Solaris Rising 3, Edited by Ian Whates

Solaris Rising 3: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction,
Edited by Ian Whates
Publisher: Solaris
ISBN: 178108209X
448 pages, paperback
Published 14th August 2014
Source: NetGalley

“When We Have Harvested the Nacre Rice”, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
“The Goblin Hunter”, by Chris Beckett
“Homo Floresiensis”, by Ken Liu
“A Taste for Murder”, by Julia E. Czerneda
“Double Blind”, by Tony Ballantyne
“The Mashup”, by Sean Williams
“The Frost on Jade Buds”, by Aliette de Bodard
“Popular Images from the First Manned Mission to Enceladus”, by Alex Dally MacFarlane
“Red Lights, and Rain”, by Gareth L. Powell
“They Swim Through Sunset Seas”, by Laura Lam
“Faith Without Teeth”, by Ian Watson
“Thing and Sick”, by Adam Roberts
“The Sullen Engines”, by George Zebrowski
“Dark Harvest”, by Cat Sparks
“Fift and Shira”, by Benjamin Rosenbaum
“The Howl”, by Ian R. MacLeod & Martin Sketchley
“The Science of Chance”, by Nina Allen
“Endless”, by Rachel Swirsky

My thoughts on Solaris Rising 3 have been languishing for awhile now as a co-review was first planned for Skiffy & Fanty and then got delayed and didn’t end up happening. As I look back over the notes I had written and the skeleton of this review in correspondence with my colleague Cecily Kane I realize just how much I want to go back and read this un-themed collection again.

Yet, this is the first of the Solaris Rising series that I’ve had a chance to read, so I should probably go back and read the first two. It’s a testament to how enjoyable the stories are here in what is a stellar lineup of highly-regarded contributors that re-reading this again so soon feels like something warming and relaxing. Though there were a couple stories here that just didn’t work for me, it is probably still the best collection I read in 2014 for its sheer entertainment.

And my favorite stories in here were also quite a surprise to me. In his introduction, editor Whates comments on the opening line(s) of one story and how magnificent it is/they are. Though they are great I have to say that the opening lines of the collection, in Benjanun Sriduangaew’s “When We Harvested the Nacre-Rice” are far more stunning in its powerful flow and imagery. This ended up being my favorite story in the collection. I’d read a couple of other stories from the Hegemony universe and while I appreciated the poetic style and alien weirdness, they were a little dense; their vagueness left me feeling unmoored from the plot. With this, Sriduangaew’s writing fully connected with me.

Protagonists Pahayal and Etiesse are both delightfully rendered, complex mixtures of weakness and strength that draw forth reader empathy and disdain; their relationship is an echo of the larger issues of political control at the center of the story’s plot. Sriduangkaew handles the themes of dominance and submission, vulnerability and safety, trust and betrayal, creation and destruction with masterly control in scant pages.

I was likewise surprised to find the story I expected to love most in Solaris Rising 3, “Homo Floresiensis“, by Ken Liu to not resonate as strongly with me. Liu is one of my favorite authors and I would still call this story really good. But what I like about Liu is sort of what I like about a good film director like Kubrick or Hitchcock. He achieves a balance of great story, deeper meaning, and artistry in his creations. Liu’s story here is strong in he meaning department, and raises a big point about scientific advancement that I wish would crop up more often in the field. However, the structure of the story ends up making it feel like two separate entities of scenes that introduce and then scenes at the heart of the matter.

“Double Blind” by Tony Ballantyne, “The Mashup” by Sean Williams, “The Science of Chance” by Nina Allen, and “Thing and Sick” by Adam Roberts were all stories that I greatly enjoyed and each were science fiction mashups of sorts, whether taken literally (Williams’), with horror (Ballantyne’s and Robert’s) or  with mystery (Allen’s). These are all examples of a wide range of fine writing also across the board from light to subtly crafted to all out crazy.

“Thing and Sick” also represents one of a few stories in the collection that I quite liked for their approach to the concept of the alien “other”. A similar theme is taken up, at least in part, in the stories by Beckett, MacFarlane, Lam, Rosenbaum and the aforementioned Liu.

