A Summer SF Harvest from Great Britain
I encountered several interesting and rather good stories, by four relatively new writers, among them an Englishman, a Scot, a Welshman living in the Netherlands, and a Canadian, in this summer's crop of UK SF magazines. The stories discussed come from the July and August issues of the venerable English magazine Interzone, and the July issue of the new Scottish magazine Spectrum SF. (How odd it must seem to the Interzone crew to have their magazine called venerable! Still, in the SF field for a magazine to have published 160 issues is to be quite mature, and this coupled with the quality of Interzone over the years surely justifies the adjective.)
The older three of these writers were all born in 1965 or 1966, and all published their first stories in Interzone in 1987 through 1989. They might almost be part of a movement! (Though they are quite different writers.) The younger writer, Cory Doctorow, was born in 1971, and first appeared in Pulphouse back in 1992. (He also received an honorable mention for best story by an undergraduate in the 1992 Asimov's competition.)
So, if this is a "generation" of younger SF writers, what does that mean? SF stories, many have noted, are reflections of the time in which they are written, if not even of earlier times. For all that this is consciously a "forward-looking" genre, the ways in which we look forward, the futures to which we look, say more about the present than about the eventual future. So one way in which a story can seem fresh and original, even if it is reusing older SF tropes, is to recast those in a new light: to write an SF story of the year 2000, as it were. Reading Keith Brooke's "Liberty Spin", from the August Interzone, I felt surprised at almost every turn, even though the bare bones of the story are quite familiar.
"Liberty Spin" features a crew of students from both the Earth and the independent space habitats who have been selected to explore the title habitat. ("Spin" seems to be a neologism for a rotating cylinder sort of space habitat: a nice touch, I thought.) The Liberty was the first habitat to try to achieve independence from Earth: their revolution was ambiguously successful, as they took over the habitat and tried to alter its orbit to head for interstellar space, but now, 200 years later, the habitat has returned to the inner Solar System. In the interim, Earth and the space habitats seem to have achieved a shaky political détente, and this combined mission is meant to demonstrate a new spirit of coöperation. The whole project is complicated by a rift between those who wish to leave the habitat as is, as a memorial for the original revolutionaries, and those who want to refurbish it, as a new home.
The story reveals a constantly changing understanding of what really happened during the original revolution, and what the Liberty is now like. At first it seems to be a mysteriously changed, decayed, quasi-ecosystem. Then there are disturbing discoveries which affect the historical perception of the revolution. And finally there is talk of even a new revolution. Then ending is open but chilling, as we realize that the story's characters were political pawns, and that some have been forced to make choices which may have doomed them. The story is redolent with a feeling of future realpolitik which echoes only too much of present-day Serbia and Palestine, and with a cynical view of the media that is certainly a year 2000 viewpoint. I think this is the best story I've seen from Keith Brooke.
Cory Doctorow is unequivocally a "new" writer, having just been awarded the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer at the 2000 World Science Fiction Convention. I've seen several of his stories, which have appeared in Asimov's and SF Age, among other magazines. I've liked what I've seen, enough indeed that I voted for him for the Campbell, but all of his stories so far have struck me as interesting and promising but not wholly successful. "The Rebranding of Billy Bailey", from the August Interzone, is the first of his stories that I enjoyed without reservations.
This story is purely satirical, and it maintains its clever and inventive pace throughout. Billy Bailey is a sixth-grade kid, and a heel, a professional heel; that is to say he maintains an image as a class prankster and brat. And he has an agent to handle his endorsements and help maintain his image. But when a hostile principal and a slimy but rich fellow student frame him for a clumsy prank unworthy of his style, he decides it's time to change. It's time for rebranding.
This stuff is over the top, of course, like all satire. But it's successful because it's played with a perfectly straight face, and because the story is thick with details that buttress the theme and keep the reader smiling and grimacing: the sponsored grade school classes, the worry about competing with 8th graders when you graduate to 7th grade, even the well-chosen character names. This is very well-crafted, very entertaining, very satisfying story.
