Twelfth Planet Press (2009)
Reviewed by Angela Slatter
Deborah Biancotti’s first collection of short stories is jaw-droppingly good. Dammit.
These twenty-one stories, some reprints, some shiny and new, spanning the period 2000–2009, are divided into three sections, ‘End of Days’, ‘End of the World’, and ‘End of an Era’. It also has a sensible introduction by Justine Larbalestier, which urges the reader to just go and read the stories, then come back to the introduction afterwards. It’s okay, it’ll still be there when you’re finished.
So, what do we get in this collection? Well, there’s a healthy mix of horror, science fiction and fantasy – something to please everyone – and these stories do what Biancotti’s work does best: plumbs the dark everyday. She has a particular talent for reminding the reader that under every ordinary surface there lurks a range of dark rips and tides waiting to pull the unwary beneath.
Most have a distinctly Australian flavour that would be more informative for prospective tourists than any government-sponsored tourism campaign. Although, they might actually scare away the tourists, which would defeat the purpose, I suppose. There also seem to be nods to environmental concerns, but the political message never gets in the way of the story, so you are free to read for story alone if you don’t wish to take away an enhanced conscience. In the interests of brevity and not waffling, I’ll just touch on what were for me the stand-outs.
The presence of the city of Sydney is often so strong that it’s as much a character as any of the two-legged, voiced characters in the stories. Nowhere is this more on show than in ‘Diamond Shell’ the first story of the collection, which is a tale that positively breathes Sydney, and is a story about life between the cracks.
‘Number Three Raw Place’ isn’t what you think it will be. It’s wonderful to see the building blocks of the story mirror those of the construction of the house next door to our protagonist. It’s a story about loneliness and getting out by going in-between, and definitely bears (if not demands) a second read.
‘Hush’ is creepy in the extreme: a horror-science fiction hybrid about chasing rabbits, misguided good intentions and going too far in the search for genetic diversity. It’s Old Yeller, without the rabies and will make you looks sideways at your dog.
‘Seven Ages of the Protagonist’ examines how food can feed not just our bodies but our memories as well, and become an unhealthy series of punctuations to life. This story reads like a list of reasons not to eat and you’ll never look at a sausage roll in quite the same way. This is the story for an age of food-aholism, food-phobia, and general food-obsession.
‘Silicon Cast’ is wonderfully wrong science fiction at its best. When does the obsession with looks go too far? Why would anyone stop when there are always facilitators for everything? It is gloriously sad and wonderfully memorable.
‘The Distance Keeper’ is awesome and distressing. You feel your chest constrict and feel the protagonist’s anguish as your own. It’s a classy piece of writing, one which had me experiencing equal parts admiration and writer-envy. And it does that most perfect thing, which is to know precisely where to stop.
‘The Tailor of Time’ first appeared in the original Clockwork Phoenix and contains some of the loveliest writing I’ve seen in a long time. “The Tailor of Time sat at his sewing machine, stitching night to day. He joined the clear cloth of dawn to a full bright afternoon like a circus top. Then he smoothed on a panel of smoky rouge for dusk and finished it off with a thick purple evening. Brushing his hand over the result, he felt a thin echo of satisfaction” (p.161). What more could you ask for?
‘Problems of Light and Dark’ has something of the Carnivale touch about it, but suddenly the darkness isn’t so frightening. The tale examines grief, loss and fear, with an ending that’s sweet, but untainted by saccharine.
‘Stealing Free’ has something of an Aesop’s fable about it, only more realistic, crueller. Don’t mess with salamanders – they’re too smart for you.
‘Summa Seltzer Missive’ proves that there really is a Santa Claus and is tender and sweet – which makes it a bit different to the majority of the collection. But, once again, Biancotti manages to avoid anything mawkish or maudlin in the display of gentler feelings.
‘The Razor Salesman’ is a story filled with foreboding; I felt myself hunched over while reading it, waiting for the blow. It’s an atmospheric tale that swings between the idea of a mother’s love and desire to protect her children … and the dangers the same mother might present to the self-same children.
The only stories I found unsatisfying were, interestingly enough, the last two. ‘The Dying of the Light’ tries for the same kind of fable feel as ‘Stealing Free’, but I never felt engaged enough with the characters to care. It felt as though there was something between me and the protagonists – as if the story was trying too hard to take on a particular tone, and so was stilted as a result. ‘This Time, Longing’ has an interesting premise, about a mother undertaking the offices of death for a daughter, but it feels, of all the tales, somewhat raw. There was a lot of thinking back by the main character, but it felt as though there were no real stakes, no real danger or risk, so once again it was difficult for me to care. This may just be me and these stories are most definitely in the minority in this impressive collection.
Sometimes it seems Australian spec fic feels overly self-conscious, as if we think we‘re not quite grown-up enough to play on an international stage, and while that may well have been true once, Biancotti’s collection goes a long way to shattering the glass ceiling for Aussie writers. This collection is also a coup for punchy indie Twelfth Planet Press, which is wisely looking beyond our own shores to find a broader market out there in ‘The World’. Biancotti’s stories are often strange, sometimes frightening and frequently masterful. A Book of Endings is a wonderful addition to the body of Australian specfiction and shows that we can totally play out there on the international scene without fear of cultural cringe.