Author Jeff Carlson was kind enough to provide me with a copy of his collection Long Eyes and Other Stories. It contains three previously published, short stories. They are unconnected but they do share certain thematic links. Besides more short fiction, Carlson has also written a number of novels, none of which I've read. Based on this sample of his work, he is clearly someone to keep an eye on though. Carlson delivers a number of very good, hard science fiction tales in this collection.
The collection opens with Long Eyes (2008), a story first published in the anthology Fast Forward 2, edited by Lou Anders. It's a far future science fiction story about Clara, a woman on a lonely trip exploring the universe. Her ship is programmed with advanced decision making software, often overruling its human captain. When the ship arrives at what appears to be a marginally inhabitable planet, despite the wishes of it insists on investigating. A decision with far reaching consequences for both of them.
This story reminded me a bit of some of the stories in Poul Anderson's Technic Civilization setting I've recently been reading. The planet hides a secret that is crucial for the success of Clara's involuntary mission. Carlson also works in the her struggles between Clara and the ship's computer over control of their course of action. She is striving for control, something she never had back on earth and is only allowed in a limited fashion on her journey. It's also a clash between human intuition, inspiration and cognitive leaps against the pre-programmed algorithms of the computer. As much science fiction elements as Carlson works into this story, the motivation of the main character is the key to it. I thought it was a very well executed short story.
Next up is Planet of the Sealies, a story that originally appeared in Asimov's (February 2011). It's a tale with an environmental theme, which as you may have noticed by now, is something I generally appreciate in a story. Planet of the Sealies is set on Earth, where ecological disasters appeared to have wiped out humanity as we know it. A small group of survivors, extensively modified from a tiny genetic base, are excavating the remains of 21st century consumer society in search of useful materials.
What would a future society think when they excavate one of garbage dumps in a few centuries? Surely the waste of resources mush appear appalling to people form a society used to scarcity of resources. The real twist in this story is what materials they are actually looking for. It makes sense in hindsight but I certainly didn't see it coming. Again, the freedom to make your own decisions is a theme in the story as well. The main character struggles with the tight behavioural controls imposed by a society perpetually on the brink of extinction. This part of the story takes a different turn from the other two stories in the collection. The main character Joanna is a bit more .... hmm.. obedient than the other Clara or Garcia.
Garcia is the main character of the final story in the collection. Pressure (2003) was originally published on Strange Horizons but is no longer available on that site. Garcia is an ex-Navy SEAL who has volunteered for a radical procedure to help him deal with the pressure of deep water diving. The modifications to his body allow him to go beyond the limits for normal divers. The project pays well and the modifications are said to be reversible. It does mean he'll spend two years away from his family, something his wife Andrea is less than pleased about.
The main character is a man torn between the two loves of his life, diving and Andrea. Carlson chose to write this from a first person perspective, which suits the story very well. As the story progresses, Garcia starts to feel more and more at home in his underwater environment. Another aspect of the story I liked was the way the author included an interesting environmental questions into the story. How do you weigh the generation of clean, renewable power against deep sea habitat destruction? It's a minor plot point but a very nice detail.
Long Eyes and Other Stories collect three stories that will appeal to fans of hard science fiction. Post-human characters and glimpses of far future societies are combined with a lot of attention to character and motivation. There's a dark, eerie quality to Carlson's writing that helps convey how alien the environments the stories are set in really are. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this collection. In this collection, Carlson shows that a lot of the more interesting writing in science fiction is still being done in the short format.
Title: Long Eyes and Other Stories
Author: Jeff Carlson
First published: 2011