Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Microreview [book]: Rocket Science, edited by Ian Sales

The Meat

   As my recent reviews have amply attested, I have an almost instinctive dislike for anthologies. Analyzing my own knee-jerk dislike for the third time now, I've hit upon a new potential reason: I think the real problem is I don't really like short stories very much. After all, let's be honest—most short stories have, at their heart and core, either sub-par ideas which cannot sustain a novella or novel length treatment, or really clever ideas that should have been expanded into a novel. It's a rare story whose ideal (in the Leibnitz sense of the best of all possible worlds) length is just a few thousand words. I mean, that's only like three pictures!
   Maybe this resentment at the existence of short stories comes from the fact that by nature I personally am firmly in the "Why use 100 words to say something pithily when you could use 10,000 prettier ones to say it floridly?" camp. In other words, I am incapable of writing short stories; even simple ideas take so long for me to dress them up in description and hyperbole that they quickly become anything but short.
   However, I will certainly acknowledge the existence of a certain rare beast, that short story so cleverly done even I cannot imagine it any longer (or shorter, come to think of it!) than it is. A few of Philip K. Dick's stories, despite their inevitably atrocious titles, are like that: he sketches out a brilliant and intriguing idea, spins together a little story-meat to hang onto the idea-bones, and then poof! it's over, at least until it's made into a fantastic (Verhoeven's Total Recall, Scott's Blade Runner), acceptable (Tamahori's Next, Woo's Paycheck, Spielberg's Minority Report) or puzzlingly bad (the other Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, etc.) movie.
   Yes, great short stories can haunt readers big-time with their pithy goodness. No less a literary giant than Edgar Allen Poe once famously said (or at least, someone once claimed to me that he said), no one should ever write anything longer than one can read in a single brief sitting. On the other hand, he was a creep-toid who married his thirteen year old first cousin, and I liked the novel inspired by his poem Annabel Lee way more than I liked anything actually written by Poe himself, so in that sense I'd say the score is People who Write Novels: 1, People who Write Short Stories/Marry Teenage Relatives: 0. Purloin that, Poe!
   This seems like as good a time as any to turn to Rocket Science, which I can say is unlike any other anthology I've ever read or even heard of, and I definitely mean that as a compliment. What surprised me was how much I enjoyed reading it, despite it being an anthology full of very short stories, and me with an instinctive dislike for both a) anthologies, and b) short stories. Some such stories are really excellent—I think editor Ian Sales got the volume started on exactly the right foot with the first story, Kimmel's multi-generational, whimsical romp through space which has a children's book about the moon as its timeless anchor. This is the sort of story that can recapture for all of us former children the sense of wonder we all must surely have felt at the thought of space flight or travel, or indeed space in general.
   Thematically, the anthology is strongly rooted in hard science (fiction), specifically space travel and the various logistical and other issues such travel has already raised or may raise in the future. With such a consistent theme, it avoids the most common pitfall ensnaring anthologies everywhere: having a loose, ill-defined generic theme that lacks cohesion (another way of saying "having an editor who isn't invested in the project or, for political reasons, can't or won't reject/demand heavy revision of the weirder or less thematically appropriate entries"). Some of the better-themed anthologies out there will refuse to limit themselves to a single genre, instead exploring ways the theme can maintain cohesion even across genres.
   But this anthology took the idea of a unifying theme to a whole new level, including—get ready for it—non-fiction articles as well! My goodness, I learned things about space and traveling in it, cold hard facts no less, from reading this book! How often can one say one genuinely learned something from one's ostensibly fluffy nighttime sci fi reading material? I am totally on board with this editing strategy—perhaps this will start a trend and we'll begin seeing more volumes that put the science back into science fiction, breaking down the Great Schism between 'fiction' and 'non' still further! I hope so.
   That said, a few of the non-fiction entries (especially the final one), while informative, read more like plugs for the author's own books and accomplishments than an attempt to explain to today's mindless youth some genuine problems humans already do and will continue to face in attempting space travel. This is another way of saying that a few, though by no means all (the one on radiation was great, for example), of the non-fiction pieces could have used more bells and whistles writing-wise and fewer self-promotional statements, which are doubtless to be expected in publications for the scientific community where precedence and name recognition are presumably of vital importance, but feel out of place in a volume like this.
   My only other gripe with the volume is my usual one: while some of the stories were perfect as is, several others felt like the fascinating beginnings of a longer story, ending just when things were getting interesting and readers began to form emotional bonds with characters. So, ultimately, I pose this challenge to all you short story writers and fans out there: how can you be certain that leaving a story in 'short' form is the best length? I have yet to hear a convincing argument in favor of short stories as a medium, and would instead suggest that most short stories are failures by virtue of their length—bring on the indignant responses! (And if you try to bring in Poe to support your "short stories are best" argument, keep in mind that you'll automatically lose tons of points because he was an incestuous weirdo.)

My new favorite short story (until now it was Hemingway's "For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.")

The Math

Baseline assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for having real gems like Kimmel's story (and editorially for leading off with it, making full use of the primacy effect), +1 for (mostly) seamlessly weaving non-fiction into the volume, +1 for having such a strong unifying theme

Penalties: -1 for being mostly (too) short stories, -1 for the self-promotion in some of the non-fiction (if I wanted to read about how awesome you are, brainiacs, I'd just read your articles in Nature or whatever!)

Nerd coefficient: 7/10   "an enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws"

See here why anyone could and should be proud of a 7/10 from us!