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Books
by Chris Moriarty

 

Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond, edited by Bill Campbell and Edward Austin Hall, Rosarium, 2013.

Carbide Tipped Pens: Seventeen Tales of Hard Science Fiction, edited by Ben Bova and Eric Choi, Tor, 2014.

Twelve Tomorrows, MIT Technology Review SF Annual 2014, edited by Bruce Sterling, Technology Review Inc., 2014.

Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer, William Morrow, 2014.

 
THIS column is a tale of four anthologies. Three hard sf anthologies—and one anthology that I'm going to try to argue belongs in the reading pile of every serious hard sf fan. That means covering several thousand pages of fiction, none of it as deeply as I'd like. But my favorite genre has been undergoing big changes in the past few years and the time seems right for an exercise in pattern recognition.

So grab your non-linear statistical data modeling beanies and let's get going.

 

*   *   *

 

Over my years of writing, reading, and reviewing hard sf, I have learned a dirty little secret about why publishers never seem to publish nearly enough hard sf—and where to find the sf that publishers don't want to tell you about.

Almost every female hard sf writer I've ever met has been told at some point in her career that if she wants to make a living she needs to either lighten up on the science or use a pseudonym. And, sad but true, most minority sf writers have similar war stories. These backroom conversations are not initiated by racist, sexist neanderthals but by supportive and well-meaning editors and agents who want to help their favorite writers outwit "the marketing committee" and "the bookstore chains" in order to reach real live readers.

Obviously there is plenty to be said here about systemic discrimination. But most of it has been said elsewhere and much better than I can say it. My main point here is that a whole lot of hard sf gets published under the radar every year because publishers still believe that readers won't buy hard sf by women and minorities. If you want to read this "stealth hard sf" you need to do what I do when the monthly pile of review books comes in. You need to physically pick up each book by a woman or a minority, ignore the cover art and the marketing blurbs, and figure out for yourself whether it's hard sf. This process usually uncovers a significant percentage of stealth hard sf books. And they're often very good books—as evidenced by the fact that they so frequently show up on the finalist lists of juried awards.1

Mothership: Tales from Afro-Futurism and Beyond is one of those stealth hard sf books. It is a curated anthology whose mixture of original stories and lovingly selected reprints includes some of the best hard sf stories I've seen anywhere in the last few years—and several stories that I personally doubt would never have made it past the editors of most mainstream sf anthologies. If you define "important" books as those that move our genre forward by challenging the reigning groupthink and introducing new voices, then Mothership may just be one of the most important sf anthologies of the decade.

This search for new frontiers seems to be the guiding light behind every aspect of Mothership. The editors went out of their way to find new writers, and once they found them they gave them total freedom in terms of theme and genre. Both of these editorial choices represent big risks for an editor—especially in a publishing environment where it's almost impossible to sell an anthology without a Big Name Writer or a Big Sexy Theme that the marketing department can hang its hat on. But in this case those risks have paid off handsomely.2

Mothership spans a vast range of sub-genres, including fantasy and magical realism. I wish I had space to do justice to all the great non-hard sf stories in the book, including George S. Walker's "Fees des Dents" (set in a fantastic alternate Sudan where Doctors Without Borders must contend with the usual war and famine—plus attacks by tooth fairies, giants and dragons) and Chinelo Onwuala's "The Homecoming" (a razor-sharp dissection of a love triangle where the power differentials of patriarchal marriage collide with the dangerous delusions of colonial occupation).

But what really struck me about this anthology is just how many of the stories could easily have appeared in Carbide Tipped Pens or Twelve Tomorrows or Hieroglyph—or, for that matter, in any other contemporary hard sf anthology.

Jemisin's "Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows" is a brilliantly written exploration of the concept of decohering histories. "Life-pod," contributed by physics professor Vandana Singh, features the sweeping starscapes and daring cosmology that make Singh a worthy heir to Cordwainer Smith and Arthur C. Clarke. Jemison's and Singh's stories would not merely have fit into any of the hard sf anthologies reviewed in this column—they would have made them stronger as hard sf anthologies.

