Allen Ashley, ed., The Elastic Book of Numbers. Elastic Press, 2005. Pp. 278. ISBN 0954881214. £6.00.

Reviewed by Djibril

This is another themed anthology, on the heels of The Alsiso Project (2003), which I reviewed in an earlier issue of this magazine; the idea being that authors are challenged to write to a theme and may come up with more interesting or unusual work than if left entirely to their own devices. This collection is almost, but not quite, as successful as the earlier anthology, which seemed more profound and contained weightier stories: numbers are perhaps a vaguer theme, leaving more room for manoeuvre and less need for invention than the evocative name "Alsiso". However there is some excellent work in here, and again my criticisms of individual pieces probably stem from personal taste rather than deep, objective flaws.

The first item in this volume is titled ‘8 20 17 16 22 11 21 18 11 7 5 7’, by Kay Green. This page-long entry is made up entirely of numbers, and is a puzzle that can be easily solved by an enterprising code-breaker—intriguing (but not so intriguing that I actually tried very hard to solve it); the solution is given at the end of the tome, and the translation of the frontispiece turns out to be little more than the solution to the code itself, which may seem pointless but is probably a deliberate paradox. (Might it not have been more fun to have the solution somewhere harder to find, such as on the press website, so that readers might be encouraged to try and solve it themselves for a little longer?)

The first two stories proper are both based on the number zero. John Lucas's ‘Approaching Zero’ is a story told in the form of slightly absurd diary entries, a creepy parable on the unhealthiness of our accumulation of personal possessions. As the piece progresses it becomes darker and even more unsettling, proof perhaps of how unwilling the reader is to imagine parting with his accumulated hoard. Joel Lane tells another slightly surreal tale in ‘Where None is the Number’, in which an unremarkable man wins a lottery sweepstake with the numbers 0000000, moving in the public eye "from zero to hero" and relentlessly back to zero.

Several pieces in this collection are based on the premise that apparently random numbers turn out to be significant (or vice versa). In ‘3:21’, Eric Shapiro gives us the tragic tale of a man who becomes obsessed with numbers after the grotesque death of his wife, leading his employees unwillingly into the mission to communicate with her spirit. E. Sedia's ‘Every Eight and Eleven’ gives us a man whose life fills up so much with the same two numbers, that his quest for understanding leads him to a casino where he wins a prize he did not quite expect. Charles Lambert gives us a story darker than either of these two in ‘The Zero Worm’, in which the protagonist finds numbers being traced on his flesh by some kind of hyper-dermal parasite, and starts to lose his mind as he tries to fathom their meaning. All three of these stories feel slightly unsatisfying, promising more than they deliver.

Mysterious numbers also occur in the two most spiritual pieces in this volume: in Jeff Gardiner's ‘351073’, a girl named Eloise after the serial number on her hospital tag when her grief-stricken father brought her home from hospital, grows up to become a guru of a numerological cult, to the clergyman father's slight dismay. Paul Evansby, in ‘i’ (which represents the imaginary square root of minus one, rather than the Roman numeral), uses the character of a composer and mathematician trying to compose harmonies based on complex numbers to take us to wartime Greece and to a parallel universe. Both of these stories are profound, sensitive, moving, and convincing, although they both ultimately left the reader feeling somewhat cool and without resolution at the end.

A couple of stories use numbers to explore madness of various forms. Sam Hayes's ‘Sixty Thousand Pieces of Glass’ tells of a young girl and her boyfriend's tragic involvement with an abusive cult of "oneness"; a very nicely written piece, combining unexpected detail with an unwaveringly straightforward viewpoint to create a strange and absorbing atmosphere. Phil Locascio's ‘The Square Root of 2’, on the other hand, is a well-crafted but upsetting piece narrated by a dangerously obsessive loner with a short temper. The deceptively honest first person voice is reminiscent in places of the tone of Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2004); but whereas in the latter tome the technique is used to bring the reader closer to understanding of an autistic child, in this story it is used merely as a means to deliver the cliché of a dangerously psychotic killer.

