The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction Volume Two, ed George Mann, Solaris 2008

The first volume in this new series from Solaris Books, was a safe and solid volume, half of whose 16 stories hit the mark for this reader. So what of the second volume? The back cover boasts ‘..an eclectic collection of science fiction short stories from some of the foremost luminaries in the genre..’, which, without wishing to offend the authors whose stories the volume contains, is over-egging the pudding somewhat!

The fiction gets underway with Paul Di Filippo’s iCity. It lives up to the standard of his ‘Personal Jesus’ from the first volume, and serves to remind me that I haven’t been seeing as much fiction from PDF in recent years. Here he postulates a reasonably far future in which the fun people are having with the likes of Second Life (or SimCity for older readers, or MUDs for even older readers!) in creating communities is made real through nano-goo which enables whole urban communities to be redrawn and recreated – overnight. One young designer has lost one of his territories to a rival designer, and goes to longer lengths than he should to make sure that he wins the next design competition, although the mashup design which ensues is not as planned. It’s not a classic, but PDF has exercised his mind in looking for a new idea, which not everyone else in the volume does.

Next up is The Space Crawl Blues by Kay Kenyon, whose only work I’m familiar with is a jointly authoried tale with Mike Resnick in Lou Anders ‘Live Without a New’ from a couple of years back. It’s a short story, polished off over a lunchtime pint of Adnam’s Broadside in a countryside pub. With Quantum Teleportation invented, the demand for traditional interplanetary space travel is much reduced, and a shuttle pilot is bemoaning his luck, and makes a last sentimental trip to visit his old vessel, and to say goodbye to the ship’s AI, with whom he has developed a clsoe working relationship. However, he learns that there are problems with QT, and thoughts of early retirement for himself and his ship are premature. The story does well with the relationship between the pilot and the AI, although lacks a bit of something else – with a useful relationship with a friend enabling a lot of backstory and denoument to be described quickly and easily.

Chris Roberson’s The Line of Dichotomy takes forward his ‘Celestial Empire’ series, which has appeared in various sources at short level, and now at novel level. It takes forward the rivalry between China and Mexico in his alternate history, this time to Mars, in which the old rivalries, and some truths and lies are revealed. I’ve liked most of the stories in the series, but this one didn’t quite do as much for me, with a so-so action-packed drama of rescue and combat being followed up by a lengthy conversation terminated with a very B-Movie ending (the main protagonist kills his rival by throwing a knife with deadly accuracy into the eye socket of a rival, evidently dropping him dead instantly).

Robert Reed’s Fifty Dinosaurs is an interesting story, leaving the reader a bit unsure of what exactly is going on – as does the protagonist, who finds himself substantiated as a human on a strange planet, amongst a range of other creatures. He is befriended by a raptor by the name of Sandra, and Kelvin has to work out just who he is, how he got there, and whether to get up on stage at karaoke time.

The first volume has a Neal Asher story, and this one has two Mason’s Rats : Black Rats and Mason’s Rats : Autotractor. Unfortunately, rather than following up his story in last year’s volume, Bioship, the two stories follow up his ‘Mason’s Rats’ story from Asimovs in April/May 2005. Hartwell/Cramer liked it enought to put it in their Year’s Best SF 11, but I was of the opinion that it was ‘to be honest, not a standout story in the issue in which it appeared, let alone the year’. The two stories here follow the further difficulties farmer Mason has in his barns.

Brenda Cooper’s Blood Bonds looks at the links between two sisters, separated by both time and space, and by dint of one of them being nearly killed in a a terrorist attack on Earth, and living mostly in a VR world whilst her body is kept alive until such time as the money can be found to fix it. Lissa moves out to Mars, busting her chops to earn the dough to pay for her surgery, but is suprised when Alina appears as an upload, having dispensed with her broken body for a digital life. However, things progress quickly, as Alina describes to her how the AIs on Earth are challenging the status quo, and how Lissa is needed to help them break the digital shackles forced onthem.

All is described in a conversation between the two, which is really the action you would want to witness, rather than describe. As such, what starts off as a very good look at a close sibling relationship under stress then becomes a breathless description of off-screen drama.

Peter Watts’ The Eyes of God has us follow a young man through a stressful security check – hardware that spots much more than the tools for terrorism and evildoing. The hi-tech equipment can see into (and fix) the heart and soul, which is fine if your conscience is clear, but if you are harbouring some thoughts, even if those are thoughts never acted upon, then you will come to the attention of the authorities.

One of the longer stories in the collection, Eric Brown’s Sunworld is one of the more disappointing. If it was in an SF anthology for Young Adults it wouldn’t be a problem, but it’s not. It quickly zooms through a story which could fill a trilogy, with nods to Harry Potter, Philip Pullman, Arthur C. Clarke, Star Wars, and left me feeling that I’d read a first draft novel synopsis.

Mary Robinette Kowal’s Evil Robot Monkey is one of the shorter stories, and is very much a story from someone who has yet to breakout of the semipro ranks. A monkey with a digital implant, making it more human than simian, is upset by some schoolchildren who come to visit. Erm, that’s it.

Dominic Green’s Shining Armour sees a rural community threatened by big business from the city, and with little in the way of the forces of law and order to help them, they have to rely on their knight in shining armour. Said night is a huge battlemech which stands in the town, and has stood for several decades. Who is the human who has the skills and knowledge to climb into it’s cockpit and get the machine fighting on their side? Rhetorical question, as it’s the old grandfather whom the story starts with.

Karl Schoeder’s Book, Theatre and Wheel is a story that really should be in the matching Best New Fantasy volume. Reading is forbidden in this mediavel setting, and a young noblewoman is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to ensure that the written word is not lost.

David Louis Edelman’s Mathralon eschews narrative or plot, and is bold enough to make the case for this in detailing the rare mineral of which the title speaks.

Michael Moorcock’s Modem Times sees Jerry Cornelius dusted off for yet another outing. The 1960s cool-dude is now very much Austin Powers and just comes across as too retro and louche for the new millenium.

Dan Abnett’s Point of Contact manages to finish off the volume on a high, or rather a low. He describes First Contact, detailing all the things we thought that First Contact would be, and would bring, none of which proved to be accurate, in a very dry manner.

Conclusion.

I had been looking forward to this volume, but have to report being very underwhelmed. The majority of the stories are little more than average, and there’s very little originality – just the usual well trodden tropes being trodden again. Spend your money elsewhere this time around.

US pbk (amazon.com)
UK pbk (amazon.co.uk)

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