The Last Reef, by Gareth L Powell

Some time ago I wrote a review of Gareth L Powell’s The Last Reef  for the late, lamented Internet Review of SF, which for some reason never saw the light of day.

So given that it’s too long for Suite101, I thought that I might as well post it here.


The Last Reef by Gareth L Powell

Elastic Press, 2008

ISBN:               9780955318177

Gareth L Powell is a British writer whose appearances until now have predominantly been on the internet. Of the fifteen short stories in his debut collection The Last Reef, fully two thirds appeared first in cyberspace magazines such as Aphelion and Byzarium. This is a trend that may gather pace should traditional magazines like F&SF and Asimov’s continue to contract, although latterly Powell has started to branch out into print anthologies.

‘Sunsets and Hamburgers’ opens the collection with the unnamed narrator awakening in a vat of blue gel, attended by robot doctors. Paired with a ‘mate’ selected for him, he’s been revived millions of years in the future to re-start the human race. As they leave our dying galaxy in a vast ark for an unknown destination, surrounded by countless other bubble worldlets, Powell’s protagonist ends the story with

            “I don’t know why we’re here, or how long we’ve got, but we’re here.

            And we’re going to survive.”

 ‘Sunsets and Hamburgers’ is an epic in eight pages, with prose stripped to essentials and descriptions as stark as Japanese kanji symbols on a white background, but the action happens to the narrator, rather than as a result of anything that he does. Powell’s interests lie in a writing a vignette that examines his character through his reminiscences and establishing a Stapledonian tone, than in plot-driven action-adventure.

By contrast, ‘The Last Reef,’ one of four connected stories –directly or tangentially– in the collection, is full of plot twists and switchbacks. On a Mars run by mega-corporations scavenging the technological cast-offs of singularities that recurringly upgrade themselves until reaching “hyperspeed nirvana,” Kenji Shiraki is on the run. His former lover has been touched by such a singularity, turned into a changeling as anyone is who comes into contact with one of these singularities — the ‘reefs.’ Now she and her new partner are two of the prizes up for grabs as the countdown begins to the nuclear sterilization of the last reef on Mars. Ignore the noir side-of-the-mouth prose style –Kenji is the first appearance of Powell’s romantic hero, the knight parfait resurrected for the Third Millennium. Despite his outlaw status and the fact that he has never come to terms with his former lover leaving him for another woman, there’s never any doubt that Kenji will do the right thing.

            “What was Bullock thinking? Did he really expect his threats to stop Kenji from             trying to save the woman he once loved? Did he think Kenji would help bring her      in, turn her over for study and dissection? Was he expecting him to betray her out   of revenge, out of bitterness?”

The mega-corp stooge Bullock’s villainy is epitomized by his greed — emotional as well as physical.

            “Kenji shrugs. He’s seen this fat married man of thirty-five try to seduce seventeen year-old office temps, just to prove he can.”

Like the opening story, ‘The Redoubt’ is another “Story at the End of Time,” and as in ‘Sunsets and Hamburgers’ Powell emphasizes humanity’s insignificance within the universe. Scott and Anna are young lovers enjoying a holiday romance in France when they encounter a balloon-type UFO. The originals are left in the field in which they encountered the ship, but their facsimiles awake aboard it, and are offered a choice; to accompany the ship throughout eternity or to be erased. Powell highlights the fracturing of a relationship under almost unendurable pressure with a poignant last line.

‘Ack-Ack Macaque’ is the second of Powell’s Interzone stories (the first was ‘The Last Reef’) and won the magazine’s readers poll for best story of 2007. Combining anime and love story with a superhero macaque monkey and the singularity, the story clearly touched a chord with the readership. Once again Powell’s hero is abandoned by a woman chasing her own obsessions, the villain is distinguished by his venality, and a computer programme bootstraps itself into self-awareness, but the overall result is atypically zany, and shows Powell’s range.

‘Pod Dreams of Tuckertown’ features Earth under alien occupation and poses the question of what a man driven by revenge would do if to gain that revenge, he had to give up the memory driving his obsession. It’s one of the slighter stories, distinguished only by aliens that look like cockroaches and talk with the sound of cats being sick, although Powell does try –unsuccessfully– to portray a villain with some redeeming features.

‘Six Lights Off Green Scar’ takes a terrific concept –‘Gateway’-style random jumps into hyperspace as a form of extreme sport– and uses the concept as a throwaway first line. Powell’s anti-hero huddles on an isolated outpost from the memories of abandoning his lover to her fate in the bowels of an interstellar shipwreck. Eventually he is pushed so far by both antagonists and his situation that his cowardice metamorphoses into a desperation so intense that it mimics bravery. But it’s the Delany-esque rebels who, with their flapping coats and bad skin and vinyl skirts and lip gloss distinguish the story, exposing a clandestine non-conformity lurking beneath Powell’s urbane prose.

Two of the shorter stories in the collection, ‘Distant Galaxies Colliding’ and ‘Falling Apart’ follow. In the first a photographer blinded by muggers must deal with the ending of her career -and perhaps her life, while in the second as society descends into anarchy with burning houses and icebergs litter the English Channel, a woman smuggles her husband out to a luxury cruise liner. Both are once again characterized by humanity’s insignificance in the cosmos, and how the pygmy apes of humanity keep struggling, despite that insignificance.

