Dirk Flinthart (ed.)

Agog! Press (2008)

ISBN: 9780809573288

Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce (this review was first published in November 2008)

As a fan of the original Canterbury Tales, I was fascinated to hear that this project was being undertaken. The ‘let’s tell stories to pass the time’ idea has been used before as the basis of novels, and probably anthologies, but I’ve not heard of another that both moves the context to the future and blatantly rips off – I mean, pays respectful homage towards – Chaucer’s original. Such is the case here. And the concept really is a brilliant one. It’s 2109, and a group of pilgrims are travelling to Canterbury. They get delayed, and to pass the time they tell one another stories. So what we get are the stories that people in 2109 tell one another, and only incidental information about 2109 itself, not to mention the century between then and now. This in itself is a tricky ask: there’s little info-dump, little ‘the story so far’ – instead, straight into the concerns, mythologies, and complexities of the 22nd century. Which would all have made for an interesting anthology, I think, but what really kicks it up into highly clever territory is that the stories are linked together – as they ought to be, given their context. Between each story there is an interlude on the train with the pilgrims: seeing their reactions to stories, watching them interact, and generally reinforcing the idea that these are meant to be real people telling stories to other real people. It’s as if someone has transcribed the stories told around a camp fire. And it works – it really does. I can’t imagine the editing that must have gone into this book to make it internally coherent, but it worked. I enjoyed most of the stories presented – some, of course, more than others. Some will stay with me; some were nice at the moment of reading and I may struggle to remember them tomorrow. Together, though, they present a truly fascinating (and frightening) vision of the world a hundred years from now. (My personal favourite thing: the idea of Londonistan.) Also, concluding the book with author bios that stake a claim on the time between now and the setting of the anthology? Brilliance.

Geoffrey Maloney’s “The Tingler’s Tale” opens the set, and sadly it was one of the few stories that didn’t especially appeal to me. A Tingler being an entertainer who aims at frightening, this tale sees a Scribbler following a story before an execution. I didn’t feel like the story set the stage particularly well for the rest of them, and didn’t help set up the world of 2109 very much either.

On the other hand, Angela Slatter’s “The Nun’s Tale” is wonderful. A city, raised up high, needs to be looked after by humans – but humans who won’t sleep or do any of those annoying, time-wasting human things. Slatter here relates the story of one of the humans given that task. It’s sad, and a bit frightening, and immensely readable. It raises one of the questions that’s a bit of a theme for the anthology: how far should humans go, in a variety of areas. This is a cautionary tale.

Martin Livings’ “The Dead Priest’s Tale” is one of my favourites in the whole anthology; maybe I’m just a sucker for historical stuff (when it’s done well). Thomas is born to die, the first line informs the reader (‘spoiler!’, I say). He grows up clever, and devoted to God; becomes a priest. Life goes on, until he is summoned to Canterbury, which is when things get weird for him, and interesting for the reader. This story worked for me because it is very clearly situated in 2109 (or the years just prior); it reveals a bit more about the world and how people interact in it; and, except for one moment near the end (for me), the characters and actions rang true. Can’t ask for much more than that.

“The Veteran’s Tale” comes from Stephen Dedman, and you could almost be forgiven for reading this as a pseudo-medieval fantasy story at the start: warlords, fighting, raiding… I think, of course, that that’s the point. The UK, where the anthology is set (obviously), has experienced extreme weather, plagues and other catastrophes over the 21st century; much of the place has therefore regressed – although there are still weird remnants of technology left hanging around. Dedman’s story, then, is one that looks at the conjunction of old world/new world technologies, as well as the re-establishment of government and the settling of grudges. It’s another highly enjoyable story, and further develops the 22nd century as somewhere I’m not keen to visit.

One thing that is unlikely to change in the future, whether using old world or new world technology, is reliance on fuel of one sort or another. Laura E. Goodin’s “The Miner’s Tale,” then, is apt. Industrial shenanigans are nothing new, and are unlikely to go away, as this story points out; neither, it is to be hoped, is the desire to help a fellow in need. It’s a simple tale, this one, but again adds to the reader’s experience of 2109 – as well as saying something to our current consumption of fossil fuel.

