The Ascent of Wonder: the Evolution of Hard SF is an anthology with a hard-SF theme compiled and edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. The copy I have is still stamped with COUNTY REGIONAL LIBRARY and we picked it up off the hardbacks-for-one-dollar table, quite a few moons ago. Not nearly so long ago as that, I found myself frantically trawling through online bibliographies in search of *cough* evocative titles that, more importantly, meant something to me. This was one of them, and I recently re-read (most of) the book to figure out why.
Why? It’s hard or hard-ish SF, but also: deeply psychological. There are a lot of steely-eyed missile man space heroes. Also, this book is very female-centric. There are a lot of cool dames–and a smattering of mad scientists–in this, and they come in more flavors than the space heroes do.
The book is broken down into Parts I, II, and III. I don’t know why because I never have bothered to read the editors’ notes or forwards and I refuse to do so now. It doesn’t seem to be a chronological order, because Part III contains stories by Rudyard Kipling and Jules Verne as well as the likes of Vernor Vinge and Cordwainer Smith.
Not coincidentally, though, this review is also broken down into three parts: stories I’ve voluntarily read before, stories I made myself read this time through, and stories that I’m probably not going to read no matter what. Oddly enough, they kind of trace over the parts I, II, and III as well. Is that significant? I dunno.
So, Part I – stories I’ve read before and most of them I liked.
– Nine Lives – Usula K. Leguin – kind of exemplifies the theme of this collection. Hard SF, with the grit of hard, dangerous labor in space and on alien worlds, with a deeply psychological thrust. Two miners on a far-off world have lived with each other long enough to develop a rapport, which is disrupted by the entrance of another personality….lots of another personality. Standard stuff. But then, for the gripping hand: how do you expect someone to react to losing themselves in a mining accident….nine times over? In other words, it’s long on the psychology and short on the blasting action, but it’s also written by a Grande Dame of SF and quite readable regardless.
– The Star – Arthur C. Clarke – Heh.
– Rappaccini’s Daughter – Nathaniel Hawthorne – How this is supposed to be Hard SF eludes me, but remember the 18th-century Gothic poetic flavor, it’ll be back later.
– Mimsy were the Borogoves – Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore – Parenthood also seems to be one of the themes of this anthology. Is this significant? I don’t know. I don’t really care, either. Perhaps reviewing SF shouldn’t be done while I have a fever. I should stick to chick-flicks.
– Beep – James Blish – I only just realized on this read-through how female-centric this collection actually is, which is probably one of the reasons I tend to like it so much. The central (not POV) character in this story is a woman, and it turns out that (spoiler), she’s got all the answers. And will provide them to the very much not-hapless but in this situation basically helpless, heroes, for the appropriate price. Really, the only way this story shows its age is through the assumption that a professional journalist is going to have anything resembling ethics or patriotism. The actual S in the F here isn’t all that plausible, but said heroes are first-rate mid-century Honest and Competent Bureaucrats….so quaint. So cute.
– Transit of Earth – Arthur C. Clarke – The actual reason I was never that impressed by The Martian.
– To Bring in the Steel – Donald M. Kingsbury – My actual favorite. This entire 1000+ page book is worth hauling around for this one novella. What’s it about? Well, there’s this girl. And there’s this guy. And there’s an asteroid with ten billion tons of steel, being slowly guided on its way towards Earth. Guy (Kell) is an engineer on the asteroid colony. He’s an old-school space hero of the steely-eyed missile man with a heart of gold and an exterior of plastic and tungsten: AKA, a cynical, arrogant jerk that no one likes but everyone depends on because he really is that good. He wants custody of his seven year old daughter and, when it’s denied him by the other residents of the colony–who quite rightfully doubt that he’s fit to care for a child–comes up with an ironic revenge: hire Lisa Maria Sorenti, the most (in)famous, expensive, and sought-after courtesan in San Fransisco, as her nanny and thereby unleash hell in the erstwhile close-nit community of the mine colony. Kell is valuable enough to the company that the CEOs comply with his idea….except that Lisa Maria’s contract has an extra clause in it: she’s only allowed to focus on Kell.
So, yes, I know, so far it sounds like a maybe-above-average arranged marriage-type romance novel or a very, very sub-par setup for a scifi book, even when you factor in the portrayal of Kell an asocial, physically unattractive loner with a high IQ-, obsessive personality. (It’s really quite impressive writing, at least to my maladjusted nerd brain). It’s a portrait of The Ideal SF Hero…and what he’d really be like to be around–and what kind of woman it would take to put up with him. (In Lisa Maria’s case, seven million dollars.)
