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"Constellations", ed. by Peter Crowther




Review by Avi Abrams

All the writers in this anthology are British, so you might think that "new space opera" and "high-concept science fiction" are only flourishing in the UK, while American writers are leaning more toward fantasy and away from "solid science fiction" (of the kind that's sprinkled with sheer cosmic grandeur) Well, in 2005 when this anthology came out, it might've seemed this way - but in the last couple of years the field has leveled somewhat: great science fiction stories are written on both sides of the Atlantic, and stand up quite well against the current blight of paranormal romance.

"Constellation" is fascinating, bejewelled collection, shimmering with ideas and wonder: a singular read.

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Adam Roberts
"The Order of Things"

© Constellations, ed. by Peter Crowther, 2005
--/ third place sf story
--/ idea award
--/ style award

This is one of those reading experiences where every word seems to fall into place and resonate perfectly with your worldview, almost ridiculously so - you catch yourself thinking you could've written the story, and in fact, Adam Roberts must've sneaked into the chambers of your mind and plucked it from there... You nod and smile with every paragraph, and wish the story would unroll into a novel, breaking the boundaries of the book, streaming in gaudy tapestries, out through the door and into the blue wide yonder - to the place where awards are distributed and happy critics fall over themselves to lavish praise (this story did not win any awards, by the way) Why am I so excited about this? Because it brings organized and repressive religion to its knees, with little effort - just a neat little "what if" premise.

This is a perfect "thought-variant" story, that would make the editor of the Golden Age of "Astounding" proud: one weird idea taken to the extreme - I am not going to spoil your reading pleasure, the surprises start from page one and never slow down - turning the story into a passionate statement against cast-in-stones rules and religions, bizarre traditions which take over people minds (traditions just as vicious and hard to exterminate as alien slugs or zombies). This story is intense and wonderful on plenty of levels, including unique world-building. Adam Roberts skyrockets to the top of my reading list (although, I hear that some off his books are quite obtuse and uneven). This story should be a required reading in every church, perhaps even preached from the pulpit.

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Alastair Reynolds
"Beyond the Aquila Rift"

© Constellations, ed. by Peter Crowther, 2005
Zima Blue & Other Stories, 2006
--novelette : 2006 Locus award
--/ third place space sf novella
--/ wonder award
--/ adventure award
--/ awesome scale

The mind-boggling scale of vacuous space is compounded here by a sense of being totally lost - the pilot in this story is certainly lost in space, but he's also lost in more ways than one; and Reynolds unveils these "degrees of separation" with the skill of a master magician. A few times the story would pirouette on its tail, sending you reeling into further categories of "lost" that you've thought were possible - but let me tell you, this particular happy reader welcomed every such jolt of disorientation with a grin of joy.

This is one of the most s-p-a-c-i-o-u-s novellas in Reynolds' portfolio, a great thing of wonder, and a sort of literary equivalent to "a mournful note ghastly ringing in the dark-lit halls of outer space".

"Beyond the Aquila Rift" is set in a future where interstellar flight is facilitated through a barely-understood (and long abandoned) system built by aliens: predictably, the system is plagued by occasional errors, sending ships far from their intended destinations, or utterly lost in space.

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Eric Brown
"Heritage of Stars"

(Kethani series)
© Constellations, ed. by Peter Crowther, 2005
Kethani, 2008
--/ fourth place sf story
--/ wonder award
--/ emotion award
--/ style award

Immortality is considered and emotionally re-charged here with a lyrical treatment, reminiscent of Robert Heinlein's "The Door Into Summer", or Vance's "To Live Forever". Eric Brown deftly sets up the scene with elements of wonder, danger and loss - adding a dash of sorrow and bittersweet human reflection. All these ingredients play well in this precisely-told story of one couple's romance heavily burdened (but not sagging!) with cold concepts of immortality and infinity.