All of a sudden, it seems, Alastair Reynolds has burst on the scene as one of the new hopes of Hard Science Fiction. His SF is in the Stephen Baxter mode, mostly, with nods to Greg Egan, Greg Bear, and Paul J. McAuley. His first novel, Revelation Space, and many of his stories are set in a consistent future, featuring no faster-than-light travel, but radically altered humans, and greatly extended time spans, and apparently almost endless war. "Hideaway", from the July Interzone, is a novella set far in the future of this universe. Merlin is a member of a human group called the Cohort, which is fleeing a menace called the Huskers: apparently aliens, though I'm not sure; they could be another offshoot of humanity. Merlin is trying to find a way into an ancient construct called the Way (reminiscent of one of Bear's ideas) in hopes that this will allow the cohort to escape the Huskers. But his people discover another alien artifact: a planet full of mysterious tunnels, apparently the product of an older aliens species they dub the "Diggers". The story marries investigations into the nature of this planet with political and personal intrigue involving Merlin, his lover Sayaca, his brother Gallinule, and others. Fascinating explanations are suggested, which turn out to be wrong or lies, and which are superseded by other fascinating explanations. The story, constrained by STL travel, takes place over decades, and some of it is set in an exotic virtual reality environment. The resolution (complete to this story, but also incomplete, as this is part of a series) asks whether it is better to escape or fight, and whether some forms of escape are worth doing. This is intricate and fun, almost "kitchen sink" hard SF in the way Reynolds throws weird ideas on top of wild but vaguely plausible tech. It suffers somewhat from its very scale though, as well as from being part of a series: the characters, either because of the scale of their story, or because some of their story is told elsewhere, don't really come to life, and the whole thing has a distinctly cool affect.
(Outside of my perhaps artificial restriction to stories from this summer, I should mention that Spectrum SF, in its first issue, for January 2000, published a story set fairly early in Reynolds' future history. "Great Wall of Mars" is a story of political intrigue, and pits brother against brother, much like "Hideaway". Set much closer in the future, humanity is still confined to the solar system, and this story pits three groups against each other: the Coalition (relatively unaltered humans), the Conjoiners (humans linked to become a sort of hive mind), and the Demarchists (something of an intermediate stage: humans enhanced with computing equipment allowing constant communication with each other, including instant "voting" on important decisions, hence the name (from the same root as Democracy, I assume). The story itself is in some ways routine, with a slightly contrived setup, but it's interesting for presenting a well thought out, and quite sympathetic, look at the creation of a human hive mind.)
Finally, there's the Scottish writer Charles Stross. He's been publishing short stories since 1987, but only in the last two or three years has he come to my notice. And three stories this year have been very interesting indeed. The best is "Antibodies", again from the July Interzone. I compared Reynolds to the likes of Baxter and Bear. "Antibodies", by contrast, considers ideas about AI's and the Singularity that are reminiscent of Vernor Vinge, and especially Stross' fellow Scot Ken MacLeod. The story is told by a computer programmer who notices that a mathematician has proved that the traveling salesman problem has been solved, and that NP-complete problems lie in P. (Isn't Science Fiction great!) He immediately realizes that computer security is forever compromised, and withdraws all his money, calls a friend, and starts heading for the hills. Soon we realize his real fear is that this discovery means that computers will become, almost instantaneously, algorithmically powerful enough that strong AI's will spontaneously arise, and that in all the other world lines where that happened, the AI's soon took over humans, and indeed, the entire universe. He and his friends come from a different world-line, and have been trying to prevent this by slowing down computing advances (allowing Microsoft to become so powerful was one of their proudest moments). The story is at once a nice, scary, chase story, as the narrator and his friend start to notice surveillance cameras looking at them, and a clever examination of the final implications of the central idea, with a nice stinger in the final line. It's also well written in a certain SF tradition, much like Bruce Sterling: there is a certain density of nice throwaway lines, and neat thematically appropriate images, as well as well-done infodumping to get across the main ideas.
Stross has been busy this year, though. Once "Antibodies" made such an impression on me, I saw two interesting stories in Spectrum SF. The "summer" story is "A Colder War", from the July 2000 Spectrum SF. This is a chilling (no pun intended, as editor Paul Fraser assures us) story set in an alternate world. The US and USSR are engaged in a cold war in this alternate world, but, as we soon realize, the weapons are much scarier than our world's pedestrian atomic bombs. The Soviets have found a way to reach into other worlds where Lovecraftian monsters can be found. This piece is tense, interesting, and unflinching, well worth-reading, though it's not as good as "Antibodies", perhaps because it's too dependent on a central idea which, while kind of neat, is by its nature not believable, and so the story more or less boils down to a revelation of that idea. Stross's other appearance in Spectrum SF was in January. "Bear Trap" is much slighter than the other two stories, but it's good fun. It's a rather baroque romp about stock manipulation in an interstellar future. I found the twists and turns, and the basic rationale, a bit hard to follow, but the story was fast-moving and colorful.
This article first occurred to me when reading the Brooke and Doctorow stories in the August Interzone. Then I realized that there were two more outstanding stories in the July issue. Which led me to note that all four writers concerned were fairly young, and had been publishing for about a decade, give or take. Is there anything more to conclude? All the writers write mostly Science Fiction, and much of it is at least somewhat on the "hard" side. Computers are ubiquitous, and concern about AI's and "enhanced" humans is a major thematic issue. Political intrigue, and an interest in politics in general, is a distinct element. But whatever deeper themes one might extract, it's apparent that the well of new SF writers, and neat ideas, has not yet run dry.
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