On the other hand, the loss of these two stories would have made Mothership a far weaker anthology. For its greatest strength is precisely that it showcases African-American and post-colonial writers writing about everything, in every genre from swashbuckling space opera to magical realism (a term I suppose I will have to live with even if I don't believe in it).

This issue of silenced and deleted voices feels particularly urgent when I look at a story like Andaiye Reeves's "Othello Pop." "Othello Pop" is a smart, angry, and devastatingly funny parody of the War on Drugs in which Reeves imagines a future where street drugs are legal in the ghetto—but possession of books with intent to distribute is a crime. This story is part of a rich African-American tradition of speculative protest literature that goes back to W. E. B. Du Bois and beyond. Yet in most sf anthologies this important strand of American literature is represented only by an echoing absence.

Of course, one could say that that's a stylistic choice. The growing preference for "well-crafted stories" that eschew political engagement for "nuance" and "well-rounded characters" is simply a sign of sf's maturing as a literary genre. The fact that this shift leaves many politically engaged African-American writers out in the cold is just an unintended side effect.

Maybe.

But there once was a fellow named George Orwell who argued pretty convincingly that art is just politics out of uniform. And it seems to me that we have reached a moment in American politics where it might make sense to reread "Politics and the English Language" in search of teachable moments.

 

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Carbide Tipped Pens is the only pure hard sf anthology in this column. It's also one of the most scientifically rigorous and intellectually cohesive anthologies I've seen in decades. Maybe this is because it grew out of a long-standing writing group. Or maybe it's just because Eric Choi and Ben Bova have a very clear idea of what they think hard sf is and where it should go.

Happily, their idea is not the old-fashioned "boys-only treehouse" idea. There are a reasonable number of stories by women here—and even the men's stories feature believable characters subject to the same work-family pressures that plague real-life scientists. Overall, the same can be said for minority voices. Not only are they well represented, but even the stories not by minorities feel as if they have undergone some kind of seismic shift. We have clearly left the era of "white men save the world with science" in the rearview mirror.

Not that I'm saying things are perfect. The mere fact that I wanted to cheer when I looked in the table of contents and saw that four out of seventeen writers were women tells you just how bad things used to be, and how low the bar still is. And I still think it's very important for anyone who cares about hard sf as a genre to question why hard sf anthologies so rarely contain stories by African-Americans. But Carbide Tipped Pens is definitely a new breed of hard sf anthology.

Okay. Enough of that. On to the stories. And the science.

Actually, there are so many great hard sf concepts in this anthology that it's difficult to decide which ones to write about. In Daniel H. Wilson's "The Blue Afternoon that Lasted Forever," micro black holes collide with parenthood in a devastatingly intense story whose action is compressed into a single fatal day. This story is a standout even in such an unusually strong anthology. It made me cry—and how many twelve-page hard sf stories that you've ever read in your life have made you cry? Like the Motown DJs used to say back in the day: "If you don't love this, there's a hole in your soul!"

Liu Cixin's "The Circle" (translated by Ken Liu) pulls off a tour de force in the only genre I like better than science fiction: math fiction. I can't even give a cursory plot summary without spoiling the punchline. But this story is so good it made me pull Liu Cixin's novel The Three-Body Problem out of the middle of my towering TBR pile and promote it to my bedside table.

Several stories in the anthology—most notably David DeGraff's "SIREN of Titan"—contain beautifully observed scenes of scientists actually engaged in the daily grind of doing science. These scenes may be the single thing I love most in hard sf. They celebrate the pursuit of knowledge as a fundamental human drive. They are the literary antidote to "Friends" reruns and John Cheever novels and all the other places in our culture where we imbibe the corrosive message that one's life work is meaningless and the only time worth talking about is Miller Time. And they embody the passion some of us feel the first time we walk into a chemistry lab or encounter a truly elegant mathematical proof: the desire for a life spent testing yourself against the hardest problems.

Like I said, this is a tough anthology to review because there were too many really good stories to choose from. For me, however, the most gripping and memorable of the bunch was Aliette de Bodard's "A Slow Unfurling of Truth."

