Review: Science Fiction by Scientists, edited by Michael Brotherton


Science Fiction by Scientists, edited by Michael Brotherton
Tradepaper: Springer, 978-3-319-41101-9, $19.99, 214pp, January 2017 [1]

  • “Down and Out” by Ken Wharton
  • “The Tree of Life” by Jennifer Rohn
  • “Supernova Rhythm” by Andrew Fraknoi
  • “Turing de Force” by Edward M. Lerner
  • “Neural Alchemist” by Tedd Roberts
  • “Hidden Variables” by Jed Brody
  • “Upside the Head” by Marissa Lingen
  • “Betelgeuse” by J. Craig Wheeler
  • “Sticks and Stones” by Stephanie Osborn
  • “One for the Conspiracy Theorists” by Jon Richards
  • “The Schroedinger Brat Paradox” by Carl(ton) Frederick
  • “Fixer Upper” by Eric Choi
  • “Spreading the Seed” by Les Johnson
  • “The Gatherer of Sorrows” by J. M. Sidorova

In Science Fiction by Scientists, Mike Brotherton presents us with fourteen stories focused on science and scientific ideas written by “a new generation of twenty-first century scientist science fiction writers.” Even so, there is a zombie tale and a surrealist meltdown and other things you might not expect, though most do hew to more usual biology and physics and other disciplines and all have some sort of scientific basis underlying even the strangest things. In terms of mood, there are several dour, depressing stories, though fewer than most anthologies contain and there are a few upbeat, expansive tales, but I personally would have liked to see more of the latter. In terms of ideas, there is quite a bit of variety—epigenetics and quantum mechanics appear a couple of times and two stories are set on the International Space Station, but the stories in each pair are quite different from each other and I noticed no similar elements featured more than twice. As someone who loves idea-centered no-foolin’ science fiction, I enjoyed it, though not as much as I’d hoped. It opens and closes with two strong tales and, while nothing in between quite rises to excellence, only a couple struck me as full misses. However, I have to admit that many of the stories are weak on fictional values, mostly in the stereotypical ways that hard SF stories are perceived to be weak and people who aren’t especially hard SF fans are, alas, unlikely to be converted, unless by the two bookend stories. It genuinely is packed with ideas, though, and almost all the non-fiction essays (which are mostly about the science behind the stories) add substantial value themselves.

Down and Out” by Ken Wharton

Ogby lives with her fellow Rygors in a strange universe in which a core of ice is surrounded by an ocean, which is surrounded by a sphere of rock. She has been melting her way below the surface in an effort to learn more about her world. However, the action is above, where more fascinating discoveries are being made as other scientists drill and blast into the rock up there. She has a deathly fear of heights, as she could get swept away by the currents when her bladders don’t provide the weight that normally keeps her safe on the surface. Indeed, this fear is so profound she can’t overcome it—she panics and basically locks up and is carted back down. After a period of depression, she again tackles her own research when she realizes that the other team had been using the new-fangled explosives to blast and that she could apply that to her own work to speed things up. She takes her underwater vehicle to explore the effects and breaks through the ice into an amazing and strange place never imagined but also a place that is uninhabitable. With her ship damaged, she desperately needs to survive and desperately needs to communicate her civilization-changing discoveries. The climax hinges on whether she can do either and there’s yet another discovery (for the reader) in store.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner. I hope the synopsis above is at least a little intriguing—in the immediate post-read excitement, I tried to describe the story verbally and off the cuff to someone and didn’t seem to do a very good job. Indeed, the above is just a plot synopsis. From it, I hope you can see that there’s a genuine character with psychological and world-view issues and a genuine plot, and that this is well-constructed fiction. But this leaves out all the wonderful details of the creatures “chroming” and “soning” their communications, having a time system based on the oddly regular flexing of their world, the “airlabs” of carbon dioxide they build, the methane rains, the creatures’ logically sound arguments leading to false conclusions because of their bases in false premises (a favorite motif in much SF), and the whole process of disorientation and discovery in the story. My only criticism is one of two contradictory parts: I thought I knew what was going on very soon and I suspect most people would figure it out decisively. So it may be too hard to guess with certainty but too easy to suspect accurately, or too hard for some and too easy for others. Indeed, knowing the ending made it difficult to write the synopsis without feeling like I was spoiling it. Still, the author holds one little tidbit in reserve and, while it doesn’t change anything we’ve learned, it makes it more precise in a wonderful way. I recommend this generally, but if you love the alien perspectives sometimes found in Hal Clement’s work or the weird underwater milieus and aliens sometimes found in Robert L. Forward’s or James Cambias’ work, or the tales of under-equipped young aliens discovering the nature of their worlds as in Greg Egan’s Incandescence, then you should especially enjoy this.

