My life in outer space

Archive for July, 2015

Year’s Best SF 6 – David G Hartwell (Ed.) (2000)

Year's Best SF 6


The Reef – Paul J McAuley (Skylife Ed Benford/Zebrowski 2000)
Reality Check – David Brin (Nature, Vol 404 2000)
The Millennium Express – Robert Silverberg (Playboy, Jan 2000)
Patient Zero – Tananarive Due (F & SF 2000)
The Oort Crowd – Ken MacLeod (Nature, Vol 406 2000)
The Thing About Benny – M Shayne Bell (Vanishing Acts, Tor 2000 Ed Ellen Datlow)
The Last Supper – Brian Stableford (Science Fiction Age, Mar 2000)
Tuberculosis Bacteria Join UN – Joan Slonczewski (Nature, Vol 405 2000)
Our Mortal Span – Howard Waldrop (Black Heart, Ivory Bones, Avon Books/Eos, Ed Ellen Datlow and Terri Wilding)
Different Kinds of Darkness – David Langford (F & SF, Jan 2000)
New Ice Age, or Just Cold Feet? – Norman Spinrad (Nature, Vol 405 2000)
The Devotee – Stephen Dedman (Eidolon #29/30 2000)
The Marriage of Sky & Sea – Chris Beckett (Interzone Mar 2000)
In The Days of the Comet – John M Ford (Nature, Vol 405 2000)
The Birthday of the World – Ursula K LeGuin (F& SF, Jun 2000)
Oracle – Greg Egan (F& SF, Jul 2000)
To Cuddle Amy – Nancy Kress (Asimov’s, Aug 2000)
Steppenpferd – Brian W Aldiss (F&SF, Feb 2000)
Sheena 5 – Stephen Baxter (Analog, May 2000)
The Fire Eggs – Darrell Schweitzer (Interzone, Mar 2000)
The New Horla – Robert Sheckley (F&SF July 2000)
Madame Bovary, C’est Moi – Dan Simmons (Nature, Vol 407 2000)
Grandma’s Jumpman – Robert Reed (Century, Spring 2000)
Bordeaux Mixture – Charles Dexter Ward (Nature, Vol 404 2000)
The Dryad’s Wedding – Robert Charles Wilson (Star Colonies, 2000)
Built Upon The Sands of Time – Michael Flynn (Analog July/Aug 2000)
Seventy-Two Letters – Ted Chiang (Vanishing Acts, Tor 2000 Ed Ellen Datlow)

Annual collections have evolved like dinosaurs from the slim volumes of the 60s and 70s into the paperback versions of Tyrannosaurs, vying for attention with their garish colour schemes (Sadly, the text for the cover of this issue completely obscures the artwork, looks like it’s been thrown together hurriedly in a copy of Adobe Illustrator and doesn’t do the volume itself any justice at all).
This series, ably edited by David G Hartwell, goes head to head with the Gardner Dozois series and a whole subspecies of other annual compilations which somehow survive to re-emerge next year, so good luck to them.
This volume purports to be the best SF of 2000. I say purports to be since the publishing history is a little strange, giving a first paperback publication date of June 2000, when some of the stories included were not published until July/August 2000. Looking at the publication dates of the stories included we notice that, yes, it seems that possibly all of the work included comes from a time before August 2000, which is unfortunate if your excellent SF story was published in, say, November 2000.
However, it is nevertheless an excellent collection and Hartwell, whatever publishing constraints he is bound by, has to be congratulated on selecting not only brilliant pieces of work, but those which complement and enhance each other. McLeod and Slonczewski, for instance, both deal with the theme of intelligent bacteria, and there are other examples of synchronicity throughout the collection.

The Reef – Paul J McAuley

One of my favourites in this collection, which tells of an expedition to find the result of a lost experiment in genetically engineered zero-gravity organisms.

Reality Check – David Brin

This is the first of several examples of the short pieces that were published in Nature throughout 2000 to celebrate the Millennium. David Brin takes a very Dickian turn with this piece which suggests that there is embedded code within the text which can wake certain people up to face a truer reality.

The Millenium Express – Robert Silverberg

On the eve of the Third Millenium, an investigator is tracking four men: Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway and Vjong Cleversmith. His aim is to find out why they are planning to blow up (or implode, since the matter is still under discussion) The Louvre, and to stop them. But can he, and more importantly, should he?

Patient Zero – Tananarive Due

A good, if a little schmaltzy, tale of a young boy who was one of the first to contract a lethal virus, and one of the only people to survive. He is kept within an isolation unit and we see the world through his eyes, via the doctors and helpers who come into contact with him, as the virus destroys society.
Well-written, and from an unusual perspective.

