by Charles Stross
Cover Artist: S. Miroque
Review by Ernest Lilley
Ace Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780441017195
Date: 07 July 2009 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Charles Stross, like many before, made his bones on short stories, but has gotten sucked into the maw that is novel writing to put bread on the table. Unlike some, he's equally adept at both long and short form, so it's not a real loss to readers, but this collection of stories both shows off his talent and let's us look at the themes he embraces. The future isn't so much dark or bright, but made up of the present, and to Stross, that's often a mutable base to start with.
Reading Wireless, Charles Stross' collection of short stories published between 2000 and 2008, you'll find a lot of Cold War tension, even though the real pugilists are rarely the US and The Evil Empire, as Ronnie used to call the Soviets. It's the forces of stasis (literally, in "Palimpsest") vs the forces of change, or of individuality against collective consciousness ("Missile Gap", "Rouge Farm").
The US and the USSR are frequently the couple on the dance floor at these events, and one wonders if living in the UK, stuck between the two behemoths, made a bigger impression on Stross than many of us Yanks. Oh, sure, I know a fair number that look back fondly at the decades after the Bay of Pigs and before the Wall came down, but not so many that want to go back and do it over to see how it turns out the next time.
Charles cries "do-over" repeatedly in his stories. It's the central tenet in "Palmimpset", where time agents tweak the line to give mankind more chances, but on its terms. It's again the point of things in "Missile Gap", where mankind finds Earth transformed into a Discworld where there are plenty of new worlds to conquer...but it's not so clear that no one has gone before. And it comes up in other places, like in "Rouge Farm", where a farmer tells his dog to muck out the biofab tank...because "Mother's had another breakdown". In Stross' futures, we may get second chances (actually, we may get n chances, where n is a very large number) but that doesn't mean things will turn out better for us.
We're doomed, actually and inevitably. As he points out in "Palimpsest", mankind will die out, sooner or later. His clever bit is that it doesn't have to be a permanent condition. Like Well's traveler in the time machine (or was that just in the movie?) he accounts for the possibility that the far future(s) can be reseeded and humanity's epochs may be long, if not contiguous.
Mentioning Wells brings us to another point. Stross loves to mine the literary past for ideas to spin off of and often to write pastiches with the results. Fortunately for us, there's nobody I can think of who does it better.
"A Colder War" brings us forward into a world that H.P. Lovecraft gave birth to where the Ancient Ones are tools of the Russians, or is it the other way around? "Trunk and Disorderly" is nothing if not a P.G. Wodehouse novel set in the far future, though this author is not a slave to the original's conventions by any means. "Down on the Farm" is part of his Laundry series, which are taken from the cold war spy novel genre, and brilliantly blur the line between computational science and magic.
A funny thing about the length of the stories in here. First the author goes off about how much he misses writing short fiction in the introduction, then he bookends the collection with a pair of novellas that would do well to be fleshed out into full length novels. There are a range of sizes here though, from the short-short "Maxos" in which a message from the stars is decoded...and really, I don't think a more chilling missive could be penned. "Unwirer" and "Snowball's Chance" are both of medium length and perfectly timed. Classic conundrum built, clever end bit, exeunt all.
At the end of it all, I'm left scratching my head about the author's take on existence. It's grim, it's lighthearted, it's short and brutish, or it's long and repetitive. His characters get up and do it anyway, knowing that it's temporary, and I'm okay with that...but then doesn't seem to spend a lot of time grappling with whether or not it's worth putting up with the Sisyphean nature of things. Too right, I expect they'd say. Let some other bloke trip over his own feet wondering which one to lift up first. Stross' characters are willing to live in the moment, from which the (myriad) future(s) springs.