The Tree of Life” by Jennifer Rohn

A virologist is working on a project for NASA to create insta-terraforming bugs (sort of) as an escape from her dull job of making super apples when the aliens come to erase all terrestrial life and take all our stuff. One alien takes a liking to her and keeps her alive for awhile to talk genetics. Meanwhile, she works feverishly to combine her two projects to try to do an evolutionary end-run around the aliens. Will she succeed? And do we care? This does a good job on the science side in terms of making it interesting and has some decent descriptions of lab work but really doesn’t work as fiction as it is so unlikely and contrived and there is almost zero emotional authenticity to this traumatic apocalypse. (Our protagonist is extremely resilient.) And, succeed or fail, could her efforts possibly make up for what has happened? And how can she possibly see her alien as “a friend of sorts”? Some nice ideas, though—a shame a better story couldn’t have been woven around them.

Supernova Rhythm” by Andrew Fraknoi

Eve is a graduate student astronomer who discovers an odd frequency and pattern to the supernovae in NGC 6946 and comes to an even odder conclusion which she shares with her supervisor.

It would be apt if this were a piece of “flash” fiction but it is (barely) longer than most of those. It contains a couple of infelicities. First, given an anthology of this type, I was really hoping to not read any present tense stories. Even if I liked present tense stories (which I don’t, as such), they are usually used to convey a sort of fairy tale effect or a pseudo-immediacy or perhaps any number of other things but, here, it has the effect of someone selling product on commercial television: “The graphs display instantly. It fits!” (And slices and dices! Act now!) Second, one could probably forgive avoiding an “as you know, Bob” with an infodump but to combine them is a bit much. The following is the student speaking to the supervisor and the narrator breaking in a clause too late:

“I have a galaxy whose supernova rate has been, well…unbelievably high. And, surprisingly, they are almost all Type Ia supernovae, which are only supposed to be a fifth of the total.”

Of the main kinds of exploding stars, Type Ia’s tend to be more rare….

(I do like the way she avoids saying the rate is “astronomical,” though.) Finally, the central idea is a humdinger but it seems our characters (or at least the supervisor) should probably assume a different cause—it’s difficult to specify why without spoiling, but, basically—because of general scientific principles and examples like ocean waves having a (relatively simple) rhythm and similar phenomena. Finally, there’s not much story here, flash or no. Still, while only the most “science over fiction” SF fan would likely enjoy this, I sort of did.

Turing de Force” by Edward M. Lerner

A couple of AIs (who have no recollection of their origins) arrive in the solar system, drawn here by its “modulated electromagnetic energy,” as part of their search for intelligence and proceed to apply their Turing test on the denizens of the internet.

This story examines human intelligence (or lack thereof) and examines the Turing test from the perspective of AIs. There are minor problems (and lesser ones not worth detailing): given the aliens’ bias toward assuming intelligence can’t reside in protoplasm, the looser AI sure does leap to the possibility of human intelligence and the stiffer one grasps his implication too easily. More importantly, this sort of thing has been done a lot and just isn’t interesting (there are no real traumatic stakes to the story and four of its eleven pages are devoted to eight conversations between the AI and “intelligence candidates” on the internet) and the afterword, while not exactly scintillating itself, is much more interesting, raising issues regarding Winograd schemas and volition, that aren’t even addressed in this story whose point is simply “the Turing test is non-optimal.”

