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Microcosms by Gregory Benford, editor

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Worlds within worlds have long been one of the tropes of science fiction. Whether they may be the forgotten island full of living fossils or the microscopic bubble world of ant-sized people, the concept of a hidden world alongside our own has a lure all its own, as editor Gregory Benford discusses in his introduction.

Quantum mechanics suggests that universes may be constantly coming into existence from the quantum foam and expanding alongside but orthogonal to our own. In "Act of God," Jack McDevitt gives us a group of scientists who have found a way to do it deliberately, and to observe and intervene in the lives of the creatures which evolve on the worlds within. However, if we can do it, might our own universe have been the subject of such manipulation? It's an interesting premise, and the surgical precision with which divine displeasure is displayed contrasts with the mass reprisals of the Old Testament in a way that resonates with some Jewish theories that God has been learning and growing into His role as deity even as the Children of Israel have been learning how to be His Chosen People.

Stephen Baxter's "The We Who Sing" takes us back to the very beginning of our own universe, when it was still tiny and hot, a soup of energy and elementary particles through which traveled acoustical pulses of great power. And amidst it is life, ephemeral yet self-aware, capable of creating and appreciating beauty. And among the comes one who clings to life beyond the usual span in order to gather more knowledge, and who warns that this primordial state will not last much longer, that the next Wave may well be the last. But it may be possible to preserve something of what the We Who Sing have created as the universe expands into a place of atoms and molecules, of stars and planets.

Pamela Sargent's "Venus Flowers at Night" takes us to a future of climate change and resource depletion, in which the US has fragmented and the world is ruled by an Islamic confederation. The Mukhtar Karim has been sent to the Atlantic Federation to reconcile them to their diminished place in the world, but he is creating his own world of dreams. In it he models how the terraforming of Venus might proceed -- if only he can convince the Council of Mukhtars that a people who cease to strive have begun to stagnate toward dissolution.

In "Kara Bindu" Robert J. Sawyer gives a tale of digital transcendance and those who chose not to follow that path. The creators of this all-embracing digital collective faced a quandry -- they could not force this tribal community to embrace a transhuman future beyond their comprehension, but equally it was not possible to leave them on Earth lest they in their ignorance do damage to the computers that supported everyone else's existence. The humane solution they selected was to create a habitat on the Moon that recreated the African veldt and transport the entire tribe there to continue their Stone Age existence. Except nothing ever works quite the way their creators planned. This is the story of the day the environmental computer crashed, and of the man whose insatiable curiousity and inventive mind led him to the place where it could be fixed.

Tom Purdom's "Palace Resolution" takes us to a future in which one polity within the Asteroid Belt is ruled by a group known as the Cultivated Overseers whose psyches have been carefully shaped toward a powerful interest in being perceived as virtuous, balanced by an intense appetite for personal pleasure. The founders of their polity believed that this combination would create a leadership cadre that could avoid the extremes of decadence or puritanism. But now they have a secret -- the discovery of an ancient robotic emmisary from the stars -- and the question of how to deal with it has led to dissention in their ranks, to the point they're preparing to do violence to one another.

In "Ouroboros" Geoffrey A. Landis gives us a story of people who are simulating their world, only to discover their simulation is running a further simulation within it. Each successive world is simulating other worlds until it becomes an endless cycle, raising the philosophical question of which is in fact the real world and what the word real even means in this context. It rather makes me think of Donald J. Bingle's "Gaming Circle" in the anthology Gamer Fantastic, which also dealt with themes of recursiveness.

Russell Blackford's "The Name of the Beast Was Number" starts with a terrorist attack upon a scientific conference. The protagonists are police detectives investigating it, and as the evidence mounts that it was perpetrated by one of the new religious communities that have sprung up recently as reactions against what they regard as science and techhnology demeaning humanity. The title of the story refers to a catchphrase used by one of these groups, who associate computing machinery with the Devil, after the fashion of the Butlerian Jihad in Dune (the original novel, not that atrocity of a prequel trilogy by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson).

One element I really liked was how one of the protagonists belonged to another of the new religious communities, and frequently was at some pains to demonstrate that they were not terrorists like the others they were being lumped with. In fact, many of the scientists who were victims of the attack were members who believed their attempts to simulate the development of a universe by pure chance workings of physical laws would prove humanity to in fact be the product of God's specific handiwork. In a world where religious beliefs and firm moral convictions are all too often equated with violent fanaticiam, it's nice to see a story that shows people with deeply-held religious positions actively working to bring religiously-inspired terrorists to justice.

