‘Far Horizons: All New Tales from the Greatest Worlds of Science Fiction’ (Robert Silverberg, ed, Eos, 1999, UK: Orbit, 1999.)

The longer than usual gap since my last review can now be revealed as being due to my reading 690+ pages of ‘Far Horizons: All New Tales from the Greatest Worlds of Science Fiction’.

This hefty paperback had been sitting on my shelves for some time, and looked to be perfect holiday reading for the family holiday in Barcelona. And it was, although I didn’t get through as much as I thought I might, what with the kids staying up late at night and chatting to them on their first flight -“You’re right, Edward, you can’t see God up in heaven, not even now we are above the clouds”.

Far Horizons is an interesting (unique?) anthology, in that eleven Very Big Names provide lengthy stories set in their own well-established frameworks. This provides a challenge for the authors, in writing stories that have to stand up to reading in their own right, without (hopefully) long tracts of background explanation (this avoided partly by introductory pages to each story).

If I was of an academic or pretentious bent, and/or had lots of time available for the review, I would attempt a review which unpicks themes and threads, and refers in detail to other works by the authors and so forth. But I’m not, and I don’t, so in the usual bestsf.net style I shall simply run through the collection in the order the stories appear and finish with a conclusion. The intention is to give you sufficient a feel for the book to decide whether you want to read it, or not.

Introduction.

In a shortish introduction, Silverberg highlights the difference between the volume in hand and the ‘template series’ in SF (ERB, EE Smith), the ‘content-free trilogies’ and the ‘media tie-ins’.

Ursula K. Le Guin. Old Music and the Slave Women.

As with each story in the volume a list of related novels precedes a short introduction by the author. UKLG’s ‘Ekumen’ story series is listed, starting with Rocannon’s World from 1966 up to Four Ways to Forgiveness in 1995 (some of which I have read). Other short stories have been set in this framework, and subsequent to this volume appearing, ‘The Telling’ has appeared.

UKLG does not offer much in her introduction, mostly setting the scene for the following story by describing the planets Werel and Yeowe, and the ‘owners’/’assets’ civil war, which forms the backdrop for ‘Old Music and the Slave Women’.

Sohikelwenyanmurkeres Esdan, fortunately referred to throughout the story as Esdan, is the Chief Intelligence Officer of the Ekumenical Embassy to Werel, in whose embassy he has been confined for a couple of years while civil war rages. He is secretly whisked away from the embassy in order to contact one party in the civil war, but his mission in intercepted and he is taken to a stronghold where not even his status can prevent him from being tortured most unpleasantly by the other side.

During his stay he comes in contact with some of the ‘assets’, and UKLG explores issues of slavery and freedom and humanity, a commen thread in the Werel/Yeowe stories. The story ends somewhat unsatisfactorily amid a welter of explosions and death, with a sickly, infant child dying in the arms of her mother.

This story lacks the punch of ‘Forgiveness Day’ (Asimovs Nov 94 and Dozois 12th Annual Collection) or ‘A Woman’s Liberation’ (Asimovs July 95 and Dozois 13th Annual Collection), and doesn’t really add much to the overall body of work. Whether it is a case of familiarity breeds contempt is a moot point, but I would list half a dozen other UKLG stories from the past decade ahead of this.

Joe Haldeman. A Separate War.

Haldeman’s 1975 ‘Forever War’ is rightly cited as an SF classic, itself a fixup from excellent short stories. I had read both the stories and the novel. ‘Forever Peace’ (1997) was a sort of follow up, whilst ‘Forever Free’ is the true sequel to that first novel, neither of which I have read.

In ‘A Separate War’ Haldeman describes what happens to Marygay in that part of ‘Forever War’ in which she is separated from William, and how she gets around being permanently separated from him due to differing relativistic effects of their travels.

Unfortunately, what happens to her isn’t particularly exciting, especially as you know that she is going to survive to the end! The story could gives a hint of fan-fiction in its rehashing of themes and narratives from the first novel: heterosexuality was deemed illegal and perverse at the end of the first novel, so, let’s see, Marygay should have a lesbian affair in this story; hmm, there was a lot of far future militaristic stuff in the first story, so let’s have a page giving the military roster in this story; and let’s lead up to a battle at the end of the story. We of course now that the two opposing sides are by now at peace, and she has to survive to wait for William.

