Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Review of Paradox: Stories Inspired by the Fermi Paradox ed. by Ian Whates

Themed anthologies are a risk, especially the more specific the theme is.  Titles like ‘Witches’ or ‘A.I.’ place the underlying stories in the potential position of following the same patterns and routines ad nauseum.  Such anthologies must be consumed over a longer period of time - intervals necessary to truly appreciate the content.  (See George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois’s Songs of the Dying Earth for the perfect example.)  It was thus with trepidation I set about reading Paradox: Stories Inspired by the Fermi Paradox (NewCon Press) edited by Ian Whates.  To my surprise (and enjoyment), it is an extremely varied anthology worth the risk. 

While I hesitate to rehash the idea to a group of readers familiar with science fiction, it’s worth doing so in order to establish a baseline. A concept that results in a question, Fermi’s Paradox asks: if the universe is full of planets which possess equal potential for intelligent life as Earth, why hasn’t contact been made?  The stories in Paradox thus look at not only the ideological rigor underpinning “potential”, but also the larger context of aliens, first contact, and alien encounters.  Or, in other words, before, during, and after Fermi’s question is answered.

Paradox opens on a story that anyone, once learning the premise of the anthology, would assume exists within. A quick, simple read, “Catching Rays” by David L. Clements is the story of a scientist working on a moon laboratory, and the bizarre happenings with the radio array she has designed and is testing.  The stereotype in the rearview, Pat Cadigan* follows up with “The Big Next”.  Though opening on a Lord of the Rings quote, it remains a charming rumination of a mother about the meaning of time and evolution through the innocence of her daughter’s questions and beliefs.  “Baedeker’s Fermi” by Adam Roberts* is the most comprehensive story in the collection.  At turns a recognition of H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds, presentation of the architecture of late 19th century Frankfurt, and the value of a Baedeker’s guidebook, the strange visions of an Englishman traveling in Germany with his partner places a tiny smile of appreciation on the lips regarding alien visitations.

The alien abduction story has worked its way into the lore and stereotypes of Western culture.  Lonely country road, spinning silver disc, anal probes—everybody knows the routine.  Paul Cornell’s wonderfully obtuse “Zeta Reticuli” is the story of one such abduction in 1950s’ America—from the point of view of the aliens.  It’s extremely rare that I laugh out loud reading speculative fiction, but Tricia Sullivan’s “The Ambulance Chaser” had me shaking with mirth.  The story of a spunky old lady inhabited by an alien mind is hilarious, but likewise possesses enough humanity to make one pause.  “Lost to Their Own Devices” by Adrian Tchaikovsky is a story nigh unto impossible to describe without spoiling.  To say the least, it’s about a man living in and exploring an ‘alien world’—the quotation marks for the reader to discover.  Perhaps the most contrived story in the anthology is “In the Beginning” by Gerry Webb.  A violent meshing of plot gears, it is an assassination attempt, turned classroom discussion on the Fermi paradox, turned alien materialism.

Turning the dial up to eleven, “The Trail of the Creator, The Trial of Creation” by the below-the-genre-radar Paul di Filippo is the story of a motley crue of post humans who hunt the god that seeded the universe with their perverse variety.  Add a mad scientist with a barrel of urschleim to the mix, and they’re off.  Returning the anthology to the waters of (semi) realism is George Zebrowski’s thoughtful “Fermi’s Doubts”.  The man himself in fictional form, Zebrowski portrays the physicist as a lonely person who eventually has his question answered.   In following with Zebrowski’s more grounded story is Stephanie Saulter’s “Audiovisionary”, which is the story of a man who hears voices in his head, and what becomes of them. 

There are some storylines in science fiction that are classic, and “The End of the World” by Keith Brooke & Eric Brown is one that opens on a very familiar note: all humans have been destroyed after a surprise attack by aliens, but one man has been kept alive, in this case by AI technology, to wreck vengeance.  The actual story slowly evolving into something (slightly) more, it is nicely structured, and a result, is unveils itself in engaging fashion.  “Aether” by Robert Reed feels like half-hearted Reed given his recent spate of high quality shorts.  About a cosmologist driving his son in a car, reflecting on the meaning of dark matter, the end is rather needless.  But that it’s written in Reed’s sleek, cut-to-the-point prose makes it more than it is.  With the anthology opening on the discovery of aliens, it closes on a story in which humanity comes to terms with alien co-existence—and vice versa.  “Atonement, Under the Blue-White Sun” is the straight-forward story about a human who once experienced extreme drama at the hands of an alien race.  Later needing to work alongside the race to establish a new planetary colony, the relationship is strained even further.  Somewhat reminiscent of Barry Longyear’s classic Enemy Mine, it is an appropriate note on which to close the anthology.

In the end, Paradox: Stories Inspired by the Fermi Paradox possesses all the variety of a themed anthology of broader scope.  Only a handful of the stories focused solely on Fermi and the underlying discussion of his question, the remainder play in and around alien land, looking at sentience beyond Earth from a variety of perspectives.  And the overall quality of Paradox?  As with every anthology, this is worked out on a story by story basis by the reader.  But with the authors well to lesser known, male to female, literary to core genre, Whates has done a nice job of balancing the selections, and thus providing an opportunity for every fan of science fiction to enjoy the contemporary genre view of the relationship between humanity and aliens. 

The following is the table of contents for the fifteen stories in Paradox:

Fermi Paradox: An Introduction by Marek Kukula and Rob Edwards
Catching Rays – David L Clements
The Big Next – Pat Cadigan
Baedeker’s Fermi – Adam Roberts
Zeta Reticuli – Paul Cornell
The Ambulance Chaser – Tricia Sullivan
Lost to Their Own Devices – Adrian Tchaikovsky
In The Beginning – Gerry Webb
The Trail of the Creator, The Trial of Creation – Paul di Filippo
Stella by Starlight – Mike Resnick & Robert T Jeschoenek
Fermi’s Doubts – George Zebrowski
Audiovisionary – Stephanie Saulter
Aether – Robert Reed
The End of the World – Keith Brooke & Eric Brown
The Worldmaker – Rachel Armstrong
Atonement, Under the Blue-White Sun – Mercurio D River

*It’s interesting to note that both Pat Cadigan and Adam Roberts have recently published short stories that more closely align with what one would think of as a story dealing with Fermi’s Paradox.  Cadigan’s “The Taste of Night” looks at: what if they’ve been communicating with us all along but we just didn’t have the sensory apparatus to be aware?  “Thing and Sick” by Roberts, published in 2014 in another Whates’ anthology Solaris Rising 3, is the story of two scientists in the Antarctic who maintain the antennae used to capture signals from the universe in the hope of contacting alien life.  Both quality stories, they come recommended in their own right.  Likewise, while I fully understand Whates wanted only originals for Paradox, any discussion of stories featuring Fermi’s idea that does not involve Ian Macleod’s superb New Light on the Drake Equation is a shame.  While only a novella, it captures all of the humanity inherent to mankind’s wait for extra-terrestrial contact, and had Macleod had the idea thirteen years later, would fit perfectly in Paradox.

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