I have an ambivalent relationship with hard (or, as some people call it ‘proper’) Science Fiction. I know I can’t write it (for I am greatly afeared of equations) but I like to read it because This is the universe! At its most amazing! However, I sometimes find reading hard SF a matter of virtue as much as pleasure because I like fiction about people; when I say ‘people’ I count post- and non- humans, but only if there’s something in their story I can relate to and care about, if they have an existence beyond their role of delivering The Idea Behind The Story.
Given the above I wasn’t entirely sure I’d enjoy Rocket Science, but I found I had nothing to fear. The editor was, quite rightly, rigorous about scientific accuracy but the canvases the contributors chose were small ones: none of the stories take us beyond the confines of our home system or into ‘deep time’. I had also been mildly concerned that there might be a degree of backward-facing stubborn whimsy – by which I mean the kind of ‘man (and it was always a man) against the harsh alien environment’ stories you see in magazines like Analog. However, although the settings and set-ups could have gone that way – the perils of off-world environments feature strongly – the overall tone and issues explored belong in our century, not the last one, and this I applaud.
The inclusion of appropriate factual pieces worked well, although given some of the fiction was presented as pseudo-fact and some of the factual pieces were slightly dramatised, an indication of whether a particular contribution was fact or fiction (even just a note in the table of contents) would have been useful. Occasionally I spent the first few sentences trying to work out whether I was being informed or told a tale.
Several of the fiction pieces were quite slight, little more than atmospheric vignettes, but this worked in the context of this anthology. Stories I particularly liked – not necessarily because of their relevance to the theme or literary merit, but just because they appealed to me – were ‘Fisher’s Gambit’ by Stephen Gaskell, ‘The Taking of IOSA 2083’ by C J Paget, ‘Sea of Maternity’ by Deborah Walker and ‘The Brave Little Cockroach goes to Mars’ by Simon McCaffery. Of the factual pieces, the stand-out was Karen Burnham’s essay ‘The Complexity of the Humble Spacesuit’ which more than any other piece in the book brought home just how much ingenuity and perseverance apes like us need in order to get off our rock and out into the universe.