Visions of Paradise

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Solaris Book of New Science Fiction

In lieu of subscribing to prozines–which tied down so much of my reading that it left me little or no time for books–I read several best-of-the-year and original anthologies each year. Recently two new publishers issued anthologies of stories mostly by their own writers, Pyr’s Fast Forward and Solaris Book of New Science Fiction. I bought the latter book because most of its authors are barely-familiar British names that have long interested me, but whom I have read little or nothing by. And it’s always nice to try new authors.

I started the book reading a story by one of my favorite current authors. Stephen Baxter is seemingly omnipresent in every anthology published nowadays, and his story “Last Contact” is a quintessentially-British story about a cozy end-of-the-world, in which the main characters are primarily concerned with having time to care for their garden before the end comes, as compared to a similar American story which would probably descend into hysteria and violence. Although the story was basically pointless beyond displaying the advantages of calmness in the most violent-prone situations, it was pleasant-enough reading.

Mike Resnick and David Gerrold combined for “Jellyfish,” which for nearly half its length seemed little more than a spoof on the nature of science fiction writers. It was not until the authors started dropping a bunch of names and descriptions obviously based on famous sf writers that it dawned on me that the title character was a spoof as well, so I checked back on his name–“Dillon K. Filk. The K stood for Kurvis”–and I belatedly realized this story was not merely a spoof on all sf writers, but specifically a satire on Philip K. Dick. That has been done several times before, perhaps most notably in Michael Bishop’s superb novel The Secret Ascension (Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas) which is a heavy shadow to crawl out under from. While Resnick and Gerrold did a decent job of satire, it was hard to see where the emotional stake in this story was. A good tribute should have some depth besides mere cleverness.

Paul DiFilippo’s major strength as a writer is also his major weakness: his imagination is so fertile that his stories tend to run all-over-the-place, sometimes even changing direction abruptly between start and finish. You never know what to expect in one of his stories, some of which are clever but shallow, while others show surprising depth. “Personal Jesus” posits that everybody in the world is permanently connected to personal godpods, which enable them to talk directly to God. Because of this, the world has become virtually idyllic as God advises people while also keeping them emotionally stable. The story was cute until a totally unexpected ending gave it a much tangier bite than I expected, and a fairly successful bite at that. I cannot say much more without giving away the ending, except perhaps that the moral of the story is TANSTAAFL.

Three stories stood out as my favorites in the book.

A fairly traditional story was Mary A. Turzillo’s “Zora and the Land Ethic Nomads.” Turzillo is one of those writers whose stories appear very infrequently, but when one does it is inevitably a notable event. One of her novelettes, “Mars is No Place for Children” was a Nebula Winner in 2000, and this latest is another story about the difficulties of settling Mars. It is a strong adventure about how a radical Land Ethic Nomad tries to drive off-planet all settlers by seemingly sabotaging their nuclear plants. In some ways it reminded me of Cyril M. Kornbluth & Judith Merrill’s 1951 serial Mars Child (which has been republished under several lesser titles since) in that it combined strong plotting (Kornbluth) with sensitive characterization (Merrill), but Turzillo seems to have the entire package. This story intrigued me enough that I looked up Turzillo’s bibliography. Besides a handful of short stories, she has published one serial An Old Fashioned Martian Girl in Analog which, unless my search engines fail me, has never had a book publication. That seems very strange for a Nebula winner. I recommend this story highly.

I was a big fan of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. One of their greatest strengths was the ability to devise an outlandish situation and then push it as far as possible while faithfully taking the premise seriously each step of the way. Rarely have I seen a story which demonstrates that same ability, but James Lovegrove’s “The Bowdler Strain” succeeds at it very well. The premise is that a deep secret British research lab has discovered a virus which prevents people from swearing. The virus is so contagious that anybody who listens to anybody stricken with it trying to swear is immediately infected. Soon after the virus leaks out of the lab, it spreads across the entire country within days. It is a ludicrous premise, but Lovegrove plays it totally straight, as he does its equally-outrageous consequences, so that “The Bowdler Strain” ends up being a very effective satire on obscure scientific think tanks.

Eric Browne’s “The Farewell Party” is a very intriguing story about a mysterious race of aliens named the Kéthani who resurrect all humans who die, then give them the option of either returning to Earth or beginning a new life among the stars. The setting for the story is a bar in a small English village where a group of friends meet each Tuesday night for drinking and camaraderie. A writer from London moves to the village and joins the group, and soon thereafter the other members begin reading his books, which are all about the Kéthani. They become enamored with the books, with the mysterious aliens, and with the fact that more and more people who die are choosing to remain among the stars rather than return to Earth.

Then the writer gives them copies of his latest book The Suicide Club, in which a group of friends similar to them decide they are finished with life on Earth and wish to join the other resurrected humans traveling through the universe. You can guess what happens from there without my giving a spoiler here. The story is not totally successful in that the weekly group makes its own momentous decision too easily and too glibly. Plus the skepticism of one group member is an obvious hint of what lies ahead. Sometimes an extensive reading of prior science fiction can be a hindrance as memories of Damon Knight’s classic “To Serve Man” fueled my own natural cynicism while reading this story. Still the story was interesting reading, and a good closer for the collection. It seems that Browne has written other stories about the Kéthani as well, and a collection of those stories will be published sometime soon. That is definitely a book worth looking for.


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