Review: SF Waxes Philosophical, edited by Ahmed A. Khan

sf_waxes

ZC Books, Canada

(Review first published on the ASIM website, May 2008)

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SF Waxes Philosophical is a collection of fourteen short stories, slightly over half of them original to this volume, whose unifying characteristic is the application of science-fictional techniques to philosophical concerns. It’s a moot point, to my mind, as to which works of SF don’t, in some matter, deal with philosophical questions — both fields of endeavour, as the introduction notes, tend to ask the question ‘What if?’ and then seek to follow it to its logical conclusion, in both cases inviting comparison with our present-day circumstances. My impression is that the editor’s strategy has been to select stories which aim to tackle the sorts of questions for which Douglas Adams once proposed a numerical answer lying somewhere between forty-one and forty-three. Here, though, calculations on such problems tend to deliver a rather different result. SFWP is a reasonably serious-minded anthology, to the extent that it also features explanatory notes, presumably scripted by each of the story authors, which deal with the origins, the history, and/or the implications of the philosophical principles they’ve explored in the preceding story.

In the comments that follow, I’ve identified which stories are reprints by use of the symbol ‘(R)’.

“Diary of a Dead Man” (R) by Michael Bishop is, in essence, what’s claimed by its title. The protagonist finds himself dead, disembodied, and surrounded by a formless fog. Faced with nothing by way of external stimuli (save his conviction that something is still happening out there), he must construct a rationalisation for his continued existence from nothing but the memories, ideas and beliefs within his non-existent head. In places this story seemed a bit too by-the-numbers for my liking (the character has a penchant for listmaking), but it’s evocative, and lingers after the telling.

“Liw Osweo and the Worm” (R) by Matt Hughes, is a short-short: so brief, in fact, that to my mind it doesn’t contain any room for any actual SF concepts. It’s amusing enough.

Sydney author Ian Shoebridge’s “The Day The World Lost Gravity” has rather too much philosophy-disguised-as-dialogue for my liking, which is a pity, because the idea (of gravity suddenly failing) is otherwise handled well, and finished off with an appropriately uncertain ending. I have to say, though, the scientist in me wondered why the Earth’s atmosphere still persisted after several days of weightlessness.

I’m afraid I didn’t really get Paul Carlson’s “Waveform” (R) whose ending seemed simultaneously predictable and incomprehensible. This may be because I’m unfamiliar with the philosophical principle at the heart of this short tale of hubris and ate. Perhaps an exploration of more of the setting’s background would have illuminated things.

“Categorical Imperative” by Marian Powell is a story in which the philosophy takes a back seat to the SF setting. Steve, an electrician, is called out to repair a fault in a basement research lab when a vicious viral attack is launched by terrorists. The focus is on Steve’s actions and their implications for his survival. The notion of a plague or disaster which suddenly leaves only a small band of survivors in a largely intact city is a SF cliché, but the characterisation and tension are handled well.

Sean M. Foster’s “Different and Again Different” is, I would say, a vignette rather than a complete story. It queries whether identity remains after the total piecemeal replacement of one’s body parts. In my assessment, this story is too short to truly allow free rein to the SF aspect, and it’s the philosophical component which dominates in this piece of flash fiction.

“Chaos and the Gods” (R) by Steven Utley is set amidst an expedition by humans to Earth’s primevally distant past. The story centres around an argument between the expedition’s chaplain and its astronomer, concerning the validity (or otherwise) of creation myths. It appears to tackle, to my mind in a more memorable manner, some of the same subject matter as “Liw Osweo and the Worm” earlier in the collection.

“The Saving Power,” by Luke Jackson, tells of a janitor-philosopher who sees it as his life’s calling to perfect the teachings of Martin Heidegger. His wife disagrees, and so, it seems, does Reality. This is an amusingly sharp story, but ultimately I felt that it overreached itself.

“The God Engine” (R) by Ted Kosmatka is probably the standout among the anthology’s reprints. It concerns a young clone (or sequence of clones), from whom great things are expected, and his aging mentor. It’s memorable principally for its characterisation, which evokes two people trapped in circumstance and seeking to escape their past and their destiny.

