Edge of Infinity is the new anthology of short stories from Solaris focusing on the possibilities of the first steps further out into the solar system beyond the orbit of the Moon. Edited by Jonathan Strahan and with bold cover art by Adam Tredowski, it follows on from their previous collections Engineering Infinityand Solaris Rising and features many of the same authors, both of which raised the bar fairly high for this somewhat mixed offering.
Two time Clarke Award winner Pat Cadigan opens proceedings with The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi, and scrambling to keep up with the language is as challenging as the work the characters are undertaking out in the icefields of the Jovian system, but Fry and narrator Arkae are fun company, and there are interesting points about how legality binds them to Earth more tightly than gravity and how bipedal lifeforms are similarly tied to binary forms of thinking. Although it opens simply, if such a word can ever be used to describe a subject so complex, after a few pages the story becomes deeper and significantly more interesting.
Set within the atmosphere of an unspecified gas giant, though presumably Jupiter, Elizabeth Bear’s The Deeps of the Sky is a thin narrative threaded through clouds of purple prose as dense and unforgiving as the environment; perhaps it is unfair to compare this with the master, but for an exciting tale of exploration within the Jovian system, refer instead to Arthur C Clarke’s classic A Meeting with Medusa. Moving out of that gravity well, Gwyneth Jones takes a virtual tour of the four principal moons of Jupiter in Bricks, Sticks, Straw, ambitious and fascinating, with an ambiguously but possibly optimistic ending.
Sticking to one of the Galilean satellites, The Road to NPS starts promisingly but quickly becomes painfully bogged down, as tedious as the three thousand kilometre trek across the snows of Europa sounds. Congratulations are due to Sandra McDonald and Stephen D Covey for making a first contact story so monumentally dull, plotted as though it was a teenager’s first attempt at science fiction, populated with situations and characters as obvious as a teenage stowaway who suddenly turns out to be useful when things get bad.
Counterpointing this is Paul McAuley’s tale of human relationships and frailty, raised beyond it‘s simple premise by the quality of the writing and characterisation. Bearing a superficial resemblance to Alastair Reynolds’ Blue Remembered Earth with its posthumous request which demands a trip off world, here to the moons of Saturn, Macy Minnot’s Last Christmas on Dione is crisply detailed and textured as it orbits in distant sparkling sunlight, the stories and myths of the pioneers and settlers spinning a tale of warmth in the deep dark.
Apparently an analysis of a very human and flawed relationships, Swift as a Dream and Fleeting as a Sigh pulls together threads seemingly only tangentially connected through the omniscient view of a benevolent overseeing AI program, bathing in knowledge and insight as it fills the time between the breaths of its corporeal charges, before writer John Barnes manoeuvres a deft and melancholy rug-pull.
Flitting between a test flight encountering problems and a recollection of drunken barroom pontificating may not be an obvious way to open a story, but James S A Corey’s Drive cleverly manages to justify the exposition of all the points that will be relevant in their contribution while establishing the characters and setting. While the scenes on board the yacht do drag, though not as excessively as the g-forces, the story draws parallels between the colonisation of the solar system and the American war of independence, with a bittersweet ending with the assurance that not only might the future be as good as what has been, it might be better.
Also concerned with flight is Kristine Kathryn Rusch, examining the necessity of passing a driving test before allowing anyone to take a ship out of dock in Safety Tests. Deftly written and entertaining, the conclusion does not match the opening, but it still brings some much needed humour to the collection, even if the flavour is gallows.
Water Rights from An Owomoyela and The Peak of Eternal Light from Bruce Sterling both address the issues of restricted supply and demand for that necessity, though the latter with an impressively drawn hard scifi setting framed by an unconvincing battle of the sexes melodrama which works neither as satire nor as pastiche; Owomoyela’s piece may be less ambitious than Sterlings, but it is more rounded and satisfying.
The triangle of demand, resources and labour also plays a part in Stephen Baxter’s Obelisk, a vivid portrayal of a growing colony on the surface of Mars struggling to become more than a pawn to be used or discarded by the homeworld. Well written and imagined with a fascinating backstories for the two protagonists, it is unbalanced when the final scene depends on a barely sketched third character whose fate is as tangential to the reader as to the lead characters.
Much more satisfying, and possibly the best story in the book, comes from Alastair Reynolds. Casually dropping huge technologies and ancient acts of planetary destruction in a few pages, Vainglory features his customary female protagonists, one an investigator, one an artist, as a tale of ambition unravelled over five decades is pieced together by the survivor and the unwilling accomplice.
Hannu Rajaniemi‘s Tyche and the Ants is as fast moving as the protagonist herself, disobedient and wilful, running across the surface of the Moon to see her friends who may be imaginary or may be rudimentary AI toys, when she finds an invasion force of automated drones that link back to her forgotten childhood; the prose is breathless and leaves little room for questions, but hopefully this world may be visited again and at least a few of the answers given.