Engineering Infinity. (ed Jonathan Strahan, Solaris Books, 2011).

An excellent collection – I strongly recommend you buy it!

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Strahan has brought together some of the top names in SF. Do they deliver?

Peter Watts. Malak.

Watts doesn’t look too far into the future in a story seen through the eyes of a semi-autonomous military killing machine. The story opens with a couple of quotes from real publications, to create the setting of the story : risk and ethics in military robotics, and collateral damage (aka killing civilians).

The aerial robot the story follows is named Azrael, as in the Archangel of Death. Previously purely a machine following logic and detailed instructions about engaging the enemy, we hear his wranglers commenting on his new instruction set : he is now an experimental ‘killer with a conscience’.

We follow Azrael as he comes to term with his new instructions, effectively giving him a new mind-set, and how he reacts over his next engagements, and the implications for him, and those he fights for. Thought-provoking, and difficult to read without the overlay of the wikileaked video of collateral damage in Iraq in your mind.

There’s not too much military hardware porn, and some nice writing – in coming up against some much older hardware : “It is antique technology, decades deep in the catalogue : a palsied fist, raised trembling against the bleeding edge”. The robot’s reactions to sound is particularly effective, a nice counterpoint to his coding which uses estimates of the height of human objects on his radar to evaluate whether they are adults or not.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Watching the Music Dance.

A cautionary tale about genetic enhancements for children. We see a lot through the eyes of a daughter who has implants to enable her to see music, not quite old enough to understand the arguments between her parents. We get her father’s perspective, and the grandparents, to highlights how child-rearing has moved over just a couple of generations from crossing your fingers and hoping for the best, to being able to spend money to hopefully ensure that best.

Stephen Baxter. The Invasion of Venus.

Another in a series of recent Baxter stories in which challenges to the future of humanity are seen through the lens of one or two individuals in a rural English setting. Here, rather than immediate apocalypse, humanity achieves not First Contact, but a bystander status at forces beyond our ken.

The impact on one individual, religious, theological, and profoundly philosophical, are investigated.

Hannu Rajaniemi. The Server and the Dragon.

Far-future far-distant post-human hard SF.

“In the beginning, before it was a Creator and a dragon, the server was alone. It was born like all servers were, from a tiny seed fired by a darkship exploring the Big Empty, expanding the reach of the Network.”

Rajaniemi is a clever guy, with a BSc thesis on Transcendental Numbers, and a PhD in String Theory (me, I barely got up to ‘hard sums’), and like fellow boffins like Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter, can give full rein to his scientific knowledge, and, like those authors, doesn’t overstep the mark too much in terms of the scientific concepts and language.

He gives his ‘server’ protagonist some degree of emotion, lonely out there in the deep dark, and we follow it as it takes on the role of a creator on a local, but galactic, level; and as it finally makes contact, a climactic relationship.

Charles Stross. Bit Rot.

It’s way too long since I read a short SF story from Stross, and this fits the bill nicely.

Two long paras of infodump explaining the intricacies of ‘active magnetars’ are the only quibble, in a tight drama on a spaceship. Two clones of a wealthy dowager are a long way from home, working on a mining vessel a long way from anywhere, having taken the parental advice – “I’m bored. Being old and rich is hard work. But you don’t have to copy me. Now fuck off and have adventures and don’t forget to write.”

The ‘active magnetar’ causes the ship, and most of the crew on it some seriously big problems. The protagonist, Lilith, is lucky, having been doing repair work inside a shielded part of the ship, underwater, and therefore has had limited exposure to the outpourings of the magnetar. Her sister, working on the outside of the vessel, is in a much more serious state.

It’s well written and structured, giving a real voice to Lilith, and the clever bit is that Stross weaves in an element that is a popular meme in contemporary genre ‘SF’ media and television to ramp up the tension. I was tempted to compare the story favourably to the very, very long clone-shatterling adventure of Alastair Reynolds in his novel ‘House of Suns’, in terms of the law of diminishing returns, but decided not to.

Kathleen Ann Goonan. Creatures with Wings.

More spirituality in this story than you tend to get in a whole volume of a Year’s Best anthology.

A young man on Honolulu finds himself whisked away from Earth on its final day of existence, and he has to make sense of what has happened, and what happened to his wife prior to that, as he and a few fellow Buddhists eke out a living on a very alien planet. There are many questions to be answered – both about that which is out there, and that is within. And his path to enlightenment comes through a small packet that he brought with him.

Damien Broderick and Barbara Lamar. Walls of Flesh, Bars of Bone.