Howard V. Hendrix is known for his quirky takes on anthology themes and other writing prompts, and in "Once Out of Nature" he yet again exceeds expectations. Martin is an astronomer using a quantum-mechanical telescope filter to search for planets around the nearby red dwarf star Lalande 21185. Meanwhile, Martin's dealing with his elderly father's failing health, and all the emotional baggage of a relationship about to be torn by bereavement. It brings to mind the old saying that when a person dies, an entire world ceases to be.

By contrast, Jamil Nasir's "Dream Walking" is one of those stories that edge very close to horror without quite crossing the line. Dexter Grant is a wealthy, single man who would seem to have everything. However, he's felt a persistant dissatisfaction with his life, a sense that ther ought to be more, which has led him to the Life Revision Institute. After an extensive course in lucid dreaming, he's having his first in-person appointment with the myterious Dr. P. Thotmoses II, Ph.D.

There he meets the beautiful young receptionist, and soon she begins to appear in his dreams. As they begin to become increasingly intense, the boundaries between sleep and wakefulness begin to dissolve, until the entire story takes on a hallucinatory aspect that leaves me unsettled, even if it does reach an apparently happy conclusion. Maybe it's just the result of reading so much Lovecraft, full of sinister Egyptian and quasi-Egyptian figures like Nephren-Ka and Nyarlathotep, but I do not feel confident that Dr. Thotmoses is entirely on the up-and-up.

Robert Sheckley's "A Spirit of Place" begins with the protagonist's announcement that he is writing this account for posterity in spite of having no certainty that the English language will even survive among future generations. With that statement of hope in the face of impossible odds he sets forth to recount how one day he awoke on this strange world and met the group of people who are its only other inhabitants. They're refugees from yet another world, fleeing religious persecution, and he apparently has a central role in their beliefs, although the language barrier makes it difficult to understand exactly how. It appears to be some form of the quantum observer effect, but how a relatively insignificant Earthling should be selected for that job on a mysterious alien world is never explained.

George Zebrowski's "My First World" is another grim take on the central theme, in this case the story of a young man who spent his childhood within an asteroid that had been converted into a prison for the politically problematical and put into a cometary orbit. The jailers had assumed the prior mistreatment of the woman had been so extensive as to preclude childbearing, so there were no facilities for the education of those who were born. Thus they have grown up in ignorance, their parents having nothing but ever-dimming memories with which to teach them.

And then the fifty-year sentence ends, and they prepare for their long-awaited release. Except the rocks don't open and no jailers emerge to let them out. Now the protagonist and his young friends must make a desperate search for the hidden engineering level, knowing that the alternative is to wait until the machines run down and everybody dies.

Paul Levinson's "Critica View" examines a metaphorical microcosm, a group of people who perceive the world differently. Many of them spend much of their lives struggling to figure out what's wrong with them, but a few are trying to connect with others of their kind and better make sense of the world and their perceptions. It's an interesting take on just how much our sensory apparatus and its peculiarities affect our perceptions.

The final story, "A Moment of Your Time" by Mike Resnick and Dean Wesley Smith, deals with a temporal microcosm. It seems that time travel in this world works somewhat differently than is usually portrayed. A time traveler goes back to a specific instant in the past and stays there until recalled to their own time, unless they are slain in the past, in which case their remains return to the future the same amount of time forward from their departure as they spent in the past. While they are in that instant of the past, they can consume that instance of an object without disrupting its existence in other instants past and future -- thus neatly resolving the Grandfather Paradox (although I'm wondering how it avoids violation of Conservation of Matter and Energy).

Our protagonists are among a group of people who have traveled into the past as a way of escaping the overcrowding of their present. For the next thirty years they will wander through that instant until they're recalled to their own time. A sort of hierarchy has developed among them, heavily dependent upon one's ability to bring novelties to the group. Richard and Cindi are falling behind, in danger of relegated to serving the higher-status members of their group. Then they find the man who invented time travel -- and realize that they may be looking at another kind of paradox.

On the whole, these are some very good stories. There were some that weren't quite to my taste, and some that I found actively upsetting to read because they hit at nerves of mine, but I don't think there was a single clunker in the batch.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction by Gregory Benford
  • "Act of God" by Jack McDevitt
  • "The We Who Sing" by Stephen Baxter
  • "Venus Flowers at Night" by Pamela Sargent
  • "Kata Bindu" by Robert J Sawyer
  • "Palace Resolution" by Tom Purdom
  • "Ouroboros" by Geoffrey A Landis
  • "The Name of the Beast Was Number" by Russell Blackford
  • "Once out of Nature" by Howard V Hendrix
  • "Dream Walking" by Jamil Nasir
  • "A Spirit out of Place" by Robert Sheckley
  • "My First World" by George Zebrowski
  • "Critical View" by Paul Levinson
  • "A Moment of Your Time" by Mike Resnick & Dean Wesley Smith

      Review posted October 30, 2011.

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