Thursday, 24 May 2012

Ian Sales, Rocket Science (2012)

Ian Sales, taking his responsibilities as editor of this collection of proper hard SF stories and non-fiction pieces seriously, put it out to a number of people to review. I was one, and being in receipt of a copy -- a professional piece of book production by Mutation Press -- I feel obligated to write a review.  That probably sounds like a set-up for a slagging off, but it really isn't; and Rocket Science does not deserve slagging.  This is a very solid collection of short fiction that does just what it says on the tin. Which tin? Oh, this one:
Rocket Science is a collection of 17 original stories of hard science fiction, accompanied by 5 original non-fiction essays on space exploration. In the spirit of Mutation's mission to add to bibliodiversity, the stories were selected by an open call for submissions. The authors, selected from a range of nationalities, are a mixture of published fiction writers, professional astrophysicists and aerospace engineers. Too much science fiction seems to rely on magical technology or trivialises the astonishing size and wonder of the real universe. Though it is difficult, dangerous and expensive to get into space, the rewards for doing so more than outweigh any risk or cost. It may even prove to be the human race's only hope of survival. Given all that, science fiction's predilection for action-adventure stories set in galactic empires does feel like a squandering of the genre's potential. The stories and essays in Rocket Science are about the real world, either now or in the future. They are about real science - not just rocket science, but also quantum physics, genetics, computer science... They are not just stories of exploration, but family dramas, love triangles, alternate histories, hubris...
This collection is a solid hit on all those counts: it diversifies in terms of contributors (lots of new and new-ish names on the roster, which is good; good gender and international spread) and in terms of the range of approaches to its iron-and-rocket-fuel-hard sense of what the genre ought to be.  It's not a varied collection stylistically, or formally: but it's possible that potential readers will be less interested in such things.  It is, as a collection, strong on can-do; and although the emotional content of the tales is generally more tangled and tricky than I might have expected, and the universe is often shown to be a pig of stubborness, the emphasis is on the ways how empowering a working knowldge of science and engineering can be.  The very weakest form of reviewing is to say 'if you like this sort of thing, then will be the sort of thing you will like'; but there's some point, here, in at least gesturing in that direction.  The writing is full of 'worst-case scenario?' and 'understood!' and 'Godspeed!' and 'whoa! that's way cool!' and characters calling one another 'commander!' and 'sir' and 'buddy' and the like . There's a fair bit of this sort of thing:
The satellites ... are going to the second Lagrange point, L2. This is the point 1.5 million kilometers from Earth where the gravitational field of the Earth and Sun balance
And this:
Because of the high energy requirements of oxygen manufacture, the designers of the habitat has ensured gas leakage was extraordinarily small--hence the triple airlock.
And this:
During my thirty-day stay on the surface I conduct surveys and monitor the life-support aux pod, which captures carbon dioxide and hydrogen so as to replenish our water supply. The in-situ fuel generator inhales Mars's thin atmosphere and is steadily cooking up a fresh batch of methane/oxygen, CH4 + 02 rocket fuel for the long flight home.
I found all this a little dry, over the long haul; your mileage may vary. I enjoyed Iain Cairns edged-with-satire (but at heart a soldly scientifically-realistic tale of asteroid mining) 'Conquistadors', and C J Paget's lively 'The Taking of IOSA 2083'; the non-fiction pieces are all, pretty much, informative and interesting (especially Karen Burnham's 'The Complexity of the Humble Spacesuit').

You're sensing a haver in my tone, here, aren't you. It's me, it's not this collection.  Or it's Hard SF, and the rationale that SF must follow the rules, and those rules are engraved upon tablets of Ultra Stone by the gods of Physics and Engineering. I can see, or I think I can, why a large number of clever people think this is the right way to do SF; but to me this insistence reminds me of the Aristotelian unities. There was a time (particularly in 17th Century France) when these rules were taken almost as axiomatic; and plays that broke them -- such as Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra, which flouted all three with insolent abandon -- were accordingly deprecated.  And there's a logic, and in particular an internal coherence, to these rules; they aren't arbitrary strictures; and there's a cosiness to having rules, especially if we're asked to judge works of literature.  Except that Shakespeare's plays are great, and Corneille is dull, and the rules get in the way of writing great theatre rather than anything else.  Ho, I say; and hum.


Markhaa said...

Isn't it the general problem with 'realism'? If you follow the idea of realism to the extreme you end up with biography (a slippy enough term in itself) and/or instruction manuals. But doesn't fiction always waver between the poles of 'fantasy' v 'realism'?

Al R said...

I'm reviewing this for Vector.

Ruzz said...

All of these recent entries a very good reason why we should not let you (or rather this blog) go quiet into this good night, and other cliches. The hell with the Research Excellence Framework and all its horrors - this is more interesting surely?

Some dude said...

Seems there is a lot of hard science fiction that is goes into a lot of accurate detail about physics and engineering, but not so much about biology. There is a lot of biology in science fiction, but it’s usually handled comparatively superficially.

Ruzz said...

@some dude - ?Paul McAuley? - though you may want to argue he's the exception.

PeteY said...

@Ruzz, Some dude

Greg Bear too. See Blood Music, Darwin's Radio and its sequel Darwin's Children. The Darwin ones couldn't get much harder.

Colum said...

You're sensing a haver in my tone, here, aren't you. It's me, it's not this collection. Or it's Hard SF, and the rationale that SF must follow the rules, and those rules are engraved upon tablets of Ultra Stone by the gods of Physics and Engineering.

I'm not *sure* Ian and Mark are saying that 'you must follow the rules', (though I'm a little suspicious of Ian in this regard) but rather that 'sometimes its good to follow the rules, sometimes it's good to break them'. Science fiction should be as varied as music, with different styles being pursued by different people. Some will be doing 'Hard style' and some will be doing 'Soft/internal' style, and some will be doing yoga.

R.S. is an experiment in harder style, and maybe a bit of a manifesto for people who want to try that, but I'm not sure it's intended as a rule book for "The one true SF."

Also, do you know anywhere that I can get me some bulk quantities of Ultra Stone at a reasonable price?


Irene Jennings said...

Rocket Science is a bit different kind of a science fiction anthology. In my opinion "different" often means "good", but in this case "different" means "VERY GOOD", because Rocket Science contains several high quality stories.

(The Maids Gibbs)