the hard sf renaissance

Edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

(Tor, 960 pages, $39.95)

Hard science fiction, the core subgenre of SF that extrapolates the effects of science and technology on future civilizations, endured a military offensive in the 1980s to rival anything seen in the "Shock and Awe" campaign of the current Iraq war.

After decades of hard SF penned in the classic John Campbell tradition by writers of every political stripe, hack SF writers began to carpet-bomb bookstore shelves with right-wing power fantasies of advanced military hardware subjugating alien cultures. Some of these writers even formed a committee to help President Reagan devise what SF author Greg Bear once called "the vastest bluff in the blue-bottom baboon history of the whole Cold War": the so-called "Star Wars" defense system.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, hard SF without the overt right-wing political bias enjoyed a resurgence in the '90s. Esteemed SF editors Hartwell and Cramer chronicle this renaissance with their selections for this weighty volume, which provides an excellent sampling of the best SF stories and writers published in the past 10 years or so.

The editors are polite to include later stories by old-school SF writers like Poul Anderson and Hal Clement, along with a slew of work by younger American writers, but they only hint at the groundbreaking contribution being made to the genre by non-American English speakers. Writers from the U.K., Canada and Australia, such as Iain M. Banks, Stephen Baxter, Peter F. Hamilton, Robert J. Sawyer and Greg Egan, are light-years ahead of their American counterparts in defining the SF of the 21st century, but they rate only about one in four of the 41 stories published here.