My life in outer space

Wilson – Robert Charles

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.


Spin – Robert Charles Wilson (2005)

Spin (Spin, #1)

‘The time is the day after tomorrow and three adolescents – Diane and Jason Lawton, twins, and their best friend, Tyler Dupree – are out stargazing. thus they witness the erection of a planet-spanning shield around the globe, blocking out the universe. ‘Spin’ chronicles the next 30-odd years in the lives of the trio, during which 300 billion years will pass outside the shield, thanks to an engineered time discontinuity. Jason, a genius, will invest his celibate life in unravelling cosmological mysteries. Tyler will become a doctor and act as our narrator and Jason’s confidante, while nursing his unrequited love for Diane, who in turn plunges into religious fanaticism. Along the way, human-descended Martians will appear, bringing a drug that can elevate human to the Fourth State, ‘an adulthood beyond adulthood.’ But will even this miracle be enough to save Earth?…
Here’s a book that features speculative conceits as brash and thrilling as those found in any space opera, along with insights into the human condition as rich as those contained within any mainstream mimetic fiction, with both its conceits and insights beautifully embedded in crystalline prose.

The Washington Post;’

main blurb from the 2006 Tor paperback edition.

Wilson’s work is regularly nominated for awards, and rightly so. He writes dense, complex novels in which the scientific elements and the characterisation are both admirably dealt with. His novels are generally character driven and here we find a trio of people who grew up together, brother and sister Jason and Diane, and their friend Tyler.
One night, when they were still teenagers, they witnessed the stars disappearing. A shell had appeared around the Earth, along with a false sun that rose and set just as the old one did.
Jason’s father, ED Lawton, an important businessman with US government contacts, immediately creates a plan to replace the satellites which were lost when the enclosure occurred.
It becomes clear that the sphere is neither a barrier nor an inert shell. Outside, time is running at a different rate and Jason, (who is a physics genius) calculates that within 50 years our sun will have come to the next stage of its life and expanded beyond the orbit of the Earth. In order to employ this knowledge against The Hypotheticals (as the possible aliens who may have erected the sphere have been named) a plan is hatched to fire rockets at Mars loaded with bacteria, algae and lichens that exist in extreme climates. Thus, we could create a habitable Mars within weeks as millions of years of evolution would have taken place outside the sphere.
Then we send a human colony.
The reality of this is proven very quickly, since a hundred thousand years passes on Mars and a human civilisation emerges, one which sends an emissary to Earth. However, while en route, Mars itself acquires a black shell identical to earth’s.
The Martians bring details of technology and medicine far in advance of our own. Jason and Tyler are working against time on two fronts, to keep Jason alive, since he is suffering a crippling variant of MS, and to understand the physics of the Spin in order to save Humanity.
The narrative is split between two timelines, one dating from the advent of The Spin, and leaping forward in years. The other is set in Tyler’s future where he is suffering the effects of a Martian drug which extends human life through nanotechnology rebuilding the cells of the body.
It’s a powerful and moving novel featuring damaged characters to a greater or lesser extent. Jason and Diane’s father, ED Lawson, is a control freak and openly despises those he considers below his social level. Jason is the tool he moulds to inherit his mantle, blind to the fact that Jason must at some time supplant him. Tyler, who has always been in love with Diane, stands by as she gets deeply involved with an Armageddon cult. Jason’s mother is an alcoholic, perhaps driven to drink by her husband’s dispassionate singlemindedness.
Along the way they have other relationships, but the three main characters remain inexorably bound by the love they have for each other.
Structurally Tyler is the middle ground between science and religion, acting as both narrator and confidante of both Jason and Diane.
As in ‘The Chronoliths’ the issue of father and son relationships is a central theme, although here, unlike ‘The Chronoliths’, the human drama is well-balanced against the backdrop of vast science and forces beyond anyone’s control.

The Chronoliths – Robert Charles Wilson (2001)

The Chronoliths

Scott Warden is a man haunted by the past – and soon to be haunted by the future.

In early twenty-first-century Thailand, Scott is an expatriate slacker, Then, one day, he inadvertently witnesses an impossible event: the violent appearance of a 200-foot stone pillar in the forested interior. Its arrival collapses tress for a quarter mile around its base, freezing ice out of the air and emitting a burst of ionizing radiation.
It appears to be composed of an exotic form of matter. And the inscription chiselled into it commemorates a military victory… sixteen years in the future.

