This collection is a great example of what modern speculative fiction can be: fascinating, compelling, peopled by sympathetic (and not-so sympathetic) characters; surprising and familiar, inspiring, filled with mystery and a sense of discovery for the reader…and I love it when stories are connected, so I enjoyed piecing together the connections between some of the stories in the collection.
The opening story of this collection, Percipi starts with the rollout of a new domestic robot, the corporate fanfare feels very very familiar but is clearly futuristic. It’s told in 2nd person past tense, which quickly feels natural, demonstrating the author’s skill.
This story feels like classic sci-fi and also utterly up-to-date. It explores what happens when we rely on our machines (our robots) and what happens when they begin to assert their independence (personhood?)
It is delivered as a ‘here’s what happened’ report, a survey of ‘how we got here’, and yet it manages to be immersive and intriguing with a very satisfying ending…one I can’t imagine having been written by one of the ‘golden age’ sci-fi writers who first explored these ideas.
Cirrostratus is possibly my favorite story in the collection: a story about a futuristic circus. As with all the stories, it eases you into the story and the world skillfully. The futuristic worlds Newland creates are not easy or, on the face of it, beautiful, and yet the writing is both.
Scarecrow is a little more chilling than the opening two stories. Set, again in a non-utopian future, this one explores the ways in which we try to keep our loved ones safe. I really enjoyed not knowing what was going on and then, gradually, understanding the world. This definitely appealed to the part of me that enjoys the puzzle of short stories.
The title story, Cosmogramma, puts the reader in less-familiar territory with the human characters developing (evolving?) powers you and I (probably) don’t possess. The writing is spectacular: capturing unfamiliar sensations is a really interesting way.
“…when the canopy above seemed to split gently and the colors came rolling through, Layla’s mauves, reds, and blues, merging with Marshan’s greens, yellows, and pinks and Meade’s earthy tans, oranges, and brows, the rest couldn’t help themselves, singing the chorus, falling silent when they reached the verses. Colors danced just below the leafy canopy, converging and tumbling to create new spectrums and tones, encouraging the children to sing with more passion, forming new colors in turn. When they end the song, Gillie said they should sing another, so they did, loud as they could until they heard their parents call from the forest edge.”Courttia Newland, Cosmogramma
Buck takes us firmly off Earth and into a new civilization with interesting aliens whose culture is revealed slowly and deftly through their interactions with the human characters, and the human characters’ interactions with each other. Fascinating stuff.
And so it goes: great stories, great writing, all the way to the final story which gives the collection a sense of coming home.
There are dark themes in this collection but it manages (mostly) not to be depressing. The author chooses both traditional and unusual points of view (second person plural, past tense; second person singular, present tense) and manages to make it all work.
Some of the stories are quite lengthy, but still retain that ‘short story’ feel. On a personal note I really enjoy the sense of place in many of the earth-based story – mostly UK, which I gleaned from language use and references to things you wouldn’t get in US-based stories (the BBC, A4 paper, just the little details of daily life).
Highly recommended, if you like absorbing short stories and speculative fiction that leans to the sci-fi end of the scale.
Courttia Newland is the author of seven books including A River Called Time, The Gospel According to Cane, and his much-lauded debut, The Scholar. In 2016 he was awarded the Roland Rees Bursary for playwriting. As a screenwriter, he has written two episodes of the Steve McQueen BBC series Small Axe.
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Cosmogramma, Courttia Newland, Akashic Books, 2021 ISBN: 9781617759789