Friday, April 4, 2014

Review of Godlike Machines ed. by Jonathan Strahan

There are many things that make science fiction unique, and one of them is certainly sense of wonder.  Choosing ‘godlike machines’ as his theme, one must wholeheartedly assume Jonathan Strahan was aiming precisely at this aspect of the genre when soliciting authors.  The anthology a combo of hard science, space opera and planetary weird of the super-size variety, it’s fair to say he hit his mark with Godlike Machines (2010). Whether the anthology is just a one-off, however, comes down to the individual story.

I once heard Jack Vance tell how he was shown a science fiction picture and asked to write a story based on it—whatever came to his mind—and the two would later be placed in tandem in a collection.  The story he produced was “Sail 25”; a solid novelette, but not his best.  Godlike Machines in many ways results in the same situation.  I realize there are some writers who cannot work without such prompts, but inevitably, the best stories arise more organically.  They evolve through iterations in the imagination with nothing to the story’s direction.  When writing based on premise, it’s automatic that a few fences are erected and a few demands are placed on the story.  This is not to say everything must fit within a tiny box, only that the reader is always aware of the strictures of the underlying premise: the writer was not writing with complete freedom.  Godlike Machines is thus closer to pastureland than open range.

The six stories (all novellas) that Strahan ultimately selected for the anthology are a varied mix.  There are two pieces of hard science: Stephen Baxter’s Return to Titan delves deeply (literally) into the landscape and atmosphere of Saturn’moon, and Greg Egan’s Hot Rock extrapolates on science to create a physics mystery in near impossible conditions.  Broader in scope, Sean Williams’ A Glimpse of the Marvelous Structure and Robert Reed’s Alone are both unsettling, surreal, and intriguing stories set in unnatural environments that possess as much Kafka as Clarke.  Offering the most thought-provoking material, those two stories form the heart of the anthology.  Alastair Reynolds’ Troika, while being one the author’s best-written works stylewise, nevertheless is a traditional BDO story—an initially intriguing BDO story—that peters out into an attempt at profundity.  Regarding Cory Doctorow’s There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow, the less said the better.  Not only does it fail to live up to the anthology’s theme, its plot is also immature to the point of incoherence, perversity, and sexual molestation.

The following is a more in depth look at the six novellas:

Headlining the anthology is Troika by Alastair Reynolds.  The story of a former cosmonaut, things open with Dimitri Ivanov just escaped from a mental hospital into a bitterly cold Russian night.  Seeking Nesha Petrova, he finds her, and after being invited in for a cup of tea, spills his story of what the Russian space program discovered when they went to investigate the Matroyshka—a big dumb object that suddenly popped into our solar system through a wormhole one day in the 21 st century.  Peeling back layer after layer, the suspense of Dimitri’s narrative is intense the closer to the center of the massive Matroyshka he gets.  One of Reynolds’ best stories from many perspectives, including style, tone, and structure, Troika is a solid note on which to open the anthology and gets the reader thinking big, even though the ending is a bit weak.  (For a longer review of the story on this blog, see here.)

The second in the collection is Return to Titan by Stephen Baxter.  A story set in his Xeelee universe, it details a trip Michael Poole and three colleagues take to Saturn’s moon Titan on the sponsorship of Michael’s aggressive father, Harry.  A combination of hard science fiction exploration and planetary adventure (with a splash of post-humanism), readers who like their fiction sounding effectively science-y will love it.  The details of Titan’s atmosphere and terrain come to realistic, physical life under Baxter’s pen.  Where the story falls apart, however, is in overall cohesiveness.  Baxter perhaps attempting to meet the grand challenge of the anthology’s theme a little too aggressively, this is a one-off with little re-read value save for those who revel in realistic imaginings of what Titan’s surface may be like.  That the characters speak in melodramatic info dump mode a la Bova’s take on Saturn’s moon doesn’t help.  Baxter has written better.

An immature, troubling story, There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow/Now Is the Best Time of Your Life by Cory Doctorow is the low point of the anthology.  Featuring a post-human young man whose growing mind is (not coincidentally) trapped in the body of a twelve year old boy, he fights in his mech warrior and molests women in a post-apocalyptic Earth on his way to discovering what “really matters” in life.  If you like simplistic stories with video game style action and disturbing sexual behavior, by all means have a go.  Otherwise this is a waste of time. (See here for a more in depth critique of why novella is so troubling.)

Another lengthy title, Sean William’s A Glimpse of the Marvelous Structure (And the Threat It Entails) makes up for the lack of integrity in Doctorow’s novella by telling a suspenseful and surreal story of a man caught in the labyrinth of a space mine.  Bits of Kafka, Tiptree Jr., and Jack Vance pulling the reader along right up to the last page, this story of a man following a woman who saw her own dead body possesses a few layers that do not immediately reveal themselves, but upon the conclusion ask the reader to go back and re-read to see all of the pieces in a new light.  A good, lucidly written story that rights the anthology’s proverbial ship.

Alone by Robert Reed is the penultimate novella, and like Williams’, possesses a certain degree of disassociation—of surrealism—which forces the reader to look for sub-text.  The eponymous being stuck on a Jupiter-sized space ship hurtling through the universe, it spends millennium exploring the hull before ever attempting the inhabited interior.  Desiring nothing more than privacy and isolation, the thing’s experiences of melding and hiding within society take slow effect.  Discovering a dead body at the bottom of a well one day, however, sets Alone down a different path.  An odd, yet unique tale, this is one of Reed’s best pieces and worth a re-read to get at the underlying concepts.

Hot Rock Greg Egan, the last piece in the anthology, is a revisit to the Amalgam, a universe that has featured in one Egan novel (Incandescence) and a handful of short stories.  Primarily a science mystery, the story is told through the eyes of two Amalgam scientists sent to investigate a strange sunless planet that, if all physics are to be believed, shouldn’t exist, forcing the pair to meander the planet’s political factions and history to get answers.  As would be expected given the theme of the anthology, much of the story is descriptions of the truly alien land Egan imagines, and ultimately what fuels life there.  If world building founded in scientific extrapolation is your gig, by all means dig in.  For everyone else, this will be an average story.

In the end, Godlike Machines is a fair anthology.  For lovers of hard sci-fi, BDOs, and planetary adventure, it may even take on proportions of good or great.  But this comes as no surprise; the selected authors are well known for their roles in the genre as producers of precisely that type of material.  My frustration and concern for the Doctorow novella linger, but thankfully Williams and Reed’s stories possess enough thought-candy to push the scales in a positive direction.  Troika is amongst the best Reynolds has produced, while Baxter and Egan’s pieces are just average, that is, unless you’re a hard sci-fi junkie.  For a themed anthology, Godlike Machines delivers what you expect.

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