Infinity Wars

With Infinity Wars (Solaris, September 2017), Jonathan Strahan’s Infinity Project turns its attention to military science fiction. Each volume of Strahan’s Infinity Project anthologies—Infinity Wars is the sixth—has taken some aspect of hard sf and turned it on its head a bit, offering fresh takes on old themes, often from authors not normally known for writing hard sf. (I reviewed Engineering Infinity, the first book of the Infinity Project, in 2001; last year I reviewed the fifth book, Bridging Infinity. I’ve read them all.) Now it’s military sf’s turn, and if there’s a subgenre of science fiction that could use some shaking off of the shibboleths, this is it.

That’s because military sf has more than its share of detractors, a result of it being associated, rightly or wrongly, with a certain ultra-conservative, anti-government, paranoid brand of American politics, one whose bent has gotten more and more strident as its mantle passed from Heinlein to Pournelle to a younger generation: Disch traces the evolution of this strain in his 1998 study, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of.1 See also David Auerbach’s piece for The Daily Beast. These survivalist/soldier-of-fortune power fantasies aren’t the only kind of military sf out there, but there’s an awful lot of them (whereas, as Disch points out, masterpieces like The Forever War are singular), and it’s what people think of when they dismiss military sf.

If Infinity Wars seems like a breath of fresh air, it’s because what Crank! editor Bryan Cholfin once called “war pornography”2 is nowhere to be found. Yes, there are military operations; yes, there’s some awfully clever military hardware; and yes, there’s a mercenary or two (in Elizabeth Bear’s “Perfect Gun,” the eponymous weapon has more of a conscience than its mercenary owner). But the 15 stories in Infinity Wars, by and large, explore war—their remit was for them to imagine the future of warfare—without going so far as to celebrate it. The perspectives are diverse, and so are the authors (fewer than half are men); if there’s a common thread, it’s that most of these stories take place on the ground—at the front, in the trenches, at the supply depot—or after the war is over. The cost of conflict—on populations, on the soldiers themselves—is never ignored.

These stories see grunts and clerks dealing with the fog and confusion of war: a maintenance worker at a depot seconded to the war effort in Carrie Vaughan’s “The Evening of Their Span of Days”; a young and confused soldier sent to defend the aliens whose arrival disrupted the world’s economy in Nancy Kress’s “Dear Sarah.” They see veterans dealing with the aftermath: Eleanor Arnason’s restrained and powerful “Mines,” a story ostensibly about a minesweeper telepathically linked to a mine-detecting rodent that has things to say about PTSD, damage and survival.

These stories also reveal an up-to-date understanding of warfare. And by that I don’t mean tech. As Strahan writes in his introduction, “War seems to have evolved from an easy-to-spot state-vs.-state conflict to something muddier and harder to understand, where individual acts of terrorism contrast with hi-tech conflict conducted at arm’s length by soldier-bureaucrats with devastating affect [sic] for those on the ground.” That understanding shows up in many ways. Two of them, Rich Larson’s “Heavies” and Genevieve Valentine’s “Overburden,” offer takes on colonization and occupation, and the damage occupation does to occupier and occupied alike. Several stories explore disinformation and propaganda. In “The Last Broadcasts,” An Owomoyela tells the story about an information officer told to censor news about a colony world that cannot be rescued; Aliette de Bodard’s “In Everlasting Wisdom” implants “appeasers” with symbionts to enforce loyalty to the emperor; and E. J. Swift’s “Weather Girl” weaponizes weather forecasts, with information on oncoming storms hidden or revealed as part of military strategy. In “The Oracle,” Dominica Phetteplace explores how predictive software can be turned to military purposes.

The anthology ends with a novelette from Peter Watts, “ZeroS,” that touches on a theme Watts returns to repeatedly: the nature of human consciousness. In this story, soldiers’ consciousnesses are suppressed so that they can fight using their non-conscious selves (intelligence without consciousness: something Watts posited in Blindsight). It’s a difficult circle to square, but one deeply relevant to the subject matter. There is a tension between war as dehumanization and war as a deeply, almost quintessentially human activity. What does it mean to have our humanity stripped away? Or more precisely: is what being stripped away here our humanity. Tor.com has reprinted the story, so you can read it online.

