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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Engineering Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan

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Engineering Infinity, edited by Jonathan StrahanEngineering Infinity cover

 “Malak” by Peter Watts
“Watching the Music Dance” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
“Laika’s Ghost” by Karl Schroeder
“The Invasion of Venus” by Stephen Baxter
“The Server and the Dragon” by Hannu Rajaniemi
“Bit Rot” by Charles Stross
“Creatures with Wings” by Kathleen Ann Goonan
“Walls of Flesh, Bars of Bone” By Damien Broderick and Barbara Lamar
“Mantis” by Robert Reed
“Judgement Eve” by John C. Wright
“A Soldier of the City” by David Moles
“Mercies” by Gregory Benford
“The Ki-anna” by Gwyneth Jones
“The Birds and the Bees and the Gasoline Trees” by John Barnes

Reviewed by Robert E. Waters

In his introduction, editor Jonathan Strahan tells us that the original intent of Engineering Infinity was to produce an anthology of Hard SF stories in the tradition of science fiction giants like Gernsback, Asimov, Campbell, Clarke, et al. Stories where the “ideas” are very important and where the science is rigorous and vital to the plot. Then, as he was collecting stories, he realized that times have changed and that perhaps a purist definition of “hard” SF might work in the abstract, but not in reality. And thus, what we have here are 14 stories from 15 authors who do their best to adhere to hard science and big ideas, but not every one of them succeeds perfectly on that score. That’s okay with me. I’m not a reviewer who takes everything an editor says to the literal bank. As long as the weight of the collection adheres to the spirit of the editor’s intent, then I’m okay. And this anthology certainly does that. So let’s press on.

Hot off his Hugo-winning success with “The Island,” Peter Watts gives us a future weapon system named “Malak,” a predator-drone technology fighting the endless war in the Middle East. The drone in question is Azrael (the angel of death in Islamic Mythology). Azrael’s heuristics are aglow with colored targets, but the boundary between friendlies (green), neutrals (blue), and hostiles (red) can change in a millisecond; what’s a faithful robot to do? Azrael functions on a set of “rules” that dictate how and when these targets should be engaged. And then one day it receives an experimental code that gives it a kind of rudimentary consciousness and self-awareness that… makes it a more thoughtful and careful weapon? Or does consciousness make it an even better killer now that its actions are imbued with meaning and purpose? These are some of the questions explored in “Malak,” and while I won’t answer them for you here (I’m not sure I even know the answers), suffice is to say that this is an excellent story, well-written, and another successful outing by Watts.

Next up is Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Watching the Music Dance.” Here, the author takes us through the future tumult of infant genetic enhancement. Suze’s parents agonize about what they can and cannot afford, and what they should and should not do, to make their child better. But they live in a society where genetic engineering is only legal if the familial DNA shows a propensity for the desired enhancement, and unfortunately, neither they nor their parents have it. But Suze’s mother mushes forth with one illegal upgrade after another, which ultimately winds up turning Suze into something that they did not bargain for. Although genetic enhancement is nothing new in science fiction, Rusch’s expert prose accomplishes quite a lot in such a small space, and it pulls a lot of heart-strings. My only complaint is that I would have liked to have seen more of the technical/scientific side of the upgrades, and why they did what they did to Suze. Rusch focuses exclusively on the social, financial, and personal costs of the science.

“Laika’s Ghost” by Karl Schroeder reminds me of a story I wrote back in grade school. My story sucked; this one does not. Here we have a kind of look back at the good ol’Cold War, as a Russian agent named Gennady and an American kid named Ambrose search the arid, radiated steppes of the former Soviet Union. What they seek is a metastable weapon that would allow anyone to create a nuclear bomb. The genie would be out of the bottle then: No government could control the arms race and any Tom, Dick, and terrorist with a grievance could set off a Bright Boy anywhere, anytime. So the race is on, as our protagonists’search, while the CIA and others try to divine their plans. Ambrose is recently returned from a tour of Mars, and what he saw there has a lot of folks spooked. What did he see? I won’t tell you, but it’s related to their search and in ways they never would have guessed (I certainly didn’t). The ghost of the title, Laika, was a dog that the Soviets put into orbit. It died there, and so the idea behind it is that the “ghost” of this canine cosmonaut looks down upon the lost wonder of what was once the Soviet space program. At least, that’s what I think it means; I could be wrong. The metaphors at play here are subtle and easily confused. But I liked it. It’s not the best in the book, but it’s a worthy stepchild.

