My life in outer space

Brin – David

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

Year's Best SF 6

Contents

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.
Odd.
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.

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Foundation’s Triumph – David Brin (1999)

Foundation's Triumph (Second Foundation Trilogy, #3)

‘As for me, I am finished.’

With these words, a frail, dying Hari Seldon completes his life’s work. The old man has just recorded messages for the Time Vault of the First Foundation. And psychohistory’s Seldon Plan is unleashed, propelled by the ponderous momentum of destiny.
Younger hands will now take up the task.

But Seldon knows that neither the First nor the Second Foundation will provide ultimate solutions. The Seldon Plan has three possible outcomes. None of them fills him with joy but he is consoled by the thought that any of the three is better than the chaos that would have happened without him.

However, the future still holds some surprises for Hari Seldon.

Blurb from the 2000 Orbit paperback edition.

An exceedingly suitable and satisfactory denouement to this posthumous sequel to Asimov’s Foundation series. Following a rather disjointed opening Benford’s ‘Fear’ and a sublime sequel in Bear’s ‘Chaos’, David Brin wraps it all up very neatly with a highly readable tale of Hari Seldon’s final adventure.
The three authors have very cleverly managed to weave a complete new story over and around the original Foundation trilogy with a complexity that borders on X-Files level conspiracy. In some ways it is a little disappointing to discover that Hari Seldon’s predictions – such as the secession from the Empire by Anacreon which left Terminus alone and undefended – were to a large extent ‘helped along’ by interfering robots and telepaths. (Those pesky interfering robots!).

There was a kind of precise beauty in the way Seldon’s mathematics predicted the outcome of each crisis and to some extent these late revelations (not really helped by Asimov’s own additions to his Milieu) lessen the power of the original trilogy. However, these novels are a great tribute to a Golden Age of SF and all three manage to evoke the spirit of a bygone period in SF history while infusing a contemporary flavour.
In Brin’s finale, the robots once more are heavily involved in meddling behind the scenes in human affairs and Dors Venabili (a robot designed as a guardian and companion to Seldon) discovers that it is not only human history that has been repressed for the last twenty thousand years.
Dors is bequeathed the head of R Giskard Reventlov, a robot visionary and allegedly the creator of the Zeroth Law of Robotics which negates the famed Three Laws of Robotics in the case of a robot having to protect the long-term security of the Human Race as a whole.

The series as a whole has wasted an opportunity to create an objective view of human nature, to examine what it is to be human in terms of Seldon’s mathematical waves of human progress. We know far more now than Asimov did in the Nineteen Forties of body language, human interaction, the psychology of crowds etc. Seldon’s aim in this final book is to refine his equations by finding reasons why Chaos worlds (planets which undergo a sudden and inventive renaissance) should subsequently fall into pandemonium and madness.
It is disappointing to discover that that the Chaos worlds are suffering the effects of a Chaos plague, an ancient designer disease akin to that of Brain fever, another manufactured plague designed to attack the most intelligent children and prevent a rise in the IQ level of the general public.
We also discover that many planets are being kept docile by robot telepathic machines left in orbit about these worlds. One can see now how Asimov muddied the waters of his premise by attempting to conflate his various work into one great galactic history. We can no longer watch the intricate interplay of unstoppable forces of change because the basic concept has been undermined by the intrusion of these robotic and other influences.
It’s a daunting task (and one does have to question why it was ever done at all) to produce a posthumous trilogy with three different authors engaged on the project, and to be constrained not only by Asimov’s original trilogy, but by his later additions and qualifications.
One can see why the writers thought that the only way they could do it was by treating the original trilogy as the exoteric (i.e. the public) version of events and this set of novels as the esoteric machinations (quite literally) of the robots behind the scenes of the events of the classic original series.
Yes, it works, and it is, as I have said, a decent tribute to Asimov who, despite later rather negative reassessments of his work, was a major influence on and supporter of, SF as a whole.
One could argue however, that had Asimov left his original trilogy alone it would shine much brighter than it does with the baggage of a welter of sequels and additions.
It looks as though there will be further additions since Brin has left ‘openings’ for other writers who wish to take up the baton. Hari Seldon has apparently been cloned and possibly rejuvenated by one of the robot factions; the robots Dors Venabili and Lodovic Trema have ‘evolved ‘ human reactions and emotions and find themselves drawn to each other, and there is Mors Planch, the rebel starship Captain who has been catapulted five hundred years into the future to a time when a decision must be made on Galactic coalescence into a single consciousness and the ensuing Human Transcendence.
A valuable appendix to the book is the very helpful timeline of Asimov’s future history which not only marks important dates and events in the Foundation galaxy’s chronology, but annotates the relevant books and stories in which these events either occur or are ‘re-examined’ for want of a better word.


