CLUBHOUSE: Review: Stories 2: Space, an anthology by Robert J. Sawyer

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OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.

 

Stories 2: Space – an anthology by Robert J. Sawyer

Ebook edition published September, 2019, by SFWRITER.COM Inc., Mississauga, Ontario, Canada.

Cover image credit: Nigel Sharp.

Note: This is the second of three themed volumes containing the collected short stories of Robert J. Sawyer. The other two are: Stories 1: Earth (Complete Short Fiction Volume 1), and Stories 3: Time (Complete Short Fiction Volume 3). All stories previously published.

The Hand You’re Dealt With

Premise:

The Mendalia Habitat Space City is a sort of Libertarian paradise. No one pays any taxes. There are few government services. The Police, for example, are not public servants but hired help. Nevertheless, this Libertarian “world” functions with certain constraints. Some are imposed from without, such as a guaranteed inability to conduct genetic manipulation. Others come from within, for instance the mandatory use of soothsayers, a law which prevents people from stumbling through life by trial and error. Soothsaying reveals how best an individual can achieve their potential. It’s all very tidy and efficient. Consequently, the murder of a soothsayer comes as something of a shock.

Review:  

A rather splendid mystery centred around, not so much the traditional human relationships in crime, but the logical and intriguing implications of advanced and abused technology. This is genre-crossing fiction at its best; an example of concept-driven SF successfully merged with all the “fun” of crime/mystery puzzle-solving, with the added tang of ever-so-slightly subversive digs at Libertarianism, all the more remarkable as the story was originally published in a Libertarian SF anthology. However, this is not at all a political polemic, but rather a wry revelation that every utopian vision is automatically and inevitably undercut by humanity’s less-than-perfect inherent nature.

I suspect the habitat is obviously named after Gregor Mendel, the biologist who pioneered the principles of natural gene manipulation long before DNA was discovered. Bit of a clue, that.

The Blue Planet

Premise:

The Martians are getting annoyed. We keep sending probes to junk up their planet and they keep knocking them out of commission in the hope we’ll take the hint and stop. Not necessarily a good idea to present the human race with a challenge, though.

Review:  

After the Mars Polar Lander disappeared in 1999 the Globe and Mail newspaper requested Robert write a short story explaining the probe’s disappearance. This story is the result. As usual with his fiction, the story is concept-driven, but what a concept! At the time, I’m sure it was brand new to the majority of G&M readers. You could say Robert didn’t just respond to G&M’s offer, he took full advantage of an unexpected opportunity to promote, or at least share, a relatively new and exciting scientific theory with all sorts of incredible implications. Laying the groundwork for acceptance should it ever pan out. Who says SF can’t be educational and entertaining at the same time? Not me. Not after reading this fun tale.

Star Light, Star Bright

Premise:  

A few hundred humans interested in the past have been exiled to a transparent dome on the outside of the Dyson Sphere containing the rest of the human race who happen to be a close-minded lot reluctant to question anything. Fortunately the ancients who built the Dyson Sphere stored their forbidden records in the dome. Research and life is going well for the eager knowledge-seeking exiles, at least until the first children born under the dome begin seeing things the adults can’t see.

Review:  

A delightfully old-fashioned tale where a simple concept is explored in several ways, often employing touches of humour. Can’t say much about it without giving away the resolution to the initial problem, but it has a lot to do with the eternal question “Why do chickens fly?” 

Stream of Consciousness

Premise:  

An alien spacecraft crash lands on the rocks of the Cambrian Shield outside Sudbury. A scientist and his helicopter pilot are first to arrive, followed by the medics of an air ambulance. Turns out the alien pilot is still alive, but just barely. How do you go about saving an alien life when its form of life is truly and utterly alien?

Review:  

This Aurora Award-winning short story was originally published in an anthology intended to teach science through science fiction. Consequently, very little characterization and plot are involved; not that that matters. This entirely-concept-driven story exploring likely possibilities for a coherent and functioning alien biology is utterly enthralling. How biology actually works is one thing. How it might work given different environmental and evolutionary pressures is something else again, and far more exciting. I figure every hardcore SF fan is secretly an exobiologist wannabe. If you fit into that category, this story is for you.

Above it All

Premise:

For some reason Yuri Vereshchagin, the last Cosmonaut aboard the Soviet orbital station Mir, has committed suicide. Possibly something to do with the fact that Mir is now merely a Russian space station. Colonel Paul Rackham is performing an EVA from the space shuttle Discovery to recover the body. He is not looking forward to entering Mir.

Review:  

This story pushed a lot of buttons when it first was published. I just read it for the first time and it triggered some of my buttons. Initial response? A heavy-handed moral fable that is rather unfair because there’s no reason why blah blah blah etc. etc. No need for me to go off like a firecracker. I’ll just say this story is about the many, many risks of space travel beyond the obvious ones. It certainly makes a point or two. In fact the points made are well worth keeping in mind even as we habitually rhapsodise over the concept of mankind spreading throughout the galaxy and extol what is, in effect, the modern, space-age form of manifest destiny. There are other factors to take into account. Call it romantic idealism brought down to Earth by sober reflection. Apparently some perceived this story as an attack on everything they dreamed about since they were kids. I see it as a call for needful balance.

