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4 September 2021

#Review - The Art of Space Travel and other stories by Nina Allan

Type by Julia Lloyd
Image by Vince Haig

The Art of Space Travel and other stories
Nina Allan
Titan Books, 7 September 2021
Available as: PB, 464pp, e
Source: Advance PB copy
ISBN(PB): 9781789091755

I am grateful to Titan Books for a free advance copy of The Art of Space Travel to consider for review.

I'm always delighted to see a book by Nina Allan coming and The Art of Space Travel is a real blessing, collecting some fifteen years of her wonderful, closely examines, weird(ish) short stories. I really enjoy an authors' short story collection - it gives a glimpse into a body of their work, highlighting themes and concerns you might miss in a single story, even in a single novel. These fourteen stories give access to a backstage world, weaving together themes of art (music, film, painting), space travel (of course - but seen from the ground, according to those left behind), environmental collapse, encounters with the Other and alternate outcomes, sometimes dramatised by pairs of stories. So, one will read about the characters; see them off, as it were; have an opportunity to imaging what might have happened next; and then encounter them - directly or indirectly - in a later story, which gives a version of their fate, though necessarily, only one possible version of many. 

Amethyst is told in hindsight, the narrator recalling her childhood friend Angela from the days when they were growing up in an unnamed shabby seaside town. The town is interpreted through the lyrics of a local folk-rock group, Amethyst,  who sang of a  'Moon landing down on Silas Street' - setting up the story for an investigation of Silas Street and a connection to an incident which breaks up Angela's family.  This is an intriguing story, full of mood and possibility.

Heroes also tells us about growing up - Fin lives in a Sheffield suburb, liminal both in being outside the ring road and also potentially subject to future development. His fragmented family are on the fringes of the story, its centre being his friend Marten, a pigeon racing enthusiast with a mysterious past dramatised by the strange contents of his house and his relationship with the outsider nicknamed 'Bismarck'. Again, there are threads of possibility here and hints of a wider picture that we're left to imagine.

The idea of nestled stories within stories recurs a lot in Allan's writing (including novels) and A Thread of Truth uses the technique perfectly, following a young man, Adam, as he overcomes his fear of spiders. In so doing he meets the mysterious Jennie, who tells a ghost story in a remote house in Suffolk. That story itself is perfectly framed and teasingly vague as to its age and setting: could it refer to Jennie's forebears? To her? (A Thread of Truth, like several of stories here, also has a key moment focusing on a crack in a wall or the ground...)

Flying in the Face of God is about space travel, or rather about those left behind. Anita's best friend Rachel is undergoing the preparation for space travel. It's never said outright, but it is clear this is a one way trip, or at least that any return will only be in decades or centuries. The preparation is personally transformative and hard to bear both for those taking part and their family and friends. Anita explores her feelings about it, drawing on insights from Rachel, from her own grandmother and letters and notes left by her own mother, who died when an earlier iteration of the space launch was sabotaged (something referred to elsewhere in Allan's stories, I think!)

Flying in the Face of God seems to be set in a world suffering climate change - a pool outside the school Anita attended seems to have dried up in the drought - and a similar motif appears in Microcosmos where a family (mum Bella, dad Doug, daughter Melodie) are driving for hours to meet a mysterious relative. It's sweltering - forty degrees in the car - and on arrival they find Ballantine's house near a dried up lake. There is a sense of mystery and menace hanging over things - while Ballantine seems to be regarded as undesirable, they're still trying to persuade him to come back with them where it's 'safe'. Yet Bella doesn't trust Ballantine at all. It's something to do with the research he's carrying to in his remote cottage, but we never learn what that is. It's lucky she doesn't know he showed Ballantine how to use his microscope to spot the tiny creatures in a drop of water, or that he gave her a letter to pass on to Aunt Chantal... that letter hangs, a secret, in the last line of the story. We don't know if it will be delivered, or when, it's a message in a bottle, cast away to the future...

I really, really loved Fairy Skulls, a nice little story in which Vinnie's girlfriend persuades her to spend her inheritance from Aunt Jude on a tumbledown cottage in the wild country south of London and then brakes up with her. Faced with no alternative, Vinnie goes ahead with the move then finds something peculiar living in the cupboard under the stairs. I liked the matter-of-fact way that Vinnie accepts and deals with her problem; the delicate balance between potential "Borrowers" style whimsy and something more menacing (those things bite!) and the hints that Auntie may have been involved in some very strange, not to say gruesome, goings on. 

The Science of Chance is set, like other of Allan's stories, in Russia, or perhaps I should say an ex Soviet Republic with overtones of Russia? It's an alternate timeline where the 60s went differently. There was a nuclear strike, to begin with, but also a different politics, teased but not given in detail - a mark of these stories, which often tiptoe round the big things, focusing instead on their impact on ordinary people. Here, policewoman Nellie, who's trying to identify a non-verbal and apparently lost young girl discovered at the local railway station. A very straightforward story, yet one which eventually leads to a choice between two explanations - one potentially very weird indeed, linking the story in to unnerving vistas of the potentially fantastical, the other, much less strange. And on the way Allan takes us through fascinating permutations of personalities, lives and histories - which absorb from start to finish. As so often in this book, the everyday seems to arise from something stranger, bigger, deeper rooted. 

