Nenia Campbell's Reviews > The Starry Rift: Tales of New Tomorrows

The Starry Rift by Jonathan Strahan
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Mar 06, 14

bookshelves: the-anthology-that-ate-everyone, science-fiction
Read from August 17 to 20, 2012

Anthologies are always kind of awkward, because the individual pieces are never equal in terms of quality : some are crap, some are half-assed, some are good, and some are fantastic. And, as with a bag of Bernie Botts' Every Flavour Beans, you never know what you're going to get .

The title is a little misleading because it suggests a collection of space opera. Only a few of these short stories are about aliens - in fact, the vast majority of them are about genetic engineering and technology. Tales of New Tomorrows doesn't particularly help, either, because it's reminiscent of those grim, early dystopian novels like Brave New World or 1984. Surprise! There aren't many dystopian novels in here, either . Damn you, misleading cover! Damn you!

As such, I've taken the liberty of providing a brief (or not-so-brief) summary for each of the sixteen stories incorporated into this compendium. Additionally, I've listed the genre, and a couple full-length novels with similar subject matter for fans.

1. Ass-Hat Magic Spider by Scott Westerfeld ☆☆
Genre: Near future
Summary: A colonist leaving earth via space-craft is starving himself to the point of death to spare weight for a very special possession to bring to his new planet.
Thoughts: This came across as forced and not all that good. I kind of got the feeling that this was something Westerfeld scribbled off at the last moment for the compilation . It wasn't bad, but it wasn't particularly great, either, and was far too short to generate a lasting impression.
Suggested Reading: The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress

2. Cheats by Ann Halom ☆☆☆☆☆
Genre: Cyberpunk
Summary: Sylvie and Dev are both hardcore gamers, who spend their time playing fully-immersive virtual reality games . The bane of their fun are the cheats - hackers who don't play by the rules, and manipulate and abuse the code. One day, Dev and Sylvie decide to play the cheats at their own game. They soon realize, though, that the cheats aren't gamers. They're the analog consciousnesses of people whose bodies have died and whose avatars still exist in cyberspace . . . and there's a very good reason why Sylvie and Dev are able to do so as well.
Thoughts: Cheats was rich and well-developed. Stories about virtual reality and cyberspace - stories that don't suck or come across as mega-cheesy, that is - are few and far between. If Cheats represents a mere fraction of Halom's story-telling ability, I definitely want to read more by this author. It's hard to squeeze emotion, character development and imagery into a full-length novel, let alone a short-story, but she succeeds beautifully. I loved this!
Suggested Reading: Idlewild

3. Orange by Neil Gaiman ☆☆☆☆
Genre: Bizarro fiction
Summary: This is written in survey form, but the questions aren't provided - only the answers . In the afterword, Gaiman says he wrote this after considering it might be fun to write a short where the reader was forced to fill in the blanks. From what I managed to fill in, the main character is filling out a non-disclosure form for the government after her sister turns into a glowing, non-human lifeform. An orange glowing non-human lifeform. Which probably speaks with a pronounced New Jersey accent and poses in front of the camera while making duckfaces (this is pure speculation on my part).
Thoughts: It's quite bizarre, and highly reminiscent of those "sugar high" fanfictions I used to see in the humor section on FF.net, whose sole comedic value was the element of pure randomness . Unlike its humorous cousins-twice-removed, however, Orange has a concrete story line. And a good moral, to boot (namely - don't use spray-on tanning lotion - you will look like a fool, and then glowing blue aliens will come and have to take you away in order to "fix" you). This was amusing, and among the better of Gaiman's short story efforts.
Suggested Reading: Future Eden A Brief History of Next Time

4. The Surfer by Kelly Link ☆☆☆☆
Genre: Post-apocalyptic
Summary: Adorno is a fourteen-year-old boy resentful of his father "kidnapping" him from his soccer-revolving life in Philadelphia to live in an airplane-turned-quarantine-hangar in Costa Rica. A pandemic flu is devastating the world, killing people and animals, and panic and suffering are widespread. Dorn's father has brought a suitcase full of science-fiction novels which soon become a staple of the community's entertainment.
Meanwhile, aliens have also visited earth, abducting a man named Hans Bliss, talking to him for less than an hour, and then depositing him again and never returning. Bliss maintains that the aliens wish society to be polyamorous, naked, happy, vegetarian, and willing to destroy all stockpiles of nuclear weapons. He has somewhat of a cult following on Costa Rica, and Dorn's friend Naomi takes pleasure in riling up the natives with her hatred of him.
Dorn learns that the world does not revolve around soccer - and that, when it comes to aliens, earth itself may only be second fiddle, that girls won't like him for his looks alone if he's a sexist pig, and that science-fiction can provide more than just entertainment.
Thoughts: This was over fifty pages long, so there was plenty of time for characterization. The world building was a little meh, and I didn't really like Dorn at all - but once I realized that we aren't supposed to like Dorn, I began to enjoy the story more.
Some science-fiction novels are epics. The Surfer is a futuristic slice-of-life-slash-social-commentary. Plus, Link name-drops some of my favorite sci-fi authors (esp. Sheri S. Teper).
Suggested Reading: Alas Babylon

