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Engineering Infinity

01/03/2011. Contributed by Gareth D Jones

Buy Engineering Infinity edited in the USA - or Buy Engineering Infinity edited in the UK

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Engineering Infinity edited by Jonathan Strahan. pub: Solaris/Rebellion Publishing. 333 page small enlarged paperback. Price: GBP 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-907519-51-2.

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Like most of the other sub-genres and classifications of speculative fiction, hard SF is something hard to define, but easy to recognise when reading. In the anthology ‘Engineering Infinity’, renowned editor Jonathan Strahan has brought together a collection of fourteen stories under the label of hard SF which, as he admits in the introduction, stretch that label in many directions.

There’s not really any old-fashioned nuts-and-bolts hard SF stories in the collection, but several examples of modern ultra-technical, post-singularity, quantum mechanics type SF, with enough techno-babble to satisfy the most ardent pseudo-scientist. That’s not to say some of it isn’t real science, but if so it’s way beyond me. Mixed in with these are near future tales, military SF, pre- and post-apocalyptic tales, but all with a hard SF element to them. Definitely no fantasy here, but some stories set so far into the technologically bizarre future that, to misquote Arthur C Clarke, they become indistinguishable to fantasy in some aspects.

‘Malak’ is an intriguing story of artificial intelligence from Peter Watts, told from the viewpoint of an autonomous aerial combat vehicle. The Malak has no self-awareness, no ability for introspection, but as mission statistics and data are gathered, as probabilities are weighed and values assigned, we’re led through the decision-making process as this mindless machine comes to some very important decisions. It’s very cleverly done.

Stephen Baxter’s ‘The Invasion Of Venus’ begins, like many invasion stories, with government cover-ups, public hysteria and amateur astronomers. It then turns into quite a different story when the invaders target Venus instead of Earth. The philosophical and societal impacts of this development are more important than any technological concerns. The two central characters are on the fringe of the official government response, making a refreshing change from blockbuster invasion films that always seem to centre around the US President.

This may be the moment that many were dreading, when zombies make it into hard SF, but in ‘Bit Rot’, Charles Stross has pulled off the cross-over successfully. Post-human zombies are given plausible reasons for becoming zombiefied in this deep-space colony ship disaster that is both gritty and compelling.

‘Walls Of Flesh, Bars Of Bone’ by Damien Broderick & Barbara Lamar seems to have been inspired by last year’s YouTube phenomenon of the woman talking on a mobile phone in the background of a Charlie Chaplin film. A similar film clip leads an unlikeable, drunkard professor to investigate the incident by blundering round drunkenly until several other characters confusingly explain a complex time-travelling bit of physics by appearing from the future. As an exercise in mind-blowing narrative and paradox-avoiding mathematics, it’s fantastic, but I was left none-the-wiser as to what happened or what the point of any of it was.

Gwyneth Jones gives us ‘The Ki-anna’, set among a devastated race of disturbingly organised cannibalistic aliens. It’s part murder-mystery and part space opera, with the easy familiarity of interesting characters who I felt comfortable with, who could easily feature in rather wonderful TV detective series. This was one of the most enjoyable stories of the collection for me.

With a title that could have come from Cordwainer Smith, ‘The Birds And The Bees And The Gasoline Trees’ by John Barnes takes us to the southern ocean where strange algal growths are under investigation by a scientist, his reporter wife and his super-human humaniform ex-wife. The relationship between the three is beautifully developed and is as central to the plot as the environmental concerns. A fittingly grand conclusion to the book.

I’ve commented on less than half of the stories in this volume, but as you can see the variety of styles and settings is impressive. Huge concepts, cutting edge technology, old tropes with new twists, there’s a whole range of great ideas developed by some excellent authors and I mustn’t neglect to mention the cover art, a shining example of bold, unashamed, SF glory. This is definitely a collection for SF fans, and will bring back memories of many classic hard SF stories from the depths of your memory.

Gareth D. Jones

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