Thursday, October 20, 2016

Review of Bridging Infinity ed. by Jonathan Strahan

The series a success, the 2016 release of Bridging Infinity (Solaris) ups the count of editor Jonathan Strahan’s Infinity science fiction anthologies to five. Driving a strong, hard sf agenda for this volume, in the introduction Strahan drops big names in galactic scale imagination—Clarke, Asimov, Campbell—before moving on to the focus of the anthology: “Is solving problems still integral to science fiction? Do we still believe problems are solvable?”. Such an outlay would seem to make the reviewer’s job easy: does the author tackle a significant issue facing mankind with the tools of extrapolative science while using the techniques of fiction to best advantage? Let’s see…

Bridging Infinity features fifteen stories from a wide spectrum of science fiction authors, from well-known (Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Larry Niven, etc.) to lesser-known (An Owomoyela, Thoraiya Dyer, and Karin Lowachee), those who’ve been around a while (Pamela Sargent, Robert Reed, Gregory Benford, etc.) to those not (Charlie Jane Anders, Ken Liu,e tc.) male to female, British to American to beyond, and even a few collaborative efforts (Tobias Buckell & Karen Lord, Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty, etc.). If anything, the anthology is variegated from the authorial perspective. In terms of content, there is likewise a variety, from previously established story settings (Reed’s Great Ship, Allen Steele’s Coyote universe, and others) to new settings, far to near future, Earth-based to solar system scenarios, and real-world to purely fictional concerns.

Bridging Infinity opens with “Sixteen Questions for Kamala Chatterjee” by Alastair Reynolds. The title literal (what else might one expect in a hard sf anthology?), the title character is faced with questions from a university she is applying to. About a young woman trying to save the world through a technological breakthrough, the story tries hard to represent real-world science—how it’s practiced, the labyrinths and limits of academia, the theory crafting, the commercial interest, etc. And these aspects of story Reynolds excels at, delivering in both overt and subtle form. (The usage of the questionnaire is a refined, guiding hand that leads nicely into the story’s conclusion, for example.) Reynolds blows the lid off the verisimilitude with a wild extrapolation that any 12-year-old with a textbook could dream up, but does not detract from the underlying intent. The follow up story, Pat Cadigan’s “Six Degrees of Separation Freedom” works with relatively similar material to her earlier “The Girl Thing Who Went Out for Sushi” (i.e. physical modification for life in space), but takes a different, less extreme approach. One of the more subdued (and relevant for it) stories in the anthology, there are grandiose ideas floating in the background, but Cadigan keeps the main character’s individual choices and concerns front and center. The next selection, Stephen Baxter’s “The Venus Generations”, feels more a lesson in -ologies, for example biology, meteorology, geology, etc. than story (as I guess hard sf fans enjoy). It is about, as the title hints, several generations of a family as they live in modules orbiting in Venus’ atmosphere, watching the construction of a massive umbrella that will block the sun and allow humanity to colonize the surface. The end result is a story that feels as much at home in Martin and Dozois’ retro-pulp anthology Old Venus as it does in Strahan’s.

A millenial among the stars, “Rager in Space” by Charlie Jane Anders opens on a good joke. Riffing off Snapchat, the story goes on to tell of a valley girl/jersey shore type person as she travels into space and the social media environment feeding her mindset. The result is a story which is either the dumbest ever, or most contemporarily relevant—or both (which would be the real coup d’etat). Possible to be a reprint of 50s sf with none the wiser, “Ozymandias” by Karen Lowachee tells of everyday-man Luis and his new position aboard a remote communications station orbiting Jupiter. Strange things happening just days into his job, he and his bot friend SIFU must get to the bottom of things or die. Very mediocre material that I struggle to see addressing Strahan’s agenda for the anthology.

“The City's Edge” by Kristin Kathryn Rusch begins with a man overlooking the destroyed remnants of the 1000 sq. km. super-city his wife had designed. Facing the reality of having to identify her dead body removed from the wreckage, he mourns, all the while puzzling over what could have possibly destroyed the city and her. The final explanation as arbitrary as it comes in sf, Rusch nevertheless attempts to bridge the resulting gap with strong personal content. Astrophysics 101 (complete with diagrams) and a splash of space opera, “Mice Among Elephants” by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven is everything hard sf is known for, for better or worse. About a space ship exploring an unknown sector, the science of space flies as fast as the ship's mission. “Parables of Infinity” by Robert Reed is an origin story of the Great Ship, or at least the hyper-fiber it is comprised of. Thanks to Reed’s sense of style, what little actual story material exists is converted into decent fiction.