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Paul McAuley
"Rats of the System"

© Constellations, ed. by Peter Crowther, 2005
--/ cool sf story
--/ wonder award

"A two person ship - manned by its captain and a scientist - try to escape an alien ship of the Transcendent. Very good mini-space-opera with lots of action, narrow-escapes and grand ideas. The alien backdrop concerns the Transcendent (AIs that have achieved a higher state of being) and their plan to maneuver stars for some grander (yet unrevealed) scheme as well as the Fanatics who worship them. As per a mid-story analogy, the "rats" of the title are the humans who, like the rodents, have the propensity to survive." via

All that is good and well, but two years after reading this story I've totally forgotten what's it about, of even if I enjoyed it or not. That tells you something about this particular adventure's originality and depth. It is certainly a competent piece of work, though.

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Brian Aldiss
"Ten Million of Them"

© Constellations, ed. by Peter Crowther, 2005
--/ cool sf story
--/ awesome scale

"...Provides a Very Big Picture, as a deity on a galactic scale views, in a detached manner, humanity's struggle to survive. As Sol expands, all manner of life take to the seas of the Earth, evolving into aquatic forms. Others have fled to the Kuiper Belt (the ten billion rocks in that Belt accounting for the title), but it is a much smaller being (the humble flu virus) which makes its escape. " via

Again, something that did not impress me all that much - but Aldiss can be vastly original and intense... read his short story collections to achieve that sort of reader's gestalt: swimming in the seas of his outrageous concepts and styles, and loving it.

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Tony Ballantyne
"Star!"

© Constellations, ed. by Peter Crowther, 2005
--/ cool sf story
--/ idea award

When teens say they want to become "a star" they don't usually mean it in a literal sense. In this story (reminiscent of Gregory Benford and Gordon Eklund's "If The Stars Are Gods" from 1974 Terry Carr's Universe) stars are alive... a teen can turn into one, for example. This weird, preposterous idea gets an appropriately tongue-in-cheek treatment, enough said.

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Stephen Baxter
"Lakes of Light"

(Xeelee series)
© Constellations, ed. by Peter Crowther, 2005
Resplendent, 2006
--/ fourth place sf story
--/ wonder award
--/ idea award
--/ awesome scale

"A star has been sheathed in a thin but impermeable substance; this is rotating at such a speed that the centrifugal force cancels out just enough of the sun's enormous gravity to permit people to live on the surface. Holes in the sheath provide the titular lakes, from which the inhabitants harvest their energy and (via a network of giant mirrors) their light. It's a splendid concept, with all sorts of narrative possibilities..." - via

Living on a surface of a star... Resplendent! (this was a fitting title for Baxter's collection, in which this story appeared later). It is of the same caliber as Larry Niven's super-space fiction, only slightly lacking in color and action. Still, a clear winner for its sheer originality.

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Ian Watson
"The Navigator's Children"

(also as "The Navigator's Tale")
© Constellations, ed. by Peter Crowther, 2005
The Butterflies of Memory, 2006
--/ fourth place sf story
--/ idea award
--/ style award
--/ awesome scale

I loved this story for its epic feel and a baroque atmosphere, plus the interesting premise of a Universe where you can only travel by certain rules and connected constellations. If the constellations change, it affects the very fabric of world events and geography. There is a lot of depth in this idea; much of it stems from Kaballah, and would've been technically fantasy, not science fiction, if not for the additional "world in a tea-cup" twist in the end... Seek out this story and enjoy having your brains cosmologically wrecked, and your worldview turned on fire. Didn't I say, this was an epic story? There is a Neal Stephenson trilogy hidden in there somewhere, and you know it.

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Also included:
Keith Brooke "A Different Sky"
Roger Levy "No Cure for Love"
Colin Greenland "Kings"
Gwyneth Jones "The Fulcrum"
Ian McDonald "Written in the Stars"
Justina Robson "The Little Bear"

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(IC 1396 H-Alpha Close-Up - image credit: Nick Wright, NASA)

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