Andrew Hook, ed., The Alsiso Project. Norwich: Elastic Press, 2003. Pp. ii, 329. ISBN 0954374754. £6.00.

Reviewed by Djibril

This volume, whose title apparently stems from a typographical error by author Marion Arnott, consists of twenty-three short stories in various styles and on diverse themes, all sharing the mysterious word 'Alsiso' in the title. As the introduction by Christopher Fowler points out, however, this is more than just a 'catch-all' anthology, a poor excuse to bring together a collection of 'dreary', 'ponderous' pieces with no real collective theme (i). As well as being broadly speaking in the speculative fiction genre, most stories are notable for their commitment to showing imagination, to presenting the unusual in an interesting light—be that unusual subject matter, literary style, or aesthetic taste. In fact the quality of stories in this anthology is unusually high, and any negative comments on individual pieces that may be made below are as likely to reflect lack of imagination on the reviewer's part as lack of taste on the editor's.

I shall focus on those pieces which stand out, for good or for ill, with the briefest of summaries of the remainder.

The opening story, K.J. Bishop's ‘Alsiso’, is a fun parable in which the name Alsiso originates from a mediaeval murderer, and finds its way into the popular imagination and around the world (and beyond). Very Borgesian in mood, the story sets the scene very well, both exploring the creation of myth, and cleverly never revealing the mystery of the original murders. Nick Jackson's ‘Alsiso’ is a primitivist tale with ethnographic overtones, about a village boy who has to undertake a rite de passage to save his uncle who lies comatose under a curse. An elegant and beautifully executed piece; the name Alsiso enters the picture late.

Justina Robson gives us the third offering, ‘Alsiso’, a futuristic story set after the earth becomes uninhabitable, whose action takes place on a planet blighted by the expeditionary team's attempt to terraform it. Told in a mixture of reports and journal entries by the doomed team, the story builds tension and mystery from the start—although it is slow to introduce us to rounded characters. Alsiso is a sinister bird-call recorded early in the expedition. The tension rises throughout the piece, and develops into a thorny moral paradox at the climax of this excellent offering.

On a very different note is Kaaron Warren's ‘Alsiso (or Al's Iso Bar)’, a speculative story that starts out sounding like Atwood's Handmaid's Tale , with a woman whose job is to breed, with husbands chosen for her. But these husbands age quickly, as a result of the same special ability that causes her to lose her children. The sub-title refers to a brief visit she makes to a bar owned by a retired weatherman (hence the 'Iso Bar'?), and is one of the more contrived titles in the volume. Nevertheless a mysterious tale that keeps you guessing and wondering why, even beyond the end.

Marie O'Regan's ‘Alsiso’ is a frankly disturbing story, although very well executed, of a man who starts to hear voices, slipping into madness and alienation from his wife. The story weakens toward the somewhat repugnant ending, and the title turns out to be very contrived also. Not to my taste. A little better is Christopher Kenworthy's ‘Alsiso’, about two boys who become obsessed with Ted Hughes and sex magic, and discover a fantasy landscape, to which they attach the name Alsiso, whose centre is a gnarled tree and an 'SF' city on the horizon. Competent, but not the star piece of this collection.

Andrew Humphrey's ‘Alsiso’ is a fairly slow-starting, mainstream story about woman trapped in a dull marriage to an intellectual snob in a bigoted village. Alsiso is the signature on a painting bought at a car-boot sale that starts the path to free herself from the tedium of the life that is killing her. The characters and events are beautifully observed, the story's morality is uncompromising and unsentimental, and we are left with a nice tantalising ending. A strong piece, slightly unexpected in this collection.

Alasdair Stuart's ‘Alsiso’ is a very short piece written in the style of lecture notes; it tries to do what this book does in offering alternatives for Alsiso, the 'linguistic tenth planet'. This story is mercifully short, and not intriguing enough to deserve the epithet Borgesian. Almost equally pretentious is Allen Ashley's ‘Alsiso’, a story in two parts (for no apparent reason): the first, an unconvincing secret service report about attempts to destroy a rock band named Alsiso before they subvert society; the second, a slightly surreal narrative involving a young man named Al Siso who spoils others' cinema experiences. Not much to say about either.

Nicholas Royle's ‘Alsiso’ is a moving, dark tale about a man returning to his native Manchester, facing changes in the landscape, and confronting a tragic episode from his youth. Filled with forboding, it is less outright horrifying than it might be, but as thought-provoking and sobering as it should. Antony Mann's ‘ALS150’, in contrast, is a weak piece about an anti-social misanthrope and his increasing road rage in the rush-hour streets of Oxford. The end was unconvincing, but by then it didn't matter; I'd stopped caring.

