The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, edited by George Mann, and Fast Forward 1, edited by Lou Anders
Reviewed by David Soyka
17 April 2007
The ideas of science fiction work on two levels. Firstly, there is the element of surprise or novelty, and secondly there is the less specific quality of making us think for ourselves, of applying a freshness of approach to our own lives.
—Christopher Priest, Vector 98, June 1980
What with the various yearly "best of" collections, on top of those calling themselves paraspheres, new wave fabulists, new weird, post-cyberpunk, slipstream, and even, god help us, interstitial fictions, what's an editor to do to distinguish his or her particular anthology on the crowded shelves of what we used to just call science fiction and fantasy? You can't just put together a bunch of stories you think are really cool. There's got to be either a theme (e.g., alien sex, feminism, award winners) or a declaration of some movement (see above) in which the editor's selections herald some brave new genre.
Two noteworthy entrants into this fray seek to distinguish themselves as inaugural volumes of projected anthology series showcasing original stories by leading writers. The first of these, The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, is, presumably, a showcase for authors with books from the titular British imprint (Jeffrey Thomas, Adam Roberts, Keith Brooke), and perhaps those Solaris would like to publish; for the most part, the stable of writers here is what you'd expect to see in the David Pringle-era Interzone. (A companion Solaris Book of New Fantasy along the same lines is forthcoming in December.) Fast Forward 1: Future Fiction from the Cutting Edge offers a different cast of authors (those in both are Tony Ballantyne, Stephen Baxter, Paul Di Fillipo, and Mary A. Turzillo, as well as Mike Resnick with different writing partners in each volume) and is expressly modeled on Frederick Pohl's Star Science Fiction anthologies (1953 to 1959) and Damon Knight's Orbit series (1966 to 1980).
The editors are George Mann and Lou Anders, respectively; of the two, Anders is more articulate about his vision for his series, as well as having a better title (notwithstanding the use of the hackneyed "cutting edge," which is a cliché second only to "state-of-the-art"). According to Mann, his intent is to "publish original, never-before-seen stories by some of the best writers working in the field today ... indicative of the approach of the Solaris imprint as a whole: the desire to publish outstanding science fiction, whatever the form" (pp. 8-9). Mann goes on to say that, "This book is our manifesto," though proclaiming a manifesto isn't the same as articulating one. You might think that publishing "outstanding" stories would be a given expectation of any such endeavor, regardless of theme or literary model.
In terms of sub-genre categorization, most of Mann's selections should be filed under "Hard SF." The exceptions are the horrific "The Wedding Party" by Simon Ings, and Brian Aldiss's fable, "Four Ladies of the Apocalypse." The inclusion of the latter is particularly curious not only because it is fantastical rather than science fictional, but because it is sophomoric in straining to be significant. A dictator is visited by the aforementioned, for some reason gender-inverted, figures from the Book of Revelation to answer for his sins; the dictator lashes back at them with a sword he "loved more than all his weapons of mass destruction, for this sword brought him close to the moments of the deaths of others," but they do not die. Wow, that's heavy, man.
More in the SF spirit, notwithstanding the unlikelihood that a child might have a better understanding of basic physics than his scientist parents, Mary A. Turzillo depicts the convincingly bleak life of a family of colonists on Mars in "Zora and the Land Ethic Nomads." (In an entirely different vein, Turzillo's contribution to the Anders anthology, "Pride," is a creepily funny meditation on parental love and sacrifice even despite, or because of, a child's transgressions.) Baxter's "Last Contact" is an end-of-the-world tale that celebrates the human spirit—as well as possible alien spirits—in an affecting metaphor about individual consciousness of finitude. (He strikes a similar path in "No More Stories" in Fast Forward; this time the existential angle is, "how do I know existence continues after I die?") Also with philosophical leanings is the Roberts story "A Distillation of Grace," which considers how the best-laid theological plans are subject to factors beyond dogma, and Brooke's "The Accord," about how theological disillusionment leads to deeper spiritual consciousness.
While these stories satisfy the second part of Priest's definition—stories that make you think—all too many settle primarily on just being novel or surprising. Just how novel or surprising will depend on how old you are and how familiar with the genre. For example, Peter F. Hamilton's "If at First ..." updates with contemporary references the trope of a time traveler who gains his fortune by already knowing what's going to happen in the future, but only a neophyte is going to experience much of a sense of wonder from it. It's got a nice twist ending, but, and this is my impression of much of Hamilton's work, the science fictional elements serve only to provide a cool storyline. They do not have anything particularly significant to say about technology or the human condition. Along the same lines, Eric Brown's "The Farewell Party" is predictable fluff about a New Age-styled seer and the prospects of an alien-provided afterlife.