Is there anything I liked about this story? Oh yes, the description of a derelict space station. I was rather fond of Mir. It was a typically ramshackle exposed-pipes Soviet contraption where seven American astronauts served time in preparation for the later International Space Station. How many readers remember the potentially devastating fire onboard? Not to mention the chemical leaks, power breakdowns, and the midspace collision? I recommend the book DRAGONFLY: NASA AND THE CRISIS ABOARD MIR by Brian Burrough as an excellent study of this now obscure piece of space history.

The Eagle has Landed

Premise:  

An alien race detects our first splitting of the atom. This is great news! Inevitably, races that discover the principles of fission rapidly develop the wonders of fusion and leave their home world to explore their planetary system, thus proving their maturity for inclusion in the galactic community. So the aliens send one of their own to monitor the Earth’s progress until it is evident Earth is ready for first contact. Trouble is, this time the process seems to be taking way longer than is usual for a primitive civilization.

Review:  

This is a kind of antidote to the previous story. It’s optimistic, yet pessimistic at the same time. Much like our faltering progress as a civilization and a species, I suppose. Not much happens in the story, but that’s more or less the point. The two stories are similar in that both call for serious reflection on the need or the alleged need for space exploration. Where do I stand?

I have a confession to make. I have absolutely no objection to the United States of America spending billions of dollars to entertain me, a rabid Canadian SF fan, with wonderful pictures and fascinating discoveries revealing the true nature of the Solar System. I’m all for it. I’d like to see NASA squeeze even more money out of the taxpayers for this purpose. And other countries do the same, too: Japan, Russia, China, India, the European nations, etc. The more the merrier I say. Money is no objection. I’d like to see NASA get it all. Sober reflection? No, sir! Giddy glee at the prospect of further exciting discoveries. It’s so nice of everybody to do this for me. Let’s just say I tend to be on the advocacy side of the human space program. Just a tad.

Motive

Premise:  

Bedrossian is a planet without a star that drifts in the dark of deep space. Despite the lack of an external heat and light source intelligent life has evolved. Daven Simcoe is given the task of showing Bedrossian Ambassador Alalahar around the Starplex, a magnificent Starship of the Commonwealth of Planets. Unfortunately, things get out of hand and now Daven is on trial for the murder of the ambassador. More than his career is at stake.

Review:

This is Robert’s first sale and first story, and a darn good one. One of the most interesting aspects of the story is the wonderfully alien biology of an intelligent creature that has no ability to perceive objects with light as we do. And what makes the ending both fascinating and unpredictable is that it depends entirely on the consequences, or collateral damage if you will, of the very nature of the alien. Not even the alien could have anticipated what happened to it.

Throw in an ideological conflict pitting “natural” technology against machine technology where the superiority or inferiority of either is not at all clear as both seem to function extremely well, it becomes amazing that only one individual was murdered. It seems that high intelligence alone is not a good basis for friendship and alliance. Indeed, it can lead to the very opposite, to enmity and hatred, when the beings involved are so dissimilar. Not a question of racism, but of beings so profoundly different their very life functions are hostile to each other. Think of it as a predator-prey relationship where both are predators and both are prey, depending on who gets the upper hand (or tentacle) first.

This is a very lively first story, and quite an intelligent exploration of how alien biology and intelligence are likely to be beyond our capacity to predict until we actually run into it, and then it becomes a matter of shock confrontation. I really enjoyed reading this one.

Ineluctable

Premise:  

Contact with distant aliens is established with flashing light signals rather than the anticipated radio transmissions. Still, the basic logic and mathematics required are the same and the development of mutual comprehension and the ability to convey subtle meanings is quite rapid. Trouble is, the aliens keep asking questions which humanity is unsure how to answer.

Review:  

I quite like this story. The complexities of establishing communication through pure logic in the absence of shared language and expression are laid out so clearly success seems inevitable. Even more intriguing, Robert explores the consequences of dissimilar biology and thought patterns to hint that logic can overcome even those obstacles yet, because the meaning of what is communicated is totally dependent on built-in instincts and genetic programming, both sides can wind up complacently satisfied with false assumptions. Given that the same thing can happen on Earth for cultural or ideological reasons, this is what’s known as a difficult day at the UN General Assembly, or on Facebook. Virtually impossible to get your point across. In this story the misunderstandings are subtle, but crucial. Think of it as a warning that maybe talking to aliens isn’t such a good idea after all.

This, too, won an Aurora Award, by the way.

Mickeys

Premise:

Don and Sas are part of the first expedition to Mars. But they don’t get to land. They’re “Mickeys,” the also-rans, like Mike Collins for Apollo 11, the guys who have to stay in orbit. At least their task of building a camp on the Martian Moon Deimos is interesting, though not very to the public at home compared to the guys running around on Mars itself. Thing is, Don and Sas’s job turns out to be quite a lot more interesting than anticipated.

