This book was sent to me by the editor, at no cost.
I have loved the Infinity series so far. I like that the focus is on science fiction, that it’s often a focus on the engineering side of the future but that that doesn’t preclude fascinating characters and intriguing worlds. I am consistently impressed by the variety of worlds presented and the writing talent included.
The anthology opens with a series of stories focused on the solar system. Alastair Reynolds gives us a problem with the sun where the narrative jumps tantalisingly between now and later, while Pat Cadigan provides what might be a prequel story for her “The Girl-Thing who went out for Sushi” in a story set on Earth but focused on colonising near Jupiter. Stephen Baxter goes to Venus with a sweeping story about human hubris and the problem of families. Charlie Jane Anders totally mocks the whole idea of going to space in a hilarious story of being, like, an adolescent in space? Tobias S Buckell and Karen Lord also take the long view, temporally speaking, about what it might mean to undertake engineering projects within the asteroid belt and elsewhere, given the distances (and therefore time) involved. Plus Calypso.
Naturally, there are some stories in the anthology that confront climate change – it’s understandably becoming a go-to theme. Cadigan’s story references the issues in passing; stories by Pamela Sargent, and Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty, suggest possible ways of dealing with the problem – the latter is one of my favourites, being both optimistic and pessimistic, and largely set in the Arctic. Ken Liu writes over an extremely long period of time in posing the idea that the coming of the singularity might solve climate change in a rather radical manner. And Thoraiya Dyer posits a rather intriguing solution to the loss of island real estate while also dealing with the problems of family.
There are also several stories with extra-solar settings. Kristine Kathryn Rusch combines desert urban planning on alien planets with a devastating mystery to great effect; Robert Reed writes a Great Ship story about how the materials you use (and the tools) can impact on the thing you’re making. Allen M Steele’s story sounds like it might be from a pre-existing set of stories, like the Great Ship suite, in that it’s focused on a group of wanderers in what is effectively a Dyson sphere called Hex. It’s less focused on the engineering and more focused on human exploration of alien tech.
A few stories didn’t especially work for me. Karin Lowachee’s story of a contractor alone on a supply depot installation didn’t have enough character development for me to get my teeth into, while Gregory Benford and Larry Niven made my teeth ache with their extra-heavy serves of techno speak and missing out on character or plot. An Owomoyela’s narrative didn’t quite seem to go anywhere… which given the narrative itself is kind of funny, but it still didn’t work for me.
Highly recommending this anthology for lovers of science fiction.
On the Edge of Infinity
Edge of Infinity is not especially concerned about Earth, but it cares deeply about humanity. It’s not blindly optimistic, but neither is it depressingly morbid. It cares about the little things and the big, it’s got romance and death, and lots and lots of adventure, set within our solar system but not on Earth. Also, space ships.
Pat Cadigan opens the anthology and immediately throws the reader into the position of deciding whether they can hack the displacement. “Nine decs into her second hitch, Fry hit a berg in the Main ring and broke her leg.” This, accompanied by the story’s title – “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi” – is a very clear sign that Here Be Science Fiction; the sort of science fiction that requires the reader to do a bit of work, while trusting in the author that these things really will make sense. And, of course, they do; Cadigan is a marvellous writer who mixes the very weird with the quite familiar, and gently leads the reader to understanding where she’s going with her story. The unfamiliar language is used partly to warn the reader that this is not a situation they can just take for granted, but also because it’s entirely appropriate that language would change out there around the moons of Jupiter – perhaps especially, as in this case, when those living in an alien-to-humanity environment have themselves changed from the human standard, at least morphologically. Cadigan also makes some interesting points about how being “two-steppers” has impacted on humanity’s ways of thinking, especially with regard to binary decision making. At heart, this story is about choice: an individual’s freedom to make choices about their body and their livelihood and where they live. Just suggested in the background is also a broader discussion about political choice, too, with shades of James SA Corey’s Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War, about the place of Jupiter in the solar system. It’s a fitting opening to the anthology, flagging as it does many of the issues that resonate across the set.