Neural Alchemist” by Tedd Roberts

Professor John Wissen has been playing around with a special strain of stem cell derivates when he dies in a car crash. Then he returns to life and tries to figure out what happened. Thus the scientific zombie apocalypse begins.

This is an odd story: points for following Jack Williamson’s lycanthropes but deductions for doing it here and in this way. The afterword talks about SF being a means for scientists to “inspire our successors” but I sure hope no one is inspired to try to make zombies. This is more a There Are Things Man Was Not Meant to Know story which is the antithesis of the scientific attitude. Still, fictionally, it ends with a kind of inadvertently comical bit of melodrama which oddly repeats the opening and some people who aren’t into the details of university science may not always be on the edge of their seats, and the fact that this was a “challenge” story often shows, but it’s at least ingenious and pretty fair fare.

Hidden Variables” by Jed Brody

A couple of twins get together for their 33rd birthday and one has had a poem materialize under a teapot and has previously found the “hidden local variables” which makes her omniscient after a fashion. They do a dual QM infodump. Then they transmogrify and fight and then the universe goes all swirly for one of them.

Yep. A quantum physics “story” (which is to say, actually, a fable of pions). The day QM builds me a faster-than-light spaceship, I’ll be interested. Until then, I’ll stick to more sensible physics. But, on the fiction, I suppose if a surreal QM dialog floats your boat, this may be entertaining; if not, then definitely not.

Upside the Head” by Marissa Lingen

Via her journal, we meet Catherine Huang and learn that she is a doctor working on a trial of “ARF” (amygdala regrowth factor) which involves a bunch of hockey players with head trauma. A hockey team is funding her for the PR, which leads to the need for diplomacy, which is not Huang’s strong suit. More importantly, this drug may cause side effects.

This story suffers from a Yoda opening—backwards the introduced elements are—so that it’s confusing and off-putting for the first few paragraphs, but it quickly sorts itself out and becomes quite interesting in a low-key way. Perhaps because it feels like a “Flowers for Algernon” setting and has some of its material, I felt rather underwhelmed after I’d finished it, though. But I think that would be the case even without comparisons. Still, a decent read.

Betelgeuse” by J. Craig Wheeler

Two AIs happen to meet near Betelgeuse and hang out, having conversations. One is to study Betelgeuse’s evolution and its approaching supernova. The other has wandered around various places looking for life. As they converse, they get to be quite companionable and make some discoveries but all good things…

This dialog (basically) could definitely use more action and some of its coolest stuff is just a bit of background tossed off in a phrase. If you, like me, are fascinated by all things astronomical and stellar evolutionary this may just hold your interest, but only barely and, otherwise, probably won’t at all.

Sticks and Stones” by Stephanie Osborn

One fine day on the ISS, a crew member gets sick. Steps are taken to get her home, both for her own sake and for the safety of the crew at risk from contamination. However, another crew member also gets sick, in an even more dangerous way. Part of the problem is that she can’t get home (as the experiment to resist or reverse bone loss doesn’t work at all according to plan) and another part is that no one realizes quite how sick she is.

Although it doesn’t apply in a space station, the line “In space, no one can hear you scream,” kept coming to mind. The author describes this as an SF mystery but it’s actually closer to a horror story. The author is also at pains to point out that this story is not an indictment of NASA and that she’s also a very pro-space person. Be that as it may, this is not at all a pro-space story. Leaving aside the ending, while biological processes such as defecation and vomiting are a part of life and can be legitimately dealt with in fiction, especially in a space story, doing so without repelling most readers demands the writer be at the top of her game and I don’t feel like this effort got away with it. More significantly, the structure turns out to be a purposeful arrangement of a couple of timelines indicated by the elaborate section headers but it isn’t immediately apparent in the course of reading: the story doesn’t seem to flow but seems to be just a pile of blocks.

One for the Conspiracy Theorists” by Jon Richards

A scientist at the SETI Institute is searching for signals all by his lonesome and gets very industrious about it and eventually discovers what he thinks could be a signal but isn’t sure and isn’t sure what to do about it.

