The Engine of Recall, Karl Schroeder

Robert J. Sawyer Books, 2005, 271 pages, C$26.95 hc, ISBN 0-88995-323-6

There are books whose very existence is enough to make me want to pump my fist in the air and shout “Yes!” Karl Schroeder’s Engine of Recall is one of those: before labelling me a fist-pumping yes-shouting weirdo, take a look at the author, the publisher and the fact that this is a short-story collection of ten hard-SF stories.

Karl Schroeder is one of the best hard-SF writers in the world today. He may not have a long publishing history so far, but his first two novels speak for themselves: Ventus and Permanence both feature rich characters, top-notch extrapolation and beautiful writing. Schroeder understands the nature of genre SF like few others (he co-wrote the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Science Fiction, after all) and his material integrates science with fiction like few other writers.

Robert J. Sawyer Books, as the grandiose name suggests, is a small press imprint edited by hard-SF writer Robert J. Sawyer. Already one of English Canada’s two biggest genre publisher (along with Edge/Tesseracts), RJS Books confirms the emergence of a strong genre industry in Canada and now allows the publication of books that may otherwise go nowhere in today’s increasingly consolidated publishing environment. The very thought that Robert J. Sawyer may allow Karl Schroeder to publish a short-story collection (never a viable commercial project) is enough to cheer me up.

Finally, consider the promise of ten short stories by Karl Schroeder. Most of them had previously appeared in small magazines, so it’s a real treat to see them enjoy a wider distribution in book format. All of those stories conform to some definition of Hard-SF, though some of them extend from “supernatural events that are described in what must be a rational fashion” to “near-contemporary techno-thriller”.

“The Dragon of Pripyat” is one of those techno-thrillers, set in a near-future where the UN employs a specialized troubleshooter, Gennady Malianov, to investigate disturbances in dangerous places such as Chernobyl. I remember reading this story with great pleasure when it first appeared in Tesseracts 8 and I re-read it with the same fun here. A loose sequel featuring the same lead character, “Alexander’s Road”, appears for the first time in this collection. It’s a fine and exciting story, and we can only rejoice when Schroeder promises that there will be more stories in this series.

Five of the stories (including “Halo”, set in the same universe as Permanence) take place in extraterrestrial settings and show Schroeder to be a skilled inheritor of the classic hard-SF story in the Clarke or the Niven mold. Schroeder’s prose is far more refined than his predecessors, though not quite as limpid as it should be. Hard-SF fans will recognize those stories as the pure-SF meat of the book, and rightfully delight in seeing all of them brought together.

Three stories are set on Earth in near-contemporary times and carry a decidedly more fantastic edge. “Hopscotch” looks at supernatural phenomenons with a sceptical eye, but ends on a conclusion that may not be entirely rational. “Allegiances” takes a fantastic premise and treats it with both rigour and meanness. “Making Ghosts” is halfway between cyberpunk and horror, with a mournful tone

All short story collections manage to give a good idea of the author’s pet obsessions, and The Engine of Recall is no different. In the introduction to “Alexander’s Road”, Schroeder maintains that his stories all revolve around the theme of the inaccessible place. Reading them, I was struck by the fact that most of Schroeder’s characters are true and unashamed loners. (Stephen Baxter alludes to the same thing in his laudatory introduction.) They seldom work well with others and they love to find places where they can be alone. Perhaps fittingly for a genre optimized for intellectuals, Schroeder’s stories are often inner mind games set against the universe: the measure of success resize in figuring out how to win, even if “winning” means “getting away from everyone else.”

In the case of Schoeder’s fans, however, “winning” means “seeing this book in print.” Schroeder’s novels have deservedly attracted a good amount of praise and attention, and so this short story collection lives up to those expectations. It’s not often that I have to praise an author for editorial work, but Robert J. Sawyer has done some good in publishing this collection. Hopefully, there will be more of them.

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