Mission Critical

By Jonathan Strahan

Rating: 4 stars

I liked the idea of this anthology: of things going wrong, and going wrong quickly, and the people who have to deal with those situations and comes out the other side. There’s a lot to enjoy here. It displays its mission statement with a strong first story, This is Not the Way Home by Greg Egan, involving a space tourist trapped on the moon when contact with Earth disappears. This is followed up with a very different take on the idea in Rescue Party by Aliette de Bodard, set in her Xuya universe. This one posits the idea that people can be removed from society and “stored” to be used as living memory banks, if their cultural impact or worth is judged to be more important than their individual liberty, and the rescue party that comes to help the protagonist.

Other highlights include John Barnes’ The One Who Was There, which sort of snuck up on me. You start off thinking that the protagonist is a journalist who’s never been to Ethics, only interested in the story around the Saturn system, before it expands and shows you something much more nuanced. I enjoyed this a lot by the end. Then there’s Mutata Superesse, a fun first-person story with a rapid-response soldier/paramedic dashing in to rescue some colonists who’re in over their heads, and spinning some yarns as they go. The Fires of Prometheus is a story about first responders dealing with someone who just wants to die on Io, but the rules won’t let them leave him alone. It’s a poignant piece with some nuance to it.

I don’t think there’s any particularly bad stories in here, although some worked better than others. Some of the misses for me included Hanging Gardens about attempts to terraform Mars, and the children who get caught in it; Genesong which was just a bit grim, involving a pirate attack that kills almost everyone on a ship that was capturing an asteroid to bring back to a terraformed Venus; and while it’s not exactly bad, Cyclopterus isn’t the story I would have chosen to end the collection with, set in a post-climate change planet, where the megacorps are still intent on wringing all the profit they can out before it all collapses.

Strahan has a good eye for pulling the right stories into his themed anthologies. If you like a a bit of disaster-porn, you can’t go wrong with this one.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781085806
Publisher: Solaris
Year of publication: 2019

Engineering Infinity

By Jonathan Strahan

Rating: 3 stars

This is a collection of short stories (mostly) with the theme of “hard SF”, although this is never really defined (a point that the editor notes in the introduction) and some of the stories definitely stray outside this sub-genre. There were more hits than misses in the collection, but it’s the misses that stand out for me, possibly because there was a string of them in quick succession in the middle of the book. There was Kathleen Ann Goonan’s Creatures With Wings (a small Buddhist community is saved/kidnapped by angels/aliens just before the end of the world) and Walls of Flesh, Bars of Bone which started off strongly with a drunken sociology professor seeing something impossible in a fragment of old 35mm film but quickly descends into incomprehensibility (for me, at least).

But there are also some great stories. There’s Charlie Stross’s Bit Rot, set in the same universe as his novel Saturn’s Children and the wonderfully named The Server and the Dragon which was an interesting story but really left me wanting to know more about the world that we got glimpses of in the narrative. I had the same problem (albeit moreso) with David Moles’ A Solider of the City, which dropped tantalising hints of the world the story was set in but ignored them in favour of a very narrow story that I found unsatisfying compared to the world.

Both Peter Watts’ Malak and Stephen Baxter’s The Invasion of Venus were fascinating reads because they had the Other at the heart of them. The former got us into the codebase of a non-sentient fighter drone aircraft whose program was altered to make it take collateral damage into account; and the latter had Humans getting really worked up about an incoming alien spacecraft and then feeling the let down when they realise that it wasn’t heading towards Earth.

A decent mix of stories but unfortunately it’s the ones I didn’t enjoy that I remember more than the ones I did.

Book details

ISBN: 9781907519512
Publisher: Solaris
Year of publication: 2010

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