Age of Wonders, edited by Jeffry Dwight

age-of-wonders-edited-by-jeffry-dwight coverGenre: Mixed Genre Anthology
Publisher: SFF Net
Published: 2000
Reviewer Rating: three and a half stars
Book Review by Eugene Wiley

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As a fan of “near future” SF, I was quite excited to crack open one of’s original fiction anthologies, The Age of Wonders, edited by Jeffry Dwight. An upbeat and intriguing Introduction by David Brin heightened my sense of anticipation. Spurred on by Brin’s optimistic vision of both SF and humanity’s near future, I eagerly dug into the twenty-one tales, many of which were written by well-known names in the short SF field.

For the most part, the stories lived up to my expectations. There were a few duds and a couple of stories that just didn’t appeal to me, personally. All in all, however, the anthology proved to be thought-provoking and entertaining.

Linda J. Dunn leads off the table of contents with an AI story called, “Where Robots Go to Die”. This is a simple tale of Rex the Robot who, lacking an “emoting chip” is deemed obsolete and scheduled for recycling. During a memory flush, preparing Rex for dismantling, the reader is led through a series of flashbacks that paint a short, ironic history of his life in service to assorted human owners, all of whom are corrupt to varying degrees. The primary theme of the tale is the ironic contrast between an automaton who lacks “feelings” and his all-too-human owners whose emotional responses are anything but enviable. The neutrality of Rex’s “non-emotional” perceptions contrasted with his human owners becomes a thematic tool for ironically exposing the hypocrisy and greed of human emotional responses. Dunn poses some obvious questions here about human hypocrisy and cruelty, and elevates her robot, Rex, to a heroic level while showing his creators to be of a lesser mettle. Nothing in this story is terribly original or surprising, but it is still a highly readable tale of artificial intelligence and the intrinsic cruelty of slavery, whether practiced against man or machine.

‘The Sealed Sky”, by Cynthia Ward is an emotional short-short that begins convincingly in the midst of a father and son crises, and ends in a commendable resolution. When Lantry Stiller, a widower, tries to quell his son’s desire to become a space explorer, near-future technology plays a poignant role in repairing their fragmented relationship… and intervening in a suicide attempt. Stiller lost his wife to an accident in space and now can’t bear the burden of his son, Kyle’s, obsession to follow in her footsteps. Set within the now familiar “computerized home”, the father and son try to resolve their separate grief, one through inspiration and the other through parental possessiveness. The story utilizes a great spin on the conceit of replicated consciousness and packs a lot of power in a quick-paced narrative. A good story, scribed with technical skill and an enviable understanding of the nature of grief.

Another AI story — this one fueled more by chuckles than tears — “Djinnetic Code”, by Brian Dana Akers, riffs on the ‘computer Daemon’ premise, but manages to sneak in a few original bits along the way. Protag, Yale, a Professor of ‘Computational Genetics’ receives a gift from an old school-mate – a software program called ‘Butler’ that downloads an impish AI personal ‘agent’ — soon known as, Harry. In predictable, but still hilarious fashion, Helpful Harry, of course, becomes too useful to Yale as he quests for tenure and love. The AI personality, Harry, is the best thing going on in this story. The thematic thread through the antho of “the nature of AI servility” is given a humorous take here, but the implication is still quite earnest, that near-future tools in the form of Artificial intelligence function as mirrors of human impulse and that we can expect from them only what we put in, no matter how sophisticated the technological ‘works’.

An exciting and bitterly sarcastic war-story from Christopher Holiday managed to surprise me even though much of the background of the tale: cybernetic soldiers and an ambiguous political war, seemed almost obligatory. What Holiday does to make his story of body-armor and disgruntled combatants stand out of the crowd, is to draw his plot toward a surprising resolution, one that resounds with a timely meditation on the nature of patriotism and war-as-a-profitable-commercial endeavor. The first person narrative POV in this tale works well and drives home its political point in a strikingly intimate way.

“Crossing the Distance” by Jean Reese is a small story that reminds us, no matter where science may take us, some things remain constant. Children will always need a parent’s love and attention. As always, tragedy results when these needs are not met — and yet another adult has to deal with the consequences of neglect in childhood.

“Death and Taxes”, by Vincent Miskell is an amusing take on space travel. When a young woman finds herself aboard a ship of pilgrims determined to drive themselves into a Black Hole, she escapes death — and possibly enlightenment — by faxing herself home.

Mary Soon Lee’s, “Murder Absolute”, is a depressing story of teenage angst in a post-cloning society. Young girls sell themselves to the highest bidder — to then be murdered by “Artistes”. The only new wrinkle in this tale is that the story’s central victim eventually escapes her miserable existence, by becoming a surgically altered clone who enjoys the rather obscene pleasure of suiciding her other selves. The pace of the story is that of a typical detective/mystery, and the near-future technology of the story adds only a dash of originality to this readable tale.

“None So Blind”, by John B. Rosenman, is a Twilight Zone type tale about a boy whose damaged visual cortex prevents him from taking part in the latest fad: a sort of mind-melding that is sweeping society and displacing imagination and creativity. An enjoyable homage to the old TV show and to the pleasures of solitude.

Brian Plante’s “School of Thought”, is a not-too-surprising but heartfelt tale that addresses the consequences of lab-created Junior High School teachers. An ode to “Mr. Chips” and a meditation on the merits of human imperfection, Plante’s tale fits nicely into the AI themes that lace through the anthology.

That covers about half of the stories on order in this anthology. My only major complaint with the collection is it’s rather predictable menu of themes. There’s not really anything mind-blowingly original in this antho, but the stories are all competently written and sociologically relevant.

Definitely a collection worth purchasing — with enough stories to please just about any taste. Look for some of your favorite short SF writers here, and maybe a new name or two — and be prepared for an interesting journey top our near-future, a place with equal potential for triumph and tragedy.

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