Fiction Reviews

Engineering Infinity

(2010) Jonathan Strahan (editor), Solaris, £7.99, pbk, 333pp, ISBN 978-1-907-51951-2


Let me start off with a review for a general SF readership before I provide later on some comment for serious hard-SF readers.

Engineering Infinity is a broad transect of current hard SF short stories. Solaris has produced some fine anthologies despite this imprint only being around for a few years, and this collection from a variety of writers will make for a worthy addition to many SF readers' shelves.

The stories themselves seem to have originated in a time-warping SFnal way for the anthology's copyright date, as denoted on the masthead page, is 2010 but immediately below we can see that each story has a copyright date of 2011! I am sure that there is some sort of violation of space-time cause-and-effect related to the grandfather paradox here.

The anthology's commissioning editor, Jonathan Strahan, begins with an interesting enough an introduction entitled 'Beyond the Gernsback continuum'. In it he notes that SF readers love taxonomy: classifying, arranging and defining things and that we love to 'taxonomise' science fiction itself. All too true, and I should perhaps point out that many scientists (irrespective of whether or not they are into SF) are into taxonomy and all scientists have to abide by agreed nomenclature. Indeed one of the founding stones of biology is taxonomy and systematics (how species relate to each other) and so you will not be surprised (and Jonathan Strahan's introduction implies that he should not be surprised) that as an SF-reading biologist reviewing for the Science Fact & Science Fiction Concatenation, I will have a view on matters taxonomic.

Jonathan Strahan defines the Gernsback continuum as 'the slice of science fiction that starts with Gernsback's Amazing Stories, progresses through John W. Campbell's Astounding Stories and the Big Three (Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke) before moving on to the New Wave and its descendents'. He goes on to say how the term 'hard SF' was first used (as it happens a few months after I was born in 1957 so it is now quite established) to denote an SF story that turns on a point of scientific accuracy. Jonathan then gives a very brief outline of the history of hard SF and that more recently we have seen the 'Gibson continuum' (the past and future history of cyberpunk).

All well and fair enough, Jonathan Strahan's take on hard SF is as valid as Jonathan Cowie's, and as I said his introduction is interesting enough.

However, he then goes on to say that the stories he has compiled are not all classic hard SF and that this collection is not the last word on the evolutionary taxonomy of hard SF. Here then is the wiggle room the editor has introduced: it is his copout ejector seat (more of which later).

Jonathan Strahan also introduces each story with half a page about the author, what prizes they have won, as well as some personal information as to whether they are married, have children, a pet cat or dog and so forth. Now I have to say that I love meaningful introductions to stories be they by a single author in a collection or by a commissioning editor in an anthology. Yet for me the story introductions in Engineering Infinity was one of its weak aspects. What I do want to get out of a story introduction is why was the story selected and whether or not it relates to any of the writer's other work. Engineering Infinity's story introductions do not cover such aspects.  To be honest I am no more interested in a litany of the author's awards than I would be in knowing whether an actor has a BAFTA or whatever at the start of a film. Neither am I interested in a writer's biological fecundity or their personal predilection to domestic zoonosis.

As is typical with Solaris anthologies, of the stories in Engineering Infinity there are more hits than misses and there are some really nice tales. For me the hits, in order of appearance in this anthology, include:-

Malek by Peter Watts concerns introducing ethics into a near-AI (artificial intelligence). This is a twist on more common short stories (such as by Greg Egan) on the ethics of creating and running AIs. As such this story is more than appropriate for a hard SF anthology but in addition ethics is something that those of us in science are increasingly have to wrestle and so far have done so with mixed success. This story made for a fantastic start to the anthology.

Watching the Music Dance by Kristine Katheryn Rusch looks at the assumptions, and problems, parents have in trying to 'upgrade' their offspring. Again this story relates to two current hot areas of biological research, reproductive biology and molecular genetics, and their application to humans.

Laika's Ghost by Karl Schroeder takes a puzzle being investigated by an official and reconciles it with a new (or SFnally old?) form of interplanetary travel, in a future of what was the old Soviet Union.

The Invasion of Venus by Stephen Baxter see Baxter in Arthur Clarke mode. Something seems bent on attacking Venus to the puzzlement of Earth's authorities.

The Server and the Dragon by Hannu Rajaniemi is a tale of a far flung artificial intelligence just outside our Galaxy whose purpose is to be a node of the Galactic net. A number of SF stories (an early example being The Forever War (1974)) have looked at the disjunction between the human timescale and those of deep time necessary due to speed of light restrictions and spatial galactic scales. However you can turn this on its head and look at the possible problems facing something operating remotely over deep time. And this is what Hannu Rajaniemi does here. Interestingly deep-time and human timescale disjunctions are something that scientists are beginning to face now, and in my area of biosphere science we have the difficulties of reconciling the work those looking at biosphere function over geological time scales with those looking at its more day-to-day aspects (such as current human-induced climate change). So you can see why I like such tales.

