The Starry Rift. ed Jonathan Strahan, Viking , 2008

At the age of 13, way back when (1973 in fact), our English Literature lessons at school took a turn for the better. Firstly, because our teacher, Mr. Nixon was a good teacher (sadly, not too many of those at High Tunstall Comprehensive School at the time). And secondly, one of the set books was Edmund Crispin’s ‘The Stars and Under’ – a reprint anthology which had stories including Ballard’s ‘Billennium’, Bradbury’s ‘A Sound of Thunder’, Porges ‘The Ruum’, Arthur C Clarke’s ‘The Forgotten Enemy’. To this day I can still vividly recall the sense of wonder I got from these stories – the stifling overcrowding relieved temporarily in finding an empty room several paces across, the returning time travellers who find the election has gone the other way on account of standing on the butterfly, the quivering eyelid of the stegosaurus, the sound of the returning ice sheets.

It would be an interesting challenge to put together a similar ‘best of’ anthology over the past 25 years, to see if it would be possible to match those stories for compact, spine-tingling, awe-inspring SF of the top order.

Jonathan Strahan’s ‘New Space Opera’ last year (jointly edited with Gardner Dozois) did an excellent job of showcasing new SF of the operatic ilk (reminiscent of Aldiss’ ‘Space Opera’ that I also fondly remember from the 70s). Here he turns his hand at an original anthology of the children/YA market.

Mind you, if you’re not aware that Viking is a children’s imprint, you have to look closely to identify it as a YA title – at the Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication data which identifies it as ‘children’s stories’. Well, suffice to say, it’s not Roald Dahl, and otherwise only a few explanatory footnotes in the intro, and the fact that the majority of protagonists in the stories are teens, gives the game away, as the level of writing and the concepts are at a more advanced level than a lot of SF for grownups.

In the order in which they appear, the stories are :

Scott Westerfield. Ass-Hat Magic Spider.

A neat introduction to Cold Equations of space – a young boy is sweating about getting on board the colony ship headed to Tau IV. Literally sweating, as he has to get down below the max weight limit for those on board. Potential colonists have a set maximum for themselves and one luxury object, and his luxury, Charlotte, takes precedence over his hair, which goes in a final desparate attempt to hit the target weight. We don’t find out what exactly Charlotte is until halfway through, but the clue is in the title. Looking like he’s failed to reach the target weight, there is an act of compassion by the person who can nix his application, that person being impressed by the humanity he shows. A good introduction to the volume, a good way away from the ‘set phasers to stun’ TV SF.

Ann Halam. Cheats.

A teen brother and sister enjoy playing ultra-real immersive adventure games, until their gameplay is interrupted by other gamers playing outside of the rules. In attempting to catch the cheats, the siblings find themselves captured. The story makes some clever twists in the tale, the kind to get the reader really engaged – instead of the final setting for their adventures being a computer game, they are instead neurologically experiencing a planet on the other side of the galaxy. And in the closing paras we find that one of them has a degenerative disease, and this might be their route to escaping the boundares that their body imposes – a ‘Ship Who Sang’ for a new generation.

Neil Gaiman. Orange.

A clever piece : the verbatim reponses to a series of questions, provided without the questions. We piece together that the interviewee is a teen girl, and she is being interviewed about her sister, who has been experimenting with out of this world chemicals, and who has become…

Kelly Link. The Surfer.

A young teen boy wakes up from a drugged sleep – he has been kidnapped by his dad who picked him up from soccer practice. We follow him, through one of the longer stories in the volume, as he and his dad, and their fellow passengers on an airplane, are grounded in Mexico, and we find out that the near future world in which they live has seen a dramatic reversal of roles between the US and Mexico, and that viruses are threating humanity. It neatly follows the boy’s obsession with soccer, with him believing he has a future as a goalkeeper, despite his body refusing to grow the extra inches needed for that role, and it is with a thump that he is brought to the earth as his limitations are revealed. His father’s sf collection proves a way of introducing the reader to some other SF authors, and all in all it will be a gripping story for many (probably leaning towards boys due to the soccer, although there are some well-rounded female figures as well).

Stephen Baxter. Repair Kit.

Not that the YA readers will recognise it, but Baxter goes very retro in a classy tribute to Golden Age SF, with a story in which a motley crew of a ship have to extricate themselves from a tricky situation, with the final solution being a convoluted one with which to get to grips.

Jeffrey Ford. The Dismantled Invention of Fate.

The very clever Ford goes for a Moorcockian tale (I have neglected to mention so far that Strahan provides some useful author notes, and that the notes by the author on the whys and wherefores of the writing of the story, add much to this volume). It’s a galaxy spanning story, starting with a visual image of an elderly man living atop a mountain, and takes the reader on a journey in which the man has appared to lose the love of his life, but the extent to which he and his love will go to be together becomes clear in a very satisfactory sfnal ending.