Some stories are numerical puzzles that border on the flippant: both Mark Patrick Lynch's ‘Breach of Contract, Clause 6A’ and Donald Pulker's ‘Dial 1-800-To-Live’ revolve around deadly puzzles that seem slightly pointless (if dangerous), and the stories are thereby weakened. On the other hand, Toiya Kristen Finley's ‘7:33’ also features a numerical puzzle with a deadly outcome, but is a much stronger story featuring a vengeful bluesman and a young woman unwilling to lie down and be the victim. The morality of the ending was a little narrow-minded for this reader's taste. (Interestingly, this story and Sedia's offering are the only two to use what might seem the obvious trick of linking numbers and biblical chapter and verse.)

Numerology makes a more serious appearance in two stories. ‘The One Millionth Smile’ by Neil Williamson revolves around a book of numbers which predict to the nearest heartbeat, breath, and smile, how long a person will live. Sitting at his dying mother's bedside, a young man notices that the numbers have been tampered with, and tries to find out who has been cheating fate. A both sweet and sad story about living life to the full, about love and death, about sacrifice and growing up, which worked very well in my view. Another excellent piece is Joy Marchand's ‘The Sympathy of Five’, a dark parable of loss, displacement, and dependence, in which a Russian immigrant grieving for his young brother visits a notorious tattoo artist to have his memories branded on his flesh for ever; by the mystic powers of his ink drawings, the tattooist gives the young man more than he bargained for, a double edged gift.

Out of the handful of stories that use space-opera themes as parables, a couple are not so successful, but a third is excellent. Tim Lees's ‘Two Moon City’ is a story of a brutal, feudal civilisation of Mars, whose overt moral seems to be that even the most barbaric and totalitarian state of unwavering hopelessness is preferable to the torture that is uncertain hope, unregulated life, or social fluidity. Rosaleen Love's ‘Wanderer 8’ is a less glamorous tale of two Australian accidental astronauts, caught up amidst the debris of Earth which finds its way spontaneously into orbit and becomes the eighth visible celestial body. The third space-travel story, Julian Todd's ‘Mine the Primes’, was one of my favourite offerings to this collection: in a future where prime numbers are a once-only source of great power, mathematicians work tirelessly to discover new numbers and thus extend humanity's reach into space. Whenever a run of primes is discovered, however, the power thus gained is squandered, as though it might run out of its own accord, and so what might have been a plentiful supply of energy is drained to its limit leaving mankind on the brink of disaster. A lesson to us all.

‘When We Were Five’ by Marion Arnott is another excellent story about an old woman who has lost her family and most of her life to the cowardly capriciousness of a corrupt Bolshevik officer, and whose revenge comes slowly but inexorably behind her. The structure of this piece is very sound, the narrative building cleverly and with solid, atmospheric moves; vengeance is never without repercussions, and enough space is left after the climax for the beginnings of a resolution. One of the strongest stories in the anthology.

Finally, a handful of the pieces in this volume use numbers in a different way. In Neil Ayres's ‘Twenty-One Again’ numbers affect the structure, not the content of the piece, which is a snapshot of life in a local, run-down pub told from twenty or so different viewpoints. Ellen McAteer's ‘4Thoughts on Numbers’ is a non-fiction piece, a few pages of pop-science speculation with references taken from the likes of the Telegraph and various internet news pages. It may be significant that the endnotes are numbered up to twenty, but that there are only seven reference-points in the text. The final piece in the volume, Tim Nickels and Allen Ashley's ‘While We Were Sleeping, Numbers Took over the World’ is a piece of what might loosely be termed numerical art or poetry: the history of the world is told through numbers, with much repetition of the letters o, n, & e in various forms. This piece is fun in places, such as the "Intermission Quiz", but I didn't really get the point, overall.

Individual criticisms aside, the quality of production and content of this volume were very high on average, and Elastic Press have once again shown that a good compilation like this is immeasurably superior to the by comparison haphazard selection of stories one would find in even the better magazines in the genre. Excellent work, and I hope many more such anthologies are in the pipeline.

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