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The Solaris Book Of New Science Fiction Volume Three edited by George Mann

01/11/2009. Contributed by Patrick Mahon

Buy The Solaris Book Of New Science Fiction in the USA - or Buy The Solaris Book Of New Science Fiction in the UK

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pub: Solaris Books. 416 page paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84416-599-5.

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George Mann has gained a reputation in recent years as an editor of excellent anthologies of Science Fiction and fantasy short stories. 'The Solaris Book Of New Science Fiction Volume Three' should strengthen that reputation further.

Mann explains in a brief foreword that his aim in this volume is to showcase the diversity of ideas and world views in current Science Fiction. He wants to counter any suggestion that the only relevant Science Fiction today is the dystopian disaster story. Instead, he suggests that optimistic views of the future can be just as worthwhile and as enjoyable as more pessimistic views.

Given this mood of optimism, it is unfortunate that Games Workshop announced in March (the same month this anthology came out) that they were putting the Solaris imprint up for sale. Another casualty of the economic downturn, no doubt. A buyer is, however, apparently waiting in the wings, so perhaps we will see further anthologies like this in the future. Let's hope so.

The book itself comprises fifteen newly written stories by British and American authors. In addition to the foreword by Mann, the book also includes brief biographies of each author. The stories are mostly very good indeed. Four in particular stood out for me.

Alastair Reynolds' 'The Fixation' is a disturbing exploration of the many worlds hypothesis in quantum mechanics. Rana is a scientist tasked with restoring the Antikythera Mechanism, a famous astronomical calculator dating back to ancient Greece. While she does her painstaking cleaning cog by cog, elsewhere in her Museum, a different method of restoration is taking place. This method is based on the many worlds hypothesis and involves swapping the higher entropy or disorder of our broken copy of the Mechanism with the lower entropy of better-preserved copies in parallel universes. So what happens if our copy of the Mechanism is the best-preserved one anywhere? This is a great story, juxtaposing modern physics and ancient archaeology. The central character of Rana keeps the tale at a human level, and the surprising dénouement rounds things off very effectively.

'One Of Our Bastards Is Missing' is a parallel Earth adventure romp by Paul Cornell, featuring his series character Jonathan Hamilton, a spy and part-time bodyguard to the Monarchy of Greater Britain. When a Prussian security agent pops out of existence in the middle of Princess Elizabeth's wedding reception, it's left to Hamilton to uncover and then foil a plot to replace the future Queen with a mechanical doppelganger. I enjoyed this immensely, it's a fast-paced, action-packed steampunk romp filled with wit and intelligence.

In 'Long Stay', Ian Watson has produced a surreal black comedy set in the 26 mile long car park that stretches between the future Stansted and Luton airports. When Rob Taverner flies home from Spain, an automated shuttle bus drops him in the right part of the car park to collect his vehicle. However, it has disappeared and there seems to be no way to raise the alarm. Just as Taverner is getting desperate, he is joined by a young woman called Weasel, who has been living in the car park since her car was towed away three months earlier. She introduces him to an entire community who have suffered the same fate, given up on escape and now live off the land. Reluctant at first, Taverner eventually accepts his lot and makes the best of it with Weasel and her friends. This is a surreal and funny tale, with an interesting twist in the tail to keep us thinking.

Ken MacLeod wraps up the anthology with 'iThink, Therefore I Am', a short and very funny side-swipe at the iPod generation, written in the form of the manual for the new iThink. That he manages to make us laugh and question the nature of consciousness, all within four pages, is a testament to MacLeod's skill as a writer.

The one story I didn't get on with was Jack Skillingstead's 'Rescue Mission'. Michael Pennington is the pilot of a spaceship engaged on an urgent mission to take vaccines to a colony planet. However, he feels an overwhelming need to change course and flies to an uncharted planet. He takes a shuttle down to the surface, where he encounters intelligent trees that resemble women. He spends the rest of the story in a narcotic-induced series of romantic dreams, until his shipmate and former lover, Natalie, rescues him from the parasites, which have been draining emotional energy from him. This tale is well-written and fast-paced. However, I could not work out how the tree-creatures could possibly have lured Pennington to their world across interstellar space. Also, I found no reason to identify with Pennington or Natalie, so found myself uninterested in their fate.

Over all, this anthology contains a wide variety of enjoyable stories, covering many different areas of current SF. It's worth repeating that all fifteen stories are new and there are no reprints here. My only gripe about an otherwise excellently produced book is that the pagination given on the contents page goes mildly awry from the fifth story onwards. Apart from that, I can find little to fault.

There are two distinct reasons why I've been looking forward to the publication of this book. The first is that the previous two volumes in the series contained many excellent stories. The second is that they were both useful pointers to authors new to me. It was after reading pieces in them by Eric Brown and Neal Asher that I sought out their novels and liked these, too. So as well as being worthwhile on its own terms, this anthology may perhaps lead you to explore some of the authors' longer fiction. I certainly will.

In conclusion, Solaris have done it again. This is a great anthology which gives me much optimism about the vitality and diversity of modern Science Fiction. I urge you to get hold of a copy.

Patrick Mahon

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