It is hard for me to convey to you just how good this story is. The math is impeccable. The realpolitik is implacable. And the way de Bodard interweaves probability theory with her characters' struggles to comprehend their own fractured identities is beyond magisterial. By the end of a slim twenty-five pages, you are up against hard truths that make "The Cold Equations" look like a children's bedtime story.

"A Slow Unfurling of Truth" is one of de Bodard's Xuya stories—a loosely linked group of tales that promises to become one of those vastly ambitious, Iain Banks-style alternate histories that are one of the great glories of science fiction. This story is set on a Vietnamese colony, once part of the Chinese Empire but now under the control of the Galactics. The colony has endured decades of political purges in which rebels were tortured to death, transferred to new bodies and tortured yet again. It opens on a scene of quiet panic: Huong Giang, former member of a purged dissident Poetry Circle, hears that one of the Poetry Circle's ex-members has returned from exile in possession of the key to their collective memories—a key he absconded with at the height of the purges that sent the rest of the Poetry Circle to the reeducation camps. She hires character Authenticator Kieu to verify his identity—a necessary precaution in a future where the government can alter memories and transfer people to new bodies at will. And soon we are immersed in the minds of two deeply traumatized women—the older woman who just wants to forget the camps and the torture, and the younger woman who despises her occupied homeworld and who hopes her training as an Authenticator will be her ticket to the privileged interplanetary society of the Galactics.

Significantly, this story is more explicitly post-colonial in its themes and content than most of the stories in Mothership. We have indeed come a long way from the days when James Tiptree, Jr. was dismissed by hard sf fans because her work was "too political." This change arrived, as all real change does, through a combination of hard pushing from the periphery and slow evolution from the interior. But I think it really has arrived. Over the course of the past five years or so, Aliette de Bodard and Vandana Singh (more on her later) have both joined the standard list of go-to writers for hard sf anthologies. And both of them write from a post-colonial perspective that combines hard science with even harder politics.

In many ways the politics of de Bodard's Xuya stories can be mapped fairly directly onto the French-Vietnamese post-colonial relationship. Certainly to anyone who has lived in Paris—especially in the rarefied atmosphere of École Polytechnique—de Bodard's Galactics are a satirical melange of French technocracy and American neo-liberalism. But her deep engagement with technology—not just as space opera furniture but as a core component of her character's identities—makes these stories true hard sf rather than political allegory. And her political themes spiral out from the story of a single occupation to illuminate the structure of all occupations, including occupations whose main weapons are banks and corporations instead of bombs and battalions.

De Bodard's core questions are the core questions of political sf ever since George Orwell. How can we fight tyranny when it wields the power to corrupt not just the democratic process but the very information we depend upon to make "democracy" more than a cynical puppet show? How do you liberate the occupied territory of your own mind? How do you even find out how much of your mind is occupied territory?

De Bodard examines these questions in a high tech post-colonial context that embodies the same dilemma that Audrey Lorde summed up with the phrase: "the Master's tools will ever dismantle the Master's house." De Bodard responds to this challenge as both a storyteller and a mathematician. Maybe the Master's tools won't dismantle the Master's house, she seems to be saying through the lives of her characters. But our stories are the only tools we have. And as the noted feminist theorist Donald Rumsfeld once observed, "You go to war with the army you have, not the army you wish you had."

 

*   *   *

 

Of all the anthologies in this column, Twelve Tomorrows was the one I turned to with the highest hopes—and the one that most disappointed me.

On the one hand I love that MIT picked Bruce Sterling as their guest editor because he's literally my—Favorite—Science—Fiction—Writer—Ever. But on the other hand, I'm old. Really old. I started reading sf in the seventies. And the chain bookstore that I trekked to every week to get my Octavia Butler fix went out of business three mega-chain bookstore bankruptcies ago. So when I pick up an anthology that is supposed to deliver bleeding edge future shock, and most of the contributors are older than I…it's hard not to notice the absence of so many of the young writers who are shaping the future of our genre.

My underwhelm with Twelve Tomorrows turned into outright annoyance when I saw that it had returned to the old inglorious "rule of two" under which sf editors followed an unspoken policy of including two and only two women contributors. I thought we had left those days long behind, even in hard sf. But alas, no.

