Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Pandemonium: Stories of the Smoke

Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin (eds), 2012
(October 2012)

I’m a winner baby! Well, runner-up at least. If you’re at all interested in speculative fiction then you should be aware of the fine pair who run pornokitsch, and occasionally edit short story collections such as this under the Pandemonium umbrella. I made a mildly amusing comment on a competition blogpost a while back and this ebook was my reward.

As the name suggests, this is a set of themed SF short stories inspired by Dickens’ London. Personally that sounds very appealing, but despite the scope for invention that brief would seem to offer, a lot of contributors here have interpreted it primarily as an invitation to write in a stiff, faux-Victorian idiolect. Taken as individual pieces that’s fine but, in all honesty, taken en masse it starts to grate a little. I took several breaks reading this to try and avoid that grating. That’s not the drawback for an anthology that it would be for a novel, it should be noted.

The cumulative effect is that those stories who strive for a different voice really stand out. Uncle Smoke (by Archie Black), a bird’s eye view history of London, is the best example of this and probably my favourite story in the collection. James Wallis’ mash-up of Macbeth and Oliver Twist in the post-crunch Square Mile has a less distinctive voice but is an interesting concept done well, despite the weak title (Aye, There’s the Twist. Multiple allusions does not automatically equal good, more's the pity. It's not even from the right play). Inspector Bucket Investigates (Sarah Lotz) is the opening story and well chosen as such, being the one that cleaves most closely to the brief, and is fully deserving of its place at the top of the order.

It’s tempting to say that this all feels a bit like China Miéville-lite but that would be unfair. This is a strong collection overall and the only real low point is Necropolis (Jonathan Green), which is a walking tour of the city through the eyes of an attempted rapist. It’s as awkward as it sounds, and isn’t helped by the author’s seemingly deliberate ignorance of Orwell’s first rule of writing. No cliché is left unwrung, and when a vaulted space is described as ‘sepulchral’ for the second time in less than a few hundred words you almost start to miss the girl from the opening paragraphs and the awful blandness of the ‘form-fitting black leggings showing off the sculptural curves of her long legs.’ At least those curves are ‘sculptural’ and not ‘sculpted’ (or indeed 'sepulchral'). Small mercies, eh?

In sum though, this might just be the thing that finally prompts me to invest in a Kindle or the like. If there’s more stuff like this available primarily in that medium I wouldn’t want to miss out. I might even be willing to pay for some of it.


  1. The kindle is so worth it. I have nothing but contempt for paper books now. If I were living in Japan, I'd need it even more.

    To be honest, with a title like pandemonium, I'd want a good panda pun in there somewhere.

    1. Blimey, contempt is a little harsh ;) I'll admit to a slightly unhealthy fetish for the physical objects themselves so I'd never go that far.

      That said, it's getting harder and harder to deny the sense of going digital.

  2. Anyone who sends me back to Orwell is all right. I'd love to quote all parts of the link, but for others wanting to know why they must read more Orwell, consider that little is missing from his rule of writing:

    "i. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
    ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
    iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
    iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
    v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
    vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous."

    1. Thanks for filleting that. The best bit is, of course, the massive get out clause he left himself in number 6. Always thinking ahead, that man.

    2. My father, who among his many failures did not read Orwell, did follow laws ii and iii: he cut my first essay in half. It was meant to be a thousand words - grade 7, I think. I'd typed into our Apple II (only one in the 'hood!), and he'd accessed it when I went to bed and took out the redundancies and filler. A fine lesson.

  3. Can't anyone just sit back and enjoy a story anymore? Or is so much writing really that bad?

    Made up stuff can be kind of hard to get into, that's why I have a preference for stories that are based on real experiences where the author has 'been there' in one way or another.

    But that's just me. Now let me go see what's up with that Nick Anderson kid... apparently there's a lot that somehow gets left out.

    1. I did enjoy the stories! Well, the vast majority of them, at least. I also enjoy almost everything I read here, as a general rule, and largely they're all well written (or if not, have other positive attributes). I guess in all that good stuff the bad stuff stands out more, or is easier to comment on.

      As for real experiences versus made up stuff, I guess it depends on the quality of the stuff, as ever...