REVIEW: The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction edited by George Mann
[Note: When rating an anthology, I usually weight the stories according to length: novellas count twice as much as novelettes, which count twice as much as short stories. Since I did not know for sure the lengths of the stories in this anthology, I weighted each one equally.]
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: 16 original stories of science fiction.
PROS: 4 standout stories; variety of styles and sub-genres.
CONS: 2 weaker stories.
BOTTOM LINE: More good stories than bad; worth the read if only to sample the variety sf has to offer.
The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction is the first book to be published by the Solaris imprint and aims to serve as their manifesto: to publish “outstanding science fiction and fantasy, whatever the form.” Like a large majority of anthologies, your story mileage may vary, but overall, they are off to a really good start.
The book’s brief introduction talks about science fiction’s short form and it is clear that editor George Mann values the “sparkling gems” the format produces. He succinctly cites what’s so exciting about the short form: the “single conceit”, neatly packaged for the bite-size consumption, long enough to explore that single idea (though some stories here could have used an extra page or two to provide better closure) and sometimes the launch pad for linked or longer stories. Short fiction delivers sense of wonder in its purest form.
Perhaps more important to regular short fiction readers is the publication of a promising new anthology that doesn’t add to the already-crowded “Best of…” or themed anthology set, but instead offers a various sampling of what the science fiction genre can accomplish. There are indeed many “gems” here. Standout stories included “C-Rock City” by Jay Lake & Greg van Eekhout, “The Bowdler Strain” by James Lovegrove, “Last Contact” by Stephen Baxter and “Third Person” by Tony Ballantyne.
Reviewlettes of the stories follow….
STORIES IN THIS COLLECTION:
- “In His Sights” by Jeffrey Thomas 
- Synopsis: Shape-shifting, interdimensional war veteran Jeremy Stake becomes the target of another soldier when he is mistaken for the enemy.
- Review: The thrust of this story – the confrontation between Jermey Stake and dedicated soldier Cal Williams – takes some time to appear and is probably too short and predictable when it does happen, but the rest of the time is a nice buildup of the setting: Punktown. Populated by humans, aliens and extra-dimensional beings, Punktown is a dark, gritty setting that fits Stake’s bleak mood. Stake’s shape-shifting cells, which involuntarily take the form of a being that he stares at for too long, are currently locked in the guise of his most recent victim, a blue-skinned Ha Jiin. (Confusingly, there is also a faction called the Jin Haa who are allies to humans.) Much background is given about Punktown and, I suspect, some of Stake’s past adventures, like his forbidden relationship with the Ha Jinn assassin named Thi Gonh. This story is refreshing and an effective tease: I want more.
- Note: This is part of Thomas’ Punktown universe, comprised of novels and stories, where science meets fantasy and Lovecraftian horror. Did I mention I want more? His book Deadstock just got moved up on my reading list.
- “Bioship” by Neal Asher 
- Synopsis: Sian, a female crew member aboard a living sea vessel named the Quill, is the subject of the unwelcoming advances of the ship’s lecherous Captain.
- Review: This story was made more interesting by the parallel between Sian’s predicament and the uninvited guest aboard the ship. It is in the final scene that we see how serious the situation really is.
- “C-Rock City” by Jay Lake & Greg van Eekhout 
- Synopsis: A trader tries to learn about his past when he visits a space colony created from a trio of asteroids.
- Review: This offered some imaginative world building in that the colony, built by thousands of human slaves brought over from Mercury, is ruled by an offstage dictator who eventually killed the slaves. The setting was cool, too. As the protagonist, who turns out to be the son of one the slaves, discovers a secret history to the asteroid which might hold some answers to his mysterious past. Even though the ending was somewhat vague as to what really happened, this story moved quickly and had effective elements of suspense.
- “The Bowldler Strain” by James Lovegrove 
- Synopsis: A tongue-in-cheek story of a rampant logovirus in the U.K. that prevents people from speaking in profanities…as in: the content is Bowdlerized.
