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I bought this collection for one reason and one reason only: it contained another slice of Ian McDonald's world-turned-upside-down 'Chaga; sequence. As it turned out this was by far the best piece in the book, but more of that later.
I haver never been convinced by Pater Hamilton, much as I want to like a British author who can do cyberpunk and do space opera with the best of the yanks. However his piece in this collection, 'Watching Trees Grow' changed my opinion of him. It is an alternative-history crime novella based on the premise that descendants of the Romans still rule Britian through a set of East India Company-style families who combine economic control with a monopolies over various areas of scientific progress. It is a neat idea, and takes the premise further than many other alternative histories by throwing the story further and further into the future, as an old rivalry becomes an obsession that almost transcends time.
I enjoyed it despite the episodic feel - perhaps a novel would have been more appropriate - but its 'Britishness' seemed slightly musty and old-fashionned, and redolent of dreams of Empire, in stark contrast to McDonald, or more overtly hip authors like Jeff Noon or Justina Robson. Maybe that was the point, and if so it was well made: science fiction is much the poorer if it doesn't teach you something about the society in which you live.
As for Stephen Baxter's 'Reality Dust': well, he does try, and he does keep churning them out, but this is so boring and so mainstream and so traditional. It is all done very competantly, but it is basically the kind of SF I enjoyed when I was a teenager, it isn't challenging in any way.
I was a little disappointed with Paul McAuley's novella, 'Making History', especially as he is one of my favourite writers. This was partly because at the heart of it was a very tedious old argument about the nature of history (great men versus social processes) which tended to intrude on the quite interesting story of the processs of war, defeat, reconciliation and the way history is written. Perhaps this was set up as part of the character of the historian to demonstrate his own flaws, but it didn't really convince. This is certainly not one of his best stories.
As I said at the start, I bought this collection for Ian McDonald's 'Tendeleo's Story'. I was certainly not disappointed by this one. McDonald is one of the few writers in the genre today who can combine real politics and a strongly compassionate and empathetic grasp of human nature. He is also a superb writer, able to portray setting and character in a vivid, dynamic and sensual way.
This novella, as the title suggests is the story of Kenyan girl, Tendeleo, the arrival of a extraterrestrial nanotech lifeform, the Chaga, that begins to transform Africa, and as a result the balance of global power. Initally for Tendeleo, however, this means growing up and simply trying to survive in the ferment that follows, which in her case means geting more and more deeply involved in street gangs smuggling Chaga material out of Africa. Capture and exile is never far away and whe it comes she loses here family in tragic and guilt-inducing circumstances. She winds up in cold, rainy Manchester, England, where she meets the other central character and narrative voice of the story, Sean, a black Irishman, who is also an exile in various ways, and a tentative love affair begins. Of course, inevitably Tendeleo has to return to Africa, where the Chaga has begun to revolutionise everyday life and the place of Africa in the world.
'Tendeleo's Story' is worth the price of this collection alone. It is an almost perfect example of how to write a novella that with none of the structural problems of the others in the book. The narrative is perfectly paced, with a deft handling of both action and emotion and no forced-ness or pretension. It is truly worthwhile and heartbreakingly real story that exist within an utterly fantastic and transforming world, yet a world which says so much about our own. A true gem of a story, from one of the best and most underrated writers around.