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The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF (1994)

by David G. Hartwell (Editor), Kathryn Cramer (Editor)

Other authors: Poul Anderson (Contributor), Isaac Asimov (Contributor), J.G. Ballard (Contributor), Greg Bear (Contributor), Gregory Benford (Contributor)52 more, Gregory Benford (Introduction), Alfred Bester (Contributor), James Blish (Contributor), Miles J. Breuer (Contributor), David Brin (Contributor), Edward Bryant (Contributor), Arthur C. Clarke (Contributor), Hal Clement (Contributor), Philip K. Dick (Contributor), Gordon R. Dickson (Contributor), Michael F. Flynn (Contributor), John M. Ford (Contributor), Robert L. Forward (Contributor), Raymond Z. Gallun (Contributor), Randall Garrett (Contributor), William Gibson (Contributor), Tom Godwin (Contributor), Richard Grant (Contributor), Nathaniel Hawthorne (Contributor), Robert A. Heinlein (Contributor), James P. Hogan (Contributor), Dean Ing (Contributor), Raymond F. Jones (Contributor), Donald M. Kingsbury (Contributor), Rudyard Kipling (Contributor), C.M. Kornbluth (Contributor), Philip Latham (Contributor), Ursula K. Le Guin (Contributor), Katherine Maclean (Contributor), Anne McCaffrey (Contributor), Larry Niven (Contributor), Lewis Padgett (Contributor), Edgar Allan Poe (Contributor), Frederik Pohl (Contributor), Rudy Rucker (Contributor), Hilbert Schenck (Contributor), Bob Shaw (Contributor), Clifford D. Simak (Contributor), John T. Sladek (Contributor), Cordwainer Smith (Contributor), Bruce Sterling (Contributor), Don A. Stuart (Contributor), Theodore Sturgeon (Contributor), Theodore L. Thomas (Contributor), James Tiptree Jr. (Contributor), George Turner (Contributor), Jules Verne (Contributor), Vernor Vinge (Contributor), Ian Watson (Contributor), H.G. Wells (Contributor), Kate Wilhelm (Contributor), Gene Wolfe (Contributor)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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349656,088 (4.13)9
Over 70 stories chronicling the evolution of hard science fiction, the term for futuristic stories based on scientific reality. The authors range from early pioneers such as Jules Verne to moderns like Poul Anderson.

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At the time, this was the third Hartwell anthology I had read. It presents stories that have a solid foundation in sciences and math, which the editors define as hard scifi. It had creative, interesting, and very readable stories. My impression back then, this was like sipping a fine wine, as opposed to other light scifi books, which would be like sipping a cola or water. You can have them all in the end, and I do read the lighter stuff too. I do recommend this one. ( )
  bloodravenlib | Aug 17, 2020 |
"The Light of Other Days," by Bob Shaw (1972): 7.75
- It's always nice when authors know when to stop. Here, we have, preeminently, a conceit, a science-fictional conceit, around which the bare essentials of story and character are wrapped, and in which the former makes up 85% of the there-residing interest. [That being, namely: the existence of glass which lets light pass through so slowly that it can used as a sort of window/home away from home (look, it's Rome outside your window), granted it's been sitting in that other place long enough beforehand. The Payoff, nicely, is emotional as well as science-fictional [although it's relayed as slightly creepy in the story, although I read it as anything but]. But most importantly and maybe most uniquely for the genre, Shaw knows this! He therefore trims out the speculative fat, filling in the rest only to the extent that it's necessary for the payoff. For that, not bad then.

"Nine Lives," by Ursula K. Le Guin (1968): 8.5
- Having read little Le Guin, I'm nonetheless familiar with her themes and preoccupations. It's in the aether. And this story did not disappoint in living up to those expectations, either thematically or in terms of setting. Yet, what was surprising was just how well crafted it was otherwise-in terms of pacing, character, and brusque exploration of major themes. We have here a crash course in identity, sex, and gender ambiguity, all transposed through the guise of what is admittedly a fairly conventional sci-fi setup. [to that end, note the intros (very right) claim that this story "inverts trad. Doppelgänger tale, and explores how uncanny it is to NOT meet ourself everywhere we go]. And, maybe actually even worse than conventional, as the planet and mine really only served as a generic means to bring our characters together and damage them later. To that end, the denouement was weak and detracted from the Point/s Being Made on account of its roteness (even she seemed a bit bored with the whole thing by the end). Still, these quick reads of mine only accentuate the jump in quality from other stories to her, as evidenced in her often actual incisive human psychology ('do many individuals ruin potential for individuality’) and halfgood prosey flourishes scattered throughout.

