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REVIEW: Infinity Plus – The Anthology edited by Keith Brooke and Nick Gevers

REVIEW SUMMARY: A commendable and worthwhile swan song for the Infinity Plus website.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An omnibus of two previously released anthologies containing a total of 26 sf/f stories.

PROS: 18 stories good or better, with 7 of those reaching excellence; a fine representation of what the Infinity Plus website had to offer.
CONS: 8 stories mediocre or worse.
BOTTOM LINE: Infinity Plus – The Anthology offers stories that are both diverse and quite enjoyable.

The Infinity Plus website was one of the first to offer free online fiction to science fiction and fantasy fans, way before it was ever in vogue. The site was the brainchild of Keith Brooke (and later co-edited with Nick Gevers and Paul Barnett) and just recently closed its virtual doors after a 10-year run that saw the publication of two anthologies: Infinity Plus One and Infinity Plus Two.

As a swan song, Solaris has released Infinity Plus – The Anthology, an omnibus edition that slightly reorders the stories as they were presented in the original anthologies. At 687 pages, the book is fairly big for its mass market paperback-like size. Still, it would have been nice to see a few pages spent on story introductions and author bios rather than being pointed to the Infinity Plus website for details.

The stories represent those that were chosen by the editors when they asked authors to pick the stories they felt deserved renewed attention. The resulting quality is about what you would reasonably expect from an anthology: some stories are more successful than others. Apply your own personal taste filter. On the bright side, this has more good stuff than bad. I do wonder if any thought was given to including any fiction that has appeared online since Infinity Plus Two saw print in 2003. They’ve published some big names over the years…

Standout stories in Infinity Plus – The Anthology include “Radio Waves” by Michael Swanwick, “Home Time” by Ian R. MacLeod, “Memories of the Flying Ball Bike Shop” by Garry Kilworth, “The Arcevoalo” by Lucius Shepard, “Faithful” by Ian McDonald, “The Old Rugged Cross” by Terry Bisson and “Swiftly” by Adam Roberts.

Individual story reviews follow…

Michael Swanwick’s “Radio Waves” shows what it might be like after we die. The story is disorienting at first, with the protagonist Cobb at odds with the normal conventions of up and down. It turns out that when we die, the world is turned upside down and some new force pulls us off the Earth to be diluted among all the other dead souls in the universe. Only a few hangers-on like Cobb remain, using ceilings as floors to escape the eternal fall into that final death. Energy and radio signals play prominently into the new existence of these inverted ghosts. Cobb’s memories are stolen by an energy-stealing beast called the Corpsegrinder, and his attachment to “Charlie’s Widow” is his one constant. Through quickly-moving prose that explores many facets of this interesting environment, Swanwick shows us that sometimes we need to sacrifice who we are to become the person we want to be. Good stuff.

Some stories focus more on world building than anything else. James Patrick Kelly’s “Lovestory” is one of those. In this case, the world building is through the depiction of an alien culture. The fur-covered creatures of the story form mating triplets with a mother, a father and a nursemaid-like female called a Mam. Some drama is introduced when the pregnant mother takes off to live with aliens (humans!), leaving the father and Mam to take care of their first child, who is fast becoming an adult. The focus here is in the clash of cultures. Kelly goes to great lengths to show us the differences between their culture and our own (a well thought-out sf treat) yet still manages to ground the story in emotions that are universal.

Kim Newman serves up one of his Diogenes Club stories with Tomorrow Town. The setting is an alternate 1970’s where Day-Glo is the common fashion. Richard and Vanessa are investigators for the Diogenes Club, a little-known investigative branch of the U.K. government. Here, Richard and Vanessa investigate a murder in the “futopia” of Tomorrow Town, a social and technological experiment to hasten future living. In the technomeritocracy of Tomorrow Town, status is based on application of intelligence, doors don’t have locks, and decisions are made by a vast computer named Big Thinks. Newman stuffs flavor into every corner of the story and even manages to pull off a decent murder mystery with great starring characters. Richard is a hip and proactive Sherlock Holmes and his banter with Vanessa is humorous. Between the retro-setting and the humorous dialogue, I couldn’t help but think of Austin Powers (when he was funny, that is). This is one of the stories where it’s obvious the author is having fun with it. Readers will, too.

