21st Century Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden (book review).

August 24, 2015 | By | Reply More

This is a collection of Science Fiction short stories from the 21st century. The brief preface explains that many of the writers were writing and publishing before the millennium but have come to prominence since. The editors have a broad church view of Science Fiction, which lends itself to great variety in the contents but the usual suspects are here: androids and robots, aliens and AIs. I’ll start with the Earthbound stuff and move outwards into the galaxy and the far future.

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The first story, ‘Infinities’, is by Vandana Singh, a physics teacher who, as an Indian living in Boston has some claim to being a stranger in a strange land. Abdul Karim is a little old mathematics teacher with a great love for his subject and a particular interest in infinity. He is a Muslim and his best friend, Gangadhar, is a Hindu in a city often driven by strife between these faiths. Abdul’s life story is described in a telling manner, not shown. This is contrary to all the best advice on writing modern commercial fiction but I like it. Usually, you have to read old stories by the likes of Somerset Maugham to get this straightforward, sedate type of narrative. The tale is interspersed with quotations from poets, philosophers and mathematicians and turns fantastic quite near the end, which is also where the real world, beastly as usual, intrudes on Abdul’s quiet life. Imbued as it is with composed contemplation of God and the infinite, I found this story perfect reading on a quiet Sunday morning. It’s also a nice change from western, materialist, technology orientated Science Fiction and a useful reminder that there are civilisations older than ours to the east.

Back home, country life will be very different later this century if ‘Rogue Farm’ is anything to go by. The establishment in the title is a tank-sized organism which contains six people and wants to go to Jupiter. Blast off will burn a hundred hectares around, including Joe’s farm so he is determined to stop it. The population shrinkage and consequent housing surplus in future Britain would be great but the rest of this vision from Charles Stross does not appeal to me, not even the talking dog who likes to smoke a joint with his master. I like the countryside the way it is, thanks. It’s a good story, though.

In ‘Bread And Bombs’, Mary Rickert starts off with a small town setting and evokes a bucolic air with long, slow sentences that talk of picnics and crab-apple trees and the little local schoolhouse. Slowly, a darker history is revealed. The first person narration is by an adult remembering stuff that happened when she was a kid, like Scout in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ and the setting is similar. A well-wrought yarn that should make us appreciate our lives today.

Paolo Bacigalupi writes stories set in the near future. ‘The Gambler’ was first published in 2008 and is almost true already. Ong was born in Laos. He fled when it became a dictatorship and now works on a news outlet in Los Angeles where he writes serious stories about political corruption, government incompetence and global warming. His colleague, Marty Mackley, writes about Double DP, a Russian mafia cowboy rapper who has had an affair with a fourteen year-old. Live news feeds follow Double as he tries to flee to Mexico. The story goes viral instantly, advertising revenue floods in, the company’s stock goes up and Mackley’s star continues to rise. Ong’s is falling. His content pulls in hardly any readers and he will soon be sacked. He has two hopes: a celebrity from his own country or Henry David Thoreau and the flowers of Walden pond. This is even more depressing than ‘Rogue Farm’ because it seems truer as celebrity pap ‘content’ buries real news every day. Again, it’s a great story but stop the world, please, I want to get off.

Staying with marketing, ‘The Calculus Plague’ has people on a university campus being infected with false memories. The connection with advertising is not obvious at first but is soon made. Author Marissa Lingen was one of my favourite contributors to ‘On Spec’ with her Carter Hall yarns and this short story doesn’t disappoint neither.

Gennady Malianov, a private investigator, gets looking for some stolen plutonium in ‘To Hie From Far Cilenia’ by Karl Shroeder. Set in a near future, where virtual reality games and worlds are more developed and developing, it has a good plot that keeps revealing more about the setting as it goes on. Gennady is a sympathetic character and despite the fact that this sort of thing is alien to me – I don’t even Game – it was enjoyable and interesting.

Would you like to get in touch with the versions of you that exist in parallel universes? Such is the ambition of Professor Elsa Hill, a genius physicist and she is ably assisted in the work by Adam Giles – who narrates the story – and a very smart computer. Artificial intelligences may also have twins in the other worlds. ‘Savant Songs’ by Brenda Cooper is a moving, almost frightening exploration of a common SF theme.

In ‘Chicken Little’ by Cory Doctorow, the super-rich are becoming immortal, their failing bodies wired into complex machines, some as big as small towns, that keep them alive. They are quadrillionaires and some are sovereign states. They control the world. Ate is a company that exists to please them or, rather, to attempt to invent some new way to please them as they can have anything they want. Our hero is Leon, a smart man working for Ate and trying to come up with something new for their clients. The story takes unexpected turns and ends up having a pleasing philosophical bent concerning what humans really want and what’s really good for them.

‘Eros, Philia, Agape’ is by Rachel Swirsky. Robots are an old standby of the genre and I think humans may have fallen in love with them before. That’s what the author’s story title is about but, as the couple have an adopted child, it’s more complicated. A fine example to show that ‘adult themes’ doesn’t just mean gratuitous sex and violence but exploration of the multi-faceted relationships that might result between us and our advanced technologies.

In similar territory is ‘The Nearest Thing’, Genevieve Valentine’s tale about the development of nearly humanoid androids. Inevitably, the experienced SF fan is reminded of ‘Blade Runner’ but it’s a good story on its own merits.

I was mildly put off ‘The Algorithms For Love’ by the title but, as it’s by Ken Liu, decided to give it a go because he’s written some very good short Science Fiction over the last few years. This may be the best of them but it’s downright scary. The protagonist designs humanoid dolls that are very life-like but her work has driven her mad. By the time you get the ideas behind this yarn, near the end, you may decide that it doesn’t bear thinking about too much or you might join her in the asylum.

