Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Review of Reach for Infinity ed. by Jonathan Strahan

With the success of two ‘infinity’ themed anthologies under his belt (Engineering Infinity and Edge of Infinity), editor Jonathan Strahan pushes his science fiction agenda forward with a third.  Presenting the third transitive point, Reach for Infinity (Rebellion Publishing, 2014) regards humanity’s future in the solar system and beyond.  Familiar names return and new are added, making the fourteen stories in the third anthology as creative and enjoyable as the first two.

In the intro Strahan asserts that “hard sci fi has always sat at the heart of the science fiction field”.  While the statement is contentious (see Shelley, Verne and Wells, Burroughs and E.E. Smith, Gernsback, et al), there’s no doubt it occupies a major slice of the genre pie.  Opening the collection is perhaps the most extreme hard sci-fi writer the world has yet seen: Greg Egan.  “Break My Fall” is the story of a group travelling in a hollowed out asteroid through the solar system’s transportation network.  Being slingshot (slungshot?) along, they use the gravity of particularly spaced orbiting hubs to move outwards, that is, until a rescue is needed at one of the hubs.  Further pushing the realities of science, albeit in situations closer to home, Ken Macleod’s “‘The Entire Immense Superstructure’: An Installation” and Karl Schroeder’s “Kheldyu” each create plausible superstructures that work with Earth’s environment in positive, practical fashion.  Peter Watts’ “Hotshot”, while certainly not what one thinks of when the term ‘hard sf’ comes into the discussion, nevertheless tells a tale rooted in modern neuroscience.  Replete with Watts trademark determinism, there is a light at the end of the tunnel—a big, bright, burning one.

Emphasizing characters and their relationships (social and intra-personal), and pushing the hard science elements to the background, there are also stories in Reach for Infinity like Ian McDonald’s “The Fifth Dragon”.  Written in prose leaping like a fish, it is the story of two lovers living on the moon, the physical realities of the environment forcing the two to come to terms with their future.  Aliette Bodard’s “The Dust Queen”, while perhaps more exposition on Vietnamese/Chinese culture than science fiction, and not exactly cutting edge regarding science’s current understanding of memory and emotions, is the story of a young rewirer (brain editor) who is asked to perform a task that goes against her deepest feelings.  A straight-forward story that puts into perspective what leaving to live on a generation starship means, “Amicae Aeternum” by Ellen Klages is a short piece about two girls who must say goodbye that really tugs at the heart strings—not only for the parting, but equally so for the context.  “Attitude” by Linda Nagata is the story of a young athlete trying to win a zero-g championship but discovers her main opponent is cheating.  Kathleen Ann Goonan’s “Wilder Still, the Stars” looks at a populated solar system as normal; what lies beyond depending on perspective.  Less social and more personal, “Hiraeth: A Tragedy in Four Acts” by Karen Lord looks at the effects of bionic augmentation of a young man’s psyche.

And there are outliers.  Defying categorization is Adam Roberts’ “Trademark Bugs: A Legal History”.  Reading like a university essay—including bibliography, this paper, ahem, story about the future of designer diseases highlights a lot of ugly truths about modern civilization from legal, financial, and pharmaceutical perspectives.  Wonderful satire.  “In Babelsberg” by Alastair Reynolds is a tale about mechanical sentience/AI and human exploration of the solar system.  Though it would seem to fit into the pseudo-science category, the twists the story takes head more into confused fantasy land.  Perhaps the most accomplished story in the anthology, “Report Concerning the Presence of Seahorses on Mars” delivers not only another great title from Pat Cadigan, but also a dense, engaging tale of reality tv on Mars.  (Cadigan just keeps getting better with age.)  And “Invisible Planets” by Hannu Rajaniemi is a conversation between a generational starship and one of its sub-minds about the planets it passes.  Though capturing Strahan’s premise perfectly, if not overtly, it possesses a denouement rendering the proceedings a larff.

Reach for Inifinity utilizes many of the genre’s trademark motifs, often in fresh fashion.  Egan’s “Break My Fall” borrows heavily from the lush imagery of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey in its presentation of super-structures in space.  Reynolds “In Babelsberg” and Lord’s “Hiraeth: A Tragedy in Four Acts” look at the use, perhaps even the need, to use robots or augmented humans for space exploration—ideas that have been bandied about for some time.  Klages “Amicae Aeternum”, Rajaniemi’s “Invisible Planets”, and Watts “Hotshot” all look at the idea of a generation starship from three very different perspectives.  Bodard’s “The Dust Queen” revives the classic notion of memory editing, while McDonald takes a very Silver Age view of lunar colonization—at least the corporate side of things, and embeds anything but a traditional relationship.  And if ever there were a classic American sports tale, Nagata’s “Attitude” fits the bill, despite space being the playing field.

There is likewise a strong humanist element to Reach for Infinity—a very welcome perspective from an anthology about mankind’s relationship with the universe beyond Earth.  Paralleling Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, Alastair Reynolds’ main character in “In Babelsberg” can be quoted as: “But he was also a fellow who looked into the heavens and saw wonder. That’s not a bad legacy to live up to. You could almost say it’s something worth being born for”.  (Side note: this quote is very strange given the manner in which the story plays out.)  Brazenly eschewing the Singularity, a character in Egan’s “Break My Fall” states: “Humanity needs a permanent settlement away from Earth, and though some people want to postpone that until our descendants are bitstreams with much lower shipping costs, I don’t think we should pass up the chance we have right now.” McDonald, Goonan, Watts (interestingly enough), and Klages’ stories likewise possess positive hints regarding humanity’s hopes in the cosmos.  None paint life beyond Earth in rainbows and sunshine, but attempt a middle road, much to their success.

As with all themed anthologies, the distance each story strays from the bull’s eye of theme can have an effect on reader resonance.  Egan, Klages, McDonald, Rajaniemi, and Watts’ stories fully in line with what one would expect given the parameters for the anthology Strahan lays down in the introduction, there are others which strain to cover the gap.  Schroeder, Roberts, and Macleod’s stories would perhaps be more at home in one of the first two Infinity anthologies for their Earth-bound concerns.

In the end, Reach for Infinity is a solid anthology that generally meets Strahan’s goal of capturing stories which see humanity pushing at the bounds of the solar system.  A mix of female and male authors, personal stories, social stories, pure hard sci-fi, soft sci-fi, classic motifs and devices, and many other ideas, it covers a wide sweep of the genre.  A couple stories may even have a chance at award nominations—Watts’ “Hotshot” and Cadigan’s “Report Concerning the Presence of Seahorses on Mars”, for example.  But regardless of individual quality, there remains something for every reader of science fiction interested in humanity’s relationship with the solar system and beyond.

The following is the table of contents for Reach for Infinity:

Introduction by Jonathan Strahan
“Break My Fall” by Greg Egan
“The Dust Queen” by Aliette de Bodard
“The Fifth Dragon” by Ian McDonald
“Kheldyu” by Karl Schroeder
“Report Concerning the Presence of Seahorses on Mars” by Pat Cadigan
“Hiraeth: A Tragedy in Four Acts” by Karen Lord
“Amicae Aeternum” by Ellen Klages
“Trademark Bugs: A Legal History” by Adam Roberts
“Attitude” by Linda Nagata
“Invisible Planets” by Hannu Rajaniemi
“Wilder Still, the Stars by Kathleen Ann Goonan
“‘The Entire Immense Superstructure’: An Installation” by Ken MacLeod
“In Babelsberg” by Alastair Reynolds
“Hotshot” by Peter Watts

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