Tor, 2007, 320 pages, C$28.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1805-3
The way you eat a bowl of candy may be the best way to predict how you’re going to like this anthology. Because this isn’t your usual short-story collection, and there’s a better way to approach it than to read it straight up.
Those in the know will remember that in 1999-2000, and then again in 2005-2006 (and again once more starting in 2007 in Nature Physics), the prestigious scientific journal Nature commissioned short stories from leading scientists and Science Fiction authors. Very short short stories, none of them exceeding 1,500 words, or roughly four pages of text. Despite a few reprints in year’s best anthologies, most of those stories remained in the pages of Nature. Now the first hundred of those stories have been put together in book form, with the happy consequence that this is the genre’s first short-short-story anthology in a long time.
Thanks to the commissioning process, the table of content of this anthology is stellar, featuring many legends of Science Fiction (Arthur C. Clarke, Michael Moorcock, Frederick Pohl) and modern masters (Vernor Vinge, David Brin, Bruce Sterling) alongside hot established writers (Charles Stross, Cory Doctorow, Kim Stanley Robinson) and relative newcomers (Brenda Cooper, David Marusek, Tobias Buckell). With a hundred stories on the menu, the list of authors reads like a the best-ever Readercon guest list, or a who’s who of SF: Any anthology that lists Warren Ellis next to Greg Egan, David Langford, Nalo Hopkinson, Scott Westerfeld and Dan Simmons (among many, many others) has got to have something for everyone. Even less-familiar names have stories worth reading, Nature having published fiction from real working scientists.
Naturally, the price to pay for a hundred stories in 320 pages is that they’re very short. Never mind plotting or characters: Futures from Nature is all about ideas and notions, sometimes tipping over to jokes or conceptual pieces. Some authors do better than others in short form, but the size limits remain constraining. On the other hand, more impatient readers (or those who read for ideas) will be happy with quick reads that reward what they’re looking for in SF stories.
Such a collection won’t be to the liking of everyone: Going back to the bowl-of-candy analogy, it’s easy and detrimental to read too many of those stories at once. Too much ideas sugar, not enough literary roughage: instant overdose. Instead, keep the book as bathroom reading or near the TV during commercial breaks. (This reviewer essentially finished the book by reading stories during video game loading screens.)
The other annoying thing about Future of Nature is that the stories are strictly arranged in alphabetical order of their author’s family name. It’s all the way from Aldiss to Ziemelis without a break. While a thematic arrangement may have been overkill, a better organization may have been to present the stories in order of publication, or at least within two separate sections according to the “run” in which they were commissioned. Word-count requirements were notably looser during the first run of the series, leading to a number of perceptibly longer stories: it would have been nice to seen those stories in a separate section. (More seriously, there are no bibliographical references for the stories, or any ways to track them down to their original date of publications.)
It may also be the case that Futures from Nature may be a better choice than most in introducing SF to non-SF readers, especially those who have a science background. While the jargon flies thick and the size constraints keep the exposition down to a minimum, there is a variety in themes yet a similarity in accessibility in Futures from Nature that make it a very different beast than most of the other short story collections you’ll find on the shelves. A collection of short-short stories doesn’t look like it demands a lot of your time. Much like a bowl of candy, it’s easy to finish it before even knowing it.