The Engine of Recall
by Karl Schroeder
Review by Ernest Lilley
Red Deer Press Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0889953236
Date: August, 2005 List Price $19.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Though the cover puts the best face on things with the proclamation of "ten high-tech tomorrows" echoing the boundless optimism of early Hard SF. Karl Schroeder's The Engine of Recall's futures are singularly lonely places, filled with misfit protagonists who suffer from a agoraphobia and conscience in worlds where the opposite is the norm. That doesn't mean they don't persevere...but it's never easy marching to beat of a different drummer.
The first story follows a paranormal researcher who's looking for something strange, following peaks in reports of phenomenon without asking too many questions about what causes them. It's has a "Schrödinger's Cat" sort of feel to it, suggesting that if you look too closely at the inexplicable, it will vanish...and some things can only be seen out of the corner of your eye. The researcher is driven to see something for herself, and followed by a pragmatic boyfriend that's pretty conflicted about what he wants. Not that he gets any say in it.
In "The Dragon of Pripyat" we meet freelance nuclear arms inspector Gennady Malianov, trekking into the ruins of Chernobyl to investigate an extortionist's threat to breach one of the containment vessels there, along with rumors from a squatter that a dragon lurks in the ruined reactor. This has a nice echo of the dragon in Dr. No, the first Bond film, and perhaps the adversaries even merit comparison. Both men are deformed recluses intent on extorting the world to enable their succession from society, and in both cases they are tasked by a pesky and resourceful representative of some security organization. But one wonders whether Bond identified with Dr. No in the same way that Gennady does with the owner of his dragon.
"The Cold Convergence" tells us the unusual story of a social worker on the frozen mining wastes of Titan, which has an undeniably Yukon flavor, and men go mad from the desolation, or from dealing with the "Company", and the protagonist is trying to earn her way back to Earth, having lived in the frozen desert of Mars and now around the tholin (complex hydrocarbon) prospectors of Titan. Her latest case, a man known as Bear seems a bit off, but lucid enough, except for ravings about his ex-wife and fabulous riches beneath his feet...where no tholin deposits lie. Bear has his reasons, which the author telegraphs along the way, but its a good example of the kind of human conflict he likes to deal with, set against a backdrop of some really original hard SF concepts.
In "Making Ghosts" Karl looks at questions surrounding the whole upload-yourself dilemma. Granted that it can be done, but will it be you? And his answer is that the question is pretty straightforward when you actually face it. That's followed by "The Engine of Recall" which takes that resolution story and moves on to fry other fish. Uploaded human experience is no longer the issue, and with some nice astrophysics, it makes a nice backdrop for the conflict that the author presents his characters when their dreams become real.
Several stories in here look at the nature of intelligence and the creatures it rides, the most original being "Solitaire" where a human hitches a ride on an alien ship and tries to get the owner's attention. The author wrestles with the idea that the entire notion of community may be well too "alien" for a non-human to grasp, though you can also look at this story as a model for all of Schroeder's stories; whatever we look for outside ourselves ultimately lets us down, and only coming to terms with our real needs offers any hope of resolution. This notion is shown again in "Allegiances" where the author departs nearly into fantasy. A young woman curses her enemies with forgetfulness, only to realize that she may be offering them escape from their own guilt, rather than the fulfillment of her need for revenge. And in "Pools of Air" he forces a journalist to confront her fear of life and leave the refuge of observer to save not only herself but a friend.
The collection closes with another Gennady Malianov story, set after "The Dragon of Pripiyat", where he is again working as a freelance UN nuclear arms inspector with a dread of nuclear weapons and social contact. Actually, though hs professes both, neither seem to slow him down much, and "Alexander's Road" is another one of Schroeder's well done technical mysteries. What starts out as a search for stolen uranium becomes a race to find a pair of missing nukes, and Gennady has to figure out which poses the greater threat, and why.
Each story here is good by itself, but taken as a collection they start to lose their zing. I tend to like Karl's work more on the larger scale, with excellent novels like Ventus or Permanence. These brief adventures are fun, but I'd like to follow some of their stories further, beyond the end of the morality play and back to the business of living. I'm not suggesting that Karl give up the short form, but am looking forward to the day when he has enough stories to create an arc, possibly a collection of Gennady Malianov's, adventures from them.
The real value of this collection is that it let's you get in side of the head of one of SF's brightest talents and look back out at the world through his eyes. Technology, he tell us, isn't the answer, and by looking for it there we're asking the wrong question.