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The Ascent Of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF, edited by David G Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

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Introductions

‘Real Science, Imaginary Worlds’ by Gregory Benford
‘On Science And Science Fiction’ by Kathryn Cramer
‘Hard Science Fiction’ by David G Hartwell

Part 1

‘Nine Lives’ by Ursula K. LeGuin
‘Light Of Other Days’ by Bob Shaw
‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne
‘The Star’ by Arthur C. Clarke
‘Proof’ by Hal Clement
‘It’s Great To Be Back’ by Robert A. Heinlein
‘Mimsy Were The Borogoves’ by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore
‘Davy Jones’ Ambassador’ by Raymond Z. Gallun
‘The Life And Times Of Multivac’ by Isaac Asimov
‘The Singing Diamond’ by Robert L Forward
‘Down And Out On Ellfive’ by Dean Ing
‘Send Me A Kiss By Wire’ by Hilbert Schenck
‘The Xi Effect’ by Philip Latham
‘A Descent Into The Maelström’ by Edgar Allen Poe
‘Exposures’ by Gregory Benford
‘The Planners’ by Kate Wilhelm
‘Beep’ by James Blish
‘Drode’s Equations’ by Richard Grant
‘The Weather Man’ by Theodore L Thomas

Part 2

‘Transit Of Earth’ by Arthur C. Clarke
‘Prima Belladonna’ by JG Ballard
‘To Bring In The Steel’ by Donald Kingsbury
‘Gomez’ by C.M. Kornbluth
‘Waterclap’ by Isaac Asimov
‘Weyr Search’ by Anne McCaffrey
‘Message Found in a Copy of “Flatland”‘ by Rudy Rucker
‘The Cold Equations’ by Tom Goodwin
‘The Land Ironclads’ by HG Wells
‘The Hole Man’ by Larry Niven
‘Atomic Power’ by Don A. Stuart
‘Stop Evolution in Its Tracks!’ by John T. Sladek
‘The Hungry Guinea Pig’ by Miles J. Breuer, M.D.
‘The Very Slow Time Machine’ by Ian Watson
‘The Beautiful And The Sublime’ by Bruce Sterling
‘The Author of the Acacia Seeds’ by Ursula K LeGuin
‘Heat Of Fusion’ by John M. Ford
‘Dolphin’s Way’ by Gordon R. Dickson
‘All The Hues Of Hell’ by Gene Wolfe
‘Occam’s Scalpel’ by Theodore Sturgeon
‘giANTS’ by Edward Bryant
‘Time Fuze’ by Randall Garrett
‘Desertion’ by Clifford D. Simak

Part 3

‘Kyrie’ by Poul Anderson
‘The Person From Porlock’ by Raymond F. Jones
‘Day Million’ by Frederik Pohl
‘Cage Of Sand’ by JG Ballard
‘The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things To Rats’ by James Tiptree Jr.
‘In the Year 2889′ by Jules Verne
‘Surface Tension’ by James Blish
 ‘No, No, Not Rogov!’ by Cordwainer Smith
‘In A Petri Dish Upstairs’ by George Turner
‘With The Night Mail’ by Rudyard Kipling
‘The Longest Science Fiction Story In The World’ by Arthur C Clarke
‘The Pi Man’ by Alfred Bester
‘Relativistic Effects’ by Gregory Benford
‘Making Light’ by James P. Hogan
‘The Last Question’ by Isaac Asimov
‘The Indefatigable Frog’ by Philip K. Dick
‘Chromatic’ by John M. Ford
‘The Snowball Effect’ by Katherine McLean
‘The Morphology Of The Kirkham Wreck’ by Hilbert Schenck
‘Tangents’ by Greg Bear
‘Johnny Mnemonic’ by William Gibson
‘What Continues, What Fails…’ by David Brin
‘Mammy Morgan Played the Organ; Her Daddy Beat the Drum’ by Michael F. Flynn
‘Bookworm, Run!’ by Vernor Vinge

So, having read 67 stories over twelve months, 990 pages and three mysterious sections, I have now finally finished The Ascent Of Wonder. Was it worth it? I would have to say no. A fiction anthology may have a historical or critical purpose but, for me, it lives or dies by the quality of its stories. The problem is that the standard of stories collected here simply isn’t high enough to justify the investment in such a mammoth volume.

