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Jan 16

Book Review: Reach For Infinity edited by Jonathan Strahan

What’s It About

It’s the third anthology in Jonathan’s Strahan’s Infinity series.  This one collects 14 short stories from writers like Ellen Klages, Adam Roberts and Karen Lord.  It focuses on humanity taking the next big step forward – whether that be colonising Mars, coming to terms with Artificial Intelligence or the challenges of travelling in a generation ship.

Should I Read It?

Absolutely yes.  While Jonathan might be a friend, I say without prejudice and bias that he is a magnificent anthologist.  His strength – more than coming up with strong, clear, interesting themes – is finding a diverse range of high quality writers who bring different styles, perspectives and insights to the book.

Reach For Infinity only underlines this strength.  While the theme of taking that next big step, of reaching for infinity, implies a collection of Hard SF stories about terraforming and slingshotting around asteroids – which the anthology does feature – Strahan mixes things up by including pieces that use the theme as a catalyst rather than a driver for the plot.  Consequently, we get pieces that deal with the trademarking of pathogens (Adam Roberts), drug taking in sport (Linda Nagata), the fragility of memory (Aliette de Bodard) and the right to reproduce (Pat Cadigan).

And to top it all off, there are least five award worthy stories in the collection – which I’ll mention below in the Commentary.

Representative Paragraph

Because it made me laugh – this from Ellen Klages marvelous, Amicae Aeternum:

Twenty Reasons Why Being on a Generation Ship Sucks, by Corrine Garcia-Kelly

1. I will never go away to college.

2. I will never see blue sky again, except in pictures.

3. There will never be a new kid in my class.

4. I will never meet anyone my parents don’t already know.

5. I will never have anything new that isn’t human-made. Manufactured or processed or grown in a lab.

6. Once I get my ID chip, my parents will always know exactly where I am.

7. I will never get to drive my Aunt Frieda’s convertible, even though she promised I could when I turned sixteen.

8. I will never see the ocean again.

9. I will never go to Paris.

10. I will never meet a tall, dark stranger, dangerous or not.

11. I will never move away from home.

12. I will never get to make the rules for my own life.

13. I will never ride my bike to a new neighborhood and find a store I haven’t seen before.

14. I will never ride my bike again.

15. I will never go outside again.

16. I will never take a walk to anywhere that isn’t planned and mapped and numbered.

17. I will never see another thunderstorm. Or lightning bugs. Or fireworks.

18. I will never buy an old house and fix it up.

19. I will never eat another Whopper.

20. I will never go to the state fair and win a stuffed animal.

Because it displays the breadth of imagery and imagination on display in this anthology – this from Peter Watts’ Hotshot

Not just a sea: an endless seething expanse, the incandescent floor of all creation. Plasma fractals iterate everywhere I look, endlessly replenished by upwells from way down in the convection zone. Glowing tapestries, bigger than worlds, morph into laughing demon faces with blazing mouths and eyes. Coronal hoops, endless arcades of plasma waver and leapfrog across that roiling surface to an unimaginably distant horizon.

Commentary

There are no duds in Reach For Infinity.  While that doesn’t mean every story blew me away, there are at least five pieces I think should be considered for award season.  They are:

  • Report Concerning The Presence of Seahorses On Mars by Pat Cadigan
  • Wilder Still, the Stars by Kathleen Ann Goonan
  • Amicae Aeternum by Ellen Klages
  • The Fifth Dragon by Ian McDonald
  • Trademark Bugs: A Legal History by Adam Roberts

Of the five, my favourite, without any hesitation or doubt, is the Klages.  I’m ashamed that I haven’t read more of Ellen’s fiction because on the occasions I’ve been exposed to her writing I’ve fallen deeply and madly in love with the work.  I remember having the same reaction to Goodnight Moons, Klages’ contribution to Jonathan’s Life on Mars anthology (also recommended).  This story is simple in its plot and execution and yet it has depths.  Two girls get together before dawn one morning because one of the girls – Corrine Garcia-Kelly – is about to embark, with her parents, on a generation ship.  After this day, they will never see each other again.  As the representative paragraph above indicates, Corrine is not keen on taking the journey.  This puts her at odds with a number of us in the genre world who talk about Hard SF concepts like generation ships with a sense of awe and wonder.  Klages, through the unvarnished perspective of Corrine, deconstructs the whole endeavor, injecting genuine human concerns and fears into the generation ship narrative.  That might sound a bit cold and analytical, but the relationship between the two girls, as they spend these last few hours together, gives the story its vibrancy and heart.

If I had to pick a second favourite, it would be Adam Roberts’ Trademark Bugs: A Legal History.  As with Ellen, my exposure to Adam’s work is unforgivably minimal (though Kirstyn and I did discuss his novelette Anticopernicus on the Writer and The Critic podcast.  It’s very good).  This story hits all my literary buttons in that it plays with structure and form while also saying something profound and disturbing.  Written as a legal document, Robert’s describes a world where all diseases have been cured compelling pharmaceutical companies, in a bid to maintain and grow their market share, to infect the planet with their own pathogens which only they have the cure for. Sounds utterly evil, doesn’t it.  And yet the brilliance of this story is how Roberts’ – by detailing the legal challenges against Big Pharma – nearly convinces us that maybe the planet would be better off if we allowed the pharmaceutical industry to takeover the world economy.  Admirably, Robert’s never strays from the legal format. The language is cold and dispassionate and yet also entirely compelling. Magnificent stuff.

I could spend another 1,000 words discussing the other three pieces. But for the sake of brevity (though that horse has probably bolted) I’ll note that:

  • Pat Cadigan’s short story looks at the rights of reproduction in an environment where resources are scarce. It’s a warm and funny piece with a knock-out ending;
  • Ian McDonald is probably the first writer in history to marry together the Hard SF concept of deteriorating bone density in low gravity environments with a love story.  McDonald proves that genuine Hard SF doesn’t have to be bereft of real people and raw emotion; and
  • Kathleen Ann Goonan’s story is an old idea – society struggling to come to terms with sentient Artificial People.  However, the point of view of the piece – a 130 year old woman who has been and seen it all – gives the story its unique voice. Like the McDonald, it’s a very human piece, one that’s not afraid to wear its emotions on its sleeves.

I’m not sure if an anthology has ever won the PKD Award (anyone know?). But having now read two and a half of the nominated books, Reach For Infinity sets a high benchmark.

1 comment

  1. Paul Weimer

    I’m not sure if an anthology has ever won the PKD Award (anyone know?).

    I’m not sure one has even been nominated before, Ian.

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