Flare and Falter, by Michael Conley, is a collection of thirty-five short stories which present a somewhat cynical interpretation of man’s reaction to a wide variety of imaginative scenarios. Many are disturbing but all are written with an underlying dark humour. They brought to mind short stories by M. John Harrison but offer more clearly pertinent and piercing insights. They are, in a nutshell, brilliantly written.
The book opens with a memorable first line:
“He wakes to an echoing quack.”
This first story is titled Antidaephobia, a word that I was entertained to discover means “The fear that somewhere, somehow, a duck is watching you”. Throughout the narrative is the question of whether the duck exists. As with many tales in the collection what emerges could be interpreted as metaphorical. In trying to avoid a fear, it breeds.
If the beginning of this first story drew me into the collection it was the final line in the second offering, Marked, that had me hooked. The alphabet falls from the sky permanently marking all it lands on. Although at first newsworthy, the world quickly moves on with people accepting change and continuing with their lives. In their lack of curiosity as to what the strange event may mean, what has been missed?
There are many stories that resonate with current events. When It Starts explores the suppression of news, Krill Rations the suppression of freedom.
The God Quetzalcoatl Has Retired and Now Runs a Pub in South Manchester is exactly what it says in the lengthy title. The god settles into life on earth, observing the behaviour of his pub clientele. He registers to vote in an election but then questions the wisdom of the exercise – of democracy itself.
“He doesn’t think much of either main party, but he does notice that the most objectionable people in the pub all seem to belong to the same side, so he registers in order to vote for their opponents. He marks his x with a pencil tied to a piece of string […] He looks at the pencil, the string. How can we be trusted to elect leaders if we can’t be trusted not to walk off with the fucking pencil?”
A number of stories reference the same character – a feared despot – and progress from the point of view of one of his body doubles. Given how many of these tyrants are currently in power around the world it is hard to guess which provided the inspiration.
Other stories explore reactions to beings considered different. Man likes to feel superior. When his position is threatened, violence ensues.
Toddler Ninety-Six is deliciously disturbing. A child in a scientific experiment does not behave as expected, however long they are given. The reaction of those who observe this quiet rebellion is disquieting and believable.
There is a series of stories involving robots which begin with the trope of lifelike and apparently submissive female ‘dolls’. Men may be drawn to violence if faced with an invading army wielding guns and explosives. They become easily overpowered when apparently consequence free sex is made available.
Robots also appear as waitresses, the predictable algorithms under which they operate generating anger from those who resent their presence. In Amok one man enacts a small, angry and futile mutiny when faced with such technology.
In Speed Dating this is taken a step further. People become paranoid about being tricked into dating “one of them”. Is this a necessary step to ensure the continuation of the race or a metaphor for supremacists who resent encroachment by or acceptance of any they deem different and therefore threatening?
The dying of bees is explored with a suggestion that robotic bees – “wound up during the night by poor people” – may be a solution if this serves to benefit senior staff at the Ministry. Bee keepers are regarded as troublesome and therefore expendable.
“Real bees would exist only in poetry.”
Dispatches From the Last Great War of Good vs. Evil questions how to define good and evil. As war progresses, atrocities on both sides increase as each enacts desperate bids for the upper hand, whatever the consequences.
Silence Is Golden depicts an inexplicable cruelty. If such behaviour were not known to happen it would be hard to believe, being senseless and upsetting.
Man’s selfishness is demonstrated to fine effect in All The Little Yous. The world is changed for the better, for all but one person. Those who feel hard done by will not always accept a wider good.
The People looks at the variety and multitude of street protests.
“The only ones who never get involved are the people wearing expensive suits, who remain in their high-rise apartments, silently high-fiving and taking all the most exhilarating drugs.”
There are stories of parents and children, the variations in how they come to regard the other due to perceived selfishness. There are stories of relationships in which casual and disturbing cruelties are accepted because this is now how society operates, whatever disquiet is privately felt.
As for the War ponders how a remote community may be reached when roads are impassable for most of the year.
“nobody has yet been up the mountain to tell the people of the village who to hate and why”
Kraken explores the national reaction when a murderous creature attaches itself to a bridge and feeds on passers by. The eventual solution to the problem is short term. Man’s approach to nature may not be deliberately malevolent but is usually short sighted and focused on the problems of today rather than longer term effects.
Not all the tales deal with such serious subjects. Who Are International Moon Team takes a delightful swipe at music fans who are convinced their knowledge and taste, especially if not pandering to widely enjoyed pop culture, is significant and superior.
Many of the stories are a mere page or two in length yet provide recognisable slices of life while asking apposite questions. Familiar problems and scenarios are presented in weird and wonderful confections. This is a clever, at times twisted, but always entertaining read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Splice.