The Oort Crowd – Ken MacLeod

This is a prequel of sorts to MacLeod’s ‘Dark Light’ books, and is one of two tales here dealing with the concept of intelligent bacteria.

The Thing About Benny – M Shayne Bell

An unusual tale, set in the aftermath of climate change, or at least an ecological disaster, where a savante of sorts – who is also an obsessive Abba Fan – hunts through office blocks in search of rare plants which unwitting workers may have been keeping in a plant pot. His aim is to discover a new species and name it after Agnetha.
Very original and readable.

The Last Supper – Brian Stableford

A celebration of genetically-modified food in this gloriously politically incorrect story set in the restaurant of a renowned chef whose dishes are all genetically modified, and some ingredients are not what one might call strictly legal.
Elegant, satirical and memorable

Tuberculosis Bacteria Join UN – Joan Slonczewski

Another millennium tale from ‘Nature’, this time told as a news report in which a civilisation of bacteria join the UN.

Our Mortal Span – Howard Waldrop

I have a problem with Waldrop. As a writer he is good, descriptive, poetic, emotive, and pushes all the right buttons, but there is always something I don’t quite get.
This a tale set in a near future Fairy Tale Theme Park where a mechanised troll goes on the rampage, accusing the other characters of not being true to the original scripts, or so it seemed to me. It might be a little more complicated than that.

Different Kinds of Darkness – David Langford

This is what I would term a ‘real’ SF story, the sort of thing one used to get in SF monthly. It’s full of meat and character and fascinating concepts, such as pictures designed to drive the viewer insane and schools where the pupils have their perceptions altered.

New Ice Age, or Just Cold Feet? – Norman Spinrad

A short satirical tale from Spinrad in which a future Earth is struggling to reverse the effects of Global Cooling

The Devotee – Stephen Dedman

An interesting noir-esque tale featuring a hard-boiled private eye and covering issues such as amputee fetishes, porn and cloning. Despite what some people may find to be distasteful subject matter, this is an excellent tale, stylishly written and conveying a sense of verisimilitude to a complex near future society

The Marriage of Sky & Sea – Chris Beckett

A clever story which exploits our current obsession with media celebrities, one of whom is the hero – if that is the right word – of this short gem. He is an author, travelling the galaxy in a sentient ship, each time landing on a primitive world and writing about his experiences with the natives, despite the fact he is well aware of what the effect of his intrusion – along with his advanced technology – has on the cultures he visits.
On this occasion, however, he may have underestimated both the natives and his own feelings.

In The Days of the Comet – John M Ford

And yet another tale featuring the microcellular, or smaller, particles of the universe, in this case, infectious proteins or prions, which have been seeded in comets. Extraordinarily well-written for such a short piece.

The Birthday of the World – Ursula K LeGuin

A beautiful and poetic work from Le Guin, who never fails to marry the base human and the exotic into a powerful piece of work. Here, a race which has, as the basis of its culture, hereditary gods who foresee the future, is thrown into turmoil by the failure of the system and the power of ambition and greed working within the family.
It’s a haunting and mysterious piece, but one which seems firmly grounded in its own reality.

Oracle – Greg Egan

Although not made that clear in the text, Egan here fictionalises a rivalry in the late Nineteen Forties between two characters based on Alan Turing and CS Lewis, and sets up a battle of essentially, science versus religion.
‘Turing’, trapped by the police into admitting a gay relationship, is blackmailed into working for an unscrupulous government scientist, but is rescued by a mysterious woman who turns out to be an AI, one of the descendants of his research.
Following a series of brilliant scientific developments on ‘Turing’s part, ‘Lewis’ believes ‘Turing’ to be in league with The Devil, and sets out to expose and discredit him.

To Cuddle Amy – Nancy Kress

Another tale that features children, which seems to be a popular subject in this volume, although this is a short and quite chilling tale, examining what morality we may eventually ascribe to producing children if it becomes a simple matter of ordering another one if the first one doesn’t work out.

Steppenpferd – Brian W Aldiss

In a strangely parallel story to Alistair Reynolds’ ‘Century Rain’ Aldiss takes us to a strange system where copies of the earth are trapped inside Dyson Spheres. On one of these worlds, in a pre-industrial Scandinavia, a priest is tormented between his faith and the reality he sees around him, doubting whether his fellow priests are real, or merely the transient bodies of the shape-changing asymmetrical aliens who have created these worlds.

