Fiction Reviews


Obelisk

(2016) Stephen Baxter, Gollancz, £20.00, hrdbk, 309pp, ISBN 978-1-473-21274-9

 

This is a collection of British author Stephen Baxter's short stories between 2008 and 2013, all previously published other anthologies, in addition to two previously unpublished works. The book is dived into four sections, the first of which itself contains four stories all set in the Proxima-Ultima duology.  The second section is titled 'Other Yesterday' features six tales of alternate pasts (though one story, 'Mars Abides', while based on an alternate past is set in the near future of 2026.)  The third section, 'Other Todays', features two contemporary set stories while the final section, 'Other Tomorrows' has all stories set in the future.  And so with 10 stories of the 17 set in alternate timelines, this collection is largely an alternate history SF anthology.

The yarns in brief are…

'On Chryse Plain' sees two colonists on a Mars that is being terraformed have their aircraft crash with that of a young lady's who has come down from orbit. They find themselves stranded far from habitation with no communications….

'A Journey to Amasia' is set in a post-singularity future with the Vatican Pontifical Academy of Science seeking to contact one of the three core artificial intelligences (AIs) that are consuming more and more resources for their own mysterious purposes than for real human needs. So an artificial profile of a person who argued for AI rights journeys through cyberspace to meet a mega-AI originally made up of 9 digitised humans.  This is an engaging story with a neat perspective on AI versus human priorities. Would that our real-life human politicians have such a long-term perspective…

'Obelisk' the title story of this anthology, is another set on a future Mars where a mayor has to oversee a white collar criminal….

'Escape From Eden' continues the Martian theme with a pair seeking a fun joyride away from the strictures of a UN controlled colony…

'The Jubillee Plot' is set in 1887 at the opening of a new cross-English Channel bridge but the poor are unsettled and a conspiracy is afoot…

'Fate and the Fire-lance' has a Roman Emperor's son killed in 1914 London an an assassination threatens to plunge Europe into an industrialised war involving steel ships and automatic guns…

'TheUnblinking'Eye' has a prototype Inca ship arrive in 1966 Roman Empire London. The Incas have only recently arrived in Europe but have planes. The arrival is the start of cultural exchange and perhaps something else…

'The Darwin Anathema' and it is 2009 London where Mary has arrived by steam ship from Terra Australis. In this Europe, the Catholics defeated the Protestants back in the 18th century. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution has proven controversial so despite being long dead he is put on trial…

'Mars Abides' and it is 2026 and the 50th anniversary of the first human to set foot on Mars. But the last Martian colonist knows that he may also be the last human alive given the World War that broke out on Earth…

'Eagle Song' sees a strange star appear in the sky of 7150BC

'The Pevatron Rats' has rats mysteriously appear inside a mega-high-energy supper collider… This is a good old-fashioned SF style story that one might have seen in the 1950s and '60s, but with some modern trappings. Good stuff.

'Turing's Apples' and they built a giant radio telescope on the far side of the Moon which in turn detects an alien intelligence thousands of light years away…

'Artefacts' and in 2026 Morag's mother had just died. This was but one event in the multiverse whose structure had yet to be determined and questions such as did our universe need to end?  This is one of those stories set in a competing multiverse and there are now enough of them that they almost constitute a sub-trope of their own.

''Vacuum Lad' has a shuttle passenger discover that he has the ability to survive in vaccum…

'Rock Day' and Matt wakes up to find everything silent and his house become long-since dusty. But his pet dog is pleased to see him… Excellent short story.

'StarCall' and Paul gets a StarCall account for his birthday…

And so there you have it. Much set in alternate timelines but aside from that a varied set of tales. Something for everyone and Stephen Baxter's regulars will be happy.

Jonathan Cowie


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