Cory Doctorow. Anda’s Game.

A young girl spends a lot of time in a World of Warcraft online game, and is pleased to be recruited to a female only group, who plunder virtual riches. When the chance to earn real money comes, it seems too good to be true. However, the online tasks which they have to carry out area little strange – destroying small in-game factories making low-value goods for the game world. But the truth is revealed – the characters they are killing are those belonging to young children working long hours for little pay, but just enough to help their families in the real third world in which they live. There are moral dilemmas to be resolved, and a stand to be stood.

Kathleen Ann Goonan. Sundiver Day.

A teenage girl is grief-stricken when her older brother is MIA in the Third Gulf War. To help her cope she explores the options in cloning her brother, one of which is for to carry the foetus herself, as she comes to terms with his loss amongst the Everglades. It’s a touching, heartfelt story.

Ian McDonald. The Dust Assassin.

MacDonald’s ‘River of Gods’ novel and the complementary short stories in the ‘Cyberabad’ sequence have been standouts for me in recent years, and here he gives full rein in a story that is a more of a full adult story than a YA story. It features a young woman in one of two families who own major water companies in India, whose family is wiped out by the other in one awful night. However, her future has been mapped out for her, with one of the neuters who feature in these stories, pulling the strings.

Alastair Reynolds. The Star Surgeon’s Apprentice.

Reynolds has been at the forefront in keeping the boundaries of SF pushed to the galactic limits, so no surprise that his story will appeal to those looking for Big Fuck Off spaceships, space pirates, damsels to be saved, and a youthful hero who has to overcome the odds. It’s more the kind of SF familiar to youngsters brought up on Alien, Predator, Alien v Predator, Star Trek and so forth.

Margo Lanagan. An Honest Day’s Work.

A story which creates some very vivid imagery – a coastal community become excited that something is being brought into port for them to dismantle. What is delivered is gigantic, a creature of some sort, perhaps human, and they are as Lilliputians clambering over a monstrous Gulliver, hacking at flesh, tendons, keen to tear off flesh and render fat. It is a coming of age day for one boy, who finds himself promoted to a position of seniority.

Greg Egan. Lost Continent.

Pretty much the only story in the issue with which I was disappointed. Egan does introduce the young SF reader to the idea of alternate/quantum Earths, through the story of a young boy ‘rescued’ from his time and place, under threat of ethnic cleansing, only to find himself in a transit camp, struggling to prove who he is in order to claim a place in the alternate Earth. Egan is doing laudable work on this issue in ‘real life’ but the story is perhaps a little too close to his heart to allow him to see it objectively as a story. Certainly for anyone getting into SF, this isn’t the best showcase for Egan.

Three teen boys on one of Saturn’s moons suspect a neighbour of being more than he seems. A bit of sleuthing confirms it, but they are getting into deeper trouble than they realise, leading to a life and death bit of heroics from the one with a more level-head on his shoulders.

Tricia Sullivan. Post-Ironic Stress Syndrome.

A teen girl being fostered is more than she seems, a young champion for the forces on one side of a galaxy spanning conflict. Her role is to fight in one-to-one combat, with the damage being inflicted in that fight being directly linked to damage taken by planets, civilians, and troops across the galaxy. Of the stories it is one that has perhaps the weakest central concept, but it does have a very strong central character which will appeal to the YA audience.

Garth Nix. Infestation.

SF vampires – perfect for the teen male readership I would guess. Certainly the kind of stuffy my 16-yr old has been reading for some time. We follow a vampire hunter, as he and some amateur hunters get rid of an infestation in and old building. The vampire hunter, a long-haired beardy bloke (initials JC), has been fighting this alien vampire infestation for a couple of millenia.

Walter Jon Williams. Pinocchio.

A strong take on some contemporary issues – the shallow celebrity culture, reality TV, fashion setting and so forth. Taken to the nth degree, the protagonist has taken the form (literally) of a gorilla, and his blogging/twittering is followed by large numbers. However, his ex has done the dirty on him, and he is in catchup mode as he attempts to regain his top dog status. The dark satire will doubtless be lost on some!

Conclusion.

Being a collection aimed at children/young adults, the bulk of the stories have teenage protagonists, which I guess is to be expected, although it slightly jars for the older reader, although that is offset for the more knowledgeable reader as the nods to the past masters in the stories are appreciated. The stories are almost without exception an excellent introduction to the genre, covering a wide spread and with something for most readers. If your kids are past the Harry Potter stage, then give them this hefty volume to help them take a step (or rather, a giant leap) in the right direction.

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

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