Solaris Rising 3 (Ian Whates; Rebellion) is billed as an anthology showcasing the breadth of modern SF. It is that; unfortunately, it is also a demonstration that the editor and some of his authors have partly lost touch with what makes science fiction interesting and valuable.
As I’ve observed before, SF is not an anything-goes genre. You do not achieve SF merely by deploying SF furniture like space travel, nonhuman sophonts, or the Singularity. SF makes demands on both reader and writer that go beyond lazy fabulism; there’s an implied contract. The writer’s job is to present possibility in a sufficiently consistent and justified way that the reader might be able to reason out the story’s big reveal(s) before the author gets there; the reader’s job is to back-read the clues in the story intelligently and try to get ahead of the author, or catch mistakes in the extrapolation. As in murder mysteries, there can be much else going on besides this challenge and response, but if the challenge and the possibility of such a response is not there, you do not have SF.
Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s When We Harvested the Nacre-Rice plays the game properly, with its depiction of a very odd and subtle kind of warfare, the ties of friendship, subtle betrayal, and a privilege that may follow naturally in a future with indefinite life extension. The sense of immersion in human cultures that have been coevolving with advanced technology for a very long time is well done.
Chris Beckett’s The Goblin Hunter is more questionable. The premise is very SFnal – aliens who, as a defense mechanism, reflect all of the darkness and self-doubt in humans back at them. But the author does nothing interesting with the premise; there’s no reveal to possibly get ahead of, we don’t leave the story feeling we understand anything more about human beings or the setting or anything else than we did walking in. Instead the ending deflects into a criticism of the meddling do-gooder which, while worthy in itself, feels disconnected from the rest of the story. It seems rather a waste of a good premise.
Homo Floriensis (Ken Liu) is more interesting, inviting the reader to think about the ethical problems of first contact with a hominid species on the fuzzy borderline of sophont status. What is the right thing to do when you are not sure what ethical kind you are dealing with, and know that eventually humans less careful than you will come charging in? The author may not have the answer but he has an answer – and a thought-provoking one.
Julie Czerneda’s A Taste For Murder is a snarky, funny exploration the possibility of easy body modification for humans – and what can happen when it gets a little too easy. The reveal and the conclusion follow with remorseless logic from the premises; thus this is proper SF.
Tony Ballantine’s Double Blind is properly SF too, though of a dark and nasty kind that I tend to dislike. It turns the risks of drug trials up to 11.
Sean Willams’s The Mashup apes one of the persistent themes of SF – technological transcendence – but there’s no logic and no reveal. It might as well be a story about meddling demons; there’s no rational knowability here, and the viewpoint character’s passivity and eventual surrender to a sea-change he doesn’t actually understand is thus more the stuff of horror than anything else. I call this sort of thing “anti-SF” because it doesn’t merely ignore the requirements of the form, it mocks and seeks to erode them.
Aliette de Bodard’s The Frost on Jade Buds is much better. The need to cope with grief and the aftermath of a shattering war is, alas, a recurring problem in human history; the author shows that when human being become sufficiently entangled with their technology it could take some novel turns.
Alex Dally McFarlane’s Popular Images from the First Manned Mission to Enceladus could serve as exhibit A for why SF writers shouldn’t get too cute. There’s a reasonable SF short story here wrapped in an odd postmodern sort of narrative structure; the problem is that the narrative structure is a stunt that only demonstrates the author’s cleverness rather than adding any value to the story. This is poor practice in almost any kind of fiction-writing, but especially regrettable in a genre like SF or mysteries where the author’s cleverness ought to be directed outwards.
Gareth L. Powell’s Red Lights and Rain turns its cleverness to better use, mixing time travel and the question of why, in a rational universe, something like the legendary vampire might come to exist. It’s well and suspensefully written.
Laura Lam’s They Swim Through Sunset Seas is a meditation on the old maxim that in nature there are no rewards or punishments, only consequences. Humans who should have known better meddle with chillingly alien aliens. There’s an ambiguous ending, probably a tragedy, but the author plays fair throughout.
Ian Watson’s Faith Without Teeth is a satire on socialism set in a weird alternate East Berlin. It’s so surrealistically funny that you may have trouble noticing that the SFnal exposition is handled absolutely straight. Well done!
Adam Roberts’s Thing and Sick is a gem – an SF story founded on taking Kantian conceptualism seriously. This is exactly what SF ought to do; question your assumptions, construct a consistent otherness, and leave you with a feeling of understanding the universe in a way you didn’t before. The conceptual breakthrough here is rather more pointed and fundamental than we usually get…
George Zebrowski’s The Sullen Engines is the worst blotch on this anthology. The viewpoint character can make car engines vanish; except no, she vanishes a human at one point. For this to be a proper SF story it would have to develop or imply some explanation of the phenomenon less silly than “wishing can make it so”. But this story is anti-SF – it violates the core promise of SF by not affirming the rational knowability of anything. Instead we get a sort of inverted power fantasy – a muddy, self-indulgent puddle of angst and eco-piety with no redeeming virtues whatsoever. Makes me want to find Ian Whates, slap him upside the head and demand to know what he was thinking.
Cat Sparks’s Dark Harvest returns to SF, but doesn’t do it very convincingly. Yes, you could ritualize the use of exotic technology as though it were Tantric Buddhist magic, if you had constructed the interface that way – but we are never presented with a good reason for the insurgents to have actually done so. Seems like the author succumbed to the tendency to construct a thin rationalization around some cool imagery. The game can be played better than this, and should be.
Benjamin Rosenbaum’s Fift and Shria, on the other hand, does an eerily convincing job on a very odd and entertaining premise; a human culture built around the assumption that individuals routinely occupy several bodies each. It reads rather like something James H. Schmitz might have written back in the day. The author put a lot of thought into this and assembling the clues to figure out everything that is going on takes work. It’s the SF game played at a very high level.
The Howl, by Ian R. MacLeod & Martin Sketchley, is another story that makes me wonder what it’s doing in this anthology. The characters’ unresolved personal issues just aren’t that interesting, and vague hints that some kind of many-worlds phenomenon might be behind the gaps in one’s memory do not lift this mood piece into the category of SF. For that the counterfactual would have to be used, would have to have logical consequences, rather than being some kind of pathetic-fallacy externalization of mere psychological confusion.
Nina Allan’s The Science of Chance is flawed but interesting. It seems to be exploring how human beings entering a superposed quantum state might present to other humans stuck with a temporal viewpoint – or perhaps I’m giving the author credit for too much subtlety. It would have been a better story without the secondary premise of a nuclear bombing that never happened in real history.
Rachel Swirsky’s Endless finishes strong with a consideration of what post-Singularity transcended humans might consider that they owe their ancestors, with a debt paid by remembering.
Much good material in this anthology, only one or two conspicuous duds. It’d be nice if the editor would be a bit more discriminating next time.