Sunday, November 29, 2015

Review of Solaris Rising 2 ed. by Ian Whates

Of all the science fiction anthologies, it is perhaps the generic—the unthemed—anthology that has the greatest chance at touching warm spots with readers.  Unless the reader is obsessed with one particular theme or motif, e.g. A.I., cloning, robots, etc., there’s little chance a book full of relevant stories will fail to bore at times, or at least become redundant or repetitive.  Unthemed anthologies, or themed anthologies where the editor effectively turns their back at the door and lets the riff-raff in, tend to not only be more engaging in terms of ‘what comes next?’, but more varied across the trigger points of reader enjoyment.  This is all just a long-winded way of saying Ian Whates’ ongoing science fiction anthology series Solaris Rising remains a more inviting experience than many of the other offerings I’ve come across in recent years precisely for its variety. 

Containing nineteen stories all original to the anthology, Solaris Rising 2, despite its name, is actually the third in the Solaris Rising series.  A return to form after the in-one-eye-and-out-the-other feel of Solaris Rising 1.5, the “second” indicates that when an editor is given proper time to commission authors for stories, everything works in the reader’s favor.

While not the story I would have led the anthology off with, “Tom” by Paul Cornell does at least challenge the reader—or give some presentiment of challenging social mores—with its depiction of a human-alien relationship.  Set on a barrier reef, a diver falls in love with an alien, and alien sex ensues—to no purpose beyond the limits of the story.  (For a better such story, see Kij Johnson’s “Spar.”)  Picking things up a little, “More,” like many of Nancy Kress’ stories, works from an overtly contrived premise.  In this case, "the world's most famous terrorist," who just so happens to be the daughter of the man who invented the dome technology which allows the bougeois to be separated from the proletariat, is due to be released.  A civil rights drama oscillating between affective to overblown, ensues.  Completing the relatively weak trio of stories that open the collection is James Lovegrove’s 15 page mash of generation starship, post-apocalypse, and A.I.  Enough material for a novel, it has trouble remaining focused on an idea, and thus loses cohesion.

With Adrian Tchaikovsky’s story “Feast and Famine” Solaris Rising 2 begins to pick up its focus.  A simple idea effectively unpacked, it tells the tale of the crew of a science vessel and their investigation of a sister ship that suddenly went silent on an asteroid they were investigating.  A strange crystalline form found upon arrival, what the story lacks in deep substance it makes for in being a nice little specimen of writing.  The roll continues with Neill Williamson’s “Pearl in the Shell.”  While the main conceit stretches technical reality a bit, Williamson nails style and structure to tell of high school hackers heisting music on the streets to create their own mixes.  Would have fit right in Sterling’s Mirroshades anthology.  A lark at best, “The Time Gun” by Nick Harkaway is barely worth the time.  For the type of story being told, the narrative shows little attention to escalation or movement or structure, instead feeling as though it were vomited onto the page in a couple-hour sitting.  There’s my homework, teacher.  Hope you like it.  I didn’t.  D+ (The + is for occasional effervescent language.)

From perhaps the weakest story in the collection to one of its strongest, Robert Reed’s “Bonds” plays with the ideas of subjective and objective fact in the realm of belief.  An atypically presented story of a seemingly autistic young man, his idea takes hold in people’s minds, but remains to be validated by science, until… One to think over.  Despite Whates’ injunction, it’s impossible not to compare Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “When Thomas Jefferson Dined Alone” to Connie Willis—positively.  Simply put, Rusch’s insertion of a modern mind in a historical setting is not only easier on the brain and wrists than a Willis novel, but has more impact in the intellectual sense.   

I thought the genre had outgrown robot apocalypse stories, but apparently I was wrong.  Allen Steele’s “Ticking” is a retro story that does nothing new with the concept, the story already half over when the reader encounters the term ‘robot apocalypse.’  While Kim Lakin-Smith’s usage/understanding of Chinese culture is a bit… rudimentary, the story of Lun the long haul space trucker and his new apprentice is quietly touching—not to mention as subtle as dew on dawn’s grass in comparison to Steele and Harkaway’s stories.  Another author trying to stuff a novel’s worth of ideas into a short story, though with slightly more success, is Kay Kenyon’s “The Spires of Greme.” About a young woman who is being sent to ensure the DNA in her universe’s closed, floating communities remains varied, she encounters all manner of drama, melodrama, and heroism in what is a very visual, sharply imagined setting. 

