The classic era of hard science fiction was distinguished by its setting, usually characterised by extreme physics or engineering:  tidal forces around a neutron star, strange orbital dynamics, relativistic star craft. In these exotic environments, functional characters played out familiar plots in the fuzzy warmth of optimistic American values. In the 1990s, a new generation of hard-SF authors emerged. Greg Egan and Stephen Baxter dug more deeply into arcane science than anyone else; Iain M. Banks, Ken Macleod and later China Miéville looked to sociology, history and politics for their settings and triumphantly blurred the edge of the hard. We saw a new interest in literary writing, more rounded characterisation and ‘realistic’ human relationships.

So as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, what is the state of hard-SF today? In this fine collection, Engineering Infinity, Jonathan Strahan has brought together a number of authors who illustrate the continuing diversity, energy and insight of contemporary writing in this genre. Advancement in fundamental physics may have largely stalled but in biology, technology, artificial intelligence and even theology there is wonder enough to drive a new generation of beautifully-crafted stories.

We start with Peter Watts’ Malak. I first encountered Watts with his novel Blindsight where he brilliantly imagined intelligent aliens without consciousness. In this story his protagonist is a smart attack-drone flying missions over some dusty foreign battle-space. Collateral damage is so politically embarrassing don’t you think? What if we augmented the drone-AI with something like a conscience? And what if every time it hesitated in the face of civilian collateral damage we nevertheless overrode its concerns and made it attack anyway? Watts writes techno-thriller stuff with a complete command of the subject matter. His style reminds me a little of Richard Morgan: beneath the laconic military violence there is a bitter ethical core. Yes, you can set up circumstances which force me to do this stuff with lethal efficiency, but you will pay.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch marks an immediate change of style in the second story, Watching The Music Dance. Suzette is a little girl with an obsessive mom and a distracted work-centred dad. The family is falling apart as Suze retreats into her world of implanted music mods. The writing is beautiful and the characters chart out a little trajectory of misery, and perhaps redemption by the end.

I imagine that Karl Schroeder has always wanted to be a science fiction writer but for me his writing is clunky and unengaging, a kind of literary painting-by-numbers. There is nothing wrong with his imagination though and in Laika’s Ghost, a story of strange goings-on on Mars and secret shenanigans in Kazakhstan we have a workmanlike techno-thriller. I haven’t done the calculations but I did experience a failure of suspension of disbelief at the central premise of his plot. To get a thing of that size off the ground in that way? Really, someone would have noticed! And I’m not convinced it could have been launched or have been landed intact. Yes, the plotting is decidedly wobbly.

Stephen Baxter’s early novels are the works of a physicist writing fiction. However, he has developed and in The Invasion of Venus we’re in rural England as the Incoming Object falls into the inner solar system. His characters are quintessential English types: ageing radical bluestocking and jaded civil servant. It turns out that both the alien intruder and the unexpected Venusians are far smarter than humanity, facts discerned through an entropic analysis of their communications. The two parties deploy stupendous technologies in their conflict but in accordance with the Copernican principle are utterly indifferent to us. But in the end life must go on with its own values and beauty.

Hannu Rajaniemi’s protagonist is a router. Yes, really! On an epic scale. Welcome to the inter-Galactic internet, routing messages and coded entities around the universe. The router in question (Rajaniemi calls it a server) has been hatched – by mistake? – around a rogue star speeding through inter-galactic space. It self-assembles by consuming all the material in the solar system to create a Dyson Sphere machine. Nothing much happens for a long, long time but finally a virtual being beams in. At last, someone to talk to, and how delightful the visitor is! The descriptive writing in this ultra-hi-tech fairy story is impressive and clever. The Server and the Dragon is, however, classic SF in that it’s all head and no heart: emotional investment in the protagonist remains minimal.

Charles Stross with Bit Rot has a similar problem. His characters are android-like post-people on a long-duration star flight. A catastrophic event occurs in interstellar space with massive damage to both systems and crew. Our heroine, Lilith Nakamichi-47 is least damaged and the story is a quest to save her much-worse-off sister Lamashtu. Stross writes interestingly about the nature of the disaster and its effects on the ship and the entities on board, and our sympathies are with Lilith as events unfold. So I enjoyed the story but wondered whether I might have missed some deeper metaphor which Stross had intended.

Ursula LeGuin has waved the banner for Taoist science-fiction but there has been a strange dearth of Buddhist SF. Wait no longer! Kathleen Ann Goonan has written a beautiful story, Creatures with Wings which is not about Buddhism, doesn’t feature Buddhism, but actually is Buddhist. Kyo, a failed doctor, failed husband and successful drunk, a menial in a Buddhist monastery in Honolulu seeking vainly for enlightenment finds himself, (along with the monks), transported ‘somewhere else’ by winged aliens on the eve of Earth’s destruction. But the aliens are themselves seeking enlightenment, and the universe finds itself here re-imagined as a wholly Buddhist project. Kyo can succeed only in that non-linear Zen way: not trying but accepting; not striving but thereby achieving. My inner jaw dropped in amazement and awe at Goonan’s evocation of the heart of Buddhist philosophy.

