REVIEW SUMMARY: A very good group of stories that’s better than many best-of-the-year anthologies.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Original anthology of six far-future SF novellas.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: 4 standout stories

CONS: 1 mediocre entry

BOTTOM LINE: Four out of six is a very good score.

I’ve been reading lots of short stories and it amazes me how original anthologies can sometimes be better than some best-of-the-year types. I suppose it stands to reason that the best-of anthologies are the opinion of (usually) one editor whose tastes might differ from that of the reader. On the other hand, given the law of averages, an anthology of original stories should be equally hit or miss.

Along comes Between Worlds edited by Robert Silverberg. Two of these stories were chosen for Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction #22: “Shiva in Shadow” by Nancy Kress and “Investments” by Walter Jon Williams. I did not re-read them this time around. Pity I didn’t take better notes on the Kress story, though, which I thought was perfect.

Standouts in the collection were “Between Worlds” by Stephen Baxter, the Kress story, “The Colonel Returns to the Stars” by Robert Silverberg and “Keepsakes” by Mike Resnick. Four out of six is a very good score. The weakest story in the bunch, by my reckoning, was mediocre. But then again, that was the Williams story that got chosen for the Dozois best-of anthology. So what do I know?

In addition to providing an excellent story, Silverberg tasked each of the other writers with providing a snapshot of life in the far future and far from Earth. I don’t know that all of the writers met that challenge as life remains pretty much the same. Or maybe that’s the point? No matter, there are some really top notch stories in this anthology.

This makes the second original anthology I read this year from the Science Fiction Book Club that is well worth the read; the other being Down These Dark Spaceways, which also featured stories that have since gone on to be collected elsewhere and nominated for awards.

Reviewlettes follow…


STORIES IN THIS ANTHOLOGY:

  1. “Between Worlds” [XEELEE] by Stephen Baxter [2004 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 06/24/06]

