Live Without a Net
(Roc, $14.95, 336 pages, paperback; July 2003.)
Anthologies are like watching television. Not am I offered a set of
short stories that each
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
"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.