BRIEF SYNOPSIS: 6 novellas about big dumb objects.
PROS: Evokes sense of wonder aplenty; some mind-expanding scientific ideas; good mix of adventure, thought-provoking ideas and exploration stories.
CONS: Some stories don’t really seem to be Big Dumb Object stories.
BOTTOM LINE: Godlike Machines is an enjoyable themed anthology with a nice variety of entertaining sf stories that evoke wonder.
One of the aspects of themed anthologies that never fails to surprise me is the variety of stories that can be derived from a single theme. In Godlike Machines, the idea of the Big Dumb Object is handled deftly by six authors. While some objects adhere to the theme more closely than others — I’m still not sure I’d call Doctorow’s story a Big Dumb Object story, though it does successfully utilize Godlike Machines — they all provided a good level of entertainment. The standout story here is “Troika” by Alastair Reynolds, but all of them provided a good level of sense of wonder and/or scale.
Individual story reviews follow…
“Troika” by Alastair Reynolds involves the exploration of a massive alien spaceship by a trio of Soviet cosmonauts, as told in flashbacks by the lone survivor. In this bleak future, space travel has all but stopped and the repressive Soviets seem to be hiding something about the past mission. Reynolds’ keen ability to convey sense of wonder is in high gear here as he describes the layered area around the artifact, which seems to defy the laws of physics. This wonder is held together with a solid mystery about what’s really going on in the future as details (and a few surprises) are revealed. While perhaps not as glorious as another of the author’s big dumb object story, “Diamond Dogs“, “Troika” comes quite close and is immensely enjoyable.
In “Return to Titan”, Stephen Baxter offers another wondrous glimpse into his Xeelee Future History. It focuses on a clandestine mission to explore Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, in the hopes that it can be used to locate a wormhole, thus opening up travel to distant stars. The problem? Sentience laws prohibit its exploration, so Harry Poole, his son Michael Poole (a recurring character in the sequence of stories) and their team force Jovik Emry to help them get away with the operation. What they find is unexpected, and a good vehicle for an ethical quandary – one that vividly defines the kind of person Michael Poole is. Not that you need to know any of the Xeelee history here; this story stands quite well as an exciting planetary exploration story.
Cory Doctorow’s adventurous “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow/Now is the Best Time of Your Life” [audio version here] is about Jimmy, a young, engineered immortal living in a time of great upheaval. Mechanized creatures called wumpuses are devouring inorganic matter, reverting the world back to its humble beginnings. Cut to twenty years later, and Jimmy is a member of a group of cultists whose emotions are shared and thus “watered down” when distributed amongst the masses. Jimmy desires a cure for his immortality and he just might find it. Cut to years later still, when Jimmy has resigned himself to a relatively quiet life until his past (and finally some answers) catches up with him. Doctorow’s story — named after a Disney “World of Tomorrow” attraction that’s also an in-story carousel – seems to be about contrasting progress (of rather the failure of what we thought the future would be) and change. As usual, Doctorow keeps the story, a non-stop adventure that’s quite riveting at times, about two steps ahead of the reader. By story’s end, I’m not sure if I ever caught up; it seems like there are unanswered questions, though I’m not quite sure what they are.
“A Glimpse of the Marvelous Structure” by Sean Williams is a bit difficult to get into, mostly because it’s not clear what forces are at play. The story, presented as a series of reports, concerns an undercover spacer agent named Donaldon who appears to be investigating a murder in his undercover role as a police detective, but is really trying to gather information about the Structure, an overly-revealing name for something that is supposed to just be a mining planet. There’s an initial level of interest regarding the murder — especially since the identity of the victim turns out to be the new partner to whom he is introduced (investigator E.C. Cotton), but the story quickly relegates the murder to the background as the characters traverse the multitude of levels of the mine in search of the mysterious Trelayne, the oldest person in the mine…except that the mine is not really a mine, but part of a bigger network of planets known as the Structure. Prompting some sense of urgency is the also-unknown force known as the Director, who occasionally eliminates the existence of people near the investigators. There are, in fact, a lot of unknowns here, but it comes across less as a world building component whose secrets are slowly unraveled than it does as a story set in some already-existing universe for which there are little clues. Some of this is ultimately explained by story’s end and does involve some creative handling of the space-time continuum, but throughout the story there’s a curious lack of knowledge about the basics of how the world works and the scientific principles involved, even by Donaldon, someone who originally comes from a Great Ship in space.
“Alone” by Robert Reed is set in the author’s ever-expanding Great Ship universe in which humans have laid claim to an incomprehensibly massive ship abandoned by alien Builders who set it on a course through space. “Alone” is the name adopted by a solitary, sentient entity that roams the outer hull of the Great Ship. He has no memory of his origins and sets about exploring the hull, avoiding anything that might be considered a danger…until his curiosity does the get he better of him and he makes contact with some of the beings on the ship; first the Remoras, then the human crew. Alone is seen as a danger and goes on to exhibit capabilities that prove the assumption to be somewhat correct. Alone measures time in centuries and millennia so as the story follows his existence, readers get to see life of the Great Ship over vast periods of time — a pleasing perspective, but a special treat for readers familiar with these stories. In fact, this is probably where most if the story enjoyment is derived, as the “lonely robot” angle never seems to gel.
“Hot Rock” by Greg Egan starts with the astronomical mystery of a planet named Tallulah. The mystery is that Tellulah has no sun and travels through space, yet still has a warm surface. Two beings (Azar, a human from the planet Hanuz, and Shelma, a non-human from the planet Bahar) are digitized through the “scape” and sent to rendezvous with the planet. What they find (after several scenes of mind-expanding scientific ideas and hypotheses) are a race of lizard-like creatures inhabiting the planet, which is really a huge ship built by an advanced alien race long since gone (and thus somewhat reminiscent of Robert Reed’s Great Ship stories). The arrival of Azar and Shelma, who establish a good working relationship as the story progresses, sparks debate and threatens war amongst the lizard race’s three factions: the Circlers who believe that Tallulah is their rightful inheritance and that the arrival of the visitors means impending takeover; the “Spiral In” faction, who wish to become posthuman and migrate beneath the planet’s surface (where past generations and maybe Tallulah’s creators might be); and the “Spiral Out” faction, who believe that their race’s future lies on another planet altogether. The story thus evolves from intriguing mystery to diplomatic firefighting; still interesting, though perhaps less enticing than the original premise.