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With the success of two ‘infinity’ themed anthologies under his belt (Engineering Infinity and Edge of Infinity), editor Jonathan Strahan pushes his science fiction agenda forward with a third. Presenting the third transitive point, Reach for Infinity (Rebellion Publishing, 2014) regards humanity’s future in the solar system and beyond. Familiar names return and new are added, making the fourteen stories in the third anthology as creative and enjoyable as the first two.
In the intro Strahan asserts that “hard sci fi has always sat at the heart of the science fiction field”. While the statement is contentious (see Shelley, Verne and Wells, Burroughs and E.E. Smith, Gernsback, et al), there’s no doubt it occupies a major slice of the genre pie. Opening the collection is perhaps the most extreme hard sci-fi writer the world has yet seen: Greg Egan. “Break My Fall” is the story of a group travelling in a hollowed out asteroid through the solar system’s transportation network. Being slingshot (slungshot?) along, they use the gravity of particularly spaced orbiting hubs to move outwards, that is, until a rescue is needed at one of the hubs. Further pushing the realities of science, albeit in situations closer to home, Ken Macleod’s “‘The Entire Immense Superstructure’: An Installation” and Karl Schroeder’s “Kheldyu” each create plausible superstructures that work with Earth’s environment in positive, practical fashion. Peter Watts’ “Hotshot”, while certainly not what one thinks of when the term ‘hard sf’ comes into the discussion, nevertheless tells a tale rooted in modern neuroscience. Replete with Watts trademark determinism, there is a light at the end of the tunnel—a big, bright, burning one.
Emphasizing characters and their relationships (social and intra-personal), and pushing the hard science elements to the background, there are also stories in Reach for Infinity like Ian McDonald’s “The Fifth Dragon”. Written in prose leaping like a fish, it is the story of two lovers living on the moon, the physical realities of the environment forcing the two to come to terms with their future. Aliette Bodard’s “The Dust Queen”, while perhaps more exposition on Vietnamese/Chinese culture than science fiction, and not exactly cutting edge regarding science’s current understanding of memory and emotions, is the story of a young rewirer (brain editor) who is asked to perform a task that goes against her deepest feelings. A straight-forward story that puts into perspective what leaving to live on a generation starship means, “Amicae Aeternum” by Ellen Klages is a short piece about two girls who must say goodbye that really tugs at the heart strings—not only for the parting, but equally so for the context. “Attitude” by Linda Nagata is the story of a young athlete trying to win a zero-g championship but discovers her main opponent is cheating. Kathleen Ann Goonan’s “Wilder Still, the Stars” looks at a populated solar system as normal; what lies beyond depending on perspective. Less social and more personal, “Hiraeth: A Tragedy in Four Acts” by Karen Lord looks at the effects of bionic augmentation of a young man’s psyche.
And there are outliers. Defying categorization is Adam Roberts’ “Trademark Bugs: A Legal History”. Reading like a university essay—including bibliography, this paper, ahem, story about the future of designer diseases highlights a lot of ugly truths about modern civilization from legal, financial, and pharmaceutical perspectives. Wonderful satire. “In Babelsberg” by Alastair Reynolds is a tale about mechanical sentience/AI and human exploration of the solar system. Though it would seem to fit into the pseudo-science category, the twists the story takes head more into confused fantasy land. Perhaps the most accomplished story in the anthology, “Report Concerning the Presence of Seahorses on Mars” delivers not only another great title from Pat Cadigan, but also a dense, engaging tale of reality tv on Mars. (Cadigan just keeps getting better with age.) And “Invisible Planets” by Hannu Rajaniemi is a conversation between a generational starship and one of its sub-minds about the planets it passes. Though capturing Strahan’s premise perfectly, if not overtly, it possesses a denouement rendering the proceedings a larff.
Reach for Inifinity utilizes many of the genre’s trademark motifs, often in fresh fashion. Egan’s “Break My Fall” borrows heavily from the lush imagery of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey in its presentation of super-structures in space. Reynolds “In Babelsberg” and Lord’s “Hiraeth: A Tragedy in Four Acts” look at the use, perhaps even the need, to use robots or augmented humans for space exploration—ideas that have been bandied about for some time. Klages “Amicae Aeternum”, Rajaniemi’s “Invisible Planets”, and Watts “Hotshot” all look at the idea of a generation starship from three very different perspectives. Bodard’s “The Dust Queen” revives the classic notion of memory editing, while McDonald takes a very Silver Age view of lunar colonization—at least the corporate side of things, and embeds anything but a traditional relationship. And if ever there were a classic American sports tale, Nagata’s “Attitude” fits the bill, despite space being the playing field.