A further inescapable problem is that Hartwell and Cramer have subtitled their anthology ‘The Evolution of Hard SF’ but they have singularly failed to put forward a clear definition of what hard science fiction actually is. Nor does a definition emerge organically from what are frankly a fairly disparate bunch of stories. There are certainly stories here that I would point to when asked to point to hard SF but is that enough? Many of the stories here clearly aren’t hard SF, no matter how hard you squint, and in their introductions Hartwell and Cramer frequently acknowledge this, making the inclusion of these stories particularly willful. (I have seen it suggested in several places that Hartwell alone wrote these introductions.)

As well as the baffling individual introductions, the three (three!) main introductions provided me with no helpful guide: Benford is childish, offensive and represents the worst of the genre, Cramer merely impenetrable and Hartwell relies solely on handwaving and unsupported assertion. Other critics were equally bemused. I have decided to give the editors one last chance, however, in the form of Cramer’s chapter on hard SF in The Cambridge Companion To Science Fiction, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn.

After a page or so of prevarication, Cramer defines her approach to hard SF in way that reads an awful lot like a justification for The Ascent Of Wonder:

Since a literary genre is a form of conversation among writers, one useful approach is to find writers who say they are writing hard sf and see what they do and say about it. This means including writers who seem out of place, have a bad attitude (that is, who display inadequate faith in and enthusiasm for science and technology) or choose unorthodox tactics for yoking the science to the fiction. This approach occasionally enrages hard sf purists, as it results in a more sprawling sub-genre.

There is much to argue with here. Is a literary genre primarily a form of conversation among writers? Examining writers who claim to write hard SF is certainly one approach but how justifiable are these claims? How well examined are the writers own beliefs about their work? Are they simply delusional? I would hope that a critic would give a bit more thought to these issues rather than simply taking such assertions at face value. We then have a kitchen sink second sentence which allows us to include anything we want under the umbrella of hard SF and provides the rationale for The Ascent Of Wonder. I’m not surprised this enrages hard SF purists, it presumably enrages purists of all stripes who foolishly believe that a definition should actually define something. It certainly enrages me. That final sentence gives an example of one of those alleged enraged hard SF purist but when turn to the reference we find this:

Of this approach in David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, eds., The Ascent of Wonder (New York: Tor, 1994), David Samuelson complains in ‘A Softening of the Hard-SF Concept’, at p. 409, that ‘[it] deprecate[s] the real thing, watering it down so much as to virtually destroy any generic consistency’

So yes, Cramer is talking about her own book here, although she doesn’t come out and say that in the body of the text. But who is Samuelson and at p. 409 where? A quick Google reveals she is actually referring to David N. Samuelson and the unattributed source for ‘A Softening of the Hard-SF Concept’ is Science Fiction Studies Vol. 21, No. 3 (1994). This source is revealed in the Further Reading section at the back of the book but it seems perverse to give a full reference to subject of the criticism and leave the reader to root out the source of the criticism itself. Errors do happen but this seems abysmally sloppy. Anyway, Samuelson’s review is, as you might expect, pretty damning:

Hartwell’s stated aim is to make accessible to a larger audience something which, depending on one’s side in the argument, is the most hidebound or most authentic form of sf. His and Cramer’s means of achieving that goal, however, cast doubt on both the quality of hard sf as literature and its claim to be called a distinctive branch, let alone the center of the sf universe, as alleged by all three of the book’s introductions… Like his essay, this collection of stories is disorderly and diffuse, trying to serve not only the announced purpose, but others as well, among them a history lesson, a pleading for literary quality which may imply terms antithetical to sf “hardness,” and a questioning of the very bases outlined in the introductions that supposedly constitute the subject at hand.

Back to Cramer’s definition. It seems clear that by approaching hard SF as a “contentious conversation”, Hartwell and Cramer have been forced to attempt a synthesis of irreconcilable viewpoints. The result is that they are left with no single coherent thread on which to hang The Ascent Of Wonder. Cramer herself warns of the dangers of “solipsistic definitions” but that is exactly what they have lapsed into. Works of hard SF “are usually characterized by attitudes found in previous examples of hard sf, but may instead be characterized by attitudes found in opposition to or in argument or dialogue with such attitudes.” To which I can only say: pft. Frankly, I’ve had enough.

