Athena Andreadis (ed.)
Candlemark & Gleam (May, 2016)
I’m not really a science person. I love science fiction and fantasy, but I know that that science stuff is mostly trappings as far as I’m concerned (because I often don’t understand it – and generally don’t care…) and as long as it’s plausible and doesn’t interfere with my enjoyment of a great story with characters I love (and hate), then I’m good with it. Which is why an anthology all about female scientists is a little intimidating. Not because of the women (duh) but because they all have to be scientists! What if I didn’t “get” it? What if the science is complicated and hard and makes me feel stupid? I was a little nervous going in, but the editor was very sneaky and started the book with stories that were so powerful and so well written that I quickly became immersed and forgot that lady scientists were the purpose because the stories were all that mattered. Which is exactly how it should be. Because even though being a scientist is both integral to the protagonists in each of the stories in the book, and these stories revolved around the protagonist’s profession, it’s not the science that matters – as with any good story, it’s the characters and their journeys that do the heavy lifting.
“Carnivores of Can’t-Go-Home” by Constance Cooper – I would happily read a novel about botanist protagonist of this story, her future world and the mystery of why the human race was relocated from Earth. A murder mystery set against a grand backdrop, this was an excellent starting point for the anthology.
In “Chlorophyll is thicker than water” by M. Fenn, glorious older women take control of a hostile scientific espionage situation, and perhaps take their research a little too far. I loved this for so many reasons, not the least of them that the women depicted are clearly a lot smarter and tougher than the younger characters give them credit for.
The next story, “Sensorium” by Jacqueline Koyanagi, veers away from human characters to a fully alien culture and seemed (in my limited knowledge) to be exploring an anthropological element. An interesting exploration of how two (or more) very different races can integrate.
“From the depths” by Kristin Landon presents an exploration team on a new world suddenly under threat and learning just how little they know about their new location. I felt this one was a bit long for the story at hand, but it had some vivid worldbuilding nonetheless.
I really enjoyed “Fieldwork” by Shariann Lewitt, even though the science here is getting out of my league by far! It felt to me like the examination of the effects of the decisions of our parents and grandparents and how these help to define us was more important to this piece that the means by which it was considered, and it was fascinating. Three women’s stories in one, essentially.
Vandana Singh’s story “Of wind and fire” felt a little out of place in the book, being a secondary world fantasy (by feel at least – I suppose it could be read as an alien world, but it didn’t seem like it to me) rather than having an explicit science fiction setting, and I think this impacted on my enjoyment. Nothing wrong with the story itself, but it jarred with the makeup of the book and I found it hard to immerse in because of this.
I expected great things from Aliette de Bodard’s contribution “Crossing the midday gate”, given that she was one of the few authors in the book I had read before. Political intrigue is the focus of the story, with the protagonist’s profession as a biologist peripheral (if pivotal) to the piece, but as a reading experience, this did not disappoint. Set in de Bodard’s recurring Xuya universe, she utilises the rich worldbuilding sparely and to good effect. Makes me want to seek out more.
“Firstborn, lastborn” by Melissa Scott is a piece that had such large-scale worldbuilding that it almost overshadowed the story at hand. I would be interested in reading more in this setting, but I’m not sure this piece did it justice.
In “Building for Shah Jehan” by Anil Menon, archaeologist students are the focus, and while I enjoyed the story, it seemed more of a character exploration (perhaps an entree to further work?) than anything else.
CW Johnson’s “The age of discovery” reads somewhat like a cautionary tale about scientific integrity and corporatisation. I enjoyed the pace and style of this very much, as well as the outcome.
“Recursive ice” by Terry Boren is an identity mystery with twisting narrative. I didn’t find it completely satisfying, but it was definitely interesting.
Susan Lanigan’s “Ward 7” takes a little while to get going, but the payoff hits hard. Not really for the faint-hearted, this one!
Another story with a slow burn, “Two become one” by Kiini Ibura Salaam starts in the middle of an argument but still takes time to get the reader to understand where it is going. Perhaps more fantastical than scientific in tone, with echoes of Frankenstein, it nonetheless works well, with an unexpected ending. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was more to this world to read.
The plausibility of “The Pegasus project” by Jack McDevitt was a bit beyond me, but it was an interesting read with a thought-provoking end.
Gwyneth Jones’ “The Seventh Gamer” is an interesting sociological examination of gaming culture, it is very near future science fictional and dissects some issues to do with this arena. It is quite different from the rest of the anthology in many ways, and I was a bit surprised by the choice to end the book with it.
In all, To Shape the Dark is a quality anthology containing a diverse range of stories which generally use the theme very well. There were a few pieces I didn’t love (as with almost any anthology), but all were engaging to some degree, with challenging reads that I thoroughly enjoyed. Highly recommended!