Where Are We Going? edited by Allen Ashley. Book review

Where Are We Going? edited by Allen Ashley, Eibonvale Press, h/c, £20.00 / p/b, £8.99, Website

Reviewed by Dave Brzeski

This is a classic example of the reviewer backlog problem, and how some books fall through the cracks. I’ve had this one, in paperback no less – not an electronic copy, for well over two years and I’m only now finally getting around to reviewing it. Thankfully, it hasn’t gone out of print in the meantime.

The theme for this anthology is journeys, but not quests. The editor had a few more rules as to what was required in his initial guidelines, but since he admits in his introduction that not all of the authors followed those rules, I’ll just leave it at that.

The book opens with ‟Dead Countries” by Gary Budgen. It alternates between two linear threads. One being the gradual degradation of the life of Francis, a loser, going nowhere. The other being the letters his childhood friend, Eric, sends him from a mysterious place called Quassia, first discovered in their youthful stamp collecting days, and soon to be an overwhelming obsession in Eric’s life. Does Quassia actually exist? Who knows? but Eric is certainly a lot happier there than Francis is in the real world.

It’s not that long since Joel Lane was tragically taken from us, and we are reminded of just how great a loss that was whenever we come across another of his excellent stories. After suffering for weeks with nightmares of sexual violence that appear to be someone else’s dreams, a woman discovers that her husband is keeping secrets. ‟A Faraway City” is dark, deeply disturbing and brilliant.

A plasma physicist is co-opted, much against his will, by the Navy and taken down to a base at the deepest part of the Pacific Ocean. There’s something odd down there – something that seems to be behind some sort of force field. Exactly one page before the end of ‟The Way the World Works” I grinned and thought, “Oh come on! – he’s is not seriously going there, is he?” Yes, he was. The ending made me laugh and want to clip Ian Sales round the ear at the same time.

It’s not often I read something truly original, but Ian Shoebridge has certainly managed it with ‟A Guide to Surviving Malabar”. Cole finds that his chosen holiday destination isn’t quite what he expected. I liked this one a lot.

Andrew Hook’s ‟The Human Map” is clever. The unnamed protagonist finds himself in one place after another, constantly trying to understand, trying to get home to England – to Angeline. Every part ends in a clever last line that relates to where it’s set. The point of this becomes obvious in the big reveal at the end of the story.

The Visitors are here. Vastly more advanced than us, they simply want to find the ‟Engine of the Earth”, whatever that is. John Chamberlain doesn’t know. All he knows is that he’s been appointed team leader of a bunch of unqualified misfits who are sent to search for it on a dangerous urban estate, with a Visitor along to observe. It seems to be something of a rats in a maze scenario, as things quickly start to go wrong. We never quite know for certain what their visitor is after, or what the consequences will be once he has it. ‟Journey to the Engine of the Earth” by Terry Grimwood is genuinely scary.

The best words I can find to describe Alison J. Littlewood’s excellent ‟The Discord of Being” are ‟downright eerie”. When she was in her early teens, her parents went to Morocco, leaving her in the care of an aunt. It was to be ‟just for a short while”, but her mother had died and her father had stayed there ever since. Now, as an adult, word has reached her that her mother’s grave has been disturbed, so she makes the trip to investigate.

Take a step back into the past, sidestep into a steampunk universe, then take a sharp left and you might just find yourself in Stephen Palmer’s weird little reality, where exists the ‟Suicide Club” – a place from which adventurers travel, by means of a Bactrian Archimedean floating system, in search of the lost cities of legend. As can be surmised from the name of the club, they don’t always return. Pharaday Lemmington, and his assistant Franclin, set out for Xana-La in the hope of explaining the mystery of Pharaday’s missing belly button. I really hope ‟Xana-La” isn’t a one-off story. I want to know what happens next.

‟At the Rail” by Andrew Coburn is a melancholy, haunting and beautifully written tale of a woman who, after suffering under parental, and then spousal, repression all her life takes a cruise, whereupon she meets two men. There’s no real fantasy element to speak of, but it doesn’t suffer for that.

‟The Bridge” by A.J. Kirby is another of those clever little stories, which it is all but impossible to say anything about without spoilers, so I won’t.

I can easily see Frank Rogers’ ‟The Chain” annoying and frustrating a lot of readers. Somewhat Kafkaesque in it’s lack of explanation, or ending for that matter, I found it fascinating.

Ralph Robert Moore’s ‟Our Island” is interesting, in that it focuses on a small island, populated by the last few remaining survivors of what is effectively a zombie apocalypse. It’s different, in that we don’t actually encounter any of the zombies close up. The story concerns two young teenagers and the reality of their lives, as they learn the grim truth about their existence.

I really liked ‟Underpass”, Daniella Geary’s tale of the experiences of a group of teenagers who, as is the way with teenagers, decide to go exploring where they shouldn’t. They encounter no monsters, at least not of the fantasy/horror variety, but there is a hint of Magical Realism about this story.

Occasionally, I’ll finish a story and it’s so good I just have to sit for a while to let it percolate. Marion Pitman’s ‟Overnight Bus” is one such. It’s a simple tale, of a woman who is travelling across Africa on a whim. She’s following a man friend, who very likely isn’t as interested in her as she is in him. The stranger in a strange land vibe is very powerful, as she copes with the inevitable hitches along her journey. I really felt her nervousness and to some extent, paranoia, even in the face of the simple kindness of strangers. Really excellent storytelling.

I’d vaguely heard the term ‟slipstream fiction” bandied about, without ever really understanding what it was supposed to mean. Having now read Jet McDonald’s ‟Wake With the Light”, I feel I can now simply point people in the direction of this story. It’s about as slipstream as one could get, in that it would have been a mainstream literary piece, were it not quite so weird. I enjoyed it, but don’t ask me to describe it in a few sentences.

‟Future Prospects?” by Geoff Stevens is a fairly long poem. I’m the first to admit that I’m rarely very impressed with modern poetry. This was no exception, but no one should take my lack of appreciation as a condemnation.

The book ends with a science fiction story, set for the most part on a very distant world, which is precisely one of the things the editor said he wasn’t looking for in the foreword. I can see why he allowed the bending of the guidelines, as Douglas Thompson’s ‟Entanglement” is a very good story, involving a method of space exploration first suggested by Ursula K. LeGuin.

I’ve come to trust Allen Ashley when it comes to anthologies. This one is certainly no let down. I must apologise for taking so long to get around to reviewing it.