Andrew Hook's ‘Alsiso’ is an excellent, atmospheric visit to the noir detective genre with a perverse twist. The protagonist is a retired, crooked police officer investigating a threat against the life of the classy, S&M prostitute among whose patrons he is counted. The characters are convincing, the story gripping, and the ending contains pathos without cliché. One of the most exciting pieces in the volume.

Matt Dinniman's ‘Alsiso (or The Sociology of the Unpopped Masses)’ is a far less gripping tale of people who explode like tomatoes in a microwave with the word 'Alsiso' on their lips, leading to a breakdown of society. Tamar Yellin's ‘AlSiSo’ has a similar motif, in her case a debilitating parasite that kills anyone who utters the word 'Alsiso', but is much better executed than Dinniman's, narrated by a journalist who sees the effects of the parasite and the people around him successively giving in to the urge to say the deadly word. Still not terribly convincing, though. Steve Savile's ‘Alsiso (or The Pain, Heartbreak and Redemption of Owen Frost)’ is a dark, religious morality tale about an attempt by an evil sect of ancient monks to bring God and the terror of Christian faith back to the earth by building a Golem of sin to kill the angels of Heaven. Powerfully constructed and movingly written, it is nonetheless a little too bombastic and amoral for my taste.

Kay Green's ‘Alsiso’ is a lighter, more acceptable fable with an Irish flavour, about the gods' attempts to understand mortality. Nicely written and entertaining, the only flaw of this short piece is that the parable-like style leaves little room for convincing characters or development. Far less enjoyable is John Grant's ‘AlsisO’, a story about a dream come to life who is not allowed to die; the reader is not convinced by the danger in, nor ultimately, the point of the tale.

Gary Couzens' ‘AlSiSo’ is written in an interesting literary style; the story is narrated simultaneously in the first person plural and the third person singular. The subjects are three college roommates, a couple and their gay friend (Alex, Simon, Sophie), none of whom is the narrator. Literary boundaries are further blurred by a text within the text, which is an autobiography penned by someone other than its subject. An interesting exploration of relationships, sexuality, and responsibility; and, ultimately, honesty to oneself.

Dave Allen Lambert's ‘Alsiso’ is a strong, disturbing tale about a man stubbornly haunted by a woman he killed, and his friend stalked by a refrigerator salesman. Despite this unlikely-sounding premise, this is a gripping, sensitive story of madness and sadness in their many forms, of friendship in the face of tragedy, and of the fragility of what we take as normal.

Brian Howell's ‘Alsiso’ is the story of a Japanese family man who is offered access to a parallel reality in which he can fulfil his every fantasy without responsibility or repurcussions. Even apart from the slightly pathetic nature of his fantasies, and the trite ending, I find this story somewhat stereotypical and patronising. Conrad Williams' ‘Alsiso’ is a short, pleasant enough piece about a scrap metal merchant who is offered sheets of a revolutionary new alloy by a strangely alluring woman from a local laboratory. The mystery develops rapidly and relentlessly, but I am not sure I quite understood where it ended up. Lisa Pearson's ‘Alsiso’ is a difficult to read, fragmentary prose poem, set in Africa and featuring a vulnerable western woman and predatory black male. (There may be more to it than this, but I found it opaque.)

Marion Arnott's ‘Alsiso’ is the only fantasy tale in this collection—although there is no magic. The protagonist Lyra, the "She-Wolf", is the scarred, vengeful survivor of the Sea Lords' brutality now leading a rebel army to take the undefended castle of Alsiso. She is not unproblematic as a heroine, however, as her propensity to murder innocents makes her little better than the tyrants she is fighting to overthrow. The character of the spoiled, coddled lady of Alsiso is in some ways more challenging. An excellent story with which to end this anthology, certainly to be numbered among the best of the offerings.

Another game that can be played with this volume is to count the ways in which the title word 'Alsiso' is defined, or excused, in the stories (in inferior pieces this comes across as 'how do they manage to contrive the word into the story?'). Bishop, Stuart, and Yellin construct their stories around the effort to understand this word; Robson, Warren, O'Regan, and others try to build a logical pun or mishearing around the word, with varying (but usually low) degrees of success; in Mann it is a vehicle registration number; Grant and Couzens make Alsiso an acronym. But the most successful stories, from this point of view, are those in which Alsiso is just a name, of a person or a place, with no need for explanation or justification.

The stories in this book can be judged on their individual merits, and no reader will appreciate everything in such a mixed bag equally. The resplendent success of this volume, however, is that it contains twenty three experimental stories, tied together by the most arbitrary of shared elements, the title, but of a single adventurous spirit. An indisputable success.

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