With his introduction inspired by the words of Alvin Toffler a warning on the changes of too much change in too much time, the past century has seen more change than the millennia beforehand and future shock is now the new normal, though unevenly distributed across the globe. To think about how we as a species prepare for change to share those thoughts on the impact of change was the invitation issued by Jonathan Strahan to the writers who have contributed to his fourth Infinity collection, following on from Engineering, Edge of and Reach for.
These ideas are at the fore in Rates of Change, told with customary assurance by The Expanse‘s James S A Corey, where Diana, on her third body, visits her son Stefan in the medical centre; her physiology has changed, but the response of a parent to an injured child has not. She needs to push against to express her anger, but her husband is infuriatingly calm and reasonable, supportive of the decisions Stefan made which put him in this situation, when all the time she is projecting how uncomfortable she is in her unfamiliar body, her resentment of how well they have adjusted to theirs.
Deliberately oblique and told in terse prose, the language as urgent and unforgiving as the mission, Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s Desert Lexicon is the riddle of Isyavan and the surviving members of her squad dealing with the circumstances of their captivity. Imagining the world beyond their immediate operation with equal longing and dread, the flow of description (“a day the precise hue of mourning,” “the taste of carbon rot and melanoma”) is deeply alien yet immediately understandable. While Hannu Rajaniemi, a fixture of previous collections, is absent this time around here is his stylistic successor.
The initial oddity of Simon Ings’s Drones quickly takes a left turn at quirky before a steep incline into downright peculiar as the death of the bees requires a restructuring of the social order to mirror that lost necessity then travels a path of cold horror before arriving at the relative safety of its final destination, while Kameron Hurley’s brilliantly twisted Body Politic is an ugly Möbius of a story, infiltrations and interrogations and the nightmares inside an agent’s head as an investigation into enemy operatives and corrupted organic tech leads nowhere good.
Author of the Sleepless series, Nancy Kress has established her credentials in chronicling the social changes of evolution and technology, and in Cocoons she also draws on the encroaching military jurisdictions explored in her Probability novels as some members of a colony are infected and transformed by indigenous lifeform, the civilian doctor caught between following orders and protecting what she believes may be an emergent sentience.
One of the original recipients of the experimental longevity treatments, Senior Magistrate Romanz Jolie Davison of the Outer Reaches is awoken by a nightmare of her distant past in Clarke Award winner Gwyneth Jones’ entertaining Emergence; handling endless cases of disputes between software entities is bad enough, but when one goes rogue the game is afoot as with breathless determination she sets out after it through the moons of Jupiter. Brought low by that most human of ailments, frostbite, she must return to Earth for treatment in a story which takes in the various shades of sentience and humanity in all their varieties and their complex relations, some vying for equality, some for supremacy.
A stowaway in the archiveship threatens the integrity of the whole cargo, the digitised colonists waiting to be reconstituted and revived upon arrival in Yoon Ha Lee’s The Cold Inequalities; hunted by the guardian sentinel Anzhmir, herself an AI extraction of a passenger, the stowaway resists the challenge with stories which raise questions of identity, but like the compromised records the piece feels fragmentary, unsatisfactory.
“The Dark Age was here, just not very well distributed,” is the cry of Bruce Sterling’s Pictures from the Resurrection, the inequalities of survival magnified by a technological crash, the survivors of Fort Lucky, Texas, finding that things are about to get very much worse with catastrophic rapidity when they are attacked by a hybrid zombie ninja, the tale twisting and evolving as unexpectedly as their formerly human assailants.
Gregory Benford visits the universe of his Galactic Centre sequence in the overly military Aspects, a visit to the world of Snowglade where there is shooting, shouting, explosions and running, the colloquialisms presumably intended to convey a ragged authenticity to the frontier struggle but instead coming off as contrivance, a family homestead saga recited by an author too in love with his own reputation.
One of the most entertaining stories is the quirky chicanery of Madeline Ashby’s Memento Mori which opens with a likely foolish re-versioning into a new body for Anika’s client, wishing to be reborn as a child to escape the disappointment of his life, but she knows the pitfalls and deferred consequences of such a choice. Instead, she prefers the stable domesticity of the home she shares with her husband and his boyfriend, about to be knocked drastically off kilter when her own forgotten history catches up.
“Convenience trumped everything,” Sean Williams explains in his cautionary All the Wrong Places, the possibility of lightspeed teleportation across the solar system overriding any safety concerns about the technology, but the warning is equally much about rash decisions and chasing after relationships. The narrator becoming increasing distant from his home and common sense as he is dispersed across the galaxy in the search for true love, despite the vast tracts of time and persistent failure of his endeavours, it is swift moving and inspiring in the sights he witnesses.
As told by Aliette de Bodard, the religious order of the Crane and Cedar have long ministered aid to those suffering from the plague, following In Blue Lily’s Wake, but when visiting a vast orbiting mindship which has fallen silent it is discovered that it might too have fallen victim to an illness with no identifiable transmission vector. Sombre and reflective, the measured pace of an act of atonement surfaces through the fractured timeline and layered memories.
Escape from the dying Earth wasn’t easy, but at least it was fast; the journey to Alpha Centauri will take the best part of a thousand years, but what other option is there in Ramez Naam’s Exile from Extinction? Across that vast gulf there is ample time for reflection on the past, a future history of hubris, ambition and technological leaps which led to the final war, as ever, precipitated by fear and jealousy; the AI’s advanced, humanity did not, yet still there is hope among the cold stars.
John Barnes takes the opposite approach to his peers in My Last Bringback, Doctor Layla Palemba having been a natural birth among the nubrids (“a bunch of supermodel-athlete Spock-Buddhas”) born in an age when enhancements are the norm because of her fundamentalist parents. A difficult story to get into, struggling through the reconstruction of memories corrupted by the “natural” aging process she is bound to, while the adaptability and long lives of the nubrids facilitates forgiveness a natch can hold a grudge to the grave, and beneath the optimism there lies a very human streak of nihilism.
Resistance to an increasing societal norm of genetic engineering is also what gave rise to Eva, the Outsider of An Owomoyela’s story, a refugee whose ship has arrived at the distant colony of Se where she has found her nightmare has arrived before her, a fully engineered and integrated world where every individual is optimised for their role and connected via neural implants to a shared network. Their guest initially a historical curiosity, Eva sees her rescuers as slaves to a system from which she will be their liberator, but whether it is justice or prejudice which drives her remains unexplored, the story concluding just as it becomes interesting.
With Ian McDonald’s The Fifth Dragon published in Reach for Infinity as a prequel to his first Luna novel, New Moon, he returns to that setting with The Falls which concludes the collection. As much about artificial intelligence as it is about the evolution of humanity, Nuur finds she understands more of the fears of the planetary exploration probe named Callisto she is psychoanalysing than what drives her own daughter who has grown up as a second generation lunar citizen with all the adaptations and and changes of that environment, but regardless of the courses of their lives it is gravity which remains the inescapable constant.
Perhaps it was a consequence of the challenge issued by Strahan, but many of the stories have a focus on detail, on the minutiae of the circumstances they represent, an intense focus on how these worlds are different from our own to the extent that they concentrate more on that than story, and it does seem these stories have been frontloaded, to concentrate and challenge the reader.
Because of this, while many of the stories are undeniably accomplished in conception and execution, some needlessly obfuscate a fairly simple story by burying it under layers of incomprehensible jargon, which is not the same as having a clever plot, the first time that accusation could be directed at one of Strahan’s usually superior collections.
Meeting Infinity is available now from Solaris Books