[4 February 2014]
Science fiction writers of the past dreamed of futures, dark and bright, in which humans traveled to the stars, colonized other worlds, and encountered aliens both friendly and deadly. In all their imaginings, did they ever see their genre—ghettoized for so long as just that, genre fiction, said with a sneer—gaining prominence, even prevalence in the culture?
Probably. Those men and women imagined entire worlds where the seemingly impossible happened. Of course, science fiction was never really about the predicting the future so much as it was extrapolating and speculating on possible futures. Through all the great branches and permutations of the genre, stories, the good ones, anyway, were always a reflection of their times, and this is true now more than ever. Though science fiction isn’t as ubiquitous as mysteries or even cookbooks, the genre has earned the respect of readers and critics, and this anthology goes a long way toward showing us why.
These stories all appeared within the last 11 years, but the title 21st Century Science Fiction sounds like it comes from the future. It’s not misleading so much as it reminds that the future is now. Award-winning editors David G. Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden have gathered an impressive collection of 34 tales from this new century which is no longer so new, and created an anthology which will serve as a guide to the genre for years to come. The authors, including well-known names like Cory Doctorow, Paolo Bacigalupi, Catherine M. Valente, , and John Scalzi, hail from around the world, and their themes range from the holy sanctity of numbers to that pesky, persistent question of what it means to be human.
Anthologies are a strange breed because their foundation is variety. Even if there is a central theme, the voices of all the authors must sing at least in the same key, if not the same tune. One can always choose the order in which to read the stories, but reading them as they appear is the only way that makes sense to me. The first stories here, Vandana Singh’s “Infinities”, Charles Stross’ “Rogue Farm”, and Paolo Bacigalup’s “The Gambler”, all have wonderful moments, and improve upon their predecessors, but there is sense of settling in, of getting started, that makes the book a little hard to dig into. By the time we reach John Scalzi’s “The Tale of the Wicked, that is no longer a problem.
On its surface, Scalzi’s tale of an intelligent spaceship which rebels against its crew is an adventure tale in its purest form. There’s a race through space, faster than light jumps through the galaxy, and a standoff with enemy aliens. It’s a great read on those merits alone, a fast-paced, satisfying story that’s visual and visceral. It’s also a snapshot of what might happen when machines, specifically those designed for war, become aware enough to not only harm us, but possibly save us from ourselves. It somehow manages to be terrifying and heartening at the same time.
This is immediately followed by M. Rickert’s “Bread and Bombs”, which tells the story of a suburban disturbance which, as the story unfolds, reveals the fear and paranoia of the survivors of an endless war. Rickert’s is easily the best story in the book. It begins simply as the memories of a young girl’s life when a family of immigrants moved to her neighborhood, but the story grows darker as the world around the idyllic neighborhood is slowly revealed. The full details of the story’s catastrophic war are never fully revealed, but we’re given glimpses of air raids, all-consuming paranoia, and advanced technology which turns ordinary things into deadly weapons. In Rickert’s hands the line between childhood nostalgia and childhood trauma is razor thin, and the juxtaposition of the two is devastating.
Tony Ballantyne’s “The Waters of Meribah”, about a rapist condemned to medical experimentation, recalls George Orwell’s 1984 surveillance state and David Cronenberg’s version of The Fly. It also documents the horror of a man’s transformation into a monster. Similarly, Ian Creasey’s “Erosion” tells the story of a man named Winston whose body is augmented to live on other planets, though in this case the choice is his own. The story asks at what point we might cease being human and become something else, something more, when we change our bodies or even our minds to adapt to other worlds. Before leaving Earth behind, Winston walks the eroding coast of northern England, falls, and his foot is trapped underwater. He has the ability to free himself by releasing his foot from his body but he delays, “hoping that I could evade the result of my choices.”
Trying to see outcomes other than the inevitable is perhaps a trait inescapable by all humans, no matter the modification. Our world of instant information feels like the inevitable result of creatures determined to learn as much as they can before their time is up, and all our problems reflect an inborn belief that we know more than anyone else. People naturally look back out of nostalgia, out of regret, and out of a need for insight. Today’s science fiction writers, like their predecessors, look to today to show us tomorrow. They give us endless possibilities, but above all, they give us great stories.