Friday, November 9, 2018

Review of Infinity's End ed. by Jonathan Strahan

I have had a like/dislike (as opposed to love/hate) relationship with editor Jonathan Strahan’s ongoing Infinity series of science fiction anthologies (seven and counting). The introductions not always belying subsequent content, not to mention hard sf a medium that can drop the ball in terms of intellectual or emotional engagement, there is a lot of hit and miss. Regardless, there are many good, solid entries scattered throughout the anthologies, and I’ve never regretted reading one. Purporting to examine the limitless possibilities of our solar system as well as draw the Infinity series to a close is 2018’s Infinity’s End.

The anthology opens with “Foxy and Tiggs” by Justina Robson. A detective story starring a velociraptor and furry animal, the pair look for a murderer on a tourist pleasure planet. Essentially a poor man’s Darger & Surplus story, it feels far more post-human than hard sf, not to mention is highly dependent on the reader’s appreciation of Robson’s sense of humorous wit. A spot of YA space thriller, “Once on the Blue Moon” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch tells of young Colette’s experiences on board the titular spaceship when it is attacked by pirates, and how she thwarts their evil intents a la Macaulay Culkin.

One of the poorer, if not the poorest selection in the anthology, “Swear Not by the Moon” by Seanan McGuire tells of an entrepreneur who buys Titan, and the melodrama that ensues—a real yaaaawner. More science than fiction, “Last Small Step” by Stephen Baxter takes a passage from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and extrapolates upon it in—ahem—less than engaging fashion, i.e. two space explorers chase high risk chance using their collective knowledge of geology, chemistry, etc. to deduce the location of Swift’s mysterious planetoid. In “Prophet of the Roads” by Naomi Kritzer, a woman searches for the second half of a broken AI, hoping to complete a whole that will return humanity to a prior state of civilization. Her search has as surprise at the end.

A story set in the author’s Quiet War setting, “Nothing Ever Happens on Oberon” by Paul McAuley tells of a woman on Uranus who starts digging into the mystery of an unidentified person who comes flying into the planet’s atmosphere in a special suit under strange circumstances. It’s not necessary to know the Quiet War setting (I don’t and understood the story), but said knowledge I think would give the story context it otherwise might need to feel complete. As it stands, the ‘poignant’ moments didn’t hit me as hard as it seems they should have. A story looking at the ennui of prolonged existence, “Death’s Door” by Alastair Reynolds juxtaposes lengthy mortality against the wonders of the universe. A story that perhaps should build more emotional charge than it does, Reynolds nevertheless gets his point across in imaginative fashion, at least.

Post-human heartbreak trying to tug the heart strings, the emotion of “A Portrait of Salai” by Hannu Rajaniemi remains dependent on how far one is able to suspend their disbelief—a complicated matter when “humans” are not involved. More directly relatable, “Longing for Earth” by Linda Nagata tells of a man who spent his life terraforming worlds, and the hike he takes on a mountain he designed. Saying “farewell” in his own way, the story is the end of an era. As average as average gets, “Talking to the Ghost at the Edge of the World” by Lavie Tidhar is a vignette featuring a detective on Titan reclaiming memory tech from a corpse. Written like sf from the 50s or 60s (seemingly unintentionally), “Cloudsong” by Nick Wolven keeps the average vibe rolling in this story of bizarre, evolved human culture. Closing the collection with a bit of energy that the majority of the preceding stories lack is “Kindred” by Peter Watts. The voice of a hive mind talking to a mere human, Watts’ signature hardline view to the foibles of human psychology and behavior comes to dynamic center. But it’s not enough to save the anthology.

My biggest complaint about Infinity’s End is the lack of range prosaically and idea-wise. Nearly all the story’s written are in the same 21st century writing workshop, polished yet too uniform text. There is flow, but unfortunately through the whole rather than within individual stories, which, for a short story anthology, is a real Achilles heel. You want variety, a switching of gears in terms of style or approach. None of the stories, however, feature a minimalist, elegant, or lush writing style—no William Gibson, Catherynne Valente, Michael Swanwick, or other, less standard stylist to shake things up. Looking at imagination, there is no Jeff Noon, Paul Di Filippo, or Charles Stross to take the road far-less-traveled executing their vision (save perhaps the J. Robson selection). The scenes and settings are generally quite familiar—a lack of true dynamism to the spectrum of vision presented.

It’s always good for an anthology series to go out on its own accord (rather than due to poor sales, poor editing, etc.), and if nothing else, Strahan’s Inifinity series can at least hold its head high in this regard. Infinity’s End, however, doesn’t go out on a bang, rather a room temperature bleat. Not the strongest anthology of original science fiction ever to be published, Meeting Infinity remains the high point of the series as the stories included in End are simply too blasĂ©, too similar in mood, and too analogous in style to have any distinguishing or notable features that would allow the anthology to poke its nose above the crowd, or anywhere else for that matter. Hopefully Strahan will collect his energy and point it in a fresh direction for his next anthology series.

The following are the fourteen original short stories selected for Infinity’s End:

Foxy and Tiggs by Justina Robson
Intervention by Kelly Robson
Nothing Ever Happens on Oberon by Paul McAuley
Prophet of the Roads by Naomi Kritzer
Death's Door by Alastair Reynolds
Swear Not by the Moon by Seanan McGuire
Last Small Step by Stephen Baxter
Once on the Blue Moon by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
A Portrait of Salai by Hannu Rajaniemi
Longing for Earth by Linda Nagata
The Synchronist by Fran Wilde
Talking to the Ghost at the Edge of the World by Lavie Tidhar
Cloudsong by Nick Wolven
Kindred by Peter Watts

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