Elizabeth Bear’s”The Deeps of the Sky,” which comes next, is the only story that focusses on aliens. Here again though the focus is on choice; Stormchases and his skiff have been out mining a storm for trace elements such as iron when a curious object appears in the sky, and he has to decide what to do about it. The plot is thus quite straightforward, but it’s the world building that makes this story an interesting one. As mentioned, it focusses on an alien society – probably living in Jupiter – and aside from the alien biology, the aspect Bear gives most attention is that of reproduction. Who gets to reproduce and with whom, and at what cost (…literally) is absorbing Stormchases, and therefore the narrative. And it is indeed different enough to cast a rather fascinating light on humanity’s own tendencies in those realms.
Bringing the anthology back closer to home (… again, literally) is James SA Corey’s “Drive”, a story that unfolds along two different temporal tracks: in one, Solomon has just taken off from Mars in his souped-up space craft; the other follows Solomon from his first encounter with Caitlin and their subsequent relationship. Like Cadigan, Corey envisages a solar system that is as uneasy with differentials in political power as it is with access to, and production of, resources. This provides much more of the narrative tension for Corey than it did for Cadigan; Earth’s attitude to Mars has an immediate impact on Solomon and his life. I’m excited to see stories like this one, despite its melancholy tone, because it puts the idea of colonising Mars squarely back into the realm of the possible, at least from an SF perspective. There’s no suggestion that it will be easy – quite the contrary – but at least humanity is there, reaching beyond our own troposphere. Somehow the idea of being out on Europa or Titan isn’t quite the same, even though the colonisation of Mars is generally a prerequisite of that further expansion.
Sandra McDonald and Stephen D Covey deliver “The Road to NPS,” similar to “Drive” in that it focusses on the issue of transportation – bringing to mind Samuel Delaney’s Nova, and the suggestion that once a civilisation expand beyond the solar system, transportation becomes the most important issue. For Rahiti, this presents a challenge he cannot leave alone – despite the threat, and very real danger, inherent in doing so. Rahiti is one of few antagonists of this anthology that I did not particularly connect to. I think this is partly because his motivation seemed to be entirely commercial – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it simply did not work for me. And he just didn’t seem like that nice a guy, overall.
The first AIs turn up in John Barnes’ “Swift as a Dream and Fleeting as a Sigh,” where, intriguingly, AIs are therapists. For humans. Which is about the most unlikely role I’ve ever read them in. This is one of the most complex stories of the anthology, narratively speaking. The “I” is the AI, and the narrative follows multiple threads. First, and appearing sporadically throughout, is the narrator’s own musings on its own capabilities – specifically the difference in subjective time that it and its human interlocutors experience. It draws a comparison for one of the humans: that “the ratio of [its] cycles of information processing per second to theirs is about the same as theirs to an oak.” In response to which, very sensibly, the human (eventually) asks what an oak would think about… which doesn’t seem to be the point, but perhaps from the AI’s point it is. Anyway, the story is a fascinating glimpse into what that sort of processing power might do (brain the size of a planet, and so on). The rest of the narrative involves the AI musing on its interactions with two humans it has counselled. Laura and Tyward see the AI for different reasons – Laura because of Ty, Ty because of an ant (a mechanical one). Their relationship, shown through the AI’s interactions with them as individuals, is poignant and realistic, even though I think the conclusion is a bit of a stretch. Finally, I’d like to point out how hard it was to write this without referring to the AI as ‘he’. I think this was because its character came across so strongly, and as humanly flawed rather than a remote perfect artefact, that it seemed wrong for it to be genderless. As for ‘he’ – well, yes. Aren’t all robots male? (sigh)
Paul McAuley’s “Macy Minnot’s Last Christmas on Dione, Ring Racing, Fiddler’s Green, the Potter’s Garden” wins for longest title. It, as a title, also covers the most important things that Mai Kumal learns about when she travels to Dione, one of Saturn’s moons, on the occasion of her father’s death there. Overall this is a less a narrative, really, than a rumination on what humanity might do Out There, so far away from the safe little blue ball. Colonisation; extreme adventure sports; secretive colonisation; and outrageous, lavish works of art. This is definitely one of the more overtly optimistic pieces of the anthology. While it’s a bit sad that Mai and her father were estranged, this is set against a glorious back drop of humanity’s potential, both in terms of relationships and Grand Achievements. And I think it’s a wonderful dream, for that.