5. Repair Kit by Stephen Baxter ☆☆☆☆☆
Genre: Space opera
Summary: The Flying Pig is one of the fastest space ships in the galaxy, traveling even faster than light by descending to tachyon levels. The ship's last-resort engineer (who's rather similar to Professor Farnsworth) is excited about his latest invention: a repair kit that can fix anything broken by reaching into the past and replacing the malfunctioning object with it's pre-destroyed copy. Naturally, the commanders of the ship are wary of this timey-wimey business, convinced that it's like trying to duct-tape together a broken lamp. Calamity strikes when one of the fuses integral to the ship's steering burns out. Suddenly, the Flying Pig is literally Flying through space at faster-than-light speeds . . . with no brakes. And they're heading right for a star that has entered its red giant phase, thus distorting the tachyons of surrounding space, and spelling disaster unless the fuse is fixed - and quickly.
Enter Stolz's Repair Kit.
Thoughts: This was very much like a Star Trek episode. I particularly liked the twist with the Repair Kit. It turns out the fuse was damaged from the start, so replacing the fuse with a flawed original wouldn't work. So the engineer tinkers with the Kit and creates a NEW version that replaces the broken object with perfect copies from the FUTURE. It's very Schrodinger , and I loved how confused the poor crewmen were. Stupendous!
Suggested Reading: Grimspace

6. The Dismantled Invention of Fate by Jeffrey Ford ☆☆
Genre: Space opera
Summary: An interstellar space traveler falls in love with a beautiful alien. They are married on her planet but he is consumed by wanderlust and, against the advice of her people that to do so means death, she joins him on his travels and agrees to be cryogenically frozen. However, it kills her, and John is heart-broken when he realizes Zadiiz died of fright. Then the story switches back to Zadiiz, who apparently is still alive in a dream. It talks about how she teaches children of another alien race, and some other spacey-wacey stuff. At the end, John and Zadiiz are reunited and have tons of babies together. Happily ever after . . .
...or is it just a dream?
Thoughts: I didn't particularly like TDIoF. It was too trippy and . . . well, weird.
Suggested Reading: The Xenogenesis Trilogy

7. Anda's Game by Cory Doctorow ☆☆☆
Genre: Cyberpunk
Summary: As the title might lead one to expect, this is partially based on Ender's game. The main characters are girls who are tired of being oppressed in games. They rise up, forming their own quasi-militaristic league of girl-gamers, taking their enemies on - but unfortunately, these game-mercenaries soon realize they've been set up: their opponents aren't adults - or even boys - but young girls being paid to click a mouse because it's cheaper to hire children to press a button than it is to pay a programmer to write the code for numerous macros. If girls fail and die in the game, they lose their wages for the day . . . or are forced to turn to another profession. Namely, slavery or prostitution.
Thoughts: The writing wasn't great, and I feel that the world was a little lacking. I didn't get much of a feel for Anda, although it is interesting that she is overweight IRL. Doctorow makes a good point, that the sedentary lifestyle of hardcore gamers is likely a contributing factor the the obesity epidemic that is plaguing the western world.
I also liked how he focused on girl gamers. Girl gamers are the recipients of a lot of crap on online games, with some male gamers harrassing, stalking, and even actively discriminating against players they suspect to be female . Ender's game focuses on an all-boys' game, so it's nice to see that other authors are recognizing female empowerment in virtual reality, too.
Suggested Reading: Ready Player One

8. Sundiver Day by Kathleen Ann Goonan ☆☆
Genre: Biopunk
Summary: Sundiver Day is a resident in Florida whose brother enlisted to participate in military experiments involving genetic engineering, which ultimately killed him (or so she and her family believe). She misses her brother so much that she is . . . um, planning on cloning him in vitro and then giving birth to him herself. Eek.
Thoughts: This was just . . . weird. And not New Weird but "doesn't-make-sensical" weird. And creepy.
Suggested Reading: Oryx and Crake

