Lantern Road, by John Argo

lantern-road-by-john-argo coverGenre: Mixed Genre Anthology
Publisher: Clocktower Books
Published: 2002
Reviewer Rating: one and a half stars
Book Review by David Hart

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This is an anthology, mostly of science fiction, published (I think) on a Print-on-Demand basis. Most of the stories are also available separately as eBooks.

The first story, appropriately enough, is Lantern Road, a novella which at 60 pages is the longest in the book. It starts with a young man, Jory, running along a road lit by lanterns, being chased by soldiers and policemen. The background is divulged in dribs and drabs, and turns out to be rather complex. We’re about 1000 years in the future, and throughout the galaxies humanity is no longer conqueror but conquered, living mostly as slaves. Earth itself has vanished. We slowly discover why Jory is fleeing, just in time for him to be whisked off the alien planet and on to an enormous spaceship, both location and mood changing rather abruptly. After some description of life on board, accompanied by more background, the two story threads merge to produce a rather forced resolution.

While I found the story quite enjoyable, it would have benefited from more work on the plot. Just as the reader gets settled in to one locale, it changes and you have to start again. There are a couple of internal contradictions. However the main problem is with plausibility, with one coincidence, three improbabilities and an impossibility, mostly clustered in the ending. Still, the writing is reasonable, and the setting has considerable potential; it gives the impression that there’s more undisclosed, and I wondered if the background was shared with a novel. If so, not yet; at least there is nothing about it on the publisher’s website. Nevertheless the setting turns an otherwise mediocre story into a fairly successful one.

We Are Different is much shorter, and has a Dark Fantasy feel. It’s about a Peeping Tom who watches his neighbors, to his ultimate regret. The story has no point, no twist. Similarly The Firemen’s Dance, a ghost story which fails to explain why the ghosts appear and act the way they do. A slight improvement is Susie, a short-short about a futuristic treatment for pederasty. In A Planet Named Magic Argo does a better technical job of describing the salient points of a planet in just a few pages, and creates a story for the setting. Unfortunately the ending is both trite and unoriginal. Then comes The Marks on the Road. The first three-quarters of this is character study, of a man, his girlfriend and his petty criminal brother. Then the story jolts into fantasy. Again there is insufficient twist at the end to justify what has gone before. The last of the shorter stories is Harps, where in the 55th century a woman’s soul, trapped in a harp, communes telepathically with a man. The story peters out.

Finally, and at 35 pages the second longest story, Taxi M’Koo and the Helium Drive. Set in California 50 years after a nuclear apocalypse, we meet Taxi M’Koo who is returning from a scavenging trip when her nuclear-powered hovercar runs out of helium fuel. Fortunately this happens within spitting distance of a lost colony of genetically pure humans set up by the defunct government (for reasons unknown to me, the colonists and, I suspect, the author). Taxi breaks in to steal a refill of helium, has a gratuitous lesbian sexual encounter, and fights her way out again. Again there was no twist to the story, and this time the characters’ motivation is missing too. There is also a strange coexistence of the classical post-apocalypse anarchy and scavenging, and unbelievably high-tech robots, cyborgs and fusion power. And why choose helium for fuel? It needs 100 million degrees K to fuse (and a Red Giant).

All of the stories in the book have a certain sameness. Most of them start in one location and switch to another, quite different one. They all have some sort of sexual content. And especially, they all fail to produce a satisfying ending. Writers are said to be driven by a need to communicate, to tell a story. With all but Lantern Road, I was left wondering “Why is he telling us this?”.

Would I recommend this anthology? No. Lantern Road itself is the only story worth reading, and even this is well short of unmissable (if I could rate it separately, I’d give it 3 stars). If that tempts you, you can buy the novella as an ebook, or read an excerpt, on the publisher’s website.

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