Ian Mond Reviews Four NewCon Press Novellas

Nomads, Dave Hutchinson (NewCon Press 978-1-912950-00-3, £15.99, 84pp, hc) February 2019. Cover by Peter Holinghurst.
Morpho, Philip Palmer (NewCon Press 978-1-912950-01-0, £15.99, 117pp, hc) February 2019. Cover by Peter Holinghurst.
The Man Who Would Be Kling, Adam Roberts (NewCon Press 978-1-912950-04-1, £15.99, 57pp, hc) March 2019. Cover by Peter Holinghurst.
Macsen Against the Jugger, Simon Morden (NewCon Press 978-1-912950-07-2, £15.99, 63pp, hc) March 2019. Cover by Peter Holinghurst.

Since 2017 NewCon Press has been publishing novellas by some of the top science fiction and fantasy writers in the UK, including Alastair Reynolds, Anne Charnock, Simon Clark, Una McCormack, and Hal Duncan. These novellas come in sets of four, and more recently each batch has had an overarching theme such as “The Martian Quartet” (Set 3), “Strange Tales” (Set 4), and the recently released fifth set, “The Alien Among Us”.

We begin with Nomads by Dave Hutchinson, the author of the Fractured Europe quartet, ar­guably one of the most important science fiction series of the 21st century. If things were fair and just, an adaptation of the books would currently be screening on Netflix, HBO, or Amazon Prime and Hutchinson would be a household name. While Nomads is, sadly, not a new instalment in the Fractured Europe series, it does share the strengths of those four brilliant, inventive novels: razor-sharp plotting, a noir-ish tone, and a high concept milked for all its worth. The novella begins with a car chase and the success­ful arrest by Frank Grant, a cop and recent ar­rival to a small village in West Yorkshire, of the Hinchcliffe brothers, ending their “two-teenager crimewave.” On his way back from the collar Frank is asked to check-in on Dronefield Farm, where there’s been a report of a prowler, the spit­ting image of Cary Grant. Because Hutchinson is terrific at holding back important revelations until they’re absolutely necessary, I’m going to keep schtum as to why a dead Hollywood actor would be skulking around a farm an hour outside of Huddersfield or how Mr. Grant’s presence is linked to a conspiracy centuries in the making. All you need to know is that the central idea that fuels the narrative is a very clever twist on a well-worn idea and that you should avoid the back cover blurb because, like most film trailers these days, it says way too much. Nomads is a huge amount of fun, packing in the sort of red herrings, betrayals, and plots within plots that fans of Hutchinson’s work have become accus­tomed to. Hutchinson also finds time to comment on the danger of unhindered scientific progress, normally spurred on by the 1%, who are wealthy enough to avoid the apocalypse. If I do have a quibble, it’s that the novella reads like the open­ing salvo of a much larger work, which means the climax isn’t as satisfying as it might have been.

Like Nomads, Phillip Palmer’s Morpho begins with a car chase, though in the case of Morpho we view the pursuit through the eyes of those on the run. It’s not immediately clear who Jane and Billy are fleeing from, but we do learn that they are centuries old and, when Billy throws himself out of the car, can survive massive damage to their bodies (“organs rupture… bones shatter”). Cut to a mortuary where Hayley, who has the honour of mopping up the blood and fluids left behind after an autopsy, witnesses the broken body of a woman (Jane) sit up on the slab and ask for help. It gets crazier from there as Hayley, half-convinced she’s in the middle of a night­mare, is plunged into a millennia-old conspiracy involving aliens, immortals, and a secret society entrenched within the highest levels of govern­ment. Although the setting is contemporary, there’s a certain ’80s vibe to the story-telling, reminiscent of early episodes of the The X-Files or The Hidden, a glorious schlock horror/science fiction film starring a pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan and a pre-Babylon 5 Claudia Christian. And like The Hidden, Morpho is a rollicking, adrenaline shot of a ride with a high body count and liberal amounts of gore. Hayley is a wonderful protagonist, and it’s a credit to Palmer that he doesn’t reduce her down to an in-your-face-take-no-shit cliché, with her shaven head and numerous tattoos. She is often angry, cynical, and wary of men (for good reason), but she’s also trying to figure out what to make of her life. It’s Hayley who anchors this crazy story of blood, guts, and alien possession.

