Editor Jonathan Strahan explains in the introduction that although hard science fiction has remained a constant throughout the history of science fiction, the focus and scope of that scientific speculation has changed dramatically throughout the decades:
"In the 1950s it was where the best of space exploration were forged; in the 1960s it was the heart of near-earth science fiction; in the 1980s it was the radical centre for the British drive to the new space opera; and in the 1990s, with the arrival of both quantum mechanics in science fiction and the singularity, it was the basis for Kim Stanley Robinson’s meticulous and demanding Mars trilogy, Greg Egan’s explorations of human consciousness, and Charles Stross’s post-scarcity space operas.
This, however, is the 21st century and I think things are becoming more complicated and complex. Science fiction no longer subscribes readily to a single view of its own history. There’s far more to our past than the Gernsback continuum, or indeed more recently the Gibson continuum (the past and future history of cyberpunk), and science itself seems to be an ever more wriggly and complex beast as we come to better understand the universe in which we find ourselves… We’ve also long since accepted that science fiction writers aren’t back-room nostradamusses reading tealeaves and predicting the future. They’re people using science fiction as a tool to interrogate and extrapolate from our present for what we can learn about the human condition.”
Thematically diverse and profoundly poignant, standout stories include “The Birds and the Bees and the Gasoline Trees” by Barnes, an absolute gem of a science fiction story that is supersaturated with science-powered speculation and just a perfect example of that jaw-dropping sense of wonder that great SF can instill in readers. Set on a future Earth that has maneuvered and dropped iron-rich asteroids into the Southern Ocean in an effort to kick-start the growth of phytoplankton and clear out centuries of excess carbon dioxide, the story revolves around a research team studying the biomass growth in the Southern Ocean. But when “humaniform” construct Nicole dives down to examine a massive growth rising up from the ocean floor, her and her team become witnesses to transcendental revelation. I loved this story – for lovers of hard science fiction, “The Birds and the Bees and the Gasoline Trees” is worth the price of this anthology alone.
I also enjoyed Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Watching the Music Dance,” which explored scientific advancement – specifically genetic engineering and enhancement – on a more intimate level. Suzette is a five-year old girl with an obsessive mother who always wanted a “musical child” – and to that end, she has secretly purchased Suze implants that enable her to see music. But the implants are made to be integrated with adult minds and all of her mother’s good-intentioned meddling may just lead to disaster…
Stross’s “”Bit Rot” and Benford’s “Mercies” were amazing stories, as was Baxter’s “The Invasion of Venus,” an alien invasion story with a huge twist. I also enjoyed the deeply philosophical thread in Baxter’s narrative, which explored “Big” questions like “Is there a God?,” “What’s the point of our existence?,” etc. One statement in particular stood out:
“The only way to reach God, or anyhow the space beyond us where God ought to be, is by working hard, by helping other people – and by pushing your mind to the limit of its capability, and then going a little beyond, and just listening.”
The 14 stories included within this anthology were all noteworthy on some level – and collectively they instilled in me an undeniable sense of hope for the future.
Strahan put it perfectly when he closed his introduction with this: “I hope you enjoy it as much as I have enjoyed compiling it, and that maybe, just perhaps, it inspires you to look forward to what’s coming next.”
Looking for an anthology that will blow you away with its scientific speculation and awe-inspiring visions of the future? Seek out and read Engineering Infinity – not only a stellar compilation of hard science fiction stories but also proof that science fiction is alive and well in the 21st century…
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for almost the last two decades and has written more than 6,000 reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, and BarnesandNoble.com. In his free time, he reads.