Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Book Review: Stars of Albion

Book Review: 'Stars of Albion' edited by Robert Holdstock and Christopher Priest

4 / 5 Stars

'Stars of Albion' (238 pp) was published in the UK by Pan books in 1979. All of the stories in this anthology first were published in various digests and magazines in the interval 1965 - 1978.

In the Introduction and Afterword, editors Robert Holdstock and Christopher Priest declare that the intention of 'Stars of Albion' is to showcase UK science fiction as its own unique genre. Holdstock attributes the unique character of British sf to a resistance to writing stories of an overly commercial nature; in this regard, British sf writers have an independence that allows them to approach the genre in ways that are arguably more imaginative, and less restricted, than writers in the other countries (..........namely, the USA). 

My capsule summaries of the contents:

Sober Noises of Morning in a Marginal Land (1971) by Brian Aldiss: a prisoner comes to a revelation about his imprisonment. Very much a New Wave piece, this is yet another awkward, obtuse effort by Aldiss to emulate Ballard.

A Place and A Time to Die (1969) by J. G. Ballard: two men contemplate an invading army. Ballard fans will undoubtedly declare that this story says something profound and insightful about the nature of conflict and the human condition, but I found it unimpressive. 

The Giaconda Caper (1976) by Bob Shaw: a sendoff of a private-eye short story. One of the more entertaining entries in the anthology.

The Vitanuls (1967) by John Brunner: an American MD stumbles across an unusual phenomenon when he tours a maternity hospital in India. The 'Population Bomb' atmosphere of this story is effectively conveyed, but I found the denouement to be too contrived to be effective. 

Whores (1978) by Christopher Priest: on leave from a war in which chemical agents are used to induce neuroses in the combatants, a soldier makes a fateful decision to purchase services from one of the Local Girls. One of the best stories in the anthology. 

Warlord of Earth (1978) by David Garnett: what happens when a Conan the Barbarian - type character finds himself teleported to California at the height of the Hippy Era ? An effective satire, one with spot-on humor.

The Time Beyond Age (1976) by Robert Holdstock: two androids are subjected to a morally questionable experiment to see how Homo sapiens fares when reared in conditions free of disease and environmental stressors. While the concept is interesting, too much of the story is devoted to exploring the states of emotional and psychological angst afflicting a lead investigator. 

Dormant Soul (1969) by Josephine Saxton: a woman mired in depression discovers that aliens exist - and they present themselves as angels. More of a fable about modern life and its discontents, than a sf tale. 

The Radius Riders (1962) by Barrington J. Bayley: hard sf tale of a ship's journey through the center of the earth. Imaginative and well-written, with a note of Jule Verne-style Steampunk.

Traveller's Rest (1965) by David I. Masson: a soldier on leave from the battlefield journeys south to lands untouched by the war; as he does so, he crosses latitudes not just of distance, but of time. A classic sf tale. 

To the Pump Room with Jane (1975) by Ian Watson: 'Soylent Green' meets Jane Austen. This story is imaginative, and prefigures Steampunk in some interesting ways, but is in the end undermined by an unconvincing denouement.

Weihnachtsabend (1972) by Keith Roberts: a novelette set in an England where Hitler Won. A bureaucrat in the English government is invited to a Christmas Eve celebration hosted by Nazi functionaries, where he learns of disturbing practices - some inspired by pagan rituals - among the party elites. This story borrows to some degree from the classic 1952 novel 'The Sound of His Horn', by Saban. While atmospheric, it does suffer somewhat from Roberts's oblique prose style.

Summing up, 'Stars of Albion' is one of the better late 70s sf anthologies. While some entries are duds, there are enough gems to make purchasing this book worthwhile. 

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