Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Review of Solaris Rising 3 ed. by Ian Whates

In my wild mind, I often compare the job an editor has sequencing stories for an anthology to a band sequencing songs for an album.  New bands often lump their better songs toward the beginning, hoping to cash in on the splash, while the more experienced tend to use different tactics to evoke a desired response.  One such tactic is to follow up a solid opener with a bit of mediocre material before laying on the good stuff—an easing into the music as it were, such that the last impression leaves the best impression.  While reading Ian Whates Solaris Rising 3: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction (Solaris, 2014) this strategy took shape in my mind, and as the last several stories were absorbed, I was convinced as to the tactic.  But then again, the beauty of science fiction anthologies is that everyone walks away with a different opinion of what was good and what wasn’t… 

Solaris Rising 3 opens on a strong note: “When We Harvested the Nacre- Rice” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew, which is the story of Pahayal and a woman she finds laying half-dead in a puddle near her home.  War raging between Pahayal’s land and a neighbor, she isn’t surprised to learn the woman, named Etiesse, is a soldier.   But it isn’t until the two visit a weapons’ museum and an attack takes place that Pahayal learns exactly what kind of soldier Etiesse is.  The line of story playing out steadily and evenly, with ripples of poetic prose here and there, Pahayal’s tale, for as minimalist as it is on the surface, tugs subtly at something deeper, more emotional, and certainly more anthropological.  Set in an intriguing setting where the ocean lies just a meter beneath the soil and ethereal, unearthly creatures emerge from pools in the night, “The Goblin Hunter” by Chris Beckett has a wonderfully described backdrop. Set in his Lutania world, a young woman is tasked with keeping the locals under control as they needlessly hunt and kill native species for reasons of superstition.  Beckett’s agenda an obvious one—and one that, in fact, should be propagated further, I remain, however, wishful that the characters and their dialogue were closer to mimetic such that the impact and heights of profundity aimed at could have been better achieved.  Carrying on with the idea of cultural intrusion, “Homo Floresiensis” by Ken Liu is the story of the grad student Benjamin and what happens when his ornithology studies in Indonesia are sidetracked by the discovery of some very unique bones.  Though ending in a manner unqiue to Liu, the question remains: does the simplicity of plot and character bear the heady weight of the theme? 

Continuing on with the mediocrity is “A Taste for Murder” by Julie Czernada.  The story of a police inspector and their attendance at a funeral that may or may not have been murder, the suspects and motives unravel in the course of the food-laden ceremony.  While stylistically appealing, the core story is run of the mill (as is the standard usage of biomod concept at this stage in sci-fi’s evolution). “Double Blind” by Tony Ballantyne is a one-trick pony. The story of a group of people voluntarily subjecting themselves to medical experimentation, the Big Brother watching over them becomes more and more mysterious as the experiment goes on and people in the group start dying.  It’s possible this one went waaaaay over my head, but it’s also possible it’s as simple as it appears.  Another one-off, “The Mashup” by Sean Williams is the story of a man leaving a bar.  After catching the name of a track that he liked that evening, he notices a black sphere hangs above his head.  Out on the street, he notices other have similar spheres above, following them.  As time progresses, the black spheres are joined by other colors, red and blue, and, they appear to be taking bites of reality.  But what does it all mean?  Listening to the track just might hold the answer.  I’m a fan of Sean Williams, this story, however, is more of a gimmick and possesses little re-read value.

I know much of the sf world is in love with Aliette de Bodard, but I just don’t see what all the fuss is about.  Competent, yes.  Readable, yes. Worth reading, at times yes.  Yet there is nothing about the writing that sets her significantly apart.  Certainly every aspect is infused with Vietnam, (which could get old very quick if reading a de Bodard collection—should one ever appear) and occasionally she can infuse a story with a wonderfully human agenda, but most of her short fiction is standard, i.e. been there, done that sci-fi.  While never directly stated but apparent given the content, “The Frost on Jade Buds”, de Bodard’s offering for Solaris Rising 3, is an homage to Iain Banks.  The tale of one sister’s search for another aboard an AI mindship, it is one of those stories which throws random tech into scenes to propel the action, no overriding system of logic how the elements work with one another save the magic of AI.  There are de Bodard shorts with more depth...

