This is an unusual issue of Albedo One as the Irish magazine devotes the majority of its space to the six stories shortlisted for the inaugural Aeon Prize – a short-fiction competition organised by the people behind Albedo One and awarded at last year’s Worldcon in Glasgow.
The result is that the stories are rather atypical of Albedo One’s normal make-up featuring rather more straight-up sf stories and rather fewer of the darker urban fantasy/horror mix that the magazine most frequently prints. They say a change is as good as a rest, but that only really counts if the quality of the writing in these stories stands up to the magazines normally high standards.
The interesting thing about having all the Aeon Prize shortlist all in one place is that it allows the reader to assess whether the judges made the right choice. What is certainly clear is that they didn’t have it easy – there are six very strong contenders here, but I think I agree with them – by a very narrow margin Julian West’s My Marriage is probably the best of the stories: but I’m glad I didn’t have to make the decision.
My Marriage is a love story based around the mating habits of a species where the men live on land and the women live in the ocean. West’s writing is exceptionally strong and the sense of melancholy he laces through the story is extremely affecting without ever lolling over into sentimentality. West has made a bit of a habit of winning Irish science fiction awards (he also won 2002’s James White Award) and its easy to see why, he handles the alien nature of his creatures with real delicacy while never letting us forget how strange their lives are.
Dev Agarwal’s Queen of Engines must have pushed the winner very close – a thickly multi-layered story that wraps an attempt to assassinate Ada Lovelace into a struggle between reason and magic, the future and the past. The writing has a tendency to twist and turn and become as complex as the history of London – the city becoming as much a character in the plot as any of the living creatures. This is strong, unusual and rewarding stuff.
Like Snow by Brian Richmond is a short, rather slight tale. The central image – of silent, motionless ghosts appearing in everyday places, disturbing the equilibrium of everyday life – is very striking, but the story doesn’t then go anywhere in particular and, like the ghosts, it rather fades away. The writing, however, is strong and atmospheric.
Dutch writer Tais Teng’s Expatiating Ancestral Sins is another really strong story. In the far future, humanity has been forced to keep to the edges of the galaxy and hide their presence from a fierce whale-like species (the High Partners) who dominate space. Humanity’s terror of being discovered is made worse by their “ancestral sin” – causing the extinction of the whales – and the knowledge that the High Partners would wipe them out. Against this background the Daimyo (Earth’s leader) discovers that the High Partners have collected an early earth space probe which included a disk containing the exact location of Earth and a sample of whale song (which, perhaps not surprisingly suggests the whales weren’t very happy: “Brothers, who swam to the stars, remember us, revenge us!”). The Daimyo undergoes excruciating surgery to infiltrate the High Partners’ inner sanctum in an effort to destroy the recording before it is played. Then he discovers an important secret. This is one of those stories that really grew on me, the opening paragraphs had me grunting and grumbling wondering what was going on, but by the end I was gripped.
Andrew McKenna’s Letting Out the Angels is the kind of dark fantasy I most normally associate with Albedo One – featuring a serial killer who believes he is releasing angels from the bodies of his victims. McKenna uses language nicely though he never quite succeeds in making us feel truly sympathetic for his protagonist – even as he meets his inevitable fate.
In a world where everyone has the “right” to have themselves surgically altered and pneumatically tucked, you know it’s only a matter of time before someone tries to have themselves turned into a cat or a hamster. That’s the set-up in David D Levine’s I Hold My Father’s Paws but what could have been a rather silly story is saved by Levine’s handling of the motivation behind one character’s decision to change. I found myself surprisingly moved by this story.
This issue of Albedo One also features one story that was not on the Aeon Award shortlist, A Coin For The Ferryman by Justin Stanchfield. I ended up liking this story rather less than the others featured here, not because it is any less well written – it’s basically a rather good story set aboard a spaceship orbiting an unescapable prison planet as a lawyer attempts to buy time for her client. There were, however, a couple of issues I couldn’t quite square. The first problem is one of science: no one can escape from the planet because the gravity is too intense to allow a spacecraft to reach escape velocity, but apparently not so intense that it doesn’t crush anyone who sets foot on it. I couldn’t see how this was possible, surely a deep gravity well “simply” requires a bigger engine and if mankind can afford to move people across the galaxy to imprison him, then big engines hardly seem a problem? More importantly, however, I wasn’t keen on the conclusion, which requires the lawyer to abandon the principles she’s spent the entire story espousing simply because she likes someone else better than her client.
Albedo One is a constantly strong small press magazine and this issue is one of the best it has produced for as long as I’ve been reading it. The package is rounded off by a rather splendid colour cover featuring a surrealist-inspired image of a ballerina by Russian artist Alexander Kruglov, an interesting interview with Charlie Stross and the usual reviews and comments. I strongly recommend you buy an issue.
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