Taking quite a different tack, one of the narratively most straightforward stories is “Safety Tests.” Here, Kristine Kathryn Rusch takes a very normal, albeit still dangerous and necessary aspect of humanity + machinery – the idea of needing a licence – and explores it. In space. Using spaceships. Around an inhabited space station. Over the course of a single day, Devlin must deal with six quite different applicants for public piloting licences. Things progress from there about as Devlin appears to expect every day to progress. That is, poorly. There’s not much extra world building built into this story, but it’s the sort of situation one can imagine fitting into most any space-faring story (imagine Ellen Ripley or Han Solo going for their licences. I dare you).
“Bricks, Sticks, Straw” is my favourite story of all, so thank you very much Gwyneth Jones. Set very briefly on Earth, the focus is on four Remote Presence devices, operated by humans on Earth but physically located on the four Galilean moons of Jupiter. Thanks to a solar storm, the link to those devices is severed, but the software agents… well. They continue to exist, and to operate, if in rather different ways from what their designers and operators would recognise. These manifestations are wonderfully thought out – how such software, designed to be intelligent and run programmes, might react to apparently being abandoned by their makers, and how they might interact after that happens. (It does make me wonder somewhat about the poor old Mars landers and rovers….) Sophie, on Callisto, is the focus of the story: she is both an array collecting data of the Jovian system; and a memory, or a remnant, or an avatar of the Sophie back on Earth. Of the four devices, she is the only one who both accepts this reality and thinks that getting back in touch with Earth is actually important. So this is the only story that does not imagine humanity having literally spread out through the solar system – yet, anyway; it’s also the story that feels temporally closest to Now. Sophie is delightfully engaging, and her concerns entirely realistic (within the bounds of the story, naturally).
Following a theme of Hannu Rajaniemi work in Jonathan Strahan anthologies (… that would be two from two, so maybe not a theme yet; the other one was “The Server and the Dragon,” in Engineering Infinity), “Tyche and the Ants” is the most magical-seeming of these stories, while – as the reader suspects throughout and has confirmed by the ending – having a very solid science fictional basis to everything; it’s the perception that lends the magic, not the action. It also comes close to the Jones story as being my favourite. Tyche lives on the moon, dividing her time between the Base, where she’s meant to stay, with only the Brain for company; and the place through the Secret Door, where waits the Magician and various other creatures. Her seemingly happy life is, however, disturbed the day the ants come to the moon. On one level this can be read as a poignant almost-fairytale; it’s sweet, if combined with some rather sad moments because of Tyche’s confusion. However, Rajaniemi does that wonderful thing of suggesting an enormous background to the story, without ever overwhelming the immediate story – and I now really want a novel set in this universe. Please. Because there are all sorts of ideas about humanity that are suggested at but not fully developed.
The main narrative thread of most of these stories so far (the Barnes is perhaps the exception) has encompassed a relatively short timeframe. Not so Stephen Baxter’s “Obelisk.” Beginning with the arrival of Wei Binglin on Mars, as he pilots the Sunflower in after a very difficult voyage, the story follows the next several decades of Binglin’s life as he adapts to Mars, deals with the brash American Bill Kendrick, and both watches Mars develop and assists in that happening. Binglin is an interesting character through which to explore this; he feels a great deal of guilt concerning the Sunflower, and he’s unconvinced, early on, about living planetside. His growth as a character works overall, and I can absolutely agree with how Baxter imagines Mars bootstrapping itself. And the fact that he imagines it as a largely Chinese endeavour is certainly believable, although there’s not a whole lot of Chinese-specific culture to be seen. However, I was troubled by the way Baxter dealt with Xue Ling, Binglin’s adopted daughter. The role she plays seems largely superfluous; certainly the apparent pull she exerts on both Binglin and Kendrick is not required to get them to do what they do. Rather she sometimes seems like an excuse. Her actions at the conclusion of the story were especially problematic, seeming not to fit in at all and feeling instead like gratuitous sentimentality on Baxter’s part, or as if there needed to be some big dramatic Thing to impart some sense of occasion to the story. It was unneeded and I think actually undercut the rest of the story.
