Year’s Best SF 6

And the Norman Spinrad series concludes.

I’ve read his collection The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde and the novel Bug Jack Barron, but I made no notes on them. The notes I did make on his novellas “Journal of the Plague Years” and “Riding the Torch” really aren’t very useful even by the standards of my Raw Feeds.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF 6, David G. Hartwell, 2001.years-best-sf-6

“Introduction”, David G. Hartwell — A bit more information than Hartwell usually gives in the introductions to this series. He talks about the importance of the Scottish and English sf magazines and important new, non-English language, sf writers emerging.

Reef“, Paul J. McAuley — This story had most of what you need for an entertaining sf story: interesting scientific speculation, adventure, and interesting social speculations. The science part was provided by an experiment in trying, through accelerated evolution, to develop lifeforms which live in the vacuum of deep space. The wreck of an old research facility is infested with those lifeforms which have developed, through a parasitic intermediary, a clumsy but effective means of sexual reproduction which has greatly facilitated adaptive radiation. The interesting social speculations comes with a typical asteroid society, supposedly resembling an old Greek city-state, in which the citizen shareholders live in luxury while the real work is done by poorly paid maintenance workers and scientific contractors, both of whom are played off against each other in competition for better wages and living conditions. (The citizens manipulate the money supply and conduct massive surveillance, amongst other things.) The adventure comes in when scientific contractor Margaret Henderson Wu tried to penetrate to the depths of the titular reef in space, the fissure in the Enki habitat where the vacuum organisms have evolved to their highest state. Wu is not only, by the standards of her time, an ugly and sickly woman, not being genetically engineered and born on Earth, but the child of disgraced parents who fell from citizenship status when they, as environmental engineers, allowed an alien fungus to destroy the ecosystem of a space habitat. (McAuley, in passing, does a nice job outlining some of the complexities of designing artificial ecosystems for space habitats.) Her insistence of exploring the reefs depths cause her to not only run afoul of the ambitious geneticist Opie Kindred, who wants to become a citizen by sucking up to the ruling elite of the habitat Ganapati, but also Dzu Sho, head of the habitat, who seems to think that the lifeforms of the reef might break the monopoly habitats like Ganapati have in supplying the carbon necessary to plant colonies on the planetoids of the Kuiper Belt. Wu is successful at the end, but the only complaint I have at the end is that McAuley should have provided an more precise economic explanation as to how the lifeforms of the reef enabled a revolution against social setups like Ganapati.  (Oct. 20, 2001)

Reality Check“, David Brin — Hartwell’s introductory notes claim this story, one of several sf stories the science journal Nature commissioned for 2000, is a humorous tale. I saw little evidence of that. I also found it a bit obscure. It’s premise, if I’m reading it right, is rather clever — addressing the reader directly as a citizen inhabiting a vast computer simulation of the Transition Era which is to say a simulation of our 20th Century, that time of drama and myth where the future — and cataclysmic failure — and much else seemed possible. A time much different that The Wasteland of Reality Prime Level, that is a world of plenty and longevity and access to all knowledge and also a world of boredom where the possibilities have been mined for life’s purpose. It’s an interesting notion, and it’s thematic relationship to the film The Matrix makes me wonder if Brin intended this story has some rejoinder or playful reinterpretation of it. Brin also postulates that the vast retreat into colorful simulations of the past is the reason behind Fermi’s Paradox —  other alien races have felt into the same decadent trap. That answer for Fermi’s Paradox may be new, but the idea of man decadently retreating into a virtual reality playground has shown up elsewhere: Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, James Gunn’s The Joy Makers, and, to a certain extent, Charles Platt’s The Silicion Man. The story’s narrator challenges the reader to wake from his dream. The story’s last four sentences do have some wry significance from being printed in the context of a scientific journal: “Go back to your dream. Smile over this tale, then turn the page to new ‘discoveries.’ Move on with the drama, this life you chose. After all, it’s only make-believe.” Continue reading “Year’s Best SF 6”

The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume 3

The outside project has been sent off to an editor, so the new reviews should be more frequent. There’s certainly a backlog of titles I’ve read.

For now, though, you get another retro review.

This one is from May 6, 2010.

Review: The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume 3, ed. George Mann, 2009.Solaris Book of New Science Fiction

The third and final in this artistically, if perhaps not commercially, successful series doesn’t disappoint. There are no truly bad stories, just a few that didn’t do much for me. Most I found good and one truly memorable. Mann lives up to his writ of widely varied stories that diverge from near future dystopianism.

