This expanded edition contains all previously published Near Space short stories and novelettes. The stories range from action to reflection, from joy to melancholy. The stories are presented chronologically, starting from the beginning of the Near Space timeline, in more or less the present era, and ending with the advanced colonised solar system of Mr. Chicago.
As he mentions in the introduction, Mr. Steele has been labelled a “Space Romantic”, and this is rather accurate. His stories are infused with an infectious sense of wonder about space exploration in the near future. His focus on the working stiff rather than the movers and shakers gives rise to interesting reflections and themes. Having read all or some of the Near Space long fiction is not a pre-requisite for reading this collection, though it will fill in some of the background.
In the second half of the 21st Century, American astronomers detect what can only be an alien starship making rendezvous with an object hidden among the rings of Saturn. The starship then departs the Solar System. This sparks a race to Saturn between the US and China in order to secure any alien technology which can be found.
The tone of the story is more thriller than sense-of-wonder science fiction, showing Mr. Sandford’s crime write roots. And it is indeed a good thriller of a story. The characters are imperfect and well fleshed out, if perhaps rather stereotypical, especially the Chinese ones. The “games people play” are intricate and interesting. An unfortunate aspect of the novel is that it expounds rather too much at length on the science and technology involved in the missions. While it is certainly neat content for the scientifically interested reader, the infodumps have a tendency to interrupt the otherwise fine pacing.
Varley’s Big Dumb Object story, and the first in his Gaea trilogy. The first expedition to the Saturn System encounters an enormous spinning habitat (Gaea). As they approach, the ship is captured and destroyed. Some undetermined amount of time later, the expedition members, including Cirocco Jones, the Captain, emerge quite literally from the ground at various points on the outer rim of the habitat. They have all changed somehow, some having acquired new skills (such as being able to talk to some of the denizens of Gaea), some being depressed, some introverted. Cirocco Jones and what for all intents and purposes is her sidekick, Gaby, set off on a quest towards the center of the habitat to find some answers. Since Gaea is spinning, the center is “upwards” in their frame of reference.
A common misconception about this book is that it book is fantasy. It certainly does have some fantasy tropes, but is firmly in the science fiction section. The world building is ingenious and entertaining. Varley is excellent at characters and character interation, and so his Gaea, not unexpectedly, serves as the backdrop for character development and conflict. The ending is, as usual with Varley, both somewhat unexpected and viscerally satisfiying, even if in this case it also has to serve as a setup for the next two books in the trilogy. All in all a good read, but not stellar Varley.