Fantastic Reviews - Anthology Book Review
Constellations cover  Constellations edited by Peter Crowther

DAW paperback – copyright 2005
310 pages

Book reviewed in March 2005

Rating: 8/10  (Highly Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

          For any science fiction reader who still has not caught on to the "British Boom," allow me to speak plainly:  For the past ten years or more, British science fiction authors have been kicking their American counterparts' collective butts.  There has been an explosion of British SF talent pushing the envelope of the genre, just as American science fiction has hit a period of relative stagnation.  (There also has been plenty of excellent British fantasy, but American fantasists have done a better job of holding their own.)  By the way, I am American and have no particular bias in favor of the UK except that I drink a lot of tea, but there is no getting around the disparity, reflected for instance in the current Hugo Award nominees for Best Novel, all five British.  (This is partly because the Worldcon is in the UK this year, so there were more British voters, but I suspect even if it were in the U.S., three or four of the five nominees would have been British.)

Constellations, an original anthology of fifteen stories from this crop of outstanding new British SF authors, is thus aptly named, for it showcases some of the brightest new stars in the SF firmament.  Most of the stories are by authors just entering the prime of their careers, peppered with a few veterans like Brian W. Aldiss and Ian Watson.  Editor Peter Crowther (who apparently still had time on his hands after running PS Publishing, editing Postscripts magazine, and continuing his own successful writing career) uses Constellations, subtitled The Best of New British SF, to demonstrate the depth of talent in the British Boom and give readers a chance to sample some of the great new British writers they may have missed.

Constellations is ostensibly a theme anthology, with all the stories relating somehow to the constellations in the night sky, but most of the contributors adhere to this theme only very loosely.  In a few stories the only connection to constellations is that characters stop at some point in the night and look up.  Of the few entries that actually stick to the theme, Ian Watson's "The Navigator's Children", set in a future where interstellar travel is possible but only between stars that are connected in known constellations, wins the prize for the most clever approach to it.

The "constellations" theme nevertheless proved useful because it prompted many of the authors to write space adventures, even if they have nothing in particular to do with constellations.  Space opera is a vital subgenre of science fiction, a key part of the identity of the field and an important means of attracting new readers.  There was some excellent space opera in the 1980's and early 90's by David Brin, Orson Scott Card, Dan Simmons, Vernor Vinge and others, but more recently the subgenre has floundered in American SF.

Thankfully, the British Boom authors have picked up the slack, writing so much exciting, galaxy-spanning space opera - with far more accomplished prose than space opera of the Golden Age - that some have taken to calling their work the "New Space Opera."

Constellations includes several examples of this New Space Opera.  I particularly enjoyed "Beyond the Aquila Rift" by Alastair Reynolds.  "Beyond the Aquila Rift" expands on the concept of Frederik Pohl's classic novel Gateway:  humans are able to travel through portions of the galaxy with technology left by a long-gone alien race.  Because we do not fully understand that technology, pilots can never be sure their ships will take them where they intend.  In "Beyond the Aquila Rift", an interstellar trip goes disastrously awry.

Other good tales of outer space in Constellations include Stephen Baxter's "Lakes of Light", in which humans actually live on the encased surface of a star;  Paul McAuley's "Rats of the System", where colonists of a far solar system are caught in the crossfire of an interstellar war;  "The Fulcrum" by Gwyneth Jones, set on a seedy deep-space station;  and Tony Ballantyne's "Star!" a tongue-in-cheek look at a young woman who wants to be a star, in a more literal sense than usual.

The British Boom is not limited to the New Space Opera, however, and Constellations includes a nice range of different styles and themes.  Indeed, my three favorite stories in Constellations all take place on Earth: "A Heritage of Stars" by Eric Brown, "Written in the Stars" by Ian McDonald (the author of River of Gods, one of those current Best Novel Hugo nominees), and "The Order of Things" by Adam Roberts.  Like all great science fiction, these stories use an intriguing and strange backdrop to show us familiar and timeless human issues in a new light.  In "A Heritage of Stars", an alien race has offered mankind immortality and more, and two young newlyweds confront the fact that their promise to love each other forever will actually be put to the test.  "Written in the Stars" shows a world in which everyone's lives are guided by their daily (surprisingly accurate) horoscopes, and the protagonist is shocked to meet a man who never reads his.

Adam Roberts similarly confronts a protagonist comfortable in the status quo with dangerous new ideas in "The Order of Things", set in a future in which "coastal engineers" devote their lives to honoring God by straightening the world's coastlines.  Adam Roberts is my personal favorite of the British Boom authors.  One thing I love about his writing is his unerring ability to defy my expectations even after giving me fair warning.  In "The Order of Things", he tells us that in the future people all wear gloves and veils in public, yet still caught me by surprise later in the story when the main character is appalled to spot a naked man he fears may be his brother:

The naked man approached.  He was wearing odd, raggedy green trousers.  On closer inspection the flaps and fringes revealed themselves to be pockets, but a messier, more disreputable-looking pair of pants it was hard to imagine.  There was a dark sweater of some kind, but his hands and his face were completely naked.

Two other noteworthy stories are Roger Levy's "No Cure for Love", about an unstable traveler to Mars, and Colin Greenland's "Kings", a retelling of the story of the Three Wise Men.  In both, it is unclear just what is happening for much (Levy) or all (Greenland) of the story, yet both writers deftly use this opacity not for its own sake, but to convey a deeper sense of their characters' plight.

Constellations also includes solid work from Keith Brooke ("A Different Sky"), James Lovegrove ("The Meteor Party" - not science fiction), and Justina Robson ("The Little Bear").  "Ten Billion of Them" by Brian W. Aldiss is not bad, but certainly not to the standard of that author's best work.

All of the stories in Constellations display craft, originality, and imagination, exemplifying the present high standards of British SF.  These writers are pointing the way to what I hope will be the future of science fiction: prose as skillful as any in the mainstream, in service of creative and inventive stories that are fun to read while at the same time lending new insight into the world around us.

          Constellations is a wonderful sample of today's superb British talent, although far from comprehensive.  Indeed, there are enough other great British writers not included that Peter Crowther could assemble a second volume without any repeats.  Here's hoping that Neal Asher, Iain M. Banks, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Peter F. Hamilton, M. John Harrison, Ian R. MacLeod, Ken MacLeod, John Meaney, China Miéville, Richard Morgan, Michael Marshall Smith, Charles Stross, Steph Swainston, Karen Traviss, and Liz Williams all get a phone call from Mr. Crowther some time soon.
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Copyright © 2005 Aaron Hughes

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