Saturday, February 2, 2013

Edge of Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan

I've had the discussion around Paul Kincaid's 'The Widening Gyre' essay in the back of my mind since its publication, in September of 2012. In that essay -- actually a review of three SF anthologies --  Kincaid argued that there is a sense of exhaustion in the genre. "No longer sure of the future," he wrote, "an SF writer's options seem to be to present a future that is magical or incomprehensible ... or revert to older, more familiar futures". The essay prompted a great deal of discussion in the SF community; for helpful summaries, as well as refinements on his original position, check out Paul Kincaid's follow-up essays.

I'm really not sure what I think about Kincaid's argument, and that's a big part of why I've been silent here for the last few months. My gut reaction is to agree that science fiction has lost faith in the future, but to see this as less of a failing of the genre than as a simple reflection of our time. And isn't that all that science fiction ultimately does: reflect the fears, preoccupations and (occasionally) hopes of the generation in which it is written?

And yet, I miss starships. Since the cancellation of Stargate: Universe in 2011, there haven't been any on television, and I feel like I see fewer and fewer of them in SF short stories and novels. The end of the space shuttle programme, for all its failings, seems strongly symbolic of our turning away from space. I suspect many would argue that this is right and proper -- the starship is an artefact of old-fashioned SF, no longer plausible, and no longer worthy of our imagination.

But, honestly, I don't think I'm ready to let starships go.

So this is how I came to Jonathan Strahan's Edge of Infinity, an anthology of solar system SF. Strahan's introduction to Edge of Infinity is not dated, and so I can't tell if it was written prior to Kincaid's article (Edge of Infinity was released in late November 2012). Nevertheless, Strahan appears to reference the discussion when he talks about SF turning away from the romance of interstellar travel, in favour of a more practical, Earth-bound future.

I read Strahan's introduction as a reaction against the idea that SF has given up on the future. Okay, sure, the stars are beyond our reach. But perhaps the solar system isn't, and that's where an anthology like Edge of Infinity comes in. It's about "stories set firmly in an industrialised, colonised Solar System" -- unashamedly science fictional, rejecting a purely Earth-bound future, but striving to be thoroughly plausible (although by no means predictive).

In a sense, Edge of Infinity does exactly what it says on the tin. It is filled with believable, solar system-based futures. Many of the stories are blue-collar, focussed on engineering rather than cutting-edge science. That can make them feel somewhat old-fashioned, like updated versions of science fiction classics. Very few of the stories seem digital -- perhaps only three of the thirteen ("Swift as a Dream and Fleeting as a Sigh" by John Barnes, "Bricks, Sticks, Straw" by Gwyneth Jones, "Tyche and the Ants" by Hannu Rajaniemi).

As I was reading, though, I couldn't shake the sense that the stories were largely undermining the optimistic, forward-looking premise that Strahan laid out in his introduction. They were doing this, I felt, from two different directions. I'm going to call them the 'it's too hard' school, and the 'dream bigger' school.

The poster-child for 'it's too hard' must surely be "The Road to NPS" by Sandra McDonald and Stephen D. Covey. In it, a Samoan wage-slave undertakes a dangerous drive across Europa, in the desperate hope that he can raise enough cash to buy out his contract and return to his wife on Earth. It's not the only such story, though: Kristine Kathryn Rusch's grimly comic "Safety Tests" is all about how tremendously dangerous flying a spaceship is, and An Owomoyela's "Water Rights" makes the point that exporting water into space only exacerbates already challenging water scarcity issues.

On the other hand, Hannu Rajaniemi's "Tyche and the Ants" seems to be a metaphor for resisting a mundane future, and striving for something larger and less practical than the other stories in Edge of InfinityGwyneth Jones' "Bricks, Sticks, Straw" -- a real standout -- seems to exemplify this conflict in the anthology. It concerns software avatars, trapped in the outer solar system when their probe is damaged by a solar flare. They fight to re-establish contact with Earth, with all the tenacity one would expect of optimistic SF. And yet the story ends with the melancholy sense that ordinary, Earth-bound human concerns will ultimately trump adventure.

That isn't to suggest that there are no stories that enthusiastically embrace humanity's future in the solar system. The ending to An Owomoyela's aforementioned "Water Rights" manages to be both hopeful and charming.  True to form, Alastair Reynolds' "Vainglory" amply demonstrates that solar system stories can be just as epic as any galaxy-spanning space opera.

But the true heart of the anthology is Paul McAuley's "Macy Minnot's Last Christmas on Dione, Ring Racing, Fiddler's Green, the Potter's Garden". Set in the solar system of his Quiet War series, it is beautiful and human and gentle. It has a sense of comfort and inevitability to it that many of the other stories in the anthology, striving and conflicted, lack.

Taken as a whole, I think Edge of Infinity is a really interesting snapshot of the difficulty science fiction is having in coming to grasp with the future. On the surface, it's all about mankind successfully inhabiting our solar system. But it seems to me that it is also filled with longing for something larger, with fear that it all might be too hard, and with a lack of conviction that we're actually up to the challenge. 

As with all anthologies, the quality of the individual stories varies, but there were a number of standouts -- particularly the Barnes, Jones, Reynolds, and McAuley. Strahan has done a commendable job sequencing the stories, too; I encourage you to read it in the order in which it is presented.

Lots to think about, and yet it doesn't leave me any clearer on how I feel about the current state of the field.

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