Sunday, January 11, 2015

Review of Solaris Rising: The New Book of Solaris ed. by Ian Whates

From 2007 to 2009, George Mann edited a series of science fiction anthologies called The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction.  Unthemed, the anthologies captured a wide variety of perspectives on the field, hard to soft sf, entertaining to literary—the majority of which were British writers.  After a break of two years, Solaris decided to revitalize the series and commissioned Ian Whates to bring together a new selection of stories.  The mission statement the same, Solaris Rising: The New Book of Solaris (2011) continues the small albeit quality start made by Mann, and Solaris’ desire not to “highlight one flavour of SF but rather reflect its boundless variety, the energy and imagination that can carry science fiction in so many fascinating and entertaining directions.

And the variety shows from the opening salvo to closing; Solaris Rising begins and ends on opposite ends of the pulp/literary spectrum.  Ian McDonald’s “A Smart Well-Mannered Uprising of the Dead” starts things off with a mid-future look at Africa.  Not a zombie story, international commerce and resource competition have combined to bring about a revolution in one corner of the continent—by the virtual dead. Fully a work of humanism, McDonald spins a more subtle but no less interesting story than he is known for in portraying a land trying to retake the reins of control from foreign interests.  Sharp description defining realistic characters, the content of “The Incredible Exploding Man” by Dave Hutchinson more literally reflects its title than figuratively—thankfully.  Not a standard comic book story, Hutchinson sends a shout out to Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination in this well-written tale of an accident at a particle collider in the US. A strong relationship built between two characters, we don’t find out until the end why precisely the story is titled as such, but it fits.  A YA offering, “Sweet Spots” by Paul Di Filippo is perhaps the ultimate high school boy’s dream.  It begins when Arp discovers he can see the precise places in time that trigger desirable events—like knowing which pair of butterfly wings in Brazil will bring about a blizzard in Chicago.  Taking full advantage of these sweet spots, he proceeds to tweak and twist his life into better and better shape.  Trouble is, the girl he loves still eludes him.  Filled with Di Filippo’s trademark style and humor, this is YA worth reading as an adult.

The lack of a colon (no, not that colon) making all the difference, “The Best Science Fiction of the Year Three” by Ken MacLeod is not the story of the early days of sci-fi, rather a British writer who is approached by an American anthology editor to produce a piece for an unbelievable sum—political situations at stake.  Their differences settled by a science experiment, Macleod adds a subtle layer of humor that only genre readers—informed genre readers—will get.  “The One that Got Away” by Tricia Sullivan is a Weird story about beach scavengers that Sullivan admits in the intro she herself was not entirely sure where it was going, or went.  Switching to hard sf, “Rock Day” by Stephen Baxter is a classic story about a man who wakes up to discover the world is not as it was when he went to sleep.  A rather empty story (like a Clifford Simak one-off of old), Baxter has written better.  Self-replicating machines, neologisms galore, seeds guarded by holograms, and a whole lot more happens in the brief pages of “Eluna” by Stephen Palmer.  Perhaps this should have been unpacked into a novella or novel, but my guess is one has to have read other of Palmer’s work to appreciate. At first flush, little coheres.

“Time is not space. You can’t wander around in it like a landscape” admonishes a professor in Adam Roberts’ “Shall I Tell You the Problem with Time Travel?”  And Roberts sets out to prove it in a humorous tale of a group of competing academics who see all sides of the coin—and there are more than two.  H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (indirectly) brought into the mix, so too is WWII atom bomb testing, development, and, unfortunately, production.  The best story in the anthology, “The Lives and Deaths of Che Guevara” by Lavie Tidhar wonderfully deconstructs the idea of revolution that Che Guevara is tied to on t-shirts, posters, and other paraphernalia worldwide.  Inspired by the documentary The Hands of Che Guevara, Tidhar clones the famous revolutionary and sends him out in the world to confront and adjudicate the revolutions of his lifetime and beyond—Cambodia, South Africa, Northern Ireland, and Lebanon.  “Steel Lake” by Jack Skillingstead is the understated story of a father trying to come to terms with his drug-addicted son.  Accidentally ingesting an experimental drug himself, he is soon on his way to confronting issues in his own past—psychedelically and otherwise.  A well delivered, surprisingly poignant story.