‘Morning Star’ takes us back to Mars for another tangle with the amoral Tanguy Corporation from ‘The Last Reef.’ Nick Malik is a Tanguy spy who’s been sleeping with a rival megacorp’s lab assistant who learns that his town is going to be obliterated by a crashed shuttle to distract Tanguy’s rivals. Malik has precisely two hours to escape, but all exits from the town into the airless Martian desert are already being sealed off. ‘Morning Star’ shares the title story’s frenetic pace, but without Kenji’s innate nobility it doesn’t have its frayed grandeur. 

‘A Necklace of Ivy’ is another micro-story depicting obdurate persistence in the face of an onrushing apocalypse in a piece that transposes Ian MacDonald’s ‘Chaga’ stories –with their creeping alien vegetative invasion– from East Africa to Cornwall. Together with the aforementioned ‘Falling Apart’ and ‘Distant Galaxies Colliding,’ all the stories in this micro-triptych are only mimetic SF, and would work just as well as mundane (as opposed to Mundane) fiction. But they do show Powell’s progression as a writer, from novice vignettes casting darting glimpses at disasters –global or personal– to assured works with complex narratives and more substantial settings.

‘Hot Rain’ sees the return of Kenji Shiraki, in a prequel to ‘The Last Reef.’ This time he’s in Buenos Aires on the trail of double-crossing colleagues who’ve kidnapped the cloned daughter of a financier. Twist follows twist, but without the depth of characterization required to differentiate the various henchmen, it’s somewhat mechanical, and knowing that Shiraki survives undermines any sense of suspense.

In ‘The Long Walk Aft’ a solitary crewman is standing watch on a starship while the others pass the voyage in suspended animation, when the ship’s recycler breaks down. Kurt is forced to replace the recycler’s damaged biomass, which requires organic material –something in short supply among all the metal and plastic– with predictably grim results.

The longest story in the book is ‘Arches.’ Mysterious structures have begun appearing all over the world. When Jack Rico falls through one such arch after it unexpectedly appears on an escalator in a London Underground station, he leaves behind a wife –Alice– who has fallen out of love with him and a brother who is haunted by guilt for his own love of Alice. Jack’s brother Ed goes through another arch in search of Jack, accompanied by Alice.

Ed and Alice find a network of similar arches connecting the stars, but the relativistic effects mean that in travelling a hundred light years, a century has passed in an instant — if they can ever return, everyone they know will have died of old age. While the plot is neatly –too neatly, it must be said– tied up, the story feels still unresolved. This is because it is Jack who forgives Ed, thereby making Powell’s protagonist emotionally passive, compounded by Alice choosing which brother she wants to be with. In making Ed fundamentally decent, Powell robs Ed of any decision-making function, instead trying to compensate by giving Ed the role of action hero. Had Ed been allowed to make a decision, right or wrong, or had some early scenes featured Jack’s viewpoint, whether in the underground station or in the data-forest, the story’s plot and character arcs would have been better integrated.  

‘Flotsam’ is one of several stories set in a near-future Europe reminiscent of the 1960s New Worlds, with their minimal changes from today, and their sense of an old order on the verge of breaking down. It’s the fourth of the ‘Reef’ stories, and this time the story’s set on Earth, where reef-spores are infecting the population, upgrading them. The only cure is to kill the victim, and when his ex-lover turns up infected, Toby Milan can’t bring himself to do it. But while protagonist and antagonist battle it out, the world around them is already infected, and changing.

‘Cat in a Box’ is a reworking of the Schrodinger’s Cat idea, only this time if the kitten is dead, so is the box’s owner, who is tied to it by the nano-bots it’s infected him with. While the kitten lives, he’s effectively immortal. If it’s died from the decaying isotope in the box, they kill him too. While it’s a whimsical conceit, it’s a surprisingly minor way to end a collection showing the universe in all its immensity.

Powell shares with Clarke and Stapleton a sense of humanity’s insignificance in the universe (something which Campbell’s Astounding with its WASPs-conquering-the-universe protagonists particularly tried to distract its reader from), but Powell is as reminiscent of J.G. Ballard as of Clarke — from the moment when the narrator embraces his infected wife in ‘A Necklace of Ivy,’ to the rising waters and fleets of refugee container ships of ‘Flotsam,’ echoing Ballard’s The Drowned World and his visions of drained swimming pools and abandoned Cape Canaveral. (Ironically, Powell admits to never having read Ballard until after he wrote these stories.) But unlike Ballard, whose protagonists were cold, damaged men, Powell’s heroes turn and face their catastrophes prompted by love or a sense of what’s right — duty, to use an unfashionable word. At their best Powell’s stories fuse the traditional ideas driven British-fiction with detailed characterization, and action. 

The Last Reef is not a flawless book –too many of the micro-fictions are minor — but is a good one, in which the assembled stories often seem to be the same gemstone, of fighters and heroes struggling against both almost-insurmountable odds and an indifferent universe, but seen from a myriad angles. Like all the best collections, ‘The Last Reef’ is more than the sum of its individual parts.


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• April 13th, 2010 • Posted in General • Comments: 0