|Hardcover, 990 pages|
Published 1994 (contents: 1841-1994)
Acquired March 2008
Read March 2017
edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer
A thousand-page anthology devoted to a subgenre feels like an argument to me. A shorter book would claim to be nothing more than a sampling, while even a thousand-page book devoted to whole genre of science fiction couldn't rightly claim comprehensiveness. But with one thousand pages and over sixty stories from a single subgenre, The Ascent of Wonder can claim to be defining that subgenre's entire form and purpose. Unfortunately, it gets off to a rough start: I found the introductions (there are three!) by Gregory Benford and Kathryn Cramer more befuddling than illuminating, but I keyed in on a passage from David Hartwell's introduction: "Hard sf is about the beauty of truth. It is a metaphorical or symbolic representation of the wonder at the perception of truth that is experienced at the moment of scientific discovery" (30). I don't know that I entirely agree, but it's an intriguing formulation that explains why Hartwell and Cramer picked the stories they did for this anthology.
Judging by the stories included here, Hartwell and Cramer's definition of hard sf is a lot more capacious than my own. I love Cordwainer Smith, and "No, No, Not Rogov!" is indeed about the "perception of truth that is experienced at the moment of scientific discovery," but the inclusion of stories like this make me think that definition isn't specific enough-- I don't think Smith cares about science except as a source of beautiful imagery and fantastic ideas, and if sf is to be "hard" I feel like it needs something more than that. It's not that Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter" or Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore's "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" or Isaac Asimov's "The Last Question" are bad stories, or even stories uninterested in science, but it's that they're not invested in following the implications of actual science in a way that, say, Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations" is-- a story that despite its flaws (or maybe because of them) epitomized the hard sf ethos of logic over all else. There are times I found myself wishing Hartwell and Cramer had included some kind of counterpoint story: if "Nine Lives" by Ursula K. Le Guin (a story that has clones in it, but no science behind them) or "The Very Slow Time Machine" by Ian Watson (which has a neat concept at its heart, but not as far as I can tell, one from actual science) or "The Longest Science Fiction Story Ever Told" by Arthur C. Clarke (which is an unfunny joke about unfunny jokes) are all hard sf, then what isn't? Show me the other side of the subgenre so I can see its edges more clearly.
That said, with over 150 years of stories to pick from, Cramer and Hartwell assembled an excellent collection of stories, and despite some dubious enclosures, I do feel I understand the parameters and possibilities of hard sf more than I did before reading. Some were by authors I knew and loved already: James Blish's "Beep" has a clever and interesting conceit that would make Steven Moffat's head spin. Donald Kingsbury's "To Bring in the Steel" was a surprising tale of a Paris Hilton-esque media floozy discovering a new side of herself on an asteroid mine; after enjoying Psychohistorical Crisis so much, I ought to seek out more of his work. "Waterclap" was an interesting Isaac Asimov story I hadn't read before, but let down by the fact that Asimov can imagine a moon colony and an underwater colony, but can't imagine a woman having any role in either outside of childbearing... in 1970! Le Guin's "The Author of the Acacia Seeds" wasn't a story, but had neat enough ideas (about ant language!) to succeed regardless. And I'm always happy to reread James Blish's "Surface Tension," which is in my sci-fi top five. David Brin's "What Continues, What Fails..." shows science fiction at its best as well, combining future reproduction with black hole physics to deliver a testimony for the human need to reproduce and leave a mark on the universe. (I did appreciate that unlike most anthologists, they included the contextual material with Rudyard Kipling's "With the Night Mail," though I wish they hadn't dumped it all at the end, after the actual story.)
There was the occasional outright bad one: Rudy Rucker's "Message Found in a Copy of Flatland" was sort of a non-story, not doing anything that Flatland didn't do itself; I got the feeling that it was in the book because being a novel, Flatland itself couldn't be. And James P. Hogan's "Making Light" is an unfunny joke stretched out way too long with dubious claims to be science fiction, much less hard sf. I think it's only in here because Hogan didn't write much short fiction, so Cramer and Hartwell had limited options (his novel Inherit the Stars is probably one of the best examples of the subgenre).
I was kind of a sucker for stories involving academia, I guess for obvious reasons. "Davy Jones' Ambassador" by Raymond Z. Gallun was surprisingly interesting, a tale of a professor (who's married to a dean) chasing a giant leviathan. I particularly loved Katherine Maclean's "The Snowball Effect," a rare sociological hard sf tale about a sociology department head defending his program against budget cuts by an overeager administrator by accidentally transforming a local knitting club into a global power. Michael F. Flynn's "Mammy Morgan Played the Organ; Her Daddy Beat the Drum" was surprisingly moving tale of a physics professor hunting ghosts as he destroys his academic career.
This review just scratches the surface of the good stuff contained within. (I want to read more Bob Shaw and Gordon R. Dickson now, for example, and I was very glad to see H. G. Wells's "The Land Ironclads" in this context.) Presumably no anthology is perfect, but I suspect this one comes closer than most: it's probably a better sf anthology than any I've read outside of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame series. I discovered a lot of new stories, developed a new appreciation for a subgenre I've thought little about, and have some new authors to look up.