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Threshold Shift
Eric Brown
Golden Gryphon, 218 pages

Threshold Shift
Eric Brown
Eric Brown was born in 1960 and grew up in Australia. He now lives in Haworth, England. His novels include The Virex Trilogy (Penumbra, Meridian Days, Engineman, Untouchable and Walkabout -- the latter two for young adults), and the collections The Time-Lapsed Man and Blue Shifting. He is a regular and popular contributor to Interzone magazine.

Eric Brown's Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Approaching Omega
SF Site Review: New York Dreams
SF Site Review: Bengal Station
SF Site Review: New York Nights
SF Site Review: New York Blues
SF Site Review: Parellax View
SF Site Review: Bengal Station

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

Bear with me, this may be blindingly obvious; but then the blindingly obvious is most often what is overlooked. So, we have a genre whose very name suggests a dichotomy; though to imagine it is anything as simple as the split between "science" and "fiction," whatever those two terms might stand for, is probably missing the point. Nevertheless there is a division that runs right through the heart of the genre.

It's not as easy as saying some authors are scientifically literate and some are masters of prose; though that may come into it, it is far from being the whole story. I suspect that it is more the case that some writers turn to science fiction because it gives them free rein to play with ideas, while others do so because of the storytelling possibilities, and those are not the same things. I think we have always instinctively recognised this: no matter how clunky the story we are ready to praise innovative ideas, no matter how familiar the ideas we are ready to praise great storytelling. Of course, at its best, science fiction should combine the two, but the writers who can carry off this trick are far fewer than we like to imagine.

Eric Brown is an author who, for near enough two decades, has hovered around the top of the second division of British writers, without ever quite making the breakthrough into the first rank. He's a solid writer who has steadily earned good if not ecstatic reviews and who has attracted a sizeable body of adherents. Yet there has never been the groundswell of support, the word-of-mouth excitement, the great attention-grabbing work that would propel him to the next level. Reading this entertaining new collection one begins to understand why. Eric Brown is a writer of ideas, and some of those ideas are very good indeed, but they are consistently let down by failures of story.

For example, "Ulla Ulla" (a title which gives the game away for anyone familiar with the history of the genre, as most of Brown's likely readers probably will be) is about a NASA astronaut who returns from the first manned mission to Mars. Something happened during the expedition which he has to keep secret, even from his wife, which puts a strain on the marriage (the marital breakdown humanises a bland hero, but is left dangling long before we get to the end of the piece). A visit to an eccentric Englishman reveals the secret: the expedition found signs of intelligent life on Mars. In fact they found the remains of the Martians from H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds; and the Englishman discloses that they did indeed reach Earth, though they died before they could even leave their craft. Now we learn that the US military is sending another expedition to Mars, but also that the astronaut has another secret he has told no-one: he found evidence that some Martians still survive. And there it ends. As far as it goes this is a competent but unchallenging piece (though so many science fiction writers have now told us that The War of the Worlds was actually non-fiction, the shock would come if someone told us it wasn't true). But it is all devoted to setting up the idea (the Martian survival, the reality behind Wells's novel); the real story (how does he make known his secret and what is the response, what happens to the marriage, to the second expedition, to the Martians) starts just at the point that "Ulla Ulla" ends.

If "Ulla Ulla" sounds dated, the sort of tale that could have been written any time in the last fifty years, I don't think that is a coincidence. The two pieces that are technically the best in the book (though they are far from being the best stories) are the sorts of thing that would occur a lot in the heyday of Galaxy or Amazing or Astounding, though they are not so common these days. They are pure idea, all sense of wonder and nothing more; the writerly virtues of plot and character and setting can be safely ignored because they are irrelevant to what the piece is attempting. "Ascent of Man," another too obvious title, recounts the life of one of our far distant descendants, someone so remote it is difficult to see him as human, who lives literally in a mound of humanity. His life is a gradual ascent through the mound into the light that will kill him. We get no clear picture of what any of this actually looks like, but we get a vivid sense of its strangeness: the idea is king. "Instructions for Surviving the Destruction of Star-Probe X-11-57" belongs as a sort of companion piece to Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations." It is written in the flat, uninflected voice of a computerised alarm system, directing the sole survivor of a spaceship catastrophe towards safety. As in Godwin's story, this is nothing to do with the experience of survival and everything to do with illustrating the vast and implacable horror of the void. It is a potently frightening story, but it scares the intellect not the emotions.

