BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A collection of 9 stories by Charles Stross.
PROS: Stross tosses around imaginative concepts with comfortable regularity.
CONS: His affinity for politics and economics weighed down some of the stories.
BOTTOM LINE: This is good representative sampling of Stross’ fiction; a must-have for any Stross fan and a fine introduction for the uninitiated.
Wireless, a short fiction collection by Charles Stross, collects eight previously-released stories and one story new for this collection (the time travel story “Palimpsest”). Readers who are familiar with Stross work know that his writing often includes politics and economics – two subjects that, for me, are story-killers more often than not; they’re just not the reason I read science fiction. So it’s probably no surprise that the more enjoyable stories in this collection dialed those particular knobs down. The only standout story in the bunch is the excellent “Down on the Farm”, but that didn’t stop many others from winning awards and generally being well-received.
Individual story reviews follow…
In “Missile Gap” (originally reviewed in One Million A.D. edited by Gardner Dozois), Charles Stross posits an alternate 1962, the continents of Earth are transported to a huge disc in the Magellanic Cloud by some unknown abductor for some unknown reason. The story is told in three alternating threads. In one thread, Yuri Gagarin and the Russians seek to find the absentee aliens who did this as they are highly evolved and are therefore, they believe, Communists. A second thread follows an immigrant named Maddy, an unhappily-married nurse on the former Earth, now working with an entomologist to study the indigenous life forms (like some rather smart mock-termites) found on some islands of the disc that is now their home. The final thread involves Carl Sagan and the search for the identity of the alien abductors. The entertaining aspect of this story, for me, wasn’t the historical, economical and political musings that (sadly) dominated most of the story, but rather the awesome setting and the mystery of the abductors. The story was best in the later parts when the threads begin to answer those questions. The humans – mostly driven by Cold War paranoia – speculate that they are yet another reiteration of the same experiment that has been going on for eons.
In “Rogue Farm” (originally reviewed in Year’s Best SF 9 edited by David G. Hartwell), a farmer defends his farm from a “farm collective” (a biological entity made up of people who want to migrate to Jupiter), deals with his weary wife (whose consciousness must be uploaded after every breakdown), and bonds with his talking robotic dog. Good story. The dialogue and relationship between the farmer (the man) and his wife was well done. Stross has done better, though.
In “A Colder War,” Stross examines how The Cold War between the U.S. and Russia would have been drastically different had Russia had access to alien technology. There are some really cool concepts here regarding the aliens (Cthulhu elders, since you asked) but the story is so overwrought with politics (not my favorite topic) that took away from the overall effect of the story.
“MAXOs” is a flash fiction piece about microwave artifacts of xenobiological origin (MAXO) signals and how they put a twist on Fermi’s Paradox. It’s short, but effective in making its comedic point. (It also somewhat reminds me of the themes used in David Langford’s “New Hope for the Dead“.)
“Down on the Farm“ is another Stross story about Bob Howard, agent of The Laundry, the secret British organization that deals with interdimensional threats (whose stories are collected in The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue). Here, Bob goes undercover at the Funny Farm, the place where they send agents who’ve gone off the deep end. The Funny Farm is maintained by steampunkish robots — electricity is verboten as it can fuel magic from the patients – that are controlled by a 1960’s IBM mainframe which merely acts as a front-end to a being from another dimension. Bob is trying to find the source of an SOS from a hospital that’s supposedly secure every way to Sunday. What ensues is an intriguing (though not very complex) mystery peopled with interesting characters and cool ideas.
Stross teams up with Cory Doctorow and together they posit a near-future where open networks are illegal in “Unwirer”. But silly laws don’t stop people like Roscoe — already an ex-con for illegal network activity – from continuing to make it possible for open networks to exist. When a reporter wants to follow Marcus to publicize the gross injustice that exists mainly in America, Roscoe gets more than he bargained for; particularly when his hot-headed roommate Marcus tags along for the ride. This story line is typical terrain for both Stross and Doctorow, so you get exactly what you’d expect: a capable handling of technology that has something political to say told through a captivating story that runs a few steps ahead of the reader. The ending, though, was sadly predictable.
The aptly titled “Snowball’s Chance” is Stross’ deal-with-the-devil story in which down-and-out Davy meets the Devil in a Scotland bar. The Devil, it seems, owes Davy one wish thanks to all the bad karma he’s been spreading around throughout his selfish life. The final comeuppance is a bit of a surprise, but I have to admit problem sloughing through the Scottish dialogue, half of which I had to read through twice.
Charles Stross’ farcical “Trunk and Disorderly” (originally reviewed in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 2 edited by Jonathan Strahan) is part homage to the type of mystery written by P.G. Wodehouse, and part comedy. Well, maybe mostly comedy as it seems that the plot hangs on the narrative’s jovial tone rather than the other way around. The story concerns a decadent man (Ralph) who spends his spare time competing in suicide drops from space while mostly ignoring the robot he doesn’t know he truly adores (Laura). When said robot leaves, our self-absorbed protagonist finds himself on Mars, through reasonable circumstances, where he finds his amore an unwitting pawn in an evil game by a Shady Antagonist. Thus our stalwart hero, now awakened to the true value of love, attempts to rescue her, all the while dragging along a miniature wooly mammoth, the pet of his sister that he promised to babysit. As usual, Stross skillfully tosses around cool ideas and terms like they were parts of speech…like referring to humans and bots as squishies and clankies, for example. The end result is a fun story that more humor than sf.
“Palimpsest” is a time travel story about Pierce, an agent-in-training for Statis. The Stasis organization ensures that humanity survives the natural, cyclic progression of the rise and fall of species. In this case, Stasis is charged with reseeding the human species by plucking people throughout time and moving them elsewhen. Pierce becomes the focus of attention when an attempt is made on his life. Stross goes to great lengths to show the malleability of time (how you can kill your own grandfather, for example) through the concept of “unhistory”, but this story failed to make me care much about Pierce, who seems to have only a slightly more firm grasp on the inner working of the story’s time travel mechanics than I did.