Year’s Best SF 6

Ed. by David G. Hartwell

Just how “hard” should hard science fiction be? It’s something I’ve often wondered about. More often than not it seems to me that the hard science we get in SF is confusing in theory and a distraction from the story. While I prefer SF to fantasy (which is what “soft” SF is usually imagined sliding into), the only futuristic reality I find convincing is the human one. My own interest in technology ends with the way people relate to it.

But the label itself may be misleading. It’s probably a mistake to separate the supposedly realistic scientific component in science fiction from the operation of the author’s fancy. Many passages of hard SF are as whimsical as Shelley’s description of the Chariot of the Moon. In the story “Madame Bovary, C’est Moi,” Dan Simmons describes how the human mind is “neither like a computer nor a chemical memory machine, but exactly like a quantum-state holistic standing wavefront”:

The human brain, it turned out, collapsed probability functions of this standing wavefront of consciousness in the same way that an interferometer determined the quantum state of a photon or any other wavefront phenomenon. Using terabytes of qubit quantum data and applying relativistic Coulomb field transforms to these mind-consciousness holographic wavefunctions, it was quickly discovered that human consciousness could be quantum-teleported to points in space-time where entangled-pair wavefronts already existed.

I have no idea what Simmons is talking about here, and have a hunch that an advanced degree in physics would be of little assistance. Given the nature of the story, which is all about people immigrating to fictional realities, we may suspect that the author is putting us on.

All of which is a long way of introducing the most recent collection of the Year’s Best SF from editor David Hartwell. Now into its sixth year, Hartwell’s Year’s Best makes a valuable complement to Gardner Dozois’s annual Year’s Best Science Fiction, and gives some indication of just how rich the field of today’s SF is.

While both editors love a great story, his introductory comments suggest that Hartwell leans toward hard SF, a label he attaches to at least seven of the authors in this collection. Setting out his goal for the series in the inaugural Year’s Best he insisted that in “each volume the best science-fiction of that year will be represented. Not fantasy. Not science fantasy. Science fiction.” While there aren’t any stringent definitions offered, the insistence on a distinction between science fiction and fantasy suggests where Hartwell is coming from. (One can only imagine his consternation at having to regularly include stories by Ursula K. Le Guin in the series. How “Coming of Age in Karhide” found its way into the present collection is beyond me.)

There are, however, a number of honest exceptions to the hard SF rule, and enough thematic resemblances to the stories found in Dozois’s anthologies to suggest that the general observations I made on those collections (“Some Observations on the New SF”) remain valid. In the first story, for example, we have the familiar higher/lower separation between a class of privileged “citizens” and the labourers in an off-world mining operation. One has the sense that the myth of the Morlocks will be with us for a while yet.

But one way that hard SF does differ, at least in tone, from more traditional SF writing is in its optimism. Hard SF writers tend to see science as a good thing. There is less of the Romantic spirit that characterizes most recent SF and more of an old-fashioned belief in progress. The current opposition to genetically modified food, for example, is described in a couple of stories as misguided and naive (though the results of genetic modification aren’t all they’re cracked up to be either).

With the help of science, the future is becoming a better place. Even human nature seems capable of remarkable improvements. In Greg Egan’s “Oracle” a traveller from the future tells the hero that “people with the power of gods are kinder than any god we ever imagined.” Even taken in context, that is an extraordinary statement. Talk about a brave new world!

This isn’t to say hard SF writers are totally free from feelings of anxiety over the future. If there is a theme to this collection it is the future of creativity, and the news on that front is not all good. While the future has its share of artistes – the plant sensitive in M. Shayne Bell’s “The Thing About Benny,” the superchef in Brian Stableford’s “The Last Supper” – there is also a sense that some kind of creative limit is being reached. David Brin’s “Reality Check” describes a world where the combination of “exponentiating creativity” and intellectual property law have combined to “use up the most precious resource of all – the possible.” Robert Silverberg’s “The Millennium Express” tells the story of a thirtieth-century gang of terrorists cloned from some of history’s greatest creative minds (the membership includes Einstein, Hemingway and Picasso). The reason the clones are upset is because there is nothing left for them to do. As in Brin’s story, humanity’s greatest achievements are in the past, the products of a heroic age of invention. The only thing left to do is blow them up and start again.

All of these ideas come into play in Ted Chiang’s “Seventy-Two Letters” – one of the few alternative histories I’ve read that I would describe as genuine SF. The story is set in a nineteenth-century England where machines are produced and made animate by strings of code known as “names.” The science/art of naming has reached a point where quasi-human automata can be designed, and one brilliant inventor has plans to replace even skilled human workers with intricately programmed and designed machines.

Essentially the story is an allegory, both for the industrial revolution and the mapping of the human genome – the string of code or “name” that makes the human machine do its tricks. Science is a blessing, and the Luddites who oppose the hero are violent, dangerous, and wrong. But it is also a weapon, and we soon find out that this is another story of class warfare, with the aristocracy conspiring to use the new automata as a way of preserving the best of the species.

Finally, the dual allegory has something to say about creativity. The artisan class is being replaced by automata, their creative work being given over to machines. And even the human race itself is on the edge of extinction, the coming generations doomed to infertility. Again we have the sense of coming up against limits, of living at the end of days. Every great leap forward just brings us closer to the end, exhausting our potential with knowledge.

Given all of this it doesn’t seem a coincidence that it is the work of a mystic that provides the hero with a way to circumvent the plans of the corrupt aristocracy. Even the hardest science is something that has to be imagined, as Ken MacLeod’s “The Oort Crowd” reminds us:

Humanity’s earliest speculations about the nature of any superhuman intelligences with which it might share the Universe are, paradoxically, more relevant to our real situation than the predictions of alien contact in the once-popular genre of science fiction.

There’s still room in the sky for the Chariot of the Moon.

Review first published online August 6, 2001. As with Dozois’s annual anthologies, this series is always a good buy.


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