If there were an apocalypse impending, I’d be following the example set by numerous excellent movies: run for the hills! As the people of Slatter’s “Nun’s Tale” do, so do the people of Sue Isle’s “The Sky Chief’s Tale” – except they head for the ruins of Bath (Aqua Sulis), and stay there as the weather gets worse and civilisation unravels. One of the things I love about this story is its hinting at the history behind it – what led the people to Bath, the privations of the world inside and out … and people on the moon. This is another well-crafted tale, and one of the few I think that makes direct reference to the new King, Charles V – which, as Flinthart predicts in his introduction, makes me wildly curious about his likely lineage. This is another of my favourite stories.

The tales told by the travellers have either happened to them, or to someone they know well – they aren’t ‘once upon a time’ stories, with a couple of exceptions. Kaaron Warren’s tale, that of the Census-Taker, largely falls into the former category. It’s a curious story, encompassing as it does two tales, really: that of the Census-Taker’s parents, and his own experience while out on mission, collecting data. Again, this story does two things: it’s a vivid and shocking tale of what families do in times of stress and need; and it hints rather broadly at the tribulations endured by the people of Britain in the terrible years of the 21st century. Warren captures her characters delightfully, and depicts the terrible decisions taken by many of those in authority sympathetically.

Up to this point in the anthology, all of the narrators’ occupations have borne some relationship with one you would find today. “The Mathematician’s Tale,” by Durand Welsh, stretches this congruity. It’s told by a Knot Man, about a Knot Man: someone who uses mathematical ideas to, well, make knots. And undo them. This is the first tale about going north – in this case, to Aberdeen: now an icy wasteland, thanks to climate change and all. At heart, this is a story about facing your fears, and it’s great: the two main characters, the Knot Man and the Jailor, are well-executed; the mathematical terms, while complicated, fit in nicely, and suggest a depth that isn’t entirely explored in the story.

While Welsh’s story has some gruesome aspects, Ben Bastian’s “The Doctor’s Tale” is way more horrific. Set in Australia, a doctor goes to call on an isolated, outback community. What he finds there fulfils many of those nightmare stories Australians sometimes like to scare themselves with: a town with a terrifying leader, and a bunch of thugs at his bidding. It doesn’t entirely feel like it fits with the rest of the stories, primarily because of the different location and that it’s not as technological as many of the others. Nonetheless, it is well written, and it’s useful to have a story that looks at the implications of the intervening century on the world outside of the UK.

Back in the UK, and again less than technological, is Grant Watson’s offering: “The Hunter’s Tale.” This one has elements of a fairy tale, for me – hunter, wolf, little girl – but with definitely modern sensibilities. Set in a village, it looks in a little more detail at how people in the 22nd century might interact with the natural environment, and how it might interact with them. It’s also, again, at heart a very human story – and a bit terrifying too.

It wasn’t until I got to Thoraiya Dyer’s “The Peat-Digger’s Tale” that I realised the stories up to this point hadn’t had much in the way of romance. This isn’t a bad thing as such, just an interesting point about the issues explored: focal relationships had tended to be friendships, or parent/child. Here, though, the focus is a married couple, and the lengths one will go to for the other. As with the other stories, there are also some broad hints at events from the intervening century. Medicine is one area that has been dramatically affected, as has transport; and this seems perfectly likely. The Peat-Digger is probably the nicest narrator of the anthology.

Hot on the heels of my realising the lack of emphasis on sexual relationships comes “The Metawhore’s Tale,” by Lee Battersby. Whoredom being, proverbially, the oldest profession, it’s not unlikely that it too should be transformed by technological change, as in this story; on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, it’s also understandable that there would be mixed reactions to such a person. Add in a priest, and you get a fascinating tale – although perhaps not the one you’re expecting. Sordid and sad, I found the conclusion of this tale quite wonderful. I also liked the little reference to the original Tales thrown in by Battersby.

