes the heroes are the good guys and the villains are the bad, but they're all just people when it comes down to it. They have dreams and desires, families, histories, needs and dependants and, X-ray vision or not, they suffer from doubts and hopes and all the other things that make us human. And overriding this, there is necessity -- without the villains, what use the heroes? And vice versa -- the existence of one necessitates the other and if one were taken away, the purpose of the other would go too. "Heroes and Villains" is an absolutely superb story!

Another example of Crowther's versatility as a writer comes in the striking time travel story, "The Killing of Davis-Davies." An assassin is sent back in time to kill a business rival of a large corporation. The resulting tale is a mind-jarring temporal loop that reads at an almost manic pace, its energy at first disorienting the reader and then leaving them wondering how on earth the author managed to pull it off. In "Late Night Pickup," a repetitive narrative technique is also employed, this time to relay the strangeness of an alien abduction experienced by the protagonist.

There are gentler stories too in this collection -- "Elmer" tells of a child befriending a strange alien amoeba; "The Invasion" is an altogether softer and more sympathetic approach to themes similar to those tackled by Stephen King in Dreamcatcher, and "Palindromic," a delicate puzzle of a story, resolves itself beautifully and again displays Crowther's mastery over the short form.

I found myself a little non-plussed over "A Place Worse than Hell," a story which sees a clone of Abraham Lincoln wandering through modern day New York City -- this was the only story in the collection which, for me anyway, lacked closure. Both Crowther's fascinating story notes and the learned and extensive introduction by Adam Roberts shed some light on this, but without their aid, I might have been struggling.

"Setting Free the Daughters of Earth" is another high energy story and it stands apart from the rest of the collection in that it is set in a future dystopian society. In this world, stories, indeed the printed word, have been banned and thus forced underground. For any bibliophile, this idea is surely horrific and Crowther beautifully works it through the character of his protagonist, an addict who, when offered all sorts of vices, knows he only wants the merest glimpse of a written word, any written word, for his fix. As with virtually every story in this collection though, the reader cannot assume he knows where the story might be heading. In "Setting Free the Daughters of Earth," Crowther blindsides us and the trick he pulls is one of stunning quality and effect.

Songs of Leaving is a fine collection indeed and demonstrates admirably that, of the many feathers that Peter Crowther currently displays proudly in his cap (editor, anthologist, publisher of the superb PS Publishing imprint, and others), it is the one stamped "writer" that sticks out the most. I hope that with all his myriad endeavours, he will continue to produce work of this standard and thrill, excite and surprise us all for many years to come.

Copyright © 2004 John Berlyne

John Berlyne is a book junkie with a serious habit. He is the long time UK editor of Sfrevu.com and is widely acknowledged to be the leading expert on the works of Tim Powers. John's extensive Powers Bibliography "Secret Histories" will be published in April 2009 by PS Publishing. When not consuming genre fiction, John owns and runs North Star Delicatessen, a gourmet food outlet in Chorlton, Manchester.


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