Saturday, 30 June 2012

REVIEW: The Obverse Quarterly: Tales of the City

 ed. Philip Purser-Hallard


Open up Tales of the City, and there’s immediately something amiss. The copyright page displays the traditional legend “All characters in this book are fictional. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is wholly coincidental.” Which is rubbish. Tales of the City is full of the genuine, historically verifiable individuals. Technically, it features all of them, but only a few actually show up on the page. Still, not many books could feature authorial interpretations of Socrates, Lazarus, Helen of Troy, Philip and Jane Dick, Kurt Cobain and sundry Neanderthals, and still hold together.

Tales of the City is the first volume in the second year of the Obverse Quarterly range, and the first short story collection to be given over wholly to works set in the City of the Saved, that galactically vast metropolis that is, or will be, home to the entirety of humanity. Every individual who could feasibly be described as human, protohuman or posthuman, who ever lived or will live, resurrected beyond the end of time. The City first appeared in the Faction Paradox series, which itself originated with Lawrence Miles’s work in the BBC Doctor Who novels. Despite this, being a fan of Who is not necessary to enjoy any Faction or City-related material. Equally, while I’d recommend reading the Faction Paradox novel Of the City of the Saved… before Tales of the City (I’d recommend reading it anyway, it’s fantastic), it’s not necessary. Tales can be enjoyed in isolation.

Not that any of the stories exist in isolation. The City, after all, is a place in which almost any character, real or fictional, can interact. Even aliens can turn up on holiday. This volume includes the first City material by someone other than its creator, Philip Purser-Hallard (barring an occasional earlier paragraph), but PPH bookends the tales with his own material. These have the effect of placing the stories in context. The opening short, ‘Akroates,’ as well as being a fun introduction to the concept of the City, also introduces us to the dominant deme of the volume - a deme being a sort of functional family of biologically unrelated resurrectees. These characters, a peculiar mix if ever there was one, feature in their own stories throughout, before reuniting for the closing tale, “Apocalypse Day.”

The overarching theme of the volume is the heavy price of eternal life. Frankly, I can think of little more terrifying than the idea of an unending afterlife. The citizens are physically invulnerable, impervious to harm or pain, but to be left with your insecurities and neuroses for all eternity is something else entirely. Throughout, though, are hints that this state of affairs are set to change (tying into the catastrophic events of the aforementioned novel). Characters question whether a life without suffering is a meaningful life at all.

Blair Bidmead provides the first full-length story, “Happily Ever After is a High-Risk Strategy.” Bidmead is definitely a writer to watch, with a great imagination that is put to good use in this story. A wanderer, having discovered that the love of his life was not the love of his afterlife, hitches a lift in a sentient human car. It’s a road trip story, a touch unfocussed, but is a perfect introduction to the vastness and diversity of the City, and has some points to make about human aggression and clannish behaviour.

“The Socratic Problem” might be my favourite story of the collection. By Elizabeth Evershed, it takes place in a university comprising the greatest philosophers of all time. Among the inevitable politics and petty bickering that occur among its dons and lecturers, one Professor Inigo Faber makes the suggestion to invite Socrates to be guest lecturer. The great man turns up, not quite appearing as his intellectual descendants expected him to be, and becomes a student, threatening to tear the university down with his unending questioning. Very, very clever and very, very funny, this is a perfect example of using the City’s remit to include all humanity to tell an engaging story.

Juliet Kemp’s “Lost Ships and Lost Lands” is more of a straightforward adventure story, exploring the geography and topography of the immeasurably vast City. It still has interesting things to say, though, questioning how it must be to exist in an inalterable, perpetually youthful state. The protagonist, Brianna, has never attained any self-improvement, in her two centuries of City life. Is this because her physical form has remained the same, constraining her? Her illicit attempts to change her physical body, her imago, lead her on a journey that allows her to begin to develop.

Two further stories, “About a Girl” and “Bruises,” explore similar territory. Both take the inviolable nature of the imago as a starting point, and extrapolate from there. The talented Dale Smith provides a very disconcerting story in “About a Girl.” I imagine that an anthology series of the City of the Saved would work well on television, if people could get past the lack of physical jeopardy for the protagonists. “About a Girl,” though, would surely be unfilmable, or at least unbroadcastable. Something that surely occurs to anyone when confronted with the idea of the City: what about those who died as children? Most, it is revealed, mature naturally following their resurrection, becoming as unchanging as their fellows upon maturity. A proportional few, however, remain in their immature state forever. One such is the heroine of this story, a 250-year-old woman trapped in the body of a six-week-old girl. She’s perfectly happy like this, especially with her posthuman, cybernetic enhancements, and doesn’t see any problem in her relationship with an adult man. It certainly raises some uncomfortable questions, not least of which is how the human mindset might be forced to adapt to immortality and all it brings. The story also brings in some famous faces, including members of the notorious 27-Club, those live fast, die young musicians who have become urban legends for all dying at the same age. What would life in the City mean for somebody who committed suicide? What would life as one of untold undecillions mean to somebody who thrived on fame? A fascinating, uncomfortable read, “About a Girl” will stick with you long after reading.

“Bruises,” by Dave Hoskins, is an intriguing, unhappy, erotic story. “Ever hear the one about the masochist living with the sadist? The masochist keeps saying ‘Hurt me!’ and the sadist keeps saying ‘No.’” What would life invulnerable mean to those people who get off on pain? What sort of underground would develop, lusting for this lost part of their lives? “Bruises” explores the fine line between pleasure and pain, asks if the one can exist without the other, and explores the temptation of both. It also comes up with a very interesting solution to the question of what might happen in the City to someone who had already been resurrected. Very well written indeed.

Helen Angove’s “Highbury” is another fine piece of writing. A Jane Austen parody, but with a wit and skill that most such works lack. The City, being so vast in extent and population, has room for societies of every stripe, so long as they don’t require violence or physical harm. There are, of course, untold ways to perpetrate psychological harm. Highbury is a district whose inhabitants choose to live in a late 28th/early 19th century English high society; a living sentimentalist novel. Some originate in the genuine era, while others are Austin freaks. After Socrates, Sophia is my favourite character in Tales; a young woman brought back into her natural family’s dominating lifestyle, smothered by their outdated social norms. By pinning it against the backdrop of the City, “Highbury” shows how utterly ridiculous the obsessions of class, wealth and standing of the 19th century - and by extension, those of today - truly were. Such things are utterly meaningless, but the perennially unmarried Sophia believes in them. It takes an insidious, external influence to open her mind, and allow her to show how strong and intelligent a woman she is. In some ways a very straightforward story - the only one that can be said to feature a genuine villain - it’s also one of the best written.

Every story in Tales of the City is well-written, however. That’s the joy of a short volume like this; there’s no room for filler, only stories that deserve to be read. As well as entertaining me, the stories left me questioning, eager to learn more about the City and wondering about some uncomfortable aspects of human nature. I learned some new words (I’ll be trying to get “omegapuntal” and “bothrium” into conversation). There are still many questions about life in the City to be asked; in particular, I have a morbid wondering about those who died unborn. The great thing about this volume is that’s there’s plenty more left to explore. I hope that there are more collections set in the City of the Saved to look forward to.

Purchase Tales of the City here, in ebook or paper form.
Read more of PPH's material on the City here, but don't read the timeline or final story until after reading Tales.

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