Carbide Tipped Pens: Seventeen Tales of Hard Science Fiction
Edited by Ben Bova and Eric Choi
Cover Artist: Getty Images
Review by Benjamin Wald
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765334305
Date: 02 December 2014 List Price $27.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Hard science fiction can be a divisive category, with ardent fans who see it as the core of SF and detractors who accuse it of wooden prose and flat characters, more interested in engineering than in storytelling. Carbide Tipped Pens is a new hard science fiction anthology, and in the preface the editors proclaim their intention to capture the rigor and sense of wonder of golden age SF with a greater emphasis on character and plot. Unfortunately, in succeeds in neither of these ambitions. The scientific extrapolation lacks the broadness of scope and the originality of the greats of hard science fiction past or present, and the attempts at depth in character and writing style too often fall flat. There are a few interesting pieces, but nothing that elevates the mediocrity of the bulk of the pieces.
"Thunderwell" by Doug Beason is a case in point, with the whole plot obviously concocted to provide a showcase for a single moderately interesting engineering idea. A Mars mission goes awry, and traps the astronauts on Mars without sufficient supplies for the return journey. Heather Lewsi, the wife of one of the trapped astronauts, who is an important politician, supports a risky and secret endeavor to save them. However, the relationship between Heather and her husband is essentially never mentioned, except to note how stoic both partners are, leaving the reader no sense that they even particularly like each other. The plot is an afterthought, just an excuse to explain the technical idea, which is interesting but not worth an entire story.
Kate Story's "The Yoke of Inauspicious Stories" decides to set Romeo and Juliet on Europa, complete with rival mining corporations the Caps and the Montys, and who has the characters speak in ordinary English except that they occasionally lapse into Shakespeare quotes inexplicably. A Europan lifeform is added in, to no very clear purpose, and the whole thing lurches along almost like a pastiche.
"Ambigious Nature" by Carl Fredrick, is a classic first contact story featuring SETI. It's competently executed, but contains nothing new to anyone who has read this kind of story before--there's the classic communication by prime numbers, some suggestion of telepathy, and some vague quantum mechanical explanations, with no real payoff.
There are some enjoyable stories tucked away here. "The Circle", by Liu Cixin, is an entertaining and original alternate history story, with an ancient Chinese emperor inventing the computer in a search for immortality. The central conceit is well executed, and refreshingly new.
Robert Reed contributes a characteristically dark story, that turns our expectations on their head. It's well written and Reed does more characterization in a few sentences than most of the authors manage in the entire story, and although the central idea is not altogether new, it is well told and manages to find some new twists.
Overall, however, there are no can't-miss stories, and overall the stories feel competent but unexciting. There are plenty of excellent anthologies out their, this one just doesn’t make the cut, to my mind.