Carbide Tipped Pens – Ben Bova & Eric Choi


A collection of stories focused on new hard science fiction.

I like to believe that I used to be a scientist, and I do retain a faint memory of that period, along with some leftover jargon. When I started to read science fiction, hard SF was a key part of it, and no doubt bolstered my feeling that this was serious stuff, not just escapism. Along, probably, with everyone else, I’ve noted a decline in hard SF over the last decades. I don’t write any myself. It sometimes seems like Stephen Baxter and Ben Bova are the only one waving the flag. So it was nice to see Bova and Eric Choi put together an anthology aimed at addressing the deficit.

The anthology starts strong, with a series of well written, credible stories that show off the strengths of hard SF. Unfortunately, just over halfway through, the quality dips, and we run into hard SF’s traditional weakness – stories with credible science, but characters so cool and distant that it’s hard to care about them, which makes reading the story more academic exercise than pleasurable. I can go to New Scientist to read articles; I want something different from a story. Perhaps attempting to display its breadth, the anthology also displays newer, more modern weakness stolen from other genres: the apparent belief that an opaque (almost incomprehensible) story peppered with technology is innovative, when in fact it’s just bad writing (even from a known author).

Some of the stories give a certain wanna-be hard SF feel – for example mixing imperial and metric units. Clearly that does happen (recall a certain Mars orbiter), but I’d hope that in the future we’re not mixing the units in a single sentence (or using imperial at all, actually). Similarly, there’s occasionally a laziness in calculation or extrapolation. When I read hard SF, I expect the background calculations to work. In this book, they usually do, but not always. It’s one thing to imagine implanted cells that create and deliver drugs,

but jumping from that to built-in radio transmitters is a big leap.

It may be that not all readers find fault with this, but I found some of the stories to be too overtly opinionated with regard to current politics. It’s one thing to extrapolate global warming policies; it’s another to complain about funding for Osama bin Laden missions. SF is not just about escapism, but there is an element of getting away from mundane tribulations.

All that said, the stories in the anthology were largely good, with one or two very good, and a few not so good. Some of the best were:

  • The Blue Afternoon that Lasted Forever by Daniel H. Wilson. An astrophysicist comforts his daughter when he spots an imminent disaster. A counterpoint to the flat-character flaw noted above, this one is all about people, and a strong opener for the collection.
  • The Circle by Liu Cixin (translated by the ubiquitous Ken Liu). An imperial advisor proposes a way to investigate life’s secrets. The writing in the story is in the “good, but not great” category, but it’s good enough to support a very interesting concept – using people for calculations. This is an idea that’s been covered by others (e.g., Sean McMullen’s Eyes of the Calculor), but not quite in this way. I’ve got Liu’s Three Body Problem (which this is an excerpt from) on my list as well, and I’m curious to see whether he can make it work as well at novel length.
  • She Just Looks That Way by Eric Choi. A young man with a crush looks to surgery to relieve his obsession. This is another of the stories carried more by an interesting idea than by the writing. It could have been shorter and simpler, but after some treacherous ground in the middle, Choi pulls it out in the end.
  • SIREN of Titan by David DeGraff. A goal-driven robotic rover begins to act up. Despite the title, there’s only a faint, conceptual link to the Kurt Vonnegut book. This story is in some ways the antithesis of the Liu and Choi stories; that is, the idea is relatively thin, but the story is so well written that it just doesn’t matter. Possibly the best story in the book.

Overall, a good collection, but not really one that is likely to turn the tide for hard SF. I would have hoped for a stronger collection that more consistently avoided the sub-genre’s traditional flaws.

Received free copy of book in exchange for honest review.

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