So, two stories into the anthology and I’m feeling not altogether convinced.

Orson Scott Card. Investment Counselor.

Card’s Ender series started with ‘Ender’s Game’ in 1985, with ‘Speaker for the Dead’ (1986), ‘Xenocide’ (1991) and ‘Children of the Mind’ (1996), followed since the publication of this anthology by ‘Shadow of the Hegemon’ (2001).

n.b The 1997 story ‘Ender’s Game’ in on OSC’s website in full at present (url: http://www.hatrack.com/osc/stories/enders-game.shtml)

I have to admit to not having read any of these (I didn’t read that much SF between 1985 and 1995, and hefty volumes have never been my cup of tea), but of being aware that many, but by no means all, SF readers rank the first of these stories quite highly.

In this story, Andrew Wiggin (aka Ender Wiggin), lands on a planet with his sister some 400 chronological years after his birth, and celebrates his 20th birthday (those relativistic effects again).

The good news is that his trust fund is now enormous, making him very rich. The bad news is that he has to pay taxes. And on the planet Sorrelledolce he finds paying said taxes is not as straight forward as it should be, and is made somewhat more complicated by his tax situation being taken on by the thoroughly unpleasant tax man Benedetto, who attempts to fleece Wiggin for a substantial sum of money.

However, Wiggin’s interests are protected by a computer program which appears on his system and offers to look after his affairs. This program, called Jane, is evidently a key figure in the novel sequence.

Justice is done, with Benedetto’s murky dealings leading him to prison and an untimely and unpleasant death. However, the reason behind Benedetto’s actions are revealed, a common theme in Card’s work: that it is never quite as simple as good and bad, right and wrong, evil and good – there are rarely absolutes.

Wiggin himself appreciates this and embarks upon his career as a Speaker for the Dead, with Benedetto the first person he speaks for.

The story works fairly well, although the computer elements are uncomfortably close to current technology and systems for comfort, to my mind.

David Brin. Temptation.

Brin’s ‘Uplift’ sequence has been alternating with other non-Uplift SF novels for two decades, beginning with ‘Sundiver’ (1980) and more recently ‘Heaven’s Reach’ (1998).

I did read on of the earlier novels, and enjoyed it, up to a point. I found it difficult to engage with the uplifted dolphins due to the ‘Dalek Problem’, for want of a better term. Dalek’s couldn’t rule any galaxy which had rocky surfaces, staircases, kerbs or the like, and similarly sea-dwelling creatures could not realistically become space-travelling or colonising creatures due to their reliance on needing water to move from point A to point B. But the uplifted monkeys I did find quite interesting.

In ‘Temptation’ a small group of dolphins have been left behind on the planet Jijo whilst the ship Streaker continues to flee across the galaxy. In the oceans of the planet, several neo-dolphins have reverted to more primal behaviours, and Peepoe has been abducted by two rogue males. Both she and scientist Tkett hear basso, sonorous sounds which are unidentifiable, but suggest something very, very big, and very unusual in the deeps of the ocean. They both seek out this unknown ocean dweller, and find a most bizarre and challenging situation, in which they are offered the chance to disconnect from reality, to explore untold worlds and to have magical, almost godlike powers, but in a virtual environment.

Robert Silverberg. Getting to Know the Dragon.

Silverberg’s Alternate History, Roma Eterna sequence, is predicated on the ancient Hebrews remaining in Egypt instead of being led forth by Moses, with subsequent ramifications.

I have to own up to really not liking much AH at all. A lot of enjoyment has to come from knowing where the story deviates from the reality. As such, for examples, AH about the American Civil War or immediately thereafter can mean little to me, as I know next to nothing about that Civil War.

Silverberg’s Roma stories are well written, but palpably not SF. As such, and having watched and been disappointed with the film ‘Gladiator’ I decided to give this story a miss.

Dan Simmons. Orphans of the Helix.

According to his introduction, Simmons’ ‘Hyperion Cantos’ spreads across four volumes, some thirteen centuries, tens of thousands of light-years, and over three thousand pages. That’s a lot of words.

