Book Review: To Shape the Dark edited by Athena Andreadis

26 May

Athena Andraedis’ anthology The Other Half of the Sky was an explicit attempt at highlighting and fighting a severe tendency for female characters in science fiction to be secondary characters, love interests or even just wallpaper by gathering an excellent group of writers to bring forth a set of stories with female protagonists in science fictional settings. The fact that they were women informed their choices, outlooks, and actions, and the stories help correct the mistaken idea some have, ‘Chekov’s Lesbian’, that such diversity has to be of primary plot importance to be justified.

To Shape the Dark, the newest anthology from Andraedis, continues the tradition of female protagonists in science fiction settings by focusing on female protagonists in science fiction stories who, specifically, are doing science. Science Fiction as midwife for future scientists and in general appreciation for and inculcating science literacy in its readership is a long and important tradition in the field. This anthology helps that tradition along by showing readers, of any gender, that women can and do have an equal role to play as scientists in science fiction stories, and in our society.

shapedark-final-cover-titles800One of the interesting things about the shape of the collection is that the sciences highlighted in the stories flow as one reads down the stories. The anthologist has arranged the stories in a gradual spectrum of sciences, starting with the biological and running changes on the sciences highlighted, slowly adding and changing voices. It’s almost like a long-form Bach fugue, with voices of the various kinds of sciences rising into the piece, being played and transformed, and then giving way as new voices repeat the process. It made for an excellent reading experience for me as a reviewer, eager to discover where the flow of sciences would take the next story I came to each time.

Carnivores of Can’t-Go-Home by Constance Cooper starts off the collection in a strong vein with some biology and botany on an alien planet. Plants like venus fly traps and pitcher plants interest me, and the invention of even stranger plants on her story’s colony world and those who would study them is an excellent immersion into the anthology.

Chlorophyll is Thicker than Water by M. Fenn brings biology and botany back to our own planet. Two very old but still extremely active and clever botanists are not precisely the kind of people you’d expect to handle intruders well, or bud a revolution as a power couple of researchers, but this story delightfully plays with expectations in that regard. I was pleasantly reminded of an elderly scientist and botanist in the film Minority Report, and the story worked for me as an imagining as if such a character, with a loving partner, had a story and movie of her own.

Sensorium by Jacqueline Koyanagi is a vivid story of xenology and contact between two alien races, whose beings, even for their incredibly different perceptions and sense organs, may not be as inexorably unintelligible as one might think. Its a story about a building and budding relationship, in the excellent polymorphic complexity I have seen previously from the author.

From the Depths
by Kristin Landon finishes the biology and xenoecological portion of the book with a look at life on a world covered entirely by oceans and a profound parallel to our own lack of understanding of Earth’s oceans and its inhabitants, in seeing how the colonists and explorers struggle to understand their new entirely oceanic world.

Fieldwork by Shariann Lewitt explores a would-be geologist hoping for a trip to study Europa. The story revolves more around Anna’s history and backhistory of her family, and how Europa has been a part of her life, and her mother’s life, and how the deadly, icy moon has weathered and shaped the protagonist, perhaps more than she ever cares to admit.

Of Wind and Fire by Vandana Singh is a gorgeous and strange story of an alternate, perhaps a future colony world where the inhabitants’ precarious mid-air villages are always headed downward in the air, falling from heights toward an unknown mist below. The actual science here at play and scientific activity, physics and flight, takes a while to really come to the fore, and the extremely unusual world depicted here is vividly memorable.

Crossing the Midday Gate by Aliette de Bodard launches into the world of artificial intelligence and development of same as the core science. Set in her Dai Viet alternate future world, Dan Linh’s story about an exiled biology researcher coming back to Court with the help and sponsorship of an AI is poignant, interesting and continues to deepen and enrich the world the author is building. This is possibly my favorite story in the collection.

Firstborn, Lastborn by Melissa Scott also has artificial intelligence and the programming of same as the core sciences involved. A future world where shares in the processing power of AI are a powerful currency indeed, the allure of obtaining some to gain the information needed to leverage even more AI control makes this a story that feels a work of metal and glass, with a human protagonist’s heart beating vividly within that cage.

Building for Shah Jehan by Anil Menon moves to architecture and the mechanical sciences that surround it as the core science. Amusingly and unexpectedly, Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead, also about an architect, plays a part in the narrative that unspools the dreams of a future builder in India. I was, however, disappointed in its ending.

The Age of Discovery by C.W. Johnson focuses on quantum mechanics as its science of choice and both the arduous and patient nature of discovery and research, the eureka of innovation and revolutionary results, combined with a not subtle but necessary look on how funding for research and the search for knowledge are important. And a sweet love story to boot.

Recursive Ice by Terry Boren features a host of sciences from quantum mechanics to genetics to medicine in a story that spans time, and worlds, and created versions of a person in a way that reminded me, superficially, of Orphan Black. I enjoyed the story highly, except for a perhaps too-abrupt ending for my tastes.

Ward 7 by Susan Lanigan focuses on the science of brain surgery, and the alteration of the senses thereby. The old joke in the movie Ghostbusters about one of the characters wanting to drill a hole in his head is taken to be an actual move by the protagonist, Vera, with most unexpected and unsettling results.

Two Become One by Kiini Ibura Salaam focuses on anatomy, physiology and medicine as its sciences. A difficult tale, in a world where the author trusts the reader to fill in the gaps of a tale of a city, a strange bound creature, a Healing to be done and a very science fantasy rather than more strictly science fiction sort of story.

The Pegasus Project by Jack McDevitt focuses on xenology and astroarchaeology as its sciences of choice. In a far future cosmos where humans seem to be the only sentient life of any kind aside from human created A.I., news of a possible transmission from an alien species is an exciting one indeed, leading to a trek across solar systems to find out the truth of a long-ago sent message. As a fan of McDevitt and his worlds, I strongly enjoyed the story. Although not explicitly part of his long running universe, it is a familiar and strong new piece in his oeuvre.

The Seventh Gamer by Gwyneth Jones, the anchor story of the collection focuses on anthropology and sociology as the sciences of choice. A poignant tale of Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, Chloe’s investigation of a guild of gamers to find out if an alien from another world truly is playing a human game is touching and helps demystify and detoxify many of the mistaken ideas that make up Gamersgate in addition to the more directly anthropological and sociological aspects of the story.

I commend To Shape the Dark for anyone who wants to read an excellent set of stories about the core activity in science fiction of scientists exploring the unknown and pressing outward that darkness, shaping it into the light of knowledge.

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