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Engineering Infinity
edited by Jonathan Strahan
Solaris paperback �7.99

review by Maureen Kincaid Speller

In the introduction to this collection of hard SF stories, Jonathan Strahan notes that "hard SF has remained a constant throughout the history of science fiction." This does, of course, depend on where one considers the history of science fiction to begin. For Strahan, its progenitor would appear to be Hugo Gernsback, who first began publishing, back in 1926, stories that were "75 percent literature interwoven with 25 percent science." It would, however, be another 30-odd years before P. Schuyler Miller coined the actual phrase 'hard science fiction', to describe the stories that bound narrative to science, relying on scientific detail for setting and denouement. The nature of the science might change over the years, shifting from space exploration through quantum mechanics, to artificial intelligence and the future of human consciousness but, as Strahan notes, hard science fiction is distinguished by its rigour and accuracy.

But is it possible to identify hard science fiction that easily? Of all the varieties of SF that might be said to exist or not (and as Strahan notes, SF fans love their taxonomies), hard SF has surely always been the bedrock of the genre, the easiest to identify. Yet, when David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer published The Ascent Of Wonder: The Evolution Of Hard SF (1998), a massive anthology that one might reasonably have expected to be the last word on the matter, it quickly became obvious that Miller's simple definition was not as watertight as might have been supposed. Hartwell and Cramer included a number of stories which didn't seem to fit the definitions of hard SF, and there were suggestions in their introductions that they were not even themselves completely in agreement as to what hard SF is, which suggests, in turn, that hard SF isn't as stable a category as might be supposed.

Strahan speculates that in the 21st century it's becoming more difficult to identify hard SF, not least because science itself is more complicated. As a result, he posits the notion that we have moved away from what he calls pure hard SF to something 'a little broader'. Given hard SF is all about scientific rigour, one might want to prod that 'a little broader' in the spirit of scientific investigation and ask how much broader, exactly? Strahan's answer is rather puzzling. Yes, we still have scientific speculation, and yes, we still have scientific rigour, but he suggests that the writers are now uniting science with "something without bound or end - our sense of wonder." Yet, surely this is what all science fiction, and that would include hard science fiction, has been doing since its inception? It was explicit in Gernsback's project from the very beginning; his choice of stories was deliberately intended to excite readers about the wonders of science.

So, here in the 21st century, what kind of snapshot of the state of hard SF does Engineering Infinity offer us? Strahan says that he cannot tell us 'how' these stories are hard SF - an unvoiced 'they just are' hovers in the air. Indeed, he goes on to say helpfully that "some of the stories are classic hard SF, some are not," However, I think that re-invocation of the sense of wonder may provide a clue as to what is going on when Strahan says "some [of these stories] hold at their heart a slightly anachronistic love of science fiction's days gone by." Because the one thing that immediately struck me about this collection, which contains no reprints, was how familiar many the stories seemed to be, as though I had read them somewhere before, sometimes more than once.

Take, for example, John C. Wright's, Judgement Eve, which is that most old-fashioned of things, a deluge story. In this case, it is an updating of the Greek story of Deucalion and the flood, hitched to a re-imagining of the roots of the Christian creation story, all of this with added nano-assemblers and other scientific window-dressing. Not only does it reach into the legendary past, it reaches into the literary past, too, towards C.J. Cutcliffe Hyne's The Lost Continent: The Story Of Atlantis, and there was little about that which could be described as science fictional. In fairness to Wright he is not the only one who draws from ancient civilisation, though David Moles' A Soldier Of The City mixes Babylonian culture and space warfare in a far less portentous way. Stripping away the furbelows of the setting there is an interesting examination of the lengths to which belief will drive a man - but why Babylonian in particular eludes me, other than that I recall a vogue at one time for shipping older cultures into space. If an author is going to do this, I think there has to be more involved than either Wright or Moles seem to achieve in their stories.

In fact, a number of stories are marked by a preoccupation with the nature of belief, though I am not convinced this arises from welcoming transcendence as the next step on the evolutionary ladder so much as it is an expression of unease at what has been left behind. Kathleen Ann Goonan's Creatures With Wings catches this lack of certainty as her group of Zen Buddhist monks, mysteriously plucked from Earth before it is destroyed, come to terms with their life on a new planet, among the enigmatic winged Hanalb. The mechanisms for bringing them to the encounter with the Hanalb may strain credulity somewhat but the relationship between Kyo, the monk who has lost his faith, and the Hanalb is complex and satisfying for the reader.

It is normally Stephen Baxter's prerogative to destroy the Earth. On this occasion the threat comes from the Incoming, an icy nucleus approaching our Solar system, which may possibly be sending out messages, though to Venus rather than to Earth. The dilemma is, should the British government send any kind of response? Baxter's story The Invasion Of Venus is, as ever, neat and tidy, dealing with the pros and cons of signalling to the beyond, but somehow it never quite catches fire.

