Our fondest wish is for Carbide Tipped Pens to not only entertain but to educate and convey the sense of wonder of the Golden Age to a new generation of readers.
— Eric Choi, Preface
Hard science fiction, usually set in the terrifically-near future, explores the impact of hard science and plausible technology on all-too-human characters. This anthology, edited by Ben Bova and Eric Choi, presents seventeen diverse stories, with technology we may well live to see, and themes as old as our species.
Title: Carbide Tipped Pens
Seventeen Hard Science Fiction Tales by Today's Top Authors
Editors: Ben Bova and Eric Choi
First published in December 2014 by Tor Books.
The anthology begins and ends with its strongest work. Daniel H. Wilson's "The Blue Afternoon that Lasted Forever" tells a powerful tale that starts with a brilliant and somewhat autistic man and his young daughter, and ends with the fact of the title. It's a beautiful piece of writing, slightly reminiscent of The Road (though utterly different in its execution and effect) and one of the best stories of the year. The collection ends with Nancy Fulda's "Recollection," which posits a plausible problem: what if medical science cures geriatric dementia, but can do nothing to recover the lost memories? "It doesn't hurt, exactly," we learn of the protagonist's condition;
How can you hurt when most of you is missing? But it seems achingly, dreadfully wrong that you should feel nothing, when others drift like tormented spirits at your shirtsleeves.
Where is solace, for these poor strangers who have wept and struggled and pleaded to God on your behalf? (385)
Another strong entry, "Skin Deep" by Leah Peterson and Gabrielle Harbowy, also examines the dark side of medical technology. The story's apparent conspiracy resolves in a clever twist, and we're reminded that personal and political leanings cannot be separated.
Carbide Tipped Pens also has its share of more conventional hard SF. "The Mandelbrot Bet" by Dirk Strasser presents its aeon-spanning tale with a good deal of exposition, but it's clever exposition. Certain elements of this story recall Isaac Asimov's "The Last Question," but Strasser poses his own ultimate dilemma, at once unusual and universal, and leads to a conclusion that gave me chills.
"SIREN of Titan" by David DeGraff features a brilliant depiction of an AI exploring Saturn's most famous moon, a probe following "a call she didn't understand, but that she couldn't resist" (289). I do wonder about the story's jabs at the Religious Right—not because they don't deserve the ribbing, but because I suspect their response to potential machine intelligence would be less monolithic. Never mind; the story's protagonist proves touching and its tragedy undiminished by the fact that (as in most tragedies) you will see the ending coming.
So we have robots and technology and physics equations. The stereotype of hard SF exists for a reason. Many readers associate the subgenre with a surfeit of technology and exposition and a paucity of credible characters. Happily, most of the stories in this anthology belie that stereotype. However, Carbide Tipped Pens features a few of these more typical tales, and, while they will suit a certain type of reader, others will find aspects of these stories wanting. Doug Beason's tale-with-a-thesis, "Thunderwell", serves as an example. It's a clever story, marred by dry characters who spout a lot of expository dialogue in largely undifferentiated voices.
Howard Hendrix's "Habilus" fares better, with its tricksy puns and allusions and other rhetorical pyrotechnics nicely distracting from the fact that much of the story consists of the protagonist discussing his hypotheses.
A lot of these stories want to be (or fear being) prophetic. Time, of course, will tell whether they will survive as thought experiments, entertaining fictions, or disturbingly accurate glimpses of a future that will one day pass us. For now, it's a strong assembly of thought-provoking reading. If you're looking for an SF Anthology to purchase this season, I recommend Carbide Tipped Pens.