One of my pet peeves is the number of non-US artists who write or sing about US settings. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; the US has a lot of good and interesting things about it. But German pop artists singing about the US just feels odd. Why not sing about Germany? The same goes for authors – why is so much SFF set in the US? Is the market really so sensitive that stories set in the British Midlands or Agra just won’t sell? I doubt it.
Given the title of this collection, I expected A Very British History to break the pattern. Instead, much to my surprise, it’s not very British, and a fairly high percentage of the stories have American settings. While there are Britain-based stories here, including the title story, I just don’t see why McAuley felt his stories could only work in a US setting. It’s one thing when writing about Robert Johnson, but why should a story about future haves and have-nots be based on the US West Coast rather than Wales? I suppose it bothers me in part because it’s disappointing. Reading is travel, and this guide took me to many places I’ve already been.
That quibble aside, the stories here are interesting, if not particularly exciting. I know McAuley primarily from his late-90s Book of Confluence series, but haven’t found his other work as convincing. On the plus side, these stories tend toward the contemplative style I find appealing. One the minus side, a number of them are also slow and somewhat muddled. A large number are also set in McAuley’s Quiet War universe – a setting I knew little about, but that most stories provided plenty of context for. There were a number of strong stories, but none that struck me as really exceptional. A few fairly weak ones as well, unfortunately. Two weeks after finishing the collection, I had trouble remembering many of them.
Among the best stories:
- “Prison Dreams”
- “Recording Angel”
- “Sea Change, With Monsters”
- “City of the Dead”
Overall, a collection for fans, not casual readers.