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REVIEW: Our world and beyond

October 07, 2013

Sometimes it takes a small, independent publisher to put together a collection that showcases the brightest minds writing contemporary science fiction today. Jurassic London is that small press, and The Lowest Heaven is their latest anthology, released as a tie-in to the ‘Visions of the Universe’ exhibition set up by the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Seventeen stories, each as different from the other as the planets in the solar system they are related to, each just as intriguing. Commissioned from writers from all over the world, each story is a unique, unexpected perspective on our solar system.

Science fiction stories about space may sound ubiquitous, agrees one of the editors of The Lowest Heaven, Jared Shurin, who says “arguably that’s the oldest and most frequently-revisited aspect of the genre.” What sets The Lowest Heaven apart, though, is that this is an anthology “inspired by space — a book that talks about how what’s out there affects us; how it is still, and will always be, relevant to literature and art.”

In a quirky, effective add-on to the stories, the editors Shurin and Anne Perry have selected images from the archives of the National Maritime Museum. Working alongside Marek Kukula, the public astronomer for the Royal Observatory, they have found gorgeous antique slides, hand-painted cards, even a vintage cartoon to place alongside each story. Using the solar system as the structure for The Lowest Heaven allowed the editors to “stay ‘close’ (celestially-speaking) so that [they’d] have access to the largest possible range of art and photography from their archives.”

The stories vary in theme, tone and subject matter, though each maintains a high quality of language, regardless of the style of the writer. The very first story, ‘Golden Apple’ by Sophia McDougall, sets the perfect tone for the anthology, beginning with a couple who steal solid sunlight in a desperate attempt to save their unwell daughter. The consequences, of course, are unimaginable — but make complete sense when they happen. From the sun onwards, each story explores a different and surprising aspect of science fiction: Alistair Reynold’s ‘A Map of Mercury’ examines artists in the light of post-humanism; the idea of highly advanced modified humans is used well by Kameron Hurley when writing of replication in ‘Enyo-Enyo’, and by Lavie Tidhar, whose story, ‘Only Human’, is a wonderful tale of love, friendship and loss, set amongst augmented humans running mind-meld democracies. In fact, almost every story warrants a mention here, though some do stand out more than others. James Smythe’s ‘The Grand Tour’ is a successful post-apocalyptic story featuring Voyager 1, Maria Dahvana Headly’s powerful, frightening ‘The Krakatoan’ is the perfect way to feature Earth in this selection, even though Shurin admits that when putting together the compilation, the editors had thought “Earth was going to be the trickiest story (thematically) and [they] felt that readers would expect a lot from it.” But ‘The Krakatoan’ is the perfect choice — an atmospheric story about “the inspiration — and terror — that comes from standing on Earth and looking outwards.”

My personal favourite in this anthology is South African writing duo S.L.Grey’s ‘We’ll Always Be There’. A great contemporary, entirely readable combination of funny, frightening and clever science fiction, this is the story of a pair of sisters sent away to Eros after their parents die, because harbouring orphans is considered an “unproductive use of Earth’s dwindling hospitable space”. Pluto and Sharon don’t get along, but their only other companions are a handful of other young women who, once in cryogenic storage, were “accidentally defrosted and brain-damaged”. Sharon is obsessed with Tyra Banks and America’s Next Top Model; Pluto with the idea that her parents could have lived had they given up Sharon. When the sisters are faced with a huge responsibility, it’s “time to be fierce and make the hard decision,” just as Tyra would have suggested.

The Lowest Heaven will appeal not just to fans of science fiction, but also to fans of science fact. Other than one or maybe two stories that don’t engage as much as the others (Adam Roberts’ ‘An Account of a Voyage...’ comes to mind as a little cold, even though it is clearly still ‘good’), this remains an astute selection by very bright and imaginative minds of stories that cover the range of science fiction, from the possibilities in post-apocalyptic ruined Earth to colonised planets, to aliens and alt-history scenarios.

Jurassic London have made a name for themselves putting together intelligent, interesting and very modern anthologies. Each writer they pick is a great representative of the vast range of science fiction writing right now. It is the brainchild of editors Shurin and Perry. As Shurin explains, “Two years ago, Anne and I caught word of an upcoming exhibit, ‘Apocalypse’, at Tate Britain. We talked about how it would be interesting to genre readers, and how it was a shame that there wasn’t a book or something to tie in. Given the lead time, no proper publisher would be able to get involved... so we took the plunge and set up an improper one.” The duo are also behind The Kitschies, the award known for recognising intelligent, progressive speculative and/or fantastic fiction. Previous Kitschies award winners include best-selling writers Lauren Beukes and China Mieville.

The Lowest Heaven (science fiction) Edited by Jared Shurin and Anne Perry Jurassic London ISBN 0957646216 380pp.