Walls of Flesh, Bars of Bones by Damien Broderick and Barbara Lamar is a wonderfully-written story in which post-modernism collides with quantum mechanics. Dr Watson is in the Department of Psychosemiosis and Literature at the University of California at Davis where he teaches Lacan, Derrida, Foucault and the other giants of post-modernism. He is also a drunk and failed husband, his estranged wife now shacked up with a ‘Quantum Bayesian’ physics type. The plot revolves around an ‘orphan film’, a 1931 movie anonymously sent to Watson which features bizarre temporal anomalies: Watson himself in period garb wandering by; a boy reaching into a raggedy shirt and flipping out what seems to be an iPad with an equation on it:

 |ψ> = Σ ai exp(jφi) | xi, yi, zi, νi, ωi>

which, unlike Watson, you will recognise as the representation of a state vector as a superposition of its eigenvectors in some basis. Watson is sure that the film is a fake but his investigation just gets weirder and weirder. The writing is high-energy and the characters well-drawn and involving. With its collision of quantum entanglement, time travel and hermeneutics, this looks like retaliation for Alan Sokal’s famous publishing hoax in the 1990s.

Robert Reed’s Mantis is a very strange and disorienting story. We’re in a future world of global warming and hard-times. The protagonist lives in an apartment building and hangs out in the gym ten floors above. The gym has installed ‘infinity windows’, screens which show scenes from other places but with a smart AI interposed, an intelligence which can mutate forms and faces for privacy and whimsy. Our hero observes a hot, dusty and very nondescript town. Nothing much happens: a young man comes by, sits on a bench, charms a mantis down from a tree, uses it to attract a girl. The scene periodically shifts: the young man can see a fantasised version of the gym through his side of the infinity window.  The mantis alone seems invariant.

Judgement Eve by John C. Wright evokes a distant world of terminal chaos. It’s the last day for an altered humanity, a Hobbesian war of all against all as humanity’s angel-masters prepare to flood the planet and extinguish their lives. Our descendants have failed to delete from their genotypes the urges to violence, theft and deception and have therefore been sentenced to die. The protagonist is a young man who is losing the love of his life to a ‘dark angel’, one of the master race who will rebel against his kind and take his love to a distant place of safety. Yes, it’s a hard-SF version of Casablanca and clever, but I was put off by the wordiness, the preachiness and the tedious and portentous biblical overtones. Readable but uninvolving.

The last few stories in this collection are less impressive. David Moles describes A Soldier of the City. Set in a ring of gigantic habitats orbiting a black hole, the Babylon societies are theocratic, ruled by living Gods who are mostly revered by the population, reminding me of Hindu myth. Ish is a soldier dedicated in service to the Goddess Gula, lady of Isin: he is also in love with her. As the story starts the Goddess is taken out by a kinetic impactor launched by the nomads, a group resident in the system’s Oort cloud. Ish enlists in the revenge force which journeys to the outer system, the location of the deadly weapon, there to do combat. It’s all done well enough although as we’re starting in medias res there’s lot of confusion in the reader’s mind until the back-story catches up. At the end, my central thought was: well, what was the point of that? The paradigm of a liberation movement to free the masses from theocracy by force is fair enough but I wasn’t sure if the author intended us to believe that it would work or even if it was a good thing at all.

Gregory Benford has a towering reputation for cosmic-scale cerebral SF. In Mercies his setting is the quantum multiverse which makes backward-oriented time-travel consistent. The protagonist Warren, a rich and successful businessman with a limited time to live, decides to travel back in time and kill serial killers before they have a chance to start slaughtering. In this he is quite successful. Benford wants to play with two ideas, a commonality of motivation and a commonality of fate. Yes, it’s clever in a superficial way but I felt he wasn’t really trying with this story.

Gwyneth Jones tells another tale where a highly-complex back-story is revealed only slowly. The Ki-anna‘s setting is a future universe where humans are subordinate to other races, notably the KiAn (who have an unpleasant secret). Our hero, Patrice has lost his sister on a KiAn planet currently being reconstructed after a destructive military assault and suspects foul-play and a cover-up. The plot proceeds as a crime story with added ingredient the KiAn secret. It ends wistfully.

The final story by John Barnes is called The Birds and The Bees and the Gasoline Trees, a title both whimsical and plot-accurate guide. Without giving it away, let me say that the framework of the tale is panspermia while the microstructure is the relationship between research director and husband Lars, second-wife and reporter Stephanie and first-wife and all-round super-person humaniform Nicole. They’re on a research vessel in the Southern Ocean investigating some very strange biology on the ocean floor. The story, told from Stephanie’s point of view suffers from clunky dialogue and infeasible mood changes plus a surfeit of tell over show. It’s also, sadly, quite predictable.

All the tales in this collection  have great ideas but as always, this is not by itself enough. The best stories, those of Peter Watts, Stephen Baxter, Kathleen Ann Goonan and Damien Broderick and Barbara Lamar showcase authors who write with feeling and intensity as well as skill. The hard-SF setting does not dominate, it’s just the optimal setting for the authors’ primal urge to communicate, to convey something important to us, the readers.