Where it comes into its own is turning Lisa Maria Sorenti from a helpless damsel incapable of functioning without her manager (aka: abusive pimp) into a heroine capable of saving the day with space suit, rocket ship, and laser gun….a heroine who is not only capable of handling the roughneck hero, but of learning how to match him jet for jet as well.
– Waterclap – Isaac Asimov – This is a very feminist story. It says so. It’s character say so. And my oh my are the author’s unspoken assumptions adorably dated.
– Gomez – C. M. Kornbluth – Eh. Too much math, too little blowing stuff up, and Gomez rejects his destiny as a science hero. Can’t really blame him much, though, given the circumstances…
– The Cold Equations – Tom Godwin – Apparently, John Campbell rejected this story three times because Godwin kept coming up with ingenius ways to save the girl. Which, given that this story is good physics and bad engineering, including y’know, social engineering, would have been somewhat impressive in and of its own. Nevertheless, it’s a classic of the genre for a reason: she dies, and there is nothing that could be done about it.
– The Hole Man – Larry Niven – This is an entry in the Astronauts Are Maladjusted Psychos genre much beloved by Hollywood scripts. However, it manages to stick to its literary roots by making them competent and intelligent maladjusted psychos who can do the math properly, rather than the total screwups that we usually see in space movies.
– The Xi Effect – Earth goes poof and a snide professor told you so.
– The Beautiful and the Sublime – Bruce Sterling – Remember what I said about the 18th-century Gothic lit? This is the counterpoint to it.
– Heat of Fusion – John M. Ford – I keep forgetting what this story actually is about. I recognize the title. I remember I kind of liked it. I look up the first page in the book and go “oh yeah, that one.” And then by the time I get back to this part of the review I’ve forgotten again. So it’s pretty okay, I guess?
– All the Hues of Hell – Gene Wolfe – So….what? This is my problem with Gene Wolfe’s stuff and other such deeply subtextual and meaningful and double-meaningful things written by geniuses for geniuses: it doesn’t actually offer anything to me, a non-genius reading at the surface level. So why should I bother with it? And so I don’t. That being said, I read this one again, hoping it was going to be clearer this time. Nope.
Well, actually, that being said, this one does have a pretty understandable surface-level storyline. It’s just densely buried under the in medias res style that doesn’t provide any context whatsoever, heaps of subtext and globs upon globs of narrative filligree. Oh well, whatever. The turtle moves and so does the fetus.
– Occam’s Scalpel – Theodore Sturgeon – This one I also like, because it’s also a portrait of An Ideal SF Hero….and why he’s really, realllllly scary to people who are paying attention. (And it’s what I always flash back to whenever I hear news of Elon Musk getting up to new business.) But it transcends the Beware the Superman theme by allowing both the ubermensch and the regular-man POV character to have and showcase the very best intentions and motivations. The final twist, of course, was put there to punch up the end of an almost-pure character study with overtones of horror and turn it into a scifi thriller…but I would seriously be down for the sequel starring any combination of these characters or ideas.
– Time Fuze – Randall Garrett – I regularly get into arguments with the Father of Skaith over whether or not characters should be killed off. He says no: they need to stick around, because when you sign on to a book or a series with a main character, that is who you want to read about. Your main characters should be awesome enough that people like them, and they should be smart enough to keep themselves alive and victorious (in-story). Hero fights, hero wins, hero lives happily ever after. I say that, awesome or not, sometimes you need to kill off characters if that’s the natural result of their course of action, or if the plot / character development of others (AKA: dead wife syndrome) requires it. As long as a hero gets to live happily ever after, that still counts.
Nevertheless, we are agreed on one thing: it’s Bad Form to blow up the Earth.
BAD FORM, RANDALL!
– Desertion – Clifford Simak – I’m going to spoil it right here, because: “They would turn me back into a man.” “And me, into a dog.” –is awesome.
– The Person from Porlock – Raymond F. Jones – Another story about a socially maladjusted engineer is ruined by having the (literal) people from Porlock be space lizards.
Space lizards–with exposition.
– The Planners – Kate Wilhelm – I read this story before, and I didn’t like it then, and I didn’t like it this time. If you want to write dreamlike, hallucinogenic prose, kindly don’t. I was going to write an entire ‘nother clause to that sentence, but y’know…
– Light of Other Days – Bob Shaw – It aight.
– Chromatic Aberration – I liked it, possibly because it’s one of the few stories in Part III of this book to feature, even vaguely described, action.
– In a Petri Dish Upstairs – George Turner – This one is kind of the antithesis to proper SF, and not because the theme is bleak and the characters are repulsive. It’s because (however realistic this may be), the authorities’ solution to a tribe of orbiting barbarians is to make it somebody else’s problem….in the future. We don’t get to the future by having this attitude, and I don’t like reading about it.
– Johnny Mnemonic – Vernor Vinge – Eh, it’s OK.