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The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction
edited by George Mann
Solaris Books, 416 pages

The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction
George Mann
George Mann is the Consultant Editor of Solaris and the author of The Mammoth Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, The Human Abstract and Time Hunter: The Severed Man. He lives and works in Nottinghamshire, England.

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A review by David Hebblethwaite

Solaris Books is the new science fiction and fantasy imprint from Games Workshop's publishing arm, which "aims to fill the ever-widening gap that has appeared between the large mass-market publishers and the small genre press" and "to publish fantastic books by great authors." This anthology is their "book-sized calling card." It's heartening to see a company with Games Workshop's clout investing, as it were, in the field; so one wants to wish Solaris well -- provided, of course, that they publish good fiction.

What, then, are Solaris publishing? On the basis of this anthology, quite a wide-ranging selection of SF, some of it very good indeed. Take Stephen Baxter's "Last Contact," for example: a deeply poignant story of continuing human existence in the face of impending cataclysm (in the form of the Big Rip). The tale rings true emotionally: if unavoidable apocalypse came, we probably would carry on doing things like tending our gardens, because it's human nature to do things, even if it comes to naught in the long run. But "Last Contact" is soured somewhat by the contortions Baxter has to put his science through, increasing the acceleration of the expanding universe to a degree I found impossible to accept, all so the Big Rip can occur whilst the 1999 eclipse is still in living memory, rather than billions of years hence. The sense of artifice is only heightened by Baxter's decision to set his story in the timeless English countryside, rather than the city, where decisions would be made. Yes, these decisions let the author make the point he wants to make, and he makes it very well; but one is constantly reminded that, in the most basic sense, it's all "not real."

There isn't really a theme that unites the stories in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, but one does get a strong sense of SF as a genre aware of its own history. The Baxter story couldn't have been written when the genre was beginning, not only because of its science, but also the way its title and plot play on established themes. A number pieces draw on SF's history in such ways, and some refer to the genre explicitly. "Jellyfish" by Mike Resnick and David Gerrold does so rather clumsily, with its tedious caricatures of science fiction writers ("Dillon K. Filk," etc.). It's a shame, because the frantic piling-on of metafictions towards the end is quite entertaining, if you wade through the rest to reach it. More successful is "The Farewell Party" by Eric Brown, which raises the question of what SF might become if a novum one day turned real. Actually, that's not the main thrust of Brown's story, one of his sequence depicting life in a Yorkshire village in a world where the alien Kéthani resurrect anyone who dies for their own unknown ends. In this one, Brown's small group of characters must decide once and for all whether to take full advantage of the opportunities presented by the Kéthani -- if, indeed, it's an advantage at all. The tale is enjoyable enough, but would be better read in the context of the others in its series (I understand that a Kéthani collection is due from Solaris next year; it will be most welcome).

I was reminded several times whilst reading this anthology of something Adam Roberts has suggested, that the future of SF will be "Poetry" (which I take to mean exploring the metaphorical possibilities of SF topoi, rather than writing straight-ahead depictions of the future). There's a fair bit of that in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, and Roberts himself contributes a fine example, "A Distillation of Grace." His fictional world was settled by 2048 people who live by the doctrine of Shad, which states that each couple must have one child, and the genders of offspring be managed, so that after twelve generations, only one individual will remain, and spread grace throughout the cosmos. It's a striking examination of what can happen when people become trapped, unthinkingly, in their belief systems.

Lighter -- but nevertheless biting in its own way -- is James Lovegrove's "The Bowdler Strain," in which a "logovirus" escapes from a defence research laboratory in and spreads throughout Britain, robbing people of their ability to swear. No big deal, perhaps, but popular unrest still threatens; and the proposed solution is not without its risks... Two of Lovegrove's hallmarks -- Britishness and an abiding love of language -- run rampant in "The Bowdler Strain," so one's reaction to it will depend very much on one's opinion of Lovegrove. I like his work very much, and found this story hilarious.

I may have given the impression that this book is full of SF-as-metaphor stories, but it's not so. One story that isn't (unless I've missed something) is "Zora and the Land Ethic Nomads" by Mary Turzillo (who, sadly, is the only female writer in the anthology; I assume this is an accident of the selection/commissioning process), both a mystery story and a tale of the harsh realities of life on colonized planets. When their "hab" springs a radiation leak, Zora and her family face the prospect of having to eke out an existence in the Martian wilderness, unless they can prove that the suspicious nomad Valkiri had something to do with it. I found the story engaging while I was reading it, though it didn't really stay with me afterwards.

Ian Watson's contribution, "Cages," lingers long in the mind, thanks to its well-realized atmosphere and heady concoction of ideas: alien bees dubbed the Varroa have appeared on Earth through hoop-shaped gateways that appear spontaneously, and have impeded the human population with cages on various parts of the body. Now, a "neo-techno" group hopes to drive the Varroa away with remixed samples of their own buzzing. It's a fascinating set-up, but one not carried through: Watson's last line reveals what he is aiming for, but the physical cages and the metaphorical ones don't synergize, to the detriment of both; the mysteries of the Varroa aren't resolved, and the final sentence feels like a pun made for its own sake.

"The Accord" by Keith Brooke is perhaps the story in the book where ideas, emotion, prose and plot come together the most successfully. We follow Tish Goldenhawk, as she becomes dazzled by a stranger who may be an angel, but must surely be a fragment of the "supermind" known as the Accord -- musn't he? His pursuers may disagree... Brooke's world and his story and rendered in beautiful language, he goes seamlessly from action to affecting emotion to metaphysical speculation in an excellent piece of science fiction.

In some ways, it's hard not to treat The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction as something more than it is probably intended to be. It's marketed as encapsulating the output of Solaris Books, but... New imprint, new stories -- the temptation is to see it as somehow representing the state of the genre. And what's striking about the list of contributing authors (aside from the gender imbalance, which I've already mentioned) is how familiar their names are: most of them would not be out of place on the contents page of a science fiction anthology published at any point in the last ten years. Mention of "new science fiction" also got me thinking about how many SF authors there are who were born in the 70s or later, and I was disappointed not to find any in the present volume. I want to make it clear, though, that these points are observations rather than criticisms, because they don't take account of how the stories were chosen (which is something I don't know); and they're based on viewing the book as summing up the genre rather than as summing up Solaris Books. Just wanted to mention them, that's all.

Back to the task at hand, which is assessing The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction as an introduction to Solaris Books. Some very fine stories, others not quite so fine; but, on balance, a good start for the imprint. So I do wish Solaris success, and look forward to seeing where they take us in the future.

Copyright © 2007 David Hebblethwaite

David lives somewhere in Yorkshire and has also written reviews for The Zone, Laura Hird's New Review, Whispers of Wickedness and The Alien Online. He has tried to think of a witty and interesting second sentence for this biography, but... well, you be the judge. To read more of his work, visit his review blog.

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