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Jewels in the Dust by Peter Crowther

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For this review of Jewels in the Dust by Peter Crowther (Subterranean Press, 2013) I’m going to break my usual convention which is to write brief notes on the stories in the order they are printed. I think it will give you a better understanding of the collection, if I group the comments on the stories together by genre or theme.

“The Bachelor” is an elegant story to read alongside “Old Delicious Burdens”. Both are concerned with the nature of memories that can haunt us, and remind us of times as they used to be. Thematically, we’re not quite into the idea of ghosts as nostalgia. But if our characters are the sum of all the life experiences we can remember, ghosts may revisit when we grow forgetful. Of course, some of the events or sensations we might choose to forget. They are painful and might frighten us if we came across them unexpectedly. Others simply lack the salience to stay fresh in the memory bank. They fade as we age. So an old lonely man might be sustained by the ghosts of happy days past. A warring couple might reconcile if they realised the wealth of happiness they had enjoyed when younger and more innocent. This is not to say either story is sentimental. . . “Things I Didn’t Know My Father Knew” develops the theme by having the ghost of a father dead some twenty-seven years, return to talk with his son. This is a pleasingly atmospheric story that prompts us to ask what it might be important to remember about our childhood and, if we had the chance, what we might say to our parents after so many years. For example, if memory of the nickname cruel “friends” had given us when young, was refreshed, would that change us in any way? Would we feel less angry at our parents for giving us that unfortunate name at birth? Would we want to say we loved our parents, even though that might not be completely true?

Pete Crowther

Pete Crowther

“The Fairy Trap” is about the innocence of youth which might induce two boys to suspend disbelief long enough to help an old man in his efforts to trap a fairy. “Dei Gratia” (with Simon Conway) is a fascinating idea story. Let’s say, for a moment, that there’s a natural cycle in operation. We’re born, live here for a while, and then cycle to Heaven or Hell. Modern medicine has been seriously interfering with this for some time. If God had been expecting an influx of souls and suddenly found himself short, what would he do? Continuing in the same vein, we have “Circling the Drain” (with Tracy Knight) which wonders about personal fulfillment. As an individual, would we feel less unhappy at the prospect of dying if we had had children? Here’s a man in late middle age who suddenly only has a month or so to live. If he resists dying, how could he prove to himself and his wife what a good father he would have made? “Breathing in Faces” is a terrific novelette following in the footsteps of The Circus of Dr Lao by Charles G Finney. A petulant girl and her BFF explore the midway. As you might expect, the pushy one will just not be told to leave well enough alone. She will insist on going into the tent. The rest, as they stay, is all about gathering speed as momentum accelerates the reader down the slope. This is a beautifully sustained piece of horror suspense writing. Equally impressive is “Tomorrow Eyes”. The idea is not original but this is a beautifully worked variation on the theme as a compassionate man takes pity on a haunted man to make the right decision. “The Doorway in Stephenson’s Store” is a time travel story that flirts with sentimentality and avoids excess given that it proves to be a kind of moral message. I confess I’m always partial to a little travelling through time and this is particularly ingenious, focusing on the characters of the people involved rather than the mechanics.

“Boxing Day”, “The Musician of Bremen, GA” and the titular “Jewels in the Dust” are straight stories. The first deals with the decision of a not unsuccessful criminal whether to continue in the trade or settle down with his wife to raise cats. The second maps the life of a truly gifted jazz musician who joins a group only to find two of the players are committed to a life of crime. While the third offers positive advice on how to accept the prospect that every new day may be your last. All of which leaves me with the final story in this rather admirable collection. “Thoughtful Breaths” manages to combine everything good about the art of storytelling. It introduces us to the characters and gives us time to get to know and understand them. Then it begins to weave its magic. Now “magic” is a word, for better or worse, that tends to be associated with fantasy. No, wait, I’m confusing the story-telling with the story itself. That will never do. So what exactly is it I want to say about this final piece? I suppose I’m referring to the wish of one character, out of love, to create the appearance of magic for the others. Just as the author, out of love, creates magic for the readers. In a way, the theme of this collection is death. Not necessarily in an unhappy or negative spirit. Rather we’re given the chance to celebrate the phenomenon and appreciate the potential for redemption on the part of some, and rehabilitation for others. As an older reader who’s already had one close brush with death, I find Peter Crowther’s work pleasingly unsentimental and, in a secular sense, quite inspirational. I unhesitating recommend this collection to you.