The third novella is The Man Who Would Be Kling (yes, Kling) which, as I’ve come to anticipate from Adam Roberts, approaches the theme of “The Alien Among Us” at an oblique and off-beat angle. Roberts sets his tale in Af­ghanistan, where a mysterious Zone has sprung up near Kabul. No one knows what the Zone is or how it came to be, whether it’s a natural phenomenon, the effect of a weapon designed to disable electronic devices, or the precursor to an alien invasion. Those who have entered the Zone hoping to learn its secrets have either not returned or come back with “severe mental impairments.” This doesn’t seem to faze two Star Trek fans, Chillingworth and Dallas, who believe the Zone is an invitation to those willing to be “more than mere humans.” What better way to achieve this than embody the physical traits and cultural at­titudes of a Vulcan and Klingon, complete with surgically enhanced pointy ears and bumpy foreheads? (It’s worth noting that Roberts never uses the nouns “Vulcan,” “Klingon,” or “Star Trek” in the novella, a nod to both Paramount’s litigious legal team and the series’ iconography long embedded in our cultural memory). The world-weary Station Manager at Kabul makes an effort to dissuade Chillingworth and Dallas from carrying through with their plans, but they don’t heed his warnings. Six months later and on his return to Kabul for his next rotation, the Station Manager comes across a beggar on the streets, only to realise its Chillingworth, sick and wasted, yet still in full Vulcan mode with a wild, impossible story to tell. Only Adam Roberts could write a story that’s engaging, funny, somewhat ni­hilistic and, at the same time, is a passionate critique of Star Trek. It’s Dallas who begins to question the fundamentals of the show, who, when faced with the inscrutable nature of the Zone, realises that Star Trek‘s middle-class conception of communism and utopia doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Your captain owns a vineyard in France! Your humanoid android is a professor at Oxford! Your method of flying about the galaxy is to sit in a comfortable armchair in a suburban sitting room, watching the universe through a high-definition widescreen television.

The genius of the story is how Dallas and Chill­ingworth’s debate about the strengths and flaws of Star Trek is woven in the plot, amping up the drama and intensity as Dallas doubts, which cut to very core of his identity as a human and a Klingon, make him a target for whatever force controls the Zone. It’s brilliant stuff, working on a number of levels, but then I expect no less from Adam Roberts.

Like Adam Roberts, there’s a distinct meta-fictional quality to Simon Morden’s Macsen Against the Jugger, the final novella in the quartet. No, Morden doesn’t offer up a Marxist analysis of Doctor Who, but instead, he considers the role of the story-teller within society. His novella is set two centuries into the future, where the planet has been devastated by an unstoppable alien invasion force. What’s left of humanity now live amongst the ruins of civilisa­tions, continually avoiding the coreships that suck up everything around them and the juggers that never give up when hunting prey. Macsen is one of the few willing to leave the relative safety of the tribe and search for useful items, or, in the case of his most recent quest, to find a particular book for Hona Loy, a girl he quite fancies. His companion (AKA dogsbody) is his cousin Laylaw, a man who knows he’s a minor character in someone else’s story, “[who] would be forever the Man Who Used To Go With Macsen.” When they return to camp, Laylaw decides that he will no longer help his cousin, no longer face the threat of coreships, juggers, and bandits, that he will happily fade into obscurity. But when they both discover that the book Macsen retrieved for Hona Loy is missing, possibly lost on the journey back to camp, Macsen convinces (manipulates) Laylaw to head out for one last quest. Macsen Against the Jugger is quieter and more introspective than the other novellas. That’s not to say it’s devoid of action – the appearance of a jugger, all tentacles and blades, is a genuinely tense and dra­matic moment. The pacing is deliberate, though, the sentences longer and wordier, a greater focus on the thoughts and motivations of the characters. It took me a moment to become accustomed to this change in pace, but once I did, I appreciated Morden’s rumination on the nature of story, how it provides hope to a community facing the constant threat of death, how the embellishments and flourishes and divergences from the truth create a mythology that ensures that certain names are remembered and oth­ers are forgotten. It’s a thoughtful, meditative piece, and a lovely way to cap off this quartet of novellas.

Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at mondyboy74@gmail.com.

This review and more like it in the May 2019 issue of Locus.

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