The Dancer by Rab Ferguson & The Speckled God by Marc Joan

The Dancer
Rab Ferguson
Unsung Shorts, 22 pages

The Speckled God
Marc Joan
Unsung Shorts, 38 pages

Review: Iain Maloney

Online Exclusive

Here at Shoreline of Infinity, the fastest way to get a story rejected – after bad writing – is for the science fiction ‘elements’ to be added on like accessories. For it to truly be science fiction, the ‘science’ part must be integral to the story. A story must rest upon its setting. Romeo & Juliet is probably the classic ‘being A meets being B’ story, the kind of story that could – and does – happen anywhere, yet the setting of Verona, in that period, is not accidental. By choosing an Italian setting Shakespeare is telling his contemporary audience to make certain assumptions: Catholicism, fiery temperaments, vendettas. A family feud on that scale was unlikely in Hackney. If Romeo & Juliet had been set anywhere else it would necessarily have been a different work.

In short, if you’re going to set your story on Neptune, there needs to be some reason why Neptune and not Uranus.

For a perfect example of this, look no further than Rab Ferguson’s The Dancer. Penelope D’Silva is the titular performer, a prima ballerina and prima donna who puts bums on seats and tears on cheeks as Juliet, Lady Macbeth and Red Riding Hood. But when CineTheatres 3D hologram recording of her performance sweeps the nation, punters don’t feel the need to rush out to see her live. Gaps appear in the audience and Penelope is forced to greater and more terrifying ends to coax them back.

This stand alone story – part of Unsung’s ‘Shorts’ series – is exactly what you want from speculative fiction, taking a current piece of technology (3D cinema) and a current trend (be it sport, theatre or cinema, people are staying home more) and extrapolating both to frightening conclusions. We sympathise with the audience who may choose to miss the live show on a rainy Tuesday night when they can catch the ‘just as realistic’ film at the weekend. We sympathise with Leon, her manager, doing everything he can to fight a losing war against tech shift and apathy. And we sympathise with Penelope, whose livelihood isn’t threatened by the change – it’s still her they’re paying to see after all – but whose art is compromised and neutered in the name of convenience. Ferguson sums it up beautifully at the beginning when Penelope stands in the cinema foyer and is mistaken for one of her own holograms by passing fans. What’s the difference between art and commodity, between art and content? And is the distinction still important?

Unsung’s other recent short, The Speckled God by Marc Joan, is also a creature of its setting. This time we’re in the jungles of southern India. Joki de Souza is working in the accounts department of the Sarpal Tea Company in Bombay when he uncovers a potential anomaly in the files of Mr Kannan, overseer of the Mansholi tea estates. At first his inquiries are brushed aside by his colleagues and then suddenly he is encouraged to travel the thousand miles to the estate and investigate for himself. We know from page one that he will never return to Bombay.

The story is a gripping thriller very much in the vein of Robert Louis Stevenson. We know something violent is going to happen, but not what. We know Joki will die, but not how. We know it will be no accident, that someone will be responsible, but not who. As Joki travels into the heart of darkness (the echo is surely deliberate) the narrative moves from this dead-man-walking to the present, where friends recall Joki and the unsolved mystery.

It’s tough to categorise this story. Joan brilliantly draws the reader along the thin line between ill-fated accident and supernatural revenge, perhaps leaning more towards the latter than the former. Ritualistic magic, human sacrifices, snakes sent by deities and gods inhabiting human form: while reading I couldn’t help but picture RLS sitting on Samoa or in his cabin on the seas, reading this story and nodding along, delighted.