The Lowest Heaven is part of an art exhibit dedicated to the interaction between art and the beautiful objects that people make in the pursuit of science. Edited by Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin, it showcases a spectrum of authors, from old pros like Alastair Reynolds to powerful new voices like Kameron Hurley. Each story is matched with a black and white photograph of a scientific artifact, from glass plates showing the shadows of "spiral nebulae" (which we now know as galaxies) to banners made by workers' unions to promote interest in astronomy. The stories and the pictures and even the cover all work beautifully together, displaying a thoughtfulness on the part of The Lowest Heaven's creators that I have not seen before in an anthology.
To my embarrassment, I was halfway through The Lowest Heaven before I realized that I was being taken on a tour of the solar system. "Golden Apple" by Sophia McDougall starts the tour with the sun. It takes the old story of parents who risk everything in order to save a sick child and gives it a fascinating science fiction twist. McDougall grounds her story in science but lets it grow through the emotions of Daisy's parents. They don't understand the experiments that they are interfering with and they don't care. Even at the end, facing the weirdly symmetrical consequences of their actions, the narrator insists that he did the right thing.
Alastair Reynolds, whom I imagine is the big name in this collection, brings the book to Mercury with "A Map of Mercury." The twist ending in this one left me cold, but the rest of the story is a fine display of science-fictional gadgetry and landscapes. In the story, a monstrous corporation dispatches a failed artist to retrieve a genius from a collective of cyborgs who have created an endless Burning Man-style parade across the blasted face of Mercury. Reynolds returns to the old question of how much flesh can be removed before a person is no longer human, but he knows better than to pretend to have a final answer.
A few of the stories in this anthology demand a certain amount of patience and goodwill from the reader. "Ashen Light" by Archie Black starts slowly, using a careful documentary style that will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has read Capote's In Cold Blood. In another context, I might have given up on the story as soon as one of the criminals mentioned suspicious old farmers who keep all their money locked up in their houses. I have very little patience for stories that insist on plodding along well past the point where I believe that I have figured out the twist ending. However, "Ashen Light" is not a big-twist story. It is a portrait of human nature, both good and bad, and how that nature does not change even when it is transplanted from Earth to a terraformed Venus. It rewards patience with an uncomfortable, beautiful ending.
"The Krakatoan" by Maria Dahvana Headley brings the anthology to Earth—up to its elbows in earth, in fact, as an astronomer's daughter digs her own volcano beneath the shadow of Mt. Palomar to observe the stars that shine underground. There is something decidedly creepy going on with the astronomer and his vanished ex-wives, and the neighbor whose wife was devoured (according to our narrator) by a Great White Yonder—something she imagines to be a relative of the Great White Shark. This story will reward the thoughtful reader; I'm sure that I didn't catch all the subtleties the first time around.
The story that demands the most patience from the reader and offers the most payoff at the end is "An Account of a Voyage from World to World Again, by Way of the Moon, 1726" by Adam Roberts. Its dry opening and antique prose only amplify the pompous tone affected by the narrator. He only becomes sympathetic at the end, when the horrors that he has survived during his trip to the moon become clear. "An Account" is worth the wait. Its mix of hard SF and alternate history has a profound impact. While I don't necessarily agree with this story's conclusions about exploration and human nature, I always enjoy seeing an opposing viewpoint laid out with such emotional power—the image of an eighteenth-century astronaut dying in an india rubber suit will live in my nightmares for a long time.
In a book about the feedback loops between art and science, a story about an astronaut who signs up to lead a mission to Mars because of the Bradbury stories that he read as a child adds another layer to the discussion. After the mutiny of his crew, Leroy Johnson's life is made even more complicated when Ray Bradbury appears on his ship and begins giving him advice; the B in "WWBD" by Simon Morden stands for Bradbury. "WWBD" depends on its plot twists and it has the misfortune of following a deep and complex story, which makes it feel slight by comparison. However, "WWBD" is a fine science fiction story in its own right. I will even forgive it for hinting at a happy ending.
The Lowest Heaven begins its trip through the outer planets with "The Jupiter Files" by Jon Courtenay Grimwood. Grimwood adopts the clichés of noir detective fiction and adds a dog-headed alien loan shark with an offer that the protagonist can't refuse. It is a fascinating set-up, but the ending depends on a broader knowledge of the works of Philip K. Dick than I can claim. "The Jupiter Files" will certainly mean more to a dedicated fan of Dick fan than to me.
The outer solar system is populated by stranger creatures than the inner solar system. In "Magnus Lucretius" by Mark Charan Newton, the title character has turned Europa into a historical Roman playground for the wealthy. This story of love and robotics fell flat, despite the promise of combining my favorite period in history with my favorite Jovian satellite, perhaps because it could have taken place anywhere in the solar system. Nothing about "Magnus Lucretius" depended on Europa, from the setup to the questionable punchline. If The Lowest Heaven is a tour of the solar system, then "Magnus Lucretius" is, fittingly, a tourist trap.
