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Gateways edited by Elizabeth Anne Hull

Gateways edited by Elizabeth Anne Hull (Tor, 2010) was intended as a celebration of Frederik Pohl’s ninetieth birthday by his wife. By coincidence, it would also have recorded some seventy years of Pohl as a writer, editor and teacher of science fiction. Except, such are the ways of modern publishing that the period of gestation between idea and the birth of this anthology saw the book appear somewhat later than intended. Nevertheless, it celebrates the life and career of a remarkable man. He, more than any other author still working, represents the transition from the Golden Age to more modern sensibilities. His first story “Elegy to a Dead Planet: Luna” appeared in 1937 and his most recent novel, All the Lives He Led, was released in 2011. Needless to say, this anthology remembers Gateway, the winner of multiple awards when it first appeared in 1977. If you have not already done so, you should read this novel (the subsequent Heechee books in the series increasingly fail to recreate the same level of interest).

“Shoresteaders” by David Brin is a rather curious beast, rather because it’s a novella-length excerpt from the new novel called Existence. It begins as a rather engaging story of survival. Global warming has melted the icecaps and left much of the world underwater. Groups of more wealthy survivors live behind dykes and seawalls, while others eke out a living by salvaging anything useful from the drowned buildings along the shoreline. A chance discovery then morphs the story in a radically new direction as our humble hero suddenly finds himself literally hijacked into the role of human interface with an alien artifact. Both parts are fascinating but the failure to reach any kind of natural conclusion leaves it as somewhat frustrating.

“Von Neumann’s Bug” by Phyllis and Alex Eisenstein is an elegant short story that contrives to set off one-hundred minor resonances with other stories I remember reading over the decades. It’s wonderfully knowing as it tips its hat at the old notion of what comes down must go up (or should that be the other way round?). I’m sure one of these infallible computers charged with our defence against ICBMs would know the answer. “Sleeping Dogs” by Joe Haldeman made it into The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Eighth Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois and remains a nicely cynical story capturing an essential truth abut those who have power and are not afraid to use it. “Chicken Little” by Cory Doctorow was also rightly considered one of the year’s best. It wonders whether the sky would really fall if someone decided to push humans along in an evolutionary way. Suppose we had a better idea of how to assess risk for example. Or natural scepticism could be enhanced. Ah, now, such developments really would be Earth-shattering. “Gates (Variations)” by Larry Niven is really just an extended joke albeit one that I could probably appreciate better if I was already plugged in.

Fred Pohl and Elizabeth Anne Hull still making a good team after all these years

“Tales from the Spaceship Geoffrey” by James Gunn is four vignettes of life on alien planets showing how each different set of conditions has shaped a different culture. It’s completely fascinating. Although the set-up should be rather clichéd with herbivores competing with carnivores with sentient vegetables, it contrives to avoid the usual traps by making the individual aliens who describe their planetary origins likeable as “people”. It forms part of a novel in progress called Transcendental which is to be published by Tor. “Shadows of the Lost” by Gregory Benford and Elisabeth Malartre makes an interesting point about the need to preserve prejudices from one generation to the next if you’re going to maintain progress towards genocide. “A Preliminary Assessment of the Drake Equation” by Vernor Vinge offers us some maths and a story to match the Piltdown hoax that turned out to have Paradise on the menu. “Warm Sea” by Greg Bear is a melancholic tale of a life ending and another continuing. “Errand Boy” by Frank M Robinson manages to make an end-of-days story exciting as the last Prophet humanity will ever need finally decides it’s time to preach to the congregation. “King Rat” by Gene Wolfe manages to cram half-a-dozen stories into one slim package which is no mean feat as our survival expert manages to make a life for himself when the spiders aren’t looking. “The Stainless Steel Rat and the Pernicious Procuswine” by Harry Harrison sees the return of Slippery Jim, sadly, in a rather inconsequential story that is all set-up and no pay-off. “Virtually. A Cat” by Jody Lynn Nye is a wonderfully ingenious way of dealing with what’s likely to be a major problem when we do finally get into space exploration. Some people really will need some kind of additional psychological support when they have to leave loved ones behind. That this is improbable doesn’t stop it from feeling the right answer in this situation.

The First-Born” by Brian Aldiss deals with an emotionally difficult subject as pregnancy in the Mars colony does not result in viable foetus development. It’s the low gravity. Perhaps the hope for the colony lies with the children who have travelled out with their parents. Their bodies will adapt to the environment. Perhaps their semen and wombs will prove more productive than those of their parents. Or perhaps Earth should just blame the women for having weak wombs and bring everyone home. “Scheherazade and the Storytellers” by Ben Bova recreates the Arabian Nights’ experience as a rather pleasing shaggy dog story for the edification of IP lawyers everywhere. “The Flight of the Denartesestel Radichan” by Sheri S Tepper takes a slightly heavy-handed satirical hammer to crack the old chestnut of “The end of the world is nigh”. While “The [Backspace] Merchants” by Neil Gaiman comes quickly to the point and then moves forward to finish well under the four hour deadline. Completing the comedy line-up is the hilarious “On Safari” by Mike Resnick, a truly wonderful advert for expert systems as applied to the tourist trade. No holiday could be complete without such tender loving care.

Biographical appreciations come from Isaac Asimov, Gardner Dozois, Connie Willis, Robert J Sawyer, Robert Silverberg, David Marusek, Joan Slonczewski and others. So, overall, Gateways is a fine celebration of the man, and some of the stories are genuinely outstanding. Whether for the biographical insights into the multitalented author and editor, or for the science fiction, or both, this is a very good anthology.

The novella by David Brin is a narrative thread contained in his latest novel, Existence.

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  1. September 4, 2013 at 9:07 am

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