Far Orbit: Speculative Space Adventures edited by Bascomb James (book review)

December 23, 2015 | By | Reply More

Far Orbit: Speculative Space Adventures’ was prompted by an open letter to SF from Elizabeth Bear in which she said that it was all getting too dark and miserable. While admitting that there was room for such dystopian visions, she opined for more of the optimistic, upbeat yarns of successful go-getters that had prevailed in the early decades of the genre, up to the sixties. Editor Bascomb James took up the challenge and produced this book, specifically to give us stories in the ‘Grand Tradition’.


The first story certainly features successful go-getters. ‘Open For Business’ might have been titled ‘The Men Who Sold Asteroid 2009 BT.’ Sam Kepfield has a trio of entrepreneurs launching an expedition to stake a claim to this mineral rich celestial body. Memories of Heinlein are inevitably invoked but the story is fresh and entertaining in its own right. Furthermore, it might come true and soon.

There are a couple of SF trader tales in the grand tradition here. In ‘Obsidianite’, author Kat Obis gives us Janessa, a feisty female profit seeker and her pilot, Darion. They answer a distress call from the colony of New Galilee but find the mission complicated by her ex-husband and an exploding volcano. A good plot with a neat twist in the tail.

Bitter ex-partners and rivals feature again in ‘A Trip To Lagasy’ by Barbara Davies. This time it’s scientists after a rare plant. I note that both these stories of vile old boyfriends are by women but wisely make no comment.

More trading in ’Saturn Slingshot’. Space piracy is often deemed far-fetched but David Wesley Hill makes it believable. Powered by solar sail, the good ship Serendipity makes decade long voyages between the inner planets, the Jovian moons and the Kuiper belt. Captain D’Angelo Jones was born on board, like most of the crew, nearly all of whom are related to him by blood or marriage. The author has a lot of hard science to put over but manages most of the info dump smoothly in the first four pages, leaving the rest for the pirate attack. With the captain’s fearless fighting wife in danger, it evolves into a surprisingly stirring yarn. As the world turns increasingly to fantastical galactic space opera, I find myself fonder of feasible fables set in our own solar system. (Frank Ochieng doesn’t have a monopoly on alliteration in reviews.)

‘Bear Essentials’ by Julie Frost is light entertainment about another trading ship, this one with a family on board. With not much work about Russell Fisk contracts to transport a bear to a monastery where it will be worshipped. I was pleasantly reminded of ‘Space Family Stone’ and ‘Jerry Was A Man’ by Heinlein. Stories in the grand tradition are bound to remind you of the old greats.

Arthur C. Clark, for example, was brought to mind by ’From A Stone’. Writer Eric Choi is an aerospace engineer, which lends a distinct air of verisimilitude to his story. The Harrison Schmidt is sent to investigate a rock that may have come from outside the solar system and the crew finds some interesting features in it. In truth, it’s ‘Rendezvous With Rama’ on a small scale but nicely done. The disparaging references to ‘government science’ are odd to me. Privatised science didn’t get us into space, though it may take us on the next steps for profit and certainly wouldn’t bother with exploration out of sheer curiosity. At least, the pro/private industry attitude is accompanied in several stories by honest appraisal of just how brutal and inhuman profit seeking individuals and corporations can be given half a chance.

As an example, Martice, the ruthless, slave keeping businessman in ‘A Game Of Hold’em’ by Wendy Sparrow. Texan Moses and his partner Ajax are trying to get beef import contracts for their company on the barren, dusty world of Baru. To ingratiate them with Martice, top man round them there parts, Ajax arranges a game of poker. The stakes get higher and higher as the game progresses. A nitpicker might say this isn’t really SF, just a cowboy yarn set in space but, consarn it!, it’s a great story and that justifies its inclusion anywhere. It would have made a fine episode of the late lamented TV series ‘Firefly’.

Assassins are not sympathetic characters for me but K.G. Jewell’s ’Composition In Death Minor’ is an interesting tale with a few intriguing twists. Sophie Devine is on Callisto to kill a female named Quail who stole from her client. The technological background seems authentic, as does the harshness of space exploitation managed by private enterprise, at least for the people on the bottom of the heap.

The uplift needed after such grimness is provided by Peter Wood’s ’Spaceman Barbecue’. Hank lives in a trailer near Mentone, North Carolina, a town with three filling stations and six Baptist churches but no space port. This is disappointing for Commander Matt Brannigan of Space Command when he crashes his rocket nearby. Gung-ho warrior Matt inevitably – deliberately? – reminds one of Buzz Lightyear but the story is very readable and great fun.

Klingon Scholar Tracy Canfield won favourite of the year 2008 for her story ‘Starship Down’ in an ‘Analog’ readers poll. In a future where humanity has been accepted into a Coalition of Planets, albeit as a junior member, Okalini Yee is studying Bunnies on the planet Myosotis. These are sentient but stupid herbivores who stand three metres high on their back legs. Read it and you’ll soon see why smart, nerdy ‘Analog’ readers would like this one. I did, too. (Isn’t it time ‘Analog’ went digital?)

‘Backscatter’ by Gregory Benford is hard, cold SF about a prospector stuck on a lonely asteroid after her ship crashes. ‘Charnelhouse’ is an alien tomb mystery by Jonathan Shipley. ‘The Vringla/Racket Incident’ is an amusing tale of alien babysitters told in letters by Jacob Drud. These round out the collection.

A jolly fine collection it is, too, a worthy response to Elizabeth Bear’s call to arms. The stories certainly fit into the ‘Grand Tradition’ and if that’s the kind of stuff you like – I do! – then it’s worth your money.

Eamonn Murphy

December 2015

(pub: World Weaver Press. 265 page enlarged paperback. Price: $14.95 (US). ISBN: 978-0-61595-924-5)

check out website: www.WorldWeaverPress.com

Category: Books, Scifi

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