Review:

This is a fun story, the sort of old-fashioned “What the heck is this?” SF fiction I am a complete sucker for. There’s an obvious nod or homage to a certain SF film I dare not mention because it would give too much away. I also like, and indeed approve, of the ending. For me the story was exciting because as soon as it became clear the intrepid pair were going to land on Deimos I became filled with anticipation. Happy to say my expectations were met. Wonderful story.

As for Mike Collins, he actually enjoyed his stint aboard Columbia while Neil and Buzz were hopping around Tranquility Base. Don’t believe me? Read his autobiography CARRYING THE FIRE. Has a foreword by Charles A. Lindberg, no less. Very readable and perceptive book.

Kata Bindu

Premise:  

The majority of the human race has taken the next step in our evolution and merged with computer AI to become a single, near immortal entity. The others, whom I suspect to be Kalahari Bush tribes, have been exiled to the Moon.

Review:  

On the one hand, the loneliness of a hyper-intelligent being who has discovered that life does NOT exist elsewhere in the universe. On the other, subsistence-level nomads living in a vast artificial environment beneath a dome arching over Copernicus crater, with one nomad fashioning wings made out of skin so that he might touch the centre of the sky. The latter scenario puts me in mind of a number of novels and TV shows where the crews of multi-generation starships have lost all knowledge of the true nature of their “world.” Which group would I prefer to belong to? I don’t want to be eaten by hyenas. Then again, I don’t want to spend millions of years talking to myself (five or six hours a day is quite sufficient). Neither society constitutes a utopia. However, I do empathise and identify with the frustrated sense of curiosity exhibited by both main characters. Curiosity be among the finest motivations. Fascinating story.

Golden Fleece

Premise:  

JASON is the AI controlling the multi-generation ship Argo, humanity’s first attempt to reach and colonize a distant star system. Everything is going fine, except some individuals are beginning to suspect otherwise. Including JASON.

Review:  

Superficially, the reader could consider this a logical extrapolation of the questions posed by HAL in the movie 2001. How do you cope with an AI determined to serve the greater good? But there’s more to this story than exploring the potential use or abuse of AI operating on its own. It’s really an examination of the nature of authority in general, or to reduce it slightly, the role of government. The mantra of virtually every type of government invented by mankind is “We know best.” This is why some people prefer limited government, or no government. Unfortunately that merely shifts the mandate back to individuals with powerful backing claiming “I know best.” One of our fundamental instincts as a species is the lust for dominance. Consequently, the sincerity of the mantra, no matter what form it takes, is always suspect, and rightfully so. This story poses the question “What if an AI, unlike humans, is genuinely capable of serving humanity without prejudice, without regard to its own needs or desires; would that be a good thing or a bad thing?” The future of the human race may well depend on the answer.

At any rate, this story entertains with several twists along the line of “all is not what it seems.” It was Robert’s breakout story, the one that established his reputation, and was later expanded into his first novel. And, a rather nifty touch, the story was first published in the September 1988 edition of Amazing Stories. How cool is that?

Wiping Out

Premise:

The human Trisystems is at war with the inhabitants of Altair III. Finally, someone has figured out how to win the war, but at what price?

Review:  

It is generally considered a bad thing to lose a war, though Germany and Japan are often held up as nations that wound up being better off after losing than they would have been had they won WWII. Still, being pounded to rubble and losing millions of people, both military and civilian, are seldom named as national goals. Yet massive destruction on your side is always the price your enemy is willing to pay to achieve victory. Consequently, everyone knows that losing a war entails great risks. What if winning a war is even riskier? This is space opera with a difference; it questions the very rationale behind the concept.

Come All Yee Faithful

Premise:  

Father Bailey is the only Catholic Priest serving the Mars Colony. He is also the only practicing Catholic on Mars. Seems the church had been a tad optimistic when they decided to send him there. Still, apart from one secular judge, he’s the only person with the legal power to marry people, so he keeps busy. Then some fool had to go and proclaim a miracle had taken place on Mars, and now the Vatican expects him to investigate.

Review:  

The conundrum of the story is whether or not there was a miracle and, either way, what’s to be done about it? That could be a plot located almost anywhere, but Robert comes up with a resolution dependant on it’s Martian locale in terms of its motivation and ultimate significance. Ties things up rather neatly. As he explains in his intro to the story, for over twenty years his major schtick has been “the conflict between faith and rationality.” Not necessarily religious faith, but it certainly applies in this story. What this means is, apart from telling ripping good yarns, Robert’s fiction raises all sorts of profound questions regarding ourselves, our nature, and our future. Stimulating and thought-provoking, you might say. Good stuff.

CONCLUSION: 

Have I mentioned that Robert J. Sawyer is my favourite Canadian SF author? He writes exactly the kind of science fiction I like to read. Hardcore concept-driven fiction. So I’m a trifle biased in his favour. Besides, the sheer intelligence evident in his writing inspires me to think I’m not quite as dumb as I think I am (or my former bosses thought I was). In perhaps more ways than you might expect I find his fiction uplifting. Definitely stirs my sense of wonder. To put it simply, reading Robert’s work makes me happy.

This anthology combined with the other two represents all of Robert’s published short stories. If you enjoy his writing, you gotta have all three!

Check it out at: < Stories 2: Space >

 

 

 

 

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