Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Whates, The Gift of Joy (2009)

Ian Whates, The Gift of Joy. NewCon Press, 2009. Pp. 254. ISBN 9781907069017. £9.99.

Reviewed by Terry Grimwood

Joy is the best word to describe The Gift of Joy, a collection of mostly (but not only) science fiction stories from Ian Whates, because that is what comes across from start to finish, a sense of sheer enjoyment, a feeling that writing is nothing but pleasure. Here is someone, you think, who loves writing. Even its striking Vincent Chong cover crackles with energy, there is light and dazzle, technology and menace, a perfect representation of what is inside.

Take the opener, and title story, for example. Here we have the ultimate gigolo, the consummate tribute act, someone who can literally turn themselves into their client’s fantasy. Then there is the breathless, not-a-word-wasted, time-running-out thriller ‘The Final Hour’ in which there are only 60 minutes to save the universe. War, the real meaning of heroism and its consequences are examined in ‘The Battle for Paradise’, which is a vivid, visceral epic in which men fight and die but for a cause, which like all causes, is seldom really one that is worth such a monstrous loss of life. ‘Flesh and Metal’ is yet another fast and furious thriller, man on a mission verses killing machine, cross and double-cross, threat on every side, who do you trust? Another loner manoeuvres his way through deceit and danger in ‘One Night in London’, an enjoyable and imaginative package-to-be-delivered yarn.

On a more thoughtful note there is ‘Fear of Fog’ which is a tricky, elusive tale about a couple caught out in a fog that reeks of malevolence and oncoming menace. The woman seems to know what is going to happen, and there are other things that seem wrong, atmospheric this one. Another slower and darker piece is ‘Ghosts in the Machine’, the haunters of the foul and shadowed underground of the city; lost souls or something more vital?

For light relief there is ‘Glitch in the System’, set in a village battered by a stream of lorries taking a short cut through the lanes, and ‘Hint of Mystery’ set in the competitive world of Asian food.

Tel’s Favourite is ‘The Sum of the Past’, once again an examination of identity, of why we are what we are, told by a space hero who is, or perhaps isn’t such a hero after all. A clever story laced with subtlety beneath its portrayal of the brash and bold.

There is more, a lot more, each one filled with that same energy and vitality that sets this collection apart from so many I have read. It is not completely devoid of cynicism, yet even the darker stories hold some element of the upbeat. Is it the style of writing, the pace, it’s hard to put a finger on exactly what it is, but nothing in here left me beaten and bruised and in need of fresh air.

This joy is not shallow however. Okay there are out-and-out adventure stories, but there are difficult questions asked, examinations of the human condition carried out in the extreme laboratories of fantastical fiction. There is mood and shade among the bright colours. ‘Ghosts in the Machine’ for example is a powerful allegory of rich and poor, of the privileged, blind to the grinding, oil-covered machinery that maintains their bright and smooth running world. There is consideration of the true nature of heroism, of the indescribably waste of life wrought by war. Political folly and national ambitions are dissected in ‘The Laughter of Ghosts’.

The book is not without blemish of course. For me, the weakest link is ‘It’s About Time!’, a chronological romp inspired by the time travel tales of Isaac Asimov. I just don’t like this type of story and, sadly, this one did nothing to change my mind. Also a lot of the stories are set in the type of dark, deadly and noirish underbelly of the futuristic city which readers find themselves visiting more and more in the pages of the SF story. That said, however, Whates does zap those much-used places with a much-needed lick of fresh paint and so can be forgiven for leading us into such familiar dens and dives yet again. The short afterward to each story was, I think, unnecessary. For me the stories were very strong and able to stand up without explanation as to their origins and also these potted autobiographies brought me back to earth too quickly, I wanted to carry on believing that I had been to a real Universe of Wonder for just a little longer.

Ian Whates’ writing is smooth and immensely readable. There is no pretentiousness, words are well chosen and the narrative straight to the point, but at the same time able to connect the reader emotionally to the cast of these stories and that, along with an electric imagination is his strong point, is what keeps the pages turning and the bedside lamp glowing far beyond its normal switch-off time.

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1 comment:

Nick Poniatowski said...

This sounds fantastic. I received some Amazon bucks over the holiday, and now I've got something to spend them on. Thanks for the review.