- Review: A successful piece of absurdism that is played to quite comical effect. It’s not hard to guess what the profanity symbols represent as they are pretty close to their legible counterparts. In fact, it was kind of like a game where the reader was meant to find the hidden message from the author. (For example: this story kicked @$$!) The temporary solution employed by the military and scientists is funny, too, especially since it gives the author a chance to drop a drive-by joke about lawyers. It’s a job well done when a science fiction story can be funny without being ridiculous.
- “Personal Jesus” by Paul Di Filippo 
- Synopsis: Thanks to advances in quantum physics, technology has discovered God in the form of a personal godPod device.
- Review: The techno-drenched future of this story is so plausible, it’s almost frightening. Not only are the godPods ubiquitous – and wreaking havoc with determinism and free will to boot – but so is RFID technology. The way society has adapted to it all is totally believable. The story focuses on average citizen Shepherd Crooks whose godPod predicts his impending night of pleasure with his female coworker for whom he has an infatuation. However, the godPod – all godPods, in fact – have other plans.
- “If at First…” by Peter F Hamilton 
- Synopsis: Chief Detective David Lanson’s latest case involves a very rich corporate CEO and the intruder who claims he became rich using his time machine.
- Review: The first-person narrative style of this story is sometimes hard to wade through as you figure who is doing the talking, but the plot, which shows some nice and greedy applications of time travel technology, makes this story entertaining and fun.
- “A Distillation of Grace” by Adam Roberts 
- Synopsis: A teenage boy who does not love his intended wife threatens to upset a master breeding plan on Shad’s Planet.
- Review: Shad’s Planet was settled with the sole intention of diminishing the population down to one “Unique” individual after twelve generations through genetic engineering to ensure male/female partner matches. The Unique would be an embodiment of grace. This “reverse pyramid” concept of population, one that dwindles over time, is cool. And while the disruption caused by having a teenager in the 11th generation refuse to get married was a good setup, I think the story failed to deliver by way of drawn-out dialogues of vague enlightenment and a disappointing conclusion.
- “Last Contact” by Stephen Baxter 
- Synopsis: An astrophysicist and her mother wait for the end of the world.
- Review: Pensive, creepy, frightening and sad are all words could be use to describe this well-written story. Caitlin is the astrophysicist who blames herself for the impending “Rip” that threatens the Earth, even though she was just the one to discover it. Maureen is her recently widowed mother who is partially coping by pretending life will go on, even though she’s fully aware that this is the end. Knowing exactly when it is going to happen and being completely helpless about it throws a beautifully gloomy shadow over the story. Seeing society’s behavior, which ranges from sheer panic to quiescence, is downright creepy. Well done.
- “Cages” by Ian Watson 
- Synopsis: Two government agents undertake a surveillance mission to a rock concert that aims to sonically disrupt the operation of alien “hoops” that have appeared around the world and have caused cages to appear around seemingly random body parts of Earth’s inhabitants.
- Review: Weird and wonderful stuff, but mostly weird. While there is much speculation about the purpose of the alien hoops and cages – there is never any clear answer although it’s not hard to draw a symbolic reference of your choosing – there is speculation amongst the characters that the impediments (or “impeds”) are personally tailored for each individual. Combined Intelligence agent Sally Adamson, a former hockey player, is inflicted with a knee-cage and her partner/love-interest, Svelte, a former singer, wears a neck-cage. Other cages are more bizarre, like the crotch-cage, hand cages, a living cat that replaces one woman’s forearm, and a couple who have exchanged one eyeball allowing them to see what the other sees when the eye is not covered by an eye patch. Weird, but also shrouded in a potentially-compelling mystery that is never quite resolved. The prose sometimes uses abbreviated dialogue that’s hard to read through without slowing down. The story takes a clever turn when, at a rave party, the techno-music sampled from the bee-like aliens (or maybe mechs) has an unexpected effect on one of the hoops. Very good stuff in here, but also just…bizarre.
- “Jellyfish” by Mike Resnick & David Gerrold 
- Synopsis: A self-referential meta-fiction in which a science fiction writer named Filk affects a fictional-but-really-real jellyfish-like alien race simply by virtue of his writing about them.
