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The Other Side of the Surface cover

The Other Side of the Surface by J.A. Lawrence

(ReAnimus Press, 2021)

Reviewed by Phil Nicholls

The Other Side of the Surface is a 624-page collection of 35 stories; however this includes a 70-page bonus story by James Blish and 92 pages advertising the back-catalogue of ReAnimus. This leaves Lawrence with 462 pages, which is still a decent length, but not the full 624 as it might appear. Lawrence introduces her stories as “voyages of the starship of my mind”. These voyages reveal many insights into her craft as a writer.

The feature story opening the collection shares its title with the book. ‘The Other Side of the Surface’ is Lawrence’s response to ‘Surface Tension’ by her husband Blish, a story where marooned humans survive on a hostile planet by shrinking to microscopic size and living in a freshwater pond. As noted, Blish’s story is included as an appendix.

Lawrence tells the companion story of the original inhabitants of the pond and their response to the human invasion. She captures perfectly the alien nature of these microscopic creatures with compound pronouns such as “it-they” and “we-I”. This prose-heavy story takes the “female, colonized” viewpoint, in marked contrast to Blish’s “male, colonist” approach in the original.

It is a rare treat to see the narrative yin and yang of two stories crafted in such a tight dialogue with each other. However, Lawrence’s alien protagonists make the story harder to follow. It is better to read Blish’s human-centric tale first, then savour the response when the basic sequence of events are understood. Knowing Blish’s pre-existing plot underlines the narrative restrictions under which Lawrence was writing.

Lawrence demonstrates additional facets of writing craft in the collection. She re-visits alien protagonists in “Heir” where termites face the end of the world. This story is another challenge for the reader to identify with the characters, but such disconnect only emphasizes the alien culture on display. Elsewhere, Lawrence builds a story simply from a first line in ‘Opening Problem’ and plays with “style over narrative” in ‘A Decrystallization of Emeralds’.

The Other Side of the Surface superbly expresses the multitudes within a writer. Collected here are a wide range of stories. Five carry a strong autobiographical element from Lawrence’s time living in Greece. The strange setting for ‘The Unknown Islands’ fits perfectly into the surreal Mediterranean described in the Over the Edge RPG, while ‘The Bridal Path’ feels more like Mamma Mia, without the singing.

The whole collection features an entertaining range of strong female voices. Several stories are mild erotica or literary tales with minimal or no SF content. The collection ends with three whimsical children’s stories.

For all the wanderings of Lawrence’s starship, her mind keeps dragging her back to the pulp-style of SF. This is clearest in the four stories of the Turns of the Screwdriver section. These SF satires poke fun at the original Star Trek series, featuring a libidinous captain and a crew of strange aliens. So many solutions to the planetary problems facing the crew seem to involve the female captain sleeping with one or more of the natives.

It is difficult to adequately categorize this collection as it displays the broad range of one writer over 35 short stories of varying length. My favourite was ‘Wild Rose’ featuring a witch in High School who just cannot seem to make her love potions work properly. ‘Some are Born Great’ was the most political story, showing the West’s uncomfortable reactions to an African Messiah.

The Other Side of the Surface is almost a checklist of modern writing categories as Lawrence samples murder mystery, urban fantasy, politics, romance, surreal and even children’s stories. The book is divided into six thematic sections which adds some order to the collection. Genre content varies, but Lawrence’s active imagination remains a constant highlight throughout.

Review from BSFA Review 16 - Download your copy here.

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