In Ian Creasey’s ‘Erosion’, Winston is about to set off on a new adventure, just as his Jamaican grandfather did when he came to England. Augmented by technology he and others are to board a starship and colonise a rugged new planet. On his last day on an Earth, imperilled by global warming, he walks along the coastal path near Scarborough. There’s some good writing on the scenery but his actions seem a bit irrational at times. We would probably send more stable people to new planets.

Aliens have featured in science fiction ever since H.G. Wells’ Martians attacked us on Horsell Common. They were not all nasty. Neil Asher’s aliens in ‘Strood’ treat us like a third world country, setting up clinics to treat us for conditions beyond our resources. There are many different species, all of them far in advance of man. Our hero has cancer and his story nicely illustrates the setting, which is really the star. The beginning might have ‘one’s discombobulation requiring pellucidity’ but that’s just a sign of how well it’s written.

I have always disliked them but it is surely awful to actually be a salesman with the soul-destroying fawning and mendacity and the quiet desperation. In the excellent ‘Tk,Tk,Tk’, David E. Levine shows how bad it is to be a salesmen on a planet full of alien insects with a strange culture and terrible food. To butter up clients, Walker has to quaff drinks ‘indistinguishable from warm piss’ and then things get worse. This story won the Hugo in 2006. SF fans love a good alien.

Really good ones can be so odd they seem outside the genre. When a strong, handsome man rides a talking deer to a confrontation with a shape-changing demon of the scorched desert who has a two-dimensional child you are led to believe it’s a fantasy. Not so. ‘Third Day Lights’ by Alaya Dawn Johnson is Science Fiction set in a far distant future where anything is possible, somewhat like Michael Moorcock’s ‘Dancers At The End of Time’ stories. The classical fantasy aspect is kept when the hero has to face three challenges but the sensual story is narrated by the demon, not the man. There’s lots of invention and a good array of unusual characters in this far out flight of fancy.

John Scalzi is trending in the last few years so I was glad to get to read something by him at last. ‘The Tale Of The Wicked’ is about a space battle between two enemy ships that goes awry. To describe the plot is to spoil it but suffice to say it was clever, amusing and thought-provoking. I shall keep an eye out for more Scalzi.

Nerdy ‘plotters’ calculate the trajectories of asteroids that may strike an inhabited planet Mars and the ‘shooters‘, a rough crowd, blast them out of the sky. These incompatible groups share an orbiting gunship and the life of a nerd involves flackeying to the jocks, rather as junior boys used to serve seniors in our English public schools. Then a newbie arrives with a different take on things. ‘Plotters And Shooters’ by Kage Baker is a strong story that would translate well to television in some anthology program.

Far in the future, a human lady and her son crew a ship supervising the building of artificial wormholes for interstellar travel. They are bossed by an AI she calls the Chimp. Earth is long gone and the species that come through the gates have evolved far beyond her but the work continues. Then they encounter a red dwarf star that seems to be signalling them. ‘The Island’ by Peter Watts is hard going at first but presently makes sense, enough that it won the Hugo for best novelette in 2010.

The also-rans here would be stars in many another collection and only the limitations of a review prevent me raving about them at length. ‘Ikirhyoh’ by Liz Williams is an original take on genetic specialisation in a future oriental civilisation. ‘The Prophet Of Flores’ by Ted Kosmatka’ is an archaeological dig story set in a world where Darwin was wrong.

‘How To Become A Mars Overlord’ by Catherynne M. Valente didn’t suit my tastes but a lot of lexical dexterity went into this exuberant piece.

Not dissimilar is ‘A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel‘ by Yoon Ha Lee. It also breaks the bounds of traditional storytelling but the plain, almost academic language works better.

‘Escape to Other Worlds With Science Fiction’ by Jo Walton is a frightening look at an alternative history in which Britain didn’t oppose Nazi Germany but it’s set in America. It’s frightening because our much loved USA often seems to be on the brink of going this route.

The main thing that struck me about 21st century writing is how literary it is compared to the Golden Age stuff. SF was mainly rooted in pulp fiction but slowly it has evolved out of that and is now comfortably grown-up. Reading these stories is like reading a Science Fiction story by Graham Greene or Somerset Maugham. The authors take their time to set the mood and there is no need for melodrama. Character is as important as plot and background. There was a bit of a crisis about this a few decades ago and writers as diverse as Kingsley Amis and Isaac Asimov wondered if Science Fiction could be recognised as literature and still preserve the all important sense of wonder. I should add that for most of us preserving the sense of wonder was far more important than being recognised by high falutin’ critics. Anyway, the crisis is past and ‘21st Century Science Fiction’ proves beyond doubt that our flexible genre can do both, in spades. This is probably the best and most intelligent anthology of Science Fiction stories I have ever read and I’ve read a few.

Eamonn Murphy

August 2015

(pub: TOR/Forge, 2013. 572 page hardback. Price: $34.99 (US), $39.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-2600-3)

check out websites: www.tor-forge.com, www.davidghartwell.com and www.nielsenhayden.com

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Category: Books, Scifi

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About the Author ()

Eamonn Murphy lives in the west country and grew up reading Asimov, Heinlein, lots of other old SF and Marvel Comics. After many years experimenting with alcohol he has settled down to the quiet life with a nice lady, a big garden and a dog but finds time to write reviews for crowsnest and a few short stories, some of which even get published in obscure magazines. His horror novel 'Arnos Hell' set in a Bristol graveyard is available on Amazon as a kindle book.

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