Review by David Lascelles
Deep Black Beyond is a collection of short stories from Pacific North West based Spec Fiction writer Annie Bellet . The collection comprises four shorts – ‘Pele’s Bee-keeper’, ‘The Memory of Bone’, ‘No Spaceships Go’ and ‘Beneath the Ice and Still’ – and the novella The Light of the Earth As Seen From Tartarus, which is also available as an ebook all of its own .
I always find it hard to review collections and anthologies. Whereas with a novel there is a single concept or story to cover and consistency within that, stories in a collection can vary in originality and quality. While there isn’t a great deal of difference in the quality of the stories in this collection, the somewhat disparate nature of the concepts make it difficult to pin them all down to a single overarching theme which can define the collection as a whole. Therefore, I am choosing to look at each story as an individual effort.
Of the four short stories, the first one in this collection is by far the best in my opinion. Pele’s Beekeeper is a quirky tale about a ship’s captain waking up from a shuttle crash and meeting the mysterious sole inhabitant of the planet she has crashed on. The simplicity of this concept belies the complexity of the tale as Bellet hints at a wider world of war and fundamentalism beyond the interactions between our hero, Jackie, the hermit Darya, and the crew of Jackie’s ship. In fact, about the only criticism I have of this story is that it feels very much like the start of a novel and I would love to see more of this world portrayed in a novel.
Memory of Bone is the second story in the collection. In this, our hero is Haley, a prisoner on her way to court martial in a small ship with only one guard. When the ship encounters problems in folded space, the escort has to decide whether to let her free to help him escape the difficulty. The central conceit in this story is a classic Star Trek trope – the concept of the space dwelling alien which a human crew encounter and cannot understand. The trope is well played, however, and Bellet managed to keep me interested and concerned about the fate of the two spacefarers right until the end. Where it suffered, I feel, is that we did not get deep enough into the alien. The reveal, when it comes, is right at the end and while it leaves us with a nasty little cliffhanger I did find myself wondering if it didn’t need more to round off the story properly.
With No Spaceships Go, Bellet does an interesting exploration of homosexuality and social dynamics in a near future earth. In this, two boys, Dylan and Meek, have a tentative love affair. The problem, other than the still taboo nature of homosexuality, is that Dylan is from a well off family with skills that are deemed useful for possible relocation to deep space colonies while Meek is from what amounts to a ghetto of unskilled people who live outside the walls of civilisation. When Dylan discovers that his parents are being assigned to one of the upcoming launches, he has to make some hard decisions about his relationship with Meek. This is a gentle tale with most of the conflict being internal – Dylan’s own angst about abandoning Meek – and has some nice, if understated points in it. I would have liked to have seen more conflict with the parents or society in general – some external conflict – but I don’t think the story suffers too much for its lack.
Beneath the Ice and Still covers the tale of a woman working on a distant ice planet who discovers an alien being trapped in the ice. Some writers (myself included) may have made the story about what happens when the alien is uncovered but Bellet chooses instead to keep the alien as a mysterious enigma which the character speculates about but is never solved, using it as a mirror for the character’s own thoughts and experiences. This is therefore essentially a character building piece. The enigma of the alien, of course, makes this somewhat frustrating to read and that is part of the charm of this story. Less is more here and the little hints about the nature of the ‘girl in the ice’ are enough to inspire the readers’ own speculations.
Finally, the novella The Light of the Earth as Seen from Tartarus makes up approximately half of this collection. In this, an elderly billionaire commissions the crew of a space mission that failed spectacularly a decade ago (leading to the death of some of the crew and disabling at least one of them) to take him to Pluto. His intention is to die on the trip and his remains to be left there. On the way, we find out about the crew and their problems including the main character, Ian, who suffers intense anxiety due to him blaming himself for the failure of the last mission which left his brother without the use of his legs. As the story progresses, he comes to terms with his guilt and reconciles himself with his brother and the rest of the crew. In terms of story and character depth, this is an excellent effort and well worth a read. However, in terms of writing style and technical details, this feels like it could have done with a tighter edit to help the pacing along.
Overall, I enjoyed all the stories in this collection and would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in Sci Fi. Some of the stories felt like the pre-credits sequence of a Doctor Who or Star Trek episode – on one or two occasions I was expecting the Doctor to pop up and solve it all and you could argue that this is a collection of stories about what happens when the Doctor is not around – but this is no bad thing. My main criticism with the whole collection is that there are places where a more stringent edit might have helped. Some of the dialogue is not natural enough and some sequences suffer from pacing issues. However, these very minor flaws are adequately covered up by the excellence of the ideas.