Samuelson charitable concludes his review by saying: “I would grant that a third of the sixty-seven stories are quite good”. So let’s move on to the stories themselves…

The Good

It would be impossible to publish an anthology as big as The Ascent Of Wonder and not include a few gems. For me, the best thing about the book was that it brought John M. Ford to my attention. ‘Heat Of Fusion’ is wonderful; a great hard SF story, a great SF story, a great story full stop. It makes you believe that not only does hard SF exist but it is a good thing it does. His other story, ‘Chromatic’, is also good but – as with so many of the stories – out of place here.

Then we have Gregory Benford whose introduction almost turned me off his fiction for life. Luckily it didn’t because, despite the fact he is clearly an arse, he remains one of the few authors who can actually write hard SF as demonstrated here by ‘Relativistic Effects’. The same is true of a pair of classics: James Blish’s ‘Surface Tension and Day Million’ by Frederik Pohl’. ‘The Author of the Acacia Seeds’ by Ursula K LeGuin, on the other hand, is an example of one of those stories Cramer refers to as violating the attitude of the subgenre whilst remaining hard. Unfortunately this only throws into starker relief those which do not.

For example, we get a clutch of excellent (then) contemporary science fiction in the form of ‘Johnny Mnemonic’ by William Gibson, ‘The Beautiful And The Sublime’ by Bruce Sterling and ‘The Very Slow Time Machine’ by Ian Watson which have only a passing aquaintance with that part of the genre. Other stories are superb but don’t even inhabit the same universe as hard SF. ‘Drode’s Equations’ made me want to seek out more by Richard Grant but unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much. Similarly, ‘The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things To Rats’ by James Tiptree Jr and ‘The Planners’ by Kate Wilhelm made resolve again to properly approach their respective back catalogues. (Both were presumably included to bump up the abysmal number of stories by women, just seven out of 67.)

The Hard

It is fair to say my tastes don’t naturally incline towards classic hard science fiction. There are a clutch of stories – ‘What Continues, What Fails…’ by David Brin, ‘giANTS’ by Edward Bryant, ‘Proof’ by Hal Clement, Benford’s ‘Exposures’ – that, whilst they didn’t do it for me, I would commend to a fan of the hard stuff. To be honest, I was expecting many more stories of this type so you can imagine how bitterly disappoint I was with what I did get.

Some of the older stories make a good case for the subgenre’s existence prior to Mission Of Gravity, Hal Clement’s 1953 novel which the editors identify as the birth of modern hard SF. ‘The Land Ironclads’ by HG Wells and ‘A Descent Into The Maelström’ by Edgar Allen Poe make excellent proto-hard SF stories and I was completely charmed by Raymond Z Gallun’s ‘Davy Jones’ Ambassador’ which I think is the real deal.

Then we have ‘The Cold Equations’ by Tom Goodwin. It is quintessentially hard science fiction. It is a steaming pile of shit. When people think of hard SF this is what they think of and it is a pinched, ugly subgenre which hates the written word. Supposed grandmasters like Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein make contributions to this anthology that make me wonder how on Earth the canon was formed (I felt similarly about ‘The Star’ by Arthur C. Clarke but there was such an outpouring of support for the story that I think this has to be just me.)

It is the bread and butter stories that really show the subgenre’s weakness though. I summed up ‘The Singing Diamond’ by Robert L Forward as “very hard, very short, strong on science, weak on character” and there are several more of this ilk: ‘The Person From Porlock’ by Raymond F. Jones, ‘Atomic Power’ by Don A. Stuart (AKA John W Campbell Jr), ‘The Xi Effect’ by Philip Latham. For me, these represent the antithesis of what fiction should be; for others, they represent the very heart of science fiction.

And The Ugly

Many, many of the stories are neither good nor hard. I have forced myself to read them and forced myself to write brief assessments but I am going to say no more about them. Occassionally, however, this dreadful monotony has been broken by some stories that are easy to write about for all the wrong reasons. Women are conspicuous by their absence in this anthology but even when they are depicted it is often in breathtakingly sexist terms. ‘In A Petri Dish Upstairs’ by George Turner and ‘The Weather Man’ by Theodore L Thomas impress but the gold star for wrongness goes to Donald Kingsbury’s ‘To Bring In The Steel’ though. This really has to be read to be believed but if you don’t have access to a copy check out my post and marvel at this story of an asteroid miner and his happy whore.

