Once a writer is successful, editors of anthologies have a tendency to ask them for stories even though they may be too engrossed in producing a major work to spend the time on it. Others may start with a novel and find that there is so much more to tell about a situation or characters that spin-off stories become inevitable. A few may shape a rejected part of their masterwork into the requested short. Jaine Fenn used the short story form to explore the world she wanted to write about.
‘Downside Girls’ is a collection of four short stories set in the world of her first novel, ‘Principles Of Angels’. Kesh is a vast floating city orbiting a barren planet. The surface of its disk is a clean, neat place, attractive to both its citizens but as with any city there are the poor and criminal sections of the population, those the privileged prefer to pretend do not exist. Below the surface of any city, are the services. Waste and water has to be transported, temperature regulated. Out of sight below the rim are the cooling vanes, the water collectors and the waste dispersal units. Strung between these are a maze of nets and walkways, flimsy and more permanent constructions. Here, the underclass live – literally. All these stories are set in this downside. The earliest was published in 2005, one is original to this volume. Characters who may appear briefly in ‘Principles Of Angels’ have a longer life here.
‘Collateral Damage’ is Malia’s story. For those familiar with Fenn’s series of novels, they will know that one of the main characters is Taro. Malia is the aunt who has raised Taro. In this story, she is eighteen and has only just achieved the status of Angel. On Kesh, Angels are state sanctioned executioners. She is waiting for her first assignment when she meets and makes friends with Vanna, a topside business woman. Malia feels privileged that the other woman feels safe enough to use her as a confidante and learns all about Vanna’s marital troubles. It is only after she has been assigned her first removal that Malia realises that she has been extremely naïve. Other than being a very human story, ‘Collateral Damage’ gives readers more information about how Angels are chosen and tells us more about the person that was important in Taro’s early life.
‘Death On Elsewhere Street’ is told through the eyes of Geal, a downsider girl. On one of her expeditions topside, she is co-opted by an Angel as a witness. Her target is a drug dealer but Geal recognises her lover amongst his guards. Fearing the Angel is about to kill him, Geal makes her miss. The Angel’s reaction is extreme and as Geal fears she will be the next to die, another Angel intervenes. This is Nual, who is another of the main characters in the novel sequence. This story shows a human side to the Angels in the way that the stresses of the job can affect their behaviour and what happens when one decides to mete out their own justice.
‘Angel Dust’ and it is only very late in the story that we are told the significance of the title. Seen through the eyes of Isha, the daughter of a water-trader. It is very much a story of the precarious world that the downsiders inhabit. Isha and her brother, Rakul, find themselves in the centre of gang warfare because he has found a box which one of the gangmasters wants back. An Angel also wants the box. When she (we later discover it is Malia) is injured, Isha agrees to take the box topside to the Minister who effectively governs the City. The story illustrates how cheap life is Downside but also shows the loyalties of family ties within the complex structure of the unregulated society.
The fourth story, ‘The Three Temptations Of Larnia Mier’, is different from the other three in that Larnia lives topside on Kesh. She is a musician who has just been told that after a fall, damage had affected her hearing. She is told that an implant would prevent the condition deteriorating, however her religious beliefs prevent her from taking that option. Although Larnia has lost her singing voice, she continues to teach in a one-to-one situation. A new pupil, Abro, a young man with talent is a further temptation but he opens her eyes to the things she has been doing that are against her creed. As her health deteriorates, she has to reassess both her life and her beliefs. This story introduces religion into Fenn’s universe. Whereas most SF writers tend to either ignore or make it a major issue in stories or novels, this is a gentler rendering of a faith system.
Each of these stories is worth reading in their own right but will have more significance to anyone who has read ‘Principles Of Angels’.