The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume 2

You get this retro review, from April 9, 2009, for the usual reasons: I’m off working on new material.

Review: The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume 2, ed. George Mann, 2008.Solaris Book 2

George Mann’s Solaris anthology series is one of several recent attempts to revive market for original, unthemed anthologies. I don’t know about the quality of the other series or even the first volume of this one, but, based on this installment, I hope Mann’s series continues. None of the stories are bad or boring. All, with one possible exception, are truly science fiction, and three stories are noteworthy.

Extrapolate the instant feedback of popularity polls, add “sensate matter” which can be reprogrammed to assume any configuration, and you have the sport of “competitive urban planning” which is the subject of Paul Di Filippo’s humorous “iCity“. The hero of Kay Kenyon’s “The Space Crawl Blues” is facing, like many a science fiction protagonist before him, technological obsolescence. Personal teleportation is on the brink of rendering starship pilots like him unnecessary. Teleportation converts the body to mere information, but whom do you trust to edit that information and based on what criteria?

Chris Roberson’s “Line of Dichotomy” is part of his alternate history imagining the past and present dominated by the empires of Mexica and the Middle Kingdom. Here their struggle comes to Fire Star, our Mars. It’s a classic story of a group desperately fleeing pursuit across hostile terrain. The unresolved ending tries too hard for something else, but, apart from that, the story was enjoyable. Robert Reed’s “Fifty Dinosaurs” really only has three dinosaurs, some giant microbes, and one human. Their response to their peculiar origin has a charming, surreal quality to it.

Many of these stories mix humor and action. More on the humor side are two installments in Neal Asher’s Mason’s Rats series. Here the English farmer and the intelligent, tool-using rats on his farm have to battle pushy salesmen and bureaucrats in “Mason’s Rats: Black Rat” and “Mason’s Rats: Autotractor“. The “Evil Robot Monkey” of Mary Robinette Kowal resents his freak status as neither monkey nor human and just wants to be left to his pottery. Martial arts, a giant mech fighting machine, a classic western plot, and a wry take on fathers, sons, and their expectations of each other make up Dominic Green’s “Shining Armor“. I’m not a fan of Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius series, but I did like the latest installment, “Modem Times“. Maybe it caught me in the right mood or maybe I’ve just read enough to know what to expect – and what I’m not going to get – from this incarnation of the Eternal Champion. If you like the Cornelius series, you’ll probably enjoy Jerry’s quest for the lost spirit of the 60s even more than I did.

Slick and pleasant enough and not overstaying their welcome – but not sticking in the mind either – are Brenda Cooper’s “Blood Bonds” about twins, one still living a normal life in the flesh and the other paralyzed and only living in a virtual reality, getting embroiled in a rebellion of artificial intelligences. Eric Brown’s “Sunworld” is a rather standard tale of a young man in a medieval-like setting, complete with a theocracy, being initiated in a startling truth. The nature of that truth is somewhat interesting but not really that exceptional.

Karl Schroeder’s “Book, Theatre, and Wheel” is the one oddity of the book. Arguably, it’s not even science fiction. Set in Italy shortly after the Black Death, its hero, accompanying a member of the Inquisition, investigates a merchant woman with uncanny business success and some possibly subversive social ideas. The story revolves around a real idea, Cicero’s Theatre of the Memory, though Schroeder, I think, extrapolates an improbable degree of efficacy for it. Still there is a science fictional air about the story, indeed it rather reminded me of some Robert Anton Wilson, with talk of using Cicero’s memory training to reinvent ourselves and civilization.

Peter Watts’ “The Eye of God” is one of the anthology’s highlights. Set in a near future of ever more sophisticated brain scanning and hacking via electromagnetic radiation, it’s narrator, on the way to the funeral of a possibly pedophilic priest, contemplates the dark desires of his own mind – and how they will soon be revealed to all.

The other exceptional stories of the book, David Louis Edelman’s “Mathralon” and David Abnett’s “Point of No Contact“, both take two old science fiction cliches and use them to clever effect in stories that break rules of fiction. The first has something to say about economic forces becoming as mysterious and inhuman as natural forces with its account of the trade activity around the fictional element mathralon. Abnett’s tale is about the startling insignificance of alien contact.

 

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