November 1, 2013

Small Town Overlords and Bighearted Underdogs: a review of Tim Lebbon's "Still Life"

Still Life
by Tim Lebbon
69 pages

Small towns kind of get the short shrift from alien invaders. Oh sure, aliens will swoop down in the rural areas to abduct the occasional hillbilly, maybe insert a probe or two, but when it comes to the big dance, aliens are all about big city life. Well, Tim Lebbon's Still Life offers a rather disturbing glimpse at a small English town in the years after an invasion that now has everyone living in fear of being targeted by the recruited human enforcers that lord over them and report to the aliens.

Now, talk of aliens and invasions is never explicitly shown in this story. But it looks pretty clear that the "incursion" as it's called was orchestrated by otherworldly entities. It's the aftermath of whatever occurred, and Jenni, our protagonist, lives in a cordoned-off village that is ruled by a handful of local turncoats. They used to be friends and neighbors, but now they haunt the town like ghosts and rule with a malevolent hum in their bones. To Jenni, they seem so alien now, they may as well be of the same makeup as those they serve.

Still Life focuses on a simmering rebellion, whose leaders want Jenni to join. She is reluctant though, already having seen her husband killed, and her one solace being she still sees his visage from time to time in a pool on the outskirts of the village. There, she can bask in memories of happier times, away from both tormentors and recruiters.

The weird blend of sci-fi and fantasy through this story is part of what makes this story so alien. I never really got the sense of how her seeing her dead husband was connected to the incursion, as it felt so disconnected from the mythos of this story's universe--at least until the story reaches its climax. The imagery is vivid, the characters remarkably genuine and grounded, and memorable villains made this an A-grade story with B-movie elements.

The pace might come off as a bit brambly in spots, and I could honestly have luxuriated in an entire novel set in this world, but those are small criticisms given the deft hand Tim Lebbon uses to paint such a haunting picture.

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