BRIEF SYNOPSIS: 18 stories from the likes of Elizabeth Bear, Alastair Reynolds and James S.A. Corey, all based around the idea of up to date views about living in the Solar System
PROS: Strong writing, a dream line up of authors
CONS: A couple of the stories skate the boundaries set out by the editor
BOTTOM LINE: A book that effectively lays down a marker for Fourth Generation Science Fiction.
In the 1960’s, Science Fiction, already having gone through a couple of changes in the century but seemingly running a bit long in the tooth, runs into the New Wave, where authors like Harlan Ellison and Michael Moorcock bring new sensibilities and wonders and points of view to the genre. In the 1980’s, science fiction, again seemingly moribund and worn out, was transformed by William Gibson and the Cyberpunk movement. In 2012, I see plenty of articles and chatter that science fiction is insular looking, more concerned with the past, unwilling to engage a future. That science fiction is getting “tired”, and science fiction authors are getting tired, or horrors, are fleeing into the kingdoms of fantasy. Sounds like awfully familiar rhetoric to me. Are we due for another change? Jonathan Strahan and a host of heavyweights in the genre say ‘yes’.
Jonathan Strahan makes an argument that we are in the early stages of a rebirth in Edge of Infinity, an anthology of science fiction that “takes stories set firmly in an industrialised, colonised Solar System during a time when starflight is yet to emerge, and imagines life in the hottest places close to our star, and in the coldest, most distant corners of our home. “ So what else is Fourth Generation Science Fiction? Is it just a sense of location? Strahan puts forth that it is anti-Mundane SF (which he name checks), that the romance, adventure, love of science and the solar system are central to this idea. Space Opera with a more limited and concentrated focus from the Sun to Neptune.
Strahan suggests that Edge of Infinity is a companion to his previous collection, Engineering Infinity [See a review of it by me, here]. However, I believe Edge of Infinity stands on its own far more than the editor realizes. While that former volume is Hard SF in the grand tradition, Edge of Infinity is distinctly different and has a narrower focus and a deliberate statement about Fourth Generation science fiction, and what that means for the field.
As interesting as the opening essay and introduction is, the strength of Edge of Infinity are the stories. The lineup after Strahan’s essay are as follows:
- “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi”, Pat Cadigan.
- “The Deeps of the Sky”, Elizabeth Bear.
- “Drive”, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.
- “The Road to NPS”, Sandra McDonald and Stephen D. Covey.
- “Swift as a Dream and Fleeting as a Sigh”, John Barnes.
- “Macy Minnot’s Last Christmas on Dione, Ring Racing, Fiddler’s Green, the Potter’s Garden”, Paul McAuley.
- “Safety Tests”, Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
- “Bricks, Sticks, Straw”, Gwyneth Jones.
- “Tyche and the Ants”, Hannu Rajaniemi.
- “Obelisk”, Stephen Baxter.
- “Vainglory”, Alastair Reynolds.
- “Water Rights”, An Owomoyela.
- “The Peak of Eternal Light”, Bruce Sterling.
Its a spectacular mix of authors and stories by any metric I can think of. You have an Expanse story from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, telling the true story of Solomon Epstein and the Epstein Drive that figures in Leviathan Wakes and its sequels. Paul McAuley, arguably one of the protocreators of Fourth Generation SF with his Quiet War stories and novels , gives us a post Quiet War story here. Quantum Thief author Hannu Rajaniemi, who writes Hard SF with a poetry and fantastic feel that reminds me of a latter day Roger Zelazny, has a story here. Stories set on Europa and on space stations set around Earth. Pilot training and bioengineering. Odd artificial intelligences and clones. The drive of ambitions on Mars. The story of the creation of a ring around Neptune. You have authors you’d expect to write Fourth Generation Fiction, and then the unexpected, like Jones, and Owomoyela.
None of the solar system futures depicted in the eighteen stories are the same, and yet any of them could happen. All of them feel plausible, lived in, populated by realistic and relatable characters.
The only flaw I can really point at, besides the usual idiosyncrasies of how various stories worked for me, is that a couple of the stories don’t quite feel on theme, or on the boundaries set by the editor. I point particularly to the second story, “The Deeps of the Sky” by Elizabeth Bear. It’s a gorgeous story and worth reading, but I am not sure it fits in that well with the rest of the collection and what Strahan is setting out to do. I am not saying that alien life is out of bounds for this collection (and this is not the only story with alien life in it), but a story about the life of aliens in Jupiter doesn’t, in my opinion, really sit well with the rest of the collection. Curiously, despite this, it was one of my favorite stories of the set, along with the Baxter and the Rusch.
Jonathan Strahan has laid down a marker and an argument that the forward way for science fiction is to follow in the tradition of 2312, and the stories contained in this volume. Is it the future of SF? I’m not certain he is right, but Strahan is persuasive, and the stories he has commissioned and collected here firmly put his argument on the map. In addition, the quality of these stories make it very likely one or more of them will show up on Hugo nomination ballots next year. I certainly have candidates for my own nomination list. And when you read it, I think you will too.