Carbide Tipped Pens

Carbide Tipped Pens
Ed. by Ben Bova and Eric Choi

While I haven’t had time to post much about them lately, I have been on a run of dense, cutting edge science fiction. Rewarding stuff, but hard work. When the ARC for Carbine Tipped Pens arrived in my inbox from Tor, it was like a refreshing glass of water. There’s nothing quite like coming home to a collection of Hard SF short stories.

The slightly odd title for this collection is apparently taken from a writer’s group that one of the editors once belonged to, a group with the stated intention of starting a Hard SF renaissance. It sounds like most of those writers have now moved on to other projects, but attempts to revitalize Hard SF by addressing its traditional flaws remain. Choi tells this story in his introduction, then explains that the stories gathered in this book maintain a core of the rigorous science that is the hallmark of the subgenre, while keeping character at the forefront. People are, of course, Hard SF’s Achilles’ heel, with cardboard cutouts and questionable gender/racial stereotypes standing in for lifelike characters. Bova and Choi hope to avoid that, but still center the collection in astrophysics, quantum theory, robotics, medical tech, and other favorites.

Beyond the commitment to Hard SF, there is no thematic unity in the anthology. Some stories work better than others, as is to be expected, and my favorites are unlikely to be everyone’s. I recognized a few of the authors, but at least half were new to me. Many are longtime Analog authors. I was most excited to see Aliette de Bodard and Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu) included, as these are not typically who one would find in a Hard SF anthology. Names like Bova, Benford, and McDevitt also warmed my heart, these are all authors I would expect to see. Oddly enough, the genre archetypes tended towards more character and less science than some of the others.

In terms of favorite stories, I think the Liu Cixin was the highlight. It didn’t provide the typical, span of galaxies sense of wonder, but there is a certain type of wonder that comes from a feudal Chinese army acting as a humongous calculator. (I’m really excited for Liu’s Three Body Problem, which I should have my hands on by late November.) de Bodard’s story was as entertaining as ever, combining her Asia-dominated future history with authentication puzzles. Dirk Strasser’s mind-bending “The Mandelbrot Bet” is the kind of time travel I can get behind. Choi’s contribution starts as a tale of failed love destined to irritate me, but ends in sardonic redemption. There were only a couple of stories that I didn’t go for, which is a pretty good batting average for this sort of thing.

One thing that really stood out is the tone of the stories overall. Amongst the various complaints and doom sayings about SF is the feeling that SF has lost its ability to inspire, that the scientists of tomorrow aren’t getting their start from the sense of wonder that many of today allegedly did. I don’t know how true this is, but there is a clear difference with the optimism of yesterday’s SF. The idea that science would lead us all to an inevitably better future has faded, leaving cynicism and fear of what lies ahead. Carbide Tipped Pens isn’t depressing or grim, but there is an unease throughout, a lack of faith in humanity. This is part of a larger trend within SF, as stories seem to be darker than the Jetsons and Star Trek of days past.

Some of this I think must lie at the feet of quantum theory. “Welcome,” as one character says, “to Club Heisenberg.” Science has moved far from the once clean realm of Einsteinian physics, itself a severe challenge to Newtonian ideals, and into a universe where uncertainty rules. Some are probably at home here (Hannu Rajaniemi perhaps?), but the realities of quantum physics and their implications are daunting. More than this though, I think that knowledge today breeds cynicism much more than in the past. The more one has a scientific mindset and understands what’s going on in the world, the more worrying one does. This is most true of environmental concerns, though it extends into medical issues, economics, and other topics as well. Even the most optimistic near futures I have read involve submerged cities and farmland turned to desert; not many gleaming cities or square jawed engineers leading us into the glorious future.

I digress. Musings on the whole of SF and humanity’s tenuous future aside, this is a solid anthology aimed squarely at readers like me. The earlier stories are somewhat more human than science, with a few not out of place in non-genre settings. (Bova’s contribution, for example, would be equally at home on Baseball Prospectus as in Analog.) Parts of the middle get much heavier and might not be the best gateway stories, but overall the mix is strong. Does it revolutionize Hard SF? Maybe not, but it adds to the conversation.