Subtitled The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction, this is a diverse collection, over three hundred pages of new work from a broad range of well known names from the worlds of science fiction literature, compiled by editor Ian Whates, himself the author of two novels published by Solaris.
Fortunately, Whates’ presence here is restricted to a brief introduction, which reads like a Sunday night essay thrown together before a Monday morning minimum word deadline. An introduction should be as exciting as the work it sets up, yet dry words tumble out, each sentence devoid of any insight into the stories, their creators, or the greater history and future of science fiction literature.
Despite having no thematic umbrella to work under, many of the ideas on offer are surprisingly uniform in setting, if not direction: the interface of technology on the near future Earth. Opening the cascade is Ian McDonald’s A Smart Well-Mannered Uprising of the Dead, which is not at all what it appears to be at first glance. These zombies are in fact virtual avatars of the deceased, speaking out against corruption and social injustice with the impunity of those beyond reprisal. Already dead, what more can the government do to them? A timely story in these days of uprisings against global inequality, this is an optimistic and humorous piece about how simple things can effect great changes for good.
Social injustice is also at the forefront of Lavie Tidhar’s The Lives and Deaths of Che Guevara, a great idea spun together in fragments of history and specific location, scenes created with vivid images, even inspiring hunger with the descriptions, at least until it is revealed what is actually cooking. Both Ira Levin and John Wyndham wrote about cloning Nazis – it’s about time someone wrote about cloning those who would fight against them and here it is, a counter history of a counter insurgence against tyranny in a compact fifteen pages.
Research accidents are the starting points of both Dave Hutchinson’s The Incredible Exploding Man and Adam Robert’s Shall I Tell You the Problem with Time Travel? The former is a damp squib, a good idea squandered on the repeated assertion that the events witnessed defied description, geometries that cause madness in men in the same way the creatures of Lovecraft did, a debt at least acknowledged in the prose, but a good pace and a few nice turns of phrase succeed in keeping it afloat. Roberts has much more fun, playing with structure, narrative and authorial voice as he leaps through key events in the history of our planet, sixty five million years ago in Yucatán, Japan in 1945, “a sky as clear as a healthy cornea,” the reader immediately aware of what links these locations, a shorthand of horror that presages cataclysmic devastation.
Also aware of their authorial role are Ken Macleod and Peter F Hamilton, whose stories The Best Science Fiction of the Year Three and Return of the Mutant Worms are actually both about science fiction rather than stories in that genre, each with an awareness of and sense of humour about the literary industry and the marginalised short story market, recalling and honouring their roots, and either would have served as a better introduction than the one in place.
Moving into space we find a stranded Martian expedition in How We Came Back From Mars. The prose style is reminiscent of the classic science fiction of the golden age, the characters serving to act as voices for observing and commenting on events, offering arguments for differing viewpoints and eventualities, and while entertaining, it is a long winded way for author Ian Watson to ultimately shrug his narrative shoulders and go “Hmm,” and could have been improved by streamlining the superfluous characters, or allowing the members of the team more personality.
A grander voyage beyond the solar system is described by Mike Resnic and Laurie Tem in their oddity Mooncakes, a story devoid of the intellectual stimulation of bold leaps of scientific narrative or the emotional grip of well drawn characters in a personal crisis. Easily summed up as “I’m leaving the Earth forever, my sister hasn’t said goodbye, it’s my last night, oh my sister is here, I guess I can go now,” it reads more as a rejected story for a women’s crossword puzzle magazine reworked for the space age than a submission for a genuine science fiction collection. Slightly better is Jack Skillinstead’s Steel Lake; similarly human in the story, of an estranged father and son finding common ground in experimental drug overdoses, while not groundbreaking, it is at least better written.
Of the stories set away from our planetary system, Stephen Palmer’s Eluna has greater scope, but in the end suffers from the same lack of narrative ambition. The exotic world and alien biological arrangements and social hierarchy are obviously well imagined, but are wasted in the story itself, a tired recounting of a student daughter trying to impress her master father and the secrets he is keeping from her.
Far superior is Alastair Reynolds’ For The Ages, which has undeniable echoes of his previous work, the two female leads, each devoted to their own opposed viewpoints as justified by their professional stances reminiscent of his novel Pushing Ice, and the awareness of the eventual fate of the Milky Way galaxy, destined for catastrophic collision with the Andromeda galaxy and the Clouds of Magellan, the same background that drives the Revelation Space stories. Here that knowledge takes a new shape, in an endeavour to send a message beyond that inevitable collapse to the distant inhuman dwellers of that far future. “It only seems a long time if you’re not thinking cosmologically.” Casually dropped into this are new technologies of gamma lasers that can erase a planetary surface and etch new features, and the momentum drive – all in a days work for one of the premier imaginations in science fiction today.
Solaris Rising is available now from Solaris, and also contains contributions from Stephen Baxter, Paul Di Filippo, Tricia Sullivan, Keith Brooke & Eric Brown, Jaine Fen, Richard Salter and Steve Rasnic Tem