A strange occurrence at a drive-through fast food window creates an opportunity for a pessimistic parental lesson in “The Second Window”, by Patrick O’Leary. It’s a super-short story and slightly humorous, but otherwise unremarkable.

In “Ghost Dancing with Manco Tupac” by Jeff VanderMeer, the last living descendent of the Incas, on his deathbed, tells a reporter the story of how he led a Spanish Conquistador, who may or may not be Pizarro, to a lost city of Incan gold. Manco Tupac’s tale is beautifully steeped in legend, myth and history. Although the events are rather simple at first glance – local guide leads foreign Conquistador through the mountains – VanderMeer’s entrancing prose surrounds the reader with wonderful atmosphere.

A few years ago, I reviewed “May Be Some Time” by Brenda W. Clough, a story about real-life British polar explorer Lawrence Oates, who is plucked from the verge of death in 1912 to the future. “Home Time” by Ian R. MacLeod, which predates the Clough story by three years, is quite similar: a three person team, part of a college research experiment, travels back through time to find the explorer. MacLeod’s story is just as gripping as Clough’s. It incorporates the psychology of confinement (the team members play out the exact roles predicted by their psych tests), the mental stability of an outcast (Woolley, the narrator who describes herself as ugly and refers to herself in the third person), and a situation that mimics that of Oates himself, right down to Oates’ last words. The ultimate reason for this experiment is believable and, even though the vague ending holds this story back from perfection, this is still an excellent story.

Michael Bishop’s “A Spy in the Domain of Arnheim”, sadly, is little more than a series of René Magritte surreal paintings in prose, strung together by thin wisps of a spy story. A man wakes in a pristine hotel room, where he finds the bowler hat with the apple hanging in front of it, the mirror that shows him from behind, a broken window whose shards show the outside, et cetera. Like the paintings, the prose itself is surreal, written in Victorian style and describing scenes that lack logic. Regrettably, this reads like a pretentious show-off piece of Literature with a capital “L”.

I submit Garry Kilworth’s “Memories of the Flying Ball Bike Shop” as a data point in my eternal quest to find the qualities of fantasy fiction that I really like. This sentimental story concerns an English reporter (Sean Fraser) working at a newspaper in Hong Kong. He partakes of an ancient smoking ritual that allows him to “know” his enemy, in this case his editor (John Chang), who has been consistently unkind to Sean for no apparent reason. The ritual works, allowing Sean to share Chang’s memories. By understanding his enemy, Sean sees the reason for Chang’s action and is able to heal that relationship. Kilworth’s prose is smooth and enjoyable, even if certain plot points were predictable. My only real misgiving with the story is that Sean’s motives seem selfish, even when it became apparent that Chang’s situation was obviously more important in the bigger scheme of life.

Rowena, the lesbian protagonist of Mary Gentle’s “Kitsune”, experiences love at first site with a Japanese woman who proclaims she is a Kitsune – a “fox spirit” with the power to make any human fall in love with her. Besides Rowena’s concentration in her sword handling studies being disrupted by the all-consuming thoughts of Tamiko, there is not much plot to be found.

Kit Reed’s Old Soldiers is about a young girl’s visit to see her grandmother in an old age home. Across the hall is a veteran who shouts obscenities while he wonders who killed Vic, presumably a fellow soldier from the war. Young Jane feels a strange presence in the home that day and finally confronts the old man about his behavior. This is a decent premise, to be sure, but the semi-convoluted construction meant that it was much longer than it needed to be.

The title of “God’s Foot” by Tony Daniel refers to highest mountain in an alternate Earth-like world. The main character, Mr. Li, is a Japanese-educated Korean determined to answer his haunting dreams by climbing the highest mountain in the Appalachian Mountains, all the while hunted by a man-like god named John Deer. While this story does create some dramatic, high-altitude tension, the rules of this alternate world – explained in a hurried dash of explanation- are not altogether clear.

It helps to know beforehand that Paul Di Filippo’s “Jack Neck and the WorryBird” is based on the creepy surreal artwork of Chris Mars. The prose of the story is equally surreal, being largely made up of nonsense words and eloquent elocution that is initially off-putting, but once a reader gets in the groove, adds much to the atmosphere the author is shooting for. The story follows the plight of Jack Neck, who is the unfortunate victim of a worrybird that has permanently lodged itself on his hump. The worrybird – aside from repeatedly uttering “Never again, but not yet!” – saps Jack’s vitality which will eventually lead to his death. So Jack seeks the help of a doctor, an engineer and a saint to help remove it. Weird but fun.

