Friday, 27 January 2017

Science Fiction by Scientists - Michael Brotherton Ed. ***

I'm all in favour of science fiction that puts across interesting science, but I was a little put off by the preface by editor Michael Brotherton, who seems to think that the science part is more important than the fiction, and that the best SF writers have been scientists, something that is only rarely true. I don't think it's a good idea to go into science fiction writing with the smug idea that 'I'm a scientist, so I'm bound to do this well,' because it will end in tears. Luckily some scientists are excellent writers, and some of the good ones have turned up here (along with a few of the clunkers). At least we have to admit that the title is 100% accurate.

It's interesting to contrast the first two stories as they illustrate very well some of the extremes of what can be done. The first, Down and Out by Ken Wharton, features one cracking idea (though the author seems to think he has kept it from us a lot longer than he really does), but pedestrian writing. His story, set on Jupiter's moon Europa, takes place in the sea below its surface ice. We get a nicely envisaged alien intelligent life form with a viewpoint that provide's the story's twist (though as I mentioned, this was obvious far too early), but the storytelling was very basic - little more than a 'what I did on my holidays' approach to narrative, and lacking the descriptive skill to make the scenes come alive. 

How different this was from the second story, The Tree of Life by Jenny Rohn. Here we've got sophisticated storytelling and a realisation that it's not enough to have a single change of viewpoint as the justification for your story - instead there's some proper characterisation and a clever play on the role of the apple in Genesis (though it wasn't an apple in the original), plus a good dose of information about viruses, bacteria and life in a lab. While the main premise, that the world has had all life removed so Earth can stripped of its resources (except a lab and one scientist), is far-fetched - it seems perverse to choose a planet teeming with life, and even stranger to leave behind most of the natural resources, a move that is needed for the storyline, but hard to justify. There is also an oddity in the science section at the end (each story has this, and most of them good).  It describes the Earth's pre-life atmosphere as being 'full of methane and ammonia and other harsh compounds and buffeted by lightning strikes and volcanic explosions.' This reflects the 1950s 'primordial soup' idea - but the modern assumption is that the atmosphere was primarily nitrogen, water vapour and carbon dioxide. Even so, a thoughtful well-written story.

Other stories worth a mention include Turing de Force, which cleverly explores whether advanced computer-like aliens would consider us intelligent lifeforms. Like many idea-driven stories it lacks narrative drive, but it's a fun idea (though it seems odd that the aliens, who have access to the internet, can't make any deductions about us from our published science). I will also pick out Neural Alchemist as having more character development than most (though not enough happens in the story), Hidden Variables, which has a real sense of storytelling (though I'm not sure how well it would work if you didn't know what hidden variables are, and the 'science bit' is incomprehensible), and my favourite as a sheer page-turner of a story, the ISS-based horror story Sticks and Stones.

All collections of short stories are variable, but the hope is that the editor has picked the best. The problem here is that there weren’t enough stories with a professional level of writing to carry the collection. Apart from a few stand-outs, it felt more like contributions to a student magazine than the kind of writing you would expect in a professionally published science fiction collection. It’s great having the science bits - but the stories have to be up to scratch or the premise is wasted. (As I've mentioned with this series before, the pricing is also far too high for fiction, though Springer points out that universities should have access to free e-book versions.)

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Review by Brian Clegg

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