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Scotland in Space (SF) - Deborah Scott and Simon Malpas (Eds.) ***

This is one of the strangest books I've ever read, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing. On the one hand, it's a genuinely interesting and original concept - on the other hand it costs nearly twice as much as a typical paperback, but only has two readable shortish stories in it.

One of the reasons for the book's odd feeling is that it isn't a straightforward collection of SF short stories. There are three stories (I'll come to the disparity of number later), four short non-fiction pieces, and three pieces of literary criticism based on the short stories. Even though the stories are themselves long for the format, that is still not a lot of material for the price. The oddity also extends to the format of the book itself. Inside it has a stylish layout with clever use of colour. But the cover screams 'self published' - it just doesn't look like like the cover of a professionally produced title.

Let's get onto the content. As you might guess, it is all focused on Scotland - a very reasonable thing to do, given both the historical abundance of Scottish engineers and physicists (think, for example, Watt, Kelvin and Maxwell) and the plans to build a spaceport in Scotland (a location that features strongly here). Starting with the short stories, the first is the best. Welcome to Planet Alba™, is set in a visitor centre at the spaceport in a relatively near future when the first (Chinese) trip to Mars is underway. Visitors experience Mars via virtual reality, and the story gives us a subtle story that both parallels Mars and extreme Earth landscapes and shows the gap between the image of Mars and the reality. As seems to be the standard in this collection, the story feels a bit too long - it's so languid and laid back it almost falls asleep - but it has a lot going for it.
The second story, A Certain Reverence, is more of a far future tale, where different cultures are sending spaceships to an inhabited planet at Alpha Centauri. The hope seems to be that by providing what can feel like a human zoo exhibit, in return, the aliens will give Earth the technology it needs to get itself out of the environmental mess it's in. The pictured future for the Earth seems rather adrift from our increasingly green-minded views - it's the sort of thing that might have been put forward in the seventies - and it feels a little trite that it is, of course, the Scottish ship that wins the aliens over. Also I found the spelling out of different Scottish pronunciations (such as 'heid' for 'head' and 'wasnae' for 'wasn't') a touch too reminiscent of James Doohan's Scotty in the original series of Star Trek (which, conveniently, gets a mention early in the book), but it had some nice ideas. 

As for the third story(?) Far, I'm afraid I gave up after struggling through a few pages of near-unreadable semi-visual stream of consciousness. It just didn't work for me. The four factual pieces on getting to Mars, the real colours of Mars (as opposed to the artificial colours we often see in images), life on exoplanets and the multiverse were all interesting, though most felt like they had been written by academics, rather than people who knew how to write for a general audience. As for the literary criticism pieces, I really couldn't see the point. I struggle with this kind of navel-gazing stuff at the best of times, but why you would want to read a piece trying to dissect a story you've just read I haven't a clue. Presumably, had the editors needed to, they could have asked the author what the story really meant - though if they had to, it rather implies the story wasn't very well written in the first place it failed to communicate.
Overall, then, I'm pleased that I got the chance to read Scotland in Space. It's great to see someone trying something genuinely different, and is a highly laudable bit of risk-taking on the part of those publishing it. But it didn't entirely gel for me.

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