Solaris) ups the count of editor Jonathan Strahan’s Infinity science fiction anthologies to five. Driving a strong, hard sf agenda for this volume, in the introduction Strahan drops big names in galactic scale imagination—Clarke, Asimov, Campbell—before moving on to the focus of the anthology: “Is solving problems still integral to science fiction? Do we still believe problems are solvable?”. Such an outlay would seem to make the reviewer’s job easy: does the author tackle a significant issue facing mankind with the tools of extrapolative science while using the techniques of fiction to best advantage? Let’s see…
Bridging Infinity features fifteen stories from a wide spectrum of science fiction authors, from well-known (Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Larry Niven, etc.) to lesser-known (An Owomoyela, Thoraiya Dyer, and Karin Lowachee), those who’ve been around a while (Pamela Sargent, Robert Reed, Gregory Benford, etc.) to those not (Charlie Jane Anders, Ken Liu,e tc.) male to female, British to American to beyond, and even a few collaborative efforts (Tobias Buckell & Karen Lord, Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty, etc.). If anything, the anthology is variegated from the authorial perspective. In terms of content, there is likewise a variety, from previously established story settings (Reed’s Great Ship, Allen Steele’s Coyote universe, and others) to new settings, far to near future, Earth-based to solar system scenarios, and real-world to purely fictional concerns.
Bridging Infinity opens with “Sixteen Questions for Kamala Chatterjee” by Alastair Reynolds. The title literal (what else might one expect in a hard sf anthology?), the title character is faced with questions from a university she is applying to. About a young woman trying to save the world through a technological breakthrough, the story tries hard to represent real-world science—how it’s practiced, the labyrinths and limits of academia, the theory crafting, the commercial interest, etc. And these aspects of story Reynolds excels at, delivering in both overt and subtle form. (The usage of the questionnaire is a refined, guiding hand that leads nicely into the story’s conclusion, for example.) Reynolds blows the lid off the verisimilitude with a wild extrapolation that any 12-year-old with a textbook could dream up, but does not detract from the underlying intent. The follow up story, Pat Cadigan’s “Six Degrees of Separation Freedom” works with relatively similar material to her earlier “The Girl Thing Who Went Out for Sushi” (i.e. physical modification for life in space), but takes a different, less extreme approach. One of the more subdued (and relevant for it) stories in the anthology, there are grandiose ideas floating in the background, but Cadigan keeps the main character’s individual choices and concerns front and center. The next selection, Stephen Baxter’s “The Venus Generations”, feels more a lesson in -ologies, for example biology, meteorology, geology, etc. than story (as I guess hard sf fans enjoy). It is about, as the title hints, several generations of a family as they live in modules orbiting in Venus’ atmosphere, watching the construction of a massive umbrella that will block the sun and allow humanity to colonize the surface. The end result is a story that feels as much at home in Martin and Dozois’ retro-pulp anthology Old Venus as it does in Strahan’s.
A millenial among the stars, “Rager in Space” by Charlie Jane Anders opens on a good joke. Riffing off Snapchat, the story goes on to tell of a valley girl/jersey shore type person as she travels into space and the social media environment feeding her mindset. The result is a story which is either the dumbest ever, or most contemporarily relevant—or both (which would be the real coup d’etat). Possible to be a reprint of 50s sf with none the wiser, “Ozymandias” by Karen Lowachee tells of everyday-man Luis and his new position aboard a remote communications station orbiting Jupiter. Strange things happening just days into his job, he and his bot friend SIFU must get to the bottom of things or die. Very mediocre material that I struggle to see addressing Strahan’s agenda for the anthology.
“The City's Edge” by Kristin Kathryn Rusch begins with a man overlooking the destroyed remnants of the 1000 sq. km. super-city his wife had designed. Facing the reality of having to identify her dead body removed from the wreckage, he mourns, all the while puzzling over what could have possibly destroyed the city and her. The final explanation as arbitrary as it comes in sf, Rusch nevertheless attempts to bridge the resulting gap with strong personal content. Astrophysics 101 (complete with diagrams) and a splash of space opera, “Mice Among Elephants” by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven is everything hard sf is known for, for better or worse. About a space ship exploring an unknown sector, the science of space flies as fast as the ship's mission. “Parables of Infinity” by Robert Reed is an origin story of the Great Ship, or at least the hyper-fiber it is comprised of. Thanks to Reed’s sense of style, what little actual story material exists is converted into decent fiction.
