REVIEW SUMMARY: A good collection of original short fiction from a great lineup of writers.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An original fiction anthology containing 15 stories.
PROS: Twelve stories worth reading, two of which were hugely enjoyable.
CONS: One story (the longest in the anthology) did not work for me at all.
BOTTOM LINE: An enjoyable collection of stories.
Editor George Mann opens The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume 2 by explaining the reason behind its publication. In doing so, he captures some of the reasons I enjoy reading short fiction: the jolt of wonder, the single conceit, the bite size morsel, etc. But there’s no denying that it’s common for a science fiction anthology, whose goal is often to present stories of various flavors, to include stories that do not suit a particular reader’s tastes.
And so it was here. The good news is that only a single story failed to entertain. I must fess up to being totally disenchanted with the Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius story. Being the longest story in the book had a noticeable effect on the overall weighted average. Such is the hit-or-miss nature of a short fiction anthology.
The ultimate question, despite some misses, is whether there are more hits. In this case, the answer is a resounding yes. The vast majority of stories in the anthology are good or better. The outstanding entries were “iCity” by Paul Di Filippo and “Sunworld” by Eric Brown. Both of these stories capture the joys that come with anthologies and ultimately help make The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume 2 an enjoyable anthology.
Like all good science fiction should, Paul Di Filippo’s “ICity” pushes the limits of imagination. To get a feel of the story, picture the next-next generation of SimCity, where “competitive urban planning” takes place. The city is made up of a malleable “senstrate” that obeys the commands planners send it through their phones. The story focus is on one of the top ten planners, Frederick Law Moses, and his up-and-coming rival, Holly Grale (Great name!), who are both vying to take control of a neighborhood recently elected for redesign by its residents. This had the same kind of mind-blowing effect as the author’s own “WikiWorld” and was every bit as enjoyable. Well done.
Kay Kenyon looks at futuristic occupational obsolescence in “The Space Crawl Blues,” a story in which the introverted pilot of a spaceship faces impending unemployment thanks to shiny, new quantum teleportation technology. Kenyon’s story is engaging, and a fine example of quick-but-effective characterizations; one of which happens to describe the protagonist’s ship.
“The Line of Dichotomy” is the latest episode in Chris Roberson’s Celestial Empire stories. Here, Bannerman Yao, a soldier of the Dragon Throne (and featured in The Dragon’s Nine Sons), responds to a distress signal from the Fire Planet (Mars), where he discovers Mexica warriors surrounding a bacteria farm. As Yao attempts to rescue them, readers come to learn a great deal more about the mysterious Mexic race. We also learn details about the start of the war between the Middle Kingdom and the Mexic Dominion. This history is told by Yao and Blue-green Feather, a Mexic warrior he encounters whose words are translated by Thien, a scientist who Yao is attempting to save. Despite my poor summation, this is all great world-building. The ending of “The Line of Dichotomy” leaves some question as to the fates of its main characters, but this is a very fun ride nonetheless, told in Roberson’s straightforward, no-nonsense storytelling style.
Kelvin, the human protagonist of Robert Reed’s “Fifty Dinosaurs” is just as confused as the reader as to his whereabouts when the story opens. But it soon becomes clear that he is one of fifty creations in an environment created by the new rulers of Earth – created for the sole purpose of being birthday party entertainment. A decent premise in a humans-in-an-alien-museum kind of way, but somewhat marred by the initially-weird uncertainty of events caused by Kelvin’s spotted memory. But even that bizarreness is trumped by the ending.
Neal Asher serves up another lighthearted and fun story (one of two in this anthology) in his Mason’s Rats milieu with “Black Rat”. These stories provide episodic fun centered around Mason’s troubles with rats on his farm. In this story, Mason’s uneasy alliance with the usual brown rats is upset when a newly-arrived pack of black rats wreak havoc on his farm. The science fiction comes in not only with the surrounding technology, but also that the rats are intelligent; at one smile-inducing point, they use a tiny catapult to launch hex nuts.
“Blood Bonds” by Brenda Cooper is about twin sisters Lissa and Aline. Lissa gets a job on Mars to help pay for an operation for Aline, who was paralyzed in a terrorist attack and thus spends most of her time living in virtual space. Aline finds an unexpected way to connect with her sister, though some anti-AI laws are broken to do so. Soon, both sisters become involved in matters that extend beyond the realms of sisterhood. While the narrative gets understandably confusing near the end, this heartfelt story never loses its emotional strength.
