As I’ve said in the past, I am very selective about the anthologies I read. Novels are my jam when it comes to fiction, short stories and novelettes and novellas much less so. Nevertheless, when Derek Künsken’s collection Flight from the Ages And Other Stories came up on NetGalley, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to request an eARC for review. Künsken might fast become one of my favourite living science-fiction authors. Ever since I read The Quantum Magician, I’ve enjoyed his ability to balance the novum of science fiction with the need to tell human stories. This collection is no exception—if anything, it showcases that ability even more prominently.
I know it’s customary to review the individual stories in a collection, especially one this small, but I don’t want to, and this is my book review, so you can’t make me! Instead, I want to talk about how all of these stories form a unified view of science fiction and why that works for me.
Each story takes place within the shared universe of Künsken’s imagination, the same one that his Quantum Evolution and Venus Ascendant series are set in (though most of these stories, it should be noted, were written and published prior to those novels being written). So if you have read Künsken’s novels, you will recognize many of the settings, species, and even a few of the characters. I do love when an author returns to the same universe over and over, and it’s clear Künsken has put a lot of thought into developing this one.
Künsken cites Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter as among his influences and even drops Galactic North by the former as an inspiration and recommendation in the preface to this collection. Now, I read a lot of Baxter when I was a teenager, just before I started reviewing every book, so I don’t have many reviews up for his works. But his writing always left me cold. Kind of like Greg Egan, his attitude towards humanity in his science fiction was so unbearably distant and utilitarian—he had zoomed the camera so far out (or so far in, to the quantum level) that as impressive as his ideas might have been, I couldn’t get behind his characters. Reynolds, on the other hand, is definitely up there on my list of great living SF authors—and I would happily compare Künsken to him.
There was a time when we might have said that these authors write what we call hard science fiction, though I think that term has blissfully outlived its usefulness in this day and age. Suffice it to say, Künsken and Reynolds both come from scientific backgrounds, and their SF is indeed quite embedded within a scientific framework, albeit one that relies on an artistic interpretation of quantum mechanical theory that is far more forgiving and flexible than our current understanding of the universe. Sometimes authors push that flexibility too far, verging into Clarkian “sufficiently advanced science” science-fantasy territory—and indeed, it can be really difficult to see where we draw the line.
I think what allows authors like Künsken and Reynolds to avoid that pitfall, however, is their need to focus on the humanity of their storytelling. This isn’t always obvious at first glance—“Schools of Clay” has no human beings in it, and “Beneath Sunlit Shallows” is about a protagonist who is literally condemning his ancestors for tinkering with his genome to the point where he is no longer recognizably human. Yet each of these stories is poignantly, perhaps even painfully, about very human traits: desiring, yearning, needing to belong and be a part of something bigger. The ensoulled skates, Homo eridanus, a Venusian Quebecoise engineer, a grieving military auditor, a traumatized artificial intelligence, a group of near-future Miao people in provincial China … through all of these characters, Künsken reflects on what it is that makes us human. And that is the ultimate goal of science fiction. If an author manages to do that, they usually have me hooked.
But there’s more to it still. See, a lot of our science fiction at the moment is quite dystopian. This doesn’t surprise me, given the state of our world. These trends tend to move in cycles, reflecting the optimism or pessimism of an era. And some dystopian or post-apocalyptic fiction can be painfully good—but it’s still all so depressing, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we are going into like the third year of a pandemic that most of the governments of the world seem to have decided to pretend is over, and it’s … it’s all rather a lot right now, and I want to read happy things. Or, you know, if not happy, then at least not terminally sad.
Take artificial intelligence, for example. Present in most of these stories to one degree or another, it is in Tool Use By Humans of Danzhai County that we come to its most salient usage vis-à-vis contemporary AI. I was half-expecting, as I read the story, for the AIs being developed by the main characters to go rogue and, you know, take us over in a sinister and dystopian way. And they kind of do—go rogue, that is, and perhaps even take over, but in a much more utopian way. And I needed that.
Here I am, doomscrolling on a Musk-infested Twitter far more often than I care to admit, watching people discuss the pros and cons of GPT-fuelled text-generating AIs and Stable Diffusion image-generating AIs and thinking about whether we’re entering the post-truth era, an era of chaotic pornographic deepfakes and undetectably plagiarized student essays and everything in between. For all that the hawkers of modern AI services proclaim them to be revolutionary, they certainly seem underwhelming at best and dangerous at worst—and so much of our modern science fiction seems determined to emphasize the dangers.
Along comes Derek Künsken, who has the sheer, unmitigated gall not only to write stories where AIs are helpful and benevolent but to explore how humans can develop them to be that way.
Seriously, the nerve of this man.
See, that’s the kicker: we have to choose this future. Künsken has hit on the crux of the matter when it comes to AI—or really any technology—a truth that many science-fiction authors explore but few truly succeed at examining so cleanly. We build our future through the choices we make. AI is not the end of the world any more than fossil fuel use or nuclear weapons have to be. It isn’t our tools but our tool use (oh there’s that title of the novella now) that defines us.
This theme, so elegantly presented in the final story of this collection, reverberates backwards through the earlier stories much like Künsken’s protagonists so often seem to be involved in anachronistic, atemporal shenanigans. That is the value of reading these stories collected rather than in isolation across various magazines: once you finish this collection, you could easily go back to the start and read it again, and you’ll come away changed once more, iteratively so, because these stories form of a feedback loop of a kind. They pose tough questions about what it means to be human, about the choices we should make as individuals and as a species, asking us what we want our future to be. The stories also go further, reminding us that although there is indeed something quite special about humanity, ours is not the sole inheritor of this universe; the stories challenge the Eurocentric, colonial arrogance that we are the most superior form of life there could ever be. Maybe humans don’t make it to the end of the universe—and beyond—but life will go on.
And Künsken dares to dream of a future where, sure, there is still conflict and war and betrayal and sadness … but there is also a hell of a lot of compassion and empathy and love and hope, and that is a message I feel a lot of contemporary science fiction has buried. Again, I’m not yucking your yum if the dark, gritty stories are your cup of tea. But Künsken is steeping my tea the way I like it: big and bold, brash even, with some very Canadian humour and some difficult ideas and just a dash of quantum weirdness.