I’ve never been much impressed by Mike Resnick’s work.  While he has struck a few nice chords in his career, quantity seems to far outshine quality.  His collaboration with Laurie Tom for Solaris Rising does not change my mind.  “Mooncakes” is the story of a young woman about to embark on a generation starship, and leaving behind her family, culture, history et al proves more difficult than she’d imagined. The associated topics dealt with in perfunctory fashion, a subtler writer would have endowed this story with more humanity and poignancy.  (See, for example, “Amicae Aeternum” by Ellen Klages in Reach for Infinity.)  “At Play in the Fields” by Steve Rasnic Tem is a standard science fiction story with a standard moral.  About a man who wakes up in the far future on alien ship, Tem nevertheless delivers the genre-familiar in a clear, readable voice.  “How We Came Back From Mars (A Story That Cannot Be Told)” by Ian Watson is a fun (in the intellectual sense) story about a group of astronauts stranded on Mars.  With only days of rations left, they are picked up by aliens in a flying saucer. Landing in a bizarro version of Earth, they don’t know whether they’ve arrived in a Texas Hollywood studio shooting a science fiction flick, or an alternate future, the world’s political alliances shifted radically. “You Never Know” by Pat Cadigan is a beautifully sublime story of a curio shop worker in NYC before 9-11, and were it not for Tidhar’s story, would be the best in this anthology.  A security camera system installed in man’s shop one day, he contemplates the images on screen of himself, the shop, customers, and occurrences.  Some things happening everyday, and some only once in a lifetime, you never know.

An idea just for the sake of an idea, “Yestermorrow” by Richard Salter is a one-off about a world where every night at midnight people are sent forward and backward in time.  Moreover, everyone knows the date, time, and location of their death.  Topping it all off, a serial killer is going around murdering people just before their appointed moment of death.  Something for a cheap late-night production on the sci-fi channel, the story possesses nothing of merit.  Another retro sf offering, “Dreaming Towers, Silent Mansions” by Jaine Fenn is the story of a group of explorers who pass through a one-way portal to a planet that superficially seems to have once been inhabited by humans.  But as members of the team begin disappearing, something more seems at stake than just discovery.  A rather obvious homage to Lovecraft, it only improves his style.  “Eternity's Children” by Eric Brown and Keith Brooke is a broad mix of science fiction tropes.  But as they are presented via character, it is a nice little story of an aged politician returning one last time to the planet which is the source of the rejuvenation medicine which has given him such a good, extended life.  A bearer of bad news to the planet’s inhabitants, he finds solace in delivering his message in the last place he would have thought.  All in all, a nicely executed story with some strong questions and emotions churning below the surface.  “The Return of the Mutant Worms” by Peter F. Hamilton, the story closing the anthology, is a self-indulgent, self-pitying piece that is really more of an afterword than story.  Surely there must be better ways to raise sf awareness than just stabs of spite.

In the end, in Solaris Rising Ian Whates continues the work of George Mann from the original trilogy of Solaris science fiction anthologies.  From time travel to imminent asteroids, alien encounters to planetary horror, political commentary to hard and soft sf, there is indeed no theme to the selection save the genre itself.  Able to avoid the monotony of many themed anthologies, it’s much easier for a potential reader to take a risk on to see how the stories stack up.

The following is the table of contents for the anthology:

“A Smart Well-Mannered Uprising of the Dead” by Ian McDonald
“The Incredible Exploding Man” by Dave Hutchinson
“Sweet Spots” by Paul Di Filippo
“The Best Science Fiction of the Year Three” by Ken MacLeod
“The One that Got Away” by Tricia Sullivan
“Rock Day” by Stephen Baxter
“Eluna” by Stephen Palmer
“Shall I Tell You the Problem with Time Travel?” by Adam Roberts
“The Lives and Deaths of Che Guevara” by Lavie Tidhar
“Steel Lake” by Jack Skillingstead
“Mooncakes” by Mike Resnick and Laurie Tom
“At Play in the Fields” by Steve Rasnic Tem
“How We Came Back From Mars (A Story That Cannot Be Told)” by Ian Watson
“You Never Know” by Pat Cadigan
“Yestermorrow” by Richard Salter
“Dreaming Towers, Silent Mansions” by Jaine Fenn
“Eternity's Children” by Eric Brown and Keith Brooke
“For the Ages” by Alastair Reynolds
“The Return of the Mutant Worms” by Peter F. Hamilton

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