The Critical Journal of the British Science Fiction Association

The Fall of Tartarus by Eric Brown

Reviewed by Martin Lewis

Gollancz, London, 2005, 312pp, £6.99, p/b, ISBN 0-575-07618-6

Eric Brown is perhaps best described as a journeyman science fiction writer. A regular and popular contributor to the Pringle-era Interzone (it seems very strange to be typing those words) he has never managed to break through to novel length success. He continues to release books, however, this most recent being a collection of his Tartarus stories. Most originally appeared in Interzone but a couple were published in the defunct, and missed, Scottish magazine Spectrum SF.

Brown has always had a fascination with death and rebirth. This is most apparent in his Kéthani series of stories – probably the best of Brown's recent work – but it is almost as clear here. The sun around Tartarus is due to go supernova, destroying all life, and this looms large, literarily and metaphorically, over the planet.

In the title story a naïve youth, Sinclair Singer, arrives on this alien planet in search of information about his dead father. An inexperienced traveller, upon planetfall he is almost immediately robbed. When he contacts his father's lawyer he discovers that he was a mercenary who quit for ethical reasons and afterwards went on to take part in a famous, and frequently deadly, river race. He was never heard from again. Singer journeys to Charybdis, the start of the race, to find out more. On the way he falls in with a Blackman, a genetically and cybernetically modified human, who is coming to the end of his pre-determined lifespan. Forming a friendship they take part in the race together where, needless to say, they are triumphant. Visiting a museum of the history of the race Singer discovers the Blackman is his father. Running out into the street he is just in time to see him self-destruct in the sky above.

This sets something of a template for the other stories in the collection: the protagonist in search of a lost loved one; the character going to extreme lengths in the pursuit of atonement; the not particularly shocking twist at the conclusion; the ever present whiff of melodrama. The fact that bereavement is the emotional engine of every story in this collection goes beyond a contrivance to being tawdrily manipulative. At least 'Hunting The Slarque' does provide some digression from this pattern: it is the protagonist who has died (and been subsequently resurrected.)

It is no accident that the best story in the collection is the one which strays furthest from the formula. That it is called 'A Prayer For The Dead' should warn you it doesn't stray too far. This coming of age story at least has some ring of emotional veracity but as too often Brown again resorts to cliché. So much of his writing is second-hand (his ideas, his imagery, his prose) that it is impossible to be engaged in the pseudo-spiritual way he clearly intends.

These are old fashioned, outdated planetary romances told in an overblown fashion ("that great, ancient, smouldering world sentenced to death by the mutinous primary which for millennia had granted the planet its very life") and they are certainly not aided by their close proximity to one another here. Where his stories differ from their earlier models is that they aim to be character, rather than plot, based. Unfortunately for Brown he is not proficient enough to sustain them in these terms and hence his repeated reliance on the crutch of death to attempt to breathe life into his stories. This collection demonstrates that Brown is stuck in a rut that he is unwilling, or unable, to get out of.

This article first appeared in Vector 242. Back issues of Vector are available from