Spinship Helix translates down from Hawking space, its five AIs responding to a mayday message that has been transmitting for over a century. Nine crew members of the Amoiete Spectrum Helix crew are woken, chosen for their mix of skills and expertise with regard to the task ahead. After they are introduced (a torturous sentence in which we have, separated by semi-colons, minor variations upon the like of ‘an ebony-band male, Jon Mikail Dem Alem’) the main thrust of the story is revealed.

A monstrous, automated ship has been systematically visiting the solar system from which the mayday has emanated, devouring planetary matters, asteroids, and the local population. It has been coming regularly every half-century, and is en route at the moment, only a few days away! Cue dramatic chords and tension! Not. The coincidence of the Helix arriving within days of the return of the Ship from Hell is just a little too obvious a plot device.

And the crew of the Helix are reluctant to use their superior armoury to summarily destroy the Ship from Hell without checking out with the solar system from which it originates. But there isn’t enough time to get to the originating system to find out why the Ship from Hell is making its regular forays and back against without jeopardising the Helix in jumping in and out of Hawking space. Are the Helix going to risk their mission to make the trip to the originating solar system at great risk? Cue dramatic chords and tension! Not. It’s obvious that they are going to make the trip and get back just in time to save the local Outers.

The overall feel to me was a Star Trek episode, with the good ship Enterprise popping into a solar system, meeting interesting people and having to help sort things out. Then off onto another mission. Or perhaps a short story written by someone whilst still in hefty novel mode?

Nancy Kress. Sleeping Dogs.

Hugo-winning Novella Beggars in Spain (an excellent story) was expanded into a full length novel, and followed up with two more novels.

Sleeping Dogs is perhaps a slightly clumsy and obvious title for a story which starts with dogs who have been modified to do without sleep – the premise of the original novella and the novels with regard to humans. Kress describes vividly the white trash family whose recently widowed head of household hopes that the modified, pregnant bitch he buys will be the answer to the problems the family is facing.

The litter she produces most definitely do not have the desired effect – just the opposite, as the baby daughter is inadvertently killed by one of the dogs. As with humans, the effects of the modification to do without sleep has side effects, in this case interfering with the dogs ability to form relationships with humans.

Young Carol Ann swears vengeance on the company who illegally supplied the pregnant dog, coming into contact with, in passing, one of the major characters in the novel sequence. Her attempt to gun down one of the guilty scientists is thwarted, but she decides to seek revenge through more traditional, although indirect means.

In constrast to the preceding stories, this is obviously a short story by someone comfortably and very capable in the short story mode. And the first with a near-Earth setting.

Frederik Pohl. The Boy Who Would Live Forever.

Pohl’s Heechee sequence commenced with Hugo/Nebula winning novel ‘Gateway’ in 1997, and spanned more than ten years and four other novels.

Young Stan Avery dreams of reaching Gateway and journeying on one of the spaceships left behind by the Heechee, as many of his age do. When his father dies suddenly, leaving him orphaned and destitute, this dream appears likely to remain just that, a dream. However, his father has left him more money than he could have hoped for, and he arrives on Gateway with a couple of friends, desperate to make the crew of one of the ships.

After some disappointments, he finally makes the roster of one of the ships, only to find that whilst their journey (a random destination determined by the pre-programmed and unfathomable Heechee) does not end in death as some do, they quickly return to Gateway with little reward. Furthermore, any future trips from Gateway appeared to be jeopardised, until out of the blue another chance comes their way. And this time they strike lucky! In a big way.

In some ways this reads as a throw back to SF from an older age, particularly in the boy-boy-girl exchanges, but is quite an enjoyable yarn, although the ending (without giving too much away) somewhat disappoints in a fairly mundane description of events, and a most disappointing Heechee.

Gregory Benford. A Hunger for the Infinite.

Benford’s ‘Galactic Center’ series spans six novels, stretching from the early 2000s to 37,518, and sees humanity struggling to retain a presence in the galaxy against the terrible threat from a form of computer-based life.

