Saturday, April 18, 2015

Review of Engineering Infinity ed. by Jonathan Strahan

According to Jonathan Strahan’s introduction, Engineering Infinity (2010) is intended to be a survey of the state of hard sf short fiction at the beginning of the 21st century. Specific writers targeted, indeed if one looks at the table of contents there are several (white males) known for their realistic extrapolation on theory.  Karl Schroeder, Peter Watts, Kathleen Ann Goonan, and Gregory Benford are four easily recognizable names in the sub-genre.  But there are a number of stories in the collection which must really suck their bellies in to fit through the doors of hard sf.  John C. Wright, Gwyneth Jones, Charles Stross, and David Moles are not authors that immediately pop into mind when the term is bandied about, and the stories they provided for the anthology are dubiously hard sf, at best.  But throwing taxonomy to the winds (where it probably belongs), Engineering Infinity remains a solid collection of stories.  No single story outshining the others or existing entirely in nothingness, it is also a highly consistent selection.

The two stories falling furthest on the hard sf side of the line are by the Canadians, Peter Watts and Karl Schroeder. “Malak”, Watts’ addition, is freighted.  Examining the morals of drone technology in warfare, he shifts the Middle East conflict a few years into the future where flying weapons possess semi-AI minds and are able to make some decisions in combat.  The remaining decisions, well, they are unfortunately still left to humans.  “Laika’s Ghost” is also a political/military influenced story, but this time in near-future Kazakhstan where an agent has been sent to investigate the bomb making capabilities—bombs worse than nuclear—of the post-Soviet culture still existing in the backlands.  Stuck traveling with a paranoid American looking for asylum from what he saw on Mars, the investigation unearths a lot more than just bombs.  Highly, highly reminiscent of a Bruce Sterling story, “Laika’s Ghost” is interesting for not being a Cold Ware redux, rather a look ahead at what the state of world agriculture, politics, space travel, and, unfortunately, weaponry, may be like in the former Soviet states.

There are also a handful of stories with one foot in hard sf and one in soft.  Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Watching the Music Dance” is the story of a dysfunctional family through the eyes of the daughter.  Suze biomodified to see music, her father pushes her hard in her piano studies while her mother fades in depression, cosmetic surgery not enough to bring happiness.  Divorce in the works, Suze is too young to understand the full implications but feels the hurt.  Rusch doing a fairly good job of capturing a child’s view, the only thing the girl may have to depend on is her implant.  “The Invasion of Venus” by Stephen Baxter is nothing short of an alien invasion story of Venus.  Earth a mere bystander, Baxter tells a near mimetic tale of the forces beyond humanty’s imagination duking it out on the green planet.  All in all, it’s rather blasĂ© given a quarter of the Golden Age’s stories were about alien invasions.  “Walls of Flesh, Bars of Bone” is a typically dense Damien Broderick story, this time in collaboration with Barbara Lamar.  Trying to drown his sorrows in drink, a university professor is kicked out by his wife and does little to improve his chances at tenure by malcontent behavior.  A strange film landing in his lap one day, however, explorations into quantum entanglement spin his world in ways he could never imagine.

Stretching the limits of the term ‘hard sf’, Hannu Rajaniemi’s “The Server and the Dragon” is a far-far-far future story of abstract dimension (worthy of Iain Banks’ Excession) about a world seeded by an AI computer.  Full of vivid imagery (or at least vivid words), it feels more like myth or legend than sci-fi.  “Bit Rot” by Charles Stross (a story in his Saturn’s Children milieu—for milieu it truly is), is a post-human look at two siblings caught in a radiation storm in space.  Imagination remaining as original as ever, Stross’ writing style, however, continues to improve. Relevancy?  Well, that is another issue… “A Soldier of the City” by David Moles is mini-space opera.  Well conceived and depicted it is easily readable, from the flash of space battles to the semi-ambiguous conclusion.  “Judgement Eve” by John C. Wright is a dense read that likewise barely tips the hard sf scale.  The story of alien angels come to save the good of the Earth, they do away with those who have used technology for evil, saving those who have used it for good.  Something of a parable, Wright really throws a kitchen’s sink worth of sf tropes into the story.

