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Books
by Robert K. J. Killheffer

Old Man's War, by John Scalzi, Tor, 2005, $23.95.

Market Forces, by Richard K. Morgan, Del Rey, 2005, $14.95.

Moonstruck, by Edward M. Lerner, Baen, 2005, $24.

Paradise Passed, by Jerry Oltion, Wheatland Press, 2004, $19.95.

Natural History, by Justina Robson, Bantam Spectra, 2005, $13.

Hammered, by Elizabeth Bear, Bantam Spectra, 2005, $6.99.

Spin State, by Chris Moriarty, Bantam Spectra, 2003, $6.99.

Accelerando, by Charles Stross, Ace, 2005, $24.95.

I know I'm going to get myself in trouble with this column, but a critic should expect nothing less for speaking his mind.

I've been reading a ton of sf lately—more than usual, even—and the suspicion has fallen on me that the most interesting, provocative, forward-looking, and just plain satisfying novels have been coming from our British cousins rather than home-grown American talent. This is not to say that U.S. writers have put out nothing impressive (Tony Daniel, Kage Baker, and Scott Westerfeld spring immediately to mind), but a short list of the novels that have hit me hardest over the past couple of years skews distinctly toward the Britons: M. John Harrison's Light and Geoff Ryman's Air; Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross; books by Alastair Reynolds, Richard K. Morgan, and Ken MacLeod.…

Against those we have John Varley's new woolly mammoth time-travel caper, Ben Bova's unending astronomical encyclopedia in pulp clothing, the usual raft of space war sagas, and cyberpunk knockoffs. Even Joe Haldeman's latest, Camouflage, while expertly crafted and compelling, struck me as oddly empty inside.

I don't particularly enjoy playing us-against-them, and I certainly don't want to draw broad conclusions from a decidedly unscientific sampling. But I think my recent disenchantment with U.S. sf is more than a blip—I think it's due to some tangible trends at work over here, a genuine shift in what U.S. writers are writing (or what U.S. publishers are publishing), perhaps simply one of those occasional gaps in the up-and-coming talent stream. It's a suspicion at least worth putting to the test.

HEINLEIN'S GHOST

The longer Robert Heinlein stays dead, the more influence he seems to exert on U.S. sf writers. Case in point: Old Man's War, a debut novel by blogger John Scalzi. Old Man's War doesn't ape the later, hyper-didactic Heinlein, nor even the Heinlein of Stranger in a Strange Land or The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Like most Heinlein imitations, it invokes the spirit of 1950s Heinlein—the writer of those beloved juvenile novels, and most especially, Starship Troopers.

Scalzi does a solid job of conjuring that ghost with a tale of unrelenting interstellar, interspecies warfare. Elderly widower John Perry follows in the steps of thousands of Earth's senior citizens, joining the Colonial Defense Forces on a ten-year enlistment in exchange for a fresh new body, and after a brief interlude of frolic with his fellow recruits, Perry plunges into the ferocity and carnage of humanity's neverending battle for galactic living space. Scalzi's straightforward, muscular prose and tightly focused pacing yield an undeniable page-turner, but it amounts to little more than a fix for the Heinlein junkie. (Indeed, Scalzi has made it clear that he wasn't aiming any higher: "I wrote Old Man's War as military sf becase that's what I saw selling," he wrote recently on his blog.) He presents his grim Campbellian vision with little commentary, overt or implied. Perry experiences a token moment of doubt ("I'm a monster.… We're all fucking inhuman monsters, and we don't see a damned thing wrong with it."), but his comrades dismiss it breezily as a predictable phase. And we hear no more of that. If Old Man's War is today's answer to The Forever War, it suggests a creeping superficiality in U.S. science fiction—the triumph of nostalgia and pastiche over fresh invention.

By contrast, consider U.K. author Richard K. Morgan's most recent, Market Forces. It's not his best—it lacks the dense and evocative background of his Takeshi Kovacs books, and Morgan is not as sure-handed with near-future situations and characters—but it takes chances and largely succeeds. The new novel marries the projectio ad absurdum of Rollerball and Death Race 2000 to a trenchant critique of predatory capital and free market social Darwinism to produce a future in which competition for executive positions takes the form of vehicular combat. "Come in with blood on your wheels, or don't come in at all." Investment samurai Chris Faulkner has risen from the cordoned city zones, where the poor wage their own brand of lethal competition, to become a star in the Emerging Markets sector, and now he's taking the next step, joining the Conflict Investment division of one of the most successful and ruthless companies in the world.

