I will admit that I am enough of a pathetic die-hard fan that I got this anthology off the back of its inclusion of an Alastair Reynolds story; others in the contents page also grabbed my attention, of course, so it wasn’t a completely ridiculous buy. Since saying farewell to Last Short Story I have got interested in reading anthologies again – well, actually, I was never very interested in anthologies before LSS introduced them to me, and then a few years of that burnt me out. Anyway, I was dead keen about giving this one a go.
Unsurprisingly, but unfortunately, it’s quite a mixed bag. Let me go through the stories. (The short version: there are some good, and a couple of very good, stories; plus a whack of indifferent ones.)
Ian McDonald’s “A Smart Well-Mannered Uprising of the Dead” is a delightful take on how social media might interact with local culture in order to impact on the political arena. With the events of the last 18 months this isn’t a radical notion at all, but McDonald here imagines a company offering virtual space for the dead – spirit-houses created by the bereaved for the recently departed. And what’s a virtual space like that without forums, and interaction? It’s really just the next step for the departed themselves to take part in those discussions, and to be commenting on contemporary affairs. I really enjoyed the style of this story as well as the content, although it was a bit confusing to begin with; it jumps from posts written by the dead, to interviews with the website’s creator, to discussions between the relatives of the talking dead. And gradually a picture builds up of what is going on in this country (which I think is never named, but seems to neighbour Mali), and the impact of the dead speaking out. It’s a really great opening to the anthology.
On a completely different wavelength is “The Incredible Exploding Man,” by Dave Hutchinson. Rather than jumping around points of view, as with the McDonald, this story jumps around chronologically but centres on one main event: an accident at a Collider somewhere in the US, and its effects on the people in the room. There’s no black hole as some of the more hysterical media suggested when the LHC was turned on at CERN, but a more subtle impact on the physiology and very existence of the people. It’s fast-paced and features some nicely differentiated characters to bring out some of the ramifications of the event.
Paul di Filippo’s contribution, “Sweet Spots,” is similar to the McDonald in that it involves an individual having an impact on society, but different because it has nothing to do with social media: instead, here an adolescent boy discovers that he can see how to influence events by a word, a nudge, an appropriately directed foot… and of course, there are ramifications, some unforeseen. The story harks to some superhero ideas of great responsibility with great power, and it is interesting to watch Arp (the protagonist) come to certain conclusions himself. I can’t say I particularly liked Arp; he was too genuine an adolescent for that! But again it’s a well-paced story with a clever premise.
With Stephen Baxter’s “Rock Day,” the anthology goes rather melancholy, being about a boy and his dog and a world that is not quite right. Baxter draws out the boy’s curiosity and confusion gently and sympathetically, and although the scenario of the ‘Rock Day’ discussed seems too farfetched (I know, crazy thing to say about a science fiction anthology), the consequences fit all too well into a science fictional universe. All of the stories to this point have been recognisably set on Earth. Stephen Palmer takes us away from that – if not spatially then certainly temporally. “Eluna” imagines a society with what at first looks like a radically different way of doing things, which on closer inspection may not be as different as readers might like. It’s about individuality and curiosity, innovation and tradition and sacrifice. And machines.
Adam Roberts begins his story with a disaster, which might be seen as a bold move. But pretty much all of “Shall I Tell you the Problem with Time Travel?” is concerned with disasters of one sort or another, usually of the fairly significant variety, and it does indeed suggest a potential problem with time travel, which I can’t possibly even allude to here without spoiling what is quite nicely revealed as it progresses. Going forwards and then backwards in time as the story unfolds, this is a very enjoyable if quite horrifying little story about one of science fiction’s more beloved tropes. And taking as his inspiration the revolutionary Che Guevara, Lavie Tidhar imagines a world in which that soldier-cum-poet-cum-politician did not die when he did. There’s only one science fictional element to “The Lives and Deaths of Che Guevara,” and although it’s a crucial one the story could be read as a commentary on the politics of the last forty years or so just as much as science fiction. It ranges across numerous countries and contexts, using interviews and magazine excerpts to break up the plot, and is a quirky and entertaining piece.
