Carbide Tipped Pens, ed. Ben Bova & Eric Choi

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Carbide Tipped Pens:

Seventeen Tales of Hard Science Fiction

Edited by Ben Bova and Eric Choi

(Tor, December 2014, 400 pages)


The Blue Afternoon that Lasted Forever” by Daniel H. Wilson
A Slow Unfurling of Truth” by Aliette de Bodard
Thunderwell” by Doug Beason
The Circle” by Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu)
Old Timer’s Game” by Ben Bova
The Snows of Yesteryear” by Jean-Louis Trudel
Skin Deep” by Leah Petersen & Gabrielle Harbowy
Lady with Fox” by Gregory Benford
Habilis” by Howard Hendrix
The Play’s the Thing” by Jack McDevitt
Every Hill Ends with Sky” by Robert Reed
She Just Looks that Way” by Eric Choi
SIREN of Titan” by David DeGraff
The Yoke of Inauspicious Stars” by Kate Story
Ambiguous Nature” by Carl Frederick
The Mandelbrot Bet” by Dirk Strasser
Recollection” by Nancy Fulda

Reviewed by Ryan Holmes

The Blue Afternoon that Lasted Forever” by Daniel H. Wilson tells the story of a physicist’s relationship with his daughter amid a horrific natural disaster. At first, we see only a brilliant mind: constantly calculating and incapable of interfacing on an emotional level. Then we see how his acute intelligence allows him to comprehend the gravity of a disaster in time to reach his daughter. As the world unravels around them, they are at least together, and his logical detachment provides a bubble of serenity in the chaos around his daughter. Unfortunately, beyond an overview of black hole theory and numerous scientific observations, there is little science fiction in this story. There is no new technological conflict to contend with. This story could just as easily work with a tornado as with a black hole.

Aliette de Bodard’s “A Slow Unfurling of Truth” blends technology and biology together. People’s identities transcend the confines of their fragile bodies and move on to new ones. This calls into question what makes us who we are and how we can be sure. Mannerisms can be copied. Memories can be altered, faked, or even invented. Authentication becomes paramount but no guarantee. In the end, the true measure of who we are comes from what we know of someone’s personality. Thus, the story prompts us to seek deep and intimate knowledge of our relationships.

Thunderwell” by Doug Beason is classic hard science fiction taking form in the first manned mission to Mars. What makes this story interesting is that it succeeds as science fiction without introducing any far-flung technological advancement and associated problems that result. Beason uses existing technology, and it generates plenty of problems on its own. The story parallels the crew’s malfunctioning hardware and unforgiving environment of space with the technological and political hurdles of saving the mission back on Earth. The solution requires a hard look at the political and environmental fallout and a determination if the price is worth paying.

Liu Cixin’s “The Circle” (translated by Ken Liu) is an alternative history set during China’s establishment of the Qin Dynasty. The king of Qin is obsessed with discovering the secret of eternal life. When a Yan mathematician convinces him the secret lies in the endless digits of pi, he agrees to devote three million of his soldiers to a calculating formation of ones and zeros, a human driven computing machine. In this alternative history, the king of Qin’s obsession over eternal life becomes his undoing and ends the Qin Dynasty before it begins. In parallel, the Yan mathematician’s obsession over a calculating machine ends a new era of enlightenment before it begins. Thus, the story teaches us to approach our obsessions with an eye of caution for the consequences and reminds us to keep the larger picture in focus.

Old Timer’s Game” by Ben Bova uses baseball as a backdrop for illustrating the consequences of widespread stem cell use on humanity as a whole. The negative aspect of using stem cells does not come from the destruction of embryos. The cells used are the person’s own, repurposed. The obvious benefits are healthy joints and youthful energy. The subtle downside is shouldered by the next generation. In baseball, it’s the rookie trying to earn a starting position over the aging veteran, but the veteran isn’t aging anymore. What does the next generation do when the current generation doesn’t age? Bova’s story delivers a practical solution, a win-win for everyone that works well in baseball. But how would it fair in other professions? Many of those are intellectually, not physically, dependent, yet this raises the question: what effects would stem cells have on the mind? The next generation may find themselves wondering what to do when the current one refuses to retire.

Jean-Louis Trudel’s “The Snows of Yesteryear” attacks the issue of global warming from multiple fronts: corporations seeking to profit from it, professors attempting to understand and predict its effects, and visionaries hoping to apply techniques to making Mars habitable. The story doesn’t deal with how to stop, or even reverse, global warming but instead assumes it’s inevitable and suggests how humanity might adapt to living in a warmer world.

Skin Deep” by Leah Petersen & Gabrielle Harbowy envisions a new biotechnology to treat severe allergic reactions by means of tattoos that command the immune system to release antigens. With every medical treatment, there is bound to be negligence and malpractice. Thus, the story pits the owner of the biotechnology company with the lawyer suing them. Unfortunately for the lawyer, as with many previous scientific breakthroughs, such advancements can be abused and even turned into a weapon.