In some this ‘regard’ at the other makes the story a critique of colonial aspects. MacFarlane’s “Popular Images from the First Manned Mission to Enceladus” delves into such themes through the use of a non-traditional narrative that describes propaganda-esque posters through the eras of expedition to Saturn’s moon. I adored the ideas here, but the reading ended up being a bit on the drier side. Beckett tackles colonial issues head-on with a far more traditional plot. However I also found his story to be one of the most disturbing in the violence of its action and language against the other, in  this case aliens and female. It was sort of hard to figure out whether certain aspects were honest portrayals of very ugly characters and a commentary or something unintentionally offensive. Extremely well written and powerful, I loved it, but feel warning should be made for sensitive readers.

In “Thing and Sick” and in “They Swim Through Sunset Seas” the treatment of the alien ‘other’ was more focused on the psychology or biology of the nonhuman entity. I particularly found Lam’s story to be poignant and a great SF focus on biological science and the basic emotions that intelligent life forms may share for better or for worse. Rosenbaum’s “Fift & Shira” is simply an excellent biological speculation on gender and social structures in a non-human community. The story itself is not as enthralling as the ideas at play, but for me as a biologist I remained captivated nonetheless.

On the other end of the spectrum I personally found nothing to appreciate in  Zebrowski’s “The Sullen Engines” or in Watson’s “Faith without Teeth”. The remaining stories were good, but just haven’t stuck with me as strongly. Fans of the particular authors will surely appreciate the additions here. If you didn’t get a chance to pick this up back when it came out and are a fan of SF, I really recommend checking this out, particularly if you are someone that doesn’t normally read shorter works in the field. You may find your next favorite author.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Note: Thanks to Cecily Kane for some editing of my rambling thoughts on Benjanun Sriduangaew’s “When We Harvested the Nacre-Rice” that made it into this final post.

Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett

Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett
Publisher: Corvus Books
400 pages, Kindle Edition
Published January 2012
Source: NetGalley

While the ideas behind this novel aren’t particularly new, it is a rather unique take on the scifi story of colonizing another planet. In the case here, the science fiction events of leaving Earth, crossing interstellar space, and landing on an alien planet all take place in the past. The setting here is roughly two generations in the future, where the inbred and increasingly crowded population that arose from a single woman and single man thrive in relative ignorance of what it is to be human, and what exactly life on Earth is like.

This colonization did not proceed purposefully, but as an act of rebellion that didn’t go as planned, leaving two people stranded on an alien world and three making a desperate attempt to make it home to Earth, promising to send help. The offspring of those stranded individuals, that Adam and Eve, if you will, live in a hope of ritual and myth that Earth will come for them one day to take them to their true home. But, some of the younger generation begins to question these myths, and more importantly, what the population should do on this alien planet while waiting for an uncertain future.

This plot set up is fascinating, and chapter by chapter I was eager to see where the story would go, despite the fact that it proceeds rather predictably. The story is told through point of view chapters covering a handful of key characters, notably the main protagonist and a young girl who supports him. Written from this point of view of humans who live on an alien planet in deep ignorance and myth, the language of the book works fabulously well. Unfortunately, however, no individual character ends up sounding particularly unique, leaving me flipping back to a chapter’s start to remind myself whose POV I was now following.

Nonetheless, the strength of the novel lies in its general characterization of humanity. “Dark Eden” chronicles the redevelopment of a human civilization in all of its ugliness: a departure from close-knit family hunter gatherers to something with far greater potential and darkness alike. The people here are at the earliest stages of intellectual and technological developments, giving a new freedom to life and a greater sense of the reality in which they live. Yet at the same time this new knowledge and ability creates strife and murder. In this way the novel is indeed a simple retooling of the classic stories of something like Genesis, a repeat of the Garden of Eden for humanity, now on another world in the universe. The characters are all suitably complex and interesting, they seem to have the best intentions for the group as a whole, yet have aspects of selfishness, an ego linked to their brilliance.

Another strength of the novel is in the description of life on this alien world. The biology is intriguing and Beckett uses a language rich in sensory description, particularly onomatopoeia, to bring the reader into this fascinating alien environment where these all-too-familiar humanity finds itself. Despite some flaws, this novel has a lot of excellent characteristics going for it and ultimately I really enjoyed entering this world and watching the story unfold. The ending occurs somewhat arbitrarily, leading one to easily imagine future stories set in this world, a prospect I would welcome if new themes could be explored the way Beckett addresses elements of “the Fall” here.

Though originally I gave this four stars on Goodreads, it has stayed with me since, and its power in that regard makes five stars reasonable.

Five Stars out of Five