Conflict investment is exactly what it sounds like: Deploying capital for profit in the many small wars that simmer around the globe. "All over the world, men and women still find causes worth killing and dying for. And who are we to argue with them?" declaims the head of Chris's department. "At Shorn Conflict Investment, we are concerned with only two things. Will they win? And will it pay?" As the taped conversations of Enron traders have shown, such gleefully amoral rhetoric doesn't stretch the realities of today's corporate boardrooms very far. But with the freeway duels and other executive violence, Morgan renders the savagery at the heart of the globalized corporate system almost ludicrously literal, and this brand of satire requires a very delicate touch. At first, Morgan's steering is a little unsteady, but a few chapters in, he's hooked us and overcome any resistance to his outlandish premise. The violent action sequences keep the critique from becoming preachy, and Morgan has the necessary will to follow the brutal logic of his story to a suitably grim conclusion. Market Forces has all the narrative drive of Old Man's War, but it's also got some vital ideas revving its engine, a purpose beyond mere diversion.

FEAR OF A NEW FUTURE

The nostalgic impulse in U.S. science fiction runs far deeper than the Heinlein imitation on display in Old Man's War. Indeed, while channeling the spirit of the Master, Scalzi clothes his tale in today's fashions—from the weapons his soldiers use to the ships in which they travel, the process whereby they're shifted into new bodies, and the physics underlying faster-than-light travel, Scalzi draws on up-to-date concepts and language that lend his novel a twenty-first-century air. He recycles the themes and outlook of vintage Heinlein, but at least provides the old wine a new bottle.

Edward M. Lerner's second novel, Moonstruck, carries the retro urge much further. If it weren't for some nanotechnology coming into play toward the end, the text might well have been pulled straight from the pages of a second-tier 1950s digest. The alien F'thk land in Washington, D.C., bringing greetings and possible admittance to the Galactic Commonwealth. But all is not as it seems. As the F'thk make their way around the globe, carrying their message to every nation and handing out souvenir crystal orbs ("symbol of galactic unity") to heads of state and everyday citizens alike, only presidential science advisor Kyle Gustafson and junior diplomat Darlene Lyons seem to doubt the aliens' story. Suspicions grow when something starts killing spy satellites; and then another, much different looking alien crash-lands in a small escape pod, telling an entirely different story. But is this one the truth, or another piece of an elaborate alien deception?

Lerner's yarn (serialized in Analog) has some of the charm of the old-fashioned sf it resembles, but it also sports many of its flaws. The thresholds of plausibility and verisimilitude are very low. The aliens, while physically quite inhuman, think and behave much like us. Their ship lowers a simple ramp to the ground after it lands, like something out of The Day the Earth Stood Still. The political milieu of Washington is sketched in like a cheap painted backdrop. Lerner even treats us to a dish of smeerped rabbit: "Her nurse," recalls the defecting alien, "taught that when life gives you a kwelth, you make kwelther stew with it." If Lerner means to play any of this for camp or ironic postmodern value, he gives no sign of it. Moonstruck is just what it appears to be: A wholehearted leap backward, a repudiation of everything that has happened in sf (and the world) in the past forty years.

Lerner provides a clue to the deeper roots of this nostalgic retreat in the character of Gustafson. In the first scene he's reminiscing about the Apollo 11 Moon landing, and determined to bring the space program back to that glorious height: "Someday, he told himself, he would make it happen." That dream seems to animate much of the backward-looking sf produced in the U.S. (see John Varley's Red Thunder, et al.), and functions almost as shorthand for the (somewhat imaginary) good old days of relentless optimism and boundless opportunity. Perhaps we don't see this sort of nostalgic sf from U.K. writers because the U.K. did not share the U.S. postwar experience. While the U.S. was building a global empire, the U.K. endured the final loss of its own. They didn't land on the moon. They had a foundation of different literary traditions, more Wells than Gernsback, and the sf "golden age" of the '40s and '50s weighs less heavily on the other side of the ocean.

U.S. writer Jerry Oltion's latest, Paradise Passed, isn't so relentlessly retro as Moonstruck, but it displays a similar resistance to grounding its story in the kind of sophisticated imaginative framework we've come to expect in the best sf. Oltion uses a plausible design for the generation ship by which his characters reach the Alpha Centauri system, but that's about his only gesture toward believability. The space colonists might have been lifted from a mall in Anywhere, USA, with names like Ryan and Holly and Bob and Kristy and wholesome personalities to match (one of the older ladies on the ship—no joke—bakes snickerdoodles1), and Oltion makes no attempt to project a future path that could have led to the launching of this ship. Aside from a brief mention of the lone visionary who led the effort to construct the orbital colony from which the ship set off, we've got no clue how things went from today's dying space program to an interstellar colonization effort. That wouldn't be such a problem if the characters, culture, and technology aboard the ship were stranger, more convincingly futuristic, but as it stands it's impossible to imagine how these people would ever be chosen for such a difficult, delicate, and very possibly suicidal mission, or why the world they came from would choose to mount it.

