“A Piece of the Great World” by Robert Silverberg
“Mirror Image” by Nancy Kress
“Thousandth Night” by Alastair Reynolds
“Missile Gap” by Charles Stross
“Riding the Crocodile” by Greg Egan
Editor Gardner Dozois delivers six imaginative novellas set one million years from now. As Dozois puts it in his introduction, “To conjure up an evocative and poetically intense portrait of the far future calls for a degree—and a kind—of imagination rare even among science fiction writers.” And that’s a statement I can agree with since I have a hard enough time imagining what the future will be like a mere thousand years from now. But then to form a story in which a present day reader can find relatable? Well, let’s see how well these six authors, all great writers, did.
In “Good Mountain” by Robert Reed, we find an Earth (or some type of planet) that is primarily water with a highly volcanic sea floor on which all the continents are massive slabs of wood. The human inhabitants utilize a transit system where commuters travel inside the guts of giant worms. This “Earth” is about to undergo a cataclysmic event that may bring about the extinction of all life on it. Jopale is traveling to the port called World’s Edge where a ship will take him (and whoever else has the money to get there) to a new continent, one that is artificially made and kept mobile in an attempt to avoid the methane gas emissions and massive firestorms. While riding in the worm, he meets a woman named Do-ane and discovers that her destination is not World’s Edge but Good Mountain. Later, she shows him a book that allegedly reveals an ancient spaceship underneath Good Mountain. But is it really there, and did the human race come from another planet eons ago? And which path will lead to survival: World’s Edge or Good Mountain?
Reed keeps you in suspense from start to finish and crafts a tale that stretches the imagination. All the characters, even the worms, feel complete and believable, and you’re left caring for them and hoping they’ll survive. While not fast-paced, the story doesn’t drag out. The ending, however, leaves some of the major questions unresolved, but I think that was how Reed intended it. This particular reader didn’t like being left wondering, but that was because the author succeeded in making me care about the world and the people in it.
“A Piece of the Great World” by Robert Silverberg takes place in the same far-future Earth as his novel, The New Springtime. Nortekku and his archeologist lover, Thalarne, undertake an expedition to study newly-discovered survivors of the Long Winter long thought extinct. Silverberg weaves romance and politics together into a sad tale of lost pride.
It’s the best story in this anthology and the second story with anything but a “Happily Ever After” ending. Not that “Happily Ever After” is necessary to enjoy a story (especially in the case of this one), but it’s interesting how far-futures stories in SF rarely show optimism.
One thing of particular interest about Silverberg’s setting is that there are no humans, and the new races are alien enough to be interesting yet also just human enough to be relatable. And that is a feat only a master storyteller can pull off.
“Mirror Image” by Nancy Kress shows a future where Humanity has mastered physics and biology to the point where they can do—and be—almost anything. A group of clone sisters discover that one of their own has been accused of destroying an inhabited star system. As they investigate, they discover a threat that endangers the entire universe. One of the most imaginative stories in the anthology, while still plausible, Kress also delivers a great mystery. The relationships between the clone sisters and their differing personalities (while all being a “part” of the same “whole”), is one in which new levels can be discovered with each read. The third story in a row with a less than optimistic ending, at least it leaves room for a novel or series later on. So, perhaps there’s still hope for the universe after all.
In Alistair Reynold’s “Thousandth Night,” an immortal line created through cloning by a single progenitor gather to share the many adventures they’ve had since their last gathering several thousand years ago. The setting is somewhat similar to “Mirror Image” insomuch that Humanity has become a Type II society on the verge of a Type III. Political intrigue runs amuck in this tale about super-humans as Fescue and Purslane discover a sinister plot of galactic scale. This story, at least, doesn’t run on the completely pessimistic side, but the sheer power the godlike humans have is terrifying in and of itself—especially if used for nefarious purposes.
In “Missile Gap” by Charles Stross, the inhabitants of Cold War Era Earth are transported a million years into the future onto a disc in the Magellanic Clouds. Unable to breach the atmosphere to enter space, they are left with only the planet-sized continents to explore on a super-vast ocean. What the U.S. and U.S.S.R. discover may very well lead to their demise. Yet another pessimistic view of the far future, and this reader didn’t like what happens to poor Carl Sagan. Aside from that, however, it was an enjoyable tale up until the end which leaves you wondering if there’s anything to learn from it beyond “humans are unenlightened chumps.” As if we haven’t already been told that a million times. We get it already.
And why are so many SF writers so fascinated with bugs and Hive Minds (me included)?
The last offering is “Riding the Crocodile” by Greg Egan. At last! A story with optimism! Finally, I can take my straight razor away from my throat! There’s hope for the universe still.
All kidding aside, “Riding the Crocodile” is the most touching and thought-provoking tale in the anthology. A more optimistic view of humanity as a Type II society, Egan delivers a story of two lovers who have enjoyed 10,000 years of marriage and have gone through every worthwhile experience. They are now ready to let themselves die, but not before they attempt what has so far been impossible: explore the galactic core and establish contact with the races known only as the Aloof. Will they succeed? And what will happen if they do?
That Egan can set aside the usual pessimism common in far-future stories and still deliver an entertaining and enjoyable story is a true testament to his skill as a storyteller. All the authors in this anthology demonstrate the importance of characterization, but Egan proves it in every way. You’re guaranteed to fall in love with Leila and Jasim, and when their inevitable and obvious end arrives, you’ll feel enriched by their experiences.
Overall, Dozois did a great job with his selection of authors and stories for this anthology. While I would have liked to have seen more than just one optimistic prediction (ok, perhaps there were two, but “Thousandth Night” still scares me), I enjoyed each and every story to one degree or another. None of them were boring, and all of them left this reader with something to think about (oh, and big things go Boom!). I highly recommend this anthology.
Publisher: Writer’s House Inc./The Science Fiction Bookclub (June 2005)
Hardcover: 416 pages