I find myself more and more in the mood for the distraction of good quality science-fiction these days, when the horror genre seems to be slowly taking place before me in reality; it’s almost indescribable, the feeling of being able to drift away from the depressing nature of our current reality, and to instead be absorbed by the many and varied ideas to be found in the science-fiction genre at the moment. So being offered a review copy of Vistas by Chris Kelso, the first Science-Fiction collection to be released by Demain Publishing, was another opportunity for me to lose myself in something other than the realities of COVID-19 and social distancing. There were several indications that this would be an engaging collection of stories. Firstly, of course, Vistas was being released by Demain, who have a strong track record of publishing excellent and high-quality titles across multiple genres; and of course it’s obvious this is a Demain title thanks to another stunning piece of cover design by maestro Adrian Baldwin. Secondly, some research indicated that author Chris Kelso is tipped as a rising star in the scifi genre, and his previous works all seemed intriguing in nature, as well as challenging in the best possible way. Put those two elements together and you have a book with a huge amount of potential that I was eager to explore.
[Note: As Vistas is comprised of eight short tales, some of them nearing micro-fiction in length, my review of each story will necessarily be shorter and vaguer than usual in an attempt to avoid spoilers]
Vistas opens with The Retreat, a tale that is a complex, multi-faceted and yet surprisingly subtle rumination on loss, pain, space, and the nature of humanity in general. Kelso has composed a stunning slice of sumptuously-written space opera, one that blends together reflections on artistry, feminism, the role of women in space, and even the Islamic faith, all centered around the unique ways in which spacefaring affect all of them, both individually and as a group. It is incredibly moving, a tale that requires multiple rereadings in order to fully comprehend, and is an excellent demonstration of why so many hold Kelso in such high regard. The Dream Reporters is, as the title hints at, an intriguing Inception-style story that follows a small group of reporters that have been allowed access to the primal subconscious of Dechaume, a famous writer. The reporter and their cameraman are investigating why Dechaume is suffering from an infamous case of writer’s block, and are guided by elements of his own subconscious that form themselves into strange shapes and forms. It’s a fascinating concept that’s brilliantly executed, especially when the story takes a distinctly unexpected turn that leads to a terrifying encounter meshing together – of all things – arachnids and intellectual property theft. It may sound like a ridiculous concept when written in down in a review, but it’s actually a brilliant concept that twists the story into something very different and unsettling.
And then onto something very different – T/ R/ OLL – which takes place entirely in the comments of an online message board for a local neighbourhood. One user begins reporting notifications from a home alarm system, indicating that there are possible intruders in the area. But a fear of burglaries – or worse – in a residential area with lots of families soon turns into something far more terrifyingly dystopian, as the exact nature of the alarm system is discussed at length by the message board users. What seems to be a rather bland set of talking points about technology, compete with the slightly random insults that are the bread and butter of online discussions, abruptly descends into outright techno-horror that had me nervously glancing at my various internet-enabled devices by the last page.
The Projected Man is a rather bizarre story that focuses on the journey of a middle-class man desperately seeking meaning in his bland, unremarkable life after realising how insignificant he is in the universe. Judaism, Islam, even Scientology fail to give him any true solace, and Kelso deftly brings you into the head of an aimless man stumbling through life with nothing to grip onto, failing even to join something as basic as a knitting club, or unable to summon the courage to chat-up an attractive co-worker. There’s a vein of dark, almost pitch-black humour running through the story and our protagonist’s increasingly bizarre attempts to fit in with other groups, especially when a sudden inheritance means he can undertake something truly drastic and life-changing. I think of all the stories in the collection, this one stayed with me the longest after finishing the title.
The lyrically-sounding Poem for Fa and Jed Who Sailed The Ocean Red comes next, and is a rather more fantasy-based story, following the eponymous Fa and Jed, who sail the Bjørnstadfeltek Blood-Sea and refrain from smiling to avoid being hunted by what lurks under the surface. It’s a memorable set-up, and is followed by a remarkably fleshed-out world that just cries out to be expanded into something more; of all of the stories in the collection, I think this is the one that could most easily be turned into a fully-fledged novel. It has a strange, lyrical air to it that brings to mind something akin to China Mieville, with enough mystery remaining after the story concludes to warrant further exploration.
The penultimate story, Sweet Sixteenth, is a tale of petty crime and coming-of-age drama in California, all under the literal shadow of a mysterious alien spacecraft, which has hung over the region for years but done nothing. Nothing except observe the humans below. It’s a striking scenario, and one that Kelso thoroughly exploits in a short but rather haunting and tragedy-laden story. The collection then closes with Bordering, in which a German tourist travels to Western Africa in a bid to steal a national artifact, only to have to come to terms with the strange and often alien culture he’s forced to immerse himself in to pursue his goal. There’s some interesting uses of West African mythology that nicely blends into the feeling of alienation on the part of the protagonist, as well as the feeling of this being part of a far wider and more complex mythological setting that needs expanding upon.
Comprised of complex, multi-faceted and deeply impressive science-fiction stories that deftly move between subgenres, Vistas is a highly rewarding and flawlessly executed experience that showcases Kelso’s immense talent as a science-fiction author. The collection acts as clear evidence for why Kelso is seen as a rising star in the genre, with his ability to effortlessly weave together complex narratives and a stunning breadth of imagination to create compelling, innovative and thought-provoking tales. Readers would be well-advised to read Vistas as soon as possible, to latch onto Kelso’s rapidly-ascending star before it reaches the heights of the genre.