Another sunshade story this time on Earth, “Monuments” by Pamela Sargent tells of the generations of female leaders who have been put into place to manage the project and stop global warming. The scene one of Earth flooded (the right Strahan anthology for 2016?), the generations of women get what they want but with a dose of mortality, the result a story searching for something profound at its conclusion. Set in Allen Steele’s Coyote universe, “Apache Charley and the Pentagons of Hex” tells of a joyrider—a space opera drifter—exploring the extents of the super-planet Hex. Searching for the mysterious pentagon biopods that are rumored to exist, when he finally gets coordinates to one, the only thing he can do is set out to find it—even if it means danger. Ending in a fizzle—even for as much as Steele’s lucid prose hand carries the day, the overall story amounts to fare best appreciated by the Coyote lover.

A truly interesting idea couched in poor prose, “Cold Comfort” by Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty posits advanced material technology that acts as a membrane capable of reducing gas emissions, which in turn impact the effects of global warming. “I attached the lead wires to the cap, placed the cartridges in the crater I had made, then scraped the ice chips back into the hole to cover them" is a sample of how basic the text reads, even if the underpinning ideas are more intelligent. A character study, “Travelling into Nothing” by An Owomoyela tells of a prisoner with special neural implants who is saved from death row by a starship captain in need of her abilities. The story rises above the majority of those in the anthology for the intensity of emotion and character, but still fails to achieve anything truly singular.

Closing out Bridging Infinity is Ken Liu’s “Seven Birthdays”. The last story in the anthology to use generations as a means of relaying long-term technological change, it’s by position only. Reminiscent of Charles' Stross’ Accelerando or Palimpsest for its exponentially expedient path ahead through time (but without the gonzo style), it tells of the generations of a girl named Mia and her mother, a woman obsessed with finding an engineering solution to the ills that plague mankind. Contextualizing the contemporary Western situation with some simple but effective bits of far-future imagination, Liu keeps things relevant by understanding the idea that problems will always exist, and thus what matters is our approach—our attitude—toward them. Capturing Strahan’s agenda, it’s a nice note on which to end the anthology.

In the end, Bridging Infinity continues Strahan’s series of Infinity anthologies in solid but not spectacular fashion. It’s possible this is because I remain unsure how often the stories meet the outlay of Strahan’s introduction, not to mention how often hard sf makes for quality literature. There are some big ideas, there is some grounding in science, but as a rule these two are not always applied in unison toward solving humanity’s problems, not to mention with a balance of technique and craft. As such, Bridging Infinity does contain a few good stories (e.g. the offerings from Cadigan, Anders, and Liu), but there are not any stories that truly stand out—none actively bad, but neither any that seem remarkable in the long term. Which seems an appropriate summary for the anthology as a whole. Indeed, perhaps this is because hard sf is, in general, not my cup of tea. (Meeting Infinity remains the high point thus far in the Infinity series.) Thus, if it is your cup, then the anthology may very well satisfy.

The following are the fifteen stories selected for Bridging Infinity:

Introduction (by Jonathan Strahan)
Sixteen Questions for Kamala Chatterjee by Alastair Reynolds
Six Degrees of Separation Freedom by Pat Cadigan
The Venus Generations by Stephen Baxter
Rager in Space by Charlie Jane Anders
The Mighty Slinger by Tobias S. Buckell & Karen Lord
Ozymandias by Karin Lowachee
The City’s Edge by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Mice Among Elephants by Gregory Benford & Larry Niven
Parables of Infinity by Robert Reed
Monuments by Pamela Sargent
Apache Charley and the Pentagons of Hex by Allen M. Steele
Cold Comfort by Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Travelling into Nothing by An Owomoyela
Induction by Thoraiya Dyer
Seven Birthdays by Ken Liu


  1. '...hard sf is, in general, not my cup of tea.'

    Dude, you know who the hardest of hard SF authors is? Stanislaw Lem.

    Lem wrote in a bunch of modes, it's true. But Lem works like HIS MASTER'S VOICE, FIASCO, "Golem XIV" and "The New Cosmogony." They're the Thing Itself when it comes to hard SF.

    Your problem -- our problem -- is it's incredibly hard both to write well and combine that with brilliant science-based ideas. At any rate, it's a giveaway that Lem's excuse/rationale for ceasing to write fiction at all towards his career's end during the 1990s was that he couldn't keep current with all the scientific literature any longer.

