Carrie Cuinn (ed.) – In Situ

From independent publisher Dagan Books, IN SITU is a new anthology of science fiction stories featuring alien archeology, hidden mysteries, and things that are better off left buried.

A quiet man finds more than he bargained for when he sets out with his metal detector on a lonely hill … A soldier meets a new kind of enemy fighting an altogether different kind of war … On a distant swamp planet, a woman questions what kind of human she’s becoming … a pregnant archeologist finds a connection with a long-dead alien child … while deep space scavengers wonder what it ever meant to be human at all.

These fifteen evocative science fiction stories will take you from dusty archaeologists digging up our alien past into a distant future where we’ve become the relics. Thought-provoking and entertaining, IN SITU explores science, theology, preservation, and the art of alien finance, in a whole new way.

History is one of my favourite subjects and archaeology has always intrigued me. Especially the idea that we are fodder for the future, that a few centuries from now there will be people digging up artefacts we’ve left behind and wondering about how we lived. Archaeology is the art of interpretation, just as history is an interpretation of the facts as we have them; in some ways literary analysis is also a form of archaeology—you dig from any references and allusions the author has left in the text and interpret their meaning. Thus the blurb for In Situ intrigued me. I loved Carrie Cuinn’s concept for the book as it focused not just on what will xeno-archaeology look like, but how will we affect and respect the conservation of alien history. Those are interesting questions to pose and the authors gave Cuinn very interesting responses.

There is a nice structure to the collection with a clear break in settings. The first seven stories are all earthbound, while the other eight are either set off-world or are about off-world races visiting Earth. All the earth stories are solid, while the stories in the second set have a more hit or miss in flavour. My favourites were the Taylor, Liu, and the Shvartsman stories, but I was less impressed with the Dixon, Hendrix, and Burch stories. These three just didn’t click with me and I had issues with the narrative style of the Hendrix. They were also placed in a block, which probably didn’t help them either.

Paul A. Dixon’s Requiem had a cool concept. He took the somewhat traditional idea of grave robbers and moved it into space. At the same time he explores the idea that societies might choose to revert themselves to insentience to save their planet, instead of fleeing to a different one to save their society. Unfortunately the ending left me rather unimpressed, as it just peters off with the main character shrugging his shoulders at the situation he’s ended up in. Greg Burch’s The Assemblage of the Aeolian was a funny story and well-written, but I didn’t really get the connection between Parkinson discovering the link between humanity and aliens and how preventing this would save the future. This time travel as entertainment story rather went over my head. Sarah Hendrix’s Rachel’s Journal suffered from the form chosen to tell the story, in my opinion. The narrative is told through two characters talking to each other about things they already know, reminiscing for the benefit of an audience they don’t know is there, while walking through an exhibit they’ve put together. It felt forced and unnatural and left me altogether unmoved.

KV Taylor’s Chennai 5 is the first story in the collection that is set off-world. I thought it was interesting to see another author have space colonisation happen along cultural lines, much like Jonathan L. Howard in Katya’s World. I thought the concept of Space itch was very cool, though it made me wonder whether humanity would really have an in-built need to visit its cradle, even if it had lived away from it for generations. However, the idea of an Intergalactic Rosetta Stone and the way they discovered one in this story was awesome. Ken Liu is of course one of the most talented short fiction writers active at the moment. As expected, his You’ll Always Have the Burden With You was excellent. It is such a cool story and funny as well. Who knew you could write an interesting story on alien tax systems? There are several themes to the story Liu explores. For one, it starts with the question of why our protagonist has to put her career on hold to be with her partner and her actually ending up more successful which I enjoyed. But there is also a great exploration of the malleability of history and the dangers of over interpretation of the factual evidence. This is a theme that returns in Alex Shvartsman’s The Field Trip. This was a ‘slice of life’-story set in a xeno-archaeology class. I loved it and I loved the way archaeology was shown to be an art, needful not just of hard science but of thinking outside the box and interpreting the facts. Also the twist at the end was genius and made sure that you’ll close out this collection of stories on a smile. Once grouped together, it isn’t surprising that the three stories mentioned above were my favourites as they all deal with the delights and dangers of academic interpretation of evidence and facts, something which has always fascinated me.

In Situ is an interesting and thought-provoking anthology. It is a very enjoyable collection of stories and well put together with scientific illustrations by Cuinn and a very intriguing use of mathematical and scientific symbols in certain stories, which is explained in the back. In Situ is a good read, which given its slender page count is also a quick one. I very much recommend it, not just to well-read science fiction fans, but to relative newbies as well, as this collection shows not just the breadth of the field but is also easily accessible.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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