As The Crow Flies really starts with my friend John Grant getting in touch one day and pointing out that, as I’d been plugging away writing short stories for quite a while, I might just have enough kicking around to bundle together into a collection.
To be honest, the idea hadn’t occurred to me. It was almost twenty-five years since my previous collection, I was busy working as a journalist and ticking over selling the odd story here and there, and the thought of publishing another collection seemed a little…ambitious.
It turned out, though, that I did have enough stuff to fill a book – quite a chunky book, in fact. I put together the stories I’d sold to the now late and very lamented SciFiction, my one sale to Interzone, my two sales to the Polish science fiction magazine Fenix, and some other stuff that I didn’t think stood a snowball’s chance in hell of being published anywhere else, and actually it didn’t look too bad.
What actually made the book work, though, was the illustrations by Magda Zmudzinska. Magda had sent us a little booklet of her fantastical pen and ink drawings of birds some time before, but as I was putting the collection together I realised that some of the images could fit individual stories.
As is often the way with these things, As The Crow Flies eventually went out of print, and it’s been unavailable for years now. Because it was a print-on-demand book there were relatively few physical copies floating about, and it was odd to see them being advertised on Amazon for upwards of a thousand pounds a pop, and somewhat annoying because I didn’t actually have any copies I could sell.
If it has any significance as a collection, it’s as a sort of representation of what I was doing back then. Some of the stories still stand up, I think; I’m particularly pleased with ‘Discreet Phenomena’.
I’ve resisted the urge to polish up the stories for this new edition, partly because rewriting them would inevitably have made them at least twice as long, but mostly because it seems rather like cheating, as if the original versions weren’t quite good enough. So (with a couple of new stories added to the mix) here’s As The Crow Flies as it originally flew, warts and out-of-date references and all.
Extract from ‘A Dream Of Locomotives’
The phone keeps ringing. I don't dare answer it; don't even dare take it off the hook. I would unplug it, just to stop the noise, but I'm afraid the monster would sense the lost connection, know it had found me. Found itself…
Twelve floors down, the noise of the traffic drows out the rain's sizzle onto streets that have become gritty imperfect mirrors for the lights and the neon. Twelve floors down, people are leaving West End theatre bars and returning to their seats after the interval. Buskers are ploughing Leicester Square cinema queues, harvesting the odd coin here, the odd note there, from credit-minded American tourists unused to handling real money. Diners in fast-food houses are staring out through huge windows at pedestrians who pass by in the dark and the rain like strange forms of life in the ocean.
Twelve floors down, strippers are going through the old routine in smoky rooms. Lovers are meeting, arguing, splitting up. The Fusion Gang are unbuilding parked cars and telephone booths, leaving the components neatly stacked on the pavement before deliquescing back into the night.
The stupid thing, the really stupid thing, is that I still have the burner Ballinger gave me. I should have stripped out the batteries, smashed its chips, and dumped it in a wastebin or a skip, or shoved it among a pile of rubbish bags outside some restaurant, and just walked away from it. But that would be like a deaf man throwing away his hearing aid. Even if he never wanted to hear anything ever again.
Because I would, quite honestly, put on the headset one last time, to eavesdrop on some theatergoer, some lover, someone drinking Chateau Petrus at Langan's, just to make sure there are really human beings still out there. Except…
Except there is a monster out there too, among the bright lights, the net of communications which binds us together. If it thinks it's found me, it will kill me, the way it killed Ballinger, a wink of light and hi-tech shrapnel, wickering fragments of metal and silicon and carbon composites like tiny razors fired from a riot-gun. I know it will. I would, in its place.
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