Sunday 18 October 2020

When it Changed, edited by Geoff Ryman

 Published in 2009, this is an unusual anthology as it consists of short stories written by British SF writers in consultation with scientists. Writers were paired up with scientists whose work interested them in order to explore the fictional possibilities, then went away and wrote their stories. The result is a collection of stories which are more firmly based in science than usual, although that doesn't preclude some fairly wild imaginings (anyone who tries to keep up with astrophysical speculation, as I struggle to do, will not be surprised by this). Each story is followed by an Afterword by the scientist involved.

The subjects covered include a wide range of different futures: the consequences of global warming; artificial intelligence; the potential of a huge particle colliders; the effects of dangerous new military drugs; the social consequences of personal armour as a response to increasing terrorism; living virtual, life-blogging existences; human cloning; a merger between astronomy and astrology; using advanced MRI to assess criminal potential; human photosynthesis and others.

The sixteen stories are as follows, with the names of the scientists in brackets:

Carbon: Part One and Carbon: Part Two, by Justina Robson (Prof Andrew Bleloch). A 'stream of consciousness' story, following the thoughts of a sceptical researcher working on a polymer/carbon material to make cables strong enough to support a space elevator.

Global Collider Generation: An Idyll, by Paul Cornell (Dr Robert Appleby). Snapshots in time of the construction of the Global Muon Collider, a vast particle accelerator circling the Earth, and what it is expected to achieve, as seen from the pespectives of two immortal characters: Li Clarke Communication, a promoter of the scheme from the People's Republic, and Jerry Cornelius. That name will be familiar to anyone who has read British SF from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, as he is a rather bizarre anti-hero in a series of books written by Michael Moorcock. 

Moss Witch, by Sara Maitland (Dr Jennifer Rowntree). A young bryologist (an expert on mosses etc, to save you looking it up) is carrying out a solitary survey of ancient woodlands to check their biodiversity when he encounters a Moss Witch. She is an ancient humanoid whose life is bound up with that of mosses, and is one of the last remaining ones of her kind. There is much moss lore to appreciate in this story of a clash of cultures.

Death Knocks, by Ken MacLeod (Dr Richard Blake). The term comes from journalism, and refers to the practice of visiting relatives of those who have recently died in unusual circumstances, to see if there is a story worth publishing.  John Kirkland is a journalist investigating a series of suicides of soldiers home on leave – but not from PTSD, these were soldiers whose jobs did not involve combat. He suspects designer drugs, and learns about the Virtual Man – an integrated software model of every organ and system in the human body – which runs on the Grid, using up spare time on home computers, and is used to research the effects of new drugs. He discovers the hard way what is going on.

Collision, by Gwyneth Jones (Dr Kai Hock). Another collider story, this one concerning the Torus, a vast Instantaneous Transit Collider constucted in the Kuiper Belt by the Aleutians, an alien race which had visited the Earth for a while before departing some decades before the story. This enabled people to travel, in virtual form, to new worlds, but very few returned. The World State which had developed was divided politically into Reformers and Traditionalists, and the formation of a new Traditionalist government threatened the survival of the Torus. One of the scientists takes drastic action to try to prevent its closure. 

Without a Shell, by Adam Marek (Dr Vinod Dhanak). Technologically advanced clothing acted as body armour and also could detect and repair any injuries suffered. But is was costly and only available to the rich. What effect might this have on society?

You, by Geoff Ryman (Dr Manolis Pantos). An intriguing story with two interlinked plot threads. One concerns a future exploration of Mars, with an in-depth analysis of evidence to determine whether the extinct life form was intelligent or not. This is seen through the eyes of multiple observers, living and dead, via "lifeblogs"; recordings of what they saw and heard through the generations, which others can experience via virtual reality within their minds. 

In the Event Of, by Michael Arditti (Prof John Harris). An Earth which has become so polluted that almost everyone lives underground, except those who have evolved to survive the conditions. Underground society is highly stratified socially, surface society is primitive. Against this background, a privileged and independent young woman sets out to discover what really happened to the "sister" she was cloned from.

Zoology, by Simon Ings (Dr Matthew Cobb). Life among the staff of a future university, with a strong element of the bizarre as researchers try to analyse a maggot's sense of smell.

Temporary, by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Dr Tim O'Brien). An odd future society stratified by birth sign; in some ways a reflection of a distant past, with scientific astronomical observations sitting uneasily alongside astrology.

Doing the Butterfly, by Kit Reed (Dr Steve Williams). The justice system of the future, following the life of a criminal as his behaviour is analysed using an advanced MRI which can recreate his thoughts and determine his suitability to return to society.

White Skies, by Chaz Brenchley (Dr Sarah Lindley). Flooding due to climate change has resulted in new divisions within society, with this story following a pair of precocious adolescents living aboard an oceanic floating "township" created by linking a large number of "seedships" together. Their main task is to sow iron dust in the oceans to feed plankton which absorbs carbon dioxide and carries it to the ocean floor.

Enigma, by Liz Williams (Prof Steve Furber). This takes place in the far future, in a virtual world set in a Cambridge college around World War 2, within which Turing and Wittgenstein (who were both alive at that time) discuss their situation.

The Bellini Madonna, by Patricia Duncker  (Dr Tim O'Brien). A young American student, visiting Rome to appreciate the art and architecture, experiences a vision which blends science and religion.

Hair, by Adam Roberts (Dr Rein Ulijn). Can science devise a type of photosynthesis which will enable humanity to live on sunlight, without needing food? And if that's possible, will it actually be permitted?

These stories provide glimpses of a wide range of futures – some which could happen quite soon, others could only be very distant. There is also a wide range of different approaches to the craft of story-telling, providing interesting exemplars of the modern approach to SFF in the UK. Those who only enjoy traditional "space-opera" kind of writing will probably not like these at all. I would pick a couple of stories which particularly impressed me: the editor's own You, which successfully delivers an ambitious concept, and Moss Witch, a hauntingly strange story which is also informative; you will probably learn a lot about mosses from reading it!

Overall, an intriguing collection worth reading more than once.

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