While I remain unsure of the reality underpinning the story, Mercurio Rivera’s “Manmade” at least made me think, which is not something I can say about the majority of the stories in the anthology.  The moral quandary hinges on an AI who has been converted into a human body who wants out—to return to his AI/robot state.  While I personally don’t think you can have real AI without emotional input, Rivera portrays the teenage boy wanting to escape the emotional baggage of being human and get back to the pure rationality of being a machine.  Though it goes Hollywood at the end, moving in directions not entirely cohesive with the opening, the overall story still leaves a mark.  Another fence-walker is Martin Sketchely’s “The Circle of Least Confusion.”  Expending a lot of its energy/page time contriving a proverbial wrench to throw in the works of two ordinary people’s lives, if it weren’t for the underlying humanism—or attempt thereat—I would say this story was a miss.  It also doesn’t hurt that the “wrench” proffers a question that humanity has always faced, and always will.

Perhaps the most surprising entry in Solaris Rising 2 is Norman Spinrad.  By far the most established of the writers, it’s a curious thing to find him in and amongst the ‘young guns’ of sf.  Interestingly, the story is a work of hard sf—the ideas of which support a luminescent perspective that changes the way a certain society views its existence.  More a concept and less a story, it nevertheless proves interesting.  One of the best stories in the anthology is certainly Liz Williams’ dark and challenging “The Lighthouse.” About a girl living with her mother in an abandoned castle alone on a planet, she ultimately faces the ultimate knowledge of her existence.  Caretakers, her mother educates her to take over custodianship once she dies.  Relatively interesting surprises derive from this premise, discomforting readers in a rebellious yet intriguing way.

Once one gets over the implausibility of the idea, “The First Dance” by Martin McGrath tells of a man too poor to retain the rights to the memories he has stored in a data bank.  Not sure this story sticks to the neuroscience of memory, but nevertheless finds itself in the general area of potential reality, and certainly tugs a heartstring (only one) along the way.  Somewhere amidst Dali, Ernst and China Mieville exists Mike Allan’s “Still Live with Skull.”  A surreal far-future vision, it is more a visual piece than story in its vividly visceral meeting of a world and underworld being; it pokes its nanofibered arteries into the surreal cortex and won’t let the mind’s eyes go.

While the anthology may have opened on one of its weaker stories, it closes with its strongest.  “With Fate Conspire” by Vandana Singh is the multi-layered story of a woman given access to a machine that allows her to view moments in history through a lens.  Assigned certain poets to track and analyze, she nevertheless finds herself drawn to observing the life of an everyday woman—all the while her own life carries on in a near-future India inundated with flood waters.

In the end, Solaris Rising 2 is a good return to form after the (unexpected) hiccup of Solaris Rising 1.5.  Like Solaris Rising, there is a great variety of themes, characters, settings, etc., etc.—enough for any fan of sf to find something to enjoy.  Thus, while I found Reed, Williams, and Singh’s stories the best of the lot, certainly others will have a different opinion; what is an unpolished effort by Harkaway to me, may appeal to different readers, and so forth.

The following are the nineteen stories contained in Solaris Rising 2:

Extensions: An Introduction by Ian Whates
Tom by Paul Cornell
More by Nancy Kress
Shall Inherit by James Lovegrove
Feast and Famine by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Whatever Skin You Wear by Eugie Foster
Pearl in the Shell by Neil Williamson
The Time Gun by Nick Harkaway
When Thomas Jefferson Dined Alone by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Bonds by Robert Reed
Ticking by Allen Steele
Before Hope by Kim Lakin-Smith
The Spires of Greme by Kay Kenyon
Manmade by Mercurio D. Rivera
The Circle of Least Confusion by Martin Sketchley
Far Distant Suns by Norman Spinrad
The Lighthouse by Liz Williams
The First Dance by Martin McGrath
Still Life with Skull by Mike Allen
With Fate Conspire by Vandana Singh

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