Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Review of Meeting Infinity ed. by Jonathan Strahan

Each of editor Jonathan Strahan’s three Infinity anthologies to date has been loosely—emphasis on ‘loosely’—centered around a core idea of science fiction.  Engineering Infinity, Edge of Infinity, and Reach for Infinity in some way explore hard sf as of 2010, look at the (supposed) burgeoning fourth generation of sf in 2012, and provide an outlook to the fictional state of solar system exploration in 2014, respectively.  For the fourth Infinity installation, Meeting Infinity (2015, Solaris), Strahan switches things up with the notion of ‘future shock.’  While most authors selected take the theme in a post-human direction, the overall variety of perspectives prevents the anthology from becoming monotonous.  But it’s the relatively consistent quality of the stories that make it the best of the Infinity series to date.

But we start slow.  With future shock the theme, there are inevitably stories most sf readers could predict.  “Cocoons” by Nancy Kress presents a planetary colonization scenario wherein humans are being taken over by microscopic… things, transforming them into something more than human.  Executed in simplistic terms, Kress’ story comes across as very traditional, which, in the context of today’s multi-dimensional sf, does it few favors.  “Aspects” by Gregory Benford is another standard story.  Humans running from mechwarriors a la Terminator (with a brief interludes why technology is important), this may be the purest genre story in the collection—a tag it perhaps could have avoided by having a bit more mood.  Emphasis on the “shock” side (given how manta rays play a role), “Rates of Change” by James S.A. Corey is a story about a woman trying to come to terms with the meaning of existence in a body she was not born into, as well as dealing with the aftermath of an accident involving her son.  The ideas in the story are far from new (I could list many similar stories), “Corey” nevertheless renders them in intelligent enough fashion to give pause upon the final page.

There are some dark—and engaging for it—stories in Meeting Infinity.  In “Desert Lexicon,” Benjanun Sriduangkaew tells of roboticized mercenaries and what they learn of the harder realities of war.  Compared to Gregory Benford’s story, Sriduangkaew’s comes across as significantly more existential given how it moves beyond mere dependence on technology to be a meditation on the abstraction from reality that combat and prosthetized mortality impose.  Even though the cyberpunk wave has faded into the sea, “Body Politic” by Kameron Hurley is an exemplary piece.  Featuring a very specific, intriguing narrative voice, and set in a world all the more interesting for its indirectly rather than directly related setting, it tells of a violent interrogator and the mysterious person she’s been assigned to get information from.  Hurley shows some quality writing chops in this story (chops I’ve not yet seen from her), which seems to indicate she’s ready to move beyond the ‘angry women bathe the world in blood’ premises I’ve seen thus far in her novels.

Choosing Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” as her target, Yoon Ha Lee’s “The Cold Inequalities” revisions the story from not only a gendered perspective, but perhaps more so from a knowledge perspective.  Lee may be preaching to the choir, but she does so in engaging, prosaic fashion that provides an intelligent response to Godwin’s tale.  Another story in Aliette de Bodard’s Xuya mindship universe, “In Blue Lily’s Wake” deals with the death of mindships, in this case by the boatloads (ha!) at the hands of the eponymous disease.  Many, many characters crumpled together into a complex—overly complex for the length—story of redemption and guilt, this story may over reach its grasp.  “Exile from Extinction” by Ramez Naam is an over-confident tale that attempts to box significant aspects of being human that inherently defying boxing.  Treating intelligence, morality, and emotions as if they could be quantified and isolated in a machine, the story is of a fighter pilot trying to escape AI’s razing of Earth.  I’m crap at predicting endings, but this one had red arrows guiding me all the way to a maudlin conclusion.  If Naam had something to convey beyond uber-techno-optimism, this story might be worth paying attention to.

