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Far Futures edited by Gregory Benford
(Tor, $15.95, trade paperback; first published 1995, this edition September 1997.)

It may or may not be the case that, in initiating this remarkable book, Gregory Benford was out to create for Hard SF a defining anthology, a showcase of how the subgenre can be done, and done very well; but intentionally or not, he succeeded. Far Futures contains five exemplary novellas which, despite their limited length, evoke the full awe of abyssal time and space with style, passion, and well-measured humour; largely free of the heaviness of exposition and graceless ideological ranting that disfigure too much of American Hard SF, they make the cosmos a playground, but one which will someday exact an ultimate price...

In his admirably comprehensive Introduction, "Looking Long", Benford sets out the narrative options available in that near-infinite playground: strategies to engineer the universe, to survive the deaths of the Sun and of everything. Their brief the need to set their stories more than a thousand years in the future, the featured writers accept these challenges of vision and scale; but they very deliberately retain a human focus, by juxtaposing their galactic quests with love stories (in all five novellas) and with elegant extended jokes (in three cases). The results are genuinely inspired, illustrating rather well the thesis that tales of the far future bring out the inventive and philosophical best in their authors; in Hard SF's case, this best is a rigour of the exotic.

"Historical Crisis" by Donald Kingsbury is a rigorous, and mordant, jest at Isaac Asimov's expense. With his sights on the seminal but facile Foundation Trilogy, Kingsbury delivers an immaculate parody of Imperial Trantor, the manipulative Second Foundation, and predictive psychohistory, before moving in for the kill. Imitating skillfully Asimov's imaginary epigraphs, long dialogues, and converging spirals of argument, Kingsbury intimates just how sterile, how stagnantly elitist, the concept of Seldon's Plan in fact is, and how prone to failure such a future-historical blueprint would be; Asimov's Second Galactic Empire is a paradise for bureaucrats, a point driven home by Kingsbury's re-envisioning of Trantor as a mandarin anthill. Along the way, the revisionism of "Historical Crisis" is spiced with amusing and telling background detail.

Where Kingsbury is content to direct his fire at a fellow purveyor of Hard SF, Charles Sheffield reserves his satiric hostility for the scientifically illiterate. "At the Eschaton" presents a protagonist who, while travelling forward in time by convulsive leaps, while witnessing the remaking of Earth and the Solar System and the transformation of humanity beyond recognition, is uncomprehending and heedless of what he sees. Drake Merlin, a contemporary composer, is charging futurewards only to retrieve his wife, who is in suspended animation, and whose awakening Drake's own blundering indefinitely postpones; those he meets in coming ages are repeatedly frustrated by his monomaniacal incuriosity. Eventually, a cosmic war forces him to come to terms with the priorities imposed by physics, but only after billions of years have passed... Sheffield's narrative is a sardonic tour de force.

At much shorter length, Greg Bear's "Judgment Engine" reads like a hybrid of the two previous works. Like Sheffield, Bear conveys a roughly contemporary character into the latter ages of the cosmos, exposing that individual's conservative purblindness, which mirrors that of Kingsbury's psychohistorians. Although "Judgment Engine", written as it is in Bear's best style of posthuman estrangement, isn't as overtly humorous as it might have been, its hinging of the fate of this universe and the next on the upshot of a marital quarrel is a joking reflection on the trivial roots of momentous events, even as the narrative seriously questions the most basic tenets of Darwinism.

That seriousness is the real point of meditations on ultimate destiny, and Sheffield, Bear, and Kingsbury all are offering substantive reflections on physical and historical law. But it is left to Poul Anderson and Joe Haldeman to render romantic elegy on the inevitable passing of the human race, and they do so superbly. Anderson, a redoubtable veteran of Hard SF, demonstrates in "Genesis" just how powerful his combination of grave historical insight and poetic technological speculation can sometimes be. In this novella, two of the cybernetic entities belonging to a larger "galactic brain" debate whether the human species they have superseded can profitably be revived. Their competing arguments are tested in varying arenas: the love that develops between their experimentally resurrected avatars, Christian and Laurinda; the virtual alternate histories those figures explore; an Earth becoming uninhabitable desert; and the intellectual interactions of the entities themselves. Anderson arrives at a sinisterly ambiguous conclusion.

But at least his feelings are ambiguous. Joe Haldeman's "For White Hill" expresses a savage fatalism, which is all the more striking for the story's first half, which seems like an account of an incidental romance between two artists invited to a contest of skills on the Earth of thousands of years hence. It is initially mere background that a nanoplague seeded by terrible aliens has depopulated Earth; but when the love affair deepens, this menace arises again, in more fatal form. All the adaptability, cultural variety, formal ingenuity, and emotional sensitivity of humanity may be a failed evolutionary strategy, Haldeman implies, making his first person narrative into a chilling document of self-damnation.

But the wide range of tone in Far Futures ensures that this pessimism is only one note of several. Robust optimism has its place as well; and this versatility confirms the continuing vitality of Hard SF, its flexible ingenuity and alert profundity of theme. Far Futures, a consistent and masterful visionary miscellany, ranks as one of the best original SF anthologies of the 1990s. It is a creative handbook for its subgenre; and this becomes even more evident with the publication in 2000 of novel-length expansions of the novellas by Kingsbury and Anderson.

Review by Nick Gevers.
More of Nick's reviews are online at Parsec.

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© Nick Gevers 29 January 2000