(Victor Gollancz, £12.99, 320 pages, hardback; published 19 April 2001; contents published as four individual novellas in 2000, and published in 2002 as two volumes of back-to-back novellas, Binary 3 and Binary 4.)
Futures assembles new novellas by four of the topnames in British science fiction: Stephen Baxter, the multiple award-winning author of The Time Ships (an epic sequel to the Wells classic); Peter Hamilton, famous for his lengthy space operas; Paul McAuley, whose most celebrated work is the award-winning cyberpunk novel Fairyland; and Ian McDonald, a virtuoso literary bricoleur who launched his career with the ambitious and impressive Martian novel Desolation Road.
As editor Peter Crowther points out in his infectiously enthusiastic introduction, these are four very different writers. Their accomplishments testify vigorously to the broad scope of contemporary science fiction -- as do these four new tales.
Baxter's "Reality Dust" unfolds in the same future history shared by much of his fiction. It's a radical shift in tone, however, from his usual blend of science and adventure to a sort of cosmic mysticism reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke and Olaf Stapledon. Baxter isn't totally at ease with this style, but it's an interesting experiment.
McAuley's "Making History" is a plodding tale of political intrigue set on an alien world. It's by far the weakest piece here.
Hamilton provides a superlatively exciting alternate history in "Watching Trees Grow." He packs more than two centuries of history, a wealth of intriguing technological and social speculations, and a compelling and unusual murder mystery plot into 92 well-crafted pages.
The showstopper is McDonald's harrowing "Tendeléo's Story," which combines a Ballardian disaster scenario with post-colonial discourse. The eponymous protagonist is an African girl caught between a bizarre extraterrestrial invasion and unwanted interference from Western peacekeepers. Deftly written, this novella is as moving as it is inventive.
As a bonus, Futures is beautifully designed -- an exceptionally attractive example of book crafting.
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© Claude Lalumière 15 September 2001, 12 April 2003