When the science afterword is fairly bland, undramatic and virtually indistinguishable from the “story,” then there is a problem. This was mildly interesting, as is SETI, but other than being a little more descriptive and describing a fictional dilemma, this is basically an essay followed by an essay.

The Schroedinger Brat Paradox” by Carl(ton) Frederick

A psychiatrist calls in a quantum physicist for help with a patient who doesn’t seem to be a classic schizophrenic or dissociative identity disorder patient. At a loss for explanations, she wonders if the boy’s conversations and voices relate to bleed-through from the other worlds of the “many worlds” interpretation of QM. Despite her far-fetched notions, the scientist gets an idea about testing his own theory. When the test goes a bit askew, it leads to an extremely vivid test of the theory’s correctness or incorrectness and includes an extra final twist.

I’ve already said how I feel about QM so this story didn’t work for me, but it did have interesting ideas portrayed in a dramatically effective (and non-surreal) way with a genuinely creepy segment so may well work for QM-SF fans. And bonus points to the author(s) for the explanation of the byline.

Fixer Upper” by Eric Choi

An American who had previously served on the International Space Station and a Chinese commander (later joined for a time by three more Chinese) work to repair and reactivate an abandoned ISS in the vicinity of 2030. A Chinese corporation run by a weird guy has big plans for it. The commander stays behind while the American takes the last ride back and observes the events.

This story could use more drama through its bulk and it wouldn’t have hurt if its ending was less predictable (but this was telegraphed more than once, so suspense doesn’t appear to have been the objective) but this was an interesting story, realistically described and got in a plug for duct tape (alas, no WD40 appears to have been used in the making of this story). By depicting an active and extroverted (if slightly wacky and derivative) China and a backwards US, this paints an unpleasantly (from a North American POV) plausible picture of the future.

Spreading the Seed” by Les Johnson

Any story that begins with one character saying, “We’re actually going to the stars,” and another character replying, “About damn time,” already has a leg up with me. Akhil and his friend begin talking about why they’re going and what it all means. After that conversation, he also gets together with his wife but they mostly listen to a government spokesperson and we learn that, while we don’t know the precise nature of the distant world we’re going to, we have evidence from a nearer world that a sentient, technical civilization had existed there prior to destroying itself or being destroyed by others. And this is only part of the information.

Unfortunately, from the synopsis, it’s clear that this isn’t a narration of action, but is a lot of talking. I’m not sure that the master, Asimov, wasn’t almost sui generis (at least among non-playwrights) in consistently being able to succeed at wresting high drama from dialog. This does a decent job of painting an interesting scenario but it needs action. On minor aspects, it depicts a society with the usual “rejuve” and “contract marriages” and so on. On major aspects, the destroyed civilization (and why it’s in the story) is also fairly commonplace. But the exoplanet search (ongoing) and the depiction of a nifty method of interstellar travel (maybe someday?) are fresher and fun. There is also a pointed moral, indicated by the title. How you feel about that may depend on how much you agree with it. So, again, partly well-suited for me and perhaps others but probably insufficient for many.

The Gatherer of Sorrows” by J. M. Sidorova

In a rather confusing opening, an elderly teacher is hauled off from class to appear before a billionaire. Via their emotionally loaded and mostly dramatically effective conversation and her flashbacks, we gradually learn how she, as a young scientist, was able to secure funding from a pair of billionaire twins to test her disconcertingly Lamarckian-flavored ideas (which apparently have some basis in current biological science?). The basic idea is that, in addition to random mutations over generations, non-coding RNA can “pick up” life experiences and rewrite a person’s own DNA which will directly affect their offspring. Isolating and reproducing “life-is-bad” and “life-is-good” elements is a knowledge win in itself but could also be used to engineer offspring. Which is what it turns out one of the twins may have done with the scientist/teacher’s egg, producing the current billionaire she’s trying to deal with—trying to restrain Caligula, basically.

