Science fiction is a genre that is always moving forwards, always adapting and mutating to meet the new frontiers of knowledge and research. How to keep abreast of all the latest ideas, developments and trends, and those who write about them? Join Geek Chocolate as we meet a few of those on the cutting edge of the art in this recently published short story collection.
At the Edinburgh International Science Festival earlier this year, Charlie Stross commented that there is often little actual science in science fiction; it is more a genre of engineering problems and solutions. “Doughty inventor builds faster than light drive in his basement, goes and has adventures on alien planet fighting chlorine breathing one eyed monsters.” And while his contribution to this fine collection certainly concerns itself with the technology of the future, not all the authors represented follow this template.
Take for example Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Server and the Dragon, where he really shows off his PhD in string theory with a tale of the loneliness and excitement of space, as a self aware artificial lifeform floats in a slice of a universe stacked with membranes, it’s knowledge encompassing the whole of the galaxy it observes, but is prevented from travelling to in search of others of its kind by the command protocols it carries. Although it is initially tough going through the densest physics of the primordial universe, it is optimistic, suddenly terrifying, and ultimately uplifting.
In The Invasion of Venus, Stephen Baxter examines the effect of a first contact situation on two friends, and through their eyes, the spectrum of responses from the government, the military and the general public, both those who take an informed view, and those whose ignorance leads them to react with fear. Set in the leafy countryside of England, his placid tone and matter of fact narrative channel the spirit of the short stories of Arthur C Clarke, the horror of humanity unfolding without hysteria, just the calm detachment that trusts that the reader can judge for themselves what is unfolding is wrong.
As is often the case in science fiction, women are underrepresented, with twelve out of the sixteen contributors being men, but the comprehensive introductions to each piece show many of the writers come from hard theoretical science or research backgrounds and the diversity within those fields, giving this selection a cutting edge feel. The stated intention of the editor was to demonstrate that as science expands to new realms, so does science fiction, and by extension the definition of what that genre encompasses.
But science fiction is not just about the future. Peter Watt’s Malak, beyond the immediacy and urgency of the clear prose, may not be quite the world we live in, but how long will it be before the military will conduct operations with sentient drones, able to calculate the variables of legitimate targets versus collateral damage and abort missions where the projections are unfavourable, and how will they react when their masters continually countermand their refusals when children are in the firing line?
Though set in a contemporary world, as the name suggests, Laika’s Ghost harks back to the bad old days of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Empire, and the remnants of the space race abruptly ended by the debris field of destroyed satellites that prevents any further attempts to enter orbit. Tempered with the fearful possibility of emerging technology allowing tabletop nuclear devices, Karl Schroeder’s story tells of the dullness of a virtual reality space programme, the need a sense of importance in a world overflowing with automation, and the importance that humanity must dreams if it is to have a future.
A different look at space exploration, Charlie Stross describes the phenomenon of Bit Rot, a danger to even an engineered post-human species designed for hardship and adaptability. In only a handful of pages he creates in perfect technical detail a whole ship, its mission, a species, an astronomical event that takes place against astronomical odds, and machines that turn to cannibalism as they fight for the few untainted resources left aboard.
One of the functions of a short story collection is to act as a sampler for the work of new authors, some of whom are strangers waiting to be discovered, but it is good to discover that some whose names may be familiar are as good as their reputations indicate, but with the unfortunate consequence that the already endless list of books to read just gets longer.
Engineering Infinity, also featuring Gwyneth Jones, John Barnes, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Robert Reed and many others, is out now from Solaris.