Thursday, December 3, 2015

Review of Edge of Infinity ed. by Jonathan Strahan

Jonathan Strahan introduces his second Infinity anthology Edge of Infinity (2012) with the simple line: “Welcome to the Fourth Generation of science fiction.  Citing the development of the genre from childhood into adulthood, he believes the current iteration of sf is “a post-scarcity period of incredible richness and diversity.”   What follows are fourteen stories from some of the top writers in the field that utilize a variety of modes and perspectives.  Do they indicate sf has achieved another level in its growth?  If yes, it isn’t definitive.

A pleasant exercise in style possible only in science fiction, the anthology opens with “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi” by Pat Cadigan.  About biologically modified workers employed in orbit of Jupiter, the reader learns of a relationship changed by the switch from biped to sushi.  Perhaps more an exercise in worldbuilding, Cadigan nevertheless proves her 90s’ fiction was not the bottom of the barrel and Strahan may be on to something.  I find novel-length work not to be Elizabeth Bear’s strength, rather her short fiction, and with “The Deeps of the Sky” my assumption rings true.  As alien as fiction can be, the story describes one insectoid’s attempt to please the queen, and the unexpected meeting he has while working hard.  Are realistic alien perspectives Fourth Gen material?

With “The Road to NPS” by Sandra McDonald and Stephen D. Covey the reader is hard-pressed to believe we’re in the Fourth Generation of sf.  A traditional, straightforward science fiction yarn that could have been published in 1935 as easily as 2015, it tells of a man whose labor contract on Europa is about to end, and the risky venture he has to get rich after.  Another story that I’m not sure sets itself apart from previous generations of genre is James S. Corey’s “Drive.”  A bit of male, hard sf hand-wavery, this prequel to Leviathan Wakes details the discovery of one particularly key piece of technology.  Accomplishing little else, it could have come from the pen of Larry Niven fourty years ago and none would be the wiser.  Another story set in a larger universe (which may, unfortunately, require knowledge for full enjoyment) is the goofily titled “Macy Minnot's Last Christmas on Dione, Ring Racing, Fiddler's Green, the Potter's Garden.”  Part of McAuley’s ongoing Quiet War series, it tells of a woman who satisfies her estranged father’s last request to have his ashes scattered on the moons of Saturn, and the life lessons she learns in a frontier environment.  Not ground-breaking material, but nevertheless engaging reading.

The classic material continuing, Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Safety Tests” tells of a license examiner for space pilots who has a most unusual happenstance in the middle of an exam one day.  A simple, easy to read piece that follows the formula for good storytelling, it also disappears easily from the mind when the last word is read.  Far less transparent is Gwyneth Jones’ “Bricks, Sticks, Straw.”  About scientists who are remotely researching the solar system via avatars, trouble finds them when a storm knocks out electricity on Earth.  Like Cadigan’s story, Jones uses abstract/neologistic language to ease the reader into her universe, but overdoes it a little; her story lacks the coherency of Cadigan’s. 

Suffering the woes of many a hard sf story, Stephen Baxter’s “Obelisk” captures a very nice idea but is betrayed by its lack of quality characterization.  Utilizing the life balance as its point of tension, it tells of two men who seek to industrialize Mars, and the tragedy that befalls them—a tragedy that would have been all the more tragic were the men presented in gray rather than black and white.  The lack of subtlety continues in Alastair Reynolds’ “Vainglory.”  Taking an idea from Schismatrix (i.e. asteroid carving for art), the dichotomy of the price of fame simplifies rather than expands Sterling’s initial concept.  (If Sterling was Third Generation, then Reynolds’ story must represent a regression rather than progression.)

Living up to Strahan’s Fourth Generation proclamation is Hannu Rajaniemi’s “Tyche and the Ants.”  A post-human bedtime story, it requires detachment from the reader to fully enjoy, as any close scrutiny of the Jade Rabbit, Moon Girl, Hugbear, or the Brain AI falls apart—just like any good children’s story.  Another story more contemporary than classic, is An Owomoyela’s “Water Rights.”  Tempting to be read as an allegory, it is about an orbital that has its water supply from Earth tragically cut off.  The residents face a decision: to fight to restore their connection, or strike out on their own to find new sources of water.  The parallels to African dependency on the West hovering in the back of my mind, it can nevertheless be enjoyed for what it is.

An eclectic piece that distances itself from generic sf is John Barnes’ “Swift as a Dream and Fleeting as a Sigh.”  Putting the reader into the “mind” of an AI psychologist, it speeds through its own mind while coping with the comparatively snail-paced thoughts of the couple undergoing therapy, Laura and Tyward.  A well-conceived piece, it holds interest throughout.  Another eclectic piece (not surprising given the author) is Bruce Sterling’s “The Peak of Eternal Light.”  A strongly satirical look at atrophied cultural standards in a futuristic scenario, the tension is heightened by the sub-crust Mercury setting, but it is certainly Sterling’s tongue-in-cheek humor that drives the narrative. 

In the end, Edge of Infinity is an average anthology of sf shorts.  There are a couple stand-out works: Cadigan’s “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi”, Rajaniemi’s “Tyche and the Ants,” and Sterling’s “The Peak of Eternal Light.”  But the two stories that are part of larger universes (McAuley’s Macy Minnot’s Last Christmas…” and Corey’s “Drive”), the stories that are so classic as to defy Strahan’s promise of a Fourth Generation, and the general lack of unique material in the remainder prevent the whole from achieving more.  Enjoyable certainly, but ground-breaking, new generation material, mostly not.

All original to the anthology, the following are the thirteen stories selected for Edge of Infinity:

Introduction by Jonathan Strahan
The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi by Pat Cadigan
The Deeps of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear
Drive by James S. Corey
The Road to NPS by Sandra McDonald and Stephen D. Covey
Swift as a Dream and Fleeting as a Sigh by John Barnes
Macy Minnot's Last Christmas on Dione, Ring Racing, Fiddler's Green, the Potter's Garden by Paul J. McAuley
Safety Tests by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Bricks, Sticks, Straw by Gwyneth Jones
Tyche and the Ants by Hannu Rajaniemi
Obelisk by Stephen Baxter
Vainglory by Alastair Reynolds
Water Rights by An Owomoyela
The Peak of Eternal Light by Bruce Sterling

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