Bluntly, I don’t know anyone working in speculative fiction today who consistently writes such disturbingly weird shit. But not like in a gratuitous way. Aliya Whiteley doesn’t want to shock you, necessarily, but she is unafraid to plumb into the deeper, uglier parts of the human psyche to examine the monstrous and strange, to ponder how humanity might react to the far futures that seem like science fiction now but might very well turn out to be reality, if humanity keeps on going in the direction we’re headed.
This volume of 16 stories written between 2014 and 2020 covers a wide range of Ms Whiteley’s interests, tho tend to circle back round to a world ravaged and, perhaps, recovering from a disaster all too often of humanity’s own making. Other strongly recurring themes are the complexity of two people’s interpersonal relationship, often via marriage or parenthood, and the convergence of minds. Fans of her terrific Skyward Inn will find exquisite variations on the main themes of that novella reflected in the stories here.
But this isn’t just a book for fans such as myself, tho it’s definitely a book that will bring her more admirers! I enjoyed these stories so much that I’m actually hard pressed to pick a favorite! So many of these stories land so well that it’s hard to rate any of them better or worse than their fellows in this overall extremely strong, consistently entertaining collection. If I had to choose, I’d say that the opening novelette, Brushwork, stood out in large part because it gave Ms Whiteley more room to explore the macro of the world she’d created and the micro of the protagonist’s feelings, especially towards Lucas. The bit where she admires the subtlety of his brushwork was like a shot through the heart for me.
Granted, there were moments where I felt less hit in the feels than missed by a reference flying far overhead. I didn’t really understand the identity of the aliens in Compel, for example, which is pretty hilarious given my often grumpy insistence that words have meanings and people should say what they mean. I also felt that the title story was carrying a possibly British subtext that I just wasn’t seeing somehow.
Otherwise, each story was filled to the brim with relatable, often subtle reactions in the face of huge and often creepy twists, with surprising acts of selfishness and generosity peppering the narratives. And that’s the greatest strength of Ms Whiteley’s collected body of work, her on-going depiction of the human determination to strive for better even in the face of the odds, no matter how trivial or seemingly insurmountable, no matter our weaknesses or flaws. She gives equal weight to courage and fatigue and love and restlessness, acknowledging that these are all valid human emotions for people to feel, whether faced with the mundane or the extraordinary.
Ms Whiteley might not yet be a household name amongst lovers of literature now, but she certainly should be, with stories that just keep getting better and stronger with the years. This is a book for anyone with any interest in modern speculative fiction, with its blend of science fiction and fantasy and horror, written by a master of the genre.
From The Neck Up by Aliya Whiteley was published September 14 2021 by Titan Books and is available from all good booksellers, including