Seeing beyond the edge – Jonathan Strahan’s Engineering Infinity

Cover of Engineering InfinityJonathan Strahan‘s Engineering Infinity has been sitting on my to read pile for too long but I think rates as an excellent and necessary read. In his introduction he mentions that it started out as a Hard Sf anthology, adding to Solaris Book‘s excellent series of anthologies, but that it digressed in its conversation. Perhaps this is the key – this anthology develops its own conversation from story to story, exploring the theme of understanding and the relationship between technology and humans.

Peter Watt’s opening story, Malak, asks us to think about the cost and realities of technology in war. The epigraph regarding making combat drones a little less prone to accidents is explored. The reader is largely left with the impression that technology itself is only as good as its programming and logic. The human interface is still important if it is to ever have a moral layer. John C Wright’s Judgement Eve comes to a similar decision, though he mixes the fantastic with Sf. Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Watching the Music Dance, once one gets under the parental sacrifice, explores the effect of too much technology on life when parents buy her too many music apps.  In Malak, the eponymous drone learns trust and realises that it is limited to its own programming; it cannot make ethical judgments outside of the if/else loops. Equally Suze’s father realises that the apps are making his daughter ill in their intensity but they also help her by showing her the music.

Charles Stross’s Bit Rot is a great sfnal updating of zombies and talking mirrors in space whilst also being a re-examination of a reality of space travel. After an interstellar burst hits the ship, the crew are largely reduced to zombies. Rather than being an idealised version of space travel, it turns into a more Alien one before Ripley escapes. Yet even here it is uncertain. Will the message corrode through metal fatigue or bit rot render the message useless? The hoped for transcendance through space travel is not going to happen. Karl Schroeder’s melancholy Laika’s Ghost explores the collapsed post-Soviet Union with the emphasis on escaping by using a Verne gun to go to Mars, whilst ignoring the possible uses of the technology on Earth to rejuvenate the site of a nuclear explosion. Uplift perhaps starts at home?

Kathleen Ann Goonan’s Creatures with Wings or Gwyneth Jones’s The Ki-anna still retain the hoped for change and transcendence in the stars.

For me, the highlight of the collection is Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Server and the Dragon, a story that reminded me strongly of Ted Chiang’s work (which is on a shelf to be re-read soon due this story). Its lyrical explosion of the processes was a joy to read and yet he kept the ideas so simple.

The moments of understanding which allow these stories to move on, to become something quite different. They explore and extend the theme but don’t try to subvert it. Perhaps that is where we are with sf at the moment; a time of retrenchment rather than constantly challenging. Engineering Infinity is a great and well compiled collection as one would expect from Jonathan Strahan. I’ve already recommended this to some friends though.

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