Startide Rising – David Brin (1982)

Startide Rising (The Uplift Saga, #2)

‘The Terran exploration vessel ‘Streaker’ has crashed on the uncharted water-world of Kithrup, bearing one of the most important discoveries in Galactic History. Above, in space, armadas of alien races clash in a titanic struggle to claim her. Below, a handful of her human and dolphin crew battles armed rebellion and a hostile planet to safeguard her secret – the fate of the Progenitors, the fabled First Race who seeded wisdom throughout the stars.’

Blurb from the 1985 Bantam paperback edition

We are still within Brin’s Uplift Universe, although Brin employs a completely different cast for this sequel. the events of ‘Sundiver’ are referred to briefly, and Jacob Demwa is mentioned in passing.
‘The Streaker’ An Earth vessel, crewed (as an experiment) by ‘uplifted’ dolphins, some humans and a chimpanzee scientist has stumbled upon an abandoned fleet of starships, each the size of a moon, held in stasis for immeasurable aeons.
the dolphins make the fatal mistake of sending a message back to Earth which is intercepted by various galactic factions, some of whom have beliefs that the Progenitors (i.e. the first intelligent race in the five galaxies) are asleep and will one day return to rid the cosmos of unbelievers. Thus, the Streaker is pursued through space by fanatical bands of aliens with various agendae.
Hiding out on the water planet of Kithrup, the Earthlings have a short breathing space while the aliens fight each other for the right to claim the prize.
They are not yet aware that ‘Streaker’ carries back a corpse from one of the ships, a humanoid alien which the portable Galactic Library cannot identify as any recorded intelligent species.
Meanwhile, the human Professor Metz, who is part of the dolphin Uplift programme has brought some of his ‘special’ dolphins aboard, dolphins which seem to be larger and more aggressive than dolphins should normally be.
Also, the planet Kithrup itself presents mysteries since not only does it hold a promising pre-sentient race but appears to be fostering a gestalt intelligence in its metal-rich oceans.
This is probably the most satisfying of the Uplift novels, being a reasonable length and giving equal weight to characterisation and action. After this the books become larger, denser and generally more unwieldy, although they are not without their individual charm and page-turning addictive quality.


Sundiver – David Brin (1980)

Sundiver (The Uplift Saga, #1)

‘Of all the intelligent races in the universe, none has survived without the guidance of the Patrons – except mankind. But if our Patrons began the Uplift of the human race aeons ago, why did they abandon us? Circling the sun, in the caverns of Mercury, Expedition Sundiver prepares for the most momentous journey in human history. A journey into the broiling inferno of the sun… to find our final destiny in the cosmic order of life. ‘

Blurb from the 1991 Bantam paperback edition

This is the novel that set Brin off on a series of novels whose page-count seemed to grow exponentially as each one was published.
Known as ‘The Uplift Series’, the books are set in a near-future where the galaxy is populated and controlled by a civilisation of ancient alien races. None of these races evolved intelligence, but were genetically engineered from lower forms by their Patron race who, in turn, were ‘uplifted’ by their parent race.
Thus, when an exploratory Earth ship encountered Humanity’s first aliens, it was a surprise to everyone.
The ‘wolfling’ race – who have themselves ‘uplifted’ chimps and dolphins – are a political embarrassment to some of the galactic factions, who consider Humanity to be an orphaned uplifted race, whose patrons are unknown, much like the original race who began the uplift process. Known as The Progenitors, their details are lost in the mists of time, even in a civilisation whose records go back millions of years.
Earth has been allowed to start colonies, although people who have a propensity for violence are not allowed into space. They are known as probationers and electronically tagged. Humanity is also split on the issue of their origins, between the Darwinites who believe in Humanity’s natural evolutionary origins and the Danikenites who are convinced of their ancient Uplift and abandonment .
Against this backdrop we have the story of Jacob Demwa, a Native American who works with uplifted dolphins. His alien friend, Fagin, a kind of mobile shrubbery, arranges for him to be part of a classified project on Mercury.
The Sundiver project ostensibly is to study the sun itself very very closely by means of new ships, using a mixture of alien and human technology. The Sundiver ships are saucer-shaped and use refrigeration lasers to deflect the excess heat.
The big secret, however, is that life, of a form never before discovered, has been found in the sun itself, and it may be intelligent.
A Danikenite reporter has bulldozed his way into the project and believes the aliens to be Humanity’s missing Patrons.
When the ship of a chimp professor on a solo mission malfunctions, destroying both chimp and ship, it is thought to be either the work of the sun creatures or an accident, until it is proven to be sabotage.
Thus, the stage is set for an interstellar mystery of murder, espionage and big science.
It is difficult to tell if Brin originally planned this as a stand-alone novel. The ending certainly leaves the big questions unanswered.
The characters are competently three-dimensional, although it has to be said that the female characters are rather less fully drawn than the males. All the aliens, as far as we are aware, are male, even the shrubbery, for whom sexual identity wouldn’t have been an issue, one would have thought.
As with all mysteries there are other things going on, red herrings, bluffs and distractions, and it has to be said that Brin handles it all rather well.