Tales of the City – JD Burton

Tales of the City
Edited by Philip Purser-Hallard

To begin with, let me say that I have never read “The Book of the War” or “Of the City of the Saved”. My only experience of the City prior to this was the superlative “A Hundred Words From a Civil War” in Obverse’s wonderful “Faction Paradox: A Romance in Twelve Parts” collection. So there are undoubtedly resonances and subtleties that I am missing out on, but this book seems very firmly designed to work without any prior experience of the world at all.

I do love the concept. A secular afterlife with all forms of humanity, from all eras, ‘alive’ together in one huge city. And one whose reality begins to break down all too soon… When watching “The Wedding of River Song”, the opening sequence of all time mashed together, with Holy Roman Emperor Winston Churchill on the throne, and Charles Dickens on TV discussing an upcoming Christmas special – well, you can guess what it reminded me of more than anything else.

The breadth of possible storytelling in unimaginable, and I am very encouraged not only by the creation of a ‘City of the Saved’ logo, but by the blurb which states that this book is: ‘The first ever “City of the Saved” short story collection’. “First ever”. Promising.

But enough of this preamble: onto the actual amble.

Akroates” by Philip Purser-Hallard

A very short story indeed, this serves as a primer for the uninitiated. While it has its own story to tell (more or less) this is about introducing the concept of the City and how things work here. It also (though I didn’t realize it at the time – had to go back and re-read after I was done) introduces the primary characters we are going to meet throughout the rest of this book.
There’s a fun ending to this micro-tale as well.

Happily Ever After Is a High-Risk Strategy” by Blair Bidmead

I always like Blair’s work. (Is it too early to say “always” after, what, three short stories of his that I’ve read?) And this is no exception.
A good choice with which to kick off the collection (I’m here not counting “Akroates” as a full story in itself) because it demonstrates the ridiculously broad nature of story possibilities in the CIty.
Terrance Moody, a hitchhiker, catches a ride with (on? in?) a sentient car (who is still human) and a visitor to the City, and winds up ensconced in an ancient battle that everyone’s heard of but just won’t end in the afterlife. It’s a rambling roadtrip and a damn good one. There’s a tremendous amount of imagination on display here, and the author doesn’t let it get in the way of telling a story.
True, it’s a tad disjointed – but in the way that road trip tales are supposed to be. I do have to admit, though, that (despite being very different) I couldn’t help but feel that a first-person road trip narrative coming so soon after his “Fear and Loathing” pastiche in a previous Obverse publication might make his approach look narrower to some readers than it ought to.

The Socratic Problem” by Elizabeth Evershed

This story – like the previous, and indeed the following – has a wonderful and terrible ending that feels like stopping right in the middle of a great story. I do indeed like this kind of thing, but find it as frustrating as I do inspiring. I suppose this is a statement about me, though, rather than the story.
Probably the most “fun” tale of the lot, this concerns Professor Inigo Farber at the University of the Seven Ages. His rivalry with a fellow professor leads to him wangling an appointment at the institution for the legendary Socrates himself – who is not as anyone expects him to be.
The characterization of Socrates (or, indeed, “Sokrates”) himself is at the heart of this story’s fun nature. A fun-loving, piercingly intelligent, irreverent Neanderthal, Socrates is the undoubted star of this narrative rather than protagonist Inigo Faber. Watching how he turns the University upside down and inspires Faber is wonderful – whether hiring the man can actually be seen as a success or not by the characters is another thing entirely, of course.
Very smart, very fun, very engaging. Loved it.
(Although an annoying feature of the e-book version is that half the paragraphs in this, and only this, story have too great an indent.)

Lost Ships and Lost Lands” by Juliet Kemp

Relating to a story can be an oddly ephemeral thing. I see absolutely nothing of myself in the primary character of Brianna – a rare experience for me, at least in well-written fiction – but I have known many people like her. This lack of personal connection can, however, cause some difficulty in relating fully to the character.
See all those people who are simply unable to relate to Amy Pond in Doctor Who, for example. There are those who insist on her unbelievability – despite masses of others who insist they either are like her, or know those like her – it’s a problem with empathy for a person who shares no traits with you whatsoever. Some people can only project their imagination so far before hitting a brick wall.
So yes, I end up looking at Brianna from the outside, rather than experiencing her journey from within. I don’t think this is the way the author intends, so I know I am missing out on part of the experience of the story. Unfortunately.
That’s not to say I don’t like it. Actually, I loved this tale, but didn’t ever connect with it the way I ought to have (through no fault of anyone’s, I’d wager). The protagonist is one of those people who is always moving on, who always wants something else, the next thing, never able to connect with her present situation, with those currently in her life. Her search leads her to a boat which sails in the sky looking for a lost land – each crew member for reasons of their own.
I won’t go into the details, but the plot elements appear to be tied up with what we know eventually happens to the City. Indeed, the pall of its inevitable decline hangs over this entire book, with several of the stories actively delving into that material (despite predating the fall of immortality). I found this to be a fascinating story with diverse and interesting people in it – and despite not being able to fully connect with them I greatly enjoyed the experience.