Shortly afterwards, another, larger pillar arrives in the center of Bangkok – obliterating the city and killing thousands. Over the next several years, human society is transformed by these mysterious arrivals from, seemingly, our own near future. Who is the warlord ‘Kuin’ whose victories they note?

Scott wants only to rebuild his life. But some strange loop of causality keeps drawing him in, to the central mystery and a final battle with the future.

Blurb from the 2002 Tor paperback edition

Scott Warden is wasting his life away in Thailand, to the annoyance of his wife, Janice. When he joins his friend Mitch Paley in investigating an explosion the mountains, Scott is unaware that his daughter – infected with a flesh eating parasite – has been taken to hospital.
A giant blue monument has somehow ‘appeared’ out of nowhere, converting the matter it has displaced into itself and absorbing so much energy from the surrounding area that that temperatures plummet.
On the monument is an inscription commemorating Kuin’s successful invasion of the area twenty years and three months into the future.
Wilson’s tale of time, coincidence and causality begins to get more complex as it transpires that Sue Choprah, a scientist who knew Scott from years ago, believes Scott to be the focus of Time’s Arrow.
The monuments are being sent into the past in order to create (through the media) the very situation that Kuin needs to come to power.
So, following the emergence of other Kuin monuments across the world, from Israel to Mexico, we enter a period of American Entropy where the infrastructure of the US begins to break down.
Pro-Kuin appeasement groups rise in popularity and the emergence of further monuments (which can now be detected in advance with a high degree of accuracy) causes haj’s in which thousands of young people travel across the world to witness the vent.
The big events are contrasted by Scott’s rather dysfunctional relationships. He does not communicate well with his father and is haunted by the memories of his dead bi-polar mother. His wife and daughter left him after Thailand and she got married again, to a rather too obviously pompous and unsuitable man.
This seems to be a common trend of late. Intersperse the current events with scenes or recollections of the hero’s harrowing private life.
Sons and fathers not speaking to each other is popular. See Reed’s ‘Beyond The Veil of Stars’: Ben Bova’s ‘Mars’ etc.
Whether Wilson is trying to create a parallel between the monuments crossing time and communication between generations is not known. If so, it doesn’t really work. Scott’s psychological family history didn’t really add anything to the novel and could quite feasibly have been dispensed with, or reworked as a Hallmark screenplay.
Scott is recruited by Choprah to work within her team, a job which it seems it is his destiny and his curse, since it attracts danger to both himself and his family.
The science elements centre around the concepts of ‘Tau Turbulence’, ‘Calabi-Yau manipulation’ and the ramifications of sending such objects back though time which themselves alter the future. Wilson’s scientific explanations seem plausible enough, although I have no idea whether they are related to any current theories on the issue (if indeed such theories exist at all)
The novel builds to a clever and exciting denouement, and an intriguing epilogue, which gives us just enough information to work out what happened next.
It’s a good novel, somewhat marred by Hallmark plot elements, but an unlikely award nominee.

Memory Wire – Robert Charles Wilson (1987)

Memory Wire

A very cleverly structured novel by Wilson which revolves around various aspects of memory, set in a dystopian future where alien ‘stones’ have been discovered in South America.
Keller is an ‘angel’, a futuristic reporter whose memory wire inserts allow him to record everything he sees or hears, although angels, having a need to be dispassionate and removed from the object of their observations, must study a zen-like discipline to control their emotional involvements. He can therefore ‘remember’ everything.
Teresa, an artist, can remember nothing beyond a few years ago, but has constant dreams of a young girl asking her for help. She has a copy of one of the alien stones, which for her can retrieve memories of some of her customers if she is in physical contact with them. It also gives her brief visions of the aliens themselves, blue-skinned winged creatures whose thoughts and motives are unfathomable.
Byron is an ex-angel and an old colleague of Keller’s. He is in love with Theresa and aware that she is slowly destroying herself through an addiction to drugs. Stories are emerging of new stones being found in the South American mines, stones with more powerful effects than the first ones found. Byron is planning a dangerous expedition to obtain one of the stones, in order that it may help Teresa find her memory and wean her away from her deathwish.
Meanwhile, a rogue intelligence officer, Oberg, is on a mission to prevent the stones being disseminated into the world. He has been driven psychotic by his own memories of war, and has a twisted insane logic that somehow makes sense in the context of what the stones are and what they are capable of doing.
It’s an early novel, but one that is well-crafted and very well characterised. The setting is detailed and credible and nothing is there that doesn’t need to be there. There’s no padding out with vicarious bits of flashy technology just to make the story shiny. It’s very dark in tone, but elegantly constructed. Very impressive.