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Live Without a Net
High Wire Act
Reviewed by Jeff Topham, © 2003

Format: Book
By:   Lou Anders
Genre:   Science Fiction
Released:   July 2003
Review Date:   July 02, 2003
RevSF Rating:   8/10 (What Is This?)

Technology slowly disappears as it becomes assimilated into our daily lives. It recedes into the background, becomes less and less remarkable as we rely on it more and more. At last it becomes both ubiquitous and invisible. When was the last time you stopped to marvel at the technological wonders of the automobile or the color TV? When was the last time you stopped to think about how those technologies redefined the parameters of the world in which we live?

The Net is almost there. It's almost invisible. Not quite yet, especially in developing nations and even in the poor rural and urban sections of rich nations like the US and the UK, but almost. And it hasn't taken long to get there. In 1984, when William Gibson's Neuromancer first popularized the idea of cyberspace, the Internet was just beginning its transformation from arcane technology to mainstream communications medium. It's only been 11 years since the introduction of Mosaic, the graphical browser that jump-started the explosive growth of the user-friendly, hypertext medium known as the World Wide Web.

The Net has been around much longer, of course, in the imaginations of sf writers. The idea goes back at least as far as 1946 and Murray Leinster's "A Logic Named Joe," which describes a worldwide network of home computers (called Logics) through which users communicate and access information. It wasn't until the late 1980s however, that the idea of a global data network began regularly to occur in sf, one of the earliest and most credible formulations coming with Paul Di Filippo's 1987 story "Agents." Over the last 10 years, the idea of the Net has permeated sf until it's become nearly inescapable. Although it's undergone countless permutations and transformations, it remains at the center of most of our visions of the future.

All that changes in Lou Anders' excellent new anthology Live Without a Net (Roc Books, $14.95), which collects the work of 20 writers who imagine worlds in which the Net has vanished, never existed, or been transformed beyond recognition. (Full disclosure: Lou Anders is a fellow contributor to this site, although our paths have never crossed.)

Of the many utopian ideas surrounding the Net, perhaps the most pervasive is that it will somehow bring us all together. Even as further growth and innovation becomes largely driven by commercial rather than intellectual interests, the idea of connection and community remains the basis of the way the Net is sold. It's no surprise, then, that the ideas of connection and community are central to many of the stories in this anthology, as is the observation that the Net's promise of togetherness may have displaced other, more fundamental modes of human connection. The paradox of Live Without a Net is that it is precisely here, in these myriad of worlds living without a Net, that we can begin to see our own more clearly.

Live Without a Net is an extremely strong collection, and one of its most conspicuous features is the uniformly high quality of its prose. Mainstream sf being notoriously indifferent to matters of style, Anders is to be congratulated on assembling a collection of stories that are not only vividly imagined, but also extremely well-written. About half the work collected here is excellent, and of the remainder, the worst you can say is that it's merely good. On the downside, it's pretty much a boys' club -- of the 20 contributors, 17 are men.

The anthology opens with the latest of Michael Swanwick's picaresque Darger and Surplus stories, a series set in a strangely mutated and imaginatively baroque "postutopian future." Our heroes, the charming rogues Darger and Surplus, are once again scheming their way across Europe; this time they're in Basel attempting to sell the deed to Buckingham Palace (which was burned to the ground by a deranged AI at the end of "The Dog Said Bow Wow"). Needless to say, not everything goes as planned. "Smoke and Mirrors" is another fine entry in what is quickly becoming one of the most dazzling and entertaining series of the '00s.

Paul Di Filippo's "Clouds and Cold Fires" is also set in a posthuman world of surpassing strangeness. Most of its human inhabitants long fled, Earth is now occupied largely by genetically altered, intelligent domestic animals who send messages via the tropospherical mind, the meteorological system that serves as Earth's primary computer and communications medium. Like much of Di Filippo's most appealing work, "Clouds and Cold Fires" is a clever, charming, and just plain strange story that couldn't have been written by anyone else.

Charles' Stross' "Rogue Farm" is very nearly as strange. The story moves with the breathless energy and imaginative exuberance that has become Stross' trademark as it relates the comic tale of a beleaguered farmer forced to deal with an interloping farm collective, a bizarre assemblage of human components merged into a single, gloopy being intent growing on organic rockets that will blast it off to Jupiter. It's a bit less dense (and less exhausting) than Stross' other recent work, but it's still great fun as well as a pretty wild ride.

While these stories are perhaps the most audacious of the collection (Rudy Rucker's "Frek in the Grullo Woods" is equally idiosyncratic, but too obviously a novel excerpt to make much of an impression on its own), other writers opt for a quieter and more reflective tone. Of these stories, Chris Roberson's "One," Matthew Sturges' "The Memory Palace," and Alex Irvine's "Reformation" are particularly good. "One" is a chilling alternate history in which the Chief Computator of the Chinese Empire must face the possibility of his own obsolescence in the form of a calculating machine. "The Memory Palace" is a dark piece that imagines a Victorian alternative to virtual reality. "Reformation" uses the twin languages of visionary Sufism and computer hacking to describe the transformation of the Net into an aspect of the divine.

Another set of stories deals explicitly with issues of human community and connectedness. Among the finest of these are Mike Resnik & Kay Kenyon's "Dobchek, Lost in the Funhouse" and Del Stone Jr.'s "I Feed the Machine." Both are touching, humane stories that explore the ways in which technologies can colonize our capacity to feel friendship, community, and love. The collection closes with John Grant's erotically charged "No Solace for the Soul in Digitopia," whose explicit sexuality will doubtless raise a few eyebrows among more conservative readers. It is, however, a fine story that examines the ways in which our digital world, with its vast stores of online pornography and anonymous, virtual sex, often deadens our appetites instead of satisfying them. The sex scenes are hot, sure, but they're not gratuitous -- they're essential to a story that provides an honest look at sex as a powerful example of physical and emotional connection.

There's other fine work as well, including Terry McGarry's "Swiftwater," Dave Hutchinson's "All the News, All the Time, From Everywhere," John Meaney's "The Swastika Bomb" -- to go on would entail listing just about every story in the book. Live Without a Net is a fine collection and well worth the attention of anyone looking for high quality, state-of-the-art sf.

Jeff Topham has worked as a teacher, house painter, landscaper, and book editor. His reviews and interviews have appeared at Fantastic Metropolis, and his fiction will appear in Nightshade Book's upcoming The Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases. He currently lives with his wife and two daughters in Louisville, Kentucky. He doesn't wear a tie to work.

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