Kaaron Warren delves into the alchemical mysteries surrounding the planet Saturn. It is a welcome break from the strict science fiction stories that have led up to this point. "Air, Water and the Grove" still uses an old science fiction trope: the accidental colonization of Earth by life-forms from another world. Our hero is a woman who runs a laundry and wants nothing more than to keep her son safe, both from the terrible purification of the Saturn trees and the debauchery of the modern Saturnalia. It is a grim story, as befits the god of time, bringer of old age, and devourer of children.
I always like to see Lavie Tidhar on a table of contents, even if his stories never quite work for me. "Only Human" is another example of that peculiar genre. Set on Titan, "Only Human" is a love story between two women, one of whom is destined to join a priesthood of immortal aggregate computer-minds. It's a superb setup, and as usual with Tidhar's stories, I can not find anything specific to criticize. The interplay of politics and religion in "Only Human" ought to be fascinating and the love story is bittersweet, but somehow the parts never came together in a way that I could hold.
"Uranus" by Esther Saxey and "From This Day Forward" by David Bryher feature two out of the three tragic gay men in The Lowest Heaven. This trope only becomes more problematic with each repetition. There are plenty of stories to tell about gay men's lives that do not involve futile love and early graves. Saxey, at least, has the excuse of an historical setting. She builds her story on the term "Uranian," which comes from a Victorian-era attempt to invent words that could describe people who fell outside the socially-accepted roles of heterosexual cismales and cisfemales. Our unhappy Uranian narrator believes that he has taught himself astral travel, but readers who recognize MMORPGs will know what he has actually stumbled into. Like "Air, Water and the Grove," "Uranus" digs up fascinating associations for one of the monsters of the outer solar system that brings it down to human scale without reducing its menace. "From This Day Forward" takes place in the far future, where the gender of a pair of lovers is far less important than the trust and communication problems in their relationship. None of their issues would be remarkable, except that they have just signed up for an interstellar voyage with no one for company but each other. And then there are the clones to consider . . . While "From This Day Forward" makes no particular use of Neptune beyond its placement at the edge of the solar system, the drama within it left me both wondering how the lovers' story would ultimately end, and sickeningly sure that I already knew the answer.
"We'll Always Be Here" by S. L. Grey is one of my favorite stories in this collection, and one of the most unpleasant to read. It is a dark and brutal story of an extraterrestrial orphanage built because no one wanted the asteroid or the girls who are abandoned on it. "We'll Always Be Here" flaunts its pop culture references, reveling in how quickly such things become out of date rather than pretending to reference immortal classics. One of the last girls left on the asteroid practices the makeover skills that she learned from recordings of America's Next Top Model on the brain-damaged remnants of a previous round of abandoned girls. Her sister, meanwhile, tries to keep the station running—a difficult task, now that all of the adults have succumbed to a bone-rotting plague. After that, things get worse, and the story sucks the reader down with it. "We'll Always Be Here" is a wonderful piece of SF nightmare fuel.
While Alastair Reynolds may be the official big name in The Lowest Heaven, Kameron Hurley is the author who brought this book to my attention. Her story, "Enyo-Enyo," doesn't disappoint. When I reached the last page, I could only stare in blank-faced denial as my brain tried to process all the levels of horror that had been inflicted upon it. The wild prose and the narrator's questionable sanity make "Enyo-Enyo" another story that will tax the reader's patience, but again, the reward is worth the effort. Like much of Hurley's work, "Enyo-Enyo" explores just how far human beings will go when pushed—and how they will live with themselves afterward. Unlike a lot of SF stories that rely on a big reveal, "Enyo-Enyo" will be just as creepy when I reread it.
"The Comet's Tale" by Matt Jones brings the collection to the furthest point in its orbit. This story gains its SFnal identity by way of its placement within a science fiction anthology. This small-town tragedy would not have felt out of place in a collection of straightforward literary fiction. Whether or not there was a spaceship in the comet's tail—as illustrated on the cover of the book—makes no difference to Tom and Jordan's fate. Readers who remember Hale-Bopp will be saddened but not surprised as "The Comet's Tale" plunges down the gravity well to its inevitable ending. Someday, I hope, the tragic death of the homosexual will go out of vogue in science fiction.
Finally, "The Grand Tour" by James Smythe brings the collection back to Earth with a wild and bloody romp that touches on many beloved SF tropes. A Voyager probe, alien contact, transcendent mental states, children in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and unintended consequences all make an appearance in this final story of humanity's death and rebirth. Even at the end of the world, human beings can't stop themselves from reaching out and trying to understand the world around us. The scientific impulse is both our weakness and our only hope. "The Grand Tour" is a fine ending to an excellent anthology.
The Lowest Heaven is part of an art exhibit, but it stands alone as a work of art in its own right. I wish that I could have visited the Royal Observatory Greenwich to see "Visions of the Universe," the exhibition that accompanied this fine anthology. However, I feel privileged to have gotten the chance to read it. I highly recommend The Lowest Heaven to any fan of science fiction.
As a child, Sarah Frost wanted to write a post-apocalyptic science fiction epic poem. The great-grandchild of that ill-fated attempt became her first published work of short fiction in Analog in 2011. She is a hopeless podcast addict, a lover of birds, and a science fangirl. She lives in Kansas with a cop, and blogs at http://www.sarah-frost.com.