Eric Brown,
Threshold Shift
(Golden Gryphon, 2006)

Threshold Shift is a collection of 10 stories by award-winning British SF writer Eric Brown. These stories tend to be filled, not with space battles and ray guns, but with people dealing with the sorts of quiet human conflicts that will inevitably arise from the development of new technologies or from encounters with extraterrestrials. Author Bob Shaw has said Brown's stories are "the essence of modern science fiction and yet show a passionate concern for the human predicament and human values."

This is not to say that the tales in Threshold Shift are devoid of scenes that would have Hollywood special effects artists salivating. Certainly "Hunting the Slarque," which won the British Science Fiction Award, contains enough limb-from-limb, blood-splattered battle scenes between alien monster and human hunter to satisfy the most action-hungry reader. But far more frequent are the kinds of thought-provoking dilemmas that anchor "The Children of Winter." Here a young man, on a distant colony world, falls in love with a "blue," one of the planet's natives. Knowing his family and friends would disapprove of Ki, Jen keeps his affair with her a secret while his worldview crumbles beneath the weight of the truths he learns from his alien lover.

In "Ulla, Ulla" Brown pays nearly as much attention to the domestic storm clouds brewing between astronaut Ed Enright and his partner Delia over the issue of becoming parents as he does to the mysterious discovery Enright stumbled upon on the planet Mars. It's a useful technique in that Enright becomes a more three-dimensional character through his interactions with his wife, and through a chance meeting with a young girl who wants his autograph, than could have easily been achieved had the plot limited itself to the characters that play into the main thrust of the story. The story is also a tribute to H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds and the mixture of classic and modern science fiction is handled with remarkable finesse.

Brown's writing isn't flashy, his style tends to be calm, straight-forward, transparent, very much in keeping with the slow-simmer stories he's telling. One exception to this pattern is "The Spacetime Pit," which employs a stream of short sentences to create a choppy tension befitting this story of a marooned explorer on a primitive planet. Interestingly, this story is a collaboration with Stephen Baxter.

Also contained in Threshold Shift are three linked stories set within Brown's Kethani universe. The Kethani are an alien race that comes to modern-day Earth, bringing with them a technology that offers humanity a return to life following death. A resurrection into immortality. This is a theme Brown finds particularly rich with potential; he has thus far produced nine Kethani stories. And while I found his explorations of the moral dilemmas arising from this "what if" intriguing I was rather disappointed with "Thursday's Child."

Here Brown presents the reader with a separated couple and their young daughter. The mother, for religious reasons, will not agree to her child receiving the alien immortality implant. The father is ambivalent, wanting to avoid a conflict with his ex more than he desires the implant for his child -- until he learns that his daughter is dying of leukemia, a fact his ex has kept from him. The resulting clash between Marianne's faith and Dan's desire to save his child is great drama. But Brown drops the ball at the end of the story opting for an easy out that allows one parent to triumph without ever winning the debate. This could have been an exceptional story, the sort of piece that makes science fiction truly powerful; instead it's a missed opportunity.

Thankfully, the bulk of the stories in Threshold Shift don't shy away from fulfilling their potential. Overall this book is a tranquil, intelligent treat, one that occasionally leaps out at the reader with surprising vigor and zest. For any fan of SF short fiction it's a worthy addition to one's library.

by Gregg Thurlbeck
6 January 2007

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