Daniel Marcus, Binding Energy. Elastic Press, 2008. Pp. 216. ISBN 9780955318160. £5.99 / $12.99.

Reviewed by Sarah Ann Watts

The first story in this collection has the title ‘These are pearls that were his eyes’ and there is indeed 'something rich and strange' in this collection of beautifully crafted stories.

There is a subtle transformation of the familiar into the unknown and many of the worlds Marcus' characters inhabit just around the corner of our present reality— they lurk just out of the range of normal vision. The stories show us faces of the future and the past.

In the first story, ‘Those are pearls that were his eyes’, Suki mourns her dead lover Tam, killed in an accident. He still wants to continue with their relationship and will not let her go. He leaves her messages—'sometimes it feels like no one remembers me.' This is a world where Suki remembers a crèche trip to the moon. Then she meets Roan, a void dancer with 'fine radial scars around his eyes' whose job is to map the universe. In some ways life in this future world is not so different—Suki curls up with a costume drama—but 'the induction bead wrapped around her optic nerve like an invisible, coiled worm.'

Here the technology is only just out of reach—and in later stories we meet characters who inhabit the virtual world. For some it is therapy, for others an escape from reality and a drug they cannot live without.

There is ‘Love in the time of connectivity’—an online romance with elements of Alice in Wonderland—the heroine seeks refuge in a white rabbit costume and is rescued by the hero with whom she falls in love. She then demands they take their blossoming relationship to the extreme—F2F contact.

In ‘Chimera Obscura’ Spike is looking for a new flatmate and accepts Sarah—who is escaping from a violent relationship. Spike is shocked by the immediacy of her experience because most of his relationships have been online. Spike takes Sarah out to a cafe to explore the local area but as Sarah remarks—'This place isn't a gathering spot. It's a point of departure. Look at these people. Nobody's here.' The clientele are all 'mediated'. The extreme example is Bardo who 'doesn't participate much in the house—uh—culture'

This is because he has become so attached to his computer that he no longer has any form of existence beyond it and the only interaction he has with his flatmates is when they monitor his stats on the game he can't stop playing. Bardo has a trust fund and an addiction with no cure, but for Keith, a bereaved father in ‘Conversations with Michael’ his online existence has become an escape from reality and he has reverted to babyhood. This abdication of responsibility has left his grieving wife struggling to find a way forward following the death of their young son. The boy has died following a radiation accident—another Chernobyl. Stacey is tormented by guilt and is only too aware of the price the planet has paid for 'dishwashers and computers and microwave sat-links'. This is a future where off-world travel is possible but the cure for leukaemia is still ten years away.

In the second story, ‘Random acts of kindness’ Blair, the main character looks up at the sky—'I saw a dim light make a slow, steady crawl across the sky. Probably Space Station Kyoto. I didn't think there was anyone up there any more but I wasn't sure. I felt a sharp sadness at the thought.' I feel this could almost be a grace note for the collection. This is a post-apocalyptic world that retains its humanity. People are much the same, they live, love and hope, they find friendship and consolation. Life goes on.

In ‘Blue Period’ we encounter a young arrogant Picasso confronting a war of the worlds scenario and turning it into art that will shake the world and in ‘Ex Vitro’ a young ambitious couple, Maddy and Jax, research scientists working on Titan who have to decide whether to go home when the world they left behind is destroyed by corporate wars—these are companies not countries and again with the globalisation of certain brands who can doubt that Marcus' vision is less than a heartbeat away? Or—an ironic reference in another tale—are we really progressing towards 'hundreds of McRagnaroks stacked a microsecond apart'?

The scale remains human—here are the problems and joys and confusions we encounter in our daily lives writ large on a cinema screen that still brings us close to reality. There is a bitter-sweet elegiac tone to many of these stories and yet to focus on that would be to ignore the warmth and humour they contain. There is a quiet beauty that catches at the heart.

Marcus gives us aliens and dinosaurs and a voyage into space with a computer that begins to dream. There is a sense of evolution that affects all species—a sense of aspiration that can go either way as in the case of the neighbours in ‘Those are pearls that were his eyes’ who sing at night and the dog like couple in Echo Beach'—'it's difficult to say if they are accelerated canines or regressed humans'.

My favourite story in the collection has to be ‘Echo Beach’. This is a fabulous story set in a bar at the end of the world, though as the Proust-reading bartender remarks—'it's hardly the end of Time. Just another planet recycling its heavy elements back into the corpus of the mother star'. Rick in Casablanca comes to mind, but this is a story that has everything including a chess playing Martian.

These nineteen stories can be read and read again to unravel different layers of meaning. They are both rich and strange—and provide no easy answers or solutions to a complex future—but there is always that glimmer of hope.

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