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Thursday 1 November 2001

Impact Parameter and other Quantum Realities
by Geoffrey A. Landis
(Golden Gryphon Press, November 2001)

Reviewed by Nick Gevers
(Special to Locus Online)

When the foundations of the world are (maybe) shaking, there's a pleasant reassurance in reading a book like Impact Parameter, the first short fiction collection by the journeyman Hard SF writer Geoffrey A. Landis. The sixteen stories here are confident, solid, secure in their scientific narrative method and the disciplined ingenuity of their concepts; they have their disquieting moments, but these will never last too long. This volume purveys a goodly number of quantum moments, instances—instants—of radical uncertainty; and yet these are quantum "realities," tangible, open to the mind's eye. Impact Parameter is all about perplexities resolutely resolved: not too bad an example to set.

Take the final story, "Winter Fire". This, Landis observes in his story notes, is not really SF at all; it is simply a deadly bleak extrapolation of grim contemporary processes into the future, the present writ nastily larger. No transformative optimism. The siege of Sarajevo by the Bosnian Serbs has a vicious counterpart in a twenty-second century siege of Salzburg, which pan-Slavic fanatics torment to destruction over several years; a young girl who survives the siege is scarred forever. But if "Winter Fire" is not SF, it is part of an SF collection; and its protagonist, Leah Hamakawa, has appeared elsewhere in Impact Parameter, as an efficient and adventurous adult scientist whose post-traumatic dearth of emotional affect has compensations of a visionary sort. The orphan of the siege will become the interplanetary forensic problem-solver of the Analog-style novella "Ecopoiesis", and still later an explorer of Uranus's world-ocean in "Into the Blue Abyss". Leah may not feel very much, but there is so much to know; rational understanding can redeem subjective agonies, and many times over at that. At least in certain cases...

These are the cases Landis sets out with precise (but by no means unfeeling) skill in Impact Parameter. In the Hugo-winning short story "A Walk in the Sun", a marooned woman astronaut must apply physical logic to survival on the Moon; she adapts to that end her deep competitive resentment of her dead sister; inner states are remolded by an objective imperative. "Impact Parameter" is filled with cartoonish doomful behaviors, until the (rather impish) light of conceptual breakthrough scatters them to the far corners of the earth. "Elemental", Landis's first published story, may be about magic emerging as a discipline to rival and complement physics, but it is accordingly a rigorous magic, scientific to a fault, and without it narratives of love and personal discovery trail off unfulfilled. "Across the Darkness", an extraordinary account of an interstellar journey not recommended for claustrophobes, functions as a vivid schematic of external necessity dispelling unbearable social tension. "Rorvik's War" challenges this paradigm, functioning as a future war story critical of the military-industrial horrors that may make us little better than cyborgs; but analysis is the ticket out after all. And "Beneath the Stars of Winter", an exceptionally vivid look at conditions inside Stalin's labor camps, keeps its proscribed scientists alive through abiding curiosity, sheer penetration of thought; two may even survive beyond the Gulag. Taken together, these tales are a rhetoric of enlightenment in the trusty eighteenth century sense of the term, a manifesto for human sapience.

But however much John W. Campbell would have applauded this handiness at agenda Hard SF, Landis goes somewhat further. Scientific inquiry enriches existence, but existence must be worthwhile in the first place. And Landis does his competent best at humanizing science and scientists, at suggesting that the latter's emotional lives match the quality of their intellectual insights. He should know: he works for NASA. So "Ouroboros" reveals the humor available to those who contemplate the cycles of the infinite; "What We Really Do Here at NASA" is pointed office cynicism; "Snow" puts mathematical genius in an uncommon context of pathos; and both "Beneath the Stars of Winter" and "Dark Lady", the best stories in Impact Parameter, are character studies of depth and intensity, human portraits with real, well, character. Thus, the personalities who in this book plunge into physically and cognitively remote spaces—Uranus in "Into the Blue Abyss", a black hole in "Approaching Perimelasma"—are far more than ciphers; they represent humanity at an ultimate stretch, and in doing so are human indeed.

There are lapses, it has to be said, in Landis's literary balancing act. "Ecopoiesis" is dull and facile in conception, and its human dimension is all that relieves its ho-hum sci-fi box-of-tricks shenanigans. "Outsider's Chance" is a similar sort of puzzle story, shorter (thank Heaven!), but with all the life of a circuit diagram; its only good moment is space pirate and victim holding a truce coffee break. "The Singular Habits of Wasps" is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche with aliens, polished but pointless, a curious violation of the spirit of its enterprise. But Landis is far more often on his game, an opener of compelling vistas and delineator of intriguing psychologies; and his moral is well worth heeding.

Nick Gevers is a freelance literary critic and interviewer, whose work appears regularly in Interzone, Infinity Plus (of which he is Associate Editor), SF Site, Nova Express, and Redsine. A resident of Cape Town, South Africa, he has an extensive background in the academic study of SF, and recently was appointed an Acquisitions Editor at Cosmos Books, an imprint of Wildside Press. The anthology Infinity Plus One, co-edited by Gevers and Keith Brooke, appears soon from PS Publishing in the UK.

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