Monday, 27 January 2014

"Engineering Infinity" anthology summary/review.

I picked up this anthology of hard sci-fi (published 28 Dec 2010) from the library to see if it would inspire me to branch out to some new authors. Despite it's compact size it's taken me more than a couple months to nibble my way through at bed times, though I'm, not sure a compelling single span novel would have been consumed any quicker.

I've written a brief review of each story, marking the ones I found most notable with a *.  Those by Karl Schroeder, Hannu Rajaniemi, Charles Stross, John C. Wright and Gwyneth Jones (each for different reasons).

p13 "Malak" by Peter Watts:
From the perspective of an unmanned killer drone, "Azrael", that acquires a prosthetic conscious in the form of a collateral damage calculator. It only brings grief though, as it's aborts are always overruled by remote command. Pretty competently written, but unsurprising (with it's inevitably trite resolution); reminded me a lot of Stealth (2005), obviously. Formulaic.

p31 "Watching the Music Dance" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch:
A near future tragedy, when a family that loose everything after a mother becomes obsessed with molding her daughter into a musical prodigy. The (limited) genetic engineering, "enhancements" and "apps" (for the girl's Neuromancer style, behind-ear chip) come at great cost to the financially crippled family. Creatively constructed, from the perspective of the autistic sounding girl and the father (in the 1st and 3rd person respectively). Dealing more heavily with the personal and emotional context is a good way to avoid being too specific about future technology.

* p47 "Laika's Ghost" by Karl Schroeder:
I could have believed this was a Charles Stross near future thriller. A world-worn, free lance, nuclear decommissioning inspector, come minder, returns to his home land (Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan - part of the setting for Stross's "Rule 34") with a young American under his wing, who's on the run from the CIA, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Online (based in Seattle) and Google. The world-wind adventure brandishes guns and hydroponics en-route to a slightly impractical conclusion that's nonetheless satisfactory, for such a short story.

p81 "The Invasion of Venus" by Stephen Baxter:
It's war of the worlds, except neither of the combatants is earth... It's a "what if humans really aren't that big a deal, even in our own solar system", type scenario, as a British civil servant trudges around his ex-girlfriend's archaeology/restoration project on Goonhilly down, hoping for advice. It explores the possible public contention over signalling, and I think there might have been overarching analogies, but I didn't really get into it.

* p97 "The Server and the Draggon" by Hannu Rajaniemi:
A young new mathematician/author, fingered by Stross as superior to himself, writer of "The Quantum Thief", "Fractal Prince", which I've nearly bought before. Here he succeeds well in writing from the perspective of a massively non-human intellect; a raw, new cutting edge little techno-parable that feels genuinely inspired.

* p109 "Bit Rot" by Charles Stross:
A compelling glimpse into a claustrophobic zombie-robot nightmare aboard a doomed interstellar ship. Stross shows us what a top class, full time author can do, strutting his stuff in this segue loosely linking "Saturn's Children" (I reviewed) and "Neptune's Brood" (which I've not read).

p131 "Creatures with Wings" by Kathleen Ann Goonan:
With the unenviable task of a support act following the heavyweight headlines, there was certainly a change of pace here. Dwelling on Buddhist enlightenment, brewing and personal angst, this pseudo-meta-pysical tale feels like it's takes place on a 60s Star Trek set. A rambling, unfunny joke, with no satisfying punch-line even in sight by the last couple paragraphs. Perhaps I should just say this wasn't for me...

P159 "Walls of Flesh, Bars of Bone" by Damien Broderick:
The prospects of Dr Watson's faculty chair slipping away becomes the least of his worries as his entire life slowly (then exponentially) slips out of view. Initially unsettled by a chilling realisation in some archive footage, delivered by a anonymous benefactor, the drunken anti-hero divorcee lurches into Quantum Mechanical flavoured weirdness. It managed to make me feel a little unsettled near the beginning. A very vague conclusion, can imagine it as a 'mindfuck' film ("Donnie Darko" detores through "Requiem for a dream" and into "A Quiet Earth").

p185 "Mantis" by Robert Reed:
A tidy enough reflection on appearance, perception and reality, through the looking glass an artificial intelligence generated TV fake window/wall in a gym. Which mundane existence holds the more weight in this mild dystopia? Not bad.

* p203 "Judgement Eve" by John C. Wright:
The most stylish story; nano-tech wizard-priest duels a shining fallen angle (with Japaneese anime LAZZZERS) over the love of a beautiful woman, in this epic Greek tradgedy meets "Judge Dredd", in a burned-out, technology-run-amock war zone of sprawl Earth. Manages not to feel too glitzy; pretty cool in fact. Conjurers up something that might look a little like "Casshern" (2004), but with more substance, soul and practicality. I think the concept might tire if stretched beyond the short format.

p231 "A Soldier of the City" by David Moles:
Follows a lowly man who leaves his wife to wreck vengeance when a greater love, a goddess of his people, is murdered in a devastating terrorist attack on his orbital. The "Gods" walking amongst men feels a little Warhammer, but it's a little more plausibly high tech while maintaining a distinct character. Snippetts of separate factual information reports make this a little Alan Moore too.

p257 "Mercies" by Gregory Benford:
The first person to travel back in time might not go straight for Hitler, but killing to save lives is certainly the order of the day. But as the infamous serial killers hit the floor, what about time travel's Fermi paradox? Quantum mechanics gets another name check as specific technology is side-stepped; it's a kind of psychopathic "Quantum Leap".

* p285 "The Ki-Anna" by  Gwyneth Jones:
Enter a scene in an alien police interview room, as a Martian man, freshly reassembled from beaming across the galaxy, is interviewed by a mysteriously damaged alien girl-cop and her boulder of a partner. It's no "Space Precinct" (1994-1995) though, deliberate who to distrust most when investigation into his twin sister's death/disappearance brings him into the court of the creepy ruling class aristocracy. There's disturbing bipartite social history lurking, not so much in the past. It does well to fit so much plot into such a tight space, though the 'action' climax was so rushed that I blinked and misunderstood it, in my bedtime reading haze. Pretty good.

p311 "The Birds and the Bees and the Gasoline Trees" by John Barnes:
Almost certainly the weakest writer in the line-up; this feels hopelessly antiquated with some horrendously awkward and unbelievable sapphic chemistry between a reporter and her husband's super-robot-ex wife. Techno-jargon is clumsy and there's no time for a plot arc; it's just a couple of ideas smooshed together. Aspects of the reveal are a little bit unique, to my knowledge, but by that point I was just happy to have finished the anthology book, so I can finally stop renewing it!

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