Sheena 5 – Stephen Baxter

Baxter examines the ethics and possible consequences of genetic experimentation in this tale in which a tailored squid is sent out to the asteroids to set up a mining operation. The squid however, was pregnant and gives birth en-route to other equally intelligent offspring.
An alternate history of Sheena can also be found as part of Baxter’s 1999 novel, ‘Time – Manifold 1’ where the pregnant squid is diverted to Cruithne, Earth’s other ‘moon’ and the destiny of her children changed.

The Fire Eggs – Darrell Schweitzer

An odd and borderline surreal tale of luminescent eggs which appear all over the world, hovering slightly above the ground. Impervious to any form of force, and seemingly inert, they are eventually relegated to the status of inexplicable curiosities by most of the population. There are a few however, who claim that they can hear the eggs singing.

The New Horla – Robert Sheckley

A reworking of the classic tale ‘The Horla’ by Guy Du Maupassant.
I’ve never really ‘got’ Sheckley, and this fairly recent piece of his didn’t help me to get him any further.

Madame Bovary, C’est Moi – Dan Simmons

It is discovered that works of literature generate their own universes in which, more often than not, the central figures do not realise that they are the central figures. This is probably the best of the ‘Nature’ stories, conveying a tremendous amount in its brief number of words.

Grandma’s Jumpman – Robert Reed

Reed as a writer is very much at home in America’s rural backwaters, and before he began his recent style of vast post-vanvogtian space opera with planet-sized ships and immortal post-humans, his work was more redolent of Clifford Simak, as here, where a young boy visiting his aunt’s farm discovers the true nature of her relationship with the alien farmhand.
As with much of Reed’s work, there is a bittersweet undertone to the piece, where idyllic surroundings are the background to a coming of age and a loss of innocence.

Bordeaux Mixture – Charles Dexter Ward

The subject of GM crops (and other foods) seems to have inspired many writers, here, Charles Dexter Ward foresees vegetation which emits pheromones to make one want to grow and eat it.

The Dryad’s Wedding – Robert Charles Wilson

On a colony world a woman has an accident and lies in a river with half her brain missing before she is found, When she is awoken after a regeneration procedure she finds the empathic flora and fauna around her trying to make contact, and has unaccountable memories of Brussels, which she has never visited.
Apparently a prequel to a Wilson novel, this is a deep and complex, highly detailed piece of work, rich with scientific ideas and the atmosphere of an alien planet.

Built Upon The Sands of Time – Michael Flynn

A very literary and Irish piece set in a bar in which scientists and others discuss matters of scientific import over a Guinness or two, and in the course of things hear a tale of alternate worlds and altered history.

Seventy-Two Letters – Ted Chiang

This is a strange novella set in an alternate Victorian world where golems can be brought to life by placing a sequence of seventy-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet under their tongue.
Also, it is discovered, each individual male sperm, when examined, contains a complete foetus. How these two scientific discoveries relate to each other is at the core of this tale of weird science, murder, espionage and the very future of the human race.


Endless Shadow – John Brunner (1964)

Endless Shadow


Azrael – Where pain was the only reality, and murder was not a crime but a ritual

Ipewell – Where motherhood was honored and manhood meant a life of servitude and fear.

These two worlds were at the heart of a taut and dangerous situation which threatened to explode, and Jorgen Thorkild, director of the Bridge System that connected forty worlds among the stars had to try to tame them.

But Thorkild faced still another problem: the loss of his own sanity…’

Blurb from the 1964 Ace Double F-299 paperback edition

Earth is slowly reuniting herself with her lost colonies on worlds settled centuries before The Bridge which is essentially a wormhole gateway to the rediscovered worlds.
the latest worlds to be discovered are Azrael and Ipewell. Ipewell is a matriarchal society where men are treated as an inferior species. Azrael is a darker society where the inhabitants court death as a regular ritual in order to remind themselves of the reality of their own mortality.
Before the worlds can be opened up to this galactic community their society has to be analysed and assessed by a ‘programmer’, one who can accurately map the factors within an alien human society, determine what ‘makes them tick’ and how they can be prepared for integration into this Galactic civilisation of almost forty worlds.
In this decidedly van-Vogtian piece programmers are, it is suggested, an evolutionary advance. They are van Vogt’s logical pacifist hero. On Azrael, the last programmer made a fatal error and engaged in a ritual which ended in his death. His successor must use all his Programme training to find a way to analyse and undermine the Azrael philosophy before they can be admitted to the Bridge system.
Jorgen Thorkild, upon meeting the formidable leader of the Azraelis has a nervous breakdown and has to be relieved of his post. He is also plagued by the suicide of his predecessor.
Much of it is about people whose world-views are dramatically altered, most of them painfully but to their own benefit.
It’s an odd piece which perhaps has concepts which could not be properly explored within the word-count constraints of an Ace Double.
It was revised in 1982 as ‘Manshape’.  

Tau Zero – Poul Anderson (1970)

Tau Zero

Based upon Anderson’s short story “To Outlive Eternity” (Galaxy 1967), this is a marvellous exercise in exploring the concepts of Einsteinian physics, and one which surprisingly is for the most part character based. The interstellar ship ‘Leonora Christine’ is carrying a cargo of colonists and scientists to Beta Virginis. Anderson does a marvellous job of describing the ship which uses the Bussard Ramjet principle of capturing loose hydrogen atoms in flights and converting them to energy, gradually increasing acceleration toward the speed of light.
Not long into the flight, however, the crew discover that a cloud of interstellar gas has drifted between the ship and its destination. The ship is moving too fast to change course and must therefore risk damaging or destroying itself by flying through.
The ship survives but the crew soon discover that the deceleration unit has been crippled, which means that the ship and its passengers will continue to accelerate toward the speed of light.
Anderson manages to balance the mind-numbing complexities of the science with the human dramas being played out inside the ship. There the effects of time dilation mean that time is passing increasingly faster in the outside Universe than for the humans in the tin can.
Some of the characters such as Lindgren, are Scandinavian, since Poul – although born in the US – was of Scandinavian parentage. He also spent some time in Denmark it seems and employs his background to good effect here. Refreshingly, the crew are multinational, including Japanese, Russians, Canadians and one particularly obnoxious American, although it’s not known if this reflected Anderson’s personal views on the country of his birth.
There is an interesting situation on Earth at the outset, where Sweden, who were in charge of a worldwide nuclear disarmament programme, have become effectively rulers of a worldwide Swedish Empire.
It is interesting to note that current American SF, particularly the mainstream novels, tend to be somewhat insular, what I have elsewhere described as Americocentric. Jack McDevitt, Geoffrey A Landis and to a certain extent Greg Bear (coincidentally Poul Anderson’s son-in-law) to name but three, tend to write SF which postulates a future seemingly dominated by American culture or a near future in which everything happens in the US and the rest of the world is not really considered. Anderson was never that lazy.
For its time it’s an amazing piece of Hard SF in which the backdrop – measured by time and space – expands exponentially throughout the novel as the small dramas of the crew are acted out.
The denouement – which probably wouldn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny today, if indeed it was able to in Nineteen-Seventy – is an uplifting joyful moment and brings the book to a satisfying if somewhat improbable conclusion.

The Space Willies – Eric Frank Russell (1958)


‘An Earthman’s tongue is his deadliest weapon

There was a common understanding in the Space Navy that scout-pilots were a breed apart–cocksure, reckless, and slightly nuts. But it was also understood that when a really dangerous job had to be done, a scout-pilot was the man to do it.

So for John Leeming, a couple of months of dodging death in a one-man ship, zipping in and out of the enemy Combine’s rearguard, was just another one of those jobs. And there was no man in the Universe more surprised than Leeming when his heretofore indestructible ship just gave up the ghost smack in the middle of a Combine-held prison planet!

It was then that the spirit of the Scout Corps had its chance to shine. With self-confidence as his only weapon, Leeming had only two choices: give in to the enemy and be captured…or quick-talk them into a real case of THE SPACE WILLIES!’

Blurb from the 1971 #77785 Ace Double paperback edition

Rather like William F Temple’s ‘Martin Magnus’ Eric Frank Russell’s lead character here is a space-pilot who doesn’t take to authority too well.
Earth and her allies are under attack from the Combine, another alliance of aliens who have occupied a neighbouring region of space. It is not known whether the Combine are only occupying the nearer stars or whether their dominion goes deep into the territory behind them.
And so John Leeming; sarcastic, disrespectful and disdainful of authority, is considered the perfect choice for a secret mission.
Leeming has to take an experimental one-man high-speed ship and survey the stars beyond the Combine’s border to determine how large an area they control.
All goes well for a while with Leeming reporting back on the location and affiliation of almost a hundred planets when the experimental ship finally gives up the ghost, forcing Leeming to land on a Combine prison planet.
From there, Russell weaves a comical farce around the concept of a clever prisoner of war outwitting his less clever captors.
It’s well-written and the comedy is sustained throughout.
There is a minor blemish in that Russell at one point describes one of his alien captors as ‘a fairy’ and therefore by inference (within the context of the cultural mores of the time) not considered strong, brave or intelligent enough to be a danger.
However, this was the 1950s when white heterosexual men controlled the Western World and many places beyond, including the world of SF publishing.

The Abyss Beyond Dreams – Peter F Hamilton (2014)

The Abyss Beyond Dreams (Commonwealth: Chronicle of the Fallers, #1)

This is Hamilton’s sixth ‘Commonwealth’ novel. The series began with the wonderful two-part classic depicting the events of the Starflyer War, ‘Pandora’s Star’ and ‘Judas Unchained’.
The Void Trilogy, which picks up some years after the Starflyer books, followed. Now we have a new two-parter set just before the events of the Void trilogy and again (my heart sank a little when I first realised this) following another planet trapped within the Void.
Before I go any further one should realise from my previous reviews that I am a big fan of Peter F Hamilton. Not only has he helped to revitalise the British SF scene and spearheaded the New Space Opera movement, revival, or whatever one chooses to call it, he has revived my own faith in SF and given me back that ‘sense of wonder’ when I first read ‘The Reality Dysfunction’ back in the late 90s.
In retrospect I think his Magnum Opus was the Starflyer War duo; a magnificent and densely written epic which (as is Hamilton’s style) combined a huge cast of characters with multiple storylines, beautifully detailed societies, edge of the seat action, strange alien mysteries, conspiracies, terrorists, artificial intelligences etc. etc.
Then came the Void trilogy, the premise of which being that for at least a million years the Raiel have been watching an anomaly called The Void which threatens to eventually engulf the galaxy. In essence, it a separate universe with its own laws of physics. Intelligent life has been captured and taken inside where there are stars and planets. Technology does not work there but humans are telepathic and telekinetic.
I had a problem with the Void trilogy in that the Commonwealth sections featured the Hamilton I was used to, with complex politics, human immortals, and all the features from the Starflyer books. The sections set on the Void planet of Querencia, however, are achingly deadly dull; a mind-numbing bit of pre-industrial Romanticism where a lowborn hero rises to take on the corrupt rich oppressors. I have promised myself that if I ever read the Void trilogy again I will simply skip past Inigo’s telekinetic Catherine Cookson dreams and keep to the Commonwealth sections. If you haven’t read the Void trilogy I would suggest you do the same. You miss nothing. Trust me.
And here we have a new two-part Commonwealth adventure, the first part of which is very promising until we return to the Void, to another pre-industrial world where strangely enough a lowborn hero, Slvasta, rises to take on the corrupt rich oppressors. It’s all sounding a bit familiar.
Regular readers will also recall that in the Nights Dawn trilogy humans were forcibly possessed by souls escaping from another continuum and became immensely stronger with odd new powers.
Here, humans get absorbed by alien eggs and are reborn… immensely stronger with odd new powers. It’s all sounding a bit familiar. (There are alien technobiological artefacts in space which grow eggs and seed them on the planet. The possessed/cloned humans are called ‘Fallers’)
Much like Querencia, this new world of Bienvenido is far too entrenched in a class war battle. All the rich people, it appears, are uniformly evil and corrupt. The eldest son of The Captain (a hereditary title from when the ship first landed) being the First Officer has to be wickeder than everyone else and is a sociopathic serial rapist torturer and murderer.
Yes. Rich people with no technology are always evil.
Having said that, the narrative receives a boost about halfway through the book when Nigel Sheldon (or a clone thereof) appears – having been injected into the Void by the Raiel in a largely organic ship.
From here on the story fairly cannons along with Nigel pulling strings in the background to help kickstart a revolution, while planning to steal technology from the original ship to enable him to destabilise the Void and hopefully destroy it.
We know from the Void trilogy that the issue of the Void was dealt with by others, so it is clear that Nigel’s plan to destroy the Void does not succeed.
However, the Void does expel the planet, its sun and some attendant worlds into intergalactic space, along with the ‘Faller’ forest of egg-producing artefacts.
The denouement leaves us with Bienvenido entering an Industrial revolution, still facing the ongoing threat of Faller eggs on their world.
Another minor grouch here is that most Hamilton novels weigh in at about 1200 pages while this is around 640. This and the sequel should really have comprised of one book then, surely? Given that this is about twice the size of an average novel anyway maybe that is a little churlish, but it kind of adds insult to injury seeing as the first half of this book was merely a reworking of old ideas and really not that exciting.
Hopefully, now that we’re rid of the flaming Void and its planets of Hallmark Channel Costume Drama, Hamilton might get his mojo back and do what he does best.
I really really really hope so.