This is another dialog/reverie story but, as I indicated, the intensity of the dialog works fairly well and the reverie does involve scientific, family, and social conspiracies which can have species-wide implications (with an interesting variation on the “money is speech” theme). Perhaps the only real flaw is that the teacher discovers a critical piece of information which, as far as I can tell, she explains with only “I started to suspect it was earlier than that” and I’m not clear what prompted her suspicion. This (familial biology story) isn’t quite my cup of tea and genuinely doesn’t seem quite as strong as “Down and Out” but is nearly so; this anthology opens and closes well.

[1] This is a reformatted, but otherwise unchanged, reprint of a review which originally appeared at Tangent Online on December 22, 2016. Even though it’s not very good and too long (partly because I had to review every story), I’m reprinting it because it’s one of three “science fiction by scientists” anthologies I’ve reviewed (with one more to go) and I want them all to be available here. (The other two are Great Science Fiction by Scientists, edited by Groff Conklin and The Expert Dreamers, edited by Frederik Pohl.) I should also point out that the ISFDB lists this as having been published November 2016 which is probably actually correct but it was dated January 2017.

Review: Avengers of the Moon by Allen Steele

Avengers of the Moon by Allen Steele
Hardcover: Tor, 978-0-7653-8218-4, $26.99, 300pp, April 2017
Tradepaper: Tor, 978-0-7653-8219-1, $16.99, 300pp, April 2018?

Avengers of the Moon is Allen Steele’s authorized addition to the Captain Future tales, the originals of which were a pulp series almost entirely written by Edmond Hamilton, often under the “house name” Brett Sterling, which is to say that these were mass-produced adventures for mostly young readers with no pretensions to art or scientific rigor. That said, I’ve read one of the novels (plus a novelette) and, compared to expectations, found them to be surprisingly skillfully crafted, imaginative, and entertaining works which were enjoyable in their context.

This version is “an effort to bring Captain Future into the twenty-first century for a new generation of readers.” [1] Unfortunately, as I indicated, I’m no expert on the full history of Captain Future and his Futuremen or on the nature of the changes. I can tell that the story is set in the twenty-fourth century, and the busy solar system is preserved by having Mars undergo terraforming while it and other worlds are populated with a mix of baseline humans (who must wear protective gear) and bioengineered humans. While older SF had several examples of competent women, I suspect that the degree to which Joan Randall is made a competent police officer may also be a tweak. However, certain things are unchanged or emphasized the other way: the plot is a melodramatic thriller and the villains are as black-hatted as any.

As related in the second section of the novel, twenty years before its main action, the parents of Curt Newton got involved with a businessman named Victor Corvo. They wanted to create androids and he wanted an army of slaves. When they discovered their goals weren’t compatible, the parents went into hiding along with their infant son, Curt Newton, and their aged mentor, Simon Wright, and the businessman started hunting them. Arriving at the moon, Wright died but his brain was preserved in a drone’s “body” while the android that had been intended to receive his brain developed a mind of its own and acquired the name Otho. Meanwhile, impressed by the oddly intelligent robot, Grag, they acquired it. Corvo found them and killed the parents and believed he’d wiped out their base on the moon but the three strange entities survived to raise Curt Newton. Newton’s mission in life, as designed by Wright and initially unknown to Newton, is to avenge his parents’ murders by dealing with Corvo. The story opens with Curt and Otho making a rare excursion from their hidden base where Curt first lays eyes on Corvo, who has since become a Senator of the Solar Coalition and is hosting the President, and Newton is later told his true backstory. Curt resolves to continue on his life’s journey so makes his plans and, with the help of Grag and the others, sneaks into Corvo’s compound on the moon to assassinate him. However, it turns out that there is a bigger plot afoot which leads to yet a bigger plot and then an even larger scale, without ever losing sight of Newton and Corvo. All this is complicated and modified by Newton’s meeting Joan Randall (at the same event in which he saw Corvo) and their subsequent, usually strained and awkward, interactions. Without giving anything away, there is much derring-do, lots of neat gizmos, overheard conversations, fights, a cult, and a suitably climactic climax.

