“News from Unknown Countries” by Tim Lees – A Review

news from unknown countries by tim lees

(Amazon, 240pp, £3.21)

This review (or a shorter version) was originally published in issue #251 of science-fiction magazine Interzone. You can buy back issues and subscribe to future issues at their shop.

I’m reliably informed that this is the first self-published book which Interzone has reviewed. So no pressure then — I suppose that must be the hand of God on my shoulder, rather than Jim Steel and Andy Cox. I think I’ll leave that comparison where it lies…

Tim Lees is not unknown to [Interzone‘s] pages. His short story “Unknown Cities of America” featured in issue #249 – of the others, three each appeared in Interzone and Black Static, and two in The Third Alternative. When he sent me the collection, Tim said that he saw e-publishing as the future, and viewed this as a sort of experiment. So at least I’m not the only one sailing boldly into the unknown here.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, “Unknown Cities of America” doesn’t itself feature in this collection, but thirteen other tales do.

  • Opening story “Grumps” started the collection in exactly the way that a collection of short stories should begin; punchy, creative, and filled to the brim with often-troubling ideas. Narrative-wise, it consists of an inter-dimensional exploratory mission to meet God, turning into a grotesque theological arms race with a form of life beyond anything imaginable. It takes the classic nature of god philosophising, and twists it with levels of what-if to bring it to a dark conclusion.
  • “Meeting Mr Tony” was a bit of a gear change after “Grumps”. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, the story of marital jealousy and slight of hand. I had a feeling that something of this story had gone over my head, but there was an oddity to it, and a light snap to the prose.
  • “Homeground” is, at first glance, a rather quaint story about aliens visiting a small town. Which it absolutely is. But it captures the realities of such a happening, the way that the weird can simultaneously be humdrum. The interplay of local politics with an alien spacecraft as a visitor attraction rings depressingly true, and the simmering frustration of the main character at the interference of trivia with both life and big picture ideals is understandable. It’s an understated story, with a power of its own. Greedy, officious men and women toting easy answers and get-rich-quick schemes would – unfortunately – of course be drawn to an alien landing site.
  • “Visuals” shifted the tone again, this time away from the fantastical nature of previous stories. A one-time gangster confronts the darkness of his past — and one incident in particular — as he is interviewed for a book he has written about his life. It is a starkly emotional piece, dwelling on the lasting consequences of violence echoing down the ages. And a large part of its power comes from its basis in the solid, real world.
  • “Two Moon City”, on the other hand, is a different beast, painting a picture of a colonised Martian landscape which put me in mind of John Carter of Mars. The harsh landscape and society is rendered beautifully, and the indulgent world-building is tempered with a gentle plot which leads the reader through. It feels, though, like there is a lot more to tell of this world, if Lees so wished.
  • “Cuckoos” — originally from Black Static — is exactly the post-recession story that society needs. Folklore around a mischievous spirit which takes is wrapped up with bank crashes and corporate greed in a way which, yes, is entirely believable.
  • I really liked “Relics”. It had a feel of being a small part of a larger plan. A scavenger goes in search of a rumoured downed alien ship in remote area, looking for relics he can salvage. Instead he becomes entangled with a local female, only realising the true treasure that he sought at the very end. A musingly thoughtful story, injected with potent emotion.
  • Another Black Static story, “How the Sixties Ended” is one I have fond memories of. Another from the perspective of a child, it charts schoolyard exaggeration and the point where childhood and adulthood meet. A sweet story of a boastful friend struck down horribly, and the lifelong ghosts which follow the survivors. Beautiful.
  • One of the Interzone offerings, “Love and War” was a story I loved when I read its first appearance. Nestled here amongst its siblings, I found I enjoyed it even more. Or perhaps that isn’t the right word. Because as with “Grumps”, it’s a resonatingly dark story, this time emphasised by its sheer plausibility. A totalitarian regime takes power during a possibly alien incursion, only to be less than willing to surrender it once the danger has ostensibly passed. The personalisation of it all will make this story chillingly real to anyone with the slightest knowledge of history.
  • “The Plain” was odd. I liked the premise — competitive instincts buried deep down, finding an out through modern life, in this case academia — and the storytelling mechanism of counselling sessions was engaging. But ultimately, the concept just stretched my suspension of disbelief a little too far, and this story didn’t quite do it for me.
  • Continuing on what seems like a fascination with odd alien arrivals, “The Corner of the Circle” envisions a world where extra-terrestrials are an established — if mysterious — part of life. It is a growing-up story, focused on the main character’s encounters with an eccentric aunt, who claims to be pregnant by her alien lover. As with some of the other stories in Lees’ collection, it does an excellent job of putting the absurd next to the everyday, and this story is pregnant with meaning – no pun intended. We see a part of the main characters story, with events and motives hinted at, but the focus all the while remaining on the oddity of the aunt. As much as anything, it is a masterful demonstration of storytelling.
  • “Crosstown Traffic”, at its basic level, is the story of a courier taking a mysterious package across a fantastical New York. It’s an excellent showcase of imagination, feeling at times a little like Alice down the rabbit hole. The story itself has a pretty neat conclusion, with cultural differences in taste, survival, and running.
  • “The Interpretation of Dreams” felt similar to “Two Moon City” in that it envisions a radically different world. Here it is moods assigned to different planets. Misread feelings, the oddity of exotic religion, and the anchoring normality of two siblings carrying with them the damage of their parents with them. This is what SF should be.
  • The final story, “From the House Committee”, takes us to an alternate 1950s, with a world beset by monsters and Bobby Kennedy (along with Joe, Jack, and even Tricky Dicky) the only hope. Or maybe not; maybe God is simply winding down to die, and the world with it. It seeps with culture and mystery, and the yawning maw of complete lack of understanding.

Lees is an excellent writer, and these stories stand testament to that talent. It is easy to delve into the fantastical, the endlessly odd. What makes it all the more moving, all the more relevant is for a story to keep a foot firmly planted in reality. If those fantastical elements have a grounding in the everyday lives of readers, how much more significant it makes them.

Lees moulds ideas and stories together, in a fusion of entertainment and speculation which opens a wider world for the sheer, joyous fun of it.


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