    1. Lem the hardest of hard sf writers of all time... I don't know. For certain science is a key part of his fiction, but inevitably his stories rise above science to become philosophy. In fact, his stories most often portray a disbelief in science - that it cannot answer all of mankind's questions. When I think of hard sf, precisely as Strahan outlays in his introduction to Bridging Infinity, I think of a type of fiction that believes humanity's problems can be solved. I cannot think of two books going in more opposite directions than His Master's Voice and Greg Egan's Distress,for example. Both novels are founded in science at the textual level, but at the thematic level, Lem uses science to illustrate the unknowable aspects of existence while Egan posits a world where a/the Unified Theory is discovered...

      Lem giving up writing science fiction toward the end of his career I always attributed to his desire to go the non-fiction route - to develop his ideas in the "real world". But I may be wrong...

    2. Ah. Well, thanks for responding. I'll admit I was being deliberately provocative, but will also say that I'm essentially serious in claiming Lem as one model of what the hard SF writer should be. To elaborate if you'll permit...

      [1] You write: 'hard sf, precisely as Strahan outlays in his introduction to Bridging Infinity is ... a type of fiction that believes humanity's problems can be solved.'

      If Strahan has such a precise reductio ad absurdiam definition of hard SF, that's his problem and he's wrong.

      [2] You write: 'Lem uses science to illustrate the unknowable aspects of existence.'

      Okay. Part of what all scientific theories do is precisely to try and delineate the boundaries of what can actually be known in a given context. Godel, Schrodinger, Heisenberg, for obvious instances, among many others (forex. all the work on computational complexity nowadays) have historically important things to say on that score. Arguably, any scientific theory is about what it cannot answer, as well as what it can.

      You write of Lem: 'inevitably his stories rise above science to become philosophy.'

      Eh. I think you're assuming here that science and philosophy are two separate creatures. That is, say, science is about facts while philosophy is necessarily something else, a 'higher' more abstracted body of reasoning. Is that right?

      If so, no. A couple of the most practically useful reference books I possess are university texts on the philosophy of science. Besides all the branches of science implicitly reflecting or containing their specific philosophies, there are more general issues of philosophy of science. The Wiki is actually a decent introduction --

      It starts: 'Philosophy of science is a branch of philosophy concerned with the foundations, methods, and implications of science. The central questions of this study concern what qualifies as science, the reliability of scientific theories, and the ultimate purpose of science. This discipline overlaps with metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology, for example, when it explores the relationship between science and truth.'

      Sounds like Stanislaw Lem, right? And if my claims here sounds like airy-fairy handwaving on my part, part of what makes the textbooks I have on philosophy of science so practically useful is that I work sometimes as a technology/science reporter, and those two books contain some of the best potted descriptions of the specific issues involved in molecular, gene or relativity theory (in that latter case, forex, lightspeed invariance and causality violation are going to have to be discussed) or whatever else. Science _is_ philosophy.

    3. And here I thought "Naah, he won't go the semantic route..." :)

      1. Strahan is not the only one who defines hard sf as such. In Clute's sf encyclopedia, he offers a few definitions, including "the form of imaginative literature that uses either established or carefully extrapolated science as its backbone" and more generally "it should include real science in any great detail, but that it should respect the scientific spirit". And lastly, he distinguishes hard sf (i.e. science with empirical grounds) from soft sf (i.e. science with non-empirical grounds). If anything, Lem was looking to dismantle the scientific spirit (that humanity can study and eventually understand all), not to mention the -ologies you describe as part of his work are soft sf, rather than hard. This would point to Lem's "hard sf" going in a different direction than the commonly accepted definition.

      2. Indeed philosophy is technically considered a science. And so too are politics and history. I deliberately avoided this, however, given the fact the common perception of 'hard sf' is that it excludes such sciences.

      So, at the broad theoretical level (i.e. the "science" in "hard science fiction"), you are 100% correct. Lem was indeed the hardest of the hard sf writers. But at the practical level, the opposite seems true. Philosophy, politics, and history after all, are more often linked to universities' humanities departments than the traditional sciences of biology, physics, chemistry, etc.

      And lastly, if we're going the complete semantic route, science, according to Merriam-Webster's, is: "the state of knowing: knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding". If we apply that definition to its full theoretical extent, then all fiction would seem to be hard sf. "This story is known to exist, therefore it is scientific." ;)

    4. Thanks for the response. It would be a boring world if we all had the same opinions; it's fine if we see things differently.