Jacket artwork by Les Edwards

Jacket artwork by Les Edwards

The jacket artwork from Les Edwards is particularly fine.

For reviews of other books by Peter Crowther, see:
Darkness Falling: Forever Twilight Book 1
We Think, Therefore We Are

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Darkness Falling, Forever Twilight: Book 1 by Peter Crowther

November 28, 2011 Leave a comment

The initial set-up of Darkness Falling, Forever Twilight: Book 1 (Angry Robot, 2011) by Peter Crowther is not unlike the Seahorse in the Sky by Edmund Cooper where a group of people who start off on an international flight suddenly wake up in coffins on an island. If you think this is as dramatic as you can get, Mr Crowther has a flash of light and then just three people on the plane. Fortunately, one of them can fly although the landing proves more challenging than expected. So, at a stroke, we are presented with a puzzle. Where did all the people go? As the multiple points of view unwind, it seems this is a worldwide phenomenon. No matter what they were doing nor where they were, all but a handful of people have been left surrounded by wreckage. Why wreckage? Because our world is constantly in motion. Planes fly, trains whizz along tracks, and vehicles of all shapes and sizes move across the landscape. If you remove the controlling minds, all you have left is momentum until the inevitable crash.

At this point, I want to remember another book. I suppose I should apologise but, much as Mr Crowther populates his text with all manner of literary and film references, so I need steady points of reference to keep me on track. In Blue Light by Walter Mosley we have a kind of fantasy/horror novel about the transformative effect of a blue light that emanates from outer space. Each person touched by the light gains a special power. They are, if you like, elevated to a higher state of being with interesting abilities. Mr Crowther has a different coloured light and the effect is somewhat more powerful in removing the majority of the world’s population. It’s rather as if Scotty had beamed everyone up except for the valiant crew that would go to infinity (and, if necessary, beyond). But in drawing from some interestingly diverse sources, we have ourselves a rather pleasing, if somewhat old-fashioned, Rod Serling type story in which our survivors must find each other and then band together against adversity.

Peter Crowther — a Brit with American leanings

What makes all this intriguing is that there’s also a physical effect on the world. Whereas we would expect the sun to keep on rising in the East and falling gracefully out of sight into the West, there may be evidence of more tinkering on a cosmic scale. Since gravity seems unaffected, the world probably continues turning on its axis, radio signals initially seem to carry music to nearby radios, but there’s something distinctly wrong about the more usual cycle of day and night. And then, of course, there’s the Dark itself. Instinct is never completely reliable in books like this, but there does seem to be something to feared. . . Not that there appears to be anything particularly supernatural out and about, albeit the world has just experienced something inexplicable in current scientific terms. Then there’s a second light. Ah, now that may be a game-changer.

As to our cast of characters, we have a diverse bunch. With the exception of a serial killer and a woman with multiple personality disorder, they seem a random selection of the great unwashed but, I suppose, there will later prove to be some common factor that caused them to be saved from this mass extinction event (my apologies, I should have mentioned that all life seems to have disappeared from the land and air). For now, the survivors are moving across the landscape, aware of others who may, when they feel the time is right, more actively pursue and destroy them. It’s not a situation in which it’s easy to hope, and the fact one of their number is a killer does add an edge to the proceedings.

Which leaves me with two quite different thoughts with which to end. Peter Crowther is a man much to be admired for all the good work he has done with PS Publishing, the multiple award-winning small press. He also has a good editorial eye and, in this and other works, writes well. Darkness Falling is a substantially expanded version of the two novellas already published under the Forever Twilight shingle. They appeared in 2002 and 2009 respectively. I will refrain from spoilers because the underlying idea is actually an ingenious inversion of an old trope and you should read this first book in the new trilogy without preconceptions to see if you can solve the puzzle. As a piece of writing, it’s also interesting to see how the initial ideas have evolved over the years. Peter Crowther, the author, specialises in something mildly tricky. As a Brit he writes stories set in the US using the American vernacular. He does it rather well. This expanded version focuses on the characters of the survivors with the occasional omniscient authorial contribution. The prose style is slightly dense but there are odd illuminations of wit to ease us along. I feel it has spread itself out a little too much, but the overall result is pleasing and it leaves us set up nicely to investigate exactly what’s going on in the remaining volumes.

