Jay Berry is faking it. He sits in a coffee shop, at the exact table the least attention is paid to and pretends to write. What he’s doing, in reality, is living vicariously through other people. Sometimes he writes down what they’re saying so he looks busy, sometimes he writes down words he likes and most of the time he just waits for it to be the end of the day. Nothing happens in Jay’s life. Nothing changes.
Until the nice lady on the next table dies. And Jay finds himself in a very unusual, and extremely dangerous, spotlight.
Si does three really clever things with this, his first foray into digital publishing. The first is taking that step into digital, because a story like this is both perfectly suited to and grounded in the caffeinated associative tribe culture that digital publishing has been for some time now. This is a story about those people who sit in coffee shops and write, which, odds are, is going to be read by a good chunk of people sitting in coffee shops taking a break from their writing. What’s really smart is how unflinching but, at the same time, understanding Si is about this culture. It would be very easy to base a book in this world and point and laugh at it. It would be even easier to do that to an extent that begins to alienate the audience, something I know a couple of the Charles Stross Laundry series have done. It’s a difficult line to walk; go too far in one direction and you’re pandering. Go too far in the other and you’re insulting the audience you’re relying on. Si walks that line with consummate, brutally honest ease.
That leads to the second really clever thing about the book; how it plays with the attention deficit that’s endemic in digital culture. Jay’s inability to focus is both a tremendous weakness and pretty much the only thing he has going for him. The cultural invisibility that comes with it protects him and, for a while, looks a little like the one thing he has going for him. But the power that his absence gives him comes with a hefty price and that lack of attention cuts both ways. The way Si explores Jay’s gradual trajectory from invisible to aware to sort of happy to realizing just what’s going on is hugely compelling and deeply unsettling. We’ve all been Jay at times. We all will be again. Hopefully none of us will be Jay on some of the days he has here.
That leads into the third really clever thing; just how sinister the book is. Si maps Jay’s stumbling acceptance of his new world onto the idea of a man slowly waking up to the size of the city he lives in and the life he could have. It’s aspirational and gentle stuff, Si exploring the reactions of a man who’s used to not having anything suddenly realizing just what he has. The book is rarely sweeter than when it’s exploring Jay slowly starting to enjoy his new life. It’s darkest when we, and he, understand the context of that life, the damage caused and the price that has to be paid. Even then, Si balances horror with absurdity and a surprising amount of moral ambiguity. People do horrible, awful things in this book but you’ll understand why they do them and, in some cases, sympathise. Chances are you won’t drink quite as much coffee as Jay does though.
Unusual Concentrations is another entry in the increasingly massive run of stories showing that the novella is one of the most interesting and vibrant story formats we have. Endlessly funny, deeply bleak and relentlessly clever it’s an espresso shot of horror, crime, thriller and comedy. Drink it all down.
Unusual Concentrations is available directly from Si via Payhip. This is far and away the best option for authors and it’s the one you should use if possible. Alternately it’s on