Curiously, many of the stories seem twinned, thematically or in images or feel, with other stories. The “gothic suspense” of John Meaney’s “Necroflux Day” with its story of family secrets in a world where fuel and information are stored in bones is also conveyed, better, in the gothic “A Soul Stitched in Iron” by Tim Akers. The latter story has an aristocrat, fallen on hard times, tracking down a putative murderer that’s upsetting a crime lord’s plans. That murderer happens to be an old friend of the protagonist, and the killer’s motives involve subterranean secrets that underlie the status of a noveau riche clan. Meaney’s story didn’t do much for me. Akers interests me enough to that I’m going to seek out his Heart of Veridon set in the same city.

Alastair Reynolds’ “The Fixation” and Paul Cornell’s “One of Our Bastards Is Missing” are both, loosely defined, alternate history. Reynolds’ story has a scientist restoring the Mechanism, very much like our Antikythera Mechanism – an ancient clockwork computer. In her world, while the Romans found no practical use for the Mechanism, the Persians did and founded the predominant power of the world. However, other universes are also interested in their versions of the Mechanism and prepared to vampirically leach its information structure from other universes to facilitate a complete restoration. The central idea is interesting, but the alternate history speculation is at a bare minimum. Not even really alternate history but an annoying, distracting mélange of medieval European, Renaissance, and 19th century politics, Cornell’s story features personal teleportation, so called “Impossible Grace”, that binds the solar system together and greatly complicates the balance of power in the royal houses of Europe. For me, its plot of political intrigue was ruined by the story’s capricious use of history. Stephen Baxter’s “Artifacts” is Baxter in his deep cosmological mode. Its scientist hero, provoked by the religious ideas of his father and early death of his wife, ponders why our brane (if I understand the concept correctly, a cluster of universes) has time flowing in one direction and the consequence of death. His discovery oddly echoes the theme of Reynolds’ story, but I also liked the story’s near future Britain noticeably not affected by any Singularity and poor enough to have to recycle computers for rare metals. Continue reading “The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume 3”

The New Space Opera

Posting this retro review will be one of the few productive things I did today.

From July 18, 2009 …

Review: The New Space Opera, eds. Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, 2007.New Space Opera

What is “space opera”? The introduction succinctly and accurately calls it romantic adventure science fiction told on a grand scale. It then traces the history of the sub-genre from its stirrings in the 1890s to its full-fledged birth in the 1920s to its nadir in the 1960s and 1970s, when the New Wave made it unfashionable, to its rebirth, while American authors were developing cyberpunk, at the hands of the British in the 1980s and 1990s.

For that grand scale, I’d specify vast scales of time and space and weaponry. The fate of species – their lives or at least their sanity and cultural viability – should be at stake and not some mere individual’s happiness or survival. Some of the stories in this collection are good but not space opera. Some are both. But there aren’t enough good stories of any type to give this collection a higher rating. [I gave it three stars at Amazon.]

The following stories fall in the unsuccessful and not even space opera category. The setup for Gwyneth Jones “Saving Timaat”, the narrator helping in the negotiations between representatives of two warring groups, the one cannibalistic predators on the other, is good, but the emotional connection of the narrator to the cannibal chief and her motivations are too oblique. James Patrick Kelly’s “Dividing the Sustain” is a would-be comedy of manners about a courier aboard a ship of communist colonists and the steps he takes to get close to the captain’s estranged wife, subject of an unaccountable infatuation, and to avoid getting “stale”, a consequence of longevity treatments. Not at all interesting.

Nancy Kress has put out some wonderful work, particularly when she engages in speculating about the consequences of biotech. However, her “Art of War” seems just a writerly exercise in developing the title phrase into a story and playing around with the cliché of stern military father (here a stern military mom) and a disappointing son. The story’s war between alien Teli and humans and the place each species’ art plays in the struggle just didn’t have the grand feel of space opera. Continue reading “The New Space Opera”

The Cassini Division

Another retro review and another series I need to get back to.

This one is from August 7, 2000.

Review: The Cassini Division, Ken MacLeod, 1998.Cassini Division

Post-humans. Uploaded human minds inhabiting the robots and computer networks of a civilization in the atmosphere of Jupiter. Sneering at those still living in the “meat”, they bombard the inner solar system with computer and “mind viruses.” They brought on the Collapse, the destruction of man’s computer-dependent civilization, and ushered in the age of the Solar Union, a socialist anarchy.

But some in the Union have had enough of the post-human threat, namely the Cassini Division, self-appointed cold warriors manning their version of the Berlin Wall on Jupiter’s moon, Callisto. They want to wipe out the Jovians once and for all with a cometary bombardment. And they aren’t listening to any arguments from “appeasers” or those who think the Jovians are sentient and deserve to live or don’t pose a threat. Continue reading “The Cassini Division”