Wireless, Charles Stross

<em class="BookTitle">Wireless</em>, Charles Stross

Ace, 2009, 352 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-441-01719-5

Over the last decade, Science Fiction author Charles Stross has established himself as one of the genre’s top writers thanks to novels combining strong plotting, sly humour, substantial horror and enough SF ideas to inspire an entire generation of readers and writers.  Commercial imperatives mean that most of Stross’ output has taken the form of novels or series, but like many SF writers in love with the possibilities of the genre, Stross has also kept up a small but creatively rewarding stream of short stories alongside his long-form output.  Nearly a decade after the acclaimed Toast that collected many of his early work, Stross now has a new short-story collection bringing together much of Stross’ post-2000 short fiction output.

Watchers of the contemporary SF market know how unlikely it is for a major publisher to produce a hardcover short story collection: they don’t sell as well as novels, and the tendency over the past few years has been for smaller presses to pick up those collections in a targeted appeal to reach the author’s fans.  For Ace to publish Wireless is a testimony both to Stross’ popularity and to the rewards that his fans can expect to find in his short stories.

Those expectations are well-placed: Even before mentioning the anthology’s reprinted stories, the major reason to read Wireless is “Palimpsest”, an original novella published here for the first time.  Here, Stross tackles time-travel by confronting clichés: As we follow an operative recruited by an incredibly long-lived organization tasked with the survival of the human race, we begin by seeing how operatives are asked to murder their grandfathers.  It gets much weirder after that, as timelines are changed and overwritten from the fabric of the universe, leaving the operatives with memories contradicting history.  It’s a major novella with an ultra-wide-screen scope that is rarely seen in today’s Science Fiction.  Tackling issues spanning millions of years, “Palimpsest” (currently nominated for a Hugo) delivers on that good-old sense of wonder, sums up the state of a familiar theme and extends it a bit further.  It’s an impressive story, and its density of ideas alone justifies Wireless’s purchase: Most SF novels on the market today don’t even have a fraction of the excitement that Stross crams in a single novella.  (Better news yet: During an interview at Readercon 2010, Stross admitted that he’s thinking hard about continuing “Palimpsest” to a full-length novel.)

The rest of the book’s table of content may be more familiar, but it’s no less thrilling.  Wireless reprints “Missile Gap”, another impressive Hugo-nominated novella that uses familiar Stross tropes and sends them out for a ride. The conclusion is similar to Stross’ classic “Antibodies”, with a Tipplerian spin: Big thinking designed to make us feel very small.  Its mercilessness is only matched by Stross’ celebrated “A Colder War”, which blends Cold War paranoia with Lovecraftian horrors; it’s an early test-run for the Laundry Files universe, and it’s still as bleakly devastating today as it ever was ten years ago.  It’s not the only test-run in the volume: “Down on the Farm” is another entertaining adventure set in the world of the Laundry Files, while “Trunk and Disorderly” is an amusing Wodehouse pastiche that prefigures some of Saturn’s Children.

Like many other anthologies, it also comes with a bunch of weaker and slighter stories: I must have read “Rogue Farm” three times by now, and never developed any affection for it.  “MAXOS” is a short-short that’s more of a joke than anything else.  “Unwirer” is written in collaboration with Cory Doctorow and goes overboard with Doctorow’s usual didactic discourse on technological freedoms.  Finally, “Snowball’s Chance” is an amusing deal-with-the-devil story that is probably more fun for Scottish readers with a fondness for reading their accent in print.  It’s no accident if those underwhelming pieces are also the shortest in the book: Stross needs space to properly unpack his ideas.

I have long considered “A Colder War” to be a classic of sorts, and I think that “Palimpsest” will soon join it as a defining Stross story.  To see both of them in print in the same volume is a wonder in itself.  That they come packaged with a few more of Stross’ shorter pieces will satisfy both fans and neophytes: For anyone looking to discover why Stross has become such a major SF author, Wireless densely demonstrates why even his short stories can be as satisfying as his longer work.

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