Does anyone need another reworking of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness? It’s not like there’s ever going to be a re-imagining of the story that’s more balls-to-the-wall than Apocalypse Now, so what more needs to be said.

And stories about drugs are almost invariably tedious. When they’re not moralising at the reader in one way or another (”Drugs are bad! Stay away!” “Drugs are great! Free your mind!”) they’re descending into the self-indulgent blatherings of writers who’ve taken drugs and mistaken the chemical induced burbling of their brain for genuine insights. If there’s one thing more boring than talking to someone on drugs, it’s reading something written by someone on drugs.

So Lucius Shephard’s novella – “Dog Eared Paperback of My Life” – which is the longest story in Other Earths, an anthology edited by Nick Gevers and Jay Lake, had two strikes against it before I even started reading it.

Had the story not been by Shephard, a writer I’ve long admired, I don’t think I’d have bothered to read it. And that would have been a shame, because this is a proper cracker.

The theme of Other Earths is alternative realities and the standard of stories is quite high (though I don’t believe including fairies in the “real world” counts as a proper alternative reality story – which meant that I wasn’t at all taken by Theodora Goss’s “Csilla’s Story” or (sadly) Liz Williams’s “Winterborn”). There are two or three other really excellent stories – I was particularly keen on Jeff Vandermeer’s angry “The Goat Variations” and Alistair Reynolds emotionally powerful “The Receivers” (not at all what I expected from Alistair but excellent nonetheless).

But it was Shephard’s story that stood out as the best in the collection.

Shephard’s protagonist is Thomas Cradle – a genuinely unlikeable, self-obsessed, weasel of a character. The only characteristic that allows the reader to empathise with Cradle is his own copious self-loathing.

A fantasy author, Cradle is surprised to discover a book that he has never heard of, The Tea Forest, but which he appears to have written. The Tea Forest tells of Cradle’s journey along the Mekong River through Cambodia and Vietnam to a part of the Mekong delta where something is calling to him. He sends the publisher his “new” book but before it is printed he determines to retrace the other Cradle’s steps.

This leads our Thomas Cradle into sexual hi-jinx, a bad trip, danger in a club in Phnom Penh, a miserable journey on the river through Vietnam and then finally an encounter with numerous instances of himself and the true heart of darkness in the Mekong delta.

Shephard’s writing here is fantastic. He brilliantly transports the reader along the Mekong, from the winding river to the madness of the cities, the writing is a masterclass in how to drag even a reluctant reader into a strange world. And yet there’s no sense of the travelogue – nothing of the I went on my holiday’s and this is what I saw and by the way here’s a load of research I did about these places tacked on to a flimsy plot – faults that are the bane of many stories set in “exotic” locales. Every detail feels important, urgent even, as the environment itself becomes an important character,

The story finds room for one fantastic rant. In an aside Cradle bemoans his fate as a writer to be trapped, wasting his talents as a fantasy writer and caught up with fandom and all the:

“mad, portly men with their bald heads and beards and their eyeballs in their trouser pockets, whose wives caught cancer with living with them; all the dull hustlers who blogged ceaselessly and MacGyvered a career out of two ounces of talent, a jackknife and a predilection for wearing funny hats and who humped the legs of their idols, who blogged endlessly and wore the latest fashions in the emperor’s new clothes and who spoke about Art as though he were a personal friend they had met through networking, networking, networking, building a fanbase one reader at a time; all the lesser fantasists with their fantasies of becoming a famous corpse like Andre Breton and whose latest publication came to us courtesy of Squalling Hammertoe Woo Hoo Press and who squeezed off pretentious drivel from the jerk-off rags wadded into their skulls that one or two Internet critics had declared works of genius […] all the ultrasuccessful commercial novelists (I counted myself amongst them) who cast shadows more substantial than anything they had ever written and could afford, literally, to treat everyone like dirt; all the great men and women of the field (certain of them, anyway, the lifetime achievers who, in effect, pursed their lips as if about to say “Percy” or “piquant” when in public, fostering the impression that they squeezed their ass cheeks together extra hard to produce work of such unsurpassed grandiloquence…”

I bet it felt good to get that off his chest…

As Cradle proceeds down the river it becomes clear that, despite his flaws, he’s some way from being the worst version of himself the universe has created – and we even begin to strip away the surface layers of compacted bile to reveal a character with which we can have some sympathy. The result is that by the time he’s met up with hugely-fat Cradle and gone deep into the forest, we actually want him to complete his journey, make his discovery and get out alive.

