Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Engineering Infinity Review

I have to confess that when I hear the term ‘Hard Sci-fi’ I usually give a bit of a shudder.
I'm not, as a rule, a fan of this subgenre. To me, the name Hard Sci-fi conjures up pages of long dry discussion on the physics and science of FTL and time travel. These are things that I am interested in, I’m just not interested in reading about them in a novel- I like hyperspace and flashing purple laser beams in space!
This is not to say I don’t read any. I am a big fan of Clarke, for example, and his ability to communicate astonishingly complex science in a few simple words is wondrous in itself.
But reading this collect has got me re-evaluating what I think of as Hard Sci-fi. There are tales in here that I wouldn’t have classed as such- but on reflection, of course they are. If you take hard Sci-fi to be any story that has real science as a base to it, then you’re opening the market up to almost anything short of Star Wars and most of Doctor Who.
So, on to the collection.
Editor Jonathan Strahan has assembled quite a formidable roster of writers for this Solaris book- most eye catching among them being Stephen Baxter and Charles Stross. Actually, Stross is another writer we can add to the list of Hard Sci-fi authors I have enjoyed reading previously.

As with all collections, this is a mixed bag. There were some stories I didn’t enjoy as much as others, and even one I’ll hold my hands up to admitting I didn’t understand at all.
I suppose you’ll be wanting a blow by blow account of the various stories? Well, I’m not going to. I’ll mention a few though.
The opening tale, Malak by Peter Watts is an interesting, if downbeat, opener, telling the story of an automated flying weapon in war in the Middle East. Thought provoking stuff, as good sci-fi should be.
Some are brilliantly character driven, in a way that some readers (yes- I mean me) don’t usually associate with Hard Sci-fi. Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Charles Stross and John C Wright provide tales that are pretty heartbreaking in their own way.
The Server and the Dragon by Hannu Rajaniemi is a nice modern, well not modern, future fairy tale.
Actually, looking through the book again to write this, I can honestly say that almost every tale hit the mark for me, apart from the aforementioned one I didn’t understand. And that is, of course, not to say it was badly written. It clearly wasn’t.
Ahhh... I was about to launch into another paragraph mentioning story after story again! I shall limit myself to two more, and two more only.
The Invasion of Venus by Stephen Baxter. I like stories that remind us of our place in the universe, and this is one such tale. We had a similarly themed alien invasion of Earth tale in a recent issue of FutureQuake (I hasten to add that the stories are in no way similar- they just explore the same themes).
And finally, possibly my favourite tale in the book, The Birds and the Bees and the Gasoline Trees by John Barnes (not the ex-footballer, I’m guessing). I loved this for two reasons. Firstly, it got me with a marvellous semi-twist. I saw where things were going with this narrative and he outfoxed me by not only changing the tack of the tale and having one of the characters address it.
The other is the sheer scope of the idea driving the story. Seriously, it is massive and thought provoking and, of course, this being a Hard Sci-fi book, all too plausible. I say ‘all too’ as if it’s a bad thing, but the bigger part of me would think it really really cool if something like the events depicted in this story actually happened. Again, as with the Baxter story, this one really puts us in our place as a species.
All in all, an excellent collection of stories, and one that will have me seeking out more work from the authors featured here. One thing though- an inordinate amount of them seem to live in Edinburgh...

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