“Popular Images from the First Manned Mission to Enceladus” by Alex Dally MacFarlane is a piece which documents the first scientific mission to Saturn’s satellite Enceladus.  Likewise lacking full coherency, it is unable to balance the details of the span of time covered while conveying a proper sense of humanity.  Or, to put it concretely, by using posterizable wording as the leitmotif, the reader never has a chance to get close enough to the characters to empathize.  Yet, as the story is about scientists going through life’s major milestones far, far from Earth, empathy is precisely the desired effect.  While stylistically superb, “Red Lights, and Rain” by Gareth L. Powell remains a story of a girl traveled through time to kill a vampire.  For me, that is ‘nuff said.  But for the more mainstream reader of genre, certainly the manner in which Powell unveils the story (his attention to detail, pacing, use of tropes, sense of drama, etc.) will appeal.  If time travel and vampire hunters are your thing, go for it.  Laura Lam’s “They Swim through Sunset Seas” had the same effect.  Likewise feeling like a Golden Age throwback, it is the story of two underwater researchers who push alien research a little too far.  The story possesses zero depth—despite the underwater theme (boo…)—and can only be read for the buildup of suspense.  Otherwise, relevancy is sorely lacking. 

It’s “Faith Without Teeth” by Ian Watson that begins to right an anthology that was starting to list to starboard—not correct the course, but at least wake up the steersman.  An exotic piece whose meaning is wrapped up in the absurdity of North Korean-style communism, it is more art than fiction, but at least aims for something beyond genre redux.  Perhaps the best story in the collection, “Thing and Sick” by Adam Roberts is the story that really gets Solaris Rising 3 moving in the right (read: engaging) direction.  Two researchers sit out long nights in Antarctica on a SETI project.  Though maintaining radios and machinery, cables and computers, free time only serves to widen the divide in their personalities.  One an introverted fanatic of Kant, the other a more extroverted pop culture kind of guy, trouble brews when the latter agrees to sell the former one of the letters he receives in their weekly mail drops.  Possessing just the right tinge of something-ness to make the book science fiction, Roberts amalgamates philosophy, suspense, the isolation of Antarctica, and a character study in a truly compelling story. And the last line?  Beautifully slingshot.  “The Sullen Engines” by George Zebrowski takes the baton of Roberts’ piece and runs with it.  A work of cutting social commentary that sees one woman’s wish come true: to eliminate the environmental and physical danger that cars represent with a thought, it’s likewise an atypical piece prosaically.

Like Powell’s story, Cat Sparks “Dark Harvest” is stylistically engaging, and works with larger-than-life genre elements.  But only at first.  Transmuting into something entirely unpredictable, the opening, which features of a group of mercenaries on a foreign planet that could have come straight from a Hollywood action flick, winds its way to a soft-spoken conclusion that warrants re-reading.  Acid rain pouring down with war thundering in the distance, the mercenaries watching nuns cremate a corpse on the battlefield outside their tent is only the beginning.  “Fift and Shria” Benjamin Rosenbaum is a bizarre story that plays with gender in abstract fashion.  Rosenbaum’s prose a little flat but able to get from point A to B, the story appears a plea for something more universally human than gender.  Seemingly everything Ian Macleod touches turns to gold, and his collaboration “The Howl” with Martin Sketchley is no different.  The story of an Australian woman visiting London for the first time, the news she bears to an unsuspecting host is balm in inverse form.  Invoking strong nostalgia for the Cold War days of the RAF, it is the highly personal story of a mentally beleagured father and his estranged daughter taking their next steps in life after the death of the mother.  Possessing all of Macleod’s feel for the humanist elements of story and (perhaps?) Sketchley’s love of yesteryear aircraft in Britain, the story is heartfelt and never plays cheaply.

Written in the author’s elegant prose, “The Science of Chance” by Nina Allan is a police investigation into the origins of a girl found at the Vasilievsky train station that ends up being an investigation of much more.   Aside from the fact this is far from the first time somebody has employed the narrative device the revelatory moment the story is dependent upon, everything else about this piece is wonderfully done—the prose, the pacing, the precise unveiling of backdrop and personal matters, the structure, and ultimately, its humanism.  “Endless” by Rachel Swirsky closes out the anthology in a burst of smoke and fire—literally.  A science fiction twist on the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in NYC in 1911, virtual post-humans are taught the meaning of being corporeal by participating in fully sensual, first person experiences of the 146 victims.  A harsh yet important lesson, the value of life gets across to the post-humans as well as the reader.

In the end, Solaris Rising 3 is an anthology that opens by dabbling in commonplace science fiction (aside from Sriduangkaew’s opener, that is), but at the halfway point ramps up to fresher comport and stirring interest.  In keeping with the two (and a half) previous Solaris Rising anthologies, Whates has kept the variety factor high (there is something for every fan of sf), his quality of authors mostly high (a few of the stories are lacking here and there, but overall are among some of the best writing in the field today), and, as hinted in the intro, his skills as editor rewarding for those with patience to see the anthology through.  While not every story has chance to be nominated, I wouldn’t be surprised to see one or two hit a nomination ballot in 2015 or the year's best anthologies.

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