The Mammoth Book Of Extreme Science Fiction
edited by Mike Ashley
Robinson, 2006, 7.99, 562pp
ISBN-10: 184529307X
This review first appeared on Infinity Plus
Remember when you first discovered grown-up science fiction? For me it was in the small local library of my home town, reading seemingly endless anthologies of short stories (a format that sf shines brighter in than any other genre). Back then, I never took any notice of the names under the stories, I just read voraciously through endless Orbits and Best Ofs, and only when I finished all of those (reading quite a few of them twice, just in case) did I turn my greedy little eyes to the novels. As much as I now enjoy novels, and as often as I’ve tried and failed to catch that rush of intellectual adrenalin since, a short story collection with the title of The Mammoth Book Of Extreme Science Fiction had me hooked before I’d finished reading the strapline: ‘Mind-blowing stories of hard science fiction…’

I was always going to be disappointed in the end by this collection, the only real question being by how much. But this anthology comes oh-so close to resurrecting the excitement had during those early days spent at the library.

Things start auspiciously with Greg Benford’s ‘Anomalies’, which is exactly the kind of thing I loved when I was small, right down to the straightforward narrative style, the characterisation (a classic ‘everyman’ astronomer hero) and a beautifully understated final paragraph. Likewise, with Paul Di Filippo’s ‘…And The Dish Ran Away With The Spoon’, although there are references to – ahem - naughtiness, that I may have had to look up in a dictionary back then. Nevertheless, both my actual self and my virtual ten-year old self (who’s reviewing the book alongside me) enjoyed this modern take on the Asimovian robot story.

Stephen Baxter’s ‘The Pacific Mystery’ is a grand old bit of alternate universe steampunk with a topographical anomaly thrown in for good effect. Any story that has Spitfires landing on atomic-powered aerial battleships has got to be worth 30 minutes of an English sf fan’s time! Editor Mike Ashley has a talent for juxtaposing stories – Benford’s big science against Di Filippo’s cyber-domestic, then Baxter’s 1950s large-scale technophilia against Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross’s nanotech utopia in ‘Flowers For Alice’. Big Me loved this story, but it gave Little Me a headache – as anything by that pair would have. Little Me would also have lapped up Geoffrey A. Landis’s ‘The Long Chase’, short, punchy and razor-focussed hard sf as it is, whereas Big Me could also appreciate Robert Reed’s ‘Hoop-Of-Benzene’, one of his Marrow stories. It has a lot of the ‘sense of wonder’ of Landis, but is carefully grounded in a more personal story that drips with background details.

There then follows a selection of vintage stories of wildly varying quality, but undeniable inventiveness, including one by Theodore Sturgeon, ‘The Girl Had Guts’, that shows just why he’s so fondly remembered. I can’t believe I’d never come across this obvious inspiration to Ridley Scott’s Alien before (which may be just as well, as I’m sure it would have given Little Me some real grade-A nightmares!)

Harlan Ellison’s ‘The Region Between’ is the usual brilliant tour-de-force of ideas, albeit exactly the kind of thing I was expecting. Ian McDonald’s ‘The Days Of Solomon Gursky’, however, was very much not what I was expecting, and exactly what I’d hoped for (if that isn’t too damning a phrase), managing to confound my expectations at the turn of every page; an episodic bildungsroman for an immortal, vaguely reminiscent of Accelerando, but rather more coherent.

Not many writers have tried to depict the very end of the universe and to depict the physics accurately; but then, not many writers are Greg Bear. In the penultimate story, ‘Judgment Engine’, Bear really gets EXTREME on our asses. Imagine if Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe was done with a resolutely straight face (and with a university rather than a restaurant). The very concepts test our imaginations to the limit, and force Bear to introduce a comprehensible viewpoint character; but he also raises some tricky epistemological questions at this ultimate dying of the light. You might well ask, how can you portray the very end of creation itself, an impossibly distant time in the future, other than through the absurd? Bear makes a creditable stab at it, however.

So, The Mammoth Book Of Extreme Science Fiction - ‘Mammoth’ might be stretching it a little bit (there are just over 550 pages here), but ‘Extreme’ is pretty much right on the money.

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