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The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF Hardcover – June 15, 1994
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From Publishers Weekly
This massive tome contains some of the good, the bad and the ugly stories that have helped give "hard" science fiction its reputation as a refuge for writers more comfortable with a slide rule than with a pen. The collection starts off strongly enough, with Ursula K. Le Guin's "Nine Lives," a lovely story about cloning, and it doesn't get into real trouble until it reaches Hal Clement's "Proof," which is a textbook case of the maxim proposed by Gregory Benford in his introduction, that "hard SF focuses on minimally characterized figures acting against a landscape of universal, scientific truths." The anthology then bounces through mostly lesser stories by luminaries of the field (Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Wolfe, Dick), several pieces by SF's pioneers (Kipling, Wells, Poe, Verne), and a small number of landmark works like William Gibson's "Johnny Mnemonic" (the story credited with starting the cyberpunk movement). Impressive tales by J. G. Ballard, John M. Ford, Bruce Sterling, Donald M. Kingsbury and Kate Wilhelm improve matters considerably, but then the anthology closes, inexplicably, with Verner Vinge's dated "Bookworm, Run!" Though the book's title claims that "wonder" is in "the ascent" in hard science fiction, there's little sense of forward motion--perhaps because of the odd, nonchronological arrangement of work. While hard-core hard-SF fans will no doubt find plenty to excite them here, most readers are in for the ascent of ennui.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Hard sf is represented here from its origins with the likes of Hawthorne's "Rappacchini's Daughter" to J. G. Ballard's dour "Prima Belladona," a recasting of the original tale. Hartwell and Cramer shrewdly place each story; Edgar Allan Poe's "Descent into the Maelstrom," for instance, is the field's "founding document," and Hal Clement's "Proof" is proof that carefully worked out science, linked to the imaginative exploration of a single what-if, is what the field is all about. Even so, with writers such as Clement and Robert Heinlein at its philosophical heart, this anthology casts its net wide enough to include the best of the cyberpunkers, writers such as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, as well as mavericks, such as Philip K. Dick, represented here with a mathematical tease called the "The Indefatigable Frog." A focused, disciplined collection brilliantly introduced by the editors and Gregory Benford; readers will be treated to the progression of the field and vastly entertained, too. John Mort
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Top Customer Reviews
Then come the stories, sixty-seven of them. Each is introduced by a tightly-written, part-page description of the author's life, beliefs, and other written works. There are some very good stories here. I'll list five that I liked very much. Your top five may well be different.
Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations" illustrates the danger of taking along just enough of everything--air, fuel, mass--on a space trip. There is always the unexpected.
Poul Anderson's "Kyrie" demonstrates how love can last forever--and we find this not the least bit comforting.
In James Blish's "Surface Tension" the main characters are marooned in an alien world and must overcome obstacles and opposition to build the ship that can rise above their world into the unknown. Will their ancient metal records help them or hold them back?
Arthur C. Clark takes "The Longest Science Fiction Story Ever Told" and strips it down to its essentials.
Isaac Asimov serves up perhaps the longest short-short science fiction story ever told as he slowly builds the tension while we wait for a supercomputer's answer to "The Last Question."
At nearly a thousand pages, this collection requires some serious reading commitment. If you like good science fiction, it's worth it. These stories are all worth reading and most bring the sense of wonder characteristic of good, imaginative writing. True to their hard SF tradition, the authors don't "fake" the science one bit more than is necessary.
As you might expect, many of the stories are from the "Golden Age" of the 1940's and `50's: you'll find classics such as Hal Clement's "Proof" (1942), James Blish's "Surface Tension" (1952) and Tom Godwin's haunting "The Cold Equations" (1954). Representing later years are such riveting tales as Theodore L. Thomas' "The Weather Man" (1962), Bob Shaw's "Light of Other Days" (1966) and Donald Kingsbury's "To Bring In the Steel" (1978). The 67 stories in "The Ascent of Wonder" make up a fantastic smorgasbord of the best hard science fiction of all time. But wait, there's more...there are three essays, totaling about 30 pages, on hard science fiction, written by editors David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Kramer and noted author Gregory Benford. Each story also contains a relatively short (half a page or so) but exceptionally insightful introduction. These alone make "The Ascent of Wonder" worth having.
With 990 pages of small, dense type, this volume is big and heavy. But even if you have to put an extra brace on your bookshelf to hold the weight, you should buy it. Quite simply, there is no better compilation of the imaginative, speculative, science-based stories that form the genre's "visionary core."
As an editorial creation, this anthology is lacking. After three cogent introductions by the two co-editors and sf writer (and contributor to this volume) Gregory Benford, story selection and organization fall short. A reader might have expected a straightforward chronological approach, which would have had merit as a way of showing the ongoing genre conversation unique to sf, or at least a set of thematic groups (partial notes of which can be found in the afterword). Here, though, there's no apparent organization of the stories, with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Gene Wolfe, Hal Clement, and Raymond Z. Gallun pressed in cheek-by-jowl.
Story selection is hit-or-miss. Very early stories (Hawthorne, Poe, Wells, Kipling, Verne) belong for historical relevance, if nothing else, although their quality is generally higher than most of the stories by the Campbell/Astounding writers ("Proof" was Clement's first sale, which excuse isn't available for the Gallun, Latham, Campbell, Breuer, Garrett, and Jones). As far as hits go, some stories have clear literary and/or sfnal merit--LeGuin's "Nine Lives", Shaw's "Light of Other Days," Clarke's "The Star," Pohl's "Day Million," Benford's "Exposures." The list is not exhaustive, but does indicate the anthology's sweet spot is stories written during 1960-1980.
Another comment about the editorial direction: who is the intended reader? A hard sf purist would turn up his nose at the Ballards, McCaffery, Dick, Gibson, and LeGuin. A new sf reader curious about hard sf would be put off by the poor quality of the stories from the Campbell/Astounding writers mentioned above.
This book would best belong in the hands of someone with fluency in sf who wants to find older, quality stories he otherwise wouldn't. I've been reading sf for 30 years, and this anthology was my first exposure to Theodore Thomas' "Weather Man" (about as good a Campbell/Astounding story as I can imagine), Dean Ing's "Down and Out on Ellfive-Prime," Donald Kingsbury's "To Bring in the Steel" (featuring a "competent man" analog of Kim Kardashian!?), and Wells' "Land Ironclads," among others.
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