Impact Parameter, Geoffrey A. Landis

Golden Gryphon, 2001, 340 pages, US$24.95 hc, ISBN 1-930846-06-1

Hard SF is good to find, and so the news that there would be an anthology of Geoffrey A. Landis’ short-fiction made me giddy with joy. What didn’t make make overly happy was the fact that it would be published by a small specialized editor and widely available only through the SF Book Club. Eh, what can you do? At least it counted against my “minimal purchase” membership requirement.

At least the book itself was worth the trouble: Sixteen stories clearly tilted toward the hard-SF end of the spectrum, with some variety (a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, a humour vignette, a hard-SF/magic hybrid) thrown in for extra fun. It’s worth noting that Landis has published over sixty stories since his entry in the field: no mention is made, however, of the rationale behind the selection of those particular stories. We can probably assume they’re the best and/or the most representative. Indeed, there are a number of award-nominated stories in those sixteen.

Landis is a NASA scientist by day and a science-fiction writer whenever he’s got time, and so it’s not surprising to see that his fiction tends to focus not just on hard-SF, but on real-science science-fiction. Stories like “Dark Lady” study the interactions between modern-day scientists and the way their mind works, with only a tiny nod at a scientific breakthrough at the very end. “Beneath the Stars of Winter” is similar, as Soviet scientists struggle to understand the universe from within a gulag deep in Siberia. In this regard, Landis’ fiction feels like Gregory Benford in how eager it is in presenting science fiction in another sense of the expression, with very human scientists.

The difference between the two might be that Landis has a slight edge in accessibility. Of the sixteen stories, few are anything less than compulsively readable. Stuff like the sarcastic “What We Really Do At NASA” is even too short.

Fans of the Hard-SF stuff will be please beyond belief at some of the science puzzle stories in this volume. The book opens with “A Walk in the Sun”, the kind of quasi-classic tale that takes a simple premise and, well, walks with it. Other stories, like “Ecopoeisis”, “Into the Blue Abyss” and “Approaching Perimelasma” are straight from the Hard-SF school of fantastic explorations. (Murder on an abandoned Mars! A trip in the oceans of Neptune! A dive through a wormhole!) Good stuff, though some fans with a lower regard for “that yucky characterization stuff” (yup, that’s me) may not find some of the sub-plots so compelling.

Occasionally, Landis takes a stylistic or conceptual detour, and the results are as fascinating: “The Singular Habits of Wasps” has got to be one of the best steampunk crossovers I’ve read. “Snow” is a moody piece that picks away at SF’s triumphant ethos. “Ourobouros” is a simple but unnerving idea, done well. (Maybe he’ll expand it in a novel some day) “Elemental” is sort of an odd-ball in the lot, his first published story mixing hard science and gonzotific elemental magic. While intriguing, the concept seems developed in a uneven fashion: I’d certainly welcome a slicker, longer take on the same ideas.

Anthologies are always, in my mind, a better way to judge a writer’s strengths and themes than a simple novel. In Landis’ case, Impact Parameter is a much stronger work than his rather disappointing Mars Crossing. It shows his dedication both to the parameters of science and the impact of fiction. His afterword notes awards, inspirations and details about his stories, clearly showing a genre writer who’s aware of his strengths. I will certainly buy his next book in an instant. Even through the SFBC if I have to.

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