‘The Silver Wind’ by Nina Allan – 2011 BSFA Award Short Story Club
‘The Silver Wind’ was originally published in Interzone #233
I reviewed Nina Allan’s first short story collection, A Thread Of Truth for Strange Horizons in 2009. In the course of doing so, I identified some of the characteristics of an archetypal Allan story: “It focuses on failed, grudging and inexplicable relationships. It takes a keen interest in geography (rural, urban, and liminal). Observations are often precise and clinical. Above all it is a story that suggests rather than insists… the ineffable burns throughout the collection.” I’ve not read any of her work since so I wondered how much ‘The Silver Wind’ would continue this pattern. Well, the geography is certainly there in the opening paragraph:
Shooter’s Hill had a rough reputation. The reforestation policy had returned the place to its original state, and the tract of woodland between Blackheath and Woolwich was now as dense and extensive as it had once been in the years and centuries before the first industrial revolution. The woods were rife with carjackers and highwaymen, and scarcely a week went by without reports of some new atrocity. The situation had become so serious that there were moves in parliament to reinstate the death penalty for highway robbery as it had already been reinstated for high treason. During the course of certain conversations I noticed that local people had taken to calling Oxleas Woods by its old name, the Hanging Wood, although no hangings had occurred there as yet. At least not oﬃcially.
Otherwise this seems more like traditional science fiction than I’ve come expect from Allan. We are in the future, society has presumably undergone some form of collapse and we are soon told that this is linked to the election of a government of British Nationalists. The fascist near-future dystopia is familiar territory so I was interested to see what Allan would do with it. The answer is to confuse it with a typical and dilute it with a detached protagonist:
It sounds insane to say it, but I had never really questioned the world I lived in. I remembered the hung parliaments, the power shortages, the forced deportations of the millions of blacks and Asians from the city ghettos to the vast factory ships built to transport them to the so-called ‘home-states’ of Nigeria, Botswana and the near-uninhabitable wastelands of the exhausted Niger delta.
Martin, an estate agent, has withdraw from the world following the death of his wife but as that quote shows, he was never particularly engaged to begin with. A chance encounter in the course of a sale leads him to become obsessed with Owen Andrews, the inventor of the Silver Wind of the title, a “mechanical time-stabliser” that acts as a tourbillion for reality. The introduction of this fantastic device reveals Allan’s focus and sidelines the SF setting.
The concept, as with the rest of the story, is laid out methodically by our extremely dull narrator. Unfortunately, for the majority of ‘The Silver Wind’ I was bored and unengaged, it large part because we receive the story through the filter of a boring and unengaged narrator. For example, when Martin meets Andrews for the first time he reports that: “His force of personality was tangible. I thought he was probably the most extraordinary man I had ever met.” It isn’t at all tangible to the reader. This is one of several points where our narrator directly informs us of feelings that we are unable to intuit from the text itself. The prose is similarly blank. In previous stories, Allan’s writing has been clinical but forensically incisive; here it is merely prosaic. This is one of the most descriptive passages in the novel:
He took me through to a room at the back. The room was steeped in books, so many of them that the ochre-coloured wallpaper that lined the room showed though only in oddly-spaced random patches. Glazed double doors overlooked a narrow strip of garden. A set of library steps on castors stood close to one wall.
Now, there is nothing wrong with it but it hardly sparks the imagination. Martin is a grey man in a colourless world and I found little intellectually to hold my interest in the absence of anything more visceral. It is only after much treading of water that the story bows to the inevitable and Martin utilises the Silver Wind. When this happens, he slides into another timestream, chaotic and troubled but no longer fascis. “What I saw and felt and observed was a change not in substance but in emphasis.” He effortlessly integrates himself into this new world which already contains a hole for him (his Oyster and bank cards both work). The ease of this transition becomes faintly ludicrous when he decides on a whim to set himself up as a clock salesman and soon has a “lucrative little business”. Martin simply glides through life.
And there the story ends, as always, without insistence. Is the reader supposed to compare the two timestreams? To contemplate the concept? To empathise with Martin’s personal journey? Allan – through Martin – has given me little to gain any purchase on.
The story was collected in a book of the same title with four linked “stories of time disrupted”. In her review of The Silver Wind for Strange Horizons, Sofia Samatar suggests that the story is best read in the context of the collection:
This means that The Silver Wind as a whole is quite different from the sum of its parts. The first three stories were published previously, but they cannot have been read separately in the same way that they are read together, with their uncanny resonances. It would be like reading a single one of the twelve novels that make up Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time: you might enjoy the story, but without reading more of the books you wouldn’t understand Powell’s use of repetition, coincidence, and change.
This was echoed by Niall Harrison on the Strange Horizons blog:
The only one of the five that I’d previously read was “The Silver Wind” — the most overtly and conventionally fantastic, in that it starts in an alternate universe and features a protagonist who learns to cross to another timestream, and published in Interzone earlier this year — and it gains immensely from its context in this book.
Does it work on its own? What do you think?