Finally, a special word needs to go to ‘Making Light’ by James P. Hogan. This is the fictional equivalent of Benford’s smug, conceited introduction. The attitude that fans are slans and belief that hard SF is the high church of science fiction are one of the main reasons I am so ambivalent about fandom. A story like this – and to a lesser extent The Ascent Of Wonder itself – is almost enough to put me off science fiction completely.

Written by Martin

23 February 2011 at 14:50

‘Stop Evolution In Its Tracks!’ by John T. Sladek

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‘Stop Evolution In Its Tracks!’ is a satire on Creationism which seems pretty pointless because how can you make Creationism any more absurd than it already is?

Quality: **
Hardness:

This isn’t a science fiction story. H&C include it in an anthology of hard SF on the the grounds that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. Yeah.

Written by Martin

22 February 2011 at 18:59

‘Bookworm, Run!’ by Vernor Vinge

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A cold war thriller in which nuclear weapons are replaced with intelligent animals. The idea is there but the story is told with such slackness as to destroy it. My favourite example is a escaped chimp who tries to hitch a lift “blissfully unaware that a talking chimpanzee is not a common sight in the United States.” Literally in the paragraph before this we have been reminded that the chimp has escaped from his institution because he has downloaded all information about the US ever recorded. Vinge wrote these sentences down on the page next to each other but made no attempt to fix their incompatibility, presumably believing that the idea was enough. Hard SF in a nutshell.

Quality: **
Hardness: ***

And that is the end of that.

Written by Martin

12 February 2011 at 07:46

‘Mammy Morgan Played the Organ; Her Daddy Beat the Drum’ by Michael F. Flynn

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I’d read a few reviews of The Ascent Of Wonder that singled out ‘Mammy Played The Organ’ for the unlikeliness of its inclusion in an anthology of hard SF. Given the rest of the book, this filled be with dread. Nor did Hartwell and Cramer’s introduction reassure me: “a clever amalgam of ghost story and sf”. And so, to the story itself.

A librarian hears something go bump in the stacks in the middle of the night. Who ya gonna call? Well, actually, the director of the library thinks she’s called a psychic but no, she gets a paranormal researcher. The ghostbuster is a discredited physicist, the director is a professional administrator; it is very unclear why she has hired him (and you have to wonder what cost centre she will pay him from). It is particularly unclear given her desire – touchingly divorced from the real world though it may be – that they will end up on the cover of the National Enquirer.

Anyway, the ghostbuster goes off with the librarian for a tour of the building. Its only built on a bloody graveyard! At this point I almost stopped reading but I forced myself to push through the pain barrier. I did this for you so I hope you are appropriately grateful. There then follows some Egon Spengler-style guff about the physics of ghost, interspersed with some hopelessly contrived backstory delivered in the manner of a PowerPoint presentation. Then nothing happens for a couple of pages. Then, blessedly, the story concludes, albeit with all the subtlety of an episode of Scooby Doo.

Quality: *
Hardness: **

Written by Martin

10 February 2011 at 10:17

‘What Continues, What Fails…’ by David Brin

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This story unashamedly treads both the hard and soft paths of science fiction. The hard part takes the form of speculation about the nature of black holes. The soft part takes the form of speculation about the structure of a society that takes to the stars. These two halves are bonded together by a shared and literalised metaphor of motherhood. So on a technically level it is extremely satisfying in its construction. However, as befits its subject matter, it is a rather chilly story and for me there was no spark that brought it to life.

Quality: ***
Hardness: *****

From the introduction:

Brin is of the old school of Campbellian hard sf, adept at storytelling manipulation and stock characterization in the colorful mode of Robert A. Heinlein — clever, facile, slick, entertaining, with a clear and usually unornamented prose style. His thriving career is proof that there is still a large and enthusiastic audience for science fiction that incorporates few of the literary changes and devices that have entered the field in the last three decades.

Damning with faint praise or back-handed compliment?

Written by Martin

7 February 2011 at 20:49

‘Tangents’ by Greg Bear

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A researcher into the multi-dimension theory happens to stumble across a boy who can actually see the fourth dimension. This coincidence is adequately managed but Bear forces his story through all sorts of strange contortions by insisting on establishing a parallel between Peter Tuthy (his researcher) and Alan Turing.