    • Synopsis: A refugee from a planet orbiting a black hole smuggles a bomb on board the rescue ship demanding to be taken to see a daughter for whom there is no record of existence. The acolyte assigned to remedy the tense situation enlists the aid of a virtual representation of his messiah, Michael Poole, who sees the situation as an opportunity for a renewed life.
    • Review: Baxter fans – and especially fans of his XEELEE sequence – will not be disappointed. I was unaware that this story took place in the XEELEE universe and my eyes opened wide in surprised excitement at the first mention of Poole’s name. I read the XEELEE books many years ago and have fond memories of them. The reasons are all evident in the wonder-filled story. Baxter’s signature use of hard science on the canvas of scales both grand and microscopic is also present. Although the story takes place at a time after a millennia-long war, background situations are still tense as contentious factions (The Ecclesia – the religious group to which the acolyte named Futurity’s Dream belongs; The Guild of Virtual Idealism – inheritors of the fallen empire of the Coalition.) have ulterior motives and shadowy plans are in effect. Although it is unknown by the characters whether Mara, the refugee, is right or delusional to the point of insanity, Poole uses his god-like status to achieve the impossible and direct the ship, Ask Politely, to Mara’s home world. (The story behind the ship’s name – in which post-humanism takes a decidedly different direction than popular interpretations – is a whole other level of crunchy sf goodness that only adds to the story’s appeal.) Poole’s motive is to find a way to break out of his imprisonment as a Virtual; although he exists in digital form, the quantum nature of his makeup prevents him from being copied. Meanwhile, Futurity’s Dream learns to break the boundaries of his training. This is interesting because the idea of separation of church and state is extended to the exclusion of knowledge as well, and for Futurity’s Dream to do so is a form of heresy. Although there was a brief bout of too-detailed-but-necessary political discourse, in the end this story does all the right things with the genre: grand ideas, strong characters, sense of wonder and fun.
  2. “The Wreck of the Godspeed” by James Patrick Kelly [2004 novella] (Rating: )) [Read 06/25/06]
    • Synopsis: Adel Ranger Santos, an essay winner on an all-expenses-paid pilgrimage, transports to a semi-sentient threshold ship (carved out of an asteroid) on a mission to find new, faraway habitable worlds. One problem: the ship may just be losing its marbles.
    • Review: After somewhat slow start, there was a definite HAL vibe through this story when the ship Godspeed (nickname: Speedy) started exhibiting behavior that become increasingly odd. (Not that the protagonist Adel wasn’t off-putting with his good/evil conscience-like implants.) I wish that appealing undertone of insanity was more prominent but there was some small foray into the land of character growth when the narrative spent some time showing how Adel lost his virginity. The characters motives are back stories mostly driven by various religious beliefs, which play a prominent part in the Continuum universe. Each of the main characters on the ship was on a pilgrimage to new find new worlds. Sadly for them, Speedy is in a bit of a dry spell and hasn’t found a habitable planet for a very long time. Could that be what’s driving her insane? Or is it the history of deaths (intentional and accidental) that plague her past? (Insert weird vibe music here.) The story ratcheted up the excitement near the end when the ship’s motives became clear and a new, more immediate threat loomed.
  3. “Shiva in Shadow” by Nancy Kress [2004 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 11/07/05, here's what I said then]
    • Synopsis: Two male scientists (Kane and Ajit) and a woman captain (Tirzah) are on a deep space mission to explore a black hole. Their ship, the Kepler, launches a one-way probe to gather the data – a probe that is controlled by three uploaded analogues of Kane, Ajit and Tirzah.
    • Review: This well-written story was exciting and interesting at the same time. Amidst the scientific theories of dark matter, there is a tense, human drama being played out between the two competitive scientists. It’s up to Tirzah, as Nurturer, to smooth the rough spots. Similar drama is played out on the probe as well. The story alternates between the first-person perspectives of Tirzah and Tirzah-analogue. Well done!
  4. “The Colonel Returns to the Stars” by Robert Silverberg [2004 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 06/26/06]
    • Synopsis: A former colonel if the Imperial Service is called out of retirement to deal with his former protege, Geryon Lanista, who now poses a threat to the Imperium he once served.
    • Review: Silverberg shows mastery of the short form and simultaneously provides by example the reasons why, as he once noted, that the novella is the optimum size for a story. The plot and characters are painted in multiple layers – something that requires some length but not so much as to make it feel padded. The topmost layer is the colonel’s mission to approach Lanista and resolve Lanista’s attempts to secede from the Imperium. This is the same old story for the colonel who achieved much fame in his military career doing exactly that, usually with the pro-nationalist worldview that he shared with Lanista. On another level, that worldview is called into question through the Colonel’s history. His pro-Imperium father raised him but his anti-Imperium grandfather warned him of the Imperium’s stranglehold on humanity. His grandfather’s message is taken with a grain of salt as his pirating past warrants, yet it was Grandad that showed the Colonel the marvels of the universe in a wonder-filled flashback scene that perfectly encapsulates what science fiction fans love about the genre: hopping from world to world through the matter transporters, seeing the vastness and diversity of the cosmos, and taking in the breadth and smallness of mankind’s existence. The way Silverberg unravels the details exemplifies his talents as a storyteller. We know from the outset that Lanista has betrayed not only the Imperium, but the Colonel himself. This provides a nice bit of tension as we learn the truth behind a past mission that failed with dire consequences. Small pockets of political-speak (economic trade embargoes, tariffs, etc.) made for trodden reading, yet it was required for the tense intrigue part of the Colonel’s mission and, ultimately, helped to make this a fine story with a classic feel.
  5. “Keepsakes” by Mike Resnick [2004 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 06/30/06]
    • Synopsis: Two government agents – one a seasoned veteran, the other a young, idealistic and hopeful – are tasked with stopping Star Gypsies from tricking their unwary victims out of their precious, sentimental keepsakes that they trade for cheap labor.
    • Review: As premises go, this one is pretty standard: the detectives try to apprehend “the bad guys” who always seem to be one step ahead. Yet this seemingly innocuous premise is a sturdy platform on which to perform some great storytelling. One can not help but be drawn in by the mystery of the Star Gypsies. Who are they and why do they want to trick people out of their most precious sentimental tchotchkes? How do they manage to avoid description? Are they shape-changers or something else? Add to this the pessimistic old-timer who has been chasing them for so long that he’s all but given up hope on catching them. Stir in a young, bright-eyed hopeful who believes he can make a difference and focuses on their motive. Together they make an interesting team. They get a break when they are able to guess the Gypsies next move and the story gets even better as the details unfold. I was amazed at how much suspense could be built up with even the shortest of scenes. There was an uneasy peace about the air as we finally meet the Gypsies, learn their secrets, and glide into the final, somewhat predictable – but still very engrossing – final confrontation. Well done.
    • Note: This story might have easily fit into Resnick’s anthology, Down These Dark Spaceways, for which he also contributed another excellent story. Both are equally near perfect.
  6. “Investments” [DREAD EMPIRE'S FALL] by Walter Jon Williams [2004 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 12/02/05, what follows is what I said then]
    • Synopsis: Lieutenant Severin and Lord Martinez attempt to settle the planet Chee while attempting to discovery the identity of the culprit behind some unscrupulous corporate financial practices.
    • Review: The beginning of this story was interesting in that it provided a glimpse into the background behind Williams’ DREAD EMPIRE’S FALL series, something I had been meaning to look into. (I do wonder, since this is an afterward to the trilogy, if there were any spoilers in there. Oh well. By the time I get around to reading that series, I will have forgotten.) Also, there was a very interesting high-stakes game of “tingo”, the rules of which were only secondary to the drama behind the bidding. But then the story got long, slow and boring while the characters were on their way to the planet Chee and the plot was overly-steeped in political protocol and financial number fudging. I almost gave up reading it but then the pace picked up again when a cosmological disaster threatened characters in the two, alternating story lines. While this part got more and more exciting, it was not enough to overcome the work needed to sludge through the long, drawn-out middle; a recipe that ultimately made this a mediocre reading experience.
    • Note: Set in the same universe as his DREAD EMPIRE’S FALL series and takes place few years after the events in book 3, Conventions of War.

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