When it comes to science fiction, most people who dismiss the genre think it consists of the same kind of buzz-cuts-and-ray-guns stuff written in the 50s. But science fiction has evolved a lot since then, and so has one of its mainstay subgenres — “Hard SF”, or science fiction that extrapolates upon our current understanding of the universe and the laws of physics.
Carbide-Tipped Pens, an anthology of hard SF stories edited by Ben Bova and Eric Choi, is proof of that. Originally conceived when the two of them were together at an author signing at Ad Astra (a Toronto-based con! And Choi is also a Torontonian!), Carbide-Tipped Pens is a collection of 17 hard SF stories that seeks to showcase the state of the subgenre today and explore how it’s more than just stories that involve gussied-up physics problems.
In other words: hard SF can be just as human and sociologically dynamic as other subgenres of speculative fiction. What’s more, with current advances in technology, there’s stuff that’s scientifically possible today that would have been considered a pipe dream even two decades ago.
Personally, as a reader I gravitate towards the more literary end of the science fiction spectrum. As a result, I preferred the stories in the collection that were able to combine hard SF concepts with more formal literary techniques or with issues of identity, oppression, environmental change, and expanded modes of thinking.
Chief among these were the stories “A Slow Unfurling of Truth” by Aliette de Bodard, “Skin Deep” by Leah Petersen and Gabrielle Harbowy, “Every Hill Ends with Sky” by Robert Reed, and “Recollection” by Nancy Fulda. Respectively, they deal with topics like using biological data encryption to safeguard a lost culture’s history, the ethics surrounding medical tattoos, the depression from realizing how alone you are (in the world or the universe), and attempting to reconstruct your identity after the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.
Special note should also go to Kate Story’s “The Yoke of Inauspicious Stars”. It takes the plot of Romeo and Juliet and transplants it to an ice-mining operation on Europa, complete with bar brawls, reality television, cryogenic freezing and social networking. This is the kind of boundary-breaking shit I want to read!
However, those stories are the highlights for me. There were also a few misfires — stories that didn’t really engage with the full implications of the technologies they were discussing, or had protagonists what were reprehensible. The ones I liked least were “Thunderwell” by Doug Beason, “She Just Looks That Way” by Eric Choi, and “Ambiguous Nature” by Carl Frederick.
The stories by Beason and Frederick were pretty emblematic of what I consider to be the worst faults of 50s SF. They had clunky, expository writing that prizes “tell” over “show”; face-paced, rat-a-tat dialogue between one-dimensional characters; and absolutely nothing resembling true human emotion. In contrast, Choi’s story contained interesting ideas but pulled its punches at the end by revealing its protagonist to be a gullible idiot with the emotional maturity of a teenager.
The rest of the stories in the collection vary between those two extremes. There were emotionally poignant ones like “The Blue Afternoon That Lasted Forever” by Daniel H. Wilson, about an autistic astrophysicist who rushes to reunite with his daughter while the world ends. There were also dialogue-heavy headscratchers like “Habilis” by Howard V Hendrix and “The Mandlebrot Bet” by Dirk Strasser — although these two stories featured interesting ideas, I didn’t think they were coherent enough to drive their points home.
Ultimately, I consider Carbide-Tipped Pens a success. Hard SF is about more than just rocket ships and square-jawed men trying to solve physics problems. These stories deal with people, and with new and emerging realms of science. It showcases the full variety of hard SF and interrogates the boundaries of the genre as a whole.