I make no secret of the fact that Gareth Powell is one of my favourite authors. As well as thoroughly enjoying his work, I love that he’s fantastic at building community on social media and is generous with his time and advice, particularly to newer authors.
The Last Reef is a collection of works, first published in 2008, and is out in paperback this week. I bought a copy on Kindle and despite it being twelve years old now, the stories haven’t aged, which is impressive for such a diverse science fiction collection.
As a newbie writer, I often read advice such as “read other work in your genre” and in a capacity as editor, I’ve read millions of other writers’ words. It’s not often though that something I read influences me in such a positive way.
The Last Reef contains fifteen stories, ranging from ‘The Long Walk Aft’ — a couple of hundred words — to ‘Arches’ which I think is the longest piece in the book. Several of the stories have been rewritten into novels, which is fascinating in and of itself to me.
‘Ack-Ack Macaque’ began as a standalone short story that became a trilogy. The first book of which was a joint BSFA award winner in 2013. I have read both the novel and short story and with my writing head on, seeing how the original story is stripped to the bare bones and rebuilt into something bigger and more complex, feels like peeking behind the curtain. It’s rare there’s a chance to do this.
Interestingly as well, there’s a mix of first and third person perspective. One of the “rules for writers” (who sets these rules?) is that first person point of view doesn’t sell well in fiction, so don’t do it. I like that Powell uses the POV that suits the story rather than sticking to the rules. Or, to pinch one of his lines from Embers of War;
Sometimes the needs of the mission outweigh the requirements of the rulebook.
There are common themes throughout Powell’s work, threads of which can be seen in The Last Reef but also in Ack-Ack Macaque and his most recent trilogy, the wonderful Embers of War. Yes, the stories are generally set in space or alternative worlds, but what I enjoy most is the thread of humanity. What does it mean to be human? What choices do we make and why?
Yes, these are tales of space ships and aliens, but they’re also about the human condition: love, loss, sacrifice. From that sense of ache in ‘Pod Dreams of Tuckertown’ (not a favourite originally but grew on me during a re-read) to the growing sense of inevitable, where we know what’s coming but cannot avoid it, in ‘The Long Walk Aft’, each story feels crafted and loved. Even ‘Distant Galaxies Colliding’, which is my least favourite in the collection is about the human condition.
The final story, ‘Cat in a Box’ is a brilliant take on Schrodinger and for me, ends the book on a light, high note. And it does beg the question, what would you do in that same situation… I think I’m with Verne Turner, the protagonist on that one.
Book DetailsTitle: The Last Reef: And Other Stories
Author: Gareth L. Powell
Publication Date: 24 Aug 2020
Who will you try to save when your world falls apart?
Gareth L. Powell’s first collection of short fiction features a motley collection of archaeologists, hackers and ex-cops struggling to answer that very question. As their lives implode around them, will they use the moment to save their own skins, or to find a way to make up for past misdeeds?