Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Small Doses of the Future - Brand Aiken ***

Small Doses of the Future bears the sub title 'A Collection of Medical Science Fiction Stories', which is an entirely accurate description of the book, in more ways than one. My given task as its reviewer is to consider how the stories work as fiction, what the average reader will make of the science and how the science and the fiction work together (or don’t, as the case may be). I come to this task as a writer of SF fantasy and an averagely non-scientific reader (though at least one scientist friend is wont to insist that my grasp of science makes his cat seem scientifically knowledgeable).

Small Doses is published as part of the Springer Series of Science and Fiction, which claims to 'appeal equally to science buffs, scientists and science-fiction fans'. I most definitely don’t fall into either of the first two categories. Based on the description of the series provided at the front of the book, I think Small Doses fits into the approach summarised as 'Tell fictional short stories built around well-defined scientific ideas, with a supplement summarizing the science underlying the science in the plot'. The book contains nine short stories and two factual articles on 'The Science Behind the Fiction' and 'The Invasion of Modern Medicine by Science Fiction'. My focus is on the fiction, though I did read the articles too.

As noted above, the description 'Medical Science Fiction Stories' struck me as apposite. I found the focus, first and foremost, to be on the medicine, secondly on the science fiction and thirdly on the story. Medical conditions around which the stories have been built include: Locked-In Syndrome; health insurance (Brad Aiken is a US doctor) and technocentric diagnoses; long distance star travel and a fatal reaction to alien life forms; log distance medical interventions; a medical breakthrough you can’t afford to share; nanorobots, cloning and the danger of being an early adopter of technology; the difference between AI and a human brain; world destruction by human-engineered virus and medical advances in dealing with physical disability. I’ve listed the medical conditions because I found them to be the raison d’etre of most of the stories. The science fiction and the stories woven round the medical issues sometimes worked, but sometimes seemed more like afterthoughts, reasonably well written afterthoughts, but afterthoughts nevertheless. In some instances, once the medical issue had been explored, either technically or ethically (medical ethics and social future-gazing play a role in these stories too), it seemed as if the purpose of the story had run its course. Character and plot development were not given as high a profile as I personally would have liked and, as a result, I found the stories reasonably entertaining, but no more than that.

Perhaps because it was medical and related to the human condition, the science involved seemed highly accessible as far as I was concerned. I wasn’t bemused or scientifically traumatised, but nor did I learn anything new. I didn’t feel intellectually stretched or provoked to deep thought. Similarly the SF interpretations of the medical science didn’t strike me as particularly imaginative or quirky. I felt I could have dreamed up the scenarios myself (and I’m convinced my friend’s cat is miles ahead in terms of envisioning brain-stretching SF scenarios).

All in all, I found the collection to be an okay read, but I didn’t feel it was going to set the worlds of either SF story telling or medical science alight.

Editor's note: as has been the case with other books in this series (see, for instance On the Shores of Titan's Farthest Sea), the pricing, at around twice what might be expected for a slim paperback of short stories, seems to limit the audience significantly. Academics may have free access to the ebook from Springer ebook deals.

Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by J. S. Watts 
J.S.Watts lives and writes in the flatlands of East Anglia. Her poetry and sh-ort stories appear in a diversity of publications. Her dark fiction novel, “A Darker Moon”, and paranormal novel, “Witchlight”, are published in the UK and the US by Vagabondage Press. See www.jswatts.co.uk 

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