Another sunshade story this time on Earth, “Monuments” by Pamela Sargent tells of the generations of female leaders who have been put into place to manage the project and stop global warming. The scene one of Earth flooded (the right Strahan anthology for 2016?), the generations of women get what they want but with a dose of mortality, the result a story searching for something profound at its conclusion. Set in Allen Steele’s Coyote universe, “Apache Charley and the Pentagons of Hex” tells of a joyrider—a space opera drifter—exploring the extents of the super-planet Hex. Searching for the mysterious pentagon biopods that are rumored to exist, when he finally gets coordinates to one, the only thing he can do is set out to find it—even if it means danger. Ending in a fizzle—even for as much as Steele’s lucid prose hand carries the day, the overall story amounts to fare best appreciated by the Coyote lover.
A truly interesting idea couched in poor prose, “Cold Comfort” by Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty posits advanced material technology that acts as a membrane capable of reducing gas emissions, which in turn impact the effects of global warming. “I attached the lead wires to the cap, placed the cartridges in the crater I had made, then scraped the ice chips back into the hole to cover them" is a sample of how basic the text reads, even if the underpinning ideas are more intelligent. A character study, “Travelling into Nothing” by An Owomoyela tells of a prisoner with special neural implants who is saved from death row by a starship captain in need of her abilities. The story rises above the majority of those in the anthology for the intensity of emotion and character, but still fails to achieve anything truly singular.
Closing out Bridging Infinity is Ken Liu’s “Seven Birthdays”. The last story in the anthology to use generations as a means of relaying long-term technological change, it’s by position only. Reminiscent of Charles' Stross’ Accelerando or Palimpsest for its exponentially expedient path ahead through time (but without the gonzo style), it tells of the generations of a girl named Mia and her mother, a woman obsessed with finding an engineering solution to the ills that plague mankind. Contextualizing the contemporary Western situation with some simple but effective bits of far-future imagination, Liu keeps things relevant by understanding the idea that problems will always exist, and thus what matters is our approach—our attitude—toward them. Capturing Strahan’s agenda, it’s a nice note on which to end the anthology.
In the end, Bridging Infinity continues Strahan’s series of Infinity anthologies in solid but not spectacular fashion. It’s possible this is because I remain unsure how often the stories meet the outlay of Strahan’s introduction, not to mention how often hard sf makes for quality literature. There are some big ideas, there is some grounding in science, but as a rule these two are not always applied in unison toward solving humanity’s problems, not to mention with a balance of technique and craft. As such, Bridging Infinity does contain a few good stories (e.g. the offerings from Cadigan, Anders, and Liu), but there are not any stories that truly stand out—none actively bad, but neither any that seem remarkable in the long term. Which seems an appropriate summary for the anthology as a whole. Indeed, perhaps this is because hard sf is, in general, not my cup of tea. (Meeting Infinity remains the high point thus far in the Infinity series.) Thus, if it is your cup, then the anthology may very well satisfy.
The following are the fifteen stories selected for Bridging Infinity:
Introduction (by Jonathan Strahan)
Sixteen Questions for Kamala Chatterjee by Alastair Reynolds
Six Degrees of Separation Freedom by Pat Cadigan
The Venus Generations by Stephen Baxter
Rager in Space by Charlie Jane Anders
The Mighty Slinger by Tobias S. Buckell & Karen Lord
Ozymandias by Karin Lowachee
The City’s Edge by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Mice Among Elephants by Gregory Benford & Larry Niven
Parables of Infinity by Robert Reed
Monuments by Pamela Sargent
Apache Charley and the Pentagons of Hex by Allen M. Steele
Cold Comfort by Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Travelling into Nothing by An Owomoyela
Induction by Thoraiya Dyer
Seven Birthdays by Ken Liu