Growing Pains by Ian Whates – book review

Growing PainsGrowing Pains is a new collection from the highly talented British author and editor Ian Whates. Whates is the author of the Noise series of space operas and the urban fantasy trilogy City of 100 Rows. He edits the on-going Solaris Rising anthologies and various entries in the Mammoth Book of series, including the Alternate Histories and SF Wars volumes. Whates also manages his own NewCon Press. You can read my review of the recent NewCon Press edition of Lisa Tuttle’s Objects in Dreams here.

Featuring 11 stories, Growing Pains is a slim, 121 page volume from PS Publishing. Whether in the limited or regular edition, it is a beautifully made book of mostly outstanding tales. The works are small in scale, often about ordinary people faced with an inexplicable incursion into their everyday reality.

It’s a matter of taste, but I found ‘Growing Pains’ a strange choice as both the opening and titular tale. It’s a relatively minor piece that doesn’t do justice to the stories which follow. A farmer with a secret problem has a visit from his sister. The farmer’s son enjoys keeping the problem in check.

‘Coffee Break’ is equally slight. Bud has had a stressful week and all he wants is a great cup of coffee. He deserves his break. And nothing, not even the alien Idalen, are going to mess that up. ‘Coffee Break’ reads like a tribute to classic American pulp. It’s fun, but little more.

Like the title piece the second story features a mysterious invasion, but it is much more imaginative, detailed and satisfying. Through the eyes of ‘The Assistant’ Whates chronicles one shift with an office building’s highly skilled Sanitation and Cleansing Team. Lives are on the line as the team face greater dangers than vacuuming the carpets and emptying the trash. An original and rewarding story about how much some people routinely go through  to keep our privileged world ticking over. ‘The Assistant’ was short-listed for the British Science Fiction Award.

‘A Question of Timing’ is unique take on the idea of the imaginary friend, while in four pages ‘Walking the Dog’ says something profound about our need for companionship. Both stories address love, loss and grief with a compassionate eye.

‘Morphs’ reads as something akin to early Clive Barker, a lost tale from The Books of Blood. This is intended as the highest compliment. The story is bloody, bizarre and transgressive; another strange incursion. ‘The Outsider’ may also remind you of Barker, a thoughtful dark science fiction story which offers a cogent, grim explanation as to why the aliens are elsewhere.

Growing Pains back cover

Like ‘Coffee Break’, ‘Hobbies’ involves guns in America. Meet Josh, an everyday fellow who enjoys nothing better than shooting random targets. Random human targets. It makes him feel alive. Then he meets an equally committed hobbyist with a different enthusiasm. ‘Hobbies’ stands comparison to Stephen King’s terse early crime stories. Without violence, but just as chilling, in ‘Peeling an Onion’ Whates uses a scientific research programme to explore empathy, luck and sociopathy with delicious irony.

Calli is dubious that the new shop in town is anything special. She changes her mind when she meets the shopkeeper. But the locals are hostile and the shop is not staying. Calli has a difficult choice to make. A wonderfully creative tale, ‘Shop Talk’ evokes the sad wonder of Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars while simultaneously suggesting the exhilarating expectations raised when the Doctor meets a potential new companion.

The collection ends with the beautiful ‘Piano Song’, a moving sort-of ghost story about the power of music and memory. Like all good ghosts it lingers, and haunts.

At their best Whates beautifully crafted chamber pieces have universal resonance. Growing Pains deserves a place in the collection of any discerning reader of short fiction.

There are two editions. A jacketed hardcover signed by the author and limited to 100 copies at £24.99. Or a  regular hardcover at £11.99. Cover art for both versions is by Tomislav Tikulin. ‘A Question of Timing’ and ‘Hobbies’ are previously unpublished.

You can order the signed, jacket hardcover edition here. Or the regular hardcover here.

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