Bit Rot by Charles Stross is a hard SF horror space opera onboard an interstellar ship that has had an accident resulting in some of the crew effectively becoming zombies. Brilliant.

Walls of Flesh, Bars of Bone by Damien Broderick and Barbara Lamar. In the (near) future a media studies lecturer is sent a very old film, but is that himself he sees within it? I have included this in with the hits as at its heart is an interesting concept but, while this is an excellent draft of a story, I do think it needs a rewrite especially to relate its hard SF element to the protagonist's own challenges.

Mantis by Robert Reed asks whether virtual reality can tell us anything about reality?

Judgement Eve by John C. Wright, is a post-human tale that I think has resonances with Greek fables. (Not being on the internet it is hard to easily check.) Irrespective of this last, this has its share of sense of wonder.

Mercies by Gregory Benford is a human tale of time travel and self-righteousness as our protagonist goes back in time to take out would-be serial killers. This was probably the most conventional of 1970s – '80s hard SF stories in the collection and I love it for that. It also has an interesting take on the Hugh Everett III's Multiverse perspective. But then again Greg is a physicist and so can do anything.

The Birds and the Bees and the Gasoline Trees by John Barnes is a heady story in which an enhanced human is part of a team investigating a strange phenomenon in the Pacific, that could be part of a climate change geo-engineering project gone wrong or something else…

And there you have it. More than enough worthies (in my view) for you to get your teeth into. And maybe some of the few I have not cited might grab you.

… And here endeth the review for the general SF reader.

Of course, being the Science Fact & Science Fiction Concatenation, and Engineering Infinity being a hard SF anthology, you probably expect a more hard SF appraisal of this collection: who am I to disappoint you…

Actually, what is to my mind this collection's weakness raises in itself an interesting point as to the ways hard SF is appreciated: not everyone does so the same way. Hard SF is fiction (indeed science fiction) spun out of real science. This is not a 'cold equation' thing to which the editor refers in his introduction but if there is a subcategory of SF more firmly underpinned by science and the consequences of scientific phenomena than other areas of SF, then hard SF is it. There really is no need for the wiggle room the compiler had in his introduction.

In looking at what were to my mind the clear misses (I have not included above) I tried to see if I could discern a pattern. And indeed I did. While all the stories included the tropes of hard SF, only my hits had them at the heart of the story and not just as superficial trappings. This is not a Clarke thing (any technology sufficiently advanced might be mistaken for magic) but if you are to really appreciate hard SF you must have an appreciation of the science at its heart. We are living in an ever more scientific and scientifically literate world. In Great Britain alone there are hundreds of thousands of A-level (high school) science pupils and within the population well over a million graduates with a science, engineering or medical degree. Surveys tell us that SF encourages studying science and certainly it has been the science students at the university SF societies that I have known over the years that seem to gravitate more towards hard SF. Using the trappings of science within a story does not by itself make it hard SF! Works that use the trappings of science alone without having them at the heart of the storymight be called faux hard SF. And if you do not get that then I am not convinced that you have a sufficient understanding of what science is all about. Indeed, I have to say that while I am convinced that the editor of this anthology has a good appreciation and knowledge of SF, I am not sure that he has of science. (I am open to be corrected should he have a BSc tucked away.) To put it another way, if someone considers some hard SF to be based on 'cold equations' then I respectively put it to you that that person does not appreciate the wonder and beauty of equations, let alone the next step of relating equations to real life things such as warm and wet biological phenomena.

To fully enjoy hard SF a reader needs to be more than superficially scientifically lieterate. Indeed it helps -- though I fully admit is not an absolute necessity -- to have a science qualification. Yes, I know that this view may not be considered by some as being politically correct: it is not a 'we are all equal' perspective and I do unashamedly adhere to the biodiversity view that we all have our strengths and weaknesses.

What I am saying is that a commissioning editor of a hard SF anthology really does need to stand on a solid foundation of a personal understanding of science as well as that of SF.  Now, there are scientists who write SF and who are active within the SF community and (while I am not angling for the job of anthology editor especially as I perpetually seem to be time-pressed) a commissioning editor of a hard SF anthology really does need to be sufficiently sure-footed in science to get the best hard SF available. And there is a lot of good stuff out there so there really is no excuse not to go after it and so no reason, for that matter, to introduce wiggle room in one's selection to obviate the need to go for the really hard stuff.

The editor says in his introduction that he would love to see an anthology that was a last statement in the evolutionary taxonomy of hard SF, and I join him in making that wish. While we may never get to a last statement in the evolutionary taxonomy of hard SF (both science and evolution are on-going endeavours), we can certainly leave out the faux hard SF.

However, please do not let this criticism get in the way of you buying this anthology. As I said in my review for general SF readers there are more than enough worthies (in my view) for you to get your teeth into and this collection from a variety of writers will make for a meaningful addition to many SF readers' shelves. I make a more critical appraisal for hard SF readers that are scientists because many of our site's visitors are scientists who happen to enjoy SF and that there really are more truly hard SF current stories out there of some excellence than this anthology suggests.

Jonathan Cowie

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