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In Association with Amazon.com
Rocket Science
editor: Ian Sales
Mutation paperback £8.99

review by Paul F. Cockburn

As far back as the original release of Star Wars, a grumbling criticism of a lot of science fiction - certainly that seen on the big screen, but also television - has been its increased infatuation with sheer visual and aural spectacle above narrative, character and ideas. That, ever since Jurassic Park, this spectacle has increasingly existed only inside a computer mainframe, just adds to the growing sense of unreality. Yet plenty of written science fiction across the decades - including, of course, some of its most iconic works - have been necessarily reliant on 'special effects' of their own, whether it's physics-busting faster-than-light drives, artificial intelligence, or conveniently convergent evolution - frankly, some of the 'science' in science fiction is at best distracting jazz hands.

In his brief editorial introducing this excellent anthology, writer Ian Sales unambiguously lays down his manifesto that "SF is too good to be seen as just adventure stories in outer space," explaining why he felt it was time to remind ourselves of Hugo Gernsback's initial belief in science fiction as a way of educating "the public to the possibilities of science and the influence of science in life." If the introduction seems a tad forthright and Reithian in its determination to "educate, inform and entertain," it's perhaps because Sales is in the assured position of knowing just how effectively his argument is made by the 22 contributors whose work - both fiction and some non-fiction - makes up this volume. If I have a niggle (and it is just a niggle), it's Sales' proud boast that he made sure no story in the anthology features the word 'spaceship' - at least one does include 'spacecraft', which is hardly outside that particular ballpark.

Anyone worried that such a 'hard' science fiction volume is bound to be rather restrictive and repetitive shouldn't worry; between its covers, Rocket Science covers are a wide range of subjects, using a choice of styles and tones from heartfelt romance to light-hearted, 'screw the pooch' comedy, and from sturdy realism to inventive counterfactual history. In such company, it seems somewhat invidious to highlight certain stories above the rest, but a few examples do demonstrate this anthology's admirable range: Sam S. Kepfield's collage of articles, interviews and memoirs exploring the history and consequences of the Soviet Union faking their first moon landing; Helen Jackson's succinct exploration of the limits of human bravery; Craig Pay's contemplation on the parental response to a cloned daughter's desire for suicide; and Stephen Palmer's heart-rending examination of the ecological breakdown of a Martian colony.

Although certain elements do feature across the anthology - several stories, for example, explore differing fates for the International Space Station, while a lack of FTL drives means that even those set a few hundred years in the future are still locked within our own Solar system - it's fair to say that the common thread of the collection is the fragility of humanity when facing up to the challenges of space and other alien environments. In some tales, this fragility is primarily defined by chemistry, physics and biology; in others, it is psychological, emotional and relational. In the best, it is all of these, surely putting to bed once and for all that old criticism of science fiction as a dry genre revelling in 'the idea as hero'.

Given the stories' excellent grounding in authoritative science, it's somewhat ironic that I feel the anthology's weakest links are the four non-fiction articles dotted through the stories. While their subjects - terraforming Mars, spacesuit design, space radiation, and the history of the 'Waverider' re-entry craft - echo the subjects of some of the surrounding stories, I felt they failed to grab the attention in the same way as the stories; with each, it was a case of when I flicked forward to the next story, rather than if. I would also have preferred them to have been more clearly sign-posted within the anthology.

Although we're well past the heights of the 1960s 'space age', uncomplicated procedures and tasks are still sometimes dismissed as being 'hardly rocket science'; yet it's fair to say that, if something looks easy, it almost certainly isn't. Ian Sales is therefore to be praised for the much-more-difficult-than-you'd-think task of gathering together such an excellent range of stories. And, while every rocket launch is potentially seconds from complete disaster, it's good to report that this particular launch has deservedly pushed through the stratosphere.

Rocket Science



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