Ren Holton’s “Lords of Light” is a flash-fiction example which manages to combine philosophy and humour. Not sure how much SF there is in this one, but I enjoyed it.

“These Old Bones,” by C. June Wolf, is a subtle, atmospheric tale of the interaction between two loners who share an interest in palaeontology. It’s an intriguingly elusive story that’s reminiscent in style to the work of Kate Wilhelm. For me, it echoed long after I’d finished reading.

“The Third Scholar,” by Jetse de Vries, describes the interstellar explorer Kobayashi’s capture by a group of aliens occupying a huge mysterious habitat that just might orbit a black hole or three. Kobayashi, to all intents and purposes their prisoner, sets out to learn what he can of the habitat’s function, and to see if he can uncover the mysterious fate of the habitat’s previous visitors. I admired the cosmological virtuosity of this story, but didn’t find it as engaging as some of the preceding stories in the anthology. While the interspersed snippets of Zen insight usefully inform the action, there’s a sense in which the occasional flippancy of tone, coupled with the lack of descriptive detail, diminishes the feeling of reality necessary (in my opinion) to properly engage the reader.

“The Shores of Id” (R) is an inclusion penned by the book’s own editor, Ahmed A. Khan. I would categorise it more as fable than as SF, but it forms a useful brief interlude between the book’s two longest stories, and uses imagery to good effect.

New Zealand’s Douglas A. Van Belle concludes the anthology with a novella, “The Squirrel that Didn’t Bark”. I’ll acknowledge a possible conflict-of-interest here, since this story appears to belong to the same timeline as another Van Belle story which, as editor, I have included in ASIM issue 35. “Squirrel” is by far the longest story in this anthology — it accounts for almost a third of the book’s total length – and offers an intriguing mix of thoughtful speculation and tension (the latter both dramatic and sexual). There are some intriguing nuggets of hard-SF extrapolation, in the areas of brain structure contingent on life extension, and also with respect of the influence of gravity on the characteristics of intelligent aliens, and the story earns its philosophical credentials through its problem-solving approach to a looming conflict between a small band of humans and a thoroughly intimidating larger group of squid-like intelligent predators. There are also nods to a couple of SF’s leading lights — Niven and Clement – and what looks very like a human-instinct equivalent to Asimov’s three laws of robotics. All up, it’s an entertaining story, and quite gripping, but I have a qualm with its overall construction. The novella’s first half is narrated in first person, by ‘Mother’, the Penrose-senile leader of the humans on the asteroidal outpost where the aliens have landed, while the second half is told in third person, from the perspective of a newly-introduced character, Bernard, the group’s resident academic. The partitioning of the story in this manner is ultimately justifiable, but (at least in the pdf proof version which I read) it comes across as quite abrupt, and it also has the effect of slowing the story down. So, overall, it’s flawed; but fun, and it would be intriguing to see what are Van Belle’s eventual plans for his created universe.

I finished reading the anthology not entirely convinced of the overall success of these efforts to marry SF and philosophy. The most effective stories here, as works of fiction, I judge to be the reprinted offerings of Utley and Kosmatka and the first-release works by Wolf, Holton and Van Belle, though these were not the only stories I found enjoyable. The exploration of philosophical components in the commentary following each story was, in most cases, interesting but hardly essential for an appreciation of the fiction, and I found the stories which appeared to deal most directly with philosphical issues — such as “Waveform”, “Different and Again Different”, and “The Saving Power” — were less than completely successful in their efforts to craft memorable fiction from the tenets of philosophy. This is not to say that the anthology is unsuccessful: even a negative result is worthwhile, and there are a good number of intriguing stories here. So: if you’re shopping around for a new philosophy textbook, I don’t think this would fit the requirements; but if you’re looking for a collection of intelligent, thoughtful, mostly serious SF, SF Waxes Philosophical is worth a peek.

 

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(Review by Simon Petrie, 2008)

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