If there’s one word which binds this eclectic group it must be ‘curiosity’. The joy of infinite possibilities in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide series, the worryingly plausible dystopia in Phillip K Dick’s Bladerunner, the weight of ethical ambiguity in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; the enduring appeal of science fiction lies, I think, in both the thrill of new ideas and the proximity of fantasy to reality. It is this slight gasp between the two which forms the crux of Keeping Light, the title story from Norman Hadley‘s short story collection, in which a scientist accidentally discovers a method for seeing into the past.
Scientific and philosophical intrigues permeate the book as Hadley inquires after God’s perspective on atheism, life on Earth after the exhaustion of natural resources, life on Earth after the exhaustion of traditional pornography, and what really happened in that tunnel in Paris, 1997. In the tradition of Roald Dahl’s adult fiction, there are plenty of unexpected twists in these stories, some of which had me laughing out loud.
The characters at the heart of the stories are very much human, as is apparent in their familiarity, their inquisitiveness and, often, their fragility. There is a gratifying abundance of strong, intelligent female leads throughout the book, such as Saskia/Scout – the gutsy mountain climber who finds herself stranded with an injured partner a hundred metres from the summit of Everest. Traditional ideas of gender are tipped on their heads in stories such as Chocolate Cleavage and Born a Woman and open-mindedness is rewarded in the stories Man in the Corner and Pascal’s Wager which seem to promise rewards, both physical and spiritual, to those who dare to ask questions.
Hadley’s collection never insults the intelligence, nor does it demand a PhD in astrophysics. Where unusual or little known concepts are broached, they are explained elegantly and in a way which sits gracefully within the prose. The plots are taut and well crafted; I was unable to begin reading a story without completing it in the same sitting. If I had one complaint about the book, it would be its length. Although there are 26 stories in the book, the majority of them are quite short and can be read in a few minutes. While the book was an intriguing distraction for a few hours, it left me wishing for a few hours’ more. This is not entirely a complaint. My bookshelves are littered with books which I have begun to read, only to be distracted by a newer, shinier story. Keeping Light is a testimony, therefore, to Hadley’s ability to engage his readers and maintain their attention.
Finally, a word on poetry. Hadley is an established poet on the Lancaster circuit, having self-published well-received collections such as A Whoop above the Dust and A Silence Black as Milk, both of which reveal the same love of exploration and bear repeated readings. His command of language is one of the real pleasures of this collection. Colourful descriptions abound: ‘information goldfished around his skull’, ‘[the glacier] threatened to break like a freak wave over the cluster of houses’, and ‘high passes where the bus drivers swayed between rockfall debris like maypole dancers’ but are not overpowering. ‘A straggle of houses’ and a ‘scrabbly lane’, from Homecoming, are examples of an efficiency with language which sets the scene quickly and vividly.
Keeping Light is not a collection which you’ll want to hide beneath a bushel. You will want to share its stories. I have already taken it out on a walk to read Data Miner to my other half. He has bagsied the book to read next.
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