It's important I start this review by saying that I enjoyed most of the stories in this anthology. Saying that is a bit of a giveaway that I had an issue somewhere, isn't it? But it's true, I did enjoy most of the stories, while, yes, having an issue.
In his introduction, editor Ian Whates rhapsodizes over how pleased he was to be able to make Solaris Rising 2—that it would allow him to continue to "demonstrate the diversity, vitality, and sheer strength of modern SF" (p. 9). I frowned when I saw the word diversity there, because I had already noted that of nine names on the front cover (which is otherwise very attractive, with a planet in front of a sun and some solar system-y things in the background), only one—Nancy Kress—was definitely that of a woman; one other, Kay Kenyon, is ambiguous but does turn out to be a woman. So then I turned to the table of contents, where I found that of 19 authors, seven were women. Now, I am certainly not one for demanding a 50/50 split in gender, and this is a better gender split than other anthologies both old and new. But then I drilled a bit deeper, and found that nine of the authors are from the UK and ten from the US, with one, Vandana Singh, identifying as a migrant from India. (I only had to look up three—the other sixteen had their countries of origin included in their biographies.) I have not gone to the lengths of finding out ethnic backgrounds, and of course being born in either the UK or the US does not mean that they are all of Anglo descent—perhaps West Indian, African-American, or Southeast Asian backgrounds are represented here. But even if that’s true, this "diversity" is still lacking even from an Anglophone context (no Australian, New Zealand, or Canadian voices), which in itself is clearly restrictive. And that's not to go into sexuality, (dis)ability, or other markers of diversity. In the rest of his introduction Whates goes on at (tedious) length to describe how he met or otherwise is a fan of every author in the anthology, suggesting this is an invitation-only anthology, thus giving one possible reason for its rather narrow field. This is not in itself a problem—but it is when the editor claims diversity.
Perhaps, though, he meant a diversity in the ideas being written about? As I read through the anthology, I counted four stories with a basis in ecological disaster; four centered on interaction with AI; three that involved time travel or other interaction with the past; three and a half that were set off Earth; four and a half that involved aliens (the half makes sense, honest)—only one exclusively from the point of view of the aliens; two that deal with copyright and two that were set in the very distant future of humanity. There were only a couple of stories that I found impossible to classify as fitting into a recognizable trope of SF. Most present events from only one point of view; many follow a strict linear narrative progression. Let me stress again that most of the stories were very good; only one really turned me off. But I beg to suggest that this anthology does not represent the diversity of SF being written at present.
Thus, the stories. The anthology opens with Paul Cornell, and an alien story. This is not a story I would have led with, beginning as it does with a rather graphic account of what seems, on first glance, to be domestic violence and rape. It's one of the alien stories, and sees the alien females working well with humanity—this is the only story with aliens and humans interacting on a serious level, including the most intimate, which ends up with some interesting, and unforeseen, consequences. On the other hand, Norman Spinrad does not allow human/alien interaction in his "Far Distant Suns"; neither does he allow interactions between humans. This is a story that should not be read with any expectation of a plot. It's set in a future where humanity has spread out into space, and settled not in solar systems but on natural and artificial flotsam and jetsam between the stars. The story is hampered by a tortured style (the phrase "exfoliating forward" [p. 257] is used to describe humanity's progress), and by a lack of any human sentiment. The only story of the anthology to focus entirely on aliens is Liz Williams's "The Lighthouse" (featuring more human feeling than Spinrad's story, which wants to suggest a solution for humanity). Alone in a fortress intended as a beacon for people returning from a forced diaspora, a daughter confronts a revelation about her people that is genuinely devastating. Williams evokes the loneliness and determination of the narrator beautifully, and hints in enigmatic and provocative ways at the backstory of war, flight, and the desperate hope that the dispersed will be reunited.
