Quantum searching across timelines with a high powered, sentient computer. A little girl who is being raised by robots, and may be one herself. Danger and adventure on a wondrous construct connecting an icy world and its cold neighbor. Small squad operations against rogue corporations. Long-distance virtual reality riding of a young woman living in Mexico. All this and more are found in Cracking the Sky.
Cracking the Sky, from Fairwood Press, represents the first science fiction-only collection of stories from science fiction, fantasy and futurist author Brenda Cooper. The stories range throughout her oevure, selected from the last twelve years of her writing career. While Cooper is better known for her novels (see my review of Edge of Dark, for example), Cooper’s pen does take her into shorter forms. Indeed, some of the stories in this collection are short enough to be almost flash-fiction in length.
Cooper’s stories are, like her novels, strongly and firmly focused on the characters and the character interactions. The author is far more interested in how people react to technology, and themselves, and to each other, than in the nitty-gritty details of the speculative elements themselves. For me, this makes Cooper’s work somewhat of a hybrid of science fiction styles. Her work is not quite soft science fiction and its human focus, and yet the loving and crunchy detail of hard SF that she alludes to isn’t quite there, either. Nor is her work the high concept hard SF that isn’t detailed but instead is put on a thriller chassis, either. Authors and works like Jane Lindskold’s Artemis Rising, or the novels of Nancy Kress, or some of the work of Jack McDevitt all also seem to also inhabit this liminal space. It’s a difficult act to pull off, and Cooper’s work is not always successful at that. However, this is an excellent collection of the best successes of her high-wire act as a writer.
One of the highlights of the collection for me is her collaboration with Larry Niven, The Trellis. Pluto has been in the news as of the time of the writing of this review, as the New Horizons probe, after a long journey, finally has achieved its goal of a flyby of the lonely outpost at the edge of the solar system and sending back long awaited pictures of what it’s really like. Long before the probe, however, Cooper and Niven imagined a 23rd-century Pluto and Charon where a genetically engineered plant-like organism has been grown to connect the planet and its moon. Reminiscent of space elevators, beanstalks and Niven’s Rainbow Mars, the Trellis is a cool big dumb object. However, like the rest of her short fiction, and her novels, the story of the Trellis is not about the coolness of the BDO, but it is a very human story, about a human problem, and human relationships. There are also very cool worldbuilding details about the wider world of The Trellis that make me wish that the authors would revisit other parts of that Solar System sometime.
The titular story, Cracking the Sky, forms part of an end-of-anthology two-story suite with For the Love of Metal Dogs. The two stories are classified in the book as “Military SF” (the stories in the book are arranged thus thematically) and are, as you might now not be surprised, the only two stories of that section. Both of them feature a near future world where a successor state, NorAm, strives against terrorists and corporate malfeasance in an entertaining and engaging way. Cooper has a real love of dogs, too, and while you can find them (or dog-analogues) throughout her fiction, dogs, real and mechanical, have a real place as characters in these two Military SF stories. The polity of NorAm reminds me, tantalizingly, of the future Pacific Northwest in Jay Lake’s branch of the METATropolis shared world anthologies.
Overall, Brenda Cooper’s collection provides a short-form introduction to the work of a very humanist science fiction writer.
Readers interested in Cooper’s work may also wish to hear the interview Shaun and I conducted with Brenda about Edge of Dark.