The bulk of the stories, though, fall into a group that broadly deals with the consequences of engaging with scientific technology. And it is a very broad group indeed. Gernsback wanted literature in his science; this might be generously interpreted as meaning 'story' and most of these narratives are as much about the story itself. At one end lies Kathryn Kristine Rusch's Watching The Music Dance, which might best be described as a cautionary tale of what happens when an overly ambitious mother employs inappropriate technology to transform her child into a prodigy. The science is incidental to the psychology, and that is crushingly simplistic in its execution. Peter Watts' Malak is far more problematic in its exploration of the intelligent killing-machine dealing with the imposition of cost-benefit analysis on collateral damage and, I think, a somewhat better story for not being so immediately obvious in its premise. It is perhaps a little enthusiastic in its display of hardware, and the same is true to some extent of Charles Stross's Bit Rot. Stross has a sharp eye for literary fashions and on this occasion presents us with a zombie cyborg cannibal, which touches more commercial bases in one story than really seems quite decent.

There was a similar sense of over-abundance in John Barnes' The Birds And The Bees And The Gasoline Trees, and not just in the title. Nicole the manufactured humaniform is, thanks to her synthetic construction, able to dive deep into the ocean to explore huge alien structures discovered there, but the story is, annoyingly in my view, rather less about the bone trees and more about Stephanie's response to Nicole as her husband's former wife. Clearly, we are supposed to be thinking about how artificially constructed life forms might function in society but one was left with a feeling that this was more about wow, quasi-erotic feelings between human woman and humaniform woman, and the humaniform is a scientist too, wow. Though, on reflection, I suppose it does reach out to the confused teenage-boy market to whom science fiction traditionally appeals.

Curiously, the more the science becomes an integral part of the background, the more successful the stories seem to become, or is it perhaps that those stories are also reaching for other literary models. Karl Schroeder's Laika's Ghost, and Gwyneth Jones' The Ki-anna both draw on a mixture of thriller and detective story in order to engage with science. Laika's Ghost goes further by situating itself firmly in a post-Soviet future, enabling it to draw on the tradition of crazy science propagated in the Cold War years. By contrast, Jones' story relies much more on exploring the problems of dealing with other cultures.

Indeed, stories that do things with science without worrying about the fact that they do things with science seem to work best of all. Gregory Benford's Mercies is a good old-fashioned time-travel story about serial killers, in which the science facilitates but the pleasure of the story lies in its crafting. It is old-fashioned, in the same way that a piece of heirloom furniture is old-fashioned. It's solidly made, it does its job, and it continues to please. Robert Reed's Mantis works in a similar way. More innovative, perhaps, in the way it shifts viewpoints; it also focuses on the ways in which an artefact affects people's lives, in this case the infinity window, without worrying too much about how it works. Oddly, given I am no mathematician and have trouble imagining the abstract world of quantum mechanics, I was charmed by Hannu Rajaniemi's The Server And The Dragon, which combined complex ideas with a conventional storyline in such a way as to make it all seem perfectly straightforward, human even.

I've left Damien Broderick's and Barbara Lamarr's Walls Of Flesh, Bars Of Bone until last, not because I think it is a particularly remarkable story. In fact, it's another time-travel yarn, more complex than Benford's, more chaotic, and I'm taking the scientific explanation on trust, as inevitably we often have to if we are not deeply immersed in the scientific world. However, it's the story from which the collection's title is drawn, and it seems to me to bring together the twin themes of science and belief. As one character puts it, "Everything is nothing but uncertainties, latencies, probability pilot waves [...] until it is observed into definiteness and clarity." That is, I think, part of what we believe hard science fiction does; it takes ideas and shows us how they might look in real life. However, the point the character wants to make is that it is not us who observes, or not us alone, but the universe itself. Thus, we do not engineer infinity, it engineers us. What the 'universe' might mean, in these terms, cannot fully be addressed, but clearly the certainty we impute to science is constantly slipping away.

In turn, I think this is what happens with hard science fiction, and has been happening ever since Gernsback first formulated it. The most secure of SF categories has been quietly escaping its own taxonomic definition all along, almost un-remarked upon, because everybody already knows what hard science fiction is. Except, as Hartwell and Cramer's anthology showed, and as Strahan's does in its turn, we don't. Strahan covers himself, not unreasonably, by assuring us that this collection is "not the last statement in an evolutionary taxonomy of hard SF" but that it is instead "part of the ongoing discussion about what science fiction is in the 21st century." What Engineering Infinity suggests to me is that hard science fiction is more elusive than we might have thought, and that it might now be more a matter of nostalgia than innovation. The stories in this anthology are, for the most part, well-written and well-told and yet they don't, for me at least, excite wonder about the future so much as they remind me of where science fiction, as a literary form, has come from.

Engineering Infinity



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