There is likewise a strong humanist element to Reach for Infinity—a very welcome perspective from an anthology about mankind’s relationship with the universe beyond Earth. Paralleling Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, Alastair Reynolds’ main character in “In Babelsberg” can be quoted as: “But he was also a fellow who looked into the heavens and saw wonder. That’s not a bad legacy to live up to. You could almost say it’s something worth being born for”. (Side note: this quote is very strange given the manner in which the story plays out.) Brazenly eschewing the Singularity, a character in Egan’s “Break My Fall” states: “Humanity needs a permanent settlement away from Earth, and though some people want to postpone that until our descendants are bitstreams with much lower shipping costs, I don’t think we should pass up the chance we have right now.” McDonald, Goonan, Watts (interestingly enough), and Klages’ stories likewise possess positive hints regarding humanity’s hopes in the cosmos. None paint life beyond Earth in rainbows and sunshine, but attempt a middle road, much to their success.
As with all themed anthologies, the distance each story strays from the bull’s eye of theme can have an effect on reader resonance. Egan, Klages, McDonald, Rajaniemi, and Watts’ stories fully in line with what one would expect given the parameters for the anthology Strahan lays down in the introduction, there are others which strain to cover the gap. Schroeder, Roberts, and Macleod’s stories would perhaps be more at home in one of the first two Infinity anthologies for their Earth-bound concerns.
In the end, Reach for Infinity is a solid anthology that generally meets Strahan’s goal of capturing stories which see humanity pushing at the bounds of the solar system. A mix of female and male authors, personal stories, social stories, pure hard sci-fi, soft sci-fi, classic motifs and devices, and many other ideas, it covers a wide sweep of the genre. A couple stories may even have a chance at award nominations—Watts’ “Hotshot” and Cadigan’s “Report Concerning the Presence of Seahorses on Mars”, for example. But regardless of individual quality, there remains something for every reader of science fiction interested in humanity’s relationship with the solar system and beyond.
The following is the table of contents for Reach for Infinity:
Introduction by Jonathan Strahan
“Break My Fall” by Greg Egan
“The Dust Queen” by Aliette de Bodard
“The Fifth Dragon” by Ian McDonald
“Kheldyu” by Karl Schroeder
“Report Concerning the Presence of Seahorses on Mars” by Pat Cadigan
“Hiraeth: A Tragedy in Four Acts” by Karen Lord
“Amicae Aeternum” by Ellen Klages
“Trademark Bugs: A Legal History” by Adam Roberts
“Attitude” by Linda Nagata
“Invisible Planets” by Hannu Rajaniemi
“Wilder Still, the Stars by Kathleen Ann Goonan
“‘The Entire Immense Superstructure’: An Installation” by Ken MacLeod
“In Babelsberg” by Alastair Reynolds
“Hotshot” by Peter Watts
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What’s It About
It’s the third anthology in Jonathan’s Strahan’s Infinity series. This one collects 14 short stories from writers like Ellen Klages, Adam Roberts and Karen Lord. It focuses on humanity taking the next big step forward – whether that be colonising Mars, coming to terms with Artificial Intelligence or the challenges of travelling in a generation ship.
Should I Read It?
Absolutely yes. While Jonathan might be a friend, I say without prejudice and bias that he is a magnificent anthologist. His strength – more than coming up with strong, clear, interesting themes – is finding a diverse range of high quality writers who bring different styles, perspectives and insights to the book.
Reach For Infinity only underlines this strength. While the theme of taking that next big step, of reaching for infinity, implies a collection of Hard SF stories about terraforming and slingshotting around asteroids – which the anthology does feature – Strahan mixes things up by including pieces that use the theme as a catalyst rather than a driver for the plot. Consequently, we get pieces that deal with the trademarking of pathogens (Adam Roberts), drug taking in sport (Linda Nagata), the fragility of memory (Aliette de Bodard) and the right to reproduce (Pat Cadigan).
And to top it all off, there are least five award worthy stories in the collection – which I’ll mention below in the Commentary.
