Fiction Reviews

The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction vol 3.

(2009) George Mann (ed.), Solaris, £7.99, pbk, 413 pp, ISBN 978-1-844-16709-8

Recent years have seen a few new SF anthologies become regular series. Notably we have had Pyr's Fast Forward 1 and F. F. 2. Then there has been The Solaris Book[s] of New Science Fiction of which this offering is the third. I have to say that compared to the various longer-running best-SF-of-the-year type series I like these newcomers far, far more. Unlike the best SF annuals - which for my taste seem to contain too many novellas and novelettes - these newcomers actually deliver and give you short stories. Also importantly they give you 'science fiction' and are not diluted with a load of 'fantasy' (which lets face it should be confined to 'fantasy' anthologies). In short - shock, horror - these newcomers actually deliver what is on the cover in a very real sense. Hooray!

Introduction I welcome editors' introductions and in this instance we get a so-so comment on current SF. I say 'so-so' because I cannot say that I agree with George Mann's premise that currently SF is devoid (or at least lacking its fair share) of brave new, optimistic sense of wonder, with humanity going out into the stars. After all the 1980s and 1990s saw the development of Iain Banks' 'Culture' series of novels and the 1990s and 2000s saw Alastair Reynolds' 'Revelation Space' sequence to name but two best-selling authors (and the latter with an offering in this volume). True both these series clearly have their dark dimensions but the Culture folk seem to have a near as utopia with bags of 'sense of wonder' as you are likely to get, and many of the citizens in 'Revelation Space' also seem to have a good existence out there among the stars even if there are a good number roughing it at the tough cutting edge. Mann in his introductory editorial refers to dystopia a few times and though he does not mention 'utopia' clearly he is calling for more boldly-going utopian type SF. Notwithstanding that, I think today there is quite a bit of upbeat SF around with stacks of sensawonda out there: George might want to reflect what the Greek roots to the word 'utopia' actually mean ('no place') and therefore, given that, we can only get so far away from dystopias. The other point he makes is that this is a reflection of our pessimistic times with global economic problems, climate change, population etc. All I can say to this is that if he thinks it is bad now (2008/9) then the UN and other data (publicly available) have since the 1970s pointed to a really big crunch in the middle of this century: what is more the third of a century data trend since then indicates that we are firmly on course..! Hello crunch. Will you be friendly..?   Now, having made my comment on Mann's 'so-so' introduction please do not think I am knocking it as somehow being something unworthy. Not a bit of it: any introduction that stimulates debate and comment (as Mann's one has done generating mine) surely cannot be a bad thing. Good on him I say. Indeed if there is a Solaris Book... vol. 4 then I will certainly be on the look out for the editorial.

Anyway, time to get on with the stories...

'Rescue Mission' by Jack Skillingstead sees a two-person crew on a deep space cargo mission get diverted following a siren call to a planet. Haven't they seen the film Alien? One of them decides to go down. A bit of a mistake if you ask me...

'The Fixation' by Alastair Reynolds is a Multiverse tale whereby entropy is shunted across parallels for purposes of archaeological restoration. It is a new technique but will it have unforeseen consequences?   Now, Reynolds is one of those hard SF writers whom I cannot read without getting a twinge of jealousy at his seemingly effortless ability to turn out a continual stream of damn fine SF. This story did not disappoint.

Artifacts by Stephen Baxter. A cosmology physicist struggles with dwindling grants in an increasingly overstretched future to unravel the nature of the universe. Baxter comes up with an interesting presentation. Eganesque delight.

Necroflux Day by John Meaney. This author has written To Hold Infinity 1998 which Matt found impressive as well Context (2002) which Graham liked. This story is set in an alternate, science-fantasy Earth of which we get to see key aspects through: a child growing up; his bereaved father who has valued psychic abilities but nonetheless is feared by some normal citizens; and the boy's teacher who senses potential within the child. The world portrayed is a fascinating one. Apparently this is the world that appears in Meaney's novels Bone Song (2007) and Dark Blood (2008). This last Tony described (see the afore title link) as 'Good enough for a beach-reader, but lacking in real meat'. Now, I do not know whether Tony is being harsh because I found this story to be really engaging. Having said that I recall hugely getting off on Greg Egan's short - 'Wang's Carpets' I think it was called but for the life of me I cannot easily find it to check (and am not on the net at home) - but found that the novel that sprang from it Diaspora (1997) while enjoyable enough did not sustain the short story's high standard throughout. Maybe Meaney's 'Necroflux Day' has a similar relation with the novels set in the same world? Well, I cannot say anything about the novels (not having read them) but this short story is rather fine.

Providence by Paul Di Filippo takes us into a post-human time shortly after the 'carnals' have been usurped by automata. Two droids leave for another city to pick up some newly-discovered salvage. Though horribly (and unnecessarily as well as illogically) anthropocentric in just a couple of brief places, this story is otherwise very well crafted: I loved the difference given between digital and analogue. Absolutely brilliant.