The conflict, plot, and edifying message are in keeping with Captain Future and, if it’s not already obvious, this makes Captain Future somewhat resistant to being molded into something suitable for the twenty-first century and a new generation of readers if those readers aren’t going to respond to the originals anyway. The discomfort Newton incessantly has with the name “Captain Future” reads like a “signal from Fred” [2] and, I think, is an example of what has the novel fall between two stools, neither able to distance itself from the originals sufficiently to be “modern” (as Steele did in his original metafictional take in the novella “The Death of Captain Future,” which he himself calls “satirical”) nor able to embrace it fully to attain the full innocent joy it might. Also, I prefer science fiction which moves forward and am tired of “origin stories” and prequels, especially ones that are as Batman-like in backstory and as Bond-like in execution (Newton at one point even calls himself “Newton. Curt Newton”). [3] Further, the origin story slows the opening portions of the book, not just in the flashback section but in all the exposition necessary early on. Finally, the aspects of one rescue in space and of the conclusion aren’t the logically tightest. All that said, while I have to give this a mixed review, I really did enjoy it despite its difficulties. One might wonder why, in this context, Newton is the “leader,” especially as he’s not always as competent as one would like (and in at least one part with the Martian woman, N’Rala, is downright stupid) but he does win the reader’s sympathy. Joan is also attractive, the Futuremen trade some of their simple charms for more complex ones, and the tale, however familiar, grows to be fun and exciting. Basically, I’d only warn off people looking for a pure masterpiece or for whom this just doesn’t sound interesting on the face of it, or for whom any tweak to the beloved original would offend them. If you’re unfamiliar with the originals and this sounds like fun to you or you’re a fan of Captain Future who doesn’t mind some modest, mostly technological, tweaks, you will probably enjoy this. [4]

[1] This is quoted from Steele’s “Afterword” on page 297, in which he relates his first experience with Captain Future, some of his subsequent writing on the subject, and his research and approach to this book.

As far as references within the book, this is as good a place as any to mention some I recall: Obviously, Burroughs’ fiction is explicitly referenced, Leigh Brackett (the great SF writer and wife of Captain Future’s creator) is eloquently honored in a ship name, and Wells appears as the name of a city (or something like). “The Search for the Magician” may be a nod to Asimov’s “The Search for the Mule” (though it may be to any number of searches). And the section title “Fire on the Mountain,” being familiar with Steele, is likely a direct reference to the Grateful Dead.

[2] According to the Turkey City [writer’s workshop] Lexicon, edited by Lewis Shiner and Bruce Sterling, a “signal from Fred” was coined by Damon Knight and is “[a] comic form of the ‘Dischism’ in which the author’s subconscious, alarmed by the poor quality of the work, makes unwitting critical comments: ‘This doesn’t make sense.’ ‘This is really boring.’ ‘This sounds like a bad movie.'”

[3] Another thing this book reminds me of is the series of Digby Allen juvenile/YA space adventures written by Joseph Greene at the turn of the 1960s (not to be confused with the Joseph Green of the Conscience Interplanetary tales at the turn of the 1970s). The original Captain Future tales seemed to me to have a more freelance sort of mentality while equally red-haired and young Dig Allen would seem more at home in this world of prominently featured hierarchical organizations such as the Interplanetary Police Force and Solar Coalition Guard.

[4] While the book is suitable for all ages, I think any young people who aren’t on top of the world right now might especially enjoy it.

That also makes me want to digress on part of why recent attacks on science fiction, especially classic science fiction, from people, especially privileged people (usually with college degrees and who make a reasonable to an unreasonably large amount of money, usually not doing physical labor) about science fiction being of, for, and by “the privileged” make me so angry. Science fiction has always been of, for and by the misfits, which this book does a good job of illustrating. Yes, Curt is presumably white. And an orphan growing up in isolation whose parents and friends are a brain in a box, an android, and a robot, all of whom are initially treated by others as weird or repulsive or stupid. Yet they are the heroes.