Matt Coward, So Far, So Near. Elastic Press, 2007. Pp. 200. ISBN 0955318106. £5.99.

Reviewed by The Exploding Boy

One of the things that attracted me to this collection was simply the idea of a writer doing something different from the norm. As a lover of genre fiction (and someone who has a healthy appreciation of backhanded humour), the notion of witches running call centres and real-time cats killing people on TV proved a mouth-watering enticement. Who, in their imaginative mind, could resist?

Mat Coward’s anthology of short stories, which range from the intriguingly elliptical to the downright hilarious, does anything but disappoint. Taking a handful of hackneyed concepts from the horror and sci-fi genres – UFOs, alien visitors, government cover-ups – Coward paints the reader a series of yarns that, like the title itself, turn these worn-out concepts on their head...and then makes them stand there for a few minutes. What happens to ghosts when they die? How does one successfully recognise the modern witch? What do you steal from the man who has nothing to lose but space? All of these things and more fall under the scrutiny of Coward’s humorous intellect.

In each case, the results are delightfully compelling. The pace and tone of these sixteen stories are consistently spot on, while the themes themselves never dip below fascinating. The dialogue fairly sparkles with a natural wit and even in the wackiest situations (and there are plenty to enjoy here), the narrative never descends into the merely farcical. Instead, at the core of each of these tales, there is a genuine sense of humanity. Coward has an unerring ability to make us laugh at ourselves while raising some rather astute questions about science and, of course, science fiction, along the way.

Ever wondered about the inner workings of interstellar immigration, or why exactly one box of books goes missing every time you move house? Coward is not so presumptuous as to provide us with a definite answer, but this is precisely why So Far, So Near works so well – it engages your brainpower, and at the same time, tickles your ribs by means of subtle asides and outrageous speculative musings.

Overall, the consequences of such speculation are both refreshing and fully realised, breathing new life into tired subject matter. Standout story ‘We All Saw It’, reveals a writer at the top of his game, bold enough to take on the Big Issues, yet humble enough to make them easily digestible and utterly entertaining. Employing light touches of comedy and a genuine flair for storytelling, Mat Coward’s So Far, So Near takes the reader on a journey into Sci-Fi’s broom closet, a backstage pass to some of the world’s most niggling mysteries, and the experience is nothing short of remarkable.

For anyone seeking a lesson in bona fide originality and narrative verve, this is the book for you. Many of these stories will stay in mind for a long, long time – and make you look that little bit closer at the bizarreness of the world around us. That, in itself, is no mean feat. The rest is pure enjoyment.

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