- Review: In the absence of any tangible plot, this story felt more like a writing exercise than something intended to go before actual readers. This is made even more disappointing given the normally high-caliber output of the two authors it took to come up with this. Independently, they have written similar stories that were better. (See the reviews for Resnick’s “The Award-Winning Science Fiction Story” and Gerrold’s “The Kennedy Enterprise“.) The only nicety about this story – and this because science fiction fans love to revel in their knowledge of the genre [looks at self] – is the section where Filk, realizing the power he commands, turns his anger towards science fiction writers. What follows in brief orgy of guess-the-real-life-writer references, the solving of which was significantly more entertaining than the story that contained them.
- Note: For my own recollection (and possibly for your amusement) here are just some of the references: lecherous old scientist Kurt Kazelov = Isaac Asimov; Burt Franklin who write about nomadic desert tribes and epic family feuds = Frank Herbert; Ralph A. McDonell whose dialectic tracts left people wondering what kind of fascist he was = Robert A. Heinlein; Frelff Rondimon who invented Scatology = L. Ron Hubbard; Kim Kinser (note reverse spelling) who “won a ton of awards transferring Africa to some alien planet solely so he could deduct his safaris on his tax returns” = Mike Resnick, referring to his Kirinyaga sequence; “whatsisname”, the sissy little creep who sold who sold the Star Truck script while still in college = David Gerrold. Several other references escaped me.
- “Zora and the Land Ethic Nomads” by Mary Turzillo 
- Synopsis: A corporate-sponsored husband and wife detect a radiation leak in their Martian habitat after being visited by a group of land-worshipping nomads.
- Review: This story offers equal parts world building and suspense as Thora and Marcus try to whisk their young son to the safety of other habitats, with limited success. There is some personal drama played out as well in Thora’s self-doubt about her parenting abilities. A fun story.
- “Four Ladies of the Apocalypse” by Brian Aldiss 
- Synopsis: The four ladies of the apocalypse (seeing as how their counterparts are so weary) and a fifth guest visit the “latest and greatest dictator”.
- Review: A very brief, plotless story whose “war is bad” message is a little too obvious.
- “The Accord” by Keith Brooke 
- Synopsis: Tish Goldenhawk falls for a charismatic stranger who appears to be a manifestation of the Accord, the collective intelligence of post-humanity.
- Review: There’s a little bit of mystery as we meet the stranger Tish names Angelo; he is pursued by three strangers with enhanced abilities. Trish, unknowingly under Angelo’s unintentional spell, tracks him down, only to come to the realization that the world is more complicated than she knows. There are a couple of surprises and a few Matrix-like moments here, but the setup is jarred about midway through when Tish, without any bridging back story, is suddenly one of many of Angelo’s followers.
- “The Wedding Party” by Simon Ings 
- Synopsis: Strict refugee control leads to some seriously drastic measures on the part of the human traffickers.
- Review: The first half of this story is spent vainly trying to piece together the scant clues to what is really going on. Then it clicks into focus and the solution to successful human trafficking becomes clear – and also deeply disturbing. The author does a great job on creating a dark and lingering Poe-like atmosphere.
- “Third Person” by Tony Ballantyne 
- Synopsis: A day in the life of a corporate-sponsored military combat team who uses a drug called Third person to enlist its members.
- Review: Based on a cool idea and supported by well-written scenes of dramatic conflict, Tony Ballantyne delivers the goods in the same way he did with “The Waters of Meribah“. He also throws in some cool gadgets like the steam-bomb grenade and creates an interesting setting in which military-corporate combat takes place amongst civilians who calmly go about their lives. This is a perfect example of how science fiction can be simultaneously thought-provoking and fun. Well done.
- “The Farewell Party” [Kéthani] by Eric Brown 
- Synopsis: Follows nine friends who meet weekly at a pub, take a stranger into their group, and discuss destiny while considering the alien Kéthani who live in Earth orbit, resurrecting the dead and luring
- Review: Brown’s tight prose creates an atmosphere as contemplative as the friends’ discussions of resurrection and suicide. There’s a little mystery thrown in for good measure, but there are some glaring questions left unanswered. Perhaps this makes more sense from the perspective of Brown’s other Kéthani stoies?
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