Perhaps the revelation that Cradle’s adventures bring (that really all he wants is the love of a good woman and a comfortable life) is going to disappoint those who cling to romantic notions about wild journeys upriver to uncover the true nature of “humanity” in the dark, wild places, but actually it comes as a bit of a genuine surprise in this story. Cradle’s salvation comes not from the wilderness or from drug induced visions, but from the decent woman he left behind and a desire to settle down. The alternate versions of him – the wildmen, the adventurers, the dangerous Thomas Cradles – they are annihilated by the strange presence waiting for them in the Tea Forest.

I thoroughly enjoyed Shephard’s “Dog Eared Paperback of My Life” – on its own it made Other Earths worth the purchase price.

Other stories

“This Peaceable Land” – Robert Charles Wilson
A well-written and touching story set in a alt-history based around the American Civil War. Perhaps the traditional topic for an alt-history made it feel a little old-fashioned amongst the rest of the stories, but the ending put a lump in my throat.

“The Goat Variation” – Jeff Vandermeer
What went through George Bush’s mind in those minutes between being informed of the Sept 11 attacks and his aides getting him out of a room of school children? Vandermeer takes us to other realities while applying a blazing flame thrower to the truth about our own.

“The Unblinking Eye” – Stephen Baxter
A highly advanced Incan nation make contact with backward Europeans. There’s lots of really good detail here, but I didn’t buy the idea that the Incans could have advanced so far that they had nuclear weapons but had only now contacted other continents.

“Csilla’s Story” – Theodora Goss
The secret history of fairy-folk amongst us. I couldn’t see how this fitted with the anthology’s remit. Not a bad story, but not my kind of thing either.

“Winterborn” – Liz Williams
Despite enjoying a number of Liz Williams’ books, this story set in a Britain ruled by a fairy queen didn’t seem to fit in this anthology either. It is an interesting story, well told but not something that really gripped me.

“The Holy City and Em’s Reptile Farm” – Greg Van Eekhout
I felt I was missing something here. I think the events of the bible have been transferred to America. Em’s father runs a failing reptile farm that has been bypassed by the freeway. She determines to go to Las Vegas hoping to win a piece of the true cross in a Templar raffle (or at least get close enough to make a convincing copy). She gets caught up in a heist, ends up with a stolen relic, gets lost in the desert, rescued by Hawaiians and saves her dad’s business. I found the whole story fun but utterly unconvincing and insubstantial.

“The Receivers” – Alistair Reynolds
World War One has dragged on into the 20s. New weapons are being developed and new countermeasures. Wally and his partner Ralph Vaughan Williams drive an ambulance to a listening post in Dungeness where they are to pick up George Butterworth (another composer) who has been injured. This is a touching tale of great talent wasted by war and while absolutely not what one might expect from Alistair Reynolds – master of the space opera – it is one of the anthologies most affecting stories and one of Alistair’s best.

“Family History” – Paul Park
Tying the author’s life into the myriad of possible histories that might have emerged from the decisions made by his ancestors and the events through which they lived. I didn’t think this delivered the punchline necessary for it to succeed.

“Nine Alternate Histories” – Benjamin Rosenbaum
One of those pieces of writing that’s working so hard to be clever, it forgets to include anything to give the reader a reason to give a monkey’s about what the author is saying. The weakest thing in the anthology. Bordering on drivel.

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