This isn't to say that Paradise Passed offers nothing of interest. Oltion skimps on the surrounding details, but if you can get past that, you find a refreshingly gentle-minded consideration of the morality of colonization, the religious impulse, and the pitfalls of human nature. The stress and uncertainty of the voyage lead some of the crew into a religious revival that is only strengthened when they arrive at an almost incredibly Earthlike planet. But it's already home to a species with incipient human-like intelligence—about where our hominid ancestors were before the domestication of fire—and some of the colonists feel strongly that, no matter how attractive the planet, they should not interfere with the natural evolution of these aliens by settling there. Oltion's attention to the moral dimensions of human expansion into space comes as a welcome relief. It's nice to see that not all the nostalgically tinged U.S. sf gravitates inevitably toward the tooth-and-claw school.

The contrast with Natural History, the third novel from the U.K.'s Justina Robson, could hardly be sharper. Robson's future teems with strangeness, most notably in the shape of the "Forged," creatures designed and grown as composites of human, animal, and machine parts, engineered specifically for environments and tasks that "unevolved" humans could not endure or accomplish—the huge Gaiaforms, built to terraform other planetary bodies; the Ironhorses, freighters plying the space between worlds; others to work the deep seas or the asteroids; and the Voyagers, made for the slow and lonely journey to other star systems in search of alien life or Earthlike planets. Created essentially as servants of the unevolved, the Forged have grown weary of subservience to the "Monkeys," and an uneasy coexistence reigns, with many Forged campaigning for full independence.

Thus when Voyager Isol discovers not only a new planetary system but also a piece of alien technology that will become whatever its possessor wishes—for her, a faster-than-light drive so she can return immediately home—she sees it as the best chance for the Forged, a place to go and the means to get there. But the unevolved insist on sending one of their own to check on Isol's claims, so cultural archaeologist Zephyr Duquesne ventures with Isol to the new system, while other rebellious Forged experiment with the alien substance and plot escape no matter what verdict Zephyr brings back. The alien tech, however, seems to be exerting some strange influences on those who use it, and it may have a hidden cost that the Forged have not foreseen.

Robson's future is the kind you can sink into like a bath, full of allusions and details that suggest a vast, coherent history and culture of which only pieces come clear for the reader. And that future, for all its conflicts, has a captivating beauty to it, the kind of beauty we find in our own imperfect world. It feels a bit churlish, therefore, to complain about "mere" beauty, but if Natural History and other such far-future sf (by Britons or Americans) has a significant flaw, it's that venturing so far from today becomes another means of avoiding the difficulties of projecting credible, equally detailed futures from our immediate circumstances. Far-future sf serves as a platform for grand inventive spectacle, and the best of it produces a fully gratifying artistic experience, but it still leaves me yearning for what's untold, a connection to the present, the course of history that got us from here to there.

THE BURDEN OF INFLUENCE

Hammered, the first novel by U.S. writer Elizabeth Bear, escapes neither to the past nor the far future, but constructs its world of the 2060s from the raw material of the present. Former special forces soldier Jenny Casey carries the mental and physical scars of battle, including a prosthetic left arm and a deep resentment toward the government she once served. She hides from her past in one of the bleaker neighborhoods of Hartford, Connecticut, consorting with big- and small-time gangsters but largely keeping to herself. Her government hasn't forgotten her, though, and they have discovered something very interesting on Mars—an alien spaceship with an intact stardrive. With her unique neural modifications, Casey may be the only person who they can use to fly the thing, and they're not going to take no for an answer.

Bear's twenty-first century has some intriguing features drawn from ongoing events: The world, and human efforts in space, are no longer dominated by the United States, which has folded in on itself under a Christian Fundamentalist regime (it's a little frightening how plausible such a development has come to seem). China and (surprisingly) Canada compete most actively on the high frontier, and intervene aggressively in the world's trouble spots. Climate change has brought destruction to various parts of the globe. But in most respects her future looks like something we've seen many times before: desperate and violent urban centers, artificial intelligences emerging in the net, virtual reconstructions of famous personalities, neural augmentation, nanotech surgical bots. Bear devotes admirable attention to the physical and mental challenges that radical augmentation would likely entail, and Hammered certainly establishes Bear as a writer with intriguing potential, but she'll need to develop a more distinctive vision if she's going to claim a spot in the upper ranks.