The first real hard SF story comes from Stephen Baxter. “The Invasion of Venus” is a short glimpse into first contact. The Incoming is a highly intelligent alien race en route to our solar system. What do they want? Are they friendly, or is this going to be War of the Worlds? Humans agonize over what to do, what to say to these creatures as they draw near. But to our surprise, they aren’t interested in us at all. Venus is their target and what they do there and what they discover below her thick clouds proves once and for all that we are not alone in the universe, nor are we even alone in our own solar system. In fact, we don’t rate much at all, it seems, both in physical and intellectual prowess, and so where exactly does this leave us? This philosophical conundrum is what Baxter poses here, as seen through the eyes of Edith who broods in her drainage ditch while (according to her) the human race stands on the brink of spiritual collapse. Yes, I found this character more than a little annoying, but the story was good. Baxter is an excellent writer who keeps the questions, the hard science, and the fussy crazy ladies bouncing along at a reasonable pace.

“The Server and the Dragon” by Hannu Rajaniemi represents (quite literally) the concept of “engineering” infinity. The Server creates galaxies, as it’s dropped from one of the so-called darkships flying around and seeding the empty void. Once it’s positioned, the Server awaits its orders, or “laws,” which dictate when and how it’ll begin to function. The first part of the story is filled with a lot of technical jargon that is overwhelming at times, while the second part (the more interesting part) tells of the creation of the “Dragon” and its relationship with the Server. All of this makes for an interesting concept, but ultimately the story collapses on its own cleverness. The real story, in my opinion, is on the darkships themselves. What are they? Where did they come from? Who made them? That’s the story I want to read.

Charles Stross gives us one of the hardest SF stories in the book and one of the most clever zombie stories in recent memory. With “Bit Rot,” we have Lilith and Lamashtu, two very post-humans who serve as crewmembers on the Lansford Hastings, an uber high-tech generation ship on a centuries-long journey into deep space. These post-humans are meat-metal constructs that possess the essence of their human sponsors, and they come to life every once in a while to perform maintenance, grab a cup of coffee, eat, etc. Then one day, the ship gets hit by a Magnetar ray that causes “bit rot,” a form of dementia that throws everyone into a feeding frenzy as they seek sustenance to repair their bodies and minds. From here, it’s a zombie story and a damn fine one as Lilith does what she can to protect herself and her sister from being eaten alive. Stross proves once and for all that anything, even the monstrous powers of the galaxy, can create those mindless brain-eating machines we all know and love.

I confess up front: I’m not into Eastern religions, and thus “Creatures with Wings” by Kathleen Ann Goonan is not my cup of tea. Kyo is a young Hawaiian trying to put the pieces together after his wife commits suicide. In an attempt to give aide, his Auntie takes him to a spiritualist, and he winds up seeing these winged creatures called the Hanalb, an alien race come to earth to save Kyo and his monk buddies from certain destruction. From here, the story evolves into a treatise on Zen Buddhism, as Kyo tries to divine the nature of the aliens, their world, why he was saved, the meaning of life, etc. Noonan is an excellently descriptive writer, and she’s quite capable of creating a good sense of place. But I found the pacing slow, the metaphysical questions dull, and the relationship between Kyo and the aliens limp.

If you’re really into Quantum Theory, then “Walls of Flesh, Bars of Bone” by Damien Broderick and Barbara Lamar will suit you well. If you’re not (or, like me, you have only a smattering of knowledge), then this one may confuse you. Dr Watson, a down-on-his luck professor and divorcee, gets a so-called “orphan” video in the mail. Orphan films are those that have been “abandoned by their owners,” because of copyright problems or because they just don’t want them anymore. The one he receives is circa 1930s, and in it, a lot of strange characters appear, and some of them look very familiar. Also, a complex mathematical equation appears on one of the character’s iPad-like device, which is a serious duck out of water in the mid-20th Century. Further investigation reveals that Watson’s wife and new boyfriend (don’t ask; it’s complicated), are messing around with time travel and alternate realities. That’s about all I could discern from this story, as the rest of it has our professor moving back and forth between the now and then in a jangle of images and concepts that, unfortunately, tried my patience. The authors expect their readers to sink or swim in this one; sometimes that works in fiction. Here, it doesn’t in my opinion.