“The Lunatics” by Kim Stanley Robinson follows a team of slave miners beneath the surface of the Moon. The substance they mine, Promethium, is used back on Earth, but the miners never get to see their home planet; they are trapped in cages when they’re not mining – that is, until they manage to attempt an escape. Robinson’s prose focuses more on plot than some much-needed character development, but the story moves at a decent pace right to its bittersweet ending.

Lucius Shepard serves up a beautifully written story with “The Arcevoalo”, whose title character is a warrior reincarnated in the Amazon jungle 500 years after his death in a war. The arcevoalo is brought back to life by the Jungle itself to act as protector against its enemy: man. Thus the arcevoalo sets out to know his enemy by living among them, feeling what they feel and discovering what it means to be human. His lessons succeed all too well. Shepard creates a wonderful atmosphere, bringing to life the magic of the African jungle without making it feel like some contrived setup. His lyrical prose fascinates and captivates and shows considerable skill. I could not help but be entranced. Well done.

[I read “Bear Trap” by Charles Stross back in September of 2006. Here’s what I said then…]

Futures trader Alain Blomenfeld, on the run and harboring questionable memories in his uploaded brain, meets Arianna, a woman claiming to be his wife, and is attacked on his way to meet royalty. Meh. Yet another uploaded consciousness story that – by this point in my reading history – left me cold. There’s a heavy economics flavor and everything has a personality, including wet bars. This future is so unfamiliar that by the time Arianna’s real identity is revealed, it’s unspectacular. But that’s just my mood. Fans of Stross’ cutting-edge, drag-me-into-the-future style will find exactly what they are looking for.

You can usually count on Stephen Baxter to tell a good sf story. Unfortunate, then, that “Behold Now Behemoth” didn’t offer much in the way of entertainment. The plot concerns a man who returns to England to visit his estranged mother. She tells the man the family secret which involves their decades-long protection of a living mammoth. Since some end-of-story symbolism is meant to be derived between the mammoth and the mother’s health, the only interesting element – a living mammoth! – is sadly macguffined out of the picture.

“The Rift” of Paul J. McAuley’s novelette is the subject of a mountain climbing expedition in the Amazon basin. The climbers each have there own reason for being there, as told by different point-of-view chapters that provide good characterizations. There’s the aging leader trying to recapture his former glory; the young hotshot out to make a name for himself; the family of Danes (who are not Danish, the gag goes) who climb down ahead of the others and know more than they are telling; and the scientists who hope to find new animal and plant species in their own version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World. This rift holds more danger for the characters than surprises for the reader and the slow, methodical unfolding of the story seems incomplete by the end. Not knowing what happens next is a tease.

I have not read any of Michael Moorcock’s other Jerry Cornelius stories, but if they are anything like “Cheering for the Rockets”, I’ll pass. This was not so much a story – lacking any significant plot how could it be? – as it was a non-stop stream of disconnected rants bemoaning the shortcomings of government and the evils of war. An afterward briefly summarizes the work of sf author Philip Wylie (When Worlds Collide) who coined the term “momism” to explain how sentimentality and over-simplification would be the ruin of American Democracy. This story quotes from Wylie’s non-sf work and thus strives (I think) to be similarly polemical. Genre fiction with political elements can be OK; political rants advertised as genre fiction are a turn-off. Taken to such great lengths, this story was as bad a reading experience as I could have had.

Ian McDonald’s “Faithful” is a quick, high-concept story about a man and his personal cloud of nanobots, which he named “Sistor”. Sistor has been his constant lifetime companion and is able to construct anything he desires. Like any young man – young being relative since the nanbots grant him near-immortality and he is actually thousands of years old – he mostly desires women. One night, Sistor suggests that the man perform a long overdue download of his memories instead of chasing the latest girl. The next morning, the man wakes alone, disconnected from Sistor for the first time in his life, lost and alone. To his surprise (though not necessarily ours) he learns how faithful a protector Sistor really is. Excellent concepts, cool use of science, and a snappy delivery mark this excellent piece of sf.