Because it made me laugh – this from Ellen Klages marvelous, Amicae Aeternum:
"Twenty Reasons Why Being on a Generation Ship Sucks, by Corrine Garcia-Kelly
1. I will never go away to college.
2. I will never see blue sky again, except in pictures.
3. There will never be a new kid in my class.
4. I will never meet anyone my parents don’t already know.
5. I will never have anything new that isn’t human-made. Manufactured or processed or grown in a lab.
6. Once I get my ID chip, my parents will always know exactly where I am.
7. I will never get to drive my Aunt Frieda’s convertible, even though she promised I could when I turned sixteen.
8. I will never see the ocean again.
9. I will never go to Paris.
10. I will never meet a tall, dark stranger, dangerous or not.
11. I will never move away from home.
12. I will never get to make the rules for my own life.
13. I will never ride my bike to a new neighborhood and find a store I haven’t seen before.
14. I will never ride my bike again.
15. I will never go outside again.
16. I will never take a walk to anywhere that isn’t planned and mapped and numbered.
17. I will never see another thunderstorm. Or lightning bugs. Or fireworks.
18. I will never buy an old house and fix it up.
19. I will never eat another Whopper.
20. I will never go to the state fair and win a stuffed animal."
Because it displays the breadth of imagery and imagination on display in this anthology – this from Peter Watts’ Hotshot:
"Not just a sea: an endless seething expanse, the incandescent floor of all creation. Plasma fractals iterate everywhere I look, endlessly replenished by upwells from way down in the convection zone. Glowing tapestries, bigger than worlds, morph into laughing demon faces with blazing mouths and eyes. Coronal hoops, endless arcades of plasma waver and leapfrog across that roiling surface to an unimaginably distant horizon."
There are no duds in Reach For Infinity. While that doesn’t mean every story blew me away, there are at least five pieces I think should be considered for award season. They are:
Report Concerning The Presence of Seahorses On Mars by Pat Cadigan
Wilder Still, the Stars by Kathleen Ann Goonan
Amicae Aeternum by Ellen Klages
The Fifth Dragon by Ian McDonald
Trademark Bugs: A Legal History by Adam Roberts
Of the five, my favourite, without any hesitation or doubt, is the Klages. I’m ashamed that I haven’t read more of Ellen’s fiction because on the occasions I’ve been exposed to her writing I’ve fallen deeply and madly in love with the work. I remember having the same reaction to Goodnight Moons, Klages’ contribution to Jonathan’s Life on Mars anthology (also recommended). This story is simple in its plot and execution and yet it has depths. Two girls get together before dawn one morning because one of the girls – Corrine Garcia-Kelly – is about to embark, with her parents, on a generation ship. After this day, they will never see each other again. As the representative paragraph above indicates, Corrine is not keen on taking the journey. This puts her at odds with a number of us in the genre world who talk about Hard SF concepts like generation ships with a sense of awe and wonder. Klages, through the unvarnished perspective of Corrine, deconstructs the whole endeavor, injecting genuine human concerns and fears into the generation ship narrative. That might sound a bit cold and analytical, but the relationship between the two girls, as they spend these last few hours together, gives the story its vibrancy and heart.
If I had to pick a second favourite, it would be Adam Roberts’ Trademark Bugs: A Legal History. As with Ellen, my exposure to Adam’s work is unforgivably minimal (though Kirstyn and I did discuss his novelette Anticopernicus on the Writer and The Critic podcast. It’s very good). This story hits all my literary buttons in that it plays with structure and form while also saying something profound and disturbing. Written as a legal document, Robert’s describes a world where all diseases have been cured compelling pharmaceutical companies, in a bid to maintain and grow their market share, to infect the planet with their own pathogens which only they have the cure for. Sounds utterly evil, doesn’t it. And yet the brilliance of this story is how Roberts’ – by detailing the legal challenges against Big Pharma – nearly convinces us that maybe the planet would be better off if we allowed the pharmaceutical industry to takeover the world economy. Admirably, Robert’s never strays from the legal format. The language is cold and dispassionate and yet also entirely compelling. Magnificent stuff.
I could spend another 1,000 words discussing the other three pieces. But for the sake of brevity (though that horse has probably bolted) I’ll note that:
Pat Cadigan’s short story looks at the rights of reproduction in an environment where resources are scarce. It’s a warm and funny piece with a knock-out ending;
Ian McDonald is probably the first writer in history to marry together the Hard SF concept of deteriorating bone density in low gravity environments with a love story. McDonald proves that genuine Hard SF doesn’t have to be bereft of real people and raw emotion; and
Kathleen Ann Goonan’s story is an old idea – society struggling to come to terms with sentient Artificial People. However, the point of view of the piece – a 130 year old woman who has been and seen it all – gives the story its unique voice. Like the McDonald, it’s a very human piece, one that’s not afraid to wear its emotions on its sleeves.
I’m not sure if an anthology has ever won the PKD Award (anyone know?). But having now read two and a half of the nominated books, Reach For Infinity sets a high benchmark.