If, like me, you lament the state of science fiction today, and if, like me, you long to read stories that will transport you back to the days of the masters of "hard" science fiction--writers like Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Hal Clement and Malcolm Jameson--then this thick volume could be just what you're looking for.
In general, I find today's science fiction unreadable. Every once in a while, out of desperation, sheer boredom or an attack of unwarranted optimism, I pick up a new-release SF paperback, or check one out from the library. I am invariably disappointed. Some current SF books I can't even finish, whereas I continue to read the old ones over and over. I can't recall ANY memorable SF books written within the last 20 years. In my humble opinion, there are very few recent books that even begin to compare to the "hard" SF classics like "Space Cadet," "The Deep Range," "Mission of Gravity" or "Bullard of the Space Patrol," to name just a few.
"The Hard SF Renaissance," however, gives me some hope that all is not lost. If you're a fan of "hard" SF, the stories in this book should appeal to you. While I don't agree that they collectively presage a "renaissance" of the "hard" SF style, they are nonetheless all quite good and live up to their billing. I commend this volume to you if you want to read good, "hard" SF without having to pull out an old, dog-eared, brittle 1950s classic from your collection.
on January 6, 2008
Don't underestimate the size of this volume! It's almost 1,000 large pages in small print.
Excellent selection of real hard SF stories. An inspiring and challenging read. I found myself alternating between dictionary, encyclopedia and video searches (google video and youtube) in order to try and wrap my head around many of the concepts.
The editors did a truly masterful job in selecting, introducing and ordering the stories to achieve a full immersion into science, politics and futurism. The introductory notes that precede each story are brief, but do a great job of placing the author into the proper scientific and political context. I never realized just what a tight knit club hard SF is.
The focus of most stories is not science alone, however. Most take place in the near future, and in imagining the future, the authors cannot and do not ignore the politics, economics and sociology that would be required to achieve it. Make no mistake, these guys are hard core Libertarians for the most part. Thanks to this book, I am giving money to the Ron Paul campaign!
I also never quite realized that hard SF doesn't confine itself to physics alone. There are stories by biologists, statisticians and geneticists.
If i were a natural sciences teacher, I would require my students to get this book.
I recommend taking your time with this anthology. I paused in my reading of it to check out novels and other stories by a number of the authors included here.
I think of this anthology as a text book, or maybe a syllabus, for the hard science fiction fan.
on March 8, 2014
This was quite simply one of the best SF anthologies I've ever encountered, and so far the best I've read that sticks mainly to a single decade. There were a few stories that weren't to my taste, but a few out of a total of 41 is still really good. The introductions--both to the collection itself and to the individual stories--were not really to my liking (for a hard SF anthology, they focused far too much on politics, for one), but it's for the stories that people read anthologies, and this one absolutely shines. Without further ado, here are my mini reviews for each of them.
GENE WARS - Paul McAuley - A rather disjointed series of vignettes from the life of an amoral genetic engineer. It reminded me a bit of late Sheckley, but didn't really float my boat. 2.5/5
WANG’S CARPETS - Greg Egan - This could be the best alien encounter story ever. 5/5
GENESIS - Poul Anderson - A story told in three linked threads about nodes of a networked, galaxy-spanning intelligence. Very flowery prose and mostly decent speculation (although others like Egan and Charles Stross do this kind of thing better), but the pace is plodding. 3/5
ARTHUR STERNBACH BRINGS THE CURVEBALL TO MARS - Kim Stanley Robinson - Pretty much what the title says. A fun, extremely light-hearted baseball story, told in a conversational style. It's interesting to compare this to typical stories by, say, Egan, Benford, and Baxter as an illustration of how two stories can still be hard SF, when otherwise they couldn't be more different. 4/5
ON THE ORION LINE - Stephen Baxter - A fifteen-year-old boy caught up in a war with aliens whose modus operandi is manipulating the laws of physics themselves must escape from behind enemy lines under unique and harrowing circumstances. Reminded me a bit of Sturgeon's "Mr. Costello, Hero" but with more grounding in theoretical physics and some heavy-handed political jibes (e.g. the names of the human vessels). 3.5/5
