BRIEF SYNOPSIS: 15 original science fiction stories.
PROS: 13 solid stories, 2 of which are outstanding.
CONS: 2 mediocre stories.
BOTTOM LINE: A very good collection of science fiction stories that showcases the diversity of the genre.
In the introduction to The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume 3, Editor George Mann notes the gamut of Dystopian vision in today’s science fiction literature and how it obscures the fact that science fiction offers so many other visions and flavors. The stories presented in this latest volume (and indeed throughout the series) are intended to showcase the diverse nature of science fiction.
Does it succeed? Absolutely. Within these pages there are stories of exploration, extrapolation, alternate worlds, three kinds of punk (woodpunk, clockpunk and machinepunk), police procedural, robots, genetic engineering, and more. Like a good un-themed anthology should, it offers a wide variety of literary diversions. There is something for everyone, a nicety that comes with a corollary: not everything is for everyone.
Standout stories for this reader are “Fixation” by Alastair Reynolds and “One of Our Bastards is Missing” by Paul Cornell.
Individual story reviews follow…
A pilot, physically and emotionally removed from the human race, is forced to confront his detachment in Jack Skillingstead’s “Rescue Mission”. This is a good adventure, if only slightly marred by using the symbolic idea of “male companion energy” rather than science as a motive for the female tree creature that lures the pilot on his focused quest to planetfall.
In “Fixation,” Alastair Reynolds uses the many worlds theory to posit an experiment in which a museum piece borrows entropy from other universes, thus restoring the condition of old artifacts. Seen through the eyes of Rana, this is devastating, as she comes from the lending universe. Big Ideas and a steady buildup of suspense make this story memorable.
Stephen Baxter explores the theme of cosmology In “Artifacts” in which he proposes that our universe is but one in “The Bulk” of all universes that make up 9-dimensional space. The story plays out in the relationship of a father bent on discovering the true nature of our existence, and his daughter. More ambiguous is the view from the other side of the “brane” which verifies the father’s lifelong quest, but simultaneously seems detached from the central theme.
I suspect I would have enjoyed John Meaney’s “Necroflux Day” if I was already familiar with the novels Bone Song and Dark Blood which introduced this strange paranormal universe. The plot – which involves a boy named Carl coming of age and using his newfound mystical powers; his father, a bone Listener; and Carl’s teacher, a nun who lost her faith and has feelings for Carl’s father – is serviceable enough, but without prior knowledge to this universe, the potential coolness of bone listening, freewraiths, boundwraiths, and the like, is just lost on me.
The machines shall inherit the Earth. At least, that’s what happens when they are uplifted by humans and the turn on their creators. So says Paul Di Filippo’s weird and wonderful story “Providence”. Reddy K. is a machine who’s addicted to spiral (vinyl records and albums – you do remembers 45s and 33-and-a-thirds, right?) and runs a pickup job from Manhattan, N.Y. to Providence, R.I. He is accompanied by his boss’ watchdog, a little kitchen appliance named Kitch. The road is fraught with dangers, so we are told, not the least of which are RAMivores. That’s a reasonable sampling of the verbiage spun from the author’s active imagination. (It also helps to know that “carnals” are the humans, dead and gone decades ago.) Reading this story (like Reddy K. exploring the vinyl grooves) is like tripping. I just wish the story had a little more conflict and a better ending.
Warren Hammond’s revisits the world of his KOP series with “Carnival Night”. Here the protagonist is homicide Detective Mark Josephs who is investigating the murder or an offworlder. Before Chief Paul Chang reassigns the case to fellow detective Juno Mozambe, Josephs tries to find the killer. What could be another run-of-the-mill first-person narrative detective story was enhanced by the author’s description of Lagarto, a gritty colony world whose slums are despised by the too-obvious suspect.
In “The Assistant” by Ian Whates, the narrator heads up what appears to be an office building cleaning crew. But this cleaning crew also has killer mini-bots to contend with. This is a very cool idea that leads to a brief dramatic encounter, but leaves some questions unanswered. Who sent them? What were they trying to do? What do the workers do when their shift starts? More answers and adventure, please.
In Scott Edelman’s “Glitch,” a female robot becomes obsessed with long-lost humanity as the result of a startling request from her companion. The nature of the request is something that generates some mystery, and is seen to be draped in symbolisms once it is ultimately revealed. A touching story, in the same way that other robot stories robots are used to reflect our humanity back at us.
“One of Our Bastards is Missing” by Paul Cornell is the second Jonathan Hamilton story (the first one being “Catherine Drew” published in Fast Forward 2, reviewed here). Hamilton is an agent of a futuristic British Empire and this time around, he is charged with protecting the royal family on the day of a royal wedding reception. A previous relationship with the Princess and a sudden disappearance causes Hamilton (and the story) to spring into action. I stumbled a bit over some of the “Queen’s English” in the beginning, but the story was quite enjoyable when all was said and done and had some cool elements (like the ability to keep things a reach away through “knots” in space).
The title of “Woodpunk” by Adam Roberts is a humorous play on genre classification, but that’s where the humor ends. The story itself is deadly serious: it concerns the sentience of Mother Earth, as discovered by a scientist left alone in the irradiated forest of Chernobyl. A chilling scene is displayed, for sure, but it’s hard to swallow a network connection between man and forest.
In “Minya’s Astral Angels” by Jennifer Pelland, the titular Astral Angels are sentient creatures genetically engineered for the sole purpose of working in space for a large corporation. When the CEO’s daughter, Minya, inherits them, she fights for their freedom – a difficult task given that they cannot reproduce and are considered to be soulless property. Pelland’s story is instantly likable and her prose is smooth reading.
A shady corporation is the subject of a reporter’s investigations in “The Best Monkey” by Daniel Abraham. The protagonist, Jimmy, works for a news corporation who is trying to go from news aggregator to news source and he gets a lead on said company’s exploration into experimental research. Abraham weaves in other interesting elements, like Jimmy’s prior relationship with the company’s research director and generation differences noted by the aging Jimmy, but the core examination of perception and beauty is the foundation of the story.
Ian Watson’s “Long Stay” is about a man who returns from a trip just to get lost in the sprawling, 26 mile-long parking lot at the airport. It’s an interesting extrapolation of population, growth, and economic decline…but unfortunately, like poor, helpless Rob, the story never seems to go anywhere.
“A Soul Stitched to Iron” by Tim Akers is a clockpunk story (my first!) that offers an interesting premise (a criminal tasked by a mob boss to solve a mystery of an influential family) in an interesting setting (the wonderful and weird city of Veridon) with a beautifully creepy opening scene. The story that unfolds, though somewhat unclear to me regarding the science behind it, is unique enough to make me want more.
Ken MacLeod’s short-short story “iThink, Therefore I Am” is a instruction manual for a new handheld device that is either incredible or worthless. This is not really a story, of course, and comes off more like an office email pass-around.