The only problem with Engineering Infinity so far is that it’s not as big a volume as I would like. I’m nearly finished!

Clever and classy, resonant with John Barnes’ ‘Things Undone’ which came out in 2009, but I read only the other week. There’s a great central character – a fairly (a very!) unsympathetic academic who has been thrown out by his wife, and has hit the bottle. Having pretty much queered his chance of tenure, a newsreel film clip from the 1930s lands on his desk, and it’s very, very disturbing. Either someone is extremely clever at video editing, or the anomalies in the clip are opening up a quantum pandora’s box.

There story is written beautifully as well, with the closing stages shifting underneath the protagonist’s feet, as all is revealed. A shoo-in for a Year’s Best collection next year. I’d tip Dozois and Strahan himself to include this one in their respective volumes. And probably the first SF story I’ve read to reference ‘teabagging’ (note : if you don’t know what this is, probably best -not- to google it).

Robert Reed. Mantis.

Clever short which is set in a gym and also the ‘reality’ on the other side of an ‘infinity window’ next to some of the gym equipment. The reality which is displayed is subjectively different on each side, and in this future, knowing whether you are real, or merely a character in another’s story is a moot point.

John C. Wright. Judgement Eve.

Godlike powers at play from Wright, in his usual intense style. It’s a complex story, densely written and at time boggling, of human frailties and emotions exposed by those powers, it’s hard SF mashed up with epic Greek legend, reading almost as if translated from ancient stone tablets.

David Moles. A Soldier of the City.

A complex, layered story. It starts, intriguingly, with a couple of section which enable us to have the scene set, introductions made, but kept slightly detached, through the perspective of scenes viewed on security type cameras.

It’s far future, and the story starts with a feast day, in which the living goddess, is very publicly and very massively killed. The protagonist, Ish, is a soldier in her service, on leave, witness her destruction writ large on the sky, but with her final moments having her seemingly make eye contact. The nature of his love for her is that he has no thoughts about leaving his wife and child to seek the enemy in their asteroid belt hidey-hole.

There’s an excellent sequence when he comes face to face with the living god, the now widower partner of Ish’s beloved goddess. When the god asks Ish if he loved his now dead goddess, Ish replies in the negative – a virtually treasonable and punishable by death response. But he expands – “I still love her”, is his explanation.

There’s a lot of hard SF in the detail of the genmod Ish undergoes to meet the enemy, but at the moment of combat, Moles slides the rug out from under the reader, and the story becomes thoughtful and reflective.

Gregory Benford. Mercies.

Rather than giving full rein to his imagination, Benford gives us a story based on a Heisenberger principle – not the famous uncertainty principle, but the one that states that all scientific work is based on some conscious or subsconscious philosophical attitude.

Benford’s protagonist is a wholly unlikeable character – just how unlikeable we find throughout the course of the story. He is at first an avenging angel, using his vast wealth and scientific intellect to travel back in time to do away with those who would become serial killers. A laudable aim, and done as close as possible to the murders happening, to avoid any butterly wing consequences in the time line to which he has travelled.

As he takes on increasingly infamous killer, we find out what drove him to his actions, and there’s a chilling denouement – but I won’t say with whom, or what exactly happens.

Gwyneth Jones. The Ki-Anna.

A human from Mars has made the unsettling jump to a distant planet to try and find out what happened to his twin sister, reported dead.

It’s not a traditional whodunnit in space. Whilst the story begins, in third person, from his perspective, it shifts to each of the pair of bipedal sentients whom he has to get on his side to see the crime scene, and back to him, throughout. There’s also the An-he, the ruling prince of the community, and his unseen sister/bride, as another relationship. And also the fundamental symbiotic-ish (won’t give the game away) of the indigineous race(s), and there’s a chilling end as we find out just what has happened.

The shift in perspective is a touch unsettling, which makes for a more interesting reading experience.

John Barnes. The Birds and the Bees and the Gasoline Trees.

To defeat climate change, humanity has been pushing iron-rich asteroids into our oceans. Whilst the climate change issue has been addressed, there are strange things happening in the ocean.

In a short space of time Barnes creates a ship-bound drama with an intriguing trio of characters – a female journalist, her scientist husband, and her husband’s ex-wife, who is a genetically engineered humaniform. The interpersonal dynamics are handled well, and exactly what is happening is a doozy, in a great story to round off a great collection.

Conclusion.

A ridiculously strong list of contributors, the majority on top form. Just how many will appear in next year’s Year’s Bests?

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