Book review: Cracking the Sky, by Brenda Cooper

9 04 2017

Brenda Cooper is a futurist, the Chief Information Officer of the city of Kirkland, and an established author who has written around several SF novels. Her work has won the Endeavor Award and has been nominated for the Philip K Dick Award, and she has co-authored one novel (Building Harlequin’s Moon) and several short stories with Larry Niven. I co-edited one of Cooper’s stories, ‘Between Lines’, in the Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear anthology.

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Cracking the Sky is a collection of Cooper’s short fiction, and contains twenty-one short stories and novelettes. It’s organised into five sections, of which the first, ‘On A Future Earth’, is longest.

‘The Robot’s Girl’ is a wonderfully evocative piece—of novelette length, I suspect—in which a couple of young professionals, Paul and Aliss, become fixated on the circumstances of their neighbour, a twelve-year-old girl who lives in a house tended (and guarded) by a troupe of serious-minded and highly protective robots. Where are her parents? Why do the robots not permit human contact with their charge? This is the sort of story that fulfils the promise of Isaac Asimov’s pioneering ‘Susan Calvin’ stories, adding solid emotional depth to the technological fizz of the central idea.

In ‘Savant Songs’, Adam is a doctoral student, and then a postdoc, for physics savant Elsa, a specialist in theories of the multiverse. Elsa’s communication with her own universe seems consistently perpendicular; is this an advantage, or a disadvantage, in seeking to establish the underpinnings of multiverse theory?

In ‘Riding in Mexico’, Isa is a Northwestern US university student taking a course which involves ‘riding’ a client’s mind: in laboratory sessions, she shares the sensory perceptions of Valeria, a young Mexican woman in difficult and possibly dangerous home circumstances. Isa has no way to help Valeria; all she can do is watch. As with much of Cooper’s writing, this piece is vivid and immediate.

‘The War of the Flowers’ details the predicament of single-mother Kelly, whose young daughter Cherry has to live in an interactive hypoallergenic environment so as not to trigger an extreme sensitivity arising from Kelly’s experimentation with tailored drugs before her pregnancy was diagnosed. What makes this story is, again, the clarity and urgency with which the scenario is depicted through Cooper’s prose.

In ‘Trainer of Whales’, kelp-farmer Kitha is outside the Dome when a seaquake hits. With no way of communicating with the denizens of Downbelow Dome, she has no way of knowing whether anyone within the Habitat, including her ten-year-old son Jonathon, is safe, or even alive. While this story is wonderfully imaginative and full of colourful and interesting ideas, it didn’t convince the way the four preceding stories did: its crisis seems more obviously confected, and the detail never transcends convenience to attain coherence.

In ‘Star of Humanity’, teacher trainee Tanya and vet student Susan receive internet invitations to a shadowy recruitment program, the Star of Humanity. Neither young woman is particularly keen on the idea of signing up to a program about which they have no useful information, but jobs are hard to come by. This is a story that asks a bit more than it answers, but it’s possible that it’s part of a larger sequence. (I suspect Cooper’s story in Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear, ‘Between Lines’, may well be another component of such a sequence.)

‘My Father’s Singularity’ is a difficult story to properly characterise. I suspect the best that I can do is to say that it’s a low-key exploration of the pain of technological advancement, and seems to compress a lot within a small frame.

The collection’s second section, ‘Space’, comprises three stories. ‘Trellis’ a story cowritten with Larry Niven, plays out as a rescue mission on an immense umbilical connecting Pluto with its mutually face-locked companion Charon. There’s a wealth of invention in the setting, but it has too much of the ‘cosy catastrophe’ about it and not enough of the slice-of-life futurism that is, I think, Cooper’s forte. (That said, it does seem to be a constructive collaboration. I can see traces of Niven’s worldbuilding in the setting alongside Cooper’s often-urgent characterisation, but it comes across as a blended rather than a chimeric construct.)

In ‘Second Shift’, Kami is an absent companion for Lance, a lone astronaut on a long-term asteroid-retrieval mission. She’s been warned not to get emotionally invested in her communications with Lance, but sometimes the heart doesn’t listen to instructions. This is a short, wistful, wise piece.

In ‘Blood Bonds’, Aline, Lissa’s twin, is clinging to VR-enhanced life support following a terrorist attack. As with the preceding story, this is essentially a tale of heartfelt communication across a seemingly-insurmountable barrier. There were aspects of the worldbuilding that broke suspension of disbelief for me—the handling of the lightspeed delay for communication between planets didn’t convince—but the remainder of the story is solid, if disorienting in places.

There are two stories in the ‘Stories From Fremont’s Children’ section, which apparently relate to Cooper’s series of YA novels starting with The Silver Ship and the Sea. I haven’t read any of the books in this series, and I imagine I’d have a stronger connection with the stories if I had. As it is, the stories, ‘The Hebras and the Demons and the Damned’ and ‘The Street of All Designs’ are readable enough, and possess sufficiently-engaging characters, but for me they lacked the power of Cooper’s best near-future work.

The fourth section, ‘Short And To The Point’, contains seven stories of three pages or less each. Of these seven stories, the most successful to my mind is ‘My Grandfather’s River’, an impressively compact tale of dedication and memory; ‘Alien Graveyards’ is also effective. The others too often seemed incomplete and fragmentary: while they intrigued in places, I felt that they required more flesh to properly resonate with the reader.

There are two stories in the final ‘Military Science Fiction’ section. The first of these, ‘For the Love of Metal Dogs’, depicts a woodland skirmish from the viewpoint of a combined human / canine / robodog combat team. It’s a concise and well-envisaged piece which conveys its freight well enough.

The title story, ‘Cracking the Sky’, details a raid by a human / robodog troop on a clandestine laboratory facility. It’s tense and vivid.

There’s quite a bit of variety in this collection, which I would say is a good thing. I had some definite preferences within the stories: to my mind, the first (and longest) section, ‘On A Future Earth’, is generally the strongest. Cooper seems to be most adept at depicting imaginatively detailed near-future scenarios, and my favourite stories in the collection, ‘The Robot’s Girl’, ‘The War of the Flowers’, ‘My Father’s Singularity’, and ‘My Grandfather’s River’ all fall into this category, and each of these combines worldbuilding displaying plausible technological advancements with a powerful and nuanced emotional undercurrent and memorable characterisation. These are crystal-clear vistas of possible futures as well as highly satisfying stories in their own right. While one could convincingly argue that not every story in the collection is hard SF, I would say that a substantial majority are, and those that aren’t (chiefly, as I see it, the two Fremont stories and ‘Alien Graveyards’) still mostly play nice with the laws of physics. My perusal of Cooper’s longer fiction suggests that most of her novels are a touch more fanciful (time travel, cyberpunk, space opera) than the most solidly grounded of these stories; without intending to slight her output in these other styles, which I’m sure she can handle adroitly, I would nonetheless be especially keen to see some longer near-future SF work from her.

(This is the twelfth in my ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here.)

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