The stories that deal with ecological distress are also varied. One of the best examples is James Lovegrove's "Shall Inherit," where the ecological crisis is deliberately created and the solution is to send off an ark of four hundred autistic adolescents. It deals with both the crisis and the human response. Kay Kenyon's ecological crisis is likewise the result of a deliberate act of eco-terror; unlike Lovegrove, "The Spires of Greme" is set seven hundred years into the future, with the remnants of humanity living with the consequences of a virus that somehow turned a forest into a human-attacking thing. The focus of the story is on fifteen-year-old Sark, who has just found out that she is to be made a bride, and forced to go and live on another spire as part of their DNA-swapping efforts.
Eugie Foster's "Whatever Skin You Wear" is one of the most intriguing of the anthology, set in a world where RL (real life) is completely superimposed by LivIT (presumably only for those who can afford it, but that's not addressed in this story). It revolves around not just the possibilities for work, but that a person can "be who [they are] inside on the outside too" (p. 90): those born male can live as female, and vice versa, and on into the realms of imagination currently only possible in a strictly online setting. They even have "coupling apps" which presumably allow sex—well, the possibilities boggle the mind, really. Mercurio D. Rivera offers a discussion of the ethics of putting AI into cloned teenaged bodies in "Manmade." This is a world of plague and declining birthrates—is putting AI into cloned bodies the only/an ethical solution? Should a company make money off such a procedure? And then, the crux of the matter: at what age are people able to make life-altering decisions? Because this AI wants his procedure reversed, and to let go of his humanity. After all, he didn't choose to become human. Cognitively he is seventeen; does he have the capacity to make that decision for himself? The emotional connections don’t entirely work in this story, but the big ideas are worth grappling with.
Whates is in a hurry to assure the reader that although Kristine Kathryn Rusch has written a time travel story centered in a university, it "manages to avoid stepping on Connie Willis's toes" (p. 13). I think that rather than not stepping on Willis's toes, Rusch is writing almost a prelude to her work, because the whole point of "When Thomas Jefferson Dined Alone"—where the idea is not to interact with the past, but merely to be an observer—is being called into question. It also raises questions about privacy—whether those in the past have a right to it—that I think rarely get considered in these sorts of "peeping Tom" variations on time travel/historical observations. Similar questions are raised in the final story of the anthology, and one of the most enjoyable. Vandana Singh tells the story of Gargi in "With Fate Conspire"—a woman used by scientists because her mind is one of the few that can use their history-viewing machine. Gargi is meant to be watching a nineteenth-century Indian poet, but instead ends up watching the kitchen of an ordinary woman, Rassundari (who, I am delighted to discover, really did exist and really did write an autobiography). Here the time-observation is not so much for historical research but the possibility of doing something timey-wimey for the future, but Gargi does feel uncomfortable about her observations.
One of the stories I found difficult to quantify is "Bonds," by Robert Reed. It's written as an article, perhaps pitched at something like Scientific American: more scholarly than a newspaper, less so than for an academic journal. It outlines the beginning of a scam developed by Desmond Allegato, a computer-game-playing loner (yes, this is a stereotype but it ends up working). Allegato writes an article, and then a book, and then a series of workshops about the "fact" that there are bonds—real, tangible bonds—between people, and how those bonds, and thus life, can be improved. While this is clearly a scam, it also suggests—as many such scams in real life do—that people get real solace from it. Reed drops a bombshell when he has a group of physicists appear to confirm that some sort of bond really does exist between humans on a quantum level. And he then completely undercuts the notion of humanity being at all special in a profoundly disquieting manner. This is my favorite story of the anthology, and is one of the most horrific, in its quiet and disillusioning way.
The intriguing, the fascinating, the evocative and curious outweigh the banal or pointless. Even if it doesn't represent great diversity, I think that Solaris Rising 2 does demonstrate strength of story-crafting within SF today, making this anthology a success overall.
Alexandra Pierce reads a lot of science fiction and fantasy, blogs about it at Randomly Yours, Alex, and talks about it as one third of the Galactic Suburbia podcast team. In between, she tries to instill a love of English and History in high school students.