Letter From The Editor - Issue 57 - June 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
March 2015

Title: Something Coming Through
Author: Paul McAuley
Publisher: Gollancz

Reflecting on humanity's first contact with the alien Jackaroo, a character in Paul McAuley's latest novel (his twenty-first) observes the following: "A lot of people said that it was a brand new start. A chance to build fifteen different utopias on fifteen different worlds. A chance to redeem ourselves. But after all the fine talk about how we were going to do better, how we were going to realize the true potential of the human race, and so on, what did we get? It turns out that we brought every kind of human foolishness with us, and invented new ways to f*** up." This quote nicely encapsulates the novel's deftness in simultaneously reaching for the sense of wonder inherent in the exploration of new worlds and the stark realities of the human heart revealed by the grittiness of frontier life.

McAuley's novel is comprised of two parallel near-future narratives. In London, lean, young Chloe Millar works for Disruption Theory, a company that attempts to measure the effects of knowing that we're not alone on the human psyche. Following a cult-related lead takes Chloe to Fahad Chauhan, a teen who draws intensely weird pictures of an alien landscape that might just be real. Meanwhile, in the city of Petra on the planet of Mangala, stocky, middle-aged investigator Vic Gayle and his new partner peel back layer after layer of what initially looks like a vengeance-motivated drug crime. The novel's action-packed, mind-expanding climax weaves both strands together and kinetically ties them into a dazzling knot.

At their most basic levels, Chloe's story reads like a fugitive thriller, while Vic's resembles a noir whodunit in a Western setting. But neither is exactly that, and both are buoyed by McAuely's richly imagined and densely rendered future. A bevy of extrapolations like smart drones, planetary storms, nanotechnology and quantum entanglement are layered, coral-like, atop a history of nuclear detonation ("The Spasm"), global warming and alien contact. Fortunately, McAuley's writing -- impressionistic descriptions, well-wrought speech patterns -- shoulders all the conceptual weight with ease. A joy to read.

The mysterious Jackaroo lie at the heart of the novel's compelling future, but they remain tantalizingly out of focus, forever beyond our understanding. They communicate with humans via "golden vaporware" avatars and offer only enigmatic responses to our most basic questions regarding their purpose in visiting us, answers like "We hope that you will discover your better natures" and "Each client finds its own path." And they are not the novel's only aliens; enter the !Cha, who travel in durable mobile aquaria and may be the Jackaroo's servants, hitchhikers, clients, or secret masters. Oh, and plenty of ruins dating billions of years from some of the Jackaroo's former associates.

At one point in the novel an inspector working for the Met's Alien Technology Investigation Squad says, "The trouble with this Elder Culture stuff is that we don't know what any of it really does. It's completely outside our experience. We're like a bunch of toddlers hitting an atom bomb with hammers." Time and again, in the course of a long, fecund career that includes epic space operas and hyperreal near-future thrillers, McAuley (whom I was fortunate enough to interview recently) has grappled with the question of how far human comprehension -- and evolution -- can reach, and what happens when that reach is exceeded. Something Coming Through, wrapped around dual stories that are only superficially pedestrian, offers intriguing answers while asking riveting new questions.

Title: As Time Goes By
Editor: Hank Davis
Publisher: Baen

The time travel anthology isn't exactly an endangered species. Titles published since the year 2000 include The Best Time Travel Stories of All Time (2003) edited by Barry Malzberg, The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century (2005) edited by Harry Turtledove and Martin H. Greenberg, The Mammoth Book of Time Travel Romance (2009) edited by Trisha Telep, The Mammoth Book of Time Travel SF (2013) edited by Mike Ashley, the massive The Time Traveler's Almanac (2014) edited by Jeff VanderMeer and Ann VanderMeer, Synchronic: 13 Tales of Time Travel (2014) edited by David Gatewood and Time Travel: Recent Trips (2014) edited by Paula Guran, which I had the pleasure of reviewing in my first column for this magazine.

The current anthology focuses on lovers "caught in bizarre twists of time," making the story selection narrower, but better connected, than in the aforementioned volumes. (The closest in thematic overlap is Telep's, but the connection is superficial; these stories are clearly identifiable as science fiction/fantasy with an emphasis on romantic relationships, while in Telep's anthology the reverse is true.) In fact, I found that as a unifying theme it works remarkably well. Time travel, beyond the scope of our everyday experience, is by its nature theoretical, and turns out to be riddled with paradoxes; against this abstract backdrop the immediately relatable dilemmas of deep human emotions provide a lovely grounding element, investing each story with plenty of affective power. As Time Goes By, which contains fourteen stories (thirteen reprints and one original), does an excellent job of exploring not only romance through time travel -- relationships enabled or imperiled by voyaging through time -- but the intrinsic romance of time travel itself. I think that the notion of time travel can act as an anodyne to our awareness of our own mortality. Love too. The two thus complement one another beautifully.

Contributors include Murray Leinster, John Wyndham, Poul Anderson, Sarah A. Hoyt, Nancy Kress, Christopher Priest and Michael Swanwick, with stories representing every decade from the 1950s to the 2010s, arranged in a pleasingly non-chronological reading order. The range of styles and approaches is as wide as the authors' sensibilities and periods might suggest, from Poul Anderson's deliberately archaic prose effects ("He saw her like a comet, a dragonfly, everything vivid and swift, limned athwart yonder mile-high precipice of sea") to Nancy Kress' precisely observed naturalism ("'Hoo boy,' Manny said. 'Did you want all of that orange?'").

Picking favorites from the anthology's consistently strong stories, many of which are award winners or nominees, is tricky, but the five standouts for me are Charlie Jane Anders' "Six Months, Three Days," which intimately and arrestingly examines the perils of future knowledge as self-fulfilling prophecy through a relationship both tortured and essential; Christopher Priest's marvelously evocative and finely written "Palely Loitering," which posits a Flux Channel Park, whose bridges elegantly displace one through time; Michael Swanwick's "Triceratops Summer," a superbly absorbing depiction of small-town residents confronted with a major temporal problem; James Van Pelt's "A Wow Finish," a love letter to and artfully rendered evocation of Casablanca; and Tony Daniel's stunningly far-out and hard-hitting "A Dry, Quiet War."

One of the joys of reading anthologies is discovering new authors, and I'm very pleased to have been introduced hereby, courtesy of Hank Davis' editorial acumen, to the work of Mildred Clingerman, Richard McKenna, Burt Flier, Robert F. Young and Tony Daniel, which I look forward to exploring.

If there is one downside to a time travel anthology full of entertaining and poignant stories such as these, it is the thought it inevitably engenders in us readers: "If I only had more time . . ."

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro


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