More planetary drama than hard sf, “Creatures with Wings” by Kathleen Ann Goonan is a solid story that perhaps could have been more.  About a man whose wife committed suicide in front of him, solace in drink leads him to learning to brew beer.  It also leads him to a bizarre planet populated by flying aliens.  Goonan tying it all together into a nice story of personal discovery, were the prose to have been more lively and subtle, it might have invoked an emotional response.  “The Ki-anna” by Gwyneth Jones is another planetary drama about an alien who goes to another planet to investigate what happened to their sister—thought dead by local police.  Encountering a unique race, communication and perspective take on a new… perspective.  Nicely switching between viewpoints, Jones deftly complexifies a simple tale.

And the remaining stories, well, they operate at the fuzzy core of science fiction, hard sf just one of the influential elements.  What’s to do at the gym while exercising?  In Robert Reed’s “Mantis”, people watch virtual lives, and interestingly, virtual lives watch people.  Confusion as to reality and virtuality ensuing, Reed nicely juxtaposes the two sides in the story of a man caught in a story.  But which side is he on?  “Mercies” by Gregory Benford is the flattest story in the anthology.  Warren is a killer—another avenging angel—traveling through time, killing serial killers before they become serial killers.  I rarely make the effort to predict stories, but this one had a red light flashing from the very first page—this is me, Mr. Spoiler—that didn’t stop until the last page when it came true.  Better fit for a nighttime tv series episode than a hard sf anthology—surprising giving Benford is the author.  Harking back to yesteryear sci-fi, “The Birds and the Bees and the Gasoline Trees” by John Barnes is the story of a trio of people on board a space ship taking their investigation into ocean growths off-planet.  Wooden characters bound up in a extrapolative concept, this story is perhaps the one most analogous to retro hard sf (Bob Shaw came to mind), and perhaps the reason Strahan put it last.
In the end, Engineering Infinity is a consistent anthology of science fiction shorts.  None of the stories truly decrepit (Benford’s is bad, but at least is written in readable prose), and likewise not one standing out like a king, they are all competently to well written, contain interesting ideas, and cover a wide variety of sub-genre ground.  Readers looking for a collection of entirely hard sf stories will therefore be partially disappointed; only about half are located within spitting distance of hard sf, and because of this, may not meet expectations.  (To be fair, Strahan does acknowledge in the intro that some of the stories may not be as technically or theoretically sound as some readers would have it.)  But for the sf fan who doesn’t care hard sf or otherwise, it is a solid collection of stories, because, to be direct, if someone had told me here is an unthemed selection of science fiction short, enjoy, I would not have thought twice about the editor’s intent—something I hope is a compliment.

The following are the fourteen stories in the anthology:

“Beyond the Gernsback Continuum...”  Introduction by Jonathan Strahan
 “Malak” by Peter Watts
“Watching the Music Dance” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
“Laika's Ghost” by Karl Schroeder
“The Invasion of Venus” by Stephen Baxter
“The Server and the Dragon” by Hannu Rajaniemi
“Bit Rot” by Charles Stross
“Creatures with Wings” by Kathleen Ann Goonan
“Walls of Flesh, Bars of Bone” by Damien Broderick and Barbara Lamar
“Mantis” by Robert Reed
“Judgement Eve” by John C. Wright
“A Soldier of the City” by David Moles
“Mercies” by Gregory Benford
“The Ki-anna” by Gwyneth Jones
“The Birds and the Bees and the Gasoline Trees” by John Barnes


  1. Echh, I would have expected better of Jonathan Strahan than to even consider anything by John C Wright.

    1. Yeah, I kinda gotta agree. Just to be devil's advocate for a moment, I'm not sure how much paranoid defiance Wright displayed five years ago on his blog - or if he even had a blog. Strahan may not have been aware at the time. I say this because, Strahan noticeably snubbed Sriduangkaew from his 'best-of' compilation this year, which would in the least least make his choices for anthologies 'concerned'.

      I suppose the best way to be sure is to watch in the future who gets in and who is kept out. :)

    2. Whoops - didn't realise it was from 2010.