9. The Dust Assassin by Ian McDonald ☆☆
Genre: Biopunk
Summary: Futuristic Indian society where this Indian girl is told that she "was born a weapon." She is groomed for womanhood and marriage, and taught to wield knowledge the way one would a sword. Then she is betrayed, and forced into a marriage with the man she has been taught to hate - one of the royal family. As it turns out, she was genetically engineered to wreak havoc upon the empire that has caused her land so much strife.
Thoughts: At first it was too confusing, then it was boring, then it was bizarre, and then, as the cherry on the cake, it had a downer ending. The writing wasn't bad, but the plot didn't make a hell of a lot of sense. I know that's vogue for sci-fi, but I don't like it.
Suggested Reading: The Assassins of Tamurin

10. The Star Surgeon's Apprentice by Alastair Reynolds ☆☆☆☆☆
Genre: Space opera
Summary: Peter Vandry bribes his way onto a spaceship to escape some very evil men. But he may have just jumped from the frying pan into the fire under his apprenticeship of Surgeon Zeal. Because the cyborgs Zeal is constantly repairing weren't always cyborgs . . .
When Peter learns of the ship's dark secret, his master's intentions for him, and the miserable creatures responsible for powering the ship, he has to do something - and quickly - or he, and his lobot friend will both be destroyed.
Thoughts: This story broke my heart a little. :(
Suggested Reading: Stardoc, The Island of Doctor Moreau

11. An Honest Day's Work by Margo Lanagan ☆☆
Genre: Biopunk
Summary: In an Indian slum, people scavenge dead creatures for bodyparts to sell on the black markets . One young boy has an epiphany that changes the way he feels about his work.
Thoughts: Interesting idea, but not very well executed.
Suggested Reading: Perdido Street Station

12. Lost Continent by Greg Egan ☆☆☆☆
Genre: Alternate history
Summary: Ali is kidnapped from his small Middle-Eastern village. When the man dies, he soon finds himself alone in a completely different world: a world where various historical events have rendered a familiar landscape alien and foreign.
Thoughts: I really enjoyed this. It shows how history is shaped by the ripple-effects of chief events - and Ali is adorable.
Suggested Reading: Beauty (by Sheri S. Teper)

13. Incomers by Paul McAuley ☆☆☆
Genre: Space opera
Summary: Humans have managed to terraform the other planets in the solar system. A bunch of boys living on Saturn grow suspicious of one of the "incomers" - a recent transfer from earth - and are convinced that he is a spy. The truth is slightly more complicated.
Thoughts: This was sweet, and a good allegory for racism and the suspicion of small towns.
Suggested Reading: Grass, Speaker for the Dead, The Telling

14. Post-Ironic Stress Syndrome by Tricia Sullivan ☆☆☆☆☆
Genre: Cyberpunk
Summary: In the future, opposing nations do battle in m-space, where virtual reality coded to represent facets of real life . The main character is one such warrior, whose M-ask allows her to fight in M-space. But when a clever glitch modeled off the Medusa/Perseus myth begins to destroy the people that are hooked in, people might have to look for another alternative.
Thoughts: I really liked this one!
Suggested Reading: The Warrior Heir, The Lathe of Heaven

15. Infestation by Garth Nix ☆☆☆☆
Genre: UF/Space opera
Summary: Vampires plague the earth, and our surfer-dude narrator is the best person at killing them. But, then again, he's not exactly human himself!
ThoughtsReally cool twist. Garth Nix is an awesome writer, and it was cool to see his gritty and unique contribution to the much-overrun genre of vampires.
Suggested Reading: Peeps, Sunshine

16. Pinocchio by Walter John Williams ☆☆☆☆☆☆
Genre: Dystopia
Summary: Thanks to nanobot technology, everybody can have the bodies and minds they want. Everybody is perfect and smart, and everybody is desperate for their fifteen minutes of fame . Our narrator is a popular star who has his own channel where he wears the body of a silverback gorilla and hangs out with his friends at his clubhouse. When his public loses interest, he grows more and more desperate to regain their attention, creating a bitingly acerbic alter-ego called "Duck Monkey" who tears apart his ex-girlfriend and celebrities he doesn't like. When that doesn't work, he begins to go down in flames, as an identity crisis over who he really is takes hold.
Thoughts: This was my favorite piece in the entire collection. It was beautifully written, original, frighteningly realistic, and just . . . wow.
Suggested Reading: Feed
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