Penelope Love contributes a seriously bizarre story with “The Janus Tale.” It’s also the only story that has a large segment based on the train itself, during this particular voyage. Janus was a two-faced Roman god, god of beginning and endings, and of doors and gateways. This tale encompasses three stories, really, and flows along from the previous two in the anthology by being focussed on the relationship between a man and a woman, in three different contexts. Love (the author’s, that is) winds the stories together with the train journey to create what I thought was one of the most enthralling of all the tales. With questions about redemption, and destiny, and love, it’s a rich and moving narrative.

So it’s at this point in the review that I should eat my words about there not being many romantic-type stories, as Trent Jamieson’s “The Lighterman’s Tale” is, yes, another that does have romance as a central theme. But I was right until Dyer’s story, so I’m sticking with my story. At any rate, short and sweet: how not to lose the love of your life is the point of this story. It has more of the feel of being romanticised than some of the other stories in the collection. That is, while all of them claim to be stories that actually happened – including this one – some are more ‘believable’ in context than others. This has more of a “the cousin of a friend’s friend…” feel, which doesn’t stop it from being a good story, of course.

Another somewhat-mythological tale is that of the Carbon-Knitter, by Rita de Heer (and exactly what it means to be a carbon-knitter is never explained, which – from the introduction – makes Flinthart rather smug). It looks at the development of a hero who fits his times, and how he might be regarded by those who hear his story. It’s also another examination of how technology that people have forgotten about might be re-used, re-shaped and re-interpreted.

Again on the theme of mythologising and re-imagining of technology, “The Evangelist’s Tale” by L.L. Hannett is a tour de force. This story afforded me something in the way of culture shock, as I realised that what was astounding these characters were things I take quite for granted. Additionally, the way the main character, Oule, interprets his experiences seems on the one hand utterly ridiculous (from a 21st century view), but on the other hand chillingly plausible (from a 22nd century view). As a Christian I had liked the idea that the church was still going in 2109, despite not liking everything attributed to it; science fiction stories often cut religion out of their worlds. I guess, too, it would have required a whole new reason for journeying to Canterbury had there been no Anglican Church to provide a focus for the pilgrimage. Despite that, I had rather expected to find new ideas on religion, other than Christianity and atheism. This tale addresses that issue, and does it in a convincing, meticulous way. It has religion, and persecution, and it fits its context snugly. This is another of my favourite stories from the anthology.

I am realising that if Flinthart didn’t consciously group his stories together, his subconscious has done a very good job of it for him. The penultimate story of the collection, penned by Matthew Chrulew and entitled “The Gnomogist’s Tale,” is another semi-mythological story. It seems to be talking about real events (in the context of the anthology), with a mythical spin. Only the second story to be set outside the UK, the gnomogist takes her listeners on a ride that involves living with nature in a symbiotic way; it’s the most environmentally aware of all the stories. Chrulew gives his narrator a very idiosyncratic style that could have got annoying, but for me just stayed on the tolerable, good-for-the-story side. In some ways, “The Gnomogist’s Tale” is Jurassic Park that doesn’t go horribly wrong. It also, again, looks at how technology might be viewed by those who don’t fully understand it.

The final story of this anthology is by Lyn Battersby, and is – fittingly – “The Conductor’s Tale.” Always present, never given a second thought by passengers, it’s nice to see the Conductor recognised with a story of his own. And this story neatly rounds out the whole set, bringing the anthology back to its roots, in a way, because it’s about pilgrimage: reasons for going, problems that hold you back, and the experience of the journey itself. It’s an entirely appropriate concluding story.

It is something of a surprise to get to the end of an anthology and realise that there have been few actual names used throughout: basically every character has been identified only by their occupation. It’s a credit to the authors that this does not detract from their stories, although it also says something about our willingness to think in stereotypes. As I said at the start, the whole basis of this anthology is intriguing. The only story I haven’t looked at in this review is that of the compiler, the recorder of all these stories. Because unlike the original Tales, here the Geoffrey character does have a story, bitsy and shadow-y though it might be. It’s a credit to Flinthart that he manages to convey so much in those bits and shadows, and that in the end all of the stories hang together in a fairly cohesive manner.