I had similar reservations about "In His Sights" by Jeffrey Thomas, though the ambitions here are set higher. Set in the Thomas landscape of Punktown, an Earth colony populated with humanoid species, the story has some interesting noirish elements. Jeremy Stake is a newly discharged and disenchanted soldier with a genetic mutation that causes his face to mirror those of his victims. Because he now looks like "the enemy," another newly discharged—and deranged—veteran is stalking him. There are some intriguing ideas here, including a critique of foreign military misadventures (Ballantyne's "Third Person" also satirizes corporate-sponsored soldiers' press-ganging of civilians), as well as the symbolism of the killer who literally assumes the physical appearance of his victim. But, other than providing for an O'Henry kind of ending, my initial reaction was there was a lot of effort going into establishing the tableau without a correspondingly significant payoff. Not surprising, then, to learn this is an excerpt from a Solaris-published novel called Deadstock; one measure of this anthology's success, at least from a marketing perspective, is that I am sufficiently intrigued to check out the longer work.
Several tales suggest how we deal—or fail to deal—with our relationships. Jay Lake and Greg van Eekhout's "C-Rock City" is about an interstellar merchant marine on shore leave who becomes radicalized in learning about his heritage. He is rescued from imprisonment by a port-of-call lover, but vows to return someday to set things right. But the story seems somewhat aimless: more affecting is Ian Watson's "Cages," which relates its narrator's crush on a younger woman, with an ending that makes you rethink everything you've just read. In both stories, the relationships are homosexual, although encouragingly in neither is it a big deal, or crucial to the resolution. (Indeed, SF is a pioneering art form in championing the common humanity of alternate sexual lifestyles, notably the work of Samuel R. Delany, among others. The fact that some of the "dangerous" stories about sexuality once thought shocking in Harlan Ellison's famed Dangerous Visions anthology seem somewhat tame today is a testament to how visionary the genre truly is.) The consequences of sexual attraction, albeit genetically enhanced, is also the subject of Neal Asher's "Bioship" which, as the title implies, features a sentient seafaring vessel. The love triangle in this story lacks a message, but also lacks any insight; in the end, it is just another story of novel surprise.
Often what makes a story subversive is an element of humor, and Mann has acquired some quite funny stories about serious issues. "The Bowdler Strain" by James Lovegrove pokes fun at the bureaucratic mindset attempting to confine a virus inadvertently loosed upon the public that makes people incapable of swearing; the cure is worse than the disease. One of the standout stories is Paul Di Filippo's "Personal Jesus," in which everyone has a "godPod" for personalized religious guidance, though the lack of one actually leads to salvation. Laugh-out-loud funny, if a bit silly, is "Jellyfish" by Resnick and David Gerrold, which starts out as a riff on Philip K. Dick's paranoia and ends up making jokes at the expense of just about every major figure in the SF genre, including the authors.
Overall, the Solaris collection reminds me of the various Groff Conklin-sponsored compilations from the 1960s and '70s that shared similarly mundane titles (e.g., Thirteen Great Science Fiction Stories or The Big Book of Science Fiction) that I used to devour as a kid. No grand design, just a bunch of "novel" stories that sometimes made you think. Fast Forward, in contrast, attempts to delineate a set of precepts. Anders isn't breaking any new theoretical ground here; there is no boldly going forth into unknown literary pretentiousness. He is expressly building on the critical tradition of Pohl and Knight. Essentially, Pohl argued that a science fiction story must either illustrate something about the relationship between humanity and technology, or employ a scientific premise to investigate or illustrate the human condition. Knight, more famously (and perhaps riffing off the Supreme Court justice who said he couldn't define pornography, except that he knew it when he saw it) said, "SF is what I point at when I say 'SF.'" Noting that we live in science fictional times, with ever-accelerating advances in technology altering our social, political, and biological landscapes, Anders invokes John Clute's position that SF provides a window into future possibilities as an outlook to make sense of the present: "Here, then, are twenty-one windows on the future, as seen through the imaginations of twenty-three talents" (p. 18).
If you're trying to figure out that math, there are two co-writes, both of which, as it happens, fail to provide much of a view. Larry Niven and Brenda Cooper provide a sequel to "Kath and Quicksilver," which originally appeared in the August 2005 Asimov's. I haven't read it, but follow-up "The Terror Bard" doesn't seem to me to have much to say, at least not in the terms Anders uses to define the "cutting-edge." The situation is that a human, Kathlerian, and a sentient intelligence that has to be brought out of suspended existence, Quicksilver, conspire to destroy the planet Mercury. The intention is to make enough money from selling exclusive media rights to the event to pay for transport of Kathlerian's clan out of the dying solar system. While there is some hint that a race of near-immortal humans may require a dangerous challenge to restore their basic sense of humanity, there's nothing here that makes me think (other than to wonder what this story is doing in the book). Similarly, Resnick and Nancy Kress use Biblical allusions in "Solomon's Choice," but although the central character has to make a moral decision, it seemed to me that the whole set-up has more to do with providing a neat twist for the ending than any thoughtful ethical explorations. It certainly lacks the moral shadings of Paolo Bacigalupi's "Small Offerings," which on first read may seem like an anti-abortion allegory, but recognizes complexities that lean towards a pro-choice interpretation.