Highbury” by Helen Angove

This may be my favorite story of the lot. Having said that, there are elements of the setup that are more traditionally science-fictional and therefore less exciting and rewarding. Indeed, one could easily imagine it being in an episode of Doctor Who. The delight here comes from the presentation.
I’ll come clean here. I’m not exactly a full-on Janeite, but I do love me some Jane Austen. And this tale is self-consciously Austenian. The area of the City here is for those from that period in Earth’s history, or for those who prefer its (sense and) sensibilities. The region itself is deliberately based on the Jane Austen ethos, and the prose reflects this.
Unlike the appalling “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” (which I so wanted and expected to love) this story takes the Austen approach seriously, working within it and taking it on its own terms. The characters are consciously adopting a certain approach and their situation and reactions arise from this. Whereas in the aforementioned zombie text, the added material deliberately clashes with the original story to a supposedly humorous effect, but which in actuality was merely offensive and childish.
But part of this story also relies on an undermining of Jane Austen’s ideals. No, that is unfair. A “reversal” perhaps? The moment when one of the characters makes a decision contrary to the way an Austenite character would choose, but wholly in the spirit of feminine self-destiny that Austen would applaud. Difficult to discuss without spoilers, but perhaps later in this thread’s life we can debate the topic more fully.
For now, know that despite the slightly pedestrian set-up, I adored this tale no end for its characters, its approach, and the way it sticks to its own set-up rather than undermining it.

About a Girl” by Dale Smith

Have you ever wondered what it might be like if Kurt Cobain had a six-week old baby as a girlfriend? No? Well, now you won’t have to wonder anyway…
This is one of those stories that really examines some of the consequences of the set-up of the City of the Saved. It features people that want to die but can’t, a infant who cannot grow up even as she matures mentally, what drug culture might be in an afterlife, all sorts of things.
And in a City where all forms of humanity coexist, where humans as we know them have relationships with Neanderthals, with bird-men – why not with a fully mature human in the body of an infant? It’s repugnant to us pre-City folk, but over there it doesn’t mean quite the same thing any more. When you’re 250 years old, in what way are you a child?
Oh, did I mention who the protagonist, Jane, actually is? If you’d rather work it out for yourself, skip ahead, but it means a lot to the story to realize that Jane is the deceased twin sister of Philip K Dick – whose expiration at the age of six weeks had such a lingering impact on the man and his writing. It’s worth bearing this in mind as you read.
Quite an intense experience, this story, and not one that I would describe as a lot of fun. But highly recommended.

Bruises” by Dave Hoskin

Another story that explores some of the nature of the City – in this case, the fact that one cannot be harmed, and what this might mean to those who quite enjoy pain actually.
It’s a Blue Velvet style descent of a man who investigates a dark situation and finds himself caught up in it, spiralling downwards into its depths. Not just a look at sadomasochism, or drugs, or a gritty undercover cop story, it also has religion fundamentally at its heart in a way that is fascinating to the concept of the City of the Saved.
I don’t want to say too much, because it’s one that gains its power through the experience of it (there’s not a whole lot of plot – not until the very end, anyway), but know that it’s intense, dark, sexy, intriguing and powerful. Definitely a highlight.

Apocalypse Day” by Philip Purser-Hallard

Here Phil PH limits himself to wrapping up the story rather than creating one of his own. He brings the characters from all the stories back together (referring us back to the opening piece which laid the foundations) and touches on how the events of the book have changed them. It is all set against the titular Apocalypse Day, the day when mortality returned to the City.
There’s not much here – it’s a brief tale, a coda to the book as a whole, and it doesn’t do much of its own thing. But it does a good job of tying everything together, reminding us of the events of this collection as well as events to come, and ushering us into the future of the City at War.
A nice wrap-up that reminds us why we loved this book, and of the events to come (about which we have already read a little elsewhere).

In summary, regarding the book as a whole, it is an amazing collection of stories – not only with no duds, but nothing even ‘average’. The only negative I can say about this book is that it was over far too quickly and I do not look forward to the wait between now and the (inevitable) next book regarding the City of the Saved.