The Rapunzel fairy tale serves as the basis for “The Witch’s Child” by Lisa Goldstein. A miserable and pessimistic witch, who raises Rapunzel as her own daughter, tries to keep her from making the same mistakes by locking her in a tower. A man sees her, falls in love, and visits her without the witch knowing…until Rapunzel gets pregnant. Basing the story on a fairy tale takes away some of the early surprises, but the different ending and Goldstein’s engaging writing style make this story worth the read.

When I think of vampire tropes, I think of ancient, blood-sucking creatures preying on innocent victims. Brian Stableford comes up with something more original with his short story, “Emptiness”. A woman finds a baby on the side of the road and decides to keep it because the baby is a vampire, the result of an epidemic mutation that is scorned by society and studied by scientists. The woman decides to keep the baby, nursing it with her own blood. Her estranged daughter enters the picture and we soon see that the baby fills the emptiness in the woman’s life left by the failing relationship with the daughter. Despite the hokey-sounding vampire premise, Stableford’s serious treatment of the material gives the story a moody, introspective quality.

“The Genius Freaks” by Vonda N. McIntyre gives us a future where a new breed of humans are grown from artificial wombs, genetically engineered to be smarter but with the side effect that they have shorter life spans. This story focuses on Lais who has escaped her scientific cage at the Institute and discovers that, despite her ability to be aggressive and vengeful, she does indeed have compassion – enough to use her intelligence to save humans from a threat they know nothing about. As cool as this premise is, the situation with Lais is revealed in such a piecemeal fashion that it was difficult to know completely what was going on until the story was nearly over.

The slowly unraveled story of Paul Park’s “Untitled 4” is about an imprisoned writer who contemplates two stories sent in by the spy from the writing class he taught. The context of the stories seem to mimic the real-life events that led to the writer’s incarcerations and much of the story is spent twisting the story elements into different versions of what really happened. But by the time we get to the end of the story and find out the probable truth, the multiple versions just end up feeling like unnecessary padding.

In Dark Calvary by Eric Brown, love drives protagonist Hans Cramer to the planet of Tartarus, whose sun is about to go supernova. Cramer is looking for his lover, Francesca after her survey ship crash-landed on the planet. Francesca, who was always looking for a greater meaning to life, survives the crash and hooks up with the Church of the Ultimate Sacrifice, where true worship takes the form of lopped-off limbs and wearing your own eyeballs around your neck. Cramer meets one cultist, a blind Abbot (insert symbolic reference to “blind faith” here) who leads him to Francesca. Cramer soon realizes that Francesca is not the same woman she was before, a realization that will ultimately lead to some extreme and gruesome sacrifice. Grim topics, to be sure, but the character-driven story is fascinating; both in Cramer’s search for Francesca and the discovery of what the monks are planning for Cramer, Francesca and the Abbot.

Terry Bisson supplies some humorous satire with “The Old Rugged Cross”, in which a chaplain conceives of a money-making scheme: convince a Death Row criminal exercise his legal right and choose crucifixion as his method of execution. Other people get involved (a professor of religion, a lawyer, the convict’s mother, etc.) all for a little piece of the action. What makes this humorous is how people lose site of the value of life – easier to do thanks to the nature of the crime- in favor of the trivial discussions over percentages and the accuracy with Christ’s crucifixion.

You do not need to read Jonathan Swift’s classic, Gulliver’s Travels, to enjoy Adam Roberts novelette Swiftly, but reading a brief summary of the book will make for a richer reading experience. It’s not so much that Roberts continues the social commentary of the classic, but it is set about 100 years after Gulliver encounters the little people from Lilliput and Blefuscu, and the giants from Brobdingnag. In “Swiftly”, the little people (collectively known as Pacificans) are confined to lives of slavery at the hands of the English. Abraham Bates is sympathetic to their plight, more so for his own sense of religious piety than for their right to freedom. England is at war with France and an opportunity soon presents itself in which Bates must decide between national pride and what he believes is right. This is a nice moral dilemma, though more so for readers than for Bates, who comes to a quick decision. (It helps that the French are poised to win thanks to the amazing calculation machine of Charles Babbage.) Roberts’ story is told quickly and cleanly, but there is one unnecessary flashback to Bates’ past that, I suppose, is meant to add to the characterization, but is not really needed. Even so, the end result is a first-class story.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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