Ian Whates has created a strong reputation for himself as an editor who produces exciting anthologies of short speculative fiction. In the same way Solaris has carved itself a niche as a publisher which consistently delivers high quality genre anthologies. ‘Solaris Rising 2’ is their latest collaboration in this vein. Does it live up to expectations?
In his introduction, Whates explains that the aim of the anthology, as with its predecessor ‘Solaris Rising’, which I enjoyed when I reviewed it for SFCrowsnest in December 2011, is ‘to demonstrate the diversity, vitality and sheer strength of modern SF’. As a result, he deliberately chose not to commission stories from the authors featured in the earlier book but to approach an entirely new selection of writers. The end result is an anthology of nineteen stories from well-established and less well-known authors.
It’s worth saying up front that I enjoyed nearly every story in this book. I would be happy to talk about all nineteen of them but that would make this review unmanageably long and probably unreadable. So I have limited myself to focusing on the six stories I enjoyed most and two that didn’t work for me.
My favourite story was ‘Feast And Famine’ by Adrian Tchaikovsky. A team of astronauts sent out to investigate possible life on an extra-solar planet in a nearby star system have to initiate a rescue and recovery mission when their colleagues, who were returning from visiting a large moonlet orbiting the planet, go silent. When they reach their friends’ shuttle, they find that it has been half-eaten by the same crystals that cover the moonlet, killing everyone onboard. Is this some strange form of alien life or a natural phenomenon and can they establish the truth without succumbing to the same fate themselves? This is a high quality piece of hard Science Fiction writing that marries attention to scientific accuracy with strong characterisation and an engaging plot. Tchaikovsky keeps the tension at fever pitch throughout and closes the story with a realistic but surprising resolution. Given that the author is primarily known for his ‘Shadows Of The Apt’ series of epic fantasy novels, this hard SF story was a total revelation to me.
Running Tchaikovsky a close second, James Lovegrove’s ‘Shall Inherit’ made a huge impact. We are on Earth a few decades from now. When eco-terrorists decide to demonstrate the dangers of nanotechnology, their plan goes horribly wrong. The sabotaged nano-machines that were intended to clean up an oil spill start instead to digest everything they touch. They can’t be turned off and are on course to destroy the Earth. In response, the world’s governments jointly build a spaceship to take four hundred people to an Earth-like exoplanet in a nearby star system where they can start anew. Due to the emotional challenge of what’s proposed, the crew is selected on the basis not only of their intelligence but also of their lack of emotional engagement. In consequence, most of them are ‘geeks’ or have some kind of developmental disorder. One such is Martin, who has Asperger’s Syndrome. We watch his family over their last day with Martin as they get ready to take him to the spaceport and say goodbye to him for the last time, something that doesn’t bother him in the slightest. This may be a hard SF story but its impact comes entirely from the characters and the poignancy of their emotional interactions. Lovegrove is careful not to be exploitative but the understated prose carries enormous power. This story remained at the front of my mind for a long time after I finished reading it.
Martin McGrath’s ‘The First Dance’ was also a stand-out success for me. I have to declare an interest here as Martin and I used to be in the same on-line writing group and I first saw this story in that context. I liked it then and I loved it in its final version here. It is 2084. Alejandro Marichal is an old man who can no longer afford the payments on his ‘Muninn’, the surgically-inserted piece of hardware that allows you to replay memories with 100% accuracy. The problem with them is that you get charged royalty payments on anything you see, hear or smell that is in copyright. You can only avoid this by deleting the offending memories. He doesn’t want to delete the memory of his first dance with his wife at their wedding sixty-three years earlier, so he goes to see his nephew Gideon, who can apparently hack the machines. However, what Gideon can achieve is not what Alejandro was hoping, leaving him with a decision to make. The power of this story comes from the use of a credible technological idea to explore the emotional importance of our memories, particularly as we get older. Alejandro is a proud and honourable character whose quiet determination not to give in to the demands of corporate profiteering is extremely uplifting.
‘Before Hope’ by Kim Lakin-Smith follows a long-distance space truck driver as he recruits a young apprentice and inducts her in his methods of quiet resistance against the oppressive regime on one of the planets he visits. The mix of technology, character and plot provides a very rewarding read.
Mercurio D. Rivera’s ‘Manmade’ tells the tale of a surgeon on compassionate leave after the death of her son. She is approached by one of her former patients, an artificial intelligence which has been turned into a human. The AI is unhappy with its lot and wants the operation reversed. When the surgeon tries to find out what might drive the AI to such a desperate position she uncovers a dark secret, dark enough that someone might kill to keep it quiet. This is a deeply affecting story which plumbs interesting depths around the question of what it means to be human.
‘The Lighthouse’ by Liz Williams is about an alien growing up with her mother in a fortress on an isolated asteroid, the last of their species following a catastrophic war against an aggressive opponent. However, when the hated opponents return to the asteroid many years later, the message they bring is not at all what she was expecting. This is a sad, thoughtful tale that sets up one idea and then turns it on its head.
In any anthology there are bound to be a few stories that don’t appeal to an individual reader. In this case, there were only two that I did not enjoy. The first was ‘The Circle Of Least Confusion’ by Martin Sketchley. This starts well, contrasting a tale of two young human lovers uncertain about whether to have children together with the mission of an alien sniper on a far-away planet. However, the story runs out of steam almost as soon as the two sub-plots are brought together, leaving a conventional morality tale about the dangers of being able to see into the future. The second was Mike Allen’s ‘Still Life With Skull’, which is set in the far future when humans can have their bodies reconfigured into almost any shape they want. The story concerns various people who are being hunted down for various reasons and the lengths they will go to evade capture. The problem here was that although there was an impressive amount of invention I had no idea, even after reading the story three times, what was actually going on. In both cases, though, I’m sure that some other readers will get more from these stories than I did.
‘Solaris Rising 2’ is another triumph for Ian Whates and Solaris Books. If anyone doubts the value of original genre anthologies, here is another example of what can be done to showcase the strength and diversity of current SF short fiction. I enjoyed this very much and I hope that ‘Solaris Rising 3’ will appear in the not too distant future.
(pub: Solaris/Rebellion Publishing/HarperCollins. 318 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78108-087-0)
check out website: www.solarisbooks.com