BEGGARS IN SPAIN - Nancy Kress - This is actually my first time to read this, even though I have a copy of the novel, and it's on my list. Anyway, it's excellent, but it is not without flaws. The biggest thing that bugged me was that early in the story, we learn that neural repair during slow-wave sleep "can go on during wakefulness, if the DNA is programmed to do so." Yet about halfway through, we learn that Sleeplessness is determined by a single, dominant gene, which would seem to contradict the need for more extensive modifications to the genome. 4.5/5
MATTER’S END - Gregory Benford - An atmospheric tale about observing proton decay (and the implausible consequences of this observation), set in a tumultuous near-future India. It's sort of Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God" meets Egan's _Distress_, though not quite as good as either. 4/5
THE HAMMER OF GOD - Arthur C. Clarke - An uncompromisingly hard asteroid deflection story. 4/5
THINK LIKE A DINOSAUR - James Patrick Kelly - A hard teletransporter story, this is one of the stories that got me into SF at the relatively (with reference to the quip that the Golden Age of SF is 13) old age of 20 or so. I remember thinking, "hey, this guy actually did _Star Trek_ transporters right!" and went on to buy and read both of his story collections. (This is the best story in them. Oh well.) 5/5
MOUNT OLYMPUS - Ben Bova - Mixed feelings on this one. Plot-wise, it is a damned good old-school hard SF adventure that takes place in the caldera of Olympus Mons, and it doesn't screw up Japanese names quite as bad as a later story does (there's one goofy name--Isoruku Konoye [probably a bastard hybrid of Isoroku Yamamoto and Fumimaru Konoe]--and one that escapes, due to recycling the actual name of the captain that struck Pearl Harbor), but the characters are still caricatures--Japanese man with ideas about Bushido and bringing disgrace to his family if he dies and Mexican-American man whose brother died running drugs in an eighteen-wheeler. I'll split the difference on my score. 3.5/5
MARROW - Robert Reed - Starts as a Big Dumb Object story, bigger than many and dumber than most, and turns into a smaller-scale story of science fantasy intrigue. Don't get me wrong, Reed is clearly a talented writer, but this was probably the trashiest piece in the collection, and doesn't really fit in (unlike the below story by Slonczewski, which I also didn't care for, but which is, for all its issues, incontestably hard SF). 2.5/5
MICROBE - Joan Slonczewski - Was this written for children? I was bothered by quite a few things, like the mini-infodumps of stuff that any high school graduate should know (yeah, I know, sadly, many don't) and how unsurprised the protagonist was at encountering aliens with DNA that had the same four nucleotides ours does. I would not think this would be a given. It was apparently Slonczewski's first published story, but still, I was not terribly impressed. 2/5
THE LADY VANISHES - Charles Sheffield - A human invisibility yarn with a decent sense of humor. 3.5/5
BICYCLE REPAIRMAN - Bruce Sterling - Maybe the cutesiest cyberpunk story I've ever read. 3/5
AN EVER-REDDENING GLOW - David Brin - A short-short about the consequences of travel at relativistic speeds. Ultimately environmental allegory wrapped up in interstellar travel. I liked it a lot. 4.5/5
SEXUAL DIMORPHISM - Kim Stanley Robinson - A science-informed story of emotional collapse. 3.5/5
INTO THE MIRANDA RIFT - G. David Nordley - An exploratory party gets trapped in the rifts of Miranda (the satellite of Uranus) and has to make its way out. Decent hard SF. 3.5/5
THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS - Robert J. Sawyer - A decent, updated variation on Van Vogt's "Far Centaurus". 3.5/5
A WALK IN THE SUN - Geoffrey A. Landis - Astronaut circumnavigates the moon on foot to save her own life. 4.5/5
FOR WHITE HILL - Joe Haldeman - A good (if tragic) story of artisans of the terrestrial diaspora visiting Earth after continuing interspecies war has wiped out the entire population. 4/5
A CAREER IN SEXUAL CHEMISTRY - Brian Stableford - This one takes a simple idea (genetic manipulation for aphrodisiac purposes) as far as--and farther than--I could have imagined. It's as quirky of a love story as Pohl's "Day Million", but set about a million days earlier. 3.5/5
REEF - Paul McAuley - Quite a bit better than "Gene Wars", and I liked certain things like the passing reference to the nucleotides in the engineered life being non-standard, but still far from my favorite in the collection. 3/5
EXCHANGE RATE - Hal Clement - It is not too difficult to guess the nature of the intelligent extraterrestrial life in this story well before it is made explicit, but this is still the second best example of said life in this collection (though still well behind the near-perfection that is "Wang's Carpets"). It also has the strongest grounding in chemistry in this collection. Overall, while it reminds me strongly of Clement's excellent _Mission of Gravity_ (the only other thing by him that I have read) in a lot of ways, the story kind of plods (and the utter lack of section breaks in a story of this length doesn't help), so while I would easily give it a 4.5 for the ideas, it only gets a 3 for the execution, and that's being generous. 3.5/5
REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL - Greg Egan - Maybe Egan's best near-future short of the late '90s. 4.5/5
GRIFFIN’S EGG - Michael Swanwick - This is the first Swanwick story I've read, and I'm sure it won't be the last. He does an awful lot in 50 pages with a lunar colony and neural programming. It's really ambitious: somehow scattershot and focused at the same time, and it works brilliantly. 4.5/5
GREAT WALL OF MARS - Alastair Reynolds - This is sort of Theodore Sturgeon's _The Cosmic Rape_ (not to mention several other Sturgeon works--"The Skills of Xanadu" and so on) meets Greg Egan's "Closer" (and other Egan stuff). Three human/transhuman offshoot cultures (one largely unmodified and authoritarian, one an implant-mediated hive-mind, and one an implant-mediated democracy) engage in complicated intrigues, and the protagonist tries to broker a peace between two of the cultures, but then some things go very wrong. I'm already a fan of Sturgeon's alternate take on hive minds from that of, say, Heinlein's _The Puppet Masters_, the Borg from _Star Trek_, and the pod people from _Invasion of the Body Snatchers_. So to have a hive mind portrayed both sympathetically and in a hard SF mode (in sharp contrast to Sturgeon) is thus very welcome, and the story itself kicks butt too. If anything was a disappointment, it was that the protagonist's final decision was a life-or-death one, which made it less moving than Sturgeon's more subtle stuff, and also less convincing than technologically similar concepts from Egan. 4.5/5
A NICHE - Peter Watts - An awesome, psychological undersea story that was apparently too dark for _Analog_. Their loss. 4.5/5
GOSSAMER - Stephen Baxter - Researchers are marooned on Pluto and make a discovery that may imperil their chance of rescue. I liked the speculative physics, though the discovery was a bit far-fetched. 3.5/5
MADAM BUTTERFLY - James P. Hogan - A fun coincidence (butterfly effect) story, the main arc of which involves pirates of a sort in the asteroid belt. The fakey Japanese names (like "Shimoto Icoro" and "Nagai Horishagi") stick in my craw, but it was still good. 3.5/5
UNDERSTAND - Ted Chiang - Not Chiang's best story, which is to say it's merely better than almost anything by almost anyone else. "Flowers for Algernon" on meth. 4.5/5
HALO - Karl Schroeder - A colonist on an icy, hostile world receives a message from a hostage on a ship commandeered by genocidal terrorists. 3.5/5
DIFFERENT KINDS OF DARKNESS - David Langford - Children practice looking at a BLIT (brain-trauma-inducing image) called "the Trembler". Very enjoyable. 4/5
FAST TIMES AT FAIRMONT HIGH - Vernor Vinge - Junior high school students deal with difficult final exams in the near future. 3.5/5
REALITY CHECK - David Brin - The second David Brin short-short in this collection, this one published in 2000 in _Nature_, and pretty good for its length. Posthumans in a constructed reality are crippled with ennui. 3.5/5
THE MENDELIAN LAMP CASE - Paul Levinson - A detective story involving the Amish and a centuries-old selective-breeding conspiracy. 3/5
KINDS OF STRANGERS - Sarah Zettel - An updated (and far better and more psychological and character-driven) take on Asimov's "Marooned Off Vesta". 4/5
THE GOOD RAT - Allen Steele - In a near-future where the banning of animal experimentation has created a market for human guinea pigs, a man finds love and learning. It didn't really go much of anywhere, but I still liked it. 3.5/5
BUILT UPON THE SANDS OF TIME - Michael Flynn - A tavern tale, liberally laced with laughs, that also has easily the best title in the collection. 4.5/5
TAKLAMAKAN - Bruce Sterling - A sidequel to the earlier Sterling story in this collection, this one focuses on Spider Pete, and is thus more exciting. It starts out as grimy cyberpunk, but quickly takes a turn into quickly-evolving bioengineered goo and dry runs for interstellar travel. It's bizarre, exhilarating, and wonderful. 4/5
HATCHING THE PHOENIX - Frederik Pohl - Being a Heechee story, this one breaks a lot of rules right from the get-go: FTL travel, artificial gravity, and safe entry and exit from the event horizon of a black hole. So it's far from diamond-hard, but it's not talc-soft either, as the focus of the story is not on the near-magical technology, but on astronomy at a far-future time when everything's already mapped (which pretty much limits astronomy to stuff like watching an inhabited planet get destroyed by a supernova, as the characters do in this story). Pohl's writing style is always likable, but the story itself is a bit boring. 3/5
IMMERSION - Gregory Benford - Tourists "ride" (in a similar fashion as Robert Silverberg's "Passengers", if not by the same mechanism) implant-outfitted chimpanzees. While the biology, genetics, and neuroscience in this are dubious at best, the core idea, writing, and storyline are superb. 4/5
These individual ratings come out to an average of around 3.75 stars, but I'm giving it a full five stars cumulatively because you could hardly do better than this if you're looking for an anthology of '90s hard SF. Almost all of the stories are good, and some are among the best in the history of the genre.