Alastair Reynolds’ “Vainglory” is another story that uses two temporal tracks. In the first, Loti Hung is confronted by Vanya Ingvar, and asked some uncomfortable questions about her interactions with a certain Skanda Abrud; while the second is essentially Loti remembering exactly that interaction. While many of the central characters throughout this anthology have been engineer or science-y types (although not all, Tyche in Rajaniemi’s story and Mai is McAuley’s especially), Loti is quite different: she’s an artist. Specifically, a rock artist – someone who carves rock on a massive scale – we’re talking asteroids here. And I love the very idea of a science fiction story that focusses on the possibilities for art in the future, in these far-out locations humanity may find itself in (McAuley does a similar thing). The story is about one of Loti’s commissions, and it not turning out to be quite what she thought; and Ingvar investigating just exactly went on with it. The interaction between the two women is understated and believable, as is that between Loti and Skanda. Again, this quite personal story is set against a much larger backdrop of solar system colonisation, the arrogance of wealth, and questions of justice.
While transportation may be one of the major issues of solar system colonisation, as shown in “Drive” and ” The Road to NPS,” solar system habitation is going to be greatly impacted by something that already affects large swathes of Earth: access to water. In “Water Rights,” by An Owomoyela, this issue is front and centre after an explosion interrupts the water supply for many of the near-Earth colonies. This is of immediate interest to Jordan Owole because, as the owner of an orbiting hydroponics outfit – which naturally has a large reservoir – she’s now become of great interest both to the authorities and to independent orbiting homesteaders. Which is an uncomfortable position to be in, to say the least. While this sounds potentially depressing, Owomoyela pulls a beautiful turn at the end which nearly brought tears to my eyes, and makes it amongst the more obviously optimistic of the anthology.
The ultimate story in this set is from Bruce Sterling, and a weird one it is. “The Peak of Eternal Light” is set on Mercury – a Mercury with incredibly restrictive and quite bizarre gender restrictions, especially when it comes to marriage. There were moments when I, as a woman, found reading this story actively unpleasant; while Sterling may not (probably does not) accept the ideas presented here as worthy, and does indeed go on to critique them to some extent, it was still not an enjoyable experience. There are a number of instances where he veers very close to existing stereotypes that, in a futuristic setting – even with outre accoutrements intended to suggest perhaps that this is new and weird – were depressing to imagine continuing beyond the confines of Earth. Marriages are entirely arranged and intended to be endured, nothing more; couples spend time with one another in strictly regimented ways, and the women appear to live in the equivalent of a harem. The central couple, who refer to each other as Mr and Mrs Peretz, do begin to question some of the limitations placed on them; and I did enjoy the idea that the bicycle, which was indeed a revolutionary form of transportation in its time for women, would find a new lease on life on Mercury. This questioning, though, did not compensate for the overall image of life on that planet. I do not want Sterling’s vision of the future.
Overall, this is an awfully good anthology. And it’s very exciting indeed to read an anthology entirely dedicated to science fiction, and science fiction of what might be called the medium term future; not the immediate collapse of Earth’s ecosystem, nor the humans-spanning-the-galaxy stories (which I do adore, I’ll be honest). It’s an anthology that spans ideas, planets, concepts, personalities and the future of humanity. What’s not to like?
Tea from an Empty Cup: a cyberpunk review
When I read Trouble and Her Friends, I was forcibly reminded of what Helen Merrick says about it in The Secret Feminist Cabal (while thinking for a moment that it was my own brilliant insight), something along the lines that women made cyberpunk very much about bodies (sorry, Helen, for badly paraphrasing). Cadigan does a similar thing here. The focus is almost entirely on the issue of bodies: who inhabits them and how much physical reality is in artificial reality and to what extent bodies – artificial and physical – are our identities… and all sorts of fun things.
