The Constellation of Alarion – John Houlihan – Review

The Constellation of Alarion and Other Stories

John Houlihan

John Houlihan was one of the earliest authors I reviewed here on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer, and also one of the first authors to take a gamble and send me review copies of his upcoming books. Between the copies I was kindly sent, and ones that I purchased, I rapidly discovered a hugely talented and imaginative author who has written some incredibly engaging and inventive stories based in the Cthulhu Mythos. Houlihan’s prose is absolutely first-rate, complimented by an innate understanding of how to draw out the best elements of the Mythos, and this skill is clearly demonstrated in his Seraph Chronicles and Mon Dieu! Cthulhu novels. As such, I was thrilled when I was approached by the author to query if I was interested in reviewing his upcoming collection of scifi short stories, The Constellation of Alarion and Other Stories. I do enjoy reading and reviewing anthologies, especially from authors as skilled as Houlihan, and as such I eagerly took up the offer.

Comprising of ten stories, some of them previously published elsewhere and others unique to the collection, The Constellation of Alarion opens with Carers. A near-future tale, Houlihan examines the intersection between robotics and Artificial Intelligence, and humanity’s need for carers for an increasingly aging population. It’s a very short tale, practically flash fiction in nature, and yet it packs an incredibly powerful emotional weight within its small word count. What happens when one is replaced by an artificial being, deemed unable to care for your partner due to age and infirmity? How would you cope with this organic obsolescence and artificial replacement, and the feelings and emotions the situation creates? Houlihan gives us a powerful and thought-provoking story that demonstrates the terrifying lengths an organic partner might go to supplant an artificial carer, and the consequences of those actions. I first read Charioteer in the excellent Forgotten Sidekicks anthology from publisher Kristell Ink, which I reviewed earlier in 2020, and this mixture of Ancient Rome and a distant, alien world is still as potent, action-packed and engaging as it was when I originally read it. Soola is the chariot driver for the talented yet arrogant warrior Nique, as well as his sister; yet despite her own skills, she fades into the background compared to Nique, who basks in the adoration of his nation for winning a grain surplus in this latest contest. Soola’s bitterness is understandable, a crippled leg ever denying her a chance at glory, and that resentment is an underlying current to her relationship with an oblivious Nique. Engaging characters and a keen eye for detail form the basis of the story, but there are also some deeply fascinating glimpses at their world, one where gladiatorial contests can decide the fates of entire nations, which seems ripe for further expansion in future stories.

Moving into the military scifi subgenre, Most Exalted focuses on the story’s titular protagonist, an elderly war hero of the alien Turantian race. Saviour of his people, deposer of a vile tyrant who shackled the twelve systems in his grasp, beloved of his entire civilisation, Aquillies should be eminently trustworthy. Yet under his suave and charming exterior, bolstered by his reputation as the Legend of Telemon, Aquillies is something very different – cold, manipulative and utterly ruthless. There’s a secret being withheld by Aquillies, something dark and terrible, and even as he plays up the restrained, sober and conquering hero personality, a complex scheme is being unwound, step by step. Only one person seems even vaguely aware that not all is as it should be – but can they intervene in time? Or guess the truth behind the Legend of Telemon’s personality? This is one of the best stories in the collection – Houlihan gets a chance to flex his writing muscles and gives us a delightfully evil protagonist, reminiscent of a particularly malicious Flashman, as well as some engaging world-building about the Turantian race and their recent history. It’s another universe that I’d like to see him come back to, as there’s a lot of potential for other stories to be told. It’s then followed by Post-Lies, an incredibly timely tale that sees a global reaction to the wave of ‘fake news’, ‘alternative truths’ and the poisonous influence of foreign agents into the affairs of sovereign nations. An unknown actor releases swarms of nano-drones that begin to physically signal when someone is lying, even going so far as to form a Pinocchio-style ‘nose’ along the persons face when a lie is detected. But what appears to be something brilliant, an act to bring about global peace and an end to crimes, suddenly goes horrifically and irrevocably wrong when the right – or perhaps that should be wrong? – kind of question is asked of a politician in this new post-lie age. A short but thought-provoking piece of fiction from Houlihan, one that again demonstrates his ability to compose cogent, engaging stories even as micro-fiction, one of the most difficult forms to write in.

