The first thing to note about this collection is that it is definitely for completists only. Although this is an original publication for the UK, it collects together eight stories previously published in The Planet on the Table (1986 USA, 1987 UK) and five stories from Remaking History (1991, USA only). It adds one new story, Discovering Life.
Although KSR is known for his intelligent and rigorous blockbuster novels, he does have a track record on short fiction, and sometimes displays as much erudition in the shorter format as in his longer works. This collection is a mix of differently-themed stories; there are alternate history stories (The Lucky Strike, and A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions, which is a sort of mix of story and essay, using alternate history situations as examples) and some stories on historical themes (Vinland the dream, and ‘A History of the Twentieth Century, with Illustrations’, both of which are more about history); the latter story only turns out to be science fiction because it was written in 1991 about the distant year of futurity 2000, and even then it is about a very near-future historian writing a book on the Twentieth Century, and finding inspiration to start – and then inspiration not to finish – the book in contemporary Britain. Though by 2000, the Ford Sierra had been replaced as a fleet hire car by the Mondeo, and the British Museum Reading Room had closed (in 1997), its functions being transferred to the purpose-built British Library on the Euston Road next to St. Pancras station…
There are stories which relate to KSR’s love of the outdoors, such as Ridge Running and Muir on Shasta; there are a couple of stories – Mercurial and Coming back to Dixieland – set in his future Solar System as shown in novels such as The Memory of Whiteness. And there is a fascinating murder mystery, The Disguise set against a background of a future where actors no longer learn lines but get memory implants that enable them to act out a play as of they were living it for real, but with their words pre-ordained by the script implant.
Throughout, the level if invention never really flags, although some of the stories – Discovering Life, Remaking History and Ridge Running – are ordinary stories of ordinary folk who just happen to live in a future very close to our present, and some might consider that nothing much actually happens in them. Rather like ordinary life today, then.
And then, just to show that KSR has depths where weirdness lurks, there is Black Air, an out-and-out fantasy about the Spanish Armada.
A worthwhile collection, then, if you don’t have these stories collected in other anthologies.