Jared Shurin & Anne C. Perry (eds) – The Lowest Heaven

pandemonium-thelowestheavenThe Lowest Heaven is a new anthology of contemporary science fiction published to coincide with Visions of the Universe, a major exhibition of space imagery at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.

Each story in The Lowest Heaven is themed around a body in the Solar System, from the Sun to Halley’s Comet. The stories are illustrated with photographs and artwork selected from the archives of the Royal Observatory, while the book’s cover and overall design are the work of award-winning South African illustrator Joey Hi-Fi.

The Lowest Heaven is the fifth Jurassic London anthology and the first to concentrate on a specific corner of the speculative fiction genre, science fiction. Of course, as it’s been inspired by bodies in the Solar System, this isn’t surprising and the stories included in this anthology show the breadth and depth of SF stories. There are some stories that are hard SF, some alternate history SF, some stories that could almost be considered mainstream, and everything in between. What results is a collection of stories that as a whole work very well, but which has a larger amount of stories that didn’t work for me than previous Jurassic London anthologies did.  

The stories that didn’t work for me, were ones for which I really had to work to even comprehend what was happening in the story, without getting a satisfactory return for that work. For his story Only Human, Lavie Tidhar worked with a concept of networked humans, who are connected much like a computer network, but I just couldn’t make sense of the concept en the explanation for it came late in the story, which led to endless frustration for me. Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Krakatoan just went over my head. I found it hard to find my feet with the story and once I did, I almost immediately lost it again in the volcanic imagery and visions. It might be a combination of the story not fitting the reader (i.e. me) comfortably and me being rather exhausted at the time of reading, but both of these stories just left me feeling more frustrated than entertained and I found myself struggling to get through them.

What ties most of my favourites in this anthology together is their focus on human relationships, emotions, and endings. Sophia McDougall’s Golden Apple not just is a tale of what lengths a parent will go through to save their sick child, but also a tale of knowing when to let go and give them peace. I love McDougall’s clear style and her deft prose. David Bryher’s From This Day Forward deals with the strain of saying goodbye and leaving things behind, even if you’re happy to go. It was a poignant story and was easy to relate to. I loved S.L. Grey’s We’ll Always Be Here not just for the complicated love/hate relationship between Pluto and Sharon, but also the strange almost religious devotion Sharon has developed for Tyra Banks and her America’s Next Top Model. This both made me laugh and made the story extra tragic, as I’m quite familiar with ANTM – it’s my guilty pleasure – and I found it tragic and quite a deft social commentary how much Sharon had internalised the ideals of beauty shown on the show. I loved the resolution of the story, since I hadn’t seen it coming at all and it was a fantastic twist. Matt Jones’ The Comet’s Tale could almost pass as mainstream and was again quite dark and sad, dealing as it does with two teens struggling to find their place in the world either due to their sexuality or their outsider status. The ending put tears in my eyes and the final sentence was just beautiful. In WWBD by Simon Morden the acronym stands for What Would Bradbury Do, which doesn’t quite manifest as you’d expect it to. Morden manages to write a story that is at once humorous and sorrowful as a space commander works through his moral qualms about his mission to Mars with the aid of genre great Ray Bradbury. James Smythe’s The Grand Tour was fabulous, set in a fascinating post-apocalyptic world, of which I wish we’d had more detail because it would have to be awesome and its plot was very cool with a great ending.

Despite some stories not working for me and having some really strong favourites, that doesn’t mean the others left me indifferent. They were good, but didn’t affect me as forcefully as the stories mentioned. Then again, with the likes of Alastair Reynolds, Adam Roberts, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, and Mark Charan Newton, to name but a few, what else could one expect? The Lowest Heaven is an excellent anthology, one that contains stories that almost demand several rereads to unpack all of their meaning. Packaged with some lovely photographs with items from the collection of the Royal Observatory Greenwich and a gorgeous Joey HiFi cover, this book is not just a lovely read but also a lovely object.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.


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