Monday, May 27, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Nina Allan

Nina Allan is one of the best, and one of the most individual, writers working in our field. She's published two strong novels (The Rift (2017) and The Race (2017)) but for me she shows at her best with her short fiction -- though her best short fiction is longer novelettes and novellas (including the exceptional short novel "Maggots".) Here's a selection of my reviews of her short work for Locus.

Locus, June 2008

Each year Albedo One sponsors a contest, the Aeon Award, and this year’s winner is Nina Allan’s “Angelus”. It’s told by a chess Grand Master from Eastern Europe, who encounters an old college friend by surprise, and reminisces on their shared history at Cambridge, in particular the one woman they both had some sort of relationship with, the daughter of a powerful professor. Quite subtly the differences in this world are revealed – political relationships are evidently quite different to our world’s, and there is a war fought in part by greatly altered “flyers” – and this is related also to the sad way the relationship of these two men and the young woman they both, perhaps, loved worked out.

Locus, August 2009

Black Static’s version of “horror” probably fits my taste as well as any horror magazine. At the August/September issue I enjoyed Nina Allan’s atmospheric “My Brother’s Keeper”, which I suppose qualifies as horror in that it’s a ghost story. But ghost stories, to me, often don’t have a “horror” vibe, as in this case, in which Martin is confronted with a family secret on receiving a special gift from his Lesbian “aunts”, as his single mother tries to resist their well-meaning interference is his life – all this mediated by Martin’s dead brother’s commentary.

Locus, July 2010

Similarly, Nina Allan’s  “Flying in the Face of God” (Interzone, March-April), about a woman making a documentary about a woman undergoing radical bodily alterations to become a starship pilot seemed to be about the wrong person – I’d have liked to see more about the pilot, less about the filmmaker, though I have no doubt Allan told the story she wanted to tell. And not by any means a bad story, I should say.

Locus, November 2010

At the September-October Interzone I quite liked Nina Allan’s “The Upstairs Window”. It’s a cynically told piece, in which the narrator tells of a friend of his, an artist who has got in trouble with the government and who must flee. The narrator is a journalist, who cultivates a more detached attitude. Behind this somewhat simple outline hints of the background slowly come to light – this is some sort of repressive England (perhaps an alternate present?) – and the revelation of this background is what gives the story depth and interest. I thought it a slant approach to telling the story, and ultimately quite effective.

Locus, January 2011

A few small press anthologies have come my way. Eibonvale Press is devoted to “Horror, Magic Realism, Slipstream, and the Surreal”, and Blind Swimmer is an anthology of new stories by writers who have published with them. The general theme is “Creativity in Isolation”, and the stories are a generally nice lot. My favorites include “Bellony”, by Nina Allan (one of the more interesting new writers), about a reporter who comes to an English seaside resort to investigate a favorite author of hers, who had disappeared some years previously. She leases the writer’s old house, and learns some contradictory things – stories she hears, facts she learns, about the writer’s past life don’t seem to jibe. Nicely mysterious work, with an interesting character behind the character in the disappeared writer, who we never actually meet.

Locus, June 2011

The best piece in the March-April Interzone, however, is “The Silver Wind”, by Nina Allan. Martin is a real estate agent in a rather oppressive future, but he becomes fascinated with the idea of time travel and the potential involvement in that sort of thing of a dwarf clockmaker named Owen Andrews. But visiting Andrews is dangerous, as he’s somewhat persona non grata to the government. But Martin’s interest is personal – his wife has died – and his hope is to turn back time. What he finds from Owen Andrews is rather different, and it takes Martin to a quite different place. Martin’s personal story is in contrast to the back story, of a militaristic and racially fraught future – and the strange background of Andrews’ clock researches adds a third intriguing axis to a fine story from a continually improving writer.

Locus, October 2012

Black Static for July-August debuts a new, smaller, format for the magazine, one that I understand will be used for Interzone as well. (The fiction wordcount, as far as I can tell, will be roughly the same.) The standout this time comes from the remarkable Nina Allan. “Sunshine” is a vampire story, though avowedly “an undercover protest against vampire fiction”. The protagonist is a vampire, or in his term, a hirudin. He is in the nature of things a solitary individual, and a serial killer. The story, told in his voice, details his life and methods, and then the one human he ever cared for, a young woman, and how their relationship came about and in the end was resolved, in a shocking way that illuminates the idea of vampire as serial killer. A really effective, powerful, piece.

Locus, October 2016

There’s been a lot of good stuff recently at The best is “The Art of Space Travel”, by Nina Allan, a fine meditative story about Emily, who works at the hotel where the Martian astronauts are staying before they head out to space. The story isn’t about the astronauts, though, but about Emily, and about her mother, a scientist who has a sort of Alzheimer’s-like disease, perhaps because of contamination she encountered while investigating a plane crash, and about her mother’s involvement in preparation for a failed earlier Martian mission, and about Emily’s desire to learn who her father was. A good example of the effective – not just decorative – use of an SFnal background to tell a mundane story.

In Now We Are Ten ... Nina Allan’s “Ten Days” is also strong, about Dora, a lawyer and a death penalty opponent, who becomes fascinated with the story of Helen Bostall, who had been executed for the murder of her radical socialist husband in the 1920s. Dora is convinced she was innocent (which seems obvious enough). When she fortuitously finds a curious watch that turns out to be a time machine, she goes back to try to meet Helen Bostall and warn her of the danger she is in. But what can happen when you try to change the past? Allan’s story, though, isn’t really about the twists and dangers of time travel: it’s more interested in character, and in politics, and their intersection.

Locus, March 2017

Five Stories High is a collection of five novellas, all set in a spooky house called Irongrove Lodge. Each story is really independent – the house is similar in some ways from story to story but with different characteristics. The best story is the first and longest, “Maggots”, by Nina Allan. Willy is a boy from the North of England who becomes convinced that his Auntie Claire has been replaced by another creature who looks just like her. This ends up messing with his relationship with his first girlfriend, who is convinced he has Capgras Syndrome. Over the years, Willy hides his suspicions and quietly investigates cases of people who seem to have some of the same convictions he has, a path that leads him to a scary story of a man who wrote a book about how his sister had become a demon, and who ended up murdering her. These people had lived in Irongrove Lodge, and Willy finds his way there, and has a legitimately scary revelation about what has happened to him, and to his Aunt.

Locus, August 2017

In the June Clarkesworld Nina Allan, one of the most consistently interesting of contemporary SF writers, offers “Neptune’s Trident”. The world has changed radically since something called the clampdown, which seems to be result, at first, of some sort of invasion or attack. Caitlin is living in Scotland, struggling to keep her and her partner Steph going by gleaning useful items from what washes ashore; and hoping that by some miracle her brother, a submariner, has survived. Steph has a strange disease, a result of whatever has changed the world, that results in people becoming what are called “flukes”, and Caitlin is hiding her condition from an increasingly hostile society, represented here most directly by an itinerant preacher Caitlin encounters. Hints at the true nature of what’s happened slowly surface – perhaps a deep change in reality? This is interesting work, which seems to fit into a long tradition of morose English catastrophe SF, going back to John Christopher (All Flesh is Grass) and of course J. G. Ballard’s early novels.

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