Marielena has a similar atmosphere. In an unnamed English city (possibly London, but I wasn't sure), Noah, a refugee from a distant country where politics has made him unwelcome, survives amidst the cruelties of the hostile environment. It's an impoverished life - not only in financial terms but even more in the sense of being observed, resented, on sufferance, suspected - but he gets by, communing somehow with the mysterious Marielena, until the day he takes pity on an even more unfortunate person, the homeless Mary, who is being persecuted by a gang of youths. From that act comes a knowing, an understanding of wider things that places the story in a distinctly fantastical context. But Allan, having set that scene, steps back. The story ends where it ends, with us aware that there may be tremendous events coming that may concern both Mary and Marielena, but that Noah's reality stays as it is.

The Art of Space Travel, after which the collection is named, perhaps echoes Flying in the Face of God, being another story where space travel is happening - or being attempted - elsewhere, but the concerns of the main protagonists are more domestic, more personal. Emily is Head of Housekeeping at the Edison Star Hotel, Heathrow, her life being lived between mother Moolie, succumbing to early onset dementia in her home nearby, and manager Benny, currently stressed by two VIP guests, astronauts from said space programme. There's a thread of conspiracy (Moolie's condition possibly having been brought on by exposure to contamination from an air accident whose investigation she was part of) but in the 2070s this is left mysterious, it's not a driver of plot leading to a revelation. Rather the personal relationships, amidst hints of wider history, are the focus of the story.

Neptune's Trident takes place in a world where a series of catastrophes has been blamed on some kind of intrusion into electronic systems, leading to 'the clampdown', an attempt to take back control from whatever alien influence was lurking. It's not working, though, and as Caitlin hopes against hope that her brother Morrie, lost with his submarine, will return, she sees things slide, her friend Steph succumbing to a mysterious illness. It's an uneasy, liminal story, showing humanity teetering on the brink of something, but exactly what - I wasn't sure.

Four Abstracts follows up one of the earlier stories in the book (I won't say which - it might take away the fun!) Isobel is trying to come to terms with the death of her artist friend Beck at a comparatively young age from a hereditary condition. (Women struck by disease or accident are a bit of a theme in this collection.) Exploring Beck's life and art and also, the mystery of why and how she died, Four Abstracts both draws on, and casts further light on, its partner story, giving a glimpse into a wider (and weirder) world than either alone.

The Common Tongue, the Present Tense, the Known is also a partner story, following up on Microcosmos. We see Melodie as an adult, having been sent as a teenager to live with 'the Severins in Strasbourg' in the face of growing environmental catastrophe. She has only faint memories of her parents (so in a sense, we know more, from the earlier story) but is still fixated on Ballantine whose lesson with that microscope shaped her career. There are answers given here to some of the puzzles from the earlier story, but new questions arise.

The Gift of Angels: an Introduction is a deliciously clever story, focussed on a writer of science fiction stories, the September Queen books, set on an itinerant space freighter. They are inspired by the fact that the writer, Vincent Colbert, is the son of the astronaut Jocelyn Tooker, mentioned in The Art of Space Travel as one of the crew on a one-way mission to Mars. That story referred in passing to the unfair judgement being cast at a mother leaving her young son behind but not to fathers doing the same, but in a sense The Gift of Angels explores precisely that gap: Vincent was brought up by his less than adequate father and The Gift seemed to me to be in many ways about that loss, that abandonment. Set in Paris where his parents met, it sees Vincent come to terms with the need to write about his mother, but there is much more there than that - like so may other stories in this book it muses on the place of art, (both Vincent's writing and the 1960s French SF film La Jetée, whose themes and history the story keeps returning to). A moving and intricate story.

The final story, A Princess of Mars: Svetlana Belkina and Tarkovsky's lost movie Aelita is the newest in the collection and genuinely blurs the line between reality and fiction - narrated by an "I" who might very well be Allan herself, it exudes a deep knowledge, and skill in analysing, 20th century SF and in particularly, Soviet SF films - being focussed in particular on the history of a never-was Tarkovsky movie, Aelita. I think that's where we cross the line into fiction, signalled by a reference to the narrator being in Paris 'to promote the September King'(!) - other than that, they are seen indirectly, mainly through glimpses of a lifetime engaging with those films, starting on a dream Saturday afternoon in the 70s or 80s when the only alternative on TV was Grandstand. Nevertheless, it's an affecting portrait of a life, illuminated by insights about the place of creators and the difference between them and their art which - in dialogue with the eponymous actress - develops into a real focus for this story.

I found this a really strong collection. There is a sort of thematic space allowed by fourteen stories and dozens of characters - by possibly alternate versions of the same timelines, by dialogue between different points of view, often separated by decades. It's a book that had me flipping backwards and forwards, checking ideas about how the stories were related and comparing the outlooks of the various protagonists. 

I'd strongly recommend.

For more information about The Art of Space Travel, see the Titan Books website here.

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