Like the previous two stories, Robert Reed’s “Mantis” is a kind of metaphysical journey through the meaning of life. But in this case, it’s virtual reality on trial, as our unnamed protagonist visits a local fitness club where the members can get their daily dose of cardio while exploring a virtual world through so-called “Infinity” windows. What is real and what is fake? How can one know if he/she is real? The mantis of our story is a little insect that commands a starring role between our main character and his love interest. It’s hard to tell if the creature is real or not; more importantly, it’s hard to know if the girl is real and if their budding romance will last beyond this pseudo Second-Life that they inhabit together. To be honest, this story is slow, and I’m sure some will consider it quite boring, but then again, it’s not supposed to be an action fest. It’s supposed to be cerebral and explore a specific idea. And on that note, it succeeds rather well.

Is there such a sub-genre as Post-Human Sword & Sorcery? If not, then John C Wright’s “Judgement Eve” may be the start of it. Blending pure, hard SF with Greek tragedy, it tells the tale of Idomenes who has fallen madly in love with human-like construct Lilimariah, who has somehow gotten pregnant, although this should be impossible since the Angels (who watch over human society and have recently decreed it beyond redemption), have reconstructed our DNA to prevent such things from happening. When it’s revealed that Lilimariah has fallen in love with the Angel Azaziel and is planning to split before the big boom, Idomenes goes on a tear to win her back in a pure Conan-style hack -and-slash. And this is just the tip of the iceberg on what’s going on in this tale. I’m infinitely impressed with Wright’s inventiveness, having read a number of his stories over the past couple years, and although it’s fair to say that on occasion, the cybernetic, nano-technic, genetic, post-humanistic “stuff” that Wright weaves through this epic can overwhelm, it’s still one of the best stories in the book.

Anyone who likes military SF should love David Moles’“A Soldier of the City.” The city of Isin has been brutally attacked during its annual Corn Parade by the space-faring “Nomads.” Our main character is Ish who lives in the city and is one of a few citizen soldiers who survived the attack. The attack not only devastated the parade and its surroundings, but also destroyed the city’s goddess, the so-called Lady who watches over and protects the citizenry from the dangers of the galaxy. Thus, the spiritual well-being of the city and its inhabitants has been damaged, and so the need for swift retribution ensues. Ish volunteers to participate in this retaliation, and what occurs is a sheer blast of neat weaponry and zero-G battles that are quite enthralling, and in the end, Ish finds himself as not only a vengeful warrior, but perhaps, a peaceful, forgiving one as well.

“Mercies” by Gregory Benford is a story about a man named Warren who travels back in time to knock off serial-killers before they’ve had a chance to do their evil deeds. He stalks both infamous and less famous killers throughout history, busting 0.22 caps in them in the name of “mercy.” That’s really all you need to know about this story, and of course, the concept is not new. We’ve seen stories like this before (e.g., Minority Report and its “pre-crime” institute). Benford, though, is an excellent writer and handles the idea well. The conundrum here for me, unfortunately, is trying to divine the author’s position on the matter. Does Benford truly believe that it’s as simple as that: Go back in time and kill someone before they commit a crime; thus, the ends justify the means. These monsters are after all (no matter how perverse or sick in the soul) innocent until they’ve actually committed the crime. But the characters (and there are others) have the courage of their convictions, and do their duty without falter. Does this, then, make them angels of mercy or serial killers themselves? Perhaps Benford is playing Devil’s Advocate here. Perhaps a little of both. Either way, it’s certainly the most controversial story in the lot.

Gwyneth Jones’“The Ki-anna” is a murder mystery… or is it? That’s the question plaguing Patrice’s mind as he tries to figure out what happened to his sister who mysteriously disappeared on an alien planet. It’s been declared a homicide, but Patrice is not convinced. Two aliens, Bhvaaan and Ki-anna (the story’s namesake), aide in the investigation. But what they discover is far more alien, and far more deadly and tragic, than Patrice imagined. I can’t say anything else for risk of giving it all away. It’s a good story, not the best in the book, but it certainly contains interesting elements as our protagonist wades through a whirlwind of alien culture and customs.

Finally, we come to “The Birds and the Bees and the Gasoline Trees” by John Barnes. Stephanie is married to world renowned scientist Lars Ilogu, who used to be married to Nicole, a “humaniform,” a post-human designed to handle the rigors of space. All three are on the Southern ocean of Earth trying to ascertain the nature of this massive globule, greasy spot that has shown up on the surface. For decades, the ocean has been artificially bombarded with iron deposits from asteroids in order to cool the water down and to increase life in the area, and Lars is worried that this has caused more harm than good. But what rises out of the ocean to confront their tiny vessel is like nothing that has ever lived (or evolved) on our planet before. Like many of these stories, I can’t give it away, as that would ruin the surprise. Suffice it to say that this is another “idea” story, well-crafted and executed, and a good end-cap to a fine anthology.