CARBIDE TIPPED PENS

Carbide Tipped Pens makes no claim to starting or representing a movement within science fiction, nor is it centered around a particular topic or theme. Neither is it a “best of.” All but one story are original to this anthology, with only Jack McDevitt’s “The Play’s the Thing” being a reprint from 2013 (an enjoyable short tale about an intelligent Shakespeare program picking up his writing career where he left off). So the editors also lacked the benefit of posterity in making their selections. Nevertheless, this unassuming anthology is probably the strongest to come out for at least the last couple of years.

Carbide Tipped Pens makes no claim to starting or representing a movement within science fiction, nor is it centered around a particular topic or theme. Neither is it a “best of.” All but one story are original to this anthology, with only Jack McDevitt’s “The Play’s the Thing” being a reprint from 2013 (an enjoyable short tale about an intelligent Shakespeare program picking up his writing career where he left off). So the editors also lacked the benefit of posterity in making their selections. Nevertheless, this unassuming anthology is probably the strongest to come out for at least the last couple of years.

Of course, Ben Bova has no less than The Science Fiction Hall of Fame on his anthologizing résumé, and Eric Choi very much has his finger on the pulse of the best short science fiction being written today, so I assumed it would be solid, if not an exceptional entry in the genre. How nice to have one’s expectations exceeded.

Seventeen stories over some 400 pages averages out to around 25 pages per tale. There are no extreme outliers here: no 200-word short shorts or 60-page novellas. The author list leans towards the grizzled veteran including Ben Bova himself, Robert Reed, and Chinese star Liu Cixin.

There are several standouts, more than I can reasonably discuss in a single review. Daniel H. Wilson’s heart-wrenching opening story, “The Blue Afternoon that Lasted Forever,” brilliantly characterizes a loving father and scientist on the autistic spectrum with the mixed fortune to be one of the only people in the world to recognize the world is about to end by a freak astronomical event. His struggle to protect his little girl (if only from fear) up to the very last moment is hard to read but impossible to turn away from.

Leah Petersen and Gabrielle Harbowy’s “Skin Deep” describes the ambivalent relationships among pharmaceutical companies, the government, and ourselves. We want medical advances and capitalist corporations want better returns for their shareholders and government is in the middle with regulations in one hand and subsidies in the other. The protagonist in this story fights for patient and consumer rights, holding a biotech company accountable for every missed side effect, every unexpected product failure.

The science of the hypothetical medical tattoo described in this story is fascinating, but it’s the social implications that are most thought-provoking. When a company makes something that is so paradigm-changing it becomes nearly impossible to opt out, corporations and government become indistinguishable and it becomes dangerous for any individual who does not get with the program.

Liu Cixin’s recently translated novel, The Three-Body Problem, was absolutely the best (in the English-speaking world) of 2014, and his contribution to this anthology, inspired by but heavily adapted and expanded compared to a scene in that book, is equally brilliant, though in a completely different way as befits the very different goals of a short story versus a novel. Cixin’s story “The Circle,” like his novel, is a must-read.

One of the most grounded and contemporary tales is Doug Beason’s “Thunderwell,” the story of the outside-the-box thinking that a group of scientists and one determined political administrator employ in mounting an improvised rescue mission for some otherwise doomed astronauts. This story reminded me of a shortened version of Andy Weir’s The Martian, but written from the perspective of the ground-side crew rather than the astronaut.

One of the most speculative tales is Dirk Strasser’s “The Mandelbrot Bet,” about a brilliant renegade amateur physicist, a Stephen Wolfram type who manages to figure out how to travel through time to the end of the universe and records his ongoing adventures back to the present day via an atemporal quantum link from his supercomputer/wheelchair. In a possible nod to “The Last Question,” he spends the remaining life of the universe working with a combined multi-civilization superintelligence trying to solve the entropy problem, all the while narrating his adventures to the present day.

There’s something incredibly Golden Age about this story, a combination of the kind of Big Idea you’d see from Asimov with the adventurous spirit of a Heinlein protagonist, which doesn’t come across as affected. Combined with the found footage narrative device of his quantum-linked journal entries, a method simultaneously modern and classical (see H.G. Wells’s “Time Machine,” or anything from Lovecraft), the result really is rather timeless.

There are more, several more I could go on about, including Ben Bova and Eric Choi’s own entries. But I’d better leave it there. Highly recommended for fans of short form science fiction.

 


J.J.S. Boyce is a writer, educator, and semi-pro omelette chef. He can frequently be found writing at the Winnipeg Free Press, Care2 Causes, and, naturally, AE. He maintains a meta-narrative at his blog, The Back of the Envelope.

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