Tag Archives: federations

Federations: The Culture Archivist by Jeremiah Tolbert

Unlike Robert J. Sawyer’s story “The Shoulders of Giants” in John Joseph Adams Federations anthology, Jeremiah Tolbert’s “The Culture Archivist” has considerably more bite.

Tolbert’s story takes capitalist consumerism to the ultimate conclusion: enforced participation in consumerist society. Not only is everyone a consumer, but alien planets are conquered in order to open new markets. It’s an interesting concept to explore, and Tolbert’s story shows how resistance to such a society might happen.

When reading this story, I was reminded of the movie Idiocracy. Not that Tolbert’s world has sunk to the level of mindless media consumption (although there are indications that in other parts of his universe this is the case) but that the point of existence is consumption.

While Tolbert’s view of an authoritarian future may be bleak, the core of the story is about the resistance to this authority. It seems particularly relevant today, as we see different forms of protests across the world, such as in Egypt.

While Tolbert’s story fits in the post-humanist subgenre of science fiction, it also plays well within the bounds of post-colonial fiction in general. The story is sharp and witty, while also being quite humorous. I especially enjoyed the way he dealt with an emergent AI swarm.

It’s a smart story, and fits well with the theme of the anthology, despite its overt pessimism.

Federations: The Shoulders of Giants by Robert J. Sawyer

As I’ve already reviewed one of the other stories in the Federations anthology, I thought I would review “The Shoulders of Giants” written by Canadian science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer.

This story was the lead story in Star Colonies, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and John Helfers, of DAW books, which was published in June 2000. It was a finalist for the Aurora Award, as the Best English-Language Short Story for 2000. It has since been reprinted in Federations (2009), edited by John Joseph Adams. The text for the story is also available on Sawyer’s website, and has also been included in Robert J. Sawyer’s short story collection Iterations, published by Red Deer Press in 2002.

The title of this story is an allusion to the words most famously written by Sir Isaac Newton: “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants” in a letter to Robert Hooke in 1676. The phrase can be attributed even earlier, as in 1159, John of Salisbury attributed this phrase to Bernard, a scholar in Chartes.

When one reads science fiction, it’s often easy to see only the future, without considering the impact of the past. Science fiction actually has more of a claim on tradition, as it pays homage to many great scientific theories and figures.

Sawyer’s story was not quite what I had first expected. There are no physical confrontations. When the people of earth aboard the Pioneer Spirit arrive at their destination in Tau Ceti after 1200 years in cyrogenic transport, they do not find alien beings, but instead other humans. As Sawyer notes, “while the colonists aboard the Pioneer Spirit had slept, some dreaming at an indolent pace, other ships had zipped past them, arriving at Tau Ceti decades, if not centuries, earlier — Long enough ago that they’d already built human cities on Soror.”

The theme that Sawyer presents is both ambitious and modest. The pioneers reached for the stars when they were first within grasp. They reached their objective, only to find their achievements eclipsed by the ones who follow. Sawyer pays homage to the greats authors of science fiction who came before, “Asimov, Clarke, Clement, Herbert, Niven, and all the others upon whose shoulders the SF writers of my generation are fortunate enough to stand.”  More than just paying respects to the past, it’s an acknowledgement of the importance of reaching for the stars. Without those few giants among us, there would be no stepping stones for future generations.

It’s an appropriate story for this anthology, which John Joseph Adams notes in his introduction to the anthology that writers such as Sawyer “are keeping the tradition alive, building on what the generations before have laid out, innovating to keep the sub-genre fresh and vital”.

Golubash, or Wine-Blood-War-Elegy

This short story by Catherynne M. Valente is the final story of the Federations science fiction anthology, edited by John Joseph Adams. The anthology contains a diverse set of stories, but for me, Valente’s story is the most memorable.

While many of the other stories in the anthology focus on interstellar warfare, or diplomatic relations, Valente begins with “the difficulties of transporting wine over interstellar distances,” which I found to be an intriguing hook. It took me off guard from the outset, especially as Valente reveals that the wines in question are “wholly, thoroughly, enthusiastically illegal”.

The story unfolds as seven glasses of illicit wine are tasted, and their individual stories told, revealing a rich backdrop of corporate intrigue, and blockade running. The feeling is reminiscent of the rum runners from the prohibition era in North America, only instead of running up against the government, Valente presents a vicious corporate embargo. Valente’s lyrical language matches the subject perfectly, like a fine wine of its own.

Golubash, or Wine-Blood-War-Elegy is an excellent piece to finish off the Federations anthology, and has left me quite interested in tracking down more of Catherynne Valente’s stories.