Format: PDF, available in other formats including Print-on-Demand
Publisher: Center for Science and the Imagination, Arizona State University
- “Vanguard 2.0” by Carter Scholz
- “Mozart on the Kalahari” by Steven Barnes
- “The Baker of Mars” by Karl Schroeder
- “Death on Mars” by Madeline Ashby
- “The Use of Things ” by Ramez Naam
- “Night Shift” by Eileen Gunn
- “Shikasta” by Vandana Singh
(Apologies for the odd style and lateness of this review—I didn’t originally intend to cover this at all and then the coverage took place in several confused and expanding chunks of reading and writing over a long period of time.)
This book includes seven stories, with pairs set in low earth orbit, Mars, and the asteroids, ending with a single indirectly interstellar story. Each story has a beautifully done illustration and is followed by one or two essays by other authors (nine essays, plus an opening pair and closing trio) which I’m not going to get into much beyond saying that, unlike the art and unusually for me and science non-fiction, I didn’t feel they added much value. None really address the quality of the fiction as fiction, simply taking the stories as given unless some implausibility is pointed out. They aren’t intended to be literary critiques, but it undercuts the connection of the essay to the story and sometimes brings to mind people insisting the emperor, in fact, has clothes, undercutting a sense of credibility. Further, few even address the science (physics, chemistry, etc.) of the stories, which I would think was to the point, but are more interested in the social aspects. Perhaps most strikingly, while not speaking with one voice and being ostensibly created through the efforts of Arizona State University with a grant from NASA (that is, you, the taxpayer), they mostly promulgate a pro-corporate “higher education as vo-tech,” “NASA as free corporate R&D” view to the point that I wondered if this was sponsored by a university or by corporations through a university as a form of “idea-laundering,” though hopefully that’s an unjustified suspicion.
“Vanguard 2.0” by Carter Scholz
The protagonist is sent out by his corporate overlord to steal a small, old satellite, which the plutocrat really does want, but the job is primarily a way to clear witnesses away from his weaponizing of space. How the protagonist reacts is supposed to be the crux of the drama but, as written, there is no drama in this essentially plotless, albeit idea-filled, story. Despite being chosen for a “year’s best,” I wasn’t particularly impressed by this, aside from its researched, thought-out, hard SF nature.
“Mozart on the Kalahari” by Steven Barnes
Michael “Meek” Prouder is a smart kid with an interest in gene modding plants but lacks the resources and social infrastructure to maximize his talents. This has left him with a shady past, a bizarre condition, and difficulty trying to realize his dream of going to space. He hopes things may start going better for him when he learns of a contest with a prize that would get him to space but things become complicated when he actually enters it.
This seems to be partly a homage to Arthur C. Clarke’s Islands in the Sky and is mostly very effective at portraying the main character and addressing his plight in a way that will resonate for some readers (including this one, in ways). My only real problems with the story are that the character seems too smart to be so dense or vice versa and the plot seems a little too coincidental (both issues making the fiction as strange as truth), and that the big reveal may be too telegraphed and involves an element that has been done before, though I can’t recall the story (or stories) that did it. That was mostly outweighed by how engaged I was with the character and the story and how rewarding they were.
“The Baker of Mars” by Karl Schroeder
A woman who is feeding a bunch of time-displaced “Martians” comes up with an idea to transform the human race’s economy, method of governing itself, and its expansion into space, so heads off to the U.N. to explain it to the Powers That Be. The setup for this is that some humans who are among the legions of unemployed have begun “prospecting” on Mars, creating the infrastructure of a colony remotely by VR (we’re assured the time-lag isn’t a problem). But this is only due to the “no claims” space treaty and the corporate sponsors are really just waiting for all this to fail so the treaty can be torn up and the real gold rush can begin.
The colonization-by-VR feels fairly novel but it probably hasn’t been used much because it isn’t very workable. The “Martian Timeslip” or “Sliced-Crosswise Only-On-Tuesday World” isn’t so fresh, nor is the way it makes interplanetary colonization dull and mundane and mires it all in a socio-politico-economic treatise thinly wrapped in fiction. Schroeder’s fiction is generally very wonky but in a very cool way and is much better than this particular example.
