Year’s Best SF 4

The alternate history series continues though there are only two stories in this book that fits that description.

Hartwell’s series is the only one I followed fairly consistently apart from Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison’s Best SF series which was started me reading science fiction regularly.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF 4, ed. David G. Hartwell, 1999.years-best-sf-4

Market Report”, Alexander Jablokov — I like Jablokov, but I didn’t think this story was good enough to be included in this anthology (of course, I didn’t read all the sf short fiction published in 1998). Still, on skimming the story again after reading it, I appreciated it more. It has a wry humor about it with its portrayal of retired suburbanites hanging out in a planned community which they’re planning to restock with Pleistocene flora and fauna and the women have primitive rites in its jungles, and the narrator’s parents, members of that community, try to comprehend his job as a spotter of self-defined groups that need to be marketed to. At first glance, the story doesn’t seem to be about much apart from its near-future extrapolation of sociological-based marketing and Pleistocene hobbyists. But, with its plot of a man finding a home amongst parents he’s spent a lifetime trying to understand, to “catch” the meaning of their conversation and the same narrator getting over a failed marriage, I suspect Jablokov was trying to do a sf imitation of John Cheever or John Irving, writers, I believe, Jablokov has expressed an admiration for. However, not being sf writers, my exposure to them has been minimum.

A Dance to Strange Musics”, Gregory Benford — This is a brilliant, austere, unsentimental, humbling, Stapledonian, classic sf tale. Its classicism is that it’s pure hard sf, a detailed working out of a surprising ecosystem in our galactic backyard — the Alpha Centauri star system — and little emphasis on individual characters (though Benford does put in some wry bits about how scientists relate to one another). The plot progresses from one hard sf wonder to another. A vast, elevated lake is found on a planet in the star system. It seems to be formed in the remnants of a crater and literally floats kilometers above the surface, the power to do so coming from the piezoelectric forces generated by tidal stresses from the three suns in the system. The planetary system is covered by tile-like creatures who constantly move about, dancing to “strange music”. Eventually, it’s speculated that their movements (they, and the whole ecology of the planet, feed off electrical energy rather than chemical energy) represent some giant, planetary computer at work. A manned probe into the atmosphere finds, before the pilot dies, surprising levels of electrical power and a sort of memory in the system. The giant, floating lake turns out to be a giant laser system which periodically sends messages to other star systems. More die exploring the planet, learning that the tiles feed on electricity and exchange, in sophisticated protocols, data with each other, and that planet fires off messages into space not intended for man. The first expedition descends to the planet but not before they realize that the lifeforms on the planet are engineered, that the intelligent life there has either left for space or engineered themselves into the tiles. Another expedition is sent from an Earth where people live in the “disposable realities” of computer created environments. They meet odd, disconcerting facsimiles of the first expedition. The facsimiles are a disturbing group mind with facial expressions that flicker at precise intervals and who each speak separate words in their sentences while inviting man to join their Being Suite, their bodies precisely spaced in a hexagon. The humans are appalled by what they see and, out of fear, do not go to the surface. They don’t know if the first expedition was seduced or raped into becoming part of the Being Suite. The second to last paragraph has a classic passage about the unknowability of the universe, its forever closed community of sentience: “It is one thing to speak of embracing the new, the fresh, the strange. It is another to feel that one is an insect, crawling across a page of the Encyclopedia Britannica, knowing only that something vast is passing by beneath, all without your sensing more than a yawning vacancy. Worse, the lack was clearly in oneself, and was irredeemable.” A classic sf statement, a classic sf tale. Continue reading “Year’s Best SF 4”

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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