And then—are you sitting down, dear reader?—I read this sentence in the introduction: "I combed the planet for some with-it science fiction writers who are up to the job of 'reviewing technology'—[and] since MIT is so globally inclined I found you a Canadian, and a South African, and two and a half Britons, and even one other Texan."

Now I pride myself on being an open-minded person. But the English spent 800 years kicking the holy living crap out of my family in Ireland. And then they drafted their potato-eating arses and shipped them over to Calcutta to kick the holy living crap out of the other half of my family. So if, in 2015, you are going to sell me a "global" anthology composed exclusively of white writers from former British colonies—then you know what? I want my damn flying car, and I want it now!3

The kind of obliviousness that would allow someone to elide "globalness" with membership in the Ex-Colonial Powers Country Club is, I believe, a symptom of a far deeper flaw. Because though I enjoyed several of the stories (my favorite was Warren Ellis's "The Shipping Report," which gets ten extra credit points for mentioning "The Knowledge"4). I couldn't get past the feeling that Twelve Tomorrows was trying to sell me a future I'd already seen before.

The future of Twelve Tomorrows is the same future "professional futurists" have been talking about for years in Wired, and The Washington Post, and at the yearly futurism conferences where high ranking members of the industrial-military complex get to hang out with their favorite science fiction writers and call it work. It is the future of middle-age policy wonks and tech mandarins. And it embodies the same deeply disempowering assumption that "we"—we the code jockeys, we the technorati—will not survive unless we cast our lot with the corporate elites instead of with the great, unwired mass of humanity. We may rail against the machine in the privacy of our home. We may go on paleo diets or take Marie Antoinette-style datastream holidays. But in the end we know that our only chance at keeping our DNA in the gene pool is to follow the profits into orbit. Even Cory Doctorow, who can usually be counted on for an invigorating dose of techno-anarchy, has penned a story for Twelve Tomorrows whose final scene embodies an exhausted resignation to the inevitability that every revolution will be coopted and manipulative sociopaths will always outmaneuver naive idealists.

This attitude achieves the strange distinction of being at once deeply cynical and completely unrealistic. Time and again as I read this anthology I caught myself thinking that STEM professionals are the mandarins of the computer age—and that our view of reality may turn out to be every bit as blinkered as the things "everyone" knew in the inner courts of Versailles or St. Petersburg or the Forbidden Palace.

There is a certain smell to the lies that privileged intellectuals tell each other in deeply divided societies during the last few gilded years before the streets catch fire. And Twelve Tomorrows reeks of it. As one of Sterling's own post-human characters says: "We're content to live in the fiction. All the best people do."

 

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Hieroglyph is an extremely interesting anthology—and I think a very good one. The premise behind this project—courtesy of Neal Stephenson—is that good Science Fiction can enable us as a society to "get big things done" because it "supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place…[with] a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers."

Clearly Hieroglyph was built to house big ideas. And, consistent with the "if you build it they will come" principle, the contributors have come up with some very big ideas indeed, several of which are new enough to make Hieroglyph extremely rewarding reading for hard sf fans.

For instance, remember how I was complaining just a minute ago about Bruce Sterling wasting his time editing when he really ought to be writing? Well, all is forgiven. Because in "Tall Tower," he brings together the soul-searing mix of techno-mysticism, lyrical writing, deep emotion, and cowboy nostalgia that makes him one of the great poet-visionaries of science fiction. And though the story is a paean to an Earth and a humanity whose death is treated, Twelve Tomorrows style, as a regretful inevitability, it makes all the difference that Sterling writes here from the perspective of the left behind rather than the uplifted. Oh, and did I mention there are cowboys? I haven't been this happy since the last (and 17th) time I reread Schismatrix.

Sterling is not the only contributor who wrote a much better story5 for Hieroglyph than he did for Twelve Tomorrows. Cory Doctorow's "The Man Who Sold The Moon" is vintage Doctorow: heartfelt, politically engaged, and satisfyingly complex. This just goes to show that it does matter what the writing assignment is, even for talented writers. Something that all grade school teachers should bear in mind when they're tempted to demand the usual boring essay about "what I did last summer."

