The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume Three
Picked this one up at World Fantasy this year (er, I mean last year), mainly because Tim has a story in it, but it turned out to be a pretty good collection overall.
There's no real theme connecting the stories, except that they could all (sometimes with a little stretching) be called science fiction. There are crossovers into alternate (SF-nal) history, and borderline works of fantasy, but basically it is what it says on the cover: new, and science fiction. Here are some comments on each of the stories, in the order they appear in the book:
"Rescue Mission" - I found this one a little weak, especially as a way to start the book. For most of the story it was a somewhat creepy and weird bit of suspense. At the end it did a switch so that the main character could have some character development and save the day at the same time. The ending seemed a bit pat and hand-wavy, and not all of it even made sense. OK, but not great.
"The Fixation" - Spooky quantum effects create order by shunting entropy into other universes, leading to unexpected, horrible effects. Successful as far as it went, but the idea seemed too easy, somehow, and it lapsed off into a fantasy toward the end. A good effort, but still not great.
"Artifacts" - A "What if this is the way the whole universe works" story. The reader is supposed to be left in awe of the stupendous metaphysics, but it seems trite, somehow unimportant. Stories that hinge on metaphysical systems like this end up being a bit like those times in university (or high school) when you first discovered ideas like, "What if we are all brains in a vat?" The Matrix (which is a film that works, in my opinion) came out ideas like that, and the answer plays a large part in driving the story in that film, but it still comes down to a story, a conflict between characters and forces. This story, unfortunately, stopped after the reveal. "Look! This is how it works!" OK... but so what?
"Necroflux Day" - I was worried at this point. This story starts off with something I don't much like about most modern short fiction: The "Oh my God it's so weird!" description. Look how much odd shit I can put on the page. I am the master of strange. But strange doesn't make a story good. Pointlessly strange details, or just pointless details, distract me. They worry me. I immediately begin to wonder if the author is trotting out this stuff to try and cover for the fact that they don't have anything to say. Luckily, this was not the case. Soon the author found his rhythm, and, although he continued with the weird, it was in service of actual people who were actually interesting and had actual, actually interesting problems. Can you actually believe it?
The fact that part of the story revolves around a completely mundane task (a child writing an essay for school) jarred me out of the rest of the world from time to time. It didn't fit very well. But the story itself hung together nicely and the big reveal, the awful, weird thing that short fiction authors are required to put in their stories and spring on the reader at the end, was used in the service of a character's realistic and involving emotion, rather than just being this big thing that's supposed to be impressive because it's so big and, like, weird. Good story. A. Saved the book for me.
"Providence" - I find Paul Di Filippo's work mildly annoying at the best of times. Maybe that makes me a bad person. Here we have a throw away story around a flimsy artificial premise, and lots of beep beep noises. That's about it. I didn't care about any of the characters or anything they did or saw. About a page in I had determined everything the author wanted me to be surprised and impressed by, and I was not surprised or impressed. They're robots, hooked on records. Woo. Hoo. That is just so amazing and cool. Not.
Back to being worried, but almost halfway through now, and I felt I should go on.
"Carnival Night" - A serviceable little story, basically a crime story but with a few SF-nal trappings and SF required to make the reveal work. Brief and to the point, and reasonably entertaining even if the characters were flat.
"The Assistant" - Again, a reasonably entertaining, small story. The author relies a little too heavily on the hook (What if the office cleaners who empty the trash cans were super high-tech industrial espionage prevention teams!?) and leaves the rest of the story a bit thin, but gets in enough engagement with the characters to make a passing grade.
"Glitch" - Odd, but it worked OK. There was a bit of dragging, here and there, and a bit of that old chestnut (the robot wants to be human), but with a somewhat interesting twist. I'd give it a B.
"One of Our Bastards is Missing" - Alternative history, maybe, or maybe just fantasy, with a bit of a SF twist. The story managed to keep some balance between the weird ideas of pocket dimensions, the somewhat less weird but still alien pseudo-Elizabethan mannerisms, and the slightly two-dimensional but still interesting characters. In the end, an interesting package. A.
"Woodpunk" - A little plodding. This is a message story. The trappings are fairly nice, but we've heard this message before. And even though it's an important message, repeating it doesn't help the story. Not bad, but on the low end.
"Minya's Astral Angels" - Some cute ideas and OK characterization and development carry this story. Solid. Not superb, but solid.
"The Best Monkey" - Started off not really liking this one, but it grew on me, and eventually I found it one of the better stories in the collection. The characters (character, really) clicked after a while, and from there on it was an engaging detective story towards an interesting reveal.
"Long Stay" - An odd little story which has potential and then seems to go plonk right at the end, as if the author had run out of things to say. I did quite like the setup though, especially since I was reading it on a plane.
"A Soul Stitched to Iron" - Tim's story. This story features Jacob Burn, the somewhat abrasive protagonist of Tim's novel Heart of Veridon. It's a solid entry. I can't say I thought it was brilliant, but it was pretty good. It works best in the descriptions of the weird and often chilling entities hiding in the shadows of Tim's invented city. Unfortunately the story itself felt strangely inconsequential. Even though there are big implied effects (death, destruction of families, another eon of sleep, etc. etc.) for other people, nothing really happens to the main character except he watches people (and things) go down, and nudges things along here and there. Still, not bad.
"iThink, therefor I am" - A rather short, silly, and slightly preachy piece. Vaguely amusing, but not one of my favorites.
Looking back over all that, I think I may appear more negative than I mean to be. It's a solid collection of quite readable stories. A few of the stories didn't work for me, but most of them did. None of the stories were absolutely mind-blowing, but maybe that's because I'm just a jaded husk of a man without a spark of wonder left in my soul. Maybe that's it.
It's worth reading.