The story revolves around two very different women who go into Artificial Reality looking for answers: one to find someone gone missing, the other to find clues (she hopes) about a murder. Neither is experienced in AR, but other than that they are quite different. We learn very little about Yuki – not her job, not her overall circumstances in the world, just that she is “full Japanese” and that she values Tom Iguchi highly enough to seek out the probably dangerous person who might be able to point her towards him. Konstantin, on the other hand, is a slightly more open book. She has recently broken up with her partner; she’s a cop; and she possesses a remarkable bloody-minded determination that will either see her crack cases or get her skull cracked for her. Having the two main characters as women is (was), it occurs to me, probably not that common in cyberpunk literature – and having the two be so different, with quite different aims, worked nicely. Of course, in AR one’s physical gender, and body, and identity, are quite irrelevant – something that the protagonists have a bit of trouble with but that others are at pains to point out. Out there is not in here and can have little or no bearing depending on each individual’s preferences. And, much like Doctor Who and House are both at pains to point out, people lie. In AR, it’s quite likely that everyone is lying all the time. And when you’re trying to find a person or trying to find clues, that’s not particularly useful.
The AR that both Konstantin and Yuki interact with is a… simulation, I guess, of post-Apocalyptic Noo Yawk Sitty (yes really).* Interacting with it and other AR users requires a complex understanding of mores and manners, and it’s very easy to be shown up as a virgin and either mocked or turned into prey. It’s not a very nice place, as experienced by Yuki and Konstantin, and certainly suggests that Cadigan imagines AR being used for the sort of entertainments and identity-experimentation that would be frowned on, considered morally dubious, or actually legislated against in reality. It’s hinted that AR has other uses in this world, but they’re not fleshed out in the slightest. It is therefore quite an unpleasant little world Cadigan introduces the reader to, and suggests that she is pessimistic about the uses humanity would put AR to. Given the amount of porn on the internet, perhaps she has a point.
Finally, any novel that manages to get away with having an avatar called Body Sativa is pretty awesome as far as I’m concerned.
* Interestingly, the novel is so utterly concentrated about the experiences within AR that although maybe a quarter of the novel takes place in real-reality, I have no idea in which city (I’m presuming America thanks to references to DC); I also have little idea what is going on in the rest of the world, with the exception of something terribly having overcome Japan. I have a much clearer understanding of how life, or society, works in the Sitty than in Konstantin’s actual city. (And frequent ARers would undoubtedly dispute most of the adjectives in that society.)
Change for the Machine
I’d kinda forgotten how much I love good cyberpunk until I read this and Trouble and her Friends. Turns out I really really like it.
Interestingly, in many ways this feels like a prequel to much of the cyberpunk I’ve read. The main contention is the invention of putting sockets into people’s heads to allow them to experience and manipulate the datelines (read: internet) more directly… the result of which, or something similar, is what Gibson and Scott and their friends are basically examining. So from a ‘getting started’ perspective I found this book really awesome, and in lots of other ways too.
Cadigan takes the ‘cast of thousands’ approach, using multiple perspectives (although always in third person) to show lots of different dimensions and angles to the story. There were times at which this was a bit confusing, but on reflection I wonder if this wasn’t done intentionally. There were quite a few chapters which shifted perspective where the new character could have been one of several, and it’s only revealed whose story we’re reading after a page or so. This contributed to the fairly frenetic feel that the entire book indulges in, which is largely appropriate given the madness that ensues in the second half of the story. It’s also very nice because the variety of characters and their individual stories give wonderful perspective and insight into different aspects of the story. Which I liked.
The world Cadigan has created is simultaneously a bit dated – it was published in 1991 – but, once some of the terms are translated, also quite recognisable. She talks of datalines and how people get their news; that’s basically souped-up data retrieval services and massively hyped up RSS readers that do the work for you. And then they use the sockets initially to rev up rock music videos, which is just such an hysterically funny idea that the sheer bizarreness just carried me away giggling and happily belief-suspended. Also, there’s a lot of drug use. Which is perhaps neither here nor there, but also certainly adds to the manicness.
The plot revolves around the introduction of sockets and what that might mean for society, with a whole lot of corporate hijinkery and espionage and hackery as well. There’s a father/daughter relationship that pops up every now and then – not something you see every day in this sort of futuristic novel – as well as, somewhat surprisingly when you see the characters, a love story that’s not very romantic in one way, but actually really is sweet in a fierce I’ll-deck-you sort of way. Plus a load of bizarre and whacked friendships and enmities that go a long way towards populating this world with dysfunctional but quite entertaining characters.
This was my first Cadigan novel. I’ll be coming back for more. (In fact I have Tea from an Empty Cup sitting on my shelf….)