Comprising fourteen tales including contributions from some of the shining stars of the science fiction firmament, Reach for Infinity is Jonathan Strahan’s third Infinity collection following the success of 2011’s Engineering… and 2013’s Edge of… While the first collection featured only four women writers in the sixteen stories, the latest collection offers six women in the fourteen featured authors, a step forward which is unfortunately counterpointed by a move away from the hard science background originally evident which may in turn be linked with the diminishing quality of some of the inclusions.
Opening the book is Greg Egan’s disappointingly clumsy Break My Fall, which while demonstrating the theme of the collection is fortunately not a good representative of the collection. While possibly simple in mechanical terms, the unconventional method of accelerating and braking on the trip to Mars is inadequately described in a pedestrian narrative with only sketches of characters; inadequate as entertainment, its only purpose could be to popularise the stepping stone proposal, but with no clear frame of reference and what scant details are given confusing, the reader is more frustrated than informed.
Easier to follow and with more pronounced characters is Karl Schroeder’s Kheldyu, with passages clearly outlining the setting and its significance and the technology and its function, and how easily it can be corrupted. Less science fiction than eco-techno-thriller, it is fast moving and complete, though there is less of a link between it and Strahan’s stated remit of stories depicting the initial stages of reaching beyond the Earth and the inner solar system and more of the overall theme of striving for human and technological achievement.
Similarly drifting off topic but equally worthy of inclusion is Adam Robert’s Trademark Bugs: A Legal History which brings to mind the indoctrinal virus Alastair Reynolds’ Chasm City and the legal shenanigans of Vonda N McIntyre’s Recourse Incorporated in her collection Fireflood and Other Stories as he charts a century of proceedings in the suits and countersuits of the pharmaceutical companies who seek to boost their profits by deliberate infection. An outrageous tale not in what is described but in how close to truth the liberties taken may be, it is a salutary reminder that simple soap and water have saved more lives than any medication ever.
In The Dust Queen Aliette de Bodard deals with memory and the lasting impact of key events in the lives of those who experienced them, but the images she uses are heavy handed, trying too hard to invoke a response in the reader so that they never feel honest or genuinely earned, and the relationship at the core of the story is as unclear as the world the characters live in and the process requested by Ban Lau, a woman sometimes referred to as “grandmother” but perhaps in a purely ceremonial manner, as her daughter is not referred to as “aunt.” The story is interesting, but without something to grasp onto it remains frustratingly opaque and abstract.
Set on the productive dust seas of the Moon, Ian McDonald tells of the founding of The Fifth Dragon through the eyes of an industrious and capable engineer, Adrienne Corta, as she chronicles the taming of a hostile world where coffee is rarer and more valuable than gold, reflecting on her life, choices and loves while resolutely resisting the purported charms of mint tea. Encapsulating her hopes and the sacrifices she made to achieve her goals, it is confident, bittersweet and a fully realised step on the surface of our utterly alien nearest neighbour.
The wonderful Pat Cadigan, whose contribution to Edge of Infinity, The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi, later won a Hugo award, returns with her Report Concerning the Presence of Seahorses on Mars, channelling the words of Rose Feenixity who has “been out of the blue and deep in the red for almost twenty Mars years,” a reflection not only of her loyalties and choices but of the debt owed by all Martian residents to the Earth organisations who continue to support them, largely through the sponsorship of the Reality Show Network’s dedicated Mars channel, complete with corporate attempts to seed drama and the phenomenon where the programming on the sister Moon channel consists of people watching the feeds from their Martian cousins.
Also concerned with the funding of space habitats is Attitude, Linda Nagata’s unbalanced tale of the orbiting team who play the titular zero gravity game in a fiercely competitive league, the background more interesting than the actual story which spends too long describing the match then wraps up the strands in mere paragraphs just as it begins to find its space legs, unsatisfying and unconvincing.
Ellen Klages’ Amicae Aeternum and Karen Lord’s Hiraeth: A Tragedy in Four Acts both approach the remit from a psychological point of view, the former through the eyes of a young girl scheduled to depart the Earth on a generation ship for a destination she herself will never reach, the other concerned with the increasingly extreme modifications used as barriers to hold back the mania associated with prolonged disassociation from the environment in which a species evolved. Lord’s cautionary tale is brief but demonstrates insight and thought, while Klages’ superficial interlude may have more detail than the synopsis but little more depth.
A surprising pearl within the pages is Kathleen Ann Goonan’s Wilder Still, the Stars, as 130 year old May, in love with the stars since she was four years old, rescues an exploited Artificial Person named Amanda, and defying the rising tide of hostility against such organisms builds a coterie whom she coaxes towards self-awareness through kindness, conversation, companionship and music, the journey she takes them on matched by their own gifts to her mediated by their vast but untapped intellects.
Speaking of vastly more advanced technology than his peers, the abstract and mysterious Invisible Planets is Hannu Rajaniemi’s poetic travelogue through the Cygnus 61 system, each world little more than a glittering fragment of imagination and daring, a song sung in the dark spaces between worlds where the only illumination is the flicker of questing intellect as it presses ever further onwards.
Arranged as a series of ex post facto documents, Ken MacLeod’s The Entire Immense Superstructure: An Installation reminds of the informed authority of Clarke as he recounts the corr
espondence of an ambitious artist who discharges himself from a mental health facility to complete a work he has conceived which crosses the frontiers of art and exploration, an area Alastair Reynolds has previously visited with music in his novella Troika and does so here with art In Babelsberg, drawing inspiration from Van Gogh’s De Sterrennacht as a deep space explorer, also named Vincent, returns to Earth. Comparing the stars as seen from space with the famous painting, the narrator chooses to see the distortion not as a product of the artist’s illness but as “a different kind of truth” before commencing his presentation on his travels, asking his audience if they will “allow me to bore you with some of my holiday snaps.”
Perhaps by coincidence, perhaps by design, the protagonist of the final tale, Sunday Ahzmundin of Peter Watts’ Hotshot is another troubled character, continually assessed for mental stability and anger issues to ensure she is capable of undertaking the mission her whole being has been shaped to fulfil. Playing the very long game, she is a glimmer of hope in the darkest nihilism of a corrupted world, illuminated by the glow of the sun, the perfect close to the collection.
Reach for Infinity is available now from Solaris Books