Carnival Night by Warren Hammond takes place on a backwater colony planet. When a high-tech off-worlder is killed a local cop suspects the wife. This is very much a run-of-the-mill repackaging of crime noir with SF tropes. The set up is decidedly cliché-ridden and the presentation a little confusing: given the three times reversal, who actually dislikes the wife, the protagonist cop or his rival? Only an SFnal conclusion redeems this story, though, after a minute's thought the pragmatic logicality wears it thin. Fortunately this is short enough that not much of the anthology's momentum is lost, and it will no doubt entertain crime readers.

The Assistant by Ian Whates. The office block needs cleaning and who should so it but - obviously - the night shift clean-up crew. This is their story as not only do they empty the bins but clear up high-tech invasive messes... Now I have read a couple of Ian Whates' stories and though they have been all right they have not been anything particularly special (maybe my small sample was unrepresentative). However 'The Assistant' is something else, and this story is easily somewhere within the top five in this collection. Brilliant hard SF, amusing, and not only is it an SFnal take on a mundane present-day aspect of life (which in itself if cone right would be enough) but there is an SF extra towards the end. (This ending, purely coincidentally, is thematically reminiscent of Reynolds' 'Fixation': it could be subconscious spill-over from the recent Everett III anniversary or even a parallel universe..?).

Glitch by Scott Endelman. A robot, female by gender attribute, has peculiar - human - feelings. Scott Endelman revisits a theme explored many times including by Asimov over half a century ago. A fresh take on an old theme can be interesting.

One of our Bastards is Missing by Paul Cornell. This is a return to Cornell's parallel Earth of the future where individual European nations have gone into space and the British Empire is alive and as strong as ever. Of course the Empire needs protecting but not only by conventional soldiers but a kind of unofficial secret service. And so Major Hamilton is a kind of James Bond cum Flash (as in Flash of Tom Brown's school day's and subsequent army officer who is a bit of a bounder). Hamilton appeared in the recent Pyr Fast Forward 2 (2008) anthology. Here a Princess witnesses a mysterious disappearance in the midst of a crowded ball room. Could it be a miracle? Despite high tech abilities to fold space, there is doubt and the Vatican's call to proclaim it an official miracle has political implications. It is a rum affair and so who to call but Hamilton, Major Hamilton of the 4th Dragoons... Now I quite like the Hamilton tales but do feel that Paul Cornell might up the pace of his prose a tad to better reflect the action and drama of the plot: I know, I am stickler.

Woodpunk by Adam Roberts. Someone is taking out people in the woods, but the woods themselves have something to say... I have to say I blow hot and cold over Roberts and so will leave you to make your own mind up as to this science fantasy offering. But then that is the great thing about collections from various authors, there is another story following soon...

Minya's Astral Angels by Jennifer Pelland. The gene-modified and new species of Angel's were ideally suited for space work. They were also adorable and Minya simply loved them. Alas Minya's mother wanted Minya to get married. Getting rid of the distraction was easy as despite having over 90% human DNA the Space Angels had no rights. Minya has to do something... Now, when I say that this tale has echoes of Dick and Vonnegut you may well think that this is a classic short story. Let me clear that I would not go that far; nonetheless there really are the echoes of these authors herein and if you like those writers then you will be bound to enjoy this tale.

The Best Monkey by Daniel Abraham. In the (near?) future a net journalist (or the equivalent) who summarises and distils news is asked by his boss to become an investigative reporter. A company has grown fast and is rumoured that its secret is Roswell technology. Could this be true or is there some other explanation?   At its heart 'The Best Monkey' is an interesting enough story but, for my taste at least, its assembly could be improved.

Long Stay by Ian Watson. This is one of those observational stories based on real life but taken that bit further over an edge: something common to a number of this author's tales and an exercise in which he excels. In this case it is the future growth of airports' long-stay car parks. Of course ecologists can tell from the start of this tale that this is going to be a slightly surreal future as they are growing crops between the cars as part of carbon offset! But hold on, I am letting my biology impinge on your enjoyment to come of this charming yarn. (Thank goodness I am not a driver.)

A Stone Stitched to Iron by Tim Akers. It is murder most foul, but why? Tim Akers has crafted a great steampunk romp. Apparently he will soon have his debut novel published by Solaris.

i'Think, Therefore I Am by Ken MacLeod. Imagine high-tech glasses that combine the functions of a futuristic (personal) computer. It would need, would it not, a decent summary version of its manual - this short story is it. Also as high-tech glasses they also help us see... XXXX. This would have made for a cracking Nature 'Futures' short story and had it appeared there may well have made the Concatenation shortlist of several stories vying to be the top three we pick each year. (i.e. It would be in the top 15% or so.) Indeed the final bit of the tale resonates with Ted Chiang's own Futures tale, 'What's Expected Of US'.

Ignoring the contents index pagination slippage (someone didn't check the page proofs properly), this is a rather good collection of SF. As this is volume three the odds are that there will be a volume four. I certainly recommend this one and certainly will be keeping my eye out for the next.

Jonathan Cowie

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