Tolerance takes us back to space and into the shoes of deep-space worker Technician Kerrigan, a man undertaking vital repair work on a space station upon which the entire human race depends; and yet he cannot get over his deep-seated antipathy towards machines. More specifically, his complete distrust and misanthropic attitude towards Dolly, the AI supporting his repair endeavours, and her fleet of semi-autonomous drones. There’s some fascinating backstory that Houlihan develops around human obsolescence in the face of AI, drones and robots more generally, to the extent that a flesh and blood technician like Kerrigan is forced into more and more desperate and difficult jobs just to make ends meet; it goes quite some way to explaining his attitude, without necessarily condoning it. Tolerance is also a great character study, Houlihan demonstrating a keen eye for characterisation, developing both Kerrigan and Dolly to the extent that the twist towards the end of the tale is incredibly effective as well as completely unexpected. Moving towards the end of the collection, Dead Reckoning is a story taking place in David J. Rodgers’ post-apocalyptic world known as the Yellow Dawn World. It’s a fascinating and engaging world, full of zombies, meat-eating plants, Orcs and ever-changing dead cities, and Houlihan brings it to life in a vibrant and fascinating manner. A team of heavily-armed mercenaries venture into a dead city and through its ever-changing doors, walls and buildings in an attempt to find a long-lost AI that guarantees a huge pay-out for them. Avoiding hordes of zombies and guided by a reluctant Orc guide, the soldiers face a terrifying, shapeless and non-euclidian horror and other foes on their mission, only to face sudden betrayal and disaster in the furthest depths of the city. An action-packed story full of intrigue and twists and turns, and in a setting I’d like to see more of from Houlihan.

Of the last three stories in the collection, Trigger is a particularly grimdark and thought-provoking tale of genocide, destruction and long-delayed vengeance against a hated enemy. The shrivelled, barely-alive operator of a hidden weapon battery directs it in orbit around the homeworld of a hated enemy, a people who have ruthlessly exterminated the operator’s entire race. Planets have burnt, spaceships ruptured in space, innocent civilians butchered without mercy; endless rage festers in the operator’s heart, and yet no order comes to launch her deadly payload. So she simply sits and waits, eavesdropping on the enemy, learning their ways and listening to their gossip, all while trying to stoke that rage and bitterness which has slowly become commonplace and simply a part of her daily routine. Houlihan deftly delves into the operator’s mind, exploring her history and motivations even as the station orbits around the planet, and she makes more and more frantic repairs to keep the aging superweapon functioning. It’s a multi-layered and engaging story, one that explores notions of morality, the purpose of vengeance and hatred, and the mutable nature of truth, all without pretending to deliver any simple or easy answers, and is one of the standout stories in the collection.

The penultimate story is the titular The Constellation of Alarion, which sees a trio of freebooters kidnap a farmer from the isolated, backwater planet of Alarion in order to learn more about the mysterious labyrinth on his property; the two aliens and their AI companion want to know everything the farmer knows about the labyrinth and the infamous Constellation hidden within its passages. Nobody quite knows how the labyrinth appeared, or when, or the exact nature of the alleged treasure it contains; but its mere existence has led the trio to spill a significant amount of blood and sweat to track it down to Alarion. Bringing along the farmer as a reluctant guide, the quartet venture into the depths of the labyrinth in an attempt to locate the fabled Constellation, only to have to contend with a series of fiendish riddles, puzzles and boobytraps in order to secure their coveted prize. But what exactly is the Constellation? And why was the labyrinth built to house it? Grom, Katka and Mordon are a delightful group of protagonists, and the sarcastic, cutting and quick-witted interplay between them makes them a joy to follow along with, the trio richly portrayed by Houlihan and their fascinating relationship forming the core of the story. This is deftly meshed with a darkly humorous undercurrent to the narrative, which plays around with the tropes and stereotypes of this particular scifi scenario and led to me smirking every few pages. It’s one of the longest stories in the collection, and also one of the most entertaining, demonstrating that Houlihan has ably mastered humour as well as drama when writing science-fiction stories; there are echoes of old-school stories like the Stainless Steel Rat series by Harry Harrison, and there’s a huge amount of potential for sequels involving the hapless mercenaries.

The final story in the collection is Bomber Command, and interestingly Houlihan changes the format from short story to film script, delivering a fast-paced and action-packed story of the crew of a futuristic bomber trying to guide their badly damaged craft back to base after a particularly gruelling mission. I have to admit that I’ve never read a script before, let alone reviewed one, but to my inexperienced eye Houlihan certainly seems to have done a first-rate job in crafting Bomber Command. The crew of bomber Phoebe come across as three-dimensional, realistic characters, the action is fast-flowing and suitably thrilling, and there’s some genuinely compelling human drama interwoven with the dogfighting and explosions. It’s a format that I’d like to see Houlihan use more often, and makes a great way to end the collection.

The Constellation of Alarion and Other Stories is an absolute triumph, a hugely enjoyable collection of science-fiction stories that truly demonstrate John Houlihan’s skill as a science-fiction writer. While each of the tales within the collection belong within the scifi genre, what’s truly impressive is that Houlihan is able to deftly move between subgenres at will – from military scifi and near-future scifi, all the way through to space opera and even more niche areas like scifi-fantasy which manages the deeply impressive feat of blending entire genres together. The publication of The Constellation of Alarion and Other Stories is truly the mark of an author who has mastered the genre, aided by Houlihan’s ability to write engaging, three-dimensional characters alongside deft prose and subtle world-building, all of which draws the reader into each story in turn. Full of immersive, complex, and highly engaging stories that grip the reader and refuse to let go until the end of the last page, The Constellation of Alarion and Other Stories is a masterful collection that deserves to be read by anyone with an interest in original and thought-provoking science-fiction.

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