Sunday, December 2, 2018

Review of The Final Frontier ed. by Neil Clarke

When I was in high school, I was a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I haven’t watched the show in literally decades, but I recall the variety of situations Picard, Ryker, Data and the rest of the Enterprise crew regularly got themselves into. Both external and internal, there were alien encounters of all varieties as they explored the unknown just as seemingly inexplicable things could happen onboard without any obvious peripheral stimuli (at least at the onset of the episode)—even the holodeck was a source of the uncanny. While the crew regularly changes with each story, it’s fair to say that editor Neil Clarke’s 2018 reprint anthology The Final Frontier captures the same Star Trek spirit.

Attempting to set the tone is “A Jar of Goodwill” by Tobias S. Buckell. A simplistic bit of science fiction that is perhaps more at home in a 1948 anthology than 2018 (an original episode of Star Trek versus Next Generation), one can almost feel the likes of Clifford Simak or Robert Heinlein leaning over Buckell’s shoulder writing this conventional bit of alien encounter (sans damsel in distress). Next is Ken Liu’s “Mono no aware.”  A story that presents an interesting view to American culture (“Then we’ll improvise,” Mindy says. “We’re Americans, damn it.  We never just give up.”), it hinges on a heroic act (natch) in a space mission gone wrong, including the cultural heritage of the main character, and how it plays into said heroic act. The import of the story seems more Hollywood than refined (hence the popular awards?).

I find short fiction to be Elizabeth Bear’s strength, and with “The Deeps of the Sky” the belief rings true.  Almost as alien as fiction can be, the story describes one insectoid’s attempt to please the queen, and the unexpected meeting it has while collecting gases one “day”.  Wonderfully realistic from the alien’s pov, it reminds the reader there is more than the homo sapien sapien view to life. Seth Dickinson’s “Three Bodies at Mitanni” proves a pleasant surprise. An interesting idea regarding consciousness that not only puts an interesting spin on ‘zombies’ as well as politics, Dickinson resolves the tension-filled scenario in intelligent fashion—a coup de tat given sentience is the main concept at stake.

Beginning as a straight-forward sf idea (space scavengers discover a deep-space wreck) but evolving further (a nicely detailed look at the technical and psychological backdrop of what entering a confined space in space might be like), “Diving Into the Wreck” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch also reaches a subtly exciting climax that has the reader truly in awe of the potential for one of science fiction’s most stereotypical pieces of tech. A story that stabs at scientific romanticism, “The Symphony of Ice and Dust” by Julie Novakova tells of a spacefaring couple and the trouble (aka death) they encounter upon discovering something unique. Novakova, to some simple degree of success, glorifies their sacrifice and achievements in the closing pages.

Tibetan Buddhism in space, “Twenty Lights to ‘The Land of Snow’” by Michael Bishop tells of the Dalai Lama’s interstellar flight to find a new home for Tibetan people. A generation starship story heavily imbued with the details of Tibetan and Buddhist culture, nothing about the trip is guaranteed for as calm and serene as the people are. It’s worth mentioning Bishop’s prose in this story is superb; the evolution of the protagonist’s voice from child to teen to adult as evidenced by her use of language is wonderfully graded. A story that flits back and forth between realism and satire, “The Firewall and the Door” by Sean McMullen tells of a failed space mission, and the legal—and social media—fallout on Earth. (Hint: likes and dislikes help decide a court case.)

A semi-rare bit of straight-forward science fiction from Michael Swanwick, “Slow Life” tells of scientists on Titan as they delve into the moon’s methane sea and find life—as surprising and influential as its form may be. Continuing with the hard sf groove, “Sailing the Antarsa” by Vandana Singh is about a woman sailing the galaxy looking for remnants of humanity, all the while relating how humans on Earth studied ecology and adapted existence to live in far greater harmony with the environment than today. (Hard sf enthusiasts will undoubtedly enjoy this one more, I yawned.) A bizarre and only semi-coherent story about a gendered planet (i.e. the planet, as well as the living things on the planet), “Rescue Mission” by Jack Skillingstead kind of, just, is.

James Patrick Kelly’s “Wreck of the Godspeed” is space drama with more depth than those words conjure.  Utilizing a (semi-)generation starship setup, Kelly intertwines the personalities of the crew members, the AI captain, and the backgrounds they come from to represent aspects of, and questions regarding, Catholicism and existence—the conclusion playing out in nicely symbolic terms.  (The longer review can be found here.) 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 is notable for the intensity of emotion and character, but fails to achieve something transcendent.

A nice bit of psychological science fiction with a simplistic title, “The Mind Is Its Own Place” by Carrie Vaughn tells of a space ship navigator who wakes up to find himself in a psych ward with no memories of how he got there. The story slowly unraveled from his viewpoint, Vaughn nicely perpetuates the mystery of his circumstances by juggling possibilities until the grand reveal of the end. Upgraded clones the only humans able to handle the exigencies of space, “Permanent Fatal Errors” by Jay Lake tells of a long distance exploratory crew and the mutiny—or is it mutiny?—aboard their small vessel.

A Greg Egan story set in the author’s Amalgam of Incandescence and “Riding the Crocodile”, “Glory” opens on a sweet mix of pseudo-science pyrotechnics, which quickly escalates to post-human proportions as an anthropologist arrives on a distant planet to do research.  Encountering local tensions, compounded by intergalactic hostilities, her job only becomes more difficult, resulting in a somewhat blunted story that is not the most subtle of Egan’s work. Closing the anthology in strong fashion, however, is Peter Watts’ “The Island” in which a woman tries to come to terms with a major obstacle (aka strange alien thing) on a deep space flight while protecting her son. Crackling with dark psychology, Watts’ characteristic hardline view to human neuro-chemical realities comes to life in engaging, cynical fashion.

Indeed, the stories in The Final Frontier echo adventures aboard the Enterprise et al very strongly. The unknown encountered in tangible and intangible form, on planets light years from Earth and in strange space wrecks—even in the human head, a variety of boundaries of human existence as we know it are colorfully pushed. For me personally, the stories by James Patrick Kelly, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Seth Dickinson, Peter Watts, and Michael Bishop stood out. The advantage of reprint anthologies only potential, just a couple had me doubting whether or not time is in fact a factor which allows the cream to rise to the top.

All previously published elsewhere, the following are the twenty-one stories selected for The Final Frontier:

A Jar of Goodwill by Tobias S. Buckell
Mono no Aware by Ken Liu
Rescue Mission by Jack Skillingstead
Shiva in Shadow by Nancy Kress
Slow Life by Michael Swanwick
Three Bodies at Mitanni by Seth Dickinson
The Deeps of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear
Diving Into the Wreck by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
The Voyage Out by Gwyneth Jones
The Symphony of Ice and Dust by Julie Novakova
Twenty Lights to "The Land of Snow" by Michael Bishop
The Firewall and the Door by Sean McMullen
Permanent Fatal Errors by Jay Lake
Gypsy by Carter Scholz
Sailing the Antarsa by Vandana Singh
The Mind Is Its Own Place by Carrie Vaughn
The Wreck of the Godspeed by James Patrick Kelly
Seeing by Genevieve Valentine
Travelling Into Nothing by An Owomoyela
Glory by Greg Egan
The Island by Peter Watts

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