Serendipity - Book review: Cone Zero by David Hebblethwaite

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Book review: Cone Zero
by David Hebblethwaite

The fourteen authors with stories in Cone Zero are (as listed on the back cover): Neil James Hudson; Colleen Anderson; Jeff Holland; John Grant; A.J. Kirby; Eric Schaller; Kek-W; S.D. Tullis; Stephen Bacon; Sean Parker; Dominy Clements; Bob Lock; Grant Wamack; and David M. Fitzpatrick. I list them because Cone Zero is the eighth instalment of Des Lewis's 'megazanthus' (magazine/anthology) Nemonymous—the idea of which, if you're unfamiliar with the series, is that full writer credits are not given until the following issue, leaving the current stories presented anonymously. And what stories they are: there are so many good ones, I'm not sure where to start.

Perhaps with the title Cone Zero itself, because most of the tales reference it to a greater or lesser degree, with several even being named after it. For example, one 'Cone Zero' story begins with a fall of blood-red snow, and follows Damian, who becomes obsessed with discovering the identity of the artist who apparently painted his mother (who died when Damian was a child) recoiling in horror from a large metal cone labelled 'ZERO'. Unearthing the truth is a fascinating journey, with an equally intriguing destination.

Another 'Cone Zero' piece puts any gripes one might have about the National Health Service firmly into perspective. In this version of reality, medicine was outlawed in 1968 (it being viewed as conferring unfair advantages on people). The protagonist wakes up in what appears to be a clandestine hospital, but comes to suspect that something else is going on. It would be giving the game away to explain the title this time, but the story is a great read, both in its depiction of the setting (though it would be a ghastly world to actually inhabit), and in what it doesn't say about that world, giving us the chance to think things over afterwards.

Puzzling out a reality that isn't what it appears to be is quite a common thread running through Cone Zero; so, if you like that kind of story, this is certainly a book for you. There are different approaches to the theme of twisting reality: 'Always More Than You Know' is narrated by a Hollywood stuntman who bears a striking resemblance to the actor for whom he stands in. Though set in a subtly different sideways/future world, the story is relatively mundane for most of its length; only towards the end does reality start to slip, and the author offers a clear explanation for why this might be so. It's a fascinating idea to chew over; and the run-up to it is also highly engaging.

'An Oddly Quiet Street' takes a different (though equally successful) tack. Richard and Anna buy a house but, while Anna settles in nicely, Richard is troubled: there don't seem to be any neighbours; there's a strange smell in the house; and he keeps seeing something, which must be a dog—mustn't it? This tale doesn't give up its secrets without some work on the reader's part; but what makes it work is that the author provides just the right amount of clues to suggest possibilities that excite the imagination, without being so vague about what's going on that one loses interest.

Though I've concentrated so far on stories that make riddles out of reality, not all of Cone Zero is like that. 'The Cone Zero Ultimatum' is an inspired and hilarious tale about sentient household appliances making their way to the mythical haven of Eden to save themselves from the 'Flesh', who guard their monopoly on sentience jealously and would rather get rid of any evidence that might challenge it. The story breezes by, switching from first- to third-person narration so effortlessly that I didn't even notice at first; and raises many a laugh along the way—even the punning names of the appliances are genuinely funny. An excellent contribution.

'The Point of Oswald Masters' is another story that comes across as more light-hearted. Oswald Masters is an artist whose latest work is a series of cones of decreasing size; but one is missing—'a cone of zero height, zero diameter and zero volume.' Who is responsible—and who will take the matter seriously? What I like particularly about this story is that I can't quite decide whether it intentionally satirises its subject matter or not—which seems appropriate for a tale about an artwork whose very reality is disputed.

Any anthology is almost certain to have some entries that aren't so good; but the overall quality of the contributions in Cone Zero is remarkably high. Even the less successful stories are far from being clunkers. For example, in 'Angel Zero', a widow finds a renewed sense of purpose by investigating a mystery in her late husband's collection of old film reels—footage of a girl who simply disappears, with no apparent editing or trickery involved. Though the characterisation feels a bit flat, the woman's investigation is engrossing; it's just that the resolution isn't very satisfying, especially when compared to some of the other pieces in the book. But let's be clear that Cone Zero doesn't have bad stories as such, just some that don't work as well as others.

What difference does it make not knowing who wrote which of these stories? Speaking personally, I'm not sure, because I'm unfamiliar with the work of all the listed authors (bar one) anyway. However, the stories in the book are what really count, and... Well, I'm usually wary of saying things like this, but I expect to see Cone Zero on the lists of this year's best anthologies. It will richly deserve any such place.

Cone Zero is available from the publisher:

Story Copyright © 2007 by David Hebblethwaite. All rights reserved.
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