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Book Review

Book Cover

Once and Future Cities


Author: Allen Ashley
RRP: £13.99, US $23.20
ISBN: 978 0 9555 2689 3
Available 01 August 2009

The distance between modern life and the end of civilization is only a breath in width, that is something we are taught. Every day it seems, scientists have discovered another thing that could destroy us. Maybe. If it ever happened. Whether it is collapsing islands in the Atlantic or an Armageddon asteroid. A gamma ray burst from across the galaxy or a global-warming-induced methane hydrate release. Humanity loves this high drama, maybe with almost a perverse desire to see this thing called civilization get smashed. And yet, do we really need this grand smiting hand, either from nature or from ourselves...?

It has never ceased to be a delight receiving more musings from the fruitful mind of Allen Ashley. His new collection of short stories ‘Once and Future Cities’ continues his quest to reward the discerning reader of speculative fiction. Ashley has worked as an author in both the short story and novel format, and as a rather successful editor.

Ashley belongs to that emerging British breed of writers who no longer feel constrained by particular genres, preferring rather to let their imagination run riot. So what if you blend urban decay with a side order of fairy story and layer the whole with a dollop of horror, the final repast is always filling and well worth repeating. Although slipstream fiction is becoming its own successful sub genre, the very nature of the beast, the blending of disparate elements, will always make this a slippery beast.

Ashley is at the forefront of this new revolution with his latest collection of stories. True, all but five of the tales have been previously printed in other medium, but even a rabid reader of fiction is unlikely to have been able to catch them all.

In creating his warped worlds, Ashley writes with an almost simple conversational style. This has the strength of being exceptionally accessible, which often comforts the reader as Ashley takes them on some unsettling journeys of imagination.

The book brings together twenty-two stories, each of which will have something to offer the reader. Do I have a favourite? Well, that’s a difficult one. For strangeness it would have to be Canoe Boy a story of dystopic romantic paranoia. Even at its close I wasn’t sure whether the protagonist had either worked out who was sleeping with his wife or just lost the plot. This is one of the strengths of his writing, ambiguity; who wants everything laid out on a plate? Certainly not me.

For just weird wackiness it would have to be Play the Pipes of Pan, which starts fairly normally until the penny drops that the whole thing is set in an urban version of fairyland with Jack - from Jack and the Beanstalk - trying to rescue his fictional girlfriend from a life of prostitution.

Although there are many hues to enjoy here, the overall examination is that of the absurdities of life - even, so called, "normal" life. Like many a good meal, the book keeps giving even after you’ve finished.


Charles Packer

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