Steve Rasnic Tem, in “At Play in the Fields,” offers one of the few stories involving non-human characters. He wonders what it would be like to wake up one day and discover that the world has not only been discovered by aliens, but that it’s also a whole lot later – in years – than when you went to sleep. This is a story about a man and an alien, but also about a man coming to terms with these sorts of profound changes through the mundane objects around him. It’s a quite tactile story, and one to make the reader wonder which of the objects around them might survive long into the future – and what this will say about us as individuals and as a culture. On the other hand, “Yestermorrow” by Richard Salter is concerned with time rather than objects; specifically, what it would be like to always wake up not knowing which part of your life today is, because you are living quite literally from day to day – one day waking up as a baby, the next at forty, but you don’t take that knowledge with you. Which of course means you know when, calendrically speaking, you will die. Certainly presents some interesting problems for the police.
Jaine Fenn’s story is one of exploration that initially seems like it could almost be straight out of Star Trek or StarGate SG1 – a gate to another world, can’t get back through, whatever will we do?! However it is saved from falling into tired tropes thanks to engaging characters and a nicely intriguing twist that suggests some rather interesting things about those characters. In style, it mixes up transmission reports with conventional third-person narrative.
There’s a suggestion of postcolonial ideas about “Eternity’s Children,” from Keith Brooke and Eric Brown. A world that is both a long-term killer of human visitors and the long-term ensurer of their longevity is visited by a representative of the company responsible for it; naturally things do not progress in a straightforward manner. It would have been possible for this story to follow the old idea of white-man-seduced-by-exotic-place, but I think it mostly avoids that by the awareness of the main character, Loftus, of what he is about, and his willingness to think beyond his task.
The penultimate story of the anthology is actually the one I read first and may or may not be the main reason I bought the anthology… “For the Ages,” by Alastair Reynolds, is a wonderful far-future story about the big things – the entirety of cosmology and leaving a message for the ages – and the small things – messy human relationships and just how messy they can get. The characters are finely drawn and utterly believable, the task preposterous and glorious and utterly fitting for the hubris of the human race. It’s easily my favourite story of the entire set.
In “The Best Science Fiction of the Year Three,” Ken Mcleod combines lack of interesting plot (editor searching for stories, French government launches a curious balloon) with lacklustre characters, resulting in a story that utterly fails to compel. The next story was also a disappointment, because although there is a potentially intriguing idea in “The One That Got Away” – ocean creatures are washing up onto the beach in vast quantities, and something might be found within their bodies – Tricia Sullivan does not provide enough political or historical background to explain what is being searched for or why. That could be forgiven if the characters were compelling enough that their quest was an end in itself, but sadly this is not the case.
Looking at a broken father-son relationship, Jack Skillingstead’s “Steel Lake” has both Too Much and Too Little: too much sentimentality, and too much wrong with the father for him to be at all approachable or sympathetic; too little overall point, either in plot or characterisation. Being overly sentimental also characterises “Mooncakes,” a collaboration between Mike Resnick and Laurie Tom. I like stories about spaceships heading out into the unknown and how people cope with the stress of leaving family, but this one left me cold. The ‘all cultures are precious’ line (which I agree with already) was hammered out without a care for subtlety – too much telling, not enough showing – and the family relationship depicted was boring and predictable.
Ian Watson’s “How We Came Back from Mars (A Story that Cannot be Told)” is (maybe) an alien contact story, with a team of explorer (maybe) on Mars managing to get back to Earth a whole lot faster than expected, who then have to deal with the ramifications of people not believing their story, made particularly problematic by the place they arrive back at. It’s an interesting enough premise, but the story tries too hard to be conspiratorial and suggestive without having the atmosphere or characters to pull it off. Sadly, Pat Cadigan’s “You Never Know” also failed to grab me – sad because I usually love Cadigan’s work, and because it means I disliked two out of the three works by women (the third, by Jaine Fenn, is discussed above). The atmosphere – a secondhand shop – and premise – the shop assistant and his experience with a new security system – are approachable and familiar-seeming. The denouement, however, left me confused and grasping for understanding, and not in a positive way.
Sadly, the last story of the anthology definitely falls into the ‘indifferent’ camp. When a writer writes about a writer, it’s hard for me at least not to wonder about the level of congruency going on. For Peter Hamilton’s sake, I hope there is no congruence between the writer in “Return of the Mutant Worms” and himself, because the thought of having an editor bring up an unpublished 21-year-old story and offer to publish it must be nightmarish to many successful authors. Anyway, this is ultimately a smug and unsatisfying little story that does little good for the memory of the anthology as a whole.
One last thing to mention: I found the author notes preceding each story generally a bit tawdry. They seemed to be trying for a mix of bibliography + interesting factoid, and did not often hit the right note; there was too much effort at sounding quirky for it to be genuinely appealing.