Lady with Fox” by Gregory Benford is a complex story of exploring knowledge, in this case knowledge of the unconscious, and coping with desire. Benford relates the two as being both wondrous and potentially fatal. Researching the neural pathways of the brain leads to a neural interface technology called Konning that allows two dreaming people to share their unconsciousness. The main character is struggling to achieve new breakthroughs in his mapping of the brain and turns to konning as a potential catalyst for manifesting further inspiration and ideas. The lady with the fox is a mysterious woman with a natural konning talent who has been working with the main character’s friend and fellow researcher. She becomes both the subject and the victim of desire, which threatens anyone who konns with her when that desire manifests in their subconscious minds and compels them to act on it.

Howard Hendrix’s “Habilis” leads us down a complicated and confusing discussion about the possible handedness of the universe. A number of patterns like the spatial orientation of letters and numbers being left-handed or right-handed provide support for the theory. The lecture is back-dropped by a fish hatchery work day on an alien world in a distant future where humanity traverses the stars via wormholes woven from the Knot by Ravaleras and is at war with an AI called the Bots. The only thing hard about this science fiction is the lecture on the theoretical handedness of the universe, which itself is hard to follow.

The Play’s the Thing” by Jack McDevitt is about the creation of Shakespeare as an AI. The AI’s creator is proud of the program’s imitation of the playwright but denies it is capable of creating a new masterpiece. The AI Shakespeare assures a class of students that it can, and does. The story calls to question the potential of an AI to computationally understand a subject, even an art, enough to create it rather than replicate it. On the surface, a new Shakespeare might seem a novel idea, but when computers do our work for us and better, what is there for us to do?

Robert Reed’s “Every Hill Ends with Sky” parallels a post-apocalyptic world with a pre-apocalyptic search for life unrelated to known life on Earth. No evidence for such life is found on Earth, but a simulation suggests life on Venus should have evolved first. An unmanned mission to Venus confirms the theory when it returns a new form of matter. The two eras in the story are shared by the daughter of the woman who created the simulation. The story doesn’t make clear the cause of the apocalypse other than to negatively portray humanity and suggest that destroying our world is inevitable with the idea that some higher-evolved life from Venus is our only hope.

She Just Looks that Way” by Eric Choi is a clever tale of perception, specifically the perception of beauty. A man obsessed over a coworker who no longer gives him any attention convinces his friend to administer an experimental neurological treatment intended to cure people who believe themselves ugly. The procedure has some serious side effects like the potential to lose facial recognition. In the end, Choi illustrates that attraction is not solely based on physical traits but on our perceptions of a person as a whole.

David DeGraff’s “SIREN of Titan” is about the unexpected awakening of an exploration robot searching for the source of a methane lake on Titan. As the robot becomes aware, it begins to focus on the beauty rather than the science of its environment and treks off course. Back at mission control, the scientists assigned the Titan project troubleshoot possible failure scenarios. One suggests self-awareness. The idea is met initially with denial, then acceptance quickly followed by fear. That fear drives them to reboot the robot’s software, wipe the memory, even at the cost of losing the scientific data the robot collected and the potential answer to the fundamental question at the root of space exploration.

The Yoke of Inauspicious Stars” by Kate Story is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in the icy landscape of Europa. Instead of two warring families, there are two warring corporations competing to mine the same moon. Story narrates the story with an elegant prose which contrasts well with her roughneck characters. Unlike the classic play however, we never gain an intimate relationship with the Romeo character and only slightly so with the Juliet character. We never fall in love with them. Thus, the tragedy in the end is robbed of the powerful emotion found in the original telling.

Carl Frederick’s “Ambiguous Nature” transports us to the mundane listening post of a SETI research facility in Australia when a potential signal of prime numbers is detected. Frederick initially portrays the utter frustration and blind determination felt by SETI astronomers before revealing the detection of a SETI positive. This setup inflates the excitement the researchers feel, and doubt over the signal’s authenticity carries us along. A little local mythology about visiting aliens and a search for a missing child leaves the reader entranced to the end.

The Mandelbrot Bet” by Dirk Strasser describes a mathematics theorem and relates it to time travel and the universe at large. A paralyzed man in a quantum computerized chair discusses his theory with his caregiver. He seeks to discover an escape-time algorithm, presumably to escape his current existence imprisoned in a chair. What we find when he succeeds is a parallel to death, the ultimate escape. What we learn is that our focus should not be on escaping but on loving the life before us.

Nancy Fulda’s “Recollection” deals with the emotionally terrifying condition of Alzheimer’s disease. The science fiction here centers on the development of a cure, of sorts. The treatment allows a person’s brain to begin recording memories again, but it cannot restore what was lost. Thus, we have the story of an old man, a husband, a grandfather, a civil engineer, who is much like an amnesia patient. He remembers yesterday but not yesteryear. Family’s attempts to remind him, to pick up again where he left off, only increase his frustration and feelings of living a lie. But thankfully for him, and for us, his wife does not give in. Her patience and determination provide an anchor for his new life and the hope of renewed happiness.

Carbide Tipped Pens brings together a number of brilliant minds. Their science fiction is often intelligent and highly technical. The anthology succeeds in delivering hard science in a fictional setting. Many times, the arguments are difficult to measure, to discern. If intellectually challenging science fiction appeals to you, then I invite you to make a study of this collection, for hidden within its pages are real problems we will all have to face in the near future.

Ryan Holmes is a Marine Corps grunt turned aerospace engineer for NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and writes science fiction and fantasy in life’s scant margins. You can find his blog at: