I loved the Manifold series when I first came across it. It was the first Stephen Baxter work I ever read and it hit all my buttons: space and aliens and science (ish) and outrageous ideas. The characters were fine and the pacing felt great.
I read those books many years ago. I decided to go back and read Space to check if it held up, and because I needed a not-too-taxing book. I was a bit trepidatious because I haven’t loved all the other Baxter books I’ve read – which isn’t all of them, because his really far out ones don’t appeal – but there’s sometimes been a lack of character development that annoys even me (not something I always notice), and just something that has felt… not ideal in terms of narrative.
The first thing to note is that I still loved this book, and I’ll probably go back and read the other ones now, too, although not immediately. I remembered very little aside from Reid and Nemoto existing; events felt familiar but it wasn’t like I knew what was going to happen on every page. I still enjoyed the outrageous science and the gleefully complex way of confronting Fermi’s paradox. The pacing did still feel fine – although the last chapter or so are a bit off, for my tastes.
The characters are, though, not the highlight. I remembered thinking that Reid Malenfant (terrible child!) was terribly arrogant, and that is definitely the case – and the book plays to that, too. To my surprise he does not play quite as enormous a role as I recalled – perhaps he’s more involved in one of the other two books, or maybe I’m utterly misremembering. But the other characters aren’t much developed, and some of them (hello Nemoto) very poorly served. In the latter case I think this is deliberate, because no one gets to know her and that’s part of her deal. With the others, though – Madeleine in particular – it was a bit frustrating, and her narrative ultimately unfulfilling.
For me, though, the characters are not a breaking point. I won’t read characters who make no sense or have zero development, but written as Baxter does in a narrative like this one, I’m happy enough to read along and I definitely enjoyed the ride.
This is an outrageous exploration of humanity’s potential movement out into the solar system, when confronted by an alien presence already here. It’s fun and a little silly in its ultimate ideas and occasionally confronting. Very enjoyable.
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.
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So. This book. When I heard that Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter were collaborating, I was beside myself. This is two of my great SF loves coming together. It’s Robert Plant and Jim Morrison jamming.
At the back of my mind was the reminder that I haven’t quite adored Baxter’s latest novels, and that Reynolds’ latest novels have been quite different from his early ones too. NONETHELESS. Plant and Morrison, folks.
I really liked it… but I didn’t love it. It feels… old fashioned.
The premise: building on Arthur C Clarke’s “A Meeting with Medusa,” Baxter and Reynolds take the main character, Howard Falcon, who is a cyborg due to a serious crash years before, and extend him way into the future. This is a future where humanity is incredibly suspicious of machines and artificial intelligence, and Falcon – being the incredibly weird hybrid that he is – is often at the receiving end of that suspicion. But it also means that he’s useful as a mediator when humanity’s machines start developing consciousness, which means he’s there at the birth of that intelligence, which means he continues to be useful as an intermediary. This becomes the story of Falcon’s life, and thus the story of The Medusa Chronicles.
I did like it because I like thinking about humanity in the solar system and how that might work (this is another one where there’s looming interplanetary conflict, so apparently that’s unavoidable). I liked the whimsical attachment to the notion of ballooning as inspiration for astronauts and Jovian exploration. And I also like stories of the development of artificial intelligence and the consequences of that for humanity, although I did feel like that wasn’t explored enough here.
The novel feels a bit old-fashioned because I can’t quite fathom humanity being suspicious of machines. I assume this reflects the novels and other media I’ve been consuming – I mean yes, be suspicious, but surely only after they’ve shown that they want to kill us and use our bodies as compost? There’s also a significant level of info-dumping, which isn’t always a problem for me but can be a barrier, I know, for others. And, too, there’s a lack of significant character development. The reader gets to know Falcon almost by default, as our point of view, but most of the others – like Hope Dhoni, Falcon’s medical expert for much of his incredibly prolonged life – are almost faceless, ciphers.
There are some lovely moments and a few odd moments in the novel. The odd moments are especially where Falcon makes reference to old literature or films and wonders if anyone will get the reference – for example, to Tolkien – and yet Project Silenus is thus named because of Euripides, and in explaining the naming he doesn’t have to explain who Euripides is. I’m unconvinced about the longevity of Euripides over Tolkien (we’re talking centuries here), although I guess Euripides does have form. Some of the lovely moments are in the alternate history of NASA and thus humanity in space that Baxter and Reynolds present. Here, the threat of an asteroid completely changes the direction of the Apollo programme and has consequences for humanity going to Mars and beyond; the authors reference real astronauts, like Frank Borman and Charlie Duke, but give them a slightly different career path (and there’s no reference to ‘any similarity to real people is purely coincidental’ or however the line runs, in the fine print).
Overall this is a pretty good science fiction novel, but it’s not one of my favourites for the year.
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?
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.
I got to read a review copy of Godlike Machines a while back, and fell totally in love with it. It’s finally, finally, been published, so I get to talk about it!!
I am so in love with Big Dumb Objects. And Small Dumb Objects. And grand, time-spanning, galaxy-sweeping space opera. Godlike Machines was, basically, written for me.
The opening story is “Troika,” by Alastair Reynolds. Told be a cosmonaut to an old woman, Nesha, it details humanity’s reaction to an astonishing object appearing in our solar system – the Matryoshka. Reynolds has delicate character development, gripping plot development, and an all-too-real visualisation of near-future Earth. This story made me sigh with pure pleasure. A novella, it could easily be a full-length novel; in some ways it reminded me of Clarke’s Rama sequence. I have nothing bad to say about the characters, or the narration, or the climax. This one goes straight to the pool room of All Time Favourites.
Stephen Baxter’s “Return to Titan” was perhaps not as infatuation-producing as I have not yet read any of the Xeelee sequence; but it’s still a good yarn, about going to Titan – obviously; the reasons for doing that and the weird things the explorers discover. The characters were intriguing, and not very likable overall.
Cory Doctorow’s “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” seemed a bit aimless, after the first two which have such strong, driving, and relentless plots; still the characterisation is a marvel, and some of the ideas are breath-taking.
Having recently read “A Map of the Mines of Barnath,” I was immensely pleased to read “A Glimpse of the Marvelous Structure” by Sean Williams. This one goes up alongside “Troika,” for my money; the characters are drawn sparsely but believably; the plot unfolds gently, relentlessly, and suprisingly; and – and – I just loved it!
How can you make a story about a BDO sad and poignant?? Robert Reed manages it in “Alone,” but I’m still a bit bemused. This is another story going straight to my favourites list… a machine on an enormous ship, alone for enormous swathes of time: would it want to know its provenance? Is it possible to be self-contained to such an extreme, for any sentient? *sigh* it’s just wonderful.
And finally, Greg Egan’s “Hot Rock” is yet another take on what exactly a godlike machine could be. In this case, it’s a planet. Explorers from two different worlds come together to a wandering planet, which – despite having no sun – still manages to be balmy and atmospheric. Once again interacting with aliens is the theme of the day; managing your own prejudices and expectations, and figuring out how to make the best of a situation for everyone involved. In this case, it was the action that pulled me along; the characters are interesting enough, but not quite at the same level as Alone or Reynolds’ cosmonaut.
Basically, this anthology has ruined me for space opera for a while. It will be hard for anyone else to compete.
As escape and for comfort, I pulled Stephen Baxter’s Space off the shelf on the weekend. Gosh it’s good. I’ve always liked scifi, but I think he’s the one who really got me into hard scifi – credit him with my appreciation of Alastair Reynolds, I think. I really must find my copy of Time, the first one written in the Manifold series – someone out there has it – or maybe I should just deal with it and buy another copy. I feel a bit bereft without it.