THE ART OF SPACE TRAVEL AND OTHER STORIES by Nina Allan (BOOK REVIEW)
“I begin to understand that his is what time travel actually is: we can each of us go back in time a little. We extend a hand to the one behind us and they travel back a little further.
It is a slow process, and deeply inhabited. A process of necessary sharing that cannot be bypassed.
The only way we can explore the future is to reinvent the world.”
Regular readers will know that I consider Nina Allan one of the most exciting novelists working today. The Art of Space Travel and Other Stories (2021) compiles Allan’s short stories from across her career, leaning towards her more speculative and SFnal work, and demonstrates that she is also a master of the short form. Allan is typically modest in the introduction, but The Art of Space Travel is a masterful collection, one that highlights just how much can be done with the form. Given that her most recent novels have moved somewhat away from the speculative towards Allan’s own unique mixture of slipstream and literary experimentation, it’s nice to be reminded just how well Allan handles science fiction and the speculative, how her approach enriches the strangeness and wonder of genre themes whilst eschewing cliches. Arranged roughly in chronological order, the stories show the threads of themes, interests and obsessions that have shaped Allan as a writer, and how she has honed and developed her craft. As such, The Art Of Space Travel is essential reading, both as a collection of some of the most striking and original writing in speculative fiction and as a record of the development of a key author’s creative voice.
The book opens with ‘Amethyst’, ‘Heroes’ and ‘A Thread of Truth’, which long-time fans of Allan will recognise from her debut collection A Thread of Truth (2007), Allan’s first ever published book which came out with the small press Eibonvale. Similarly, ‘Flying in the Face of God’ and ‘Microcosmos’ were both included in Allan’s NewCon Press collection Microcosmos (2013), but the remaining nine stories have never been collected before. It’s nice to see these early stories get a release to a wider audience here, especially as A Thread of Truth has been out of print and hard to find for some time. And although one can see Allan’s craft developing over time, her earlier stories still demonstrate her command of language and character, her desire to experiment with form and her willingness to push the boundaries of what genre can do.
‘Amethyst’ displays many elements which recur throughout the collection, and in Allan’s writing in general. The story is told nonchronologically, from the perspective of the narrator looking back and remembering. Many of these stories are directly about memory and the act of remembering, and how remembering and retelling stories allows us to both relive the past but also by framing it as a narrative removes us from it. The story tells of an intense friendship, one in which both characters shape each other in ways they initially do not understand. The relationship is further complicated by one of the character’s absences in the present, when the story is being narrated. The speculative element powers the story, but obliquely, leaving the focus very much on the characters and the narrative voice, the way the story is told. These elements recur throughout Allan’s short fiction and her novels.
Another of Allan’s favourite themes is storytelling. Many of the stories include nested narratives, stories within stories, or meta-narratives complicated by the presence of journal articles, encyclopaedia entries or school essays, all of which push at the form of the short story whilst imparting key information about the story’s characters and worlds. Allan’s characters are frequently artists, storytellers of some kind or other, struggling to express their creativity as it’s the only way they know how to make sense of the world. Many of her other characters are friends or loved ones of artists, those who have to clean up after their talented friends. It is these intersections between art, storytelling and memory, between creating a world and understanding a world, between inhabiting reality as we experience it and inhabiting a higher creative realm that demands more than the artist can pay, that form the heart of Allan’s writing. It’s interesting to note that much of Allan’s work, from the collections Ruby (2013) and A Silver Wind (2013) to her debut novel The Race (2014), achieve their affect through the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated fragments that build to a thematic whole. Though each of the stories in The Art of Space Travel is a satisfying experience in itself, reading the collection is almost like seeing this process happen across the megatext of Allan’s oeuvre.
The stories in the collection are wide ranging and diverse. ‘The Art of Space Travel’ was a finalist for the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Novelette, and frankly should have won. A lyrical and moving story set in a near future Heathrow as humanity prepares to launch a manned mission to Mars but really about a woman’s relationship with her dying mother and absent father, ‘The Art of Space Travel’ is a wonderful example of everything Allan does well as a writer. The story’s approach to the speculative is not to get bogged down in the tedious details of how such a mission might occur, but instead to focus on how such an event would affect the everyday life of normal people, even as the drama or drudgery of the shape of our lives as lived continue in the foreground. Far more important than the excitement of the astronaut’s journey is the narrator and her mother coming to terms with her mother’s impending death, brought about by the chemical fall out of an airplane accident. Similarly, ‘Mariana’ tells the tale of a time traveller sent back in time to prevent some kind of apocalypse, but Allan sharply focuses in on the story of an asylum seeker waiting for his paperwork to come through and the friendship he forms with the time traveller who is masquerading as a homeless woman. The masterful ‘Neptune’s Trident’ is a postapocalyptic tale that is far more about a woman protecting her dying wife from a preacher who comes to town to stir up hate and resentment against those transformed by a new disease than how the new disease brought about the collapse in the first place. In this way, Allan is a powerfully political writer. Her stories centre the dispossessed, those struggling to get by in a very normal way, rather than big heroic narratives, and celebrate the ephemeral beauty found in fleeting moments of human interaction as we struggle to survive the traumas of the modern age.
If the stories at the beginning of the collection provide insight into where Allan started as a writer, the stories that close the collection give tantalising hints at where she might be headed next. ‘Four Abstracts’, ‘The Common Tongue, The Present Tense, the Known’, ‘The Gift of Angels: an introduction’ and ‘A Princess of Mars: Sveltana Belkina and Tarkovsky’s lost movie Aelita’ all see Allan experimenting further with form, invoking imaginary paintings, films that never existed, as well as literary references to Russian science fiction, in order to create some of her most engaging and troubling character portraits yet. They demonstrate that Allan is a writer who is always developing and honing her skills, in search of new ways to express her unique artistic vision. And they make me incredibly excited to see what she does next.