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Live Without a Net

edited by Lou Anders

(Roc, $14.95, 336 pages, paperback; July 2003.)

Anthologies are like watching television. Not am I offered a set of short stories that each cover scantake at most a half-hour to read, but if I don't like one of them ... ZAP! Hit the remote!

Unfortunately, I have come across many anthologies that share another characteristic with television -- all those channels and nothing on. Maybe one story is good, if you're lucky, but mostly you're just wasting the time away. You keep going because maybe the next half-hour will be the one that makes it all worthwhile. It's entertainment that isn't really entertaining. It's just there.

Thank goodness (and I swear this is the last television analogy) that every now and then you get an X-Files or a Buffy. In the world of anthologies, I have little doubt that Live Without a Net will go down as one of the great ones. The cover quote from Robert Sawyer likens it to the famous anthology Dangerous Visions, and I agree. Every story is worth your time, and even the ones you may not think of as great are certainly better than good.

For starters, let me list all of the contributing authors (in order of appearance): Michael Swanwick, Chris Roberson, Paul Di Filippo, Adam Roberts, Stephen Baxter, Matthew Sturges, Mike Resnick, Kay Kenyon, Charles Stross, Terry McGarry, S.M. Stirling, Alex Irvine, Paul Melko, Del Stone Jr., David Brin, Rudy Rucker, Dave Hutchinson, John Meaney, John Grant, Pat Cadigan. Take a look at that list again. These are names to know, and I'd wager that most sf enthusiasts know at least 75% of them. These are writers that deliver.

So, without further ado, let's get to the nitty gritty. Editor Lou Anders asked his authors to provide tales in alternate universes where the Net either never existed or no longer exists. The result is a feast of wide-ranging styles and ideas.

Michael Swanwick starts things off with "Smoke and Mirrors", where con-artists try to sell Buckingham Palace, dogs can be turned into humanish creatures, and cigarette smoke can teach calculus. The story turns on a simple matter of communication delay -- a problem without the instantaneous Net.

"New Model Computer" by Adam Roberts follows a machine-man as he searches for philosophical answers by creating an organic computer that then links his world to that of mankind. Budding writers take note, for here is a one-trick pony handled perfectly. He gets in, performs the trick, and leaves with grace. A tight, enjoyable story.

In fact, Live Without a Net treats us to many tight, enjoyable stories. "Conurbation 2473" by Stephen Baxter, for example, examines how easily we can continue to destroy ourselves and fight over power even when the Earth is desolate. Mike Resnick and Kay Keyson team up in "Dobcheck, Lost in the Funhouse" where terrorists make the Net impossible and the only safe place for a computer is in vivo -- but, ah, what about the price! "All The News, All The Time, From Everywhere" by Dave Hutchinson brings us into the middle of a newspaper turf war in which an unhealthy alliance with elves calls our own free will into question. John Grant provides "No Solace for the Soul in Digitopia", a funny yet sad erotic tale that follows a man as he spreads love through the multiverse. Writers take note again: here's an erotic story that is plenty erotic but that is actually about something more than eroticism.

I could go on and on detailing all the stories, but you should get enough of an idea to go buy the thing now. Oh, OK, one more. Del Stone, Jr. writes what I think is the highlight of the anthology. "I Feed the Machine" follows a lowly servant of a math genius as he learns the value of humanity while imprisoned by a bizarre cult. The two characters enhance each other's lives and guide each other toward freedom. The execution is fantastic and I'd be surprised if this story isn't short-listed for an award or two.

You want more reasons to get this anthology? Give me a break already. It's better than anything on that blasted television. If you want to learn to write, here's the textbook. The stories are challenging, imaginative, and downright fun. None of them let you down. When was the last time you could say that about any other form of entertainment?

Review by Stuart Jaffe.

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