Letter From The Editor - Issue 57 - June 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
April 2016

Title: Meeting Infinity
Author: Jonathan Strahan
Publisher: Solaris

At the risk of defying time to prove me wrong, I'll begin by declaiming that Meeting Infinity, the fourth volume in a series assembled by veteran editor Jonathan Strahan, is a canonical, quintessential science fiction anthology.

Indeed, at the time of this writing, four of its stories have been selected for inclusion in Neil Clarke's inaugural The Best Science Fiction of the Year, Volume 1; four other stories will be reprinted in Gardner Dozois' The Year's Best Science Fiction, 33rd Annual Collection; and yet two other stories will appear in The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2016, edited by Rich Horton. In other words, more than half of the book has swept the yearly best-of compilations, and other kudos and reprints--and awards--will surely follow.

Simply put, Strahan has gathered here sixteen original stories that are mandatory reading for anyone interested in the ongoing conversation about "the ways in which profound change might impact on us in the future."

Not every story will resonate with every reader, but the cumulative effect of these radical transhuman and posthuman visions is dazzling and often chilling. While not exactly cynical, they are (with the exception of Sean Williams's) a far cry from romantic, and the focus tends to be on iterations of the self--virtual and otherwise--bound by separateness and aloneness, as opposed to attaining transcendence. If science fiction is a reflection of the present, I invite the reader to consider what this might mean.

One of the anthology's standouts is John Barnes's touching and intellectually enthralling "My Last Bringback," whose protagonist, a "natch" in a world of "nubrids," specializes in delicate, year-long procedures to recover memories from the plaque of Alzheimer's patients brains, and then recopying them into new, healthy brains.

Also outstanding and ominous is Simon Ings's "Drones," which asks, "Why should it have been women, and women alone, that succumbed to the apian plague--this dying breed's quite literal sting in the tail?" and then answers, "A thousand conspiracy theories, even now, shield us from the obvious and unpalatable truth: that the world is vast, and monstrously infolded, and we cannot, will not, will not ever know." But don't be fooled--Ings deftly creates a disturbingly plausible future society that adapts to the fallout.

A similar sense of unknowable-ness pervades "Cocoons," Nancy Kress's excellent tale of mystifying alien transformation, in which the narrator coolly muses, "Anybody who says that we understand human motivation, that we can formulate simple and clear reasons for why people what they do, is either lying or naïve."

Gwyneth Jones's idea-packed "Emergence" raises interesting questions about crime and punishment among the moons of Jupiter. Quiet but memorable, James S.A. Corey's "Rates of Change" posits a world in which minds can be transferred to new human bodies when medically needed, but also into distinctly inhuman ones merely for sport.

Other strong stories are Aliette de Bodard's "In Blue Lily's Wake," a poetic tale of unexpected human-ship interaction; Yoon Ha Lee's "The Cold Inequalities," in which the characters are literally bit-sized; Ian McDonald's artful story of parkour-gone-wrong, "The Falls: A Luna Story" ("AIs are every bit as shy and self-deluding as humans" seems worth remembering); and An Owomoyela's "Outsider," about an asylum seeker whose ethics and ideas about free will clash with those of the generation starship crew she encounters. Benjanun Sriduangkaew's "Desert Lexicon" is a stark, gritty exploration of duty and desertion, but I didn't find it as inventive as her previous war tale, "When We Harvested the Nacre-Rice" (Solaris Rising 3).

Kameron Hurley, Madeline Ashby, Gregory Benford, Ramez Naam, Sean Williams and Bruce Sterling contribute enjoyable stories, but they didn't hit me quite as hard as the others. Who knows, maybe I was just catching my breath.

After all, infinity's pretty far out.

Title: I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume One
Author: Clifford D. Simak
Publisher: Open Road Media

This first volume of a projected fourteen, which kicks off an ambitious plan to reprint all of Clifford D. Simak's short fiction (at least as e-books), provides a great thematic introduction to the Grand Master's work and amply illustrates why he was held in high regard and why his work deserves to be preserved. The series is edited by the executor of Simak's literary estate, David W. Dixon, whose introduction and individual prefatory notes are short but insightful. These supplementary materials are uniquely informed by Simak's writing journals, a close personal friendship with the man, and Dixon's own unmistakable appreciation for and close reading of the work.

My four favorite stories--"Installment Plan," "Ogre," "Gleaners" and "All the Traps of Earth"--are also the longest, and perhaps a case can be made that Simak's plentiful imagination and richly realized characters breathe best at novella length and beyond. This quartet nicely highlights some of Simak's recurring concerns, too, like the peaceful co-existence of humans with other sentient species, the nature of consciousness and empathy, and the importance of ethics and art.

"Installment Plan" chronicles the misadventures of a human-robot, economically-motivated away mission. The story's brisk pace and wry observations on marketing schemes recall works by Robert Sheckley and Frederik Pohl, but the story generates genuine emotion by poignantly showing the depressing effects of debt. The notion that in order to thrive, humans need a tranquilizing drug is also quite mordant.

"Ogre," set on a world of sentient vegetation where humans don symbiotic "life blankets," is an impressive feat of invention. Its engaging, thought-provoking plot contains memorable melancholy scenes, like the one where human composer J. Edgerton Wade is entranced by a tree concert and is struck by "emotion and thought that one could not even recognize, yet emotion and thought that one yearned toward and knew never could be caught."

The more manic "Gleaners" pretzels the enduring trope of commercialized time-travel with an ingenious twist. In "All the Traps of Earth," a robot's exile proves to be the key to its homecoming and ultimate self-realization; the story's profoundly observed journey of gradual humanization can be seen as a forerunner of stories like Isaac Asimov's "The Bicentennial Man" and Rachel Swirky's more recent "Eros, Philia, Agape."

The rest of the stories, always entertaining, are at times less smoothly executed. Perhaps least satisfying is "The Call From Beyond," which clumsily races through a pulpy, over-stuffed plot. "Madness from Mars" is effective but unsurprising. "Small Deer," another time-travel outing, offers a chilling explanation for the extinction of the dinosaurs, and its buildup is finely modulated. "Gunsmoke Interlude" is an adroitly crafted Western.

The volume's eponymous story, "I Am Crying All Inside," is an accomplished exercise in voice and setting, but feels undercooked. "I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Away Up In the Air," a previously unpublished story meant for Harlan Ellison's The Last Dangerous Visions, is a departure from Simak's typical choice of a well-meaning protagonist, and achieves a New Wave, claustrophobic intimacy (perhaps its title is a nod to Ellison's own "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,") that recalls the emotional intensity of James Tiptree, Jr..

My hope is that this series, along with the publisher's reprints of Simak's novels, will make him better known. I discovered Simak via Isaac Asimov, who considered him "his mentor and model" (The Great SF Stories 21) and set out to "imitate his easy and uncluttered style" (I. Asimov). This collection, which foregoes chronology and instead cuts through various decades of Simak's career, reveals consistent conceptual and emotional sophistication in his storytelling, and enriches our appreciation of his literary palette with subtle new colors.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro


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