These are bracing stories, stories that ring true and feel relevant, in a way that stories about space navies thundering against each other can never be, because those stories are an anachronism: rules of war from the age of sail, transmogrified into an interstellar setting. The best stories about war are universal.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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Bridging Infinity

bridging-infinityMost hard science fiction isn’t about science at all. Instead it’s really engineering fiction, concerned with building, creating and problem-solving, rather than pure science. To be sure, the two disciplines get blurred in the popular mindset: Heinlein, the field’s patron saint, was an engineer rather than a scientist; so too is one of the most prominent defenders and promoters of science in American popular culture, Bill Nye. Rocket science is as much engineering — materials science, propulsion — as it is physics, and many of the Giant Objects of hard science fiction, such as Dyson Spheres and Larry Niven’s Ringworld, are essentially engineering challenges in novel form (Niven himself described the Ringworld as a suspension bridge without endpoints). And let’s be honest: the holy text of hard sf, Analog, often reads as comfort fiction for engineers, a kind of escapism that reassures the reader that all problems, no matter how big or intractable, can be solved.

I’m probably being more than a bit unfair. Not every hard sf story requires a problem-solving engineer as its protagonist. Certainly that’s not the case with Jonathan Strahan’s Infinity Project anthologies, the fifth and most recent iteration of which, Bridging Infinity (Solaris, November 2016) is all about that hard sf tradition of engineered solutions to future problems. As Strahan writes in the introduction,

Science fiction, or at least the sort of science fiction that was typical in American pulp magazines from the 1930s to the 1950s was founded on a belief that problems are solvable, and that those problems are solvable using technical or engineering solutions. When faced with a problem in a story in John W. Campbell’s Astounding, our engineering hero wouldn’t quail before the challenge, but would instead “science the shit out of it” (as Andy Weir so elegantly put it) and come up with an engineering solution to the problem. And sometime it would take a big solution, a Hoover Dam or maybe moving a planet or two.

While previous volumes of the Infinity Project focused on interstellar futures, or limited themselves to the Solar System, Bridging Infinity‘s stories are about or are set in engineering projects at large — sometimes very large — scales, and the problems they aim to solve. But — and this is important — setting is not story. The fifteen stories by eighteen authors (there are three collaborations) are a good mix of perspective, character and setting.

The characters are as often adventurers and troubadours (for the latter, see “The Mighty Slinger” by Tobias S. Buckell and Karen Lord) as they are engineers; the marginalized are as present as the managerial, and the problem they’re trying to solve is sometimes their own survival. The settings themselves are fairly diverse as well: they range from cities, ships and installations to massive geoengineering projects on Earth (engineered responses to climate change is a recurring topic) and Venus to Dyson-grade megastructures. Some of the settings are familiar — with “Parables of Infinity,” Robert Reed presents us with another of his Great Ship stories, and Allen Steele returns to the setting of his novel, Hex, with a story that addresses a design flaw in that novel’s setting, a “not-quite Dyson sphere composed of trillions of hexagons.” Others, like the gravity wave generator in Benford and Niven’s “Mice Among Elephants,” are utterly uncanny. And sometimes the scope of the story is as vast as the built environment: see, for example, the multigenerational viewpoints of “The Venus Generations” by Stephen Baxter or Ken Liu’s “Seven Birthdays.”

I’ve long been a fan of Strahan’s Infinity Project. The stories have been of high caliber — Strahan’s a great editor, one I nominate for a Hugo each year — and I’ve made a point of buying and reading each installment as it comes out. But while Bridging Infinity is a solid and diverting collection of stories — it does what it says on the tin — it’s possible that after five spins of the wheel the returns are beginning to diminish. I can’t point to any single story and say, this is utterly amazing, whereas I could do that with many of the stories in the first book, Engineering Infinity. In the end, my sense of wonder ought to have engaged more than it did.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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