The Art of Space Travel and Other Stories (Nina Allan) – Book Review

“I’ve come to believe that being haunted is actually just belated understanding.”

There is an air of haunting that hangs over this entire collection of short stories: a sense of bewilderment from the characters as they glimpse what might be the truth; a sense of disbelief – the meaning slipping away from them as they try to comprehend what may really be happening. Might be. May be. Because there are few certainties here. The sense that something strange or unearthly is happening is pervasive – but maybe that’s just what you, the reader, are choosing to see. Nina Allan’s The Art of Space Travel and Other Stories is true speculative fiction – otherworldly, transformative, substantial yet dissolving.

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The stories themselves are disconcerting in both their content and presentation. An arachnophobe confronts his fears in the strangest of ways. A hidden alien presence moves among us, changing our loved ones. A refugee encounters the possibility of salvation. Each story, whilst complete and satisfying, is like pausing at a window to watch whilst a single scene plays out, wanting to put it into a larger context, but the curtains are being drawn and you must move on. Settings tangle and interweave. Character names seem familiar, and require tracing back in order to discover who they are, who they were. Time shifts and moves cruelly on. This could be one universe, or it could be many.

Much of what is offered here is bleak and dystopian, but too beautiful to be depressing. It all feels incredibly relevant right now, with our escalating climate crisis, civil unrest, pandemics, and rising belief in conspiracy theories, but we only linger long enough in each world to feel a brief touch of the fear, pain or uncertainty surrounding it. These are tales that bear re-reading, slowly, to take in what you have missed, to wonder why you are being offered certain pieces of information, and to ponder how the mundane suddenly feels so ominously unfamiliar.

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There is a thread that runs throughout the book, on the theme of erosion, and it is never more heart-breaking than when it relates to the erosion of a person; their transformation into something unrecognisable, the breaking down of their mind or body. Many of the stories feature such a character, whether in the foreground as part of the plot or merely mentioned in passing, and it feels as though the writer is working through the loss of a loved one to dementia or mental illness, clearly evoking the terror of doubting one’s own senses, the horror and despair of watching someone slowly rendered into nothingness”.

“The only way to go on is to forget the way things were before. If you’ve lost someone it’s best not to think of them. It’s better if you can pretend they never existed.”

If you are new to Nina Allan’s work, then The Art of Space Travel and Other Stories is a good place to start. If you’re looking for light fantasy or neatly packaged science-fiction, then perhaps look elsewhere. These are not, for the most part, happy or straightforward stories. But here you’ll find richness and complexity, mythology rather than simple fairy tales, and a strange incompleteness that leaves you feeling whole.

The Art of Space Travel and Other Stories is out on 7th September from Titan Books.

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