For an excellent anthology edited by Peter Crowther, see We Think, Therefore We Are. There’s also an excellent collection Jewels in the Dust.

We Think, Therefore We Are edited by Peter Crowther

There often comes a point during a session organised in a holiday camp or on a cruise liner when the poor sucker charged with the task of keeping the group entertained picks up the microphone and asks, “Are we having fun yet?” There can be levels of desperation about this question. Sometimes, it can sound like a threat. This scene arises out of the expectation that “one size fits all”. No matter what the race, gender, religion or social class of those in the group, an organised form of entertainment will keep everyone happy. This is, of course, a hopeless myth put about by those who market camps and cruises. They must convince a sceptical public that all customers will have fun if they part with their money and come along.

So it is with themed anthologies. The editor is the guy with the microphone who has picked out the games. Now everyone has to survive the next few hours in the session to discover whether the choices made and the manner of presentation “sell” the fun part. The problem to overcome is that too narrowly defined a theme can constrain the creativity of the authors and the results can be monotonous. We have all struggled with endless parades of vampires and zombies. So it’s a great pleasure to pick up We Think, Therefore We Are, edited by Peter Crowther who is one of the best editors around. The title is derived from the now somewhat clichéd proposition formulated by René Descartes, cogito ergo sum. As a brief to the authors, Crowther looked for an exploration of artificial intelligence. The assumption is that, at some time in the future, machines will achieve something approaching the human capacity for independent thought. The alarming possible outcome would be an endless recycling of terminators as they batter the few remnants of humanity into submission. Victor von Frankenstein must always be superseded by his creature.

In fact, the anthology offers fifteen variations on the theme without anything approaching Schwarzenegger muttering incoherently about his return (although, I suppose, the salvaged monks in Eric Brown’s story have a similar mindset aimed at world domination). By and large, the intelligences are rather subdued and tragic figures whose only interest in life is to get on with the business of living. So are there overlaps with conventional tropes? Obviously, it’s very difficult to avoid the “classic” ideas. We have two reworkings of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and space opera sized AIs that build themselves as Dyson spheres around stars and, in one case, a black hole. But, what sets this anthology above the pack is the willingness of the authors to transcend the predictable and claw at the soft underbelly of conventionality. So James Lovegrove gives us a beautiful piece of metafiction about a secret government research project that relies on human short story writers to produce wholly original fiction. Adam Roberts gives us a deeply ironic reworking of Adam’s temptation to eat the forbidden fruit. As a robot might observe, why give me a verbal instruction when you could write the code to make it an absolute command? Then we come to the love stories. Steven Utley sees the potential for virtual reality as an aid to seduction, while Eric Brown and Brian Stableford see self-sacrifice as one possible outcome to the relationship between machines and the humans they must perforce relate to. Robert Reed and Keith Brooke examine the possibility that cyber systems might soften the impact of death (albeit the latter also foresees a unique method of killing — quite the most original idea I’ve seen so far this year).

Paul Di Filippo gives us another of his delightfully wry stories, this time looking at the trials and tribulations of two massive AIs as they try to go back in time to grab a few humans with which to repopulate the galaxy. Ian Watson demonstrates why radio communication between AIs across interstellar distances can be a slight problem and Gary Kilworth reminds us that not everything in the garden should be “just so”. John Searle and Alan Turing are inspiration for stories about how those inside a Chinese Room might perceive the world and how a trained psychologist might react to a discussion with a disembodied voice. Which leaves us with two final issues. How should the world react to the reality of human enhancements and machine intelligence that do become sentient? There is always an argument for exile, sending them off into Earth orbit — out of sight, out of mind. But there must come a point when the injustice of their predicament overcomes even the most died-in-the-wool objections to justice. Then there is the reverse of this. How should a machine react if it becomes the instrument of murder? It would be all too human if it retreated into a fugue state but, if the machine was responsible for running a star ship, this could be very inconvenient for the crew. Let’s leave the final word to Tony Ballantyne who opines that the best of humanity should always be surprising to AIs (in the nicest possible way, of course).

I applaud Peter Crowther for his unrelenting search for originality and great writing. I also applaud Daw for allowing a predominantly British cast of authors to appear in an original US publication. Everyone is a winner in this combination. This is a great value-for-money read.

For a review of his latest novel, see Darkness Falling: Forever Twilight Book 1 and a collection Jewels in the Dust.

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