The Mammoth Book of Extreme Science Fiction
(Robinson, £7.99, 562 pages, paperback, published 22 June 2006;
when you first discovered grown-up science fiction? For me it was in
the small local library of my home town, reading seemingly endless anthologies
of short stories (a format that sf shines brighter in than any other
genre). Back then, I never took any notice of the names under the stories,
I just read voraciously through endless Orbits and Best Ofs,
and only when I finished all of those (reading quite a few of them twice,
just in case) did I turn my greedy little eyes to the novels. As much
as I now enjoy novels, and as often as I've tried and failed to catch
that rush of intellectual adrenalin since, a short story collection
with the title of The Mammoth Book Of Extreme Science Fiction
had me hooked before I'd finished reading the strapline: 'Mind-blowing
stories of hard science fiction...'
I was always going to be disappointed in the end by this collection,
the only real question being by how much. But this anthology comes oh-so
close to resurrecting the excitement had during those early days spent
at the library.
Things start auspiciously with Greg Benford's 'Anomalies', which is
exactly the kind of thing I loved when I was small, right down
to the straightforward narrative style, the characterisation (a classic
'everyman' astronomer hero) and a beautifully understated final paragraph.
Likewise, with Paul Di Filippo's '...And The Dish Ran Away With The
Spoon', although there are references to -- ahem - naughtiness, that
I may have had to look up in a dictionary back then. Nevertheless, both
my actual self and my virtual ten-year old self (who's reviewing the
book alongside me) enjoyed this modern take on the Asimovian robot story.
Stephen Baxter's 'The Pacific Mystery' is a grand old bit of alternate
universe steampunk with a topographical anomaly thrown in for good effect.
Any story that has Spitfires landing on atomic-powered aerial battleships
has got to be worth 30 minutes of an English sf fan's time! Editor Mike
Ashley has a talent for juxtaposing stories -- Benford's big science
against Di Filippo's cyber-domestic, then Baxter's 1950s large-scale
technophilia against Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross's nanotech utopia
in 'Flowers For Alice'. Big Me loved this story, but it gave Little
Me a headache -- as anything by that pair would have.
Little Me would also have lapped up Geoffrey A. Landis's 'The Long
Chase', short, punchy and razor-focussed hard sf as it is, whereas Big
Me could also appreciate Robert Reed's 'Hoop-Of-Benzene', one of his
Marrow stories. It has a lot of the 'sense of wonder' of Landis,
but is carefully grounded in a more personal story that drips with background
There then follows a selection of vintage stories of wildly varying
quality, but undeniable inventiveness, including one by Theodore Sturgeon,
'The Girl Had Guts', that shows just why he's so fondly remembered.
I can't believe I'd never come across this obvious inspiration to Ridley
Scott's Alien before (which may be just as well, as I'm sure
it would have given Little Me some real grade-A nightmares!)
Harlan Ellison's 'The Region Between' is the usual brilliant tour-de-force
of ideas, albeit exactly the kind of thing I was expecting. Ian
McDonald's 'The Days Of Solomon Gursky', however, was very much not
what I was expecting, and exactly what I'd hoped for (if that isn't
too damning a phrase), managing to confound my expectations at the turn
of every page; an episodic bildungsroman for an immortal, vaguely reminiscent
of Accelerando, but rather more coherent.
Not many writers have tried to depict the very end of the universe
and to depict the physics accurately; but then, not many writers
are Greg Bear. In the penultimate story, 'Judgment Engine', Bear really
gets EXTREME on our asses. Imagine if Douglas Adams' The Restaurant
At The End Of The Universe was done with a resolutely straight face
(and with a university rather than a restaurant). The very concepts
test our imaginations to the limit, and force Bear to introduce a comprehensible
viewpoint character; but he also raises some tricky epistemological
questions at this ultimate dying of the light. You might well ask, how
can you portray the very end of creation itself, an impossibly
distant time in the future, other than through the absurd? Bear makes
a creditable stab at it, however.
So, The Mammoth Book Of Extreme Science Fiction - 'Mammoth'
might be stretching it a little bit (there are just over 550 pages here),
but 'Extreme' is pretty much right on the money.
Elsewhere in infinity plus: