Calling all armchair space cadets! Swamp Planet Christmas: Seasonal Stories from Outer Space took place on Thursday 16thDecember, 6.30pm at The International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester. Intended as a fun, tongue-in-cheek alternative to the growing tide of Yuletide schmaltz, we jettisoned our worries and waved aside Dickensian tales of shivering wretches or apparitions urging repentance (yawn), to lap up festive sci-fi and fantasy short stories juiced from pulp paperbacks of the 1950s onwards: including dystopian visions, pan-galactic travel and parallel worlds.
Beginning with ‘No Virginia, There Isn’t A Santa Claus’, this satirical antidote from Spy Magazine to the now legendary editorialfrom New York’s The Sun newspaper in 1897 tasks a precocious child maths wizard to prove otherwise – with amusingly blunt results. Pulverising the very possibility of Santa’s journey to 91.8 million homes during a 31 hour global rotation at 822.6 visits per second, it reaches a crescendo of criticism as the smell of meat roasting transpires to be the not the Christmas meal, but 214,200 reindeer engulfed in flames and tumbling from the sky.
Next came an excerpt from Frederik Pohl’s ‘Happy Birthday, Dear Jesus’, telling of a craven consumerist society where Christmas shopping begins in July. Read by Morag Rose of Manchesters own Loiterers Resistance Movement, the doyenne of the free derive recited a deranged rhyme popular with the debt-addled citizenry: “And out of the shops how they spring with a clatter, the gifts and appliances words cannot flatter! The robot dishwasher, the new Frigidair, the doll with the didy and curlable hair! The electrified hairbrush, the black lingerie, the full-colour stereoscopic TV!”
Toy Story may have opened our eyes and hearts to the feelings of unwanted playthings, but Gene Wolfe’s ‘The War Beneath The Tree’ wound up with a memorably unpleasant aftertaste. It’s Christmas Eve in the future, and last year’s high-tech toys are preparing for battle. The end of innocence is nigh. Oh Bear, what have you done? Next, readers Jon Atkins and Arthur Chappell ushered us aboard rockets to other worlds for Arthur C. Clarke‘s ‘The Star’ and Ray Bradbury‘s ‘The Gift’ respectively. A Jesuit priest wrestles with his faith upon making a terrible discovery in relation to the history of our world, while a little boy wishes for a Christmas tree en-route to Mars.
The Niallist remained effortlessly cool in his delivery of ‘Cyber-Claus’ by William Gibson, an author cited as the father of cyber-punk for his for novel Neuromancer which prefigured the internet in its depiction of cyberspace and virtual environments. A shady citizen and his sentry love-bot are rudely awakened by the sound of what appear to be hooves on the roof. Let’s hope someone has a bullet-proof thermal vest. But it was our second to last story that cast a magical spell throughout the room as actress Marie Louise Cookson raised actual goosebumps in her vocal representation of Harvey, a sentient alien jellyfish in Gordon R. Dickson‘s ‘The Christmas Present’.
Imagine if Hans Christian Anderson were crossed with George Lucas as a result of a faulty teleport, materialising upon the lonely, thorn tree dotted swamp planet of Cidor. Here Alan, the child of human settlers, attempts to express to his only friend the meaning of giving at Christmas and self-sacrifice. I defy anyone in the room in the room that night to deny choking back back a silent sob at the devastating yet beautiful denouement. Response from the audience after the event suggests that this short story could be a contender for an annual outing. Excuse me a moment, there appears to be something in my eye… (wails into a Kleenex).
As the night drew to a close, the theme tune for 2001: A Space Odyssey struck up and the lights illuminated the great glass elevator at the rear of the room as MARTIAN SANTA made his descent, distributing gifts to those in attendance (actually a covert invasion plan in the form of baby alien finger monsters). Cutting a fine dash for a bearded self-replicating hermaphrodite, he/she read our final story for the night, the batsh*t-bonkers ‘Space Aliens Saved My Marriage’ by Sharon N. Farber. A frustrated checkout cashier finds herself caught up in an impending Christmas apocalypse that somehow includes Bigfoot, vampires, Elvis and flying saucers.
Many thanks to everyone involved, but especially fellow readers Morag Rose, Jon Atkins, Arthur Chappell, The Niallist, Marie Lousie Cookson and Martian Santa (Joe Spencer), plus Kim May on camera and food styling duties. Gratitude and thanks also to Will Carr and Andrew Biswell at IABF, and indeed to the spectre of Burgess himself for allowing us to settle/perch/wriggle in his very own reading chair. We succeeded in conjuring the spirit of Jackanory, only for grown-ups.