Space Sublime: Bridging Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan

The latest original anthology from Jonathan Strahan, Bridging Infinity revolves around “engineering problems” with grandiose solutions: it’s quite literally the science fiction of ideas, envisioned by some of our contemporary short fiction writers. As Strahan notes, early pulp science fiction “was founded on a belief that problems are solvable,” and this anthology seeks to explore the “engineering sublime,” the sense of wonder, that the genre offers in terms of envisioning huge solutions to equally huge problems.

With this introduction, one might expect the stories—all from writers whose names are quite familiar; not a one of these contributors is anything less than well-known—to be entirely thought experiments. Some are, to be sure, but still others take sideways approaches to the concept of the sublime in the technical: the engineering solutions are awesome in the traditional sense of the word, but the stories are often about the people creating those solutions and their human lives as well.

This balance provides a refreshing take on the “idea story” that formed the bedrock of early pulp sf. As a whole, these were interesting stories—though I was surprised at the lack of wondrous response I had to a number of them. Strahan’s anthologies tend to bring out a broad range of voices and talents, all approaching the problem posed to them in the theme with stylish prose, thoughtful arguments, and entertaining narratives. Bridging Infinity, like most of its sibling anthologies, is a good read, but it also isn’t as stunning as one might expect given the topic.

One thing I found intriguing was the number of duets in the volume. Tobias S. Buckell and Karen Lord, Gregory Benford and Larry Niven, Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty—there were certainly more than I’m used to seeing in one anthology. As Strahan notes in his introduction, it’s also notable that a number of these stories deal with climate change and the engineering problem of salvaging our planet. Given that I’d just read and reviewed Drowned Worlds, also edited by Strahan, a few months ago, these stories had an odd sort of echo effect. I suspect this might be part of the source of the middling response I had to the anthology as a whole: a sense of repetition.

As for the individual stories, though, some were quite good. “Six Degrees of Separation Freedom” by Pat Cadigan combines social engineering with physical engineering in a fashion that twists the theme of the anthology in an engaging way. I also appreciated the Tobias S. Buckell and Karen Lord story (“The Mighty Slinger”) for successfully stringing a plot out along huge jumps in chronological time—and for its approach to music, culture, labor, and revolution. Buckell and Lord bring around the tradition of political labor songs to the massive engineering projects of a truly space-faring age, and it works. There’s a sense of grand scale and the characters as just small nudging tools in the process—but they’re big enough to make a difference.

That’s a theme that crops up regularly, in fact, through the anthology: that one person might be insignificant to the scale of our largest problems, but nonetheless, one person can affect the course of history. Part of the argument that comes out of Bridging Infinity seems to be that a singular person has the ability, on their own or in concert with their fellows, to accomplish great solutions. It might take generations, or it might be the result of one miniscule action, but our biospheres and our social spheres alike are delicate systems that don’t require much to change course. It’s a terrifying and hopeful outlook: that we might be as minute as a speck of dust on a cosmic scale, but we have the power to radically alter the outcome of our species and our world.

Other stories that struck me include An Owomoyela’s “Travelling into Nothing,” which features a protagonist whose whiplash rage has stuck her with a choice between execution and piloting a strange ship with a stranger alien into the void of space. The depiction of emotion—particularly emotion beyond one’s control—rang intensely true to me. Ken Liu also knocked it out of the park with “Seven Birthdays.” This story has both grand scale and emotional intimacy; I thought it was fantastic, riveting, and used a set of vignettes to great effect. Liu’s prose is sparse and handsome. It truly lends itself to the massive jumps in time in the piece and helps make them both stunning and intimate.

As for the weaker stories, I was surprised to find the opening piece—Alastair Reynolds’s “Sixteen Questions for Kamala Chatterjee”—disappointing. Though it attempts to use a nontraditional structure to form the emotional and plot arc, it doesn’t do so with much success. I found it a bit lumbering for such a short piece and the slight twist implication of the ending didn’t grab me. “Mice Among Elephants” by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven was also unfortunately poorly paced and uneven in execution—it felt unfinished and the prose fell rather flat.

Bridging Infinity, all together, tackles a topic that one might expect to result in stories of the breath-taking, staggering sublime—and it does—but it also manages to focus on the minor, the small, the delicate nudges on or off course that one person might be able to make over time. It’s a pleasant read and gives readers who appreciate those big, hulking engineering concepts in classic sf something to chew on: there are, after all, lots of orbital rings and human habitats in space and problems of resources, development, and so forth to consider. There are also memorable moments of quiet connection, to balance out the bigger things.

Bridging Infinity is available from Solaris.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.

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