Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Book Review: Gateways, edited by Elizabeth Anne Hull

Gateways is a collection of stories by a number of different authors, published in honor of Frederik Pohl's seventy-year career as a science fiction author and editor.

Pohl is a special author to me. One of the science fiction novels that really made an impression on me as a kid was Pohl's The World at the End of Time, published in 1990. I was exposed to it by sheer chance- my father would often pick up a few books for me when he was out of town on business, he knew I liked science fiction, and on one of his trips it was the most science fictiony-looking book at the airport kiosk on the day he was flying home.

I was blown away by it. It had interstellar space colonization, several human civilizations separated by thousands of years of history, godlike plasma-based beings living in stars that waged war with each other on an unimaginable scale, entire solar systems accelerated to relativistic speeds, trillions of years of the universe's evolution... startling stuff when you're in elementary school and just starting to delve into science fiction. A few years later, I discovered Pohl's classic Gateway, which became one of my favorite books. So I owe Frederik Pohl quite a bit.

Gateways collects over a dozen stories by various science fiction authors, including three novellas  by David Brin, Frank M. Robinson, and Cory Doctorow. There are some reprints, but most of the stories are original to this anthology. Each contributor also provides a short remembrance of Pohl after their story, and several other authors who don't have story here, such as Robert Sawyer and Robert Silverberg, share their memories as well. It also contains forward by Elizabeth Anne Hull, the book's editor and Frederik Pohl's wife of nearly three decades.

Stories of note for me included:

Von Neumann's Bug by Phyllis and Alex Eisenstein- Story about a suburban man on present-day Earth who starts experiencing strange events after a tiny, unmanned interstellar explorer crash-lands on present-day earth and takes up residence in his garage while it repairs itself. Very fun and good-natured, and one of my favorites here.

Sleeping Dogs by Joe Haldeman- A former soldier returns to a planet where he fought decades ago in a war he has no memory of, thanks to the memory alteration procedure done to the troops after the campaign was over. with what little he now knows about the planet and the war. Equipped with a drug that can help restore his lost memories if he can expose himself to enough stimuli associated with his forgotten past, he tries to retrace his steps to find out who he was and what he did almost 30 years ago. Very effective and chilling, and Haldeman also does a great job of evoking the setting of the story in a short space.

Gates (Variations) by Larry Niven- The shortest story in the collection, but it still captures the combination of scientifically grounded SF and off-kilter weirdness that I like so much about Niven.

Tales from the Spaceship Geoffrey by James Gunn- Part of an upcoming novel Transcendental. A diverse group of aliens on a journey through space together pass the time by relating their pasts.  Gives us an interesting look at several different alien species through the stories included here, and definitely piqued my interest in the novel. I was particularly liked the section narrated by a member of an alien race called the Dorians, which takes the common science fiction trope of a violent, militaristic, ruthlessly aggressive and predatory alien species (think Larry Niven's Kzinti for one of the archetypal examples) and puts an even more disturbing spin on it that grew more chilling the more I thought about it- what if they aren't naturally like that at all?

Virtually, A Cat by Jodie Lynn Nye- Fun, cute story about a man driven to despair while stuck on a two-year interstellar journey without his beloved cats, and the solution one of his crewmates devises to help him. I liked this one a lot; it probably helps that I'm a cat lover, but you don't need to be to enjoy this one.

A Preliminary Assessment of the Drake Equation, Being an Excerpt from the Memories of Star Captain Y.T. Lee By Vernor Vinge- Story about the exploration of the newly discovered planet, in a universe where humanity has developed faster-than-light-travel and found many earthlike worlds across the galaxy but has yet to find evidence of any extraterrestrial life more complex than bacteria. Very nicely combines a cheerful, light-hearted exploration story with some weightier concepts.

Shoresteading by David Brin- Near-future story set on the receding shores of China, after a rise in the sea level caused by global warming has left much of what used to be coastal China underwater. Starts off a bit weak, but it picks up and is dealing with some fairly interesting ideas by the end.

Contributions by authors such as Harry Harrison, Neil Gaiman, Greg Bear, Gene Wolfe, Gregory Benford, and Mike Resnick are also included.

The collection has its hits and misses, but the only story I actively disliked was “The First-Born” by Brian W. Aldiss. It's a dull, unpleasant, pointless journey to nowhere with a repulsively trivializing (seemingly bordering on outright apologism for the perpetrator) portrayal of childhood sexual abuse thrown in for good measure. There's the germ of several potentially interesting subjects for stories here- the possible effects of an alien environment on developing fetuses during an attempt to colonize Mars, a poorly funded and poorly planned colony's struggle to maintain itself, the psychological strains experienced by the colonists in such an environment- but nothing interesting happens with them here. Ugh.

All in all, though, I found Gateways quite enjoyable and would happily recommend it to fans of Frederik Pohl. More generally, I'd also recommend it to other science fiction fans interested in new short fiction, especially if you'd like to read some stories on that are mostly on the more  upbeat side of the spectrum.

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