“The Eyes of God” by Peter Watts isn’t so much a story as it is a thought-provoking scene. The scene is of a man waiting to board an airplane in a near-future airport. Issues of declining civil liberties and personal privacy are taken to the extreme when the technology exists to not only detect undesirable behavior but also to eliminate it, if only temporarily. The extrapolated argument is convincing and effective until the shocking reason for the narrator’s guilty conscience is revealed, and then I flip-flopped as I wondered if such intrusions are perhaps justified after all.
Like his recent novel, Helix, Eric Brown is in the business of spinning up a huge sense of wonder with “Sunworld” in which Yarrek, a young male on the verge of adulthood, faces his destiny. From the descriptions we know we are on an alien world, even though the geometry of it is a bit confusing at first since descriptions seemingly alternate between ringworld and discworld. But all becomes clears in the end, by which time even the cliché premise (farmboy of questionable lineage learns the true nature of the world) seem of small consequence next to the awesome scope of what Yarrek learns while under the tutelage of a more open-minded Church. This is a wondrous story and a fun read.
Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Evil Robot Monkey” is an affecting snapshot in the life of a chimp with an implant in his head that increases his intelligence. Unfortunately for him, that lands him in the “hellish limbo” of being “too smart to be with other chimps, but too much of an animal to be with humans.” He becomes the subject of ridicule of children in what is presumably a school where he spends his time behind a pottery wheel. The interesting premise is delicately overlaid with emotion by having a single human show the chimp some compassion, resulting in a quick-and-dirty sf short story that is both charming and memorable.
It takes a long while to get interesting, but Dominic Green’s “Shining Armour” eventually captures the reader’s attention. It’s the story of a small village taking a stand against the large city, with their only defense being the hulking military machine that has been sitting dormant in their village for some time. There’s never any doubt who will assume the role of the Guardian’s operator, but even so, it was a sweet feeling to see him flex his mechanical muscles and serve up just desserts.
I’m not entirely sure how Karl Schroeder’s “Book, Theatre, and Wheel” found its way in a science fiction anthology as it leans more heavily on the platform of historical fiction than it does sf. Classification aside, it’s a good story set during the Inquisition in which Church representatives investigate rumors that people in a small, faraway town are learning to read. Neville and Jaques (a sort of Good Cop/ Bad Cop of a past era) question Lady Genevieve, the town’s leader – in itself a sort of heresy since the role of leader is reserved for men. Genevieve tries to get in Neville’s good graces, but it’s Jaques who is clearly the danger. Schroeder does a great job at depicting the conflict and drama here, and though there’s is no doubt where this is headed, it’s an entertaining read all the same.
“Mathralon“ by David Louis Edelman reads like an editorial about the lifecycle of a mineral that forms the sole basis for existence on the small moon that mines it. As such, it lacks both characters and plot, which is not a bad thing unto itself, but the text’s meta-observation of that fact seems to break the editorial representation that was created, leaving it in a no-man’s land between fiction and essay. But Edelman’s prose is otherwise engaging and swift, and the situation that is ultimately outlined (the dangers of putting all your eggs in one basket) is a worthy premise.
Another story in Neal Asher’s stream of light-hearted Masons Rats stories is “Autotractor”. Like other stories in this series, farmer Mason has a problem to solve; this time from the bureaucracy of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries which cites Mason’s population of rats as a health hazard. By this point, Mason has grown accustomed and even protective of the rats, a sentiment solidified when he realizes that they have created a distillery, the true hallmark of civilization. Asher creates some laugh-out-loud moments and many more smiles as Mason’s rats (and the talking tractor that delivers lip service) seem to solve Mason’s problem for him.
I had never read any of Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius stories, though I have always wanted to. The novella presented here, “Modem Times,” was therefore a welcome addition. But oh my! I quickly discovered that this is more literary exercise than story, something for which I was not at all prepared. Between the non-linear narrative, the slew of self-references that were surely lost on me, and the seemingly endless chain of plotless non-sequiters (both between passages and during a single conversation), I was hopelessly lost and uninterested. After a little Googling, I get the impression that the Jerry Cornelius stories are the kind you either get or don’t. I’m afraid I don’t get it.
On the face of it, “Point of Contact” by Dan Abnett is a first contact story. But rather than explain who the aliens were and what they did, the author goes through exhaustive lengths to explain what are not like and what did not happen. This was oddly entertaining; odd for its uneventful plot, but entertaining in that it lists just about every known sf-nal cliché. One wonders after reading it what the point was in writing a fantastic story of mundane events. Ah…now I see! (I think.)