Tor, 1997, 352 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-85957-0
It is the opinion of some that SF, in its purest form, is a subversive literature. At the surface, it seems only to be about space, science, extra-terrestrials, time-travel and other improbable stuff. But, what sets SF apart from the other branches of fiction is the tacit acceptance of change. Contrarily to horror (easily the most conservative genre around; ask Stephen King or remember the Laws of Horror Movies so cleverly spoofed in SCREAM.), SF usually concludes that ordinary humans won’t crack up under change, will even find a way to adapt and profit from the loss of any status-quo.
Of course, politics are almost by definition the battleground of change. Somebody has an idea and thinks everyone should do it. Other don’t think so, and organized politics ensue. Science-Fiction has always been interested in politics (see the rather heavy allegories in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and War of the Worlds) and Free Space is the latest entry in the political-SF sub-genre.
Moreover, it’s a particularly worthy entry… but your own political preferences may color this rating slightly. For Free Space is, quite obviously, a collection of (mostly) new stories revolving around the theme of freedom, power and responsibility. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this anthology endorses a philosophy reminiscent of Libertarianism. (The introduction contains this giveaway: “It seemed to me that I could get things started by contracting a number of writers who had won the Prometheus award.”…) It’s dedicated to the Heinleins, it’s got stories by William F. Buckley and L. Neil Smith and opening quotes by Thomas Jefferson -twice- and Nietzche.
Fortunately, this isn’t only straight propaganda: A fair number of interesting stories are contained between the covers of Free Space. Some of the best pieces take a lighter approach to the themes: John deChancie’s “Planet in the Balance” is a constant delight, as is Victor Koman’s “Demokratus” (the ending greatly redeeming the remainder of this heavy-handed story.)
Most of the other good stories were more serious, and gave less importance to straight political ideas. Among those, Robert J. Sawyer’s “The Hand you’re dealt” has recently been nominated for a Hugo award. It may not be the best story of the book (see below) but still entertains a lot, even despite the depressing genetic determinism it explores. “Day of Atonement” (J. Neil Schulman) is a pretty good thriller, perhaps a bit harsh on Israel. Free Space is also a book of surprises. This reviewer only knew the work of Brad Linaweaver and Dafydd ab Hugh by their collaboration on the horrendous Doom series, but both authors prove to be fairly competent authors, with ab Hugh’s story being on par with some of Sheffield’s near-future stuff. James P. Hogan also astonishes, with a story that’s thematically and stylistically beyond most of what he’s written before. (“Madam Butterfly” also contains one of the book’s most memorable scene, the culmination of a series of near-chaotic events.) Finally, the anthologists made an unusual choice by selecting a meta-story by John Barnes (“Between Shepherds and Kings”) to close the book. It’s not that great a story, but (simultaneously) makes both important points that A> These are only Science-Fiction stories and B> Talking about grand-scale freedom is worthless if you can’t be free yourself.
But beyond that, the most impressive story if the volume is a discovery; “The Performance of a Lifetime” (Arthur Byron Cover) breaks a lot of storytelling rules, but still emerges as a winner. A tale of large-scale crime, told in a perfectly controlled tone. It’s hilarious and tragic at the same time. And the conclusion is a doozy. Truly a memorable story.
Free Space is not without flaws (for instance, a fair number of stories are empty exercises of style and rhetoric over narrative drive… and if there’s a common universe behind each of these stories, it’s so tenuously followed that it might as well be forgotten.) but it certainly represents a vigorous attempt to bring back an important political dialogue in today’s SF. You will certainly not agree with it -this reviewer often didn’t- but at least you will react to the stories. Free Space is not Empty Stuff.