As I return from a conference held next to the Eagle and Child in Oxford, the famous haunt of Tolkein, Lewis and their fellow Inklings, it seems appropriate that my latest review is that of Tales From The Universe, by another set of Inklings. Tales From The Universe is Inklings Press’ first science-fiction anthology, and contains a wide-ranging selection of stories that makes it well worth picking up.
The opening story, Daniel Bensen’s The Devout Atheist, is a fun little pastiche of an alternative timeline when proof of the Christian God is quite literally hanging over the heads of humanity, with fundamentalist Christians and atheists swapping roles, with Christian scientists mocking the superstitious atheists. The subject matter is well handled, and the worst of both parties is satisfactorily drawn out to great comic effect.
This humorous vein is also picked up in the second story: Upgrade to Murder by Rob Edwards. This is possibly my favourite in the anthology. The imaginative conceit of a lonely technician reprogramming the AI of his space station to solve Agatha Christie murders is wonderful, and the consequences are not what one might expect, as Hercules (the aptly-named computer) becomes more like his namesake Poirot than Hal 9000. The result is an amusing and gently moving story about friendship on the frontier.
The third story is the first of three throughout the anthology which play with the idea of electronic reincarnation, although all three do so in different ways. R. H. Nelson’s Suliko is one of the more moving and unsettling, following a future where one man’s true love is remembered only in his consciousness, having been erased, and he endeavours to keep her memory alive throughout a sleek dystopia which blends Orwell and Blade Runner. The Familiar Road by Pedro Camelo, however, is a clever story that uses this “uploading” idea in a story of love in small-town America which takes elements from It’s A Wonderful Life and Pinocchio in a much more suburban drama than many of these stories are, providing light relief from battle cruisers and tugging gently at the heartstrings. Finally, Lazarus Soldiers by Leo McBride – another favourite in this anthology – is a gripping piece of military sci-fi that borders on grimdark, about soldiers who believe themselves to be immortal, so long as their clone-tanks continue to provide their consciousness with new bodies, that is.
The majority of the other pieces in Tales From The Universe provide what has been lacking from those mentioned so far – aliens and space-battles. What science-fiction anthology would be complete without these?
Matthew Harvey’s Dead in Space is the first of these, and it is as chilling as the title suggests. The ending is genuinely moving, while Harvey feeds us just enough information about the mysterious alien foe, “The Deep”, to build the story while whetting the appetite for more about them. If he wishes to expand this particular universe, I would be a very willing reader. The second, Cosmic Egg by Ricardo Victoria, takes a much lighter, science-fantasy approach about building bridges between science, religion and different races. The third, Brian Converse’s Small World, is a clever vignette about the openings of an alien invasion. It is one of the best written examples of found-footage that I have come across, and Converse manages to temper the tension with a strong redemptive vein that raises this story above other more run-of-the-mill alien invasion stories. Lastly, Brent Harris provides us with The Ellian Convergence. The idea is entertaining – a future in which synthetics have risen up against humanity and wiped them out, replacing them and treating classical science fiction (especially Star Trek) as religious and mythic material. When the synthetics come up against an existential threat of their own, time-travel to prevent their own uprising seems the only way out. The story reads like a well-plotted episode of Star Trek, and Harris does a good job of preventing it descending into self-referential farce; instead, the portrayal of the all-too human emotions of the androids carries the story and makes it into the entertaining read that it is.
The final story of the anthology is a perfect epilogue to the collection; though you will have to read it to find out why. Deep In The Rock by Jessica Holmes is a neat conspiracy thriller that riffs on 2001: A Space Oddyssey, and its quiet resolution is more than fitting to the anthology. After all – in space, no one can hear you scream.
If you are a lover of science-fiction then Tales From The Universe is well worth picking up; as are the other collections of the Inklings (such as this), who display a profiency in an ever wider array of genres.