George Zebrowski's "Settlements" also strives to deal with complexities, but it's too heavy-handed, filled with characters whose sole purpose is ponderous exposition. Aliens have landed, depositing rectangular boxes of unknown function—though they seem to have favorable effects on humanity—all over Earth. Jefferson James is sent by the powers-that-be to meet with the aliens to learn their intentions and then blow them up with a nuclear device concealed in his leg. Will he follow orders, in spite of the aliens' seeming beneficence?
As in the Solaris collection, there's plenty of humor. Kage Baker's "Plotters and Shooters" nicely satirizes geeky game-playing culture. Less successful is Pamela Sargent's "Smaller Government," in which the White House and Congress literally shrink, but people are able to freely move between normal size and, well, the size of smaller government. There are a lot of funny bits, but I thought the ending strained a wee bit in trying to be significant. More subtly satirical is Justina Robson's "The Girl Hero's Mirror Says He's Not the One," in which a cyberpunk heroine's structured reality becomes subject to the unleashed forces of randomness.
There's one outright fantasy, "The Hour of the Sheep," by Gene Wolfe, in which a master swordsman attempts to prove his street cred, only to let his guard down on account of an intriguing woman. Less "literary" than some of Wolfe's fables, in the sense that this is a straightforward and easily understandable narrative, it also doesn't strike me as having anything particular to say in an avowed collection of "significant" fiction, beyond the fact that men can be jerks when it comes to prospects of romance (or, at the very least, of getting laid). We already know that. Still, an amusing, if not particularly thought-provoking, read.
Elsewhere, more seriously, Robert Charles Wilson presents a parable of copyright use combined with male gullibility in "YFL-500"; Ballantyne ponders whether computers could really run our lives better in "Aristotle OS"; Elizabeth Bear depicts a mother's anguish in coming to a counterintuitive decision regarding her daughter's psychological problem; and Louise Marley combines themes of academic jealousy and sexual frustration in a tale of time travel in which someone's consciousness can inhabit someone in the past, in this case Brahms and Clara Schumann, in "P Dolce." All of these qualify as "novel" stories that leave you thinking.
John Meaney incorporates elements of fantasy in "Sideways from Now," the one novella-length story. The narrator, inventor of a commercialized telepathic technology, recently lost his wife to cancer. His grief is manifested in a series of otherworldly visions that ponder the tenuous conditions of reality and relationships. The narrator's quest to discover some vestige of his deceased wife embedded in some alternate consciousness reflects some of the ideas recently broached by Douglas Hofstader in I Am a Strange Loop, particularly the notion that personal identity is rooted in continual feedback from other conscious beings and, thus, after death, somehow "lives on" in a loop in someone else's neural network.
Speaking of strange loops, musician Robyn Hitchcock contributes two poems, both of which are more comprehensible than his typical song lyrics (which tend to focus on weird animal habits). The poems add a nicely different pacing if you read the stories in sequence, which I tend to do because I always assume there's some editorial intention for story placement.
By far my favorite story in Fast Forward is "Jesus Christ, Reanimator," in which Ken MacLeod imagines the Second Coming. This has been done before, but unlike, say, Hamilton, MacLeod really nails the idea—if you'll pardon the expression—both providing a science fictional explanation of the resurrection and, more importantly, exploring the limitations of human understanding that all too commonly lead to tragic intolerance. But perhaps the story that exemplifies the Fast Forward standpoint, which Anders rightly describes as "the perfect concluding tale," is Di Fillipo's "Wikiworld." Typical of the author's oeuvre, the story extrapolates current social and technological trends—in this case global warming and, as the title indicates, participatory democracy built on the organizational model of Wikipedia, and with the same potential flaws for the devious to exploit the dupes—into a wacky future that is in many respects, notably the lack of bloodshed, preferable to our current state of affairs.
Both collections are worthwhile additions to your shelves, particularly since both comprise original work. They also both succeed, regardless of differently articulated philosophical approach, in Conklin's aspiration, to "offer a selective survey of the almost incredibly rich vein of ideas that the science fiction imagination habitually explores; and that is all it is intended to do. If it encourages you to further reading in this exciting field—why, so much the better" (Thirteen Great Stories of Science Fiction pp. 8-9). But if I had to choose between the two, I'd favor Fast Forward over Solaris because there are more stories that consistently satisfy Priest's second criterion: they make us think about our life in new ways. Put another way, the windows open more frequently to more diverse and interesting views.