Twelfth Planet Press (2009)
Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce (this review was first published in April 2009)
New Ceres is a planet sometime in the future, whose founders decided for various reasons to embrace the Age of Enlightenment – basically the eighteenth century – and stick with it. Permanently. Except for the spaceport, no technology from after this time is meant to be found anywhere on the planet.
New Ceres began life as a shared online world where authors could write stories set on this bizarre planet, play with other authors’ ideas, and generally have a whacky good time. Two issues of the New Ceres webzine have been released: the first issue, which introduced a number of the characters picked up in this anthology, is still available to download for free; the second issue is available at a small cost. They, and the novella Angel Rising by Dirk Flinthart (also released by Twelfth Planet Press and set on New Ceres), are highly recommended but not entirely necessary before getting into this anthology.
New Ceres Nights is a set of thirteen stories that pick up, play with, explore, and explode the foundations of New Ceres society. A society that, like our most romantic notions of the Enlightenment, has charm and mystery aplenty – especially for the well-heeled; and one that also has the lower classes, doing the drudge work. Of course, this being the future, these stories also deal with the vast possibilities raised both by its context and the fact that this delicious high-tech is illegal on the planet.
Dirk Flinthart has the honour of contributing the first story to this collection. “Debutante” is probably the earliest of the stories, chronologically speaking; it deals with New Ceres’ teething problems, when the founders were figuring out exactly how a New Enlightenment society would work. As well as an overarching political view, it also has Celestine Mayhew: daughter of one of the architects of the New Enlightenment, recalled from Earth for her debutante ball. She gets kidnapped on the way… Flinthart provides a good introduction to New Ceres by highlighting some of the issues that remain ongoing some two hundred years later. If you know where to look, he also introduces at least one continuing character quite nicely. The contrast between the likely ‘real’ technological future and the New Ceres version is perhaps starkest in this first story, and quite rightly colours a reader’s perceptions for the rest of the stories.
“The Widow’s Seven Candles”, by Thoraiya Dyer, is in some ways completely different from “Debutante” – its content and style are miles apart. Yet, aside from just being on the same planet, the two stories (as with most in the anthology) are held together by something more: a shared sense of the virtues and vices that are at the heart of New Ceres society (and therefore, I think, at the heart of our modern view of the real Enlightenment). Here, a chandelier – Etienne – is required to make seven candles for Widow Courboin. It’s not nearly so easy an assignment as it sounds, of course, and there’s an even greater twist just waiting to pounce on Etienne. This story doesn’t explore particularly deeply into New Ceresian society, but the story does give a good sense of how a society run by aristocrats used to getting their own way for hundreds of years might impact on them and their underlings.
J.C. Hay takes a look at aristocratic society from a slightly different perspective in “Code Duello”. Nothing is quite what it seems in this version of that age-old chestnut: male posturing and combat. Again, it offers a peek inside aristocratic circles and concerns, and also – in the twists and surprises – begins to introduce some of the politicking that goes on behind the veil of any society, no matter how refined on the surface.
For a different take on New Ceres, Aliette de Bodard takes us to New Dragon, in “Murder in Laochan”. One of the questions that previous New Ceres stories has barely touched is whether the planet is an exclusively white, European one. De Bodard – and a couple of others – emphatically show this not to be the case. Through the eyes of Zhongli Quan, whose role is something like a Proctor in the European areas of New Ceres – basically a special investigator – we see what a somewhat generically Asian version of the New Enlightenment might look like. Of course, things do not run smoothly – the title alone gives that away – and the murder Quan is sent to investigate has unexpected consequences. For its different view on New Ceres, I really enjoyed this story.
One of the stories that I have great trouble in believing is based on genuine Enlightenment events is Kaaron Warren’s “Tontine Mary”; it just seems so ridiculous and bizarre. However, tontines really did exist – a scheme whereby many people contribute money and the last person alive gets the lot. Warren’s story is, in some respects, a straightforward biography of Mary, youngest member of the New Ceres Tontine; it follows her from tontine meeting to meeting, sketching some of the intervening events. Looking more broadly, though, the story also sketches the changes and continuities in the society over Mary’s life, and also hints at some of the deeper issues affecting it. It’s very well written, and is one of my favourite stories.
From high society to coffee plantations: Stephen Dedman gives us the first real examination of the ‘lower classes’ for the anthology in “Fair Trade.” Taking as his starting point an office man, Barrington, being sent to a coffee plantation, Dedman explores issues of racism and corruption. This story feels particularly appropriate for an Australian – as do a number of other stories – with the ambivalent attitudes expressed towards refugees by various New Ceresians. Again, this is not an overly complex story; but Barrington is someone I’d be happy to call a friend, and it does provide a much-needed glimpse into the structures upholding the extravagant aristocratic lifestyles.
