Visions of Paradise

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

One Million A.D.

The other novellas in One Million A.D. run the gamut from good to very good, although they pale a bit by comparison to Reed’s masterpiece "Good Mountain" (reviewed here 1/25/06). Robert Silverberg can be described in similar turns to Reed–nearly all his stories are worthwhile reading, many among the best of their given year, and producing a handful of genuine masterpieces–although his masterpieces tend to be more regular over a longer period of time than almost any other sf writer. “A Piece of the Great World” is a companion to his short series At Winter’s End and The New Springtime and examines how a group of scientists from the People who dominate the post-Winter age discover survivors from one of the six groups who dominated the pre-Winter age. Typical of Silverberg, its main characters’ interest in and understanding of the history of his world is the driving force behind the story. While I had trouble accepting the protagonists’ ultimate decision, it was still a thoughtful story worthwhile reading.

I have read a handful of Alastair Reynolds’ novellas in various Best-of-the-Year volumes, stories such as “Great Wall of Mars” and “Turquoise Days” and I have always considered him a provocative and wondrous thinker who is also a grand storyteller. “Thousandth Night” has many of those same elements in its tale of one thousand clones of a famous progenitor who are virtually immortal and who gather once every several hundred thousand years to put on a thousand day celebration of their heritage, similarities, and differences.

This time, however, two members of the line discover that one of them has been concealing secrets about his own activities since the last gathering, and they fear it bodes evil for the rest of them. For awhile the story bogs down in a routine mystery about genocide, but that is cleared up rather unexpectedly and the story becomes a bigger examination of people willing to undertake any means, no matter how brutal, to achieve what they consider desirable ends, as well as absolute power corrupting absolutely.

As in the Silverberg story, I found the desired goal of “Great Work” to be somewhat far-fetched, but once I accepted that imaginative leap, I enjoyed the story because of Reynolds’ writing talents.

Nancy Kress’ “Mirror Image” takes as its basic premise the type of straightforward technological progression from current research that seems less likely in lieu of the million year time span of the book’s title. That assumption is a worldwide AI named QUENTIAM with whom all people maintain instantaneous contact and which basically rules the world, although people have the right to make all their own decisions. Overall the story is quite interesting as it asks the question what happens if QUENTIAM shows the slightest possible hint of unreliability? And who would possibly believe you if it were true?

That is the story’s theme although its basic plot is of four clone-sisters who attempt to free their fifth clone-sister who was imprisoned on an alien prison world for destroying an entire inhabited star system. Kress manages to keep the story moving steadily while raising the philosophical issues which are its real purpose.

Charles Stross has always been a difficult writer for me. I tried to read about half of his Accelerando stories, but always stopped between one-quarter and one-halfway through them. Same with his Hugo winner “Concrete Jungle.” They were just too much infodump with characters who were little developed, if at all, and seemed intended only to spout technobabble at each other.

So I approached his novella “Missile Gap” with considerable trepidation. It started out well, being less of a techy wet dream and more of an actual story. Its premise was that the entire surface of Earth sometimes after an alternate “Cuban War” of the 1960s was somehow sliced off the planet and placed onto a giant flat disk somewhere in the Magellanic Cloud. Besides all of Earth’s continents and population, the disk also contains numerous other continents with strange life forms inhabiting them.

There are three main storylines: the first involves Yuri Gagarin and the Russian response to the crisis; the second involves Carl Sagan with some clandestine organization having ties to America and their response; the third involves everyday Americans emigrating to one of the new continents.

Not being particularly a fan of thrillers or political fiction, I liked the third plotline the most. The main character Maddy becomes the assistant to an entomologist studying the lifeforms of that continent. When he encounters a particularly toxic type of termite, he almost loses his life. Meanwhile the termites seem to be more than first meets the eye, and threaten to become a major problem for all the human emigrés to that continent.

But just when the third plotline is growing very interesting, the second plotline rears its head and brings the entire story to a crashing–and somewhat unsatisfying–halt. It leaves all the other developments incomplete, and seemed more of a copout than a real conclusion. Too bad, because for the first time I was growing to like a Stross story.

As an aside, I am not sure what Stross’ story has to do with the One Million A.D. format either, but that is a minor complain against considerations of a story’s other qualities.

Although it would seem that Greg Egan would appeal to the same audience as Charles Stross, I have always enjoyed Egan as a storyteller. While his stories are also dense with ideas, they never seemed crowded into the story for their own sake, but part of the background of what feels like real people undergoing real situations. “Riding the Crocodile” starts with a classic sf premise of two immortals growing weary of life and looking to end their lives. But they prefer to go out with a big splash, and what better way than to be the first humans to infiltrate the galactic core where beings known as Aloofs have rejected all human attempts to contact them?

There is a long segment of technotalk in the middle of the story, but otherwise it is an enjoyable story about attempted first contact that falls somewhere in the middle of the book qualitywise.

Overall, One Million A.D. was a fascinating book with no real duds and one bona fide masterpiece. What more can I ask for in an original anthology?


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    The subconscious part of your mind is that part which regulates your heartbeat, lungs, digestive system and everything else in your body. It directs the inner workings of your body and such things as (what biologists call) 'machines' - tiny living cells that are composed of motors, drive-shafts and propellers - seriously!!! There is mounting evidence that the cells in our bodies have memory and that our very DNA is coded with memories of our ancestors. As well as having full control of all these functions and more your subconscious also retains all the thoughts, experiences and emotions you have ever felt. It regulates the most complicated mechanism in the unknown Universe - your body - and it can calculate the trajectory of multiple moving objects while supplying you with the words necessary to debate an issue while controlling a complex task of activities such as driving a car!
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