Tales of Future London
Edited by Ian Whates
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
London Centric is the companion volume to editor Ian Whates' Soot and Steel, however while that volume has a distinctly horrific and steampunk feel to many of its stories, London Centric is more future-oriented, looking at a science fictional London that could be and building on what has gone before. While the volume dealing with the city's past had seven reprints, many of which dated to the nineteenth century, London Centric only has one reprint, originally published in 2012. Similarly, none of the authors represented in the first volume have returned for the second.
Neal Asher opens the anthology with the story "Skin," which focuses on body modifications and the impact they have on the individual's psyche. Although set in London as befits a story in this anthology, the setting is mostly irrelevant to the story which could be set anywhere as Rhea undergoes further modifications to her body and must figure out how to incorporate those changes into her life.
Stewart Hotston takes a look at the future of artificial intelligence in "The Good Shepherd." Although the story opens by talking about Paolo Maria Sanchez, it doesn't follow his story, merely using it as an introduction to the idea of the AI that oversees portions of London and coming into its own. The story takes a little while to get moving because of the apparent false start, but Hotston's AI makes an interesting viewpoint character.
Although Ida Keogh's "Infinite Tea in the Demara Cafe" is entirely set within the confines of a London tea shop, she introduces worlds upon worlds as Henry seems to travel between dimensions, giving him the distance to grieve for his wife, Camille, who died several years before the story begins while helping his waitress deal with the loss of her own mother. The story is a bittersweet trek through alternative realities.
M.R. Carey offers a London in which major areas are closed off to the general populace in "War Crimes." Similar to Hotston's over-seeing AI, Carey postulates an overseeing intelligence, although its nature is imprecise. Although the story opens with a reference to a slight movement in London, it doesn't clarify the importance or nature of the movement until later. Although Carey is not writing an horror story, he presents a scenario which, given a shift in the point of view, could easily become one.
Aliya Whiteley sets her story during the Great Smog of London in 1952. "Fog and Pearls at the King's Cross Junction" takes advantage of the setting of a pre-environmentally conscious London to tell the story of a woman who comes to London to get away from her family and make something of herself. She finds herself working for an eccentric man, Rodderick, who lives in a lighthouse overlooking King's Cross junction despite the building being nowhere near the Thames. Although his primary interest is in cultivating pearls, it isn't until the Great Smog sets in that Rodderick's philanthropy comes to the forefront, although the narrator is never entirely sure he is doing the right thing, nor that the recipients of Rodderick's largesse are receiving value for what they give him.
Dave Hutchinson offers the story of a Russian author making his way through a future balkanized London in "Nightingale Floors." Anatoly Mikhailov has had a couple of successful novels, but overall seems at a loss, trying to escape from his domineering father he finds himself in London in a relationship with Jessica Burns, although it eventually fizzles out. When Mikhailov inadvertently offends the powers that be back in Russia, he returns to Jessica and London, although much has changed. Anatoly's cluelessness about why he was forced to leave Russia, along with his misunderstanding of what is happening in London, is key to understanding Hutchinson's story and the twists it takes.
Geoff Ryman offers a bittersweet and nostalgic look at London in "Something Went Wrong in Heaven," which focuses on Edward and Alf, an older gay couple who lived through the emergence of modern gay culture. Ryman looks back on the way London changed and the couples' own lives. At the same time, Edward has several run-ins with homeless who are acting differently than expected as London culture goes through another potential social upheaval that may have major repercussions for Edward.
Eugen Bacon offers a future London in which many of the landmarks of London are mere memories and aliens have landed, creating a new attraction in "A Visit in Whitechapel." While the name Whitechapel conjures up images of Jack the Ripper, the story ignores these images, instead focusing on two children and their mother's failing relationship with O as well as their own forays to get to know the aliens. Eventually, of course, there is a connection to Whitechapel's most famous killer, but it is loose and not fully explored, pointing, perhaps, to the loss of innocence for Bacon's twin narrators.
Fiona Moore's "Herd Instinct" introduces Noah Moyo, an autologist whose job is to essentially offer psychiatric services to artificial intelligences. He is brought to a crime scene in Richmond in an attempt to get testimony from an AI gardener who may be able to identify the perpetrator. At the same time Moyo focuses his attention on the AIs, he also pays attention to the living world around him, demonstrating that he can help humans resolve their issues as well as the AIs.
Joseph Elliott-Coleman looks at a London in a world torn by war in "Death Aid." Aisha is a former soldier living in squalor in London when she receives a notice calling her back to active service. THe story follows her as she attempts to get her platoon back together, some of whom are desparate for anything to give their lives meaning or put a few quid in their pockets, others who have turned their back on military service without any desire to return. Elliott-Colemauses the story to not only explore the questions of loyalty and the reasons people are willing to go to war (or not), but also looks at the myopic view people have of their own surroundings, labeling people and things that are seen everyday without really having any understading of what they are seeing.
Aliette de Bodard offers the volume's reprint with "A Dance of Dust and Life," originally published in Pandemonium in 2012. Just as Hotston offered a story about artificial intelligence in London, de Bodard also explores the London Mind, an AI that is at odds with the AI of de Bodard's story. De Bodard's AI is mobile and looking for personal experiences, piggy-backing its awareness onto various individuals and getting a feel for the variations in London society in the future the AI inhabits as it moves closer to the overarching London Mind.
"Commute" by Andrew Wallace focuses on a futuristic commute into the city, although it becomes clear that his protagonist's commute is on a subway train that is filled with virtual and augmented reality. As he goes into his job in the city, or the virtual city of London, he is able to interact with other passengers in a virtual way as he is offered opportunities to make his cmmute appear to go more quickly or even have the appearance of an upgrade, leaving the reader to question where the line is between reality and computer input.
Jeremy Szal offers one of the most traditional science fictional stories in the anthology with "Scream in Blue." Although all of the action does take place in London, it is a very futuristic London that appears to be ruled by various gangs and focuses on a group of "Crawlers" who perform errands for those gangs until they find themselves tied to a specific gang. The story's background includes the idea of space travel, aliens, and a futuristic drug that begins to alter the user permanently with the first dose. Szal does a good job of making his Crawlers sympathetic even as they perform their illegal tasks and begin to lose sight of the moral compass that guides them at the beginning of the story.
Although all of the stories in London Centric are set in the British capital, the volume has less of a London feel thatn Soot and Steel, perhaps because the futuristic tales are more divorced from the historic London that featured in the oher volume and the authors could present their own takes on the city more fully. While this may mean the stories vary more widely in the imagination, it also means that some of the stories feel as if they could have been set in a variety of cities rather than London.
|Stewart Hotston||The Good Shepherd|
|Ida Keogh||Infinite Tea in the Demara Cafe|
|M.R. Carey||War Crimes|
|Aliya Whiteley||Fog and Pearls at the King's Cross Junction|
|Dave Hutchinson||Nightingale Floors|
|Geoff Ryman||Something Went Wrong in Heaven|
|Eugen Bacon||A Visit in Whitechapel|
|Fiona Moore||Herd Instinct|
|Joseph Elliott-Coleman||Death Aid|
|Aliette de Bodard||A Dance of Dust and Life (reprint)|
|Jeremy Szal||Scream in Blue|
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