Constellations  edited by Peter Crowther

Daw, 2005, $6.99
reviewed in Interzone 197, March-April 2005

In any collection of short stories, the Introduction is usually the last thing written. When an Introduction is dated some eighteen months before the book is actually published it tends to suggest, therefore, that someone, somewhere does not have overwhelming faith in the project. When you look at this particular collection of stories, it is easy to see why. True it brings together fifteen of the brightest stars in contemporary British science fiction, but it does so at a time when the high wave of the British renaissance has already begun to recede. And although a cast which includes Brian Aldiss, Stephen Baxter, Gwyneth Jones, Paul McAuley, Ian McDonald, and Justina Robson is unlikely to produce out and out duds, none of them is exactly firing on all cylinders here.

Mind you, that may be something to do with the brief. Having seen Peter Crowther through anthologies on such hoary old sf topics as the Moon and Mars, Daw has now given him the stars. And it is pretty clear that this is not exactly the most exciting of topics. Indeed, a surprising number of writers have abandoned science fiction for mysticism and fantasy in order to meet the brief, at best, only tangentially. While what is perhaps the best story here, ‘The Meteor Party’ by James Lovegrove, is a straightforward mainstream tale of a dysfunctional group of friends who gather to watch a meteor shower and find it an unexpected opportunity to confront their various failures.

Curiously, it is the other stories that stray furthest from science fiction that tend to be the best in the collection, most notably Ian McDonald’s ‘Written on the Stars’, which imagines a steampunk world in which every action is dictated by one’s horoscope and Colin Greenland’s ‘Kings’, a post-apocalyptic variant on the story of the three kings. Both promise rather more than they actually deliver, as does Adam Roberts’s ‘The Order of Things’ which starts promisingly with an account of a puritanical world in which the coastlines are being smoothed out and the very stars occupy a rigid grid pattern in the heavens, although the story ends just at the point that the plot is starting.

The more science-fictional stories tend to be less effective. There aren’t any real stinkers (though ‘A Heritage of Stars’ by Eric Brown is a notably weak way to start any collection), but they do tend to follow rather predictable courses. Paul McAuley’s story of a desperate race to escape an enemy spaceship in ‘Rats of the System’, Stephen Baxter’s revelation of how people can adapt to extreme conditions on alien worlds in ‘Lakes of Light’, Justina Robson’s account of a matter transmission experiment gone wrong (and a story which barely pays lip service to the theme of the anthology), ‘The Little Bear’, and Alastair Reynolds’s story of a spaceship which accidentally finds itself transported to a remote corner of the galaxy, ‘Beyond the Aquila Rift’, are all decent, reliable examples of storytelling. But they would have been decent, reliable sf tales any time in the last twenty or thirty years, there is nothing here that feels particularly fresh or surprising.

Of the pure science fiction, only ‘The Fulcrum’ by Gwyneth Jones really feels as if it is pushing at the envelope. It plays with the idea of what it is to be alien as two space tourists find themselves out of place in a hardbitten, run-down space station where the only way they can avoid the threats of the two thugs who run the place is to confront something truly alien. Even this story doesn’t quite work, but more from too much ambition rather than too little; there’s an awful lot crammed into a short space, and it would have worked better at a longer length.

That said, this is not a collection that will disappoint you, it’s just not a collection that will excite you, either.