“Death on Mars” by Madeline Ashby
Part of the rationale for an all-female crew on a proto-colonization mission to Mars includes a social-bonding experiment and that bonding is stressed when it is revealed that one of the women has known she’s dying and lied about it. It is further tested when a man is shipped in (alone) on an emergency flight to help with some problems.
This story is very nearly crippled by a serious early flaw and a milder later flaw, but manages to barely survive both. The first is that almost any human will be sympathetic to almost any depiction of death but the specific agonies of the dying woman and her distraught crew are not things we can actually share because, for example, this paragraph—
Donna was dying. Donna, who had calmly helped her slide the rods into the sleeves as they pitched tents in Alberta one dark night while the wolves howled and the thermometer dropped to 30 below. Donna, who had said, “Of course you can do it. That’s not the question,” when Khalidah reached between the cots during isolation week and asked Donna if the older woman thought she was really tough enough to do the job. Donna, without whom Khalidah might have quit at any time.
—comes in the middle of the story, rather than at the beginning. We don’t know Donna or Khalidah or the others when Donna’s imminent death is revealed and the emoting begins. The second problem is that, once we are up to speed and emotionally involved in the tale, it has many valid insights and feelings (such as how one death seems to raise all previous deaths a person has experienced right back to the present) and seems genuine but then pushes it a hair too far, giving a taste of saccharine sentimentality. (A third minor problem is that I don’t feel the sub-story of Khalidah and dad and the baseball is ever really “finished.”) All that said, this is another researched, hard SF tale whose character interactions eventually ring mostly true and which conveys some truths, such as how badly some things can be wanted and how badly they need to be wanted and what costs this can have. This has also been selected (twice) as a “Year’s Best” and, while I doubt it would have actually made that cut for me, I still recommend it.
“The Use of Things ” by Ramez Naam
A lone man working on an asteroid finds himself in a life and death situation when an inexplicable explosion breaks his tether and hurls him away.
This tries to be a good old-fashioned problem story but its “manned or unmanned” theme is too blatant, the idea that an unmanned mission would be retrofitted as a manned one at the last minute (for “PR”—to have a “face of the mission”) is virtually impossible and this is the second story I’ve read recently of a panicking astronaut, not to mention one who entertains for an instant the idea that a thrown roll of tape could counteract the force of an explosion that ripped a tether and his suit apart. Finally, the astronaut’s fate has nothing to do with his character. I did find this bit funny (in a sense), though:
The data center of the future would have just one man in it, Jimmy said, and one dog.
The man’s job was to feed the dog.
The dog’s job was to make sure the man didn’t touch anything.
“Night Shift” by Eileen Gunn
A woman is working the “Night Shift,” monitoring an AI as it deploys the nanobots that will transform an asteroid into its valuable components. She reminds me of Ghostbusters‘ Egon (who “collects spores, molds, and fungus”) except that her thing is just slime molds which, with her hacking skills, she parlays into nanobots. Things get a little complicated when, due to her anthropomorphizing of “Seth,” she is initially unaware that “he” has disabled the killswitch which prevents uncontrolled replication.
This is a winning first-person narration and touches on “remote colonization” like “The Baker of Mars,” but more convincingly and handles the “is it human or Memorex?” quandary of “Shikasta” in a far superior way… at first. But then the story reaches a very mild and trivially solved crisis point, makes a little speech, and just stops. “That’s it?” is never a good reaction on turning the page and not finding any more story.
“Shikasta” by Vandana Singh
A handful of good people (one of whom has been killed by bad people) did or do work on a crowd-funded starship mission to send an AI to the eponymous system where it interacts with a variation on the Horta of Star Trek‘s “The Devil in the Dark”—this one is a sort of magnetic wind creature.
This radically over-long, dull, and implausible story is inelegantly exposed and is the worst sort of clumsy combo of “the Two Cultures” with a lot of subjective navel-gazing combined with hard SF infodumps. Also, speaking of two cultures, if this were written in the same way by a Westerner about Eastern cultures, it would be roundly condemned. All that said, it’s in a “year’s best” so I may well be in the minority here.
Edit (2018-05-26): rearranged and added to the bibliographical information.