Tuthy is British but lives illegally in America after he was smuggled into the US through Canada. This is because he was fleeing homosexual persecution in the UK. Now, Turing might have been prosecuted for homosexuality in 1952 but a lot happened between then and Tuthy’s supposed arrest in 1964. The Wolfenden Report recommending the de-criminalisation of homosexual behaviour was published in 1957 and by 1967 this was established in law (it wasn’t until 2003 that the same was true of the US). So the majority of the resonance the story is meant to engender backfires completely. Once you strip this out, you are left with the thin and unlikely story of a magic boy who can slip through dimensions.

Quality: **
Hardness: **

Written by Martin

6 February 2011 at 11:50

‘The Morphology Of The Kirkham Wreck’ by Hilbert Schenck

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I didn’t much like Schenck’s previous story in the anthology and whilst this better, it is still a puzzling choice. Again it is a story about the ocean, this time centred around a rescue mission to save the Kirkham, a ship stranded off Nantucket. This is framed and interspersed by a narrative from an alien observer who is surprised to find that Walter Chase, the captain of the life boat, can alter time with the sheer force of his will. The rescue attempt is relatively gripping; it is set at the beginning of the last century so it is man and oar against the sea. The alien narrative has a good go at being hard:

What became evident when the Kirkham stranded was that extreme-value probability theory could not set a limit on such activity by an energy-user totally motivated and having what Keeper Chase’s people would incorrectly call a high level of “psychic” ability but what in fact is simply the ability to make information transfers within an altered time domain.

But no, sorry, it doesn’t wash.

Quality: **
Hardness: **

Written by Martin

5 February 2011 at 18:06

‘The Snowball Effect’ by Katherine McLean

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This is perhaps a satire on the hard sciences or perhaps a satire on the soft sciences. Either way, its characters are so thin and its view of human nature is so ludicrously deterministic that it is indistinguishable from any other hard SF story.

Quality: *
Hardness: ***

Written by Martin

4 February 2011 at 07:42

Posted in sf, short stories

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‘Chromatic’ by John M. Ford

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This is a series of vignette-length fables set in an imaginary post-revolutionary country and based around a new set of metaphorical (and ideologically pure) colours. As I have come to expect from my meagre exposure to Ford’s work, it packs a heartbreakingly dense emotional punch into an extremely economical set of words.

Quality: ****
Hardness: *

I’m sure I said I would stop posting the introductions to the stories but I just can’t help myself. Every time I think H&K have reached the limits of their ability to contort the definition of hard SF they surpass themselves:

John M. Ford is equally adept at fantasy and science fiction, but is known more for the variety and richness of his works than for his rigorous use of science. He is impatient, it seems, with conventional approaches; in such stories as this one, he applies the techniques of and exploits a conventional setting of the school of magic realism to embody the idea of paradigm shifts (from contemporary philosophy of science)… It also demands, by implication, some familiarity with the tradition of “alternate universe” sf — which is usually not hard sf… Since this need not involve either science or technology, this has become as useful to writers out of the genre as in, resulting in a blurring of genre boundaries… What we have here is a story at the very fringe of science fiction that teases at genre definition, yet plays by the rules as Ford perceives them.

Written by Martin

2 February 2011 at 10:09

‘The Indefatigable Frog’ by Philip K. Dick

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Between the ages of about twelve and thirteen I read every short story Philip K Dick wrote. There are quite a few of them, hundreds in fact; his Collected Stories run to five volumes. I read them because I liked Dick and because they were available when so much else wasn’t. He is a writer who repays being read in bulk since so much of his work was variations on a theme. Inevitably, however, they all blurred together a bit.

‘The Indefatigable Frog’ is one of the few that stuck in my mind. This was because it introduced me to Zeno’s Paradox (technically the dichotomy paradox). Re-reading it now, I find that Dick used this paradox to produce a lame joke. Or perhaps I should be charitable and say several lame jokes: a satire of academia, a raspberry at the two cultures and zany version of the paradox itself. Dick doesn’t seem to have any real awareness or understanding of the elements he is using though and the results are fundamentally dumb.

Quality: **
Hardness:

Written by Martin

7 December 2010 at 21:51

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