In ‘A Hunger for the Infinite’ Benford does actually tell a story in quite a different way and tone from the preceding galaxy and epoch spanning sagas. One of the dreaded Mantis from the novels attempts to understand humanity in a quite grisly, and at times almost stomach-turning, manner, creating from corpses of vanquished humans grotesque parodies and obscenities of human life through which the dead appear to be appalling kept alive.

The Mantis also attempts to see humanity through its eyes, inveigling its way into a yet to be born human. Paris, once born and grown, comes face to face with the enemy within. Can he, and humanity, face down this terrible enemy?

In addition to impeccable science (although Benford in his introduction indicates how the science in the earlier novels has been proven inaccuarate) the story does provide more of a challenging read than other of the stories.

Anne McCaffrey. The Ship Who Returned.

I have to admit to being a little disappointed when reading in the introduction to this story I found out that McCaffrey’s excellent story ‘The Ship Who Sang’ had been extended in 1970 into a novel, and then in the 1990s had seen four co-written/share-crop follow ups. I may be doing these follow up novels an injustice, and do realise that author’s have to pay mortgages and so forth, but it felt as if the original ship Helva had been prostituted in turning a sensitive story into another Star Trek adventure series.

In this story, Helva does as the title indicates, returns – to the religious community who were the cause of the death of her first partner in space. She finds upon making contact that she has been deified, and far from needing to rescue the female community, they are more than able to look after themselves.

The theme of loss from the first story/novel is returned to as well, as Helva is mourning the death of her second partner, Niall. She has however created a computer-based avatar of him to keep her company, which on one level rather casts a big doubt against the principal of having a ship controlled by a biological human brain – why do that when a computer AI is so obviously advanced?

Helva finally achieves a resolution to her grief, and takes on another partner.

Greg Bear. The Way of All Ghosts – A Myth from Thistledown.

From Bear’s ‘Way’ trilogy – ‘Eon’ (1985), ‘Eternity’ (1988) and ‘Legacy’ (1995) – we have a story featuring one of the main characters Olmy Ap Sennen whose life spans several centuries and one reincarnation at the point of this tale.

‘The Way’ is an artificial universe 50 kilometers wide, infinitely long and offers openings to untold other times and universes.

I blanched a little at reading this in the introduction. How do you engage with an individual who has been/can be reincarnated and who has the option of untold universes and time to play about in? No danger of Bear painting himself into a corner with this setting!

I did read the story, after a fashion, but couldn’t connect with it. Give me ‘Blood Music’ (the short story version) any day.

Conclusion.

The blurb on the back of the UK edition states:

  • eleven masters of science fiction (yes)
  • eleven extraordinary new stories (no)
  • a reading experience not be be missed (sort of)

I came away feeling a little bit like I had had a crash course in the 1980s/1990s Never Mind the Quality Feel the Width (UK sitcom title) model of SF writing, or a Readers Digest version of the novel series in question, or a Revision Pack on said series.

What conclusions do I draw:

  • having read this collection I have even less desire to read any of the hefty novel sequences which these stories complement
  • all the authors are capable of writing very good short stories, but these are not they – for the most part these stories are really novel extracts as opposed to ‘proper’ short story if you get my meaning
  • the collection does offer an interesting reading experience – but if there is a Far Horizons 2 I will take a close look at the contents before I read it
  • the ‘samey’ feeling of the stories I got wasn’t what I was expecting form this volume – this feeling I have anticipated getting from single subject anthologies (eg Alternate Kennedys), which is why I have never read any of them
  • I am going to dig out one of the still unread old Carr/DAW/Dozois/Hartwell Year’s Best from my shelves to re-invigorate
  • but I’m glad I’ve got the book on my shelves

, , , , , , , , , ,

One Response to ‘Far Horizons: All New Tales from the Greatest Worlds of Science Fiction’ (Robert Silverberg, ed, Eos, 1999, UK: Orbit, 1999.)

  1. SciFiBookshelf.com February 21, 2010 at 7:22 pm #

    I’d have to vote for The Forever War. I interviewed Joe Haldeman recently and asked him about The Forever War and winning the Grand Master award. He told me, with his usual wry sense of humor, that he doesn’t feel old enough. (If you’re interested, you can read my Joe Haldeman interview for free at SciFiBookshelf.com )

Leave a Reply