Once again Strahan has assembled the Great and the Good, this time to address the theme of striving to reach the next level.
Greg Egan. Break My Fall.
Egan opens the hard SF anthology with a story that illustrates the good and less good aspects of hard SF.
The good : he creates an intriguing means of humanity getting offEarth, a means that he explores and explains in terms of the technology, and also looks at the human angle. The technology sees small groups of colonists making their way to Mars via a series of ‘Stepping Stones’ – rotating space stations that capture the colonists small vessel before slinging them along to the next Stepping Stone. It’s not a risk-free business, and families heading to Mars often split their members across several ships, rather than having all their eggs, as it were in one basket.
The bad : at least for this reader, the fine detail of the mechanics didn’t quite get through to me, despite some valiant attempts by Egan to describe the process (I’m sure he was itching to put in some diagrams!). And at one point, rather labours the point by having a young passenger engage in a scientific discussion with an older man, who helpfully points out to her the errors in her thinking, thus enabling a detailed infodump.
The story builds up to a climax as there are problems, and human ingenuity and bravery are called for.
Aliette de Bodard. The Dust Queen.
Set in the Xuya sequence, young Quynh Ha finds herself given a task by the Dust Queen – a living legend whose Martian dust dances she has long admired.
Quynh Ha’s talents are required to enable the old woman to do something impossible – to rewire/remove her memories to enable her to return to an almost-forgotten but long-changed youth.
Ian McDonald. The Fifth Dragon.
A beautiful, elegaic story from McDonald that looks at the sacrifices made to turn the Moon into a place to live. High sacrifices, with choices to be made, as seen through the eyes of Adriana, and her friend and lover Achi. The relationship is handled as subtly as the descriptions of the burgeoning society, and it’s just a story that oozes class throughout.
Karl Schroeder. Kheldyu.
Further near-future science thriller from Schroeder, featuring the return of Gennady, who appeared in a previous Infinity volume, and who once again finds himself facing scientific troubles caused by human frailties, this time the setting being a remote forest, and fungus the tech risk.
Pat Cadigan. Report Concerning the Presence of Seahorses on Mars.
Inventive setting and nice narrative from Cadigan, as a young woman narrates a visit to their Martian colony by a representative from Earth. Suffice to say, Mars/Earth relations aren’t great, and with financial crisis on Earth, their support of the colony is at risk. Rose Feenixity (a preferred corruption of Phoenix City) does her best to delay the AI which turns up, and it turns out that whilst the Martians have been sticking to the letter of the law, they have been (ahem) flexible in ensuring that they have looked after their own interests.
Karen Lord. Hiraeth: a Tragedy in Four Acts.
Hiraeth being a mental health condition that follows humanity on their journey outwards from Earth. Young Janik falls on the moon, and against the odds needs to have his damaged eyes replaced with a cyborg pair, and this is the first in a long step of augmentations that take him very far from home.
Ellen Klages. Amicae Aeternum.
When one embarks on a long, one-way journey, there is loss and there are people left behind. Klages provides a tender story about two girls, one of whom is setting out with her parents on a Generation Starship. She has a bucket list of things she wants to do before departure day, and it’s a bittersweet final morning as she and her friend head out on their bikes, in an adept, tender story.
Adam Roberts. Trademark Bugs: a Legal History.
A wry take by Adam Roberts on the pharma companies and just how low they would stoop in the search for profits, and just how limited the response by governments and the public at large might be. Written in the form of a governmental briefing paper, with references, although as someone who has to read a lot of such documents, the language is (probably fortunately) much more readable than such documents.
Linda Nagata. Attitude.
A sporting tournament in zero-G on an orbiting habitat gives an opportunity to look at tenured sportspeople, politics and performance enhancing drugs.
As someone who has half an eye on the NFL and the Tour de France, I’m only too aware of the long history of performance enhancing drugs, and the story feels a little naive in the way one team are so-o suprised that a member of an opposing team might have enhanced their performance illegally.
Hannu Rajaniemi. Invisible Planets.
Rajaniemi tips the wink to the inspiration for this story by dedicating the story to Italo Calvino, and a quick Wikipedia Enlightenment leads the reader to his Invisible Cities novel.
Rajaniemi follows the conceit of a conversation between two people, but his characters are spaceship AIs, and their conversation around inhabitants of various planets leads to a reflection on humanity. It’s a good read, and I wonder, what this Calvino’s book being ‘structured around an interlocking pattern of numbered sections, while the length of each section’s title graphically outlines a continuously oscillating sine wave, or perhaps a city skyline’ and with Rajaniemi being one of these clever bods who knows about String Theory, whether there’s something very clever and mathematical hidden in the story.
Kathleen Ann Goonan. Wilder Still, the Stars.
A lovely story from Goonan, which perfectly captures the theme of the anthology in looking at the long life of woman whose love for space starts in 1954 as a toddler taken to the Naval Academy in Washington DC. She looks back on this visit with her father, over a hundred years later, as she prepares to take the next step, her own very human decision, as humanity makes other decisions.
I’m putting the story in the running for the Best SF Short Story Award 2014.
Ken MacLeod. ‘The Entire Immense Superstructure’: An Installation.
An excellent, quirky piece from MacLeod, slightly out of kilter with the fairly standard narrative structure of most the anthology.
It sets the tone with the opening sentence : ‘Verrall, you’ll recall, spent only six months in Antartica, and shortly after his return had to be talked down from the canopy of Harrods, where he seemed on the point of committing seppuku with what turned out to be a laser pointer’.
The story follows Verrall’s psychiatric treatment, both from his viewpoint, and those who have funded him, and there’s a doozy of a sentence (of paragraph length) describing The Wikipedia of Things, into which Verrall enters to start a journey, the continuation of which I’m looking forward to.
Alastair Reynolds. In Babelsberg.
A second story from Reynolds featuring an intelligent Tyrannosaurus Rex in recent years (‘At Budokan‘ from the Shine anthology being the other).
Here his T.Rex is a chat show host, with teeth (ewwww, my bad). Vincent is guesting on the show – an AI, named after van Gogh, whose job – no, whose entire raison-d’etre is to go out into the depths of the solar system, to cartograph and to study. He’s a clever sort, but when another AI turns up, in the shape of Maria (no prizes for guessing who she resembles) it turns out that there’s a side to him that doesn’t sit well with his public profile.
Peter Watts. Hotshot.
Watts closes this excellent anthology with another top notch story, a dense, hard SF story (but with some poetic descriptions) looking at the challenges involved in reaching out of our solar system, through the eyes of a young girl, whose entire life, and before, has been targetted on that goal.
But the final decision about her journey is entirely hers, and a dive into the Sun gives her the opportunity to reflect on free will and her destiny…
Another strong volume in an excellent series. But how long will I have to wait for the next Solaris Books anthology?