"Pi Man," by Alfred Bester (1959): 8.5
- Although this is, partially, self-evident and par for the course with any specific type of self-consciously constructed “genre”, it’s nonetheless helpful to keep in mind Edward James’ emphasis that much sf — and esp. that of the period and person at issue here — depends, for total comprehension, on a deep reservoir of knowledge on the tropes and self-referential hangups of the genre itself, above and beyond even The Story at hand. That said, what seems here — at first glance, absent any real conscious and sustained reflection — like a typical Is He This Or Is He That tale, might instead actually be something much more—even if that thing is, to one degree or another, dependent upon the type of discernment that genre knowledge would provide. The story: clearly troubled man, clearly suffering some psychotic issues (he’s severely autistic or sincerely in deep with whatever force he thinks is actually controlling his life), wanders around, picking up woman and seducing his secretary until cops stop him on account of his suspiciousness and we learn his feeling that he’s a compensater, meaning he needs to restore Cosmic Balamces wherever he goes, I.e. hitting someone nice and hugging someone mean and killing those he loves, which contributes to the ambiguity of the ending, in which he’s finally with the girl he loves, but at what cost? I guess we’ll see. Regardless What does work here for me is that interesting sf postmodernism carbon copy stuff (clipped language, random succession of images, bluntness, coarseness [both moral and sexual], experimental formatting, etc. ), which we can admit, follows rather than sets trends; but here it’s abt 90% better than all other sf that’s tried to do the same.

"Relativistic Effects," by Gregory Benford (1982): 7.75
- I'll have to table a longer discussion of my burgeoning relationship to Hard SF, but here was a classic jostle between some dense science, some broad characterization -- even from someone supposedly on the literary edge of hard sf -- and some clear sense of wonder knack.

"Making Light," by James P. Hogan (1981): 8.75
- Here’s a thought-experiment: say SFF was a predominantly non-Western genre, what piece, then, would most elicit from SFF’s core readership confusion and counter claims of “this is steeped in indigenous customs and epistemologies, and therefore difficult to understand all the levels at play outside of those indigenous contexts”? This story would make for a strong answer: not only it’s religiosity, but the actual depths of its engagement with a type of Anglophone Christianity—in the specific biblical details (Mark IV), and the specific inbuilt argumentation common to these apologetics circles (animals vs. humans spiritual hierarchy; quasi-conservative anti-regulation anxieties [it's very 80s]; etc.) All that said, however, and this is basically just a toss-off—a well-thought-through toss-off at that, but a little game largely. A fun one often, though! Esp., or maybe exclusively, for those steeped in the stuff.
  Ebenmaessiger | Oct 6, 2019 |
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 itself didn't do; 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.
  Stevil2001 | May 19, 2017 |
What a tome! It's a pretty interesting narration of the history of sci-fi. It's just a little too ambitious - let's not start with Nathaniel Hawthorne. The breadth makes an interesting collection but unless I plan on being marooned on Ellfive Prime, I'll stick to volumes with a readable typeset. I'm not 30 anymore, y'know?
  mobill76 | Apr 22, 2014 |
I had been somewhat disappointed by the same editors' The Space Opera Renaissance, but I had picked this up in hardback at a used book store and it finally made its way to the top of my "to be read" pile. And while it took me several weeks to get through this massive volume, I am happy to report that I found this collection to be quite a but stronger.

Roughly three quarters of these stories were new to me, and most of these were pretty darn good, with 'The Cold Equations", "Kyrie", "The Very Slow Time Machine", "The Pi Man", and the two stories from John M. Ford (whom I have somehow never read before) being my favorites. But even the stories I wasn't crazy about were illustrative of some aspect of the subgenre in question. The introductory material was also well done.

Recommended for any serious fan of the genere. ( )
  clong | Dec 23, 2012 |
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» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Hartwell, David G.Editorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Cramer, KathrynEditormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Anderson, PoulContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Asimov, IsaacContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ballard, J.G.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bear, GregContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Benford, GregoryContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Benford, GregoryIntroductionsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bester, AlfredContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Blish, JamesContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Breuer, Miles J.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Brin, DavidContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bryant, EdwardContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Clarke, Arthur C.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Clement, HalContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Dick, Philip K.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Dickson, Gordon R.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Flynn, Michael F.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ford, John M.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Forward, Robert L.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Gallun, Raymond Z.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Garrett, RandallContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Gibson, WilliamContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Godwin, TomContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Grant, RichardContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Hawthorne, NathanielContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Heinlein, Robert A.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Hogan, James P.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ing, DeanContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Jones, Raymond F.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kingsbury, Donald M.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kipling, RudyardContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kornbluth, C.M.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Latham, PhilipContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Le Guin, Ursula K.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Maclean, KatherineContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
McCaffrey, AnneContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Niven, LarryContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Padgett, LewisContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Poe, Edgar AllanContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Pohl, FrederikContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Rucker, RudyContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Schenck, HilbertContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Shaw, BobContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Simak, Clifford D.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Sladek, John T.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Smith, CordwainerContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Sterling, BruceContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Stuart, Don A.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Sturgeon, TheodoreContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Thomas, Theodore L.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Tiptree Jr., JamesContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Turner, GeorgeContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Verne, JulesContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Vinge, VernorContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Watson, IanContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Wells, H.G.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Wilhelm, KateContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Wolfe, GeneContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Russo, CarolCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed


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Over 70 stories chronicling the evolution of hard science fiction, the term for futuristic stories based on scientific reality. The authors range from early pioneers such as Jules Verne to moderns like Poul Anderson.

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