Friday, 4 March 2011

Book Review | Engineering Infinity edited by Jonathan Strahan

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The universe shifts and changes: suddenly you understand, you get it, and are filled with a sense of wonder. That moment of understanding drives the greatest science-fiction stories and lies at the heart of Engineering Infinity. Whether it's coming up hard against the speed of light and, with it, the enormity of the universe, realising that terraforming a distant world is harder and more dangerous than you'd ever thought, or simply realizing that a hitchhiker on a starship consumes fuel and oxygen with tragic results, it's hard science-fiction where sense of wonder is most often found and where science-fiction's true heart lies.

This exciting and innovative science-fiction anthology collects together stories by some of the biggest names in the field including Gwyneth Jones, Stephen Baxter and Charles Stross.


In his introduction to Engineering Infinity, a gathering-together of fourteen original hard science fiction short stories come from the imaginations of "some of the biggest names in the field," master anthologist Jonathan Strahan seems borderline apologetic, admitting defeat insofar as he asserts "it's neither a definitive book of hard SF nor an attempt to coin a new radical hard SF." (p.12) However honest, it makes for a disheartening start to a collection many readers will meet with great expectations. Yet is not "the promise embedded in the title of this book itself: the point where the practical application of science meets something without bound or end - our sense of wonder" (p.11) a fine enough helix around which to spin such fiction?

I should say it is. That this is a broader anthology does not make it a poorer anthology than otherwise it would have been, had not drift set in, as Strahan puts it - not by any stretch.

Putting its best foot forward first, Engineering Infinity leads with what must be its strongest short: "Malak" by divisive Hugo award-nominee Peter Watts is truly powerful stuff. The tale of an unmanned orbital craft of some not so far-flung technical specification, Azrael has been precision decimating hostiles a hundred at a time without a worry or a wonder in the world - until a firmware flash upgrading its OS to have "experimental conscience" leaves the ship reeling. Soon Azrael becomes cognizant of the correlation between incapacitated bystanders and the particular wavelengths of suffering; in particular "the sound biothermals make, for example, following a strike" (p.22) comes to torment it.

"Malak" is a bold tale, persuasive, chilling and insidious. Bit by byte, Watts worms his way under one's skin and tears a devastating path out, worrying away all the while at the outermost boundaries of science fiction and our expectations thereof. Truly, I've never read a story like "Malak." It alone would be worth the price of admission, so if Engineering Infinity can't quite deliver on the tremendous promise of Watts' benchmark going forward, neither can the anthology be faulted for lack of trying.

Which isn't to say there aren't certain other highlights. For one, Stephen Baxter's contribution, a short and bittersweet first contact narrative called "The Invasion of Venus," functions as a thoughtful rebuttal of the usual little green man mode of such fiction, casting the Incoming as an unfathomable, macrobiotic, planet-eating hive. For another, Robert Reed's "Mantis" relies on some over-familiar concepts in the end, though the getting there is superbly entertaining.

Buddhist symbology and home-brewed beer come together marvellously in Kathleen Ann Goonan's hallucinatory "Creatures With Wings" and "Laika's Ghost" by Karl Schroeder has a nice bite to it: true to form, a neat hard SF reveal in its explosive climax offset something of a dearth as regards characterisation. The failing of Schroeder's tale are quite reversed in "Walls of Flesh, Bars of Bone" by the duo of two-o, Damien Broderick and Barbara Lamar: a heartily amusing "post-postmodern gag" (p.168) rich in humour and home truths though perhaps a little light on its explication of the science. All of which put me in mind of nothing so much as Scarlett Thomas.
"This is not mystical, Watson, stop curling your lip. It is the basis for everything that ever happens, to eternity and infinity."
I am aghast at the hubris. "So we're... engineering infinity?"
"No," he tells me, sharply, "Precisely not. We are nothing until we are observed by the universe. Infinity is engineering us." (p.182)
Meanwhile, "The Server and the Dragon" is typical Hannu Rajaniemi - and that's no ill thing, I assure you. This year's hard SF success story thanks to The Quantum Thief, the rising star offers up a technological parable concerned with creation and the origins of life on Earth (I think) that is the closest thing to "Malak" in Engineering Infinity in terms of its utter otherness, its boundless ambition. Exquisitely beautiful, of course, though I fear some will find "The Server and the Dragon" virtually impenetrable.

Engineering Infinity might not represent "the last statement in an evolutionary taxonomy of hard SF" (p.11) its storied anthologist once imagined, nor, at that, is it a collection without its share of structural insufficiencies - in particular the melodrama of John C. Wright's dire "Judgement Eve" feels an uncomfortable addition - but it stands, all the same, as a solid and at times striking contribution to "the ongoing discussion about what science fiction is in the 21st century." (ibid) And never mind your admirable aspirations, dear editor... that's enough.


NB: Despite featuring in much of the publicity, there's no Greg Bear to be found in Engineering Infinity. Just so you know.


Engineering Infinity
edited by Jonathan Strahan

UK Publication: January 2011, Solaris

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1 comment:

  1. Yeah, apologies on the Greg Bear front. An early blurb mentioned him, and it appeared in several pieces of publicity until we received the manuscript and he was absent. I am supposing he had to pull out for some reason, but don't know any more than that.