Meanwhile, Vandana Singh's "Entanglement" and Rudy Rucker's "Quantum Telepathy" are each worth the price of admission for any thinking hard sf fan. Quantum information theory is among the most powerful and world-shaping scientific concepts of the last half century. QIT—and its spooky red-headed stepchild, quantum teleportation—may well end up defining the technical Zeitgeist of the twenty-first century the way that microchips defined the late twentieth century. And yet there are few science concepts that we sf writers have abused more often or more cluelessly. At some point in the early 2000s I gave up even counting how many times I'd seen well-respected sf writers mangle quantum teleportation so badly that it was obvious they hadn't even read the abstract of the paper, let alone actually done the math. But I still know this: Somewhere, somewhen, in some branch of the multiverse, a Schrodinger's Kitten dies every time an sf writer has his characters "drag entangled particles apart" in order to send FTL messages.6

Singh and Rucker both get the science rock solid, of course. And each of them weaves a brilliant story around the central scientific metaphor of entanglement. Rucker's tale hangs on Roger Penrose's concept of consciousness as a quantum wave phenomenon. Most working physicists think Penrose is out to lunch on this one. But Penrose is a topological geometry god and he's been right about weirder-sounding things. So I'm gonna call this concept fair game for sf speculation. Singh's science is less dramatic and much more consistent with contemporary quantum cosmology, where entanglement is valued less for its practical applications than for the deep structural insights it offers about the tightly woven network of relationship and interactions that we collectively call spacetime.

In "Entanglement," Singh weaves a gorgeous global tapestry that ranges from the drought-stricken Amazon to the flood plains of the Ganges. The science behind her story links entanglement, marine biology, climate engineering, and potential future evolutions of the internet into a believably chaotic and multifaceted future. And it also takes us back full circle to Mothership, and to complex intersection of hard sf and post-colonial sf—and to my belief that as hard sf anthologies become less insular and more truly global, they also become more intellectually rigorous.

To quote Singh herself, "this world we love is woven into being every moment through complex, dynamic webs of interaction." It doesn't matter whether you're trying to save the world or just write smart stories about how to save it. Every voice we shut out is an entire potential field of knowledge to which we have willfully closed our eyes and ears. We're running out of time, and this planet is starting to look very small. Is it wise—let alone logical—to keep listening only to the same familiar experts who got us into this mess?

There is a deep wellspring of discontent among sf fans these days. Neal Stephenson tapped into it when he wrote that far too much of contemporary sf reflects "our broader inability as a society to execute the big stuff." But though Heiroglyph was the only one of these anthologies explicitly focused on shifting this dynamic, both Mothership and Carbide Tipped Pens included many stories characterized by the kind of broad, transformative vision that Stephenson advocates. These anthologies are proof that we have the voices we need, if only we stop making excuses and become more willing to listen.

 

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1 Catherine Asaro, Elizabeth Bear, and Justina Robson come to mind here, as do M.M. Buckner and numerous other contemporary female hard sf writers working under initials or gender-neutral pseudonyms.

2 My only gripe with Mothership as an anthology is the lack of a critical introduction. Both editors penned excellent personal introductions, but many readers would benefit from more information about the history of Afro-futurist sf. I am not the person to write that introduction. But I can recommend two great books that every sf reader should have on their bookshelf: Sheree Renée Thomas's Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction From the African Diaspora (Aspect-Warner, 2000); and Nalo Hopkinson's and Uppinder Mehan's So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004).

3 Okay, I am being flippant. But seriously. Even Star Trek in 1966 understood that you need a few non-white faces on your starship crew if you don't want the rest of the world to laugh at you.

4 Try googling "The Knowledge," "piano tuning" and "brain scans." Big fun for anyone interested in brains, music, or math. Also, I'm pretty sure there's a good sf story in there somewhere.

5 At least as this umpire calls 'em.

6 Actually this confusion is itself an entertaining case in point of Stephenson's "Hieroglyph" principle in action. Quantum teleportation co-inventor Charles H. Bennett subsequently confessed that he regretted causing all the confusion by using the fatal word "teleportation." But he and his co-authors were such rabid Star Trek fans that they never imagined anyone would miss the Star Trek reference and confuse sub-luminal teleportation with FTL travel.

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