In Spin State (originally published in trade paperback in 2003, and a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award), debut U.S. author Chris Moriarty draws on many of the same near-clichés, but she makes better use of them with a richer atmosphere and a more complex social and political framework. Catherine Li was once the adopted daughter of a poor miner on Compson's World, the source of the mysterious Bose-Einstein condensate that makes faster-than-light communications and travel possible among the United Nations-controlled worlds. She escaped the grim prospect of miner life by joining the U.N. Peacekeeping forces, but the suspicious death of near-legendary physicist Hannah Sharifi in the mines gets Li sent back to her homeworld, where she's expected to discover what happened to Sharifi while navigating the quagmire of tensions between the miners, the U.N. administrators, and the genetically engineered agents of the Syndicates, chief rivals of the U.N.

Like Bear, Moriarty focuses attention on the costs and consequences of advanced technologies on the human body, mind, and society. FTL travel erodes long-term memory, U.N. regulations limit the rights of citizens with too much genetic modification (Li has to conceal her own origins as a construct in order to keep her U.N. job), and the process of interfacing directly with a powerful AI nearly kills Li before they figure out how to modulate the neural overload. The traditional human vices of greed and powerlust continue to drive the engine of politics, and the U.N. will do anything to maintain its exclusive hold on the Bose-Einstein condensate mines. Spin State presents a gritty and convincing future with credible roots in the soil of our present. But Moriarty packs too much into the story. The plot and the future world sometimes grow murky behind so many different threads—Li's secret past, Sharifi's mysterious research, the motives of Li's U.N. commander, Li's relationship with the AI known as Cohen, her scattered memories, the truth behind her father's death, a miners' strike, the secret nature of the Bose-Einstein condensates themselves. Somehow it's all a bit too much, so many balls in the air that the juggler's skill itself becomes obscured. Nevertheless, Spin State is the most impressive U.S. debut I've seen in several years, ambitious and full of inventive energy.

For the whole package, though, the full sf monty, you need to look to the U.K.'s Charles Stross and his latest novel, Accelerando. It's a kind of fix-up—all nine chapters appeared as stories in Asimov's between 2001 and 2004—but it's Stross's best work to date. His previous sf novels, Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise, were smart, well-crafted space operettas, plenty satisfying in their own right, but the scope and imaginative density of Accelerando raise the ante by an order of magnitude.

Accelerando traces the future history of the solar system through the story of twenty-first-century anarchist techno-guru Manfred Macx and his descendants, who participate in and eventually flee from the development of a runaway machine culture that undertakes to dismantle the orbital mass of the solar system—planets and all—in order to convert it to "computronium," a substance molecularly engineered for maximum computational efficiency. Stross doesn't tell this story from the kind of god's-eye, Stapledonian perspective sf frequently reserves for such grandiose developments. Instead we see it all through the eyes of the humans who remain by choice outside the increasingly alien computational civilization, and it's the future-warped worldviews of these characters—heavily influenced by the concepts behind network communications, computational theory, and reductive biology—that gives Accelerando its cortex-jangling sizzle.

Like Bruce Sterling or William Gibson at their best, Stross surfs a wave of ideas and information that seems always on the brink of collapsing into incomprehensibility, but never does—a careening plunge through strangeness in which every page contains something to mess with your head, and even familiar situations come firmly twisted. Here's Macx facing seduction by his estranged fiancée, Pam, who wants a child: "She's got the private keys to his hypothalamus…Three billion years of reproductive determinism have given her twenty-first century ideology teeth: If she's finally decided to conscript his gametes into the war against impending population crash, he'll find it hard to fight back."

Accelerando reads like this throughout, like a high-bandwidth download through a pre-Pentium processor, yielding a constant sf high. Even the smallest details can provide a jolt of cognitive dissonance, as in Macx's reaction to a wall of printed books: "Manfred looks at the ancient, low-density medium and sneezes, momentarily bemused by the sight of data density measured in kilograms per megabyte rather than vice versa." This is the sort of viewpoint that makes everything seem strange, and thus Accelerando achieves an impressive level of bewildering futurity even in the sections that take place only a decade or two beyond the present.

Sf, even more than other literary workspaces, cannot afford to get mired in nostalgia and ancestor worship. The sf of earlier periods should be treasured, read and re-read for the pleasures and spirit only it provides. But we cannot recreate it, and we should not try, no matter how disappointing the developments of the past few decades might seem. It's time to let Heinlein rest, and discover our own future. So far it appears that U.K. writers come better prepared to create twenty-first-century sf. But there's no reason U.S. writers cannot do as much, if only they'll turn their gazes from the past and look to today—and tomorrow.


1 Not that I have anything against snickerdoodles, but they're about the last thing I'd expect to evoke a future of interstellar colonization.

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