Which is not to suggest that Brown cannot appeal to the emotions; the three best stories gathered here do just that. They are three stories in his on-going Kéthani sequence. Set in contemporary Britain, in fact in the wild landscape of the Yorkshire Dales in winter, they tell of enigmatic aliens who have brought to Earth the promise of resurrection after death. These small-scale stories subtly explore the human and ethical effect of this innovation. In the best of the three, "Thursday's Child," a young mother has, for religious reasons, refused to allow either herself or her young daughter to receive the necessary implant for resurrection. Brown convincingly portrays the moral agonies that the estranged husband has to go through when the daughter develops a life-threatening disease. This story is all emotion, its power dependent not on any big idea but on the impact of those ideas on believable people. Much the same is true of "The Kéthani Inheritance" in which the central character must face the death and resurrection of the domineering father he hates. Again Brown has done a wonderful job with the small-scale everyday emotions of the characters. The third, "The Touch of Angels" which is seeing print for the first time here, deals with the conundrum of how someone can be murdered in a world in which there is no death. It's the weakest of the three, mainly because it doesn't have the emotional punch that the others do, but it is still a very fine story. What lets all three of them down, however, is that in each case Brown settles for a neat, pat ending, a coincidence or an uncharacteristic action rounding things off in a way that seems to undermine the power of the story.

Emotion hovers also in the background of "Eye of the Beholder" in which a writer finds that he can no longer see any other human beings. But the idea is too schematic a representation of his emotional coldness, his inability to form any satisfactory human relationship, for this to fully work as a story. There's a schematic quality also to "The Spacetime Pit" (written in collaboration with Stephen Baxter) which tells how the sole human survivor of a space accident attempts to kick-start civilisation on a remote and primitive planet then goes into suspended animation in her escape pod until such time as the new civilisation might be sufficiently advanced to enable her escape. It's a clever idea succinctly covering a period of several millennia, but since the only character in the story never acquires real substance we don't particularly care whether she makes it or not.

I have often felt that popular vote awards depend more on where a story is published than on its quality. Which is the only possible explanation for why "Thursday's Child," which appeared in the relatively low circulation Spectrum won nothing, while the two remaining stories in this volume, "The Children of Winter" and "Hunting the Slarque," both appeared in the much larger circulation Interzone and both won awards. "Hunting the Slarque" is the weaker of the two. A famous hunter, killed by the legendary Slarque on a planet facing extinction, is raised from the dead to return to the same planet and capture a Slarque. Meanwhile his wife goes ahead, trailing the Slarque to their mountain fastness and discovering the real truth about them. It's a simplistic story -- this happens then this happens then this happens, with no sense of deeper truths or further ramifications -- and all the while Brown, normally good on marital relationships, manages to avoid any interaction whatsoever between husband and wife, which might just have give the story the resonances it needs. "The Children of Winter" is more ambitious, but again fails to make the transition from idea into story. One of a group of youngsters awaiting their initiation into adulthood meets a member of the despised native race and, against all societal norms, they fall in love. So far so good, there are a lot of elements in here to make a good story. But at key moments he keeps letting it slip out of his grip. The initiation ceremony, which so much is built towards, turns out to consist of no more than one elder giving a speech, yet we are given to believe that the contents of that speech are deadly secret and change the minds of the youngsters irrevocably. Nothing we see or hear convinces us of any of this. Moreover, five minutes with his lover is sufficient to convince our hero that everything he has always been taught, plus all the life-altering revelations of the initiation ceremony, are completely wrong in every respect. Even his own notions of his race are wrong: and he goes along with this without a quibble. Every significant notion introduced in "The Children of Winter" has to be accepted in full upon first hearing: that is writing to tell an idea, not writing to tell the story behind the idea.

Don't get me wrong, there is nothing in this collection that is bad, but only the Kéthani stories are likely to engage anything other than the intellect. Anyone who reads science fiction for the ideas is going to love this collection; anyone who reads science fiction for the story is going to wonder what the fuss is about; and Eric Brown is going to wait longer for something to propel him into the top ranks.

Copyright © 2006 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.

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