One of the more fascinating aspects of life on New Ceres is the land itself, and the native flora and fauna. While the planet has undergone some terraforming, it was inhabited prior to human settlement, although not by sentient species (so far as we know??). The plants include a toxin that is lethal to humans when ingested, which lends enormous advantages to food manufacturers and vital plot points to a number of New Ceres Nights stories. It is perhaps most central to “A Troublesome Day for Jacky Midnight,” by Matthew Farrer. Midnight, an ambiguous figure, has a commercial deal with a young noblewoman that, of course, does not go quite according to plan. Picking up on some details from a previous New Ceres story (“Bride Price”, by Cat Sparks, from issue 2 of the New Ceres webzine), Farrer reveals yet more of the seedy underbelly of New Ceres society.
Tansy Rayner Roberts also picks up details from earlier stories: in this case, two characters she created herself in issue 1 (“Scandal at the Feast of Saturn”), whom Lucy Sussex picked up in issue 2 (“Mist and Murder”). “Prosperine When It Sizzles” finds La Duchesse and Pepin, an aristocratic lady detective and her manservant, once again involved in the sort of scandal and intrigue that would make Miss Marple blush. Tasked with looking out for an aristocrat’s son, events rapidly go downhill, putting both La Duchesse and Pepin (who tells the story in the first person) in increasingly difficult and potentially dire situations. This is the first story of the anthology to deal in much detail with the Lumoscenti – monk-police tasked with finding and eradicating illegal tech on the planet – and a scary look it is, too. This is one of my favourite stories of the set: the twists are deftly executed, and, although there’s not much said explicitly, Roberts does indeed show that Prosperine (capital of New Ceres) can certainly sizzle.
Sue Isle is amongst the most ambitious of the contributors to this anthology, riffing as she does on both the New Ceres shared world and a previous, non-Ceres story of her own, “Mary Bennet gets a Life” (from Borderlands 7), which managed to combine Mary Bennet (from Pride and Prejudice) with, of all unlikely people, James Moriarty (Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis). Here, in “Candle to the Devil”, their time-travelling machine has somehow collided with a colony ship bound for New Ceres… and Mary finds herself in much the same society as she left behind, when she ditched her sisters for a life of adventure with the Professor. I didn’t feel like this story captured Mary quite so exquisitely as the original story did; although he doesn’t get all that much space, I actually preferred Moriarty. At any rate, this story gives an indication of what possibilities exist on New Ceres for the criminally-minded.
Criminality is again a major issue, along with high tech, for Martin Livings’ “Blessed are the Dead that the Rain Falls Upon”. Once again taking us into the underbelly of New Ceres society, and this time connecting it viscerally with the aristocrats, this tale of the snake disguised as a flower is a delightful take on the detective noir genre; I could imagine (a younger) Harrison Ford playing the detective’s (sorry, constable’s) role. While some of the stories treat technology in quite straightforward terms (can’t have/want to have), it’s problematised in this tale by not being a passive object. It’s another of my favourites.
Taking us to the rural side of New Ceres, Sylvia Kelso examines issues of male/female inequality as well as the trials of surviving in a harsh environment in “The Sharp Shooter”. Taking up the theme of New Ceres’ native fauna, Kelso uses this story to examine social mores and their consequences. The twist on the last page was, for me, the icing on a very nice cake.
Smuggling is, perhaps, one of the most undeservedly romantic of crimes, especially when it is associated with the eighteenth century. Lee Battersby takes advantage of this romanticism in “Smuggler’s Moon”, and riffs on the theme of illicit technology, and the consequences of trying to get it. He also elaborates on New Ceres small-town life, and on what might bring people to that particular scene.
Finally, the anthology is wrapped by Angela Slatter, in “The Piece of Ice in Miss Windermere’s Heart.” It wraps up the whole anthology in a rather delicious way that can’t be explained without ruining the story completely; suffice it to say that the story involves theft, murder, surprises, and a not entirely satisfactory conclusion – the sort of conclusion that definitely leaves the reader wanting more. It brings in some of the more interesting New Ceres-specific issues, and – as with all of the stories in this anthology – deals with them in a consistent, logical, and entertaining manner.
Aside from the fiction, it must also be said that this book is served admirably by its artists. The cover, by Dion Hamill, sets the scene and inherent paradox of New Ceres with its space craft/balloons in the sky, above people in pomaded wigs, women in bustles, and men in breeches with neck scarves. The internal art, provided by Richard Bartrop, Eleanor Clarke, and Daryl Lindquist, helps to set the tone for each chapter quite neatly.
Overall, this is a superb anthology, and one that I highly recommend. Coming out of a shared online world, it is to be hoped that there will be more authors who are inspired to take up the stories, ideas, and characters suggested by these thirteen authors – and there is so much that is hinted at and swept over! – so that New Ceres’ history, and its future, become as fully fleshed out as they deserve to be.