Sunday 24 July 2011

REVIEW: Faction Paradox: A Romance in Twelve Parts

A short story anthology from Obverse Books
Edited by Stuart Douglas and Lawrence Miles
Faction Paradox has had, rather aptly, a long and fairly tortuous history. Beginning as a mention in Lawrence Miles’s New Adventure Christmas on a Rational Planet, they developed into a fully-fledged adversarial organisation in the BBC’s eighth Doctor novels, before Miles ripped them free of the Whoniverse and took them into worlds their own. Having fuelled novels by Mad Norwegian Press and Random Static, audio series by both BBV Productions and Magic Bullet, and a sadly short-lived comic series by Image, the Faction are now in the hands of Obverse Books.

A Romance in Twelve Parts is, in Obverse tradition, an anthology of short fiction, set within the vast universe that is the Spiral Politic. The universe is in the thrall of War, between the Great Houses (read: the Time Lords, only far more impressive than they’ve ever been in Doctor Who or Gallifrey) and the Enemy (read: whomever you like, frankly). While these two sides battle over the right to construct history according to their own essential needs, the Faction skulk on the sidelines, causing as much trouble as they can. They don’t care too much who wins the War, as long as there’s some kind of history left to pervert afterwards. What’s so appealing about this shared universe is that it requires little to no knowledge of other Faction Paradox materials to enjoy any one release; the individual stories are linked, often tenuously, only by the universe in which they occur (those that do occur, many stories telling of things that never actually took place, retroactively speaking). Indeed, the Faction don’t appear in every story of the anthology, although their insidious presence is felt throughout. More overt a theme is, once again in Obverse tradition, the power of story and narrative. History is our ongoing story, after all, and we are writing it all the time. Fear those who choose to go back and rewrite the details.

A Romance is edited by Obverse supremo Stuart Douglas and Faction creator Lawrence Miles, although Miles doesn’t provide a story himself. The quality of the content is so high that I find it difficult to pick standout stories, so instead I shall address them in printing order (the Faction would doubtless disapprove). Matt Kimpton begins with ‘Storyteller,’ written as an old Norse folk tale. Concerning the plight of the Storyteller, his need to tell his tales and desire to be part of the story himself, it evokes the ancient sagas as much as it does Obverse’s ongoing obsession with storytelling power. It’s a beautifully written piece, immediately setting the standard for the volume high.

‘Gramps’ by Jonathan Dennis is a short but brilliant piece that transposes a vital part of Faction mythology to a retirement home, and gives it a dangerous, feline twist. ‘Mightier Than the Sword’ by Jay Eales tells us the tale of a habitual criminal and his transfer to a prison for writers. Written in the first person, it uses con lingo without ever quite stooping to ‘narks’ and ‘naff orf,’ and develops into another powerful exploration of the nature of story. Blair Bidmead’s ‘Now or Thereabouts’ is a work of quiet genius, that manages to work as a parody of The Apprentice (much funnier than it has any right to be), an exploration of the Faction’s methods, and a truly surreal dream sequence.

‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ say David N. Smith and Violet Addison takes us from the confines of the Faction’s base in the Eleven Day Empire to a turning point in human history. It deals with similar ideas as Neil Gaiman’s recent Who episode The Doctor’s Wife, but develops the core concept much further, and is far less comfortable. Stuart Douglas himself writes ‘Library Pictures,’ a distinctly creepy story which brings Iris Wildthyme into the universe of the Faction. I wasn’t sure how well this would work, but Douglas pulls it off beautifully. Iris’s brazenness make a wonderful contrast to the Faction’s deliberate air of mystery. Concerning the perfect, eternal prison, it’s a haunting tale, and funny too.

Scott Harrison’s ‘Holding Pattern’ is a fine horror/sci-fi story. Told in a more straightforward fashion than most of the stories in the book, it develops from what seems to be a fairly typical space story into something more interesting, as two people investigate a world on the frontier of the temporal War. Ian Potter’s ‘A Story of the Peace’ may, or may not, tell of the Faction’s discovery of the ultimate weapon. The one thing that could turn the tide of the War is, naturally, the Peace. One precocious Faction Cousin manipulates both sides of the conflict, all the time a victim of the most heinous manipulation herself. If any story gives us a flavour of life in the Faction, this is it.

The highly regarded Daniel O’Mahony provides a rollicking yarn in ‘Print the Legend,’ set in a superbly realised Amerika, that lost era of the Old West when cyborgs rubbed shoulders with shuggoths. Related by that infamous Amerikan wordsmith Charlie Dickens and featuring the legendary John Gault, this is a thrilling period of history and we should all mourn its passing. Way back in his two-part novel Interference, Lawrence Miles explored the idea of a cosmic geek. With ‘Tonton Macoute,’ Dave Hoskin takes that idea to its ultimate, creating a being that can devour timeships and bleeds alternative histories. ‘Alchemy’ by James Milton is an opaque but intriguing story of the battlefront between rationality and magic. When the tide in this conflict is turned on the planet Tagonique, there are consequences for the entire, endless War.

The final story, ‘A Hundred Words from a Civil War,’ is one of the best. Philip Purser-Hallard sequalises his masterpiece Of the City of the Saved… an earlier Faction Paradox novel set in a vast realm beyond the end of the universe, in which every human being who ever lived has been resurrected. ‘A Hundred Words…’ takes the form of a hundred vignettes, each showing a snapshot of the war that has engulfed the City since the capacity for violence and death were reintroduced. Vast in its scope, it provides follow-up pieces for many of the other stories in the book, yet brings the story of uncounted undecillions to a resolute conclusion. PPH explores the nature and consequences of two things that humanity will surely never escape - violence and faith.

A Romance in Twelve Parts is undoubtedly the strongest publication by Obverse Books to date. Its twelve stories are astonishingly different in content and style yet match in flavour. Offering glimpses of a vast and bewildering universe, this anthology promises that there’s still a great many more stories to be told. The Faction are in perfectly unsafe hands.

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