      To be sure, as you say, 'Lem's "hard sf" (goes) in a different direction than the commonly accepted definition.'

      That said, I really do think Lem was doing what a _real_ hard SF writer _should_ be doing. Furthermore, I feel fairly sure that someone like, say, the author of RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA would have recognized in the author of SOLARIS someone with some of the same affinities working towards some of the same ends.

      You wrote: 'If anything, Lem was looking to dismantle the scientific spirit (that humanity can study and eventually understand all...'

      That's the key to our disagreement because I don't think such a dismantlement was his primary mission. Although, sure, it may come to appear that way if you look at later-period Lem (say, the 1980s to his death).

      However, younger Lem is a little different. I've read his non-fiction SUMMA TECHNOLOGIAE, which he published in Polish in 1964 and for which he'd have worked out the ideas in the preceding four years or so. Sigmund Freud once had a line about how Leonard Da Vinci resembled "a man who woke up in the middle of the night when everybody else was still asleep" with his ideas about flying machines and such. Lem, it turns out, was also someone who woke up when everybody else was still asleep. Because SUMMA TECHNOLOGIAE was Lem's thinking through what the limits of technology (and science and human knowledge) might be.

      And more than a half-century ago, all on his own the guy was already inventing and analyzing concepts like:
      • The Singularity and superhuman AI (Lem called it intellectronics)
      • Virtual Reality (Lem called it phantomatics)
      • Nanotechnology (Feynman, credited as the conceptual inventor, began thinking along similar lines at the same time)
      • Genetic algorithms
      • The theory of search engines (Lem called this ariadnology)
      • and much else, like machine swarm intelligence, evolutionary game theory, artificial life, complexity theory, entropy and thermodynamics, and population and ecological catastrophe.

      Here's a good review, not by me, following the 2013 publication of SUMMA TECHNOLOGIAE's first English translation --!

      I'm chastened to see that in fact I've been regurgitating some of this reviewer's points about Lem being a hard SF writer. That doesn't make them wrong. I think science fiction is implicitly going to be concerned about the purposes and limits of science and technology, and of the human and posthuman mind. Given that, a lot of the best SF is thus inevitably philosophical fiction.

      But it's philosophical fiction in the sense that what really happens with, say, wavefunction collapse is a philosophical question but also a real scientific question. I honestly didn't think I was resorting to a simple semantic argument about philosophy being science; I'm not much interested in -- nor knowledgable about, honestly, any philosophy but philosophy of science.

    5. Yeah, "...dismantle the spirit of science..." may have been a bit over zealous on my part. Perhaps to 'put science in its proper place' would have been better? Regardless of phrasing, I continue to think Lem was primarily interested in deflating the exaggerated hopes of modernism - that empirical science would soon enough explain everything. The content of Solaris, His Master's Voice, The Invincible, Peace on Earth, etc. speak too much to the unknowability of certain aspects of existence for me to believe Lem was a champion of the 'spirit of science'. In His Master's Voice, for example, the most advanced facets of empirical science are thrown at a problem, and one after another, fail to explain the phenomenon. Lem obviously shows interest and deep knowledge of those facets, but they are ultimately portrayed as fallible. On the contrary, when I read books that are more commonly considered hard sf, I find a can-do spirit - empirical science will save the day. In keeping, more than once I have read negative comments about Michael Crichton for portraying the application of empirical science in a negative light.

      Therefore, I daresay our disagreement lies in how hard sf is defined, not in Lem's approach. You and others have a strict definition focused on the word "science" in "hard science fiction" (hence my "semantics" comment), whereas I take the more commonly held definition of hard sf as put forth by Clute, Strahan and others. I fully understand and agree with your argument, but in the end I have to side with what the majority of works considered "hard sf" represent. I think you'll agree Lem is not mainstream hard sf. :)

  2. If you haven't seen it, here's an interesting and insightful take on Lem, "The Spearhead of Cognition," written by Bruce Sterling back in the day. By which I mean during the 1980s ---

    Sterling writes --

    'Lem shows little interest in "fiction" per se.He's interested in science: the structure of the world. A brief autobiographical piece, "Reflections on
    My Life," makes it clear that Lem has been this way from the beginning ...
    'For Lem, science fiction is a documented form of thought-experiment: a spearhead of cognition.
    'All else is secondary, and it is this singleness of aim that gives his work its driving power. This is truly "a literature of ideas," dismissing the heart as trivial, but piercing the skull like an ice-pick.'

    But go read the thing if you haven't.