There are three stories in Meeting Infinity with very similar premises, but which move in different directions.  From average to good, Madeline Ashby’s “Memento Mori” (meaning something like ‘remember that you are mortal’) examines life extension in a have vs. the have-nots scenario.  Problems with the story arise in execution: more detail and changes in pace were needed to emphasize what needed emphasizing.  As it stands, the story comes across a bit rushed and unemotive.  An Owomoyela’s “Outsider” feels Star Trek-ish in how its ship of immortals encounters a ship of “natural” (i.e. mortal) humans, the socio-cultural conflict which arises paralleling (perhaps) bits of the real-world.  And thirdly “My Last Bringback” by John Barnes, while initially disorienting, is a story that takes Ashby’s premise and makes it more sophisticated in style and deeper in theme by simplifying the storyline but complexifying its layers. About a person who murdered their parents because they forced her to remain natural while other children around her were born nubrids (biologically treated to take human existence to the next level). Dense in idea and ideology, it has value in re-reading (and comparison to Brave New World), and is one of the best in the anthology.

Where most of the stories in the anthology look at cybernetically or biologically modifying humans (the cover image is apt), there are a couple which approach ‘future shock’ from different perspectives.  “Pictures from the Resurrection” by Bruce Sterling is certainly sharp satire, but satire of what, is less certain.  The cultural-political climate in the US, war on terrorism, and the Mexican immigration issue seemingly all possibilities, Sterling’s witty sense of humor displays itself in this artist meets ninja zombies in ‘future’ Texas.  Great stuff from Sterling.  “All the Wrong Places” by Sean Williams is the story of a young man who foolishly breaks off a relationship with the woman of his dreams and his quest to find her in a solar system steadily expanding with d-mat technology.  The denouement is nothing new (i.e. it’s classic), but the journey is relayed in personally meaningful terms reminiscent of David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself).  Perhaps not what one would expect given the anthology’s title and genre, “Drones” by Simon Ings appears (like Barnes’ story, it’s also a dense read) to present the monotony of life in a near-future scenario after major global change.  It’s uncertain how successfully the story combines its elements into a concrete whole, but remains one of the more intelligent pieces in the anthology for the intrigue inherent to this question.

If there is anything to love about Ian McDonald, it’s that he approaches his novels like painters approach masterpieces.  Using short stories like preliminary sketches, he works out the details to the larger piece through tests and trials on the smaller, short-story canvas.  Numerous are the shorts occurring in the same settings as several of his novels, and in keeping, “The Falls” is part of his Luna setting.  The comparative/contrasting story of an AI’s psychiatrist and the mother of a “moon child” (a first generation Lunite), McDonald does the subject of ‘meaning of existence’ no disservice.  The conclusion plucking lightly the strings of emotion, it makes a great closing story to the anthology.   Given its quality and the related stories published (see also “The Fifth Dragon,”) one hopes McDonald will eventually pool enough “sketch” material to fill a Luna collection—like what Cyberabad Days was to River of Gods.

In the end, Meeting Infinity is the best of the Infinity series to date, and compared to Upgraded (2014), another recent anthology largely about post-humans, does a better job balancing quality and quantity.  That there are a variety of approaches to the subject, from satire to cyberpunk, classic to revisionist, helps to energize an anthology theme that is not new.  There are a couple low points (e.g. the Kress and Naam stories are not exactly sophisticated), but by and large the quality is very consistent, with a few stand outs—the Lee, Sterling, and Barnes’s stories, for example.  While I still recommend novels like Count Zero, Holy Fire, Fools, and others in terms of ‘future shock,’ the anthology moves through the theme in appealing, often thought-provoking fashion. 

All original to the anthology, the following sixteen stories comprise Meeting Infinity:

Introduction, Jonathan Strahan
Rates of Change, James S.A. Corey
Desert Lexicon, Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Drones, Simon Ings
Body Politic, Kameron Hurley
Cocoons, Nancy Kress
Emergence, Gwyneth Jones
The Cold Inequalities, Yoon Ha Lee
Pictures From the Resurrection, Bruce Sterling
Aspects, Gregory Benford
Memento Mori, Madeline Ashby
All the Wrong Places, Sean Williams
In Blue Lily’s Wake, Aliette de Bodard
Exile From Extinction, Ramez Naam
My Last Bringback, John Barnes
Outsider, An Owomoyela
The Falls: A Luna Story, Ian McDonald

For a more in depth look at the anthology, see Lois Tilton’s excellent review on Locus here.

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