Review by Ian Sales
UK sf author Justina Robson managed a remarkable achievement at the beginning of her career: her first two novels were both shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award. Unfortunately, she has yet to be nominated again – though both Natural History (2003) and Living Next-Door to the God of Love (2005) deserved to be. Robson has also been shortlisted three times for the BSFA Award, twice for the John W Campbell Memorial Award, and three times for the Philip K Dick Award. And yet, the only collection of her short fiction available was published in Australia.
Heliotrope was published to celebrate Robson’s appearance as international guest of honour at Swancon 36 in Perth, Australia, in 2011. It contains sixteen short stories, including the title story which is original to the collection. An introduction is provided by Adam Roberts. The stories stretch from Robson’s first in 1994, ‘Trésor’, to ‘Cracklegrackle’, which appeared in 2009’s The New Space Opera 2 anthology. This inclusiveness is both a strength and a weakness. Each story has both an introduction and an afterword by Robson herself.
By any metric, Heliotrope is a respectable collection, showcasing a breadth of genres and subgenres and themes – from the earthy fantasy of the title story to the hard science fiction of ‘Cracklegrackle’ (set in the same universe as Natural History and Living Next-Door to the God of Love). ‘Body of Evidence’ is near-future sf, based on the effects on people and society of a single small device – but it’s a resolutely personal look at those effects. ‘The Adventurers’ League’ is another story set in the Natural History‘s universe, but this one has a more steampunk-ish flavour as the Forged all present identities that harken back to late nineteenth century scientific romances.
‘The Bull Leapers’ feels like the sort of story all genre writers have in their bibliography somewhere, in which ordinary people intersect with the fantastical in a place strange to them – in this case, it’s a middle-aged couple holidaying on Crete, and the bull leapers of the title lead to a meeting with the Minotaur. On the other hand, ‘Deadhead’ I thought less successful. It’s subtle horror, and it’s set somewhere in the American mid-west, but felt too mannered and English to entirely convince. ‘Erie Lackwanna Song’ opens with an intriguing image but has most of its plot carried in its dialogue.
‘Cracklegrackle’ is one of the collection’s highlights, a cleverly layered story in which a reporter meets several Forged and with their help learns what happened to his daughter on Mars. ‘No Man’s Island’ is perhaps set in the present day, but in theme and effect it reminded me of James Tiptree Jr’s ‘And I Awoke And Found Me Here on the Cold Hill-Side’. ‘The Seventh Series’ concerns the search for a lost book and the secret it describes, but then cleverly turns back on itself. ‘The Little Bear’ is another story that feels a little familiar, as a matter transmission experiment goes awry. It’s not, however, a story about the science, but about the people involved and how it affects them.
In fact, in the afterword to ‘Dreadnought’, a very short but quite unsettling military sf piece, Robson writes, “I keep returning to this theme of relationships, powers, abuse and vulnerability in them”, and it’s certainly noticeable that in many of the stories in Heliotrope, the genre elements appear only fleetingly – and sometimes may not, in fact, even be genre – and the focus of the story remains firmly on the characters. This is especially true of ‘Legolas Does the Dishes’, another of the collection’s highlights.
The final two stories, ‘An Unremarkable Man’ and ‘A Dream of Mars’ are among the most overtly genre in Heliotrope. In the first, old gods roam the present, and a woman does a deal with one, only to get the worst of it. The depiction of the gods and their powers is especially effective. ‘A Dream of Mars’ is pure sf, a man hunting a genetically-engineered creature, an early attempt at transforming humanity to survive on the Red Planet.
Not every story in Heliotrope is wholly successful, but given that the collection covers Robson’s entire career to date, that’s hardly unexpected. What Heliotrope does show – and it shouldn’t really come as a surprise – is that despite the varied trappings, the often plainly obvious genre furniture on display, Robson’s short stories are always about people, and the sf and fantasy tropes are used merely to shine a light on them and their relationships. There’s no joy of science or techno porn in these stories; but there are ordinary people trying to cope with the extraordinary, trying to make sense of a world that may be different to ours.
Sixteen stories in nineteen years is remarkably few by today’s genre standards. Some authors have more than that published in a single year. According to isfdb.org, Robson has had a total of twenty-one pieces of short fiction published since 1994. But then she is primarily a novelist, with nine novels out to date. All the same, I hope Heliotrope will not prove to be her only collection. Some of the stories in this collection are among the best twenty-first century British genre short fiction has produced, and we can never have too many of them.