We’re reading THE LOWEST HEAVEN, edited by Anne Perry and Jared Shurin

18 Jun

Tim Maughan tours a fictional solar system

The Lowest Heaven
Anne Perry and Jared Shurin
Jurassic London, PPB £9.99

The Lowest Heaven is a new anthology of contemporary science fiction published to coincide with Visions of the Universe, a major exhibition of space imagery at the Royal Observatory Greenwich…Each story in The Lowest Heaven is themed around a body in the Solar System, from the Sun to Halley’s Comet

So much for the publisher’s blurb. What the editors Anne Perry and Jared Shurin have actually created, intentionally or not, feels in many ways like a perfect snapshot of the state of current science fiction in many of its dominant forms.

This, in itself, is something to be praised. If a similar collection of solar system-themed SF had been curated a decade or so ago, my guess is that it would have been full of posthuman “new space opera” – and there are actually a few examples of that here, signifying its continuing popularity. That genre’s trailblazer Alastair Reynolds provides a thoughtful, compelling and sharply written tale in “A Map of Mercury”, where colonies of artists heavily modified to survive conditions on the Sun’s closest child examine not just what it means – if anything – to be human, but what that also means for their artistic authenticity. Similarly, in “Enyo-Enyo”, Kameron Hurley explores the potential of advanced, galaxy spanning bio-tech to be dehumanising, dividing and just plain icky. And while not new space opera exactly, Lavie Tidhar’s “Only Human” describes the ritualistic networking of artificial and augmented intelligences on Titan. Reynolds’ and Hurley’s stories are both brutal in their portrayal of assisted human evolution, while Tidhar’s is fittingly poetic and abstract. All three are excellently written, and in differing ways reminiscent of perhaps the greatest solar system-spanning epic of them all, Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix.

But it’s not ten, twenty or thirty years ago, thankfully. As such there’s a good proportion of what can probably be loosely termed the “New Weird”, if anyone still knows what that means – a term that’s been flogged so hard by broadsheet commentators afraid to be associated with nerdy SF that its corpse is undoubtedly lying in a field somewhere, buzzing with flies, awaiting the arrival of the lorry from the glue factory. Not that any of that, on an individual story basis, matters – as proven by “Golden Apple” by Sophia McDougall, the anthology’s opener and arguably its strongest offering. Its protagonists are a couple so desperate to save their dying child that they break into a government research facility to steal solidified sunlight to feed her, with unprecedented results. The science might be kooky and glossed over, but that doesn’t matter – not because it’s the New Weird, but because McDougall’s writing is both beautifully efficient and heart-wrenching.

I will unashamedly announce to anyone that Adam Roberts is my favourite author writing in the genre at the moment, which is why it’s also impossible for me to hide my disappointment with his offering here – but let me be clear, it is a very personal disappointment. “An account of a voyage from World to World again, by way of the Moon, 1726” is exactly the kind of alternate-history Wells and Verne influenced science fiction that leaves me cold. It’s nicely paced, clearly well-written – in that old-timey language and everything – but these kind of nostalgic exercises always fail to connect with me, reminding instead of those hip, future-rejecting, middle-class escapists who are spreading across the surfaces of British inner cities like some insidious gentrifying virus. There’s one stood out in the street right now in fact, playing a tiny faux-antique guitar-thing smaller than its handlebar moustache. Excuse me while I urinate on it from my bedroom window.

Sadly it’s not the only time the past stares down the future through its rose-tinted spectacles here. If you want to encapsulate 2013 science fiction (even if that’s not the editors’ intention) then you need a heavy dose of nostalgia, and where better than to start than with nostalgia for SF itself. Both “The Jupiter Files” by Jon Courtenay Grimwood and “WWBD” by Simon Morden invoke dead sci-fi writers – the former more effectively and wittily than the rather awkward latter – while the lead of Esther Saxey’s “Uranus”, a young gay man fleeing persecution in 1890s London, takes to astral traveling to prove HG Wells’ theories of the planets wrong, although the story hints at a far more interesting, contemporary explanation for its events.

Elsewhere there are two examples of nostalgia for fading, small-town 80s Americana. Why? Maybe this is an emerging sub-movement in SF (or, hell, maybe it emerged ages ago and I’ve not noticed) as authors continue to get freaked out by the future and fall back on their childhoods. “The Comet’s Tale” by Matt Jones sets an utterly unsurprising tale of unrequited teenage obsession in a 1980s Heaven’s Gate-style suicide cult, while “Ashen Light” by Archie Black transposes a Lynchian road-story of misunderstood, outsider teenagers on a killing spree from white-trash America to white-trash terraformed Venus. Which is an interesting set up, but the dull ‘true crime’ writing style makes it a bore to read, despite some interesting ideas about how colonisation and the terraforming of other planets creates dull, shallow facsimiles of earth. Similar ideas are explored far more effectively in “Magnus Lucretius” by Mark Charan Newton, where Titan has been transformed into a tacky, Disneyfied Roman Empire heritage theme park; this story actually has something to say about the present.

Luckily, the collection isn’t without a liberal sprinkling of humour – most notably in S.L. Grey’s “We’ll Always Be Here” – a dark but hilarious tale of two sisters stranded in a creepy space orphanage after the nuns that run it have all died off. Descriptions of them playing America’s Next Top Model with a gang of girls left brain-damaged when their cryogenic suspension failed – had me sniggering queasily into my Kindle. “From This Day Forward” by David Bryher has the best opening line of the book (“Ted had always preferred his own company, but this was ridiculous”) although you don’t get it until a few paragraphs in and you realise it’s a relationship comedy about clones. As a comedy sketch it’s highly effective if very predictable, but as science fiction it asks too many questions it doesn’t explain.

Put simply, The Lowest Heaven is a mixed bag – something that’s true for all anthologies, by their very definition. And as with all themed anthologies the actual theme is a bit of a red herring. There’s a lot to relish here, a lot to enjoy, and nothing that doesn’t display both thought and talent. But it’s also a gentle reminder that perhaps science fiction needs to stop staring wistfully at the sky, go back indoors, and put the news on. It has unfinished business back here on earth.

Tim Maughan’s story Limited Edition appears in Arc 1.3: Afterparty Overdrive, out now for Kindles, tablets, phones and screens.

Also on the blog: Tim Maughan topples down the rabbit hole into a parallel Bristol.

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