A varied collection of short stories, ranging from barely a page in length, to novelettes, ranging from deadly serious to deliberately crude humour. "Humanity test" is simultaneously a tale about rights of "uplifted" animals and a novel solution to an old SFnal conundrum. Some of the stories have surprisingly unsympathetic narrators, and a couple finish just as the real story gets started.
Drake Merlin's beloved wife Ana is dying of an incurable disease. So he has her body frozen, waiting for a time when science has advanced enough to cure her. He also freezes himself, to be sure they can be together again.
In this expansion of the short story "At the Eschaton", this simple premiss is taken to staggering conclusions, as Drake is reawakened at exponentially increasing time intervals for various good reasons, but with a cure for Ana still not possible, also for good reasons. Drake discovers he will have to wait until the Omega Point, the Big Crunch, the end of the Universe itself, before he can be reunited with Ana.
This is hard SF at its best -- there's even a 40 page appendix after the end of the novel explaining the various scientific concepts, including Tipler's idea of the eschaton. (Eschatology is the theological study of judgement day.) We get very little characterisation -- even Drake himself is a bit of a cypher. Personally, I prefer that for this kind of 'landscape novel' -- nothing to get in the way of the 'plot as hero'. Characterisation isn't the point here. We get to see humanity advancing throughout the solar system, the galaxy, and the universe; we get to see the entire history of the universe, with a convincing feeling of the sheer scale. James White made us feel the passage of millions of years with "Second Ending", H. G. Wells gave us billions of years with The Time Machine, but with a limited spatial scope. Here Sheffield is the master of the truly grand scale: billions of years, unimaginable distances, billions of galaxies, inconceivable changes in humanity, and then the End of the Universe.
A collection of stories about Burmeister and Carver, Shysters-at-Law, and their bizarre adventures across the solar system. The stories are mildly amusing, sometimes gross (sewage recycling seems to feature quite heavily), and usually have some SFnal core to the plot.
Three million years ago, the Builders left a variety of huge, incomprehensible Artifacts scattered around the galaxy. The various intelligent species have been cataloging them, trying to learn their secrets, but with little success. Now, however, things seem to be changing.
SF elements: huge mysterious alien artifacts, a.k.a 'Big Dumb Objects'
Although publication-date-wise, it's been a long gap between volume 3 and 4 of this series, it isn't so long for me: I didn't find Transcendence until 1995. Sheffield has changed publisher for this 4th, and probably last, episode, in the saga of the Builders.
All the usual characters rush, or are pushed, around the galaxy, from Artifact to Artifact, trying to understand what's happening. A new Artifact, the Labyrinth, has appeared, and the other Artifacts have started to change. Professor Darya Lang, infuriated by the theories of Quintus Bloom, rushes off to explore Labyrinth, accompanied by the Hymenopt Kallik and the Lo'tfian J'merlia. Hans Rebka and the embodied computer E. C. Tally explore Paradox. Bloom, along with Louis Nenda and the Cecropian Atvar H'sial, go back to the Zardalu planet in the Torvil Anfract. But the Artifact changes mean few end up where they expected. Can Darya solve the mystery of the Builders before everyone is killed by the contracting, disappearing Artifacts?
The weirdness of the Artifacts is well described: the sheer vastness and alienness of the constructs is vividly evoked. It's also good to have a load of alien species, none of which is in the least bit humanoid, and none of which is 'comic relief' or 'evil monster'. Even the Zardalu, past scourge of the Galaxy, aren't just cardboard villains. Well, no more cardboard than most of the other characters, anyway. Example: Atvar H'sial is a wonderfully-designed alien, who 'sees' by sonar and 'hears' and 'speaks' by smell. But she doesn't come across as alien: she and the human Louis Nenda are partners-in-crime, and have virtually identical motivations. Her only alienness is the running joke of her failing to understand 'human mating rituals'. Similarly, Kallik and J'merlia's only alienness is that they are slaves who want to be slaves; J'merlia is constantly described as 'mad', yet exhibits no mad behaviour (except possibly for his desire to continue as Atvar H'sial's slave). Even E. C. Tally, a computer in a human body, seems as human as (all) the others, except for an ability to think faster. They aren't even that alien to each other: nobody ever seems to misunderstand anyone else's motives for long. The only character I find distinguishable from the rest is Darya, and I find her intensely irritating. How anyone with such a fragile, childish ego has survived so long in academia, I have no idea.
I don't read hard SF for its characterisations, however. I agree that "criticising [a 'Landscape Novel'] for a lack of characters is like criticising the expressions on the faces in Constable's landscapes". I just wish that writers didn't feel the need to try to put in 'real' characters -- and end up drawing stick figures. The Artifacts are by far the most interesting characters in this series, and the attempts to understand them are the best parts of the plot. This is probably the ultimate 'Big Dumb Objects' series.
Sheffield returns to his Heritage Universe of incomprehensible Builder Artefacts, and ups the stakes yet again. It's two years since all the artefacts disappeared, and the various characters have been getting on with their lives. But then a ship arrives from the Sagittarius Arm, asking for help, and there appears to be a large dark cold hole growing there, destroying solar systems. So the gang are reassembled, and sent off to investigate. And they find a big danger: something that is more powerful than the mysterious but benign Builders, and inimical to life.
This has all the features of the previous Heritage tales: really Big, not-so-dumb Objects, a tremendous feeling of sheer scale, aliens with wonderfully alien physiologies, yet all too human mentalities and motivations. It is clearly the beginning of another trilogy or so, which will sadly now never be completed. However, despite not solving the overriding problem, it does have a satisfactory conclusion of its own.
16 year old Rick Luban finally plays a practical joke on the wrong person, and is expelled from his useless school. The fact that no-one is allowed to be a failure has reached its illogical conclusion: the whole curriculum is so watered down that no-one learns anything. But Rick gets a second chance, to join an asteroid mining company as a trainee. Now he gets some real education, in a hostile environment where a mistake can mean death.
This is a deliberate, and not that bad, attempt at a Heinleinesque juvenile, coupled with a savage attack on the US educational system, 'political correctness' and lack of discipline. The political message is laid on with a trowel.
The plot is typical of its kind: we see Rick and his classmates grow from semi-literate surly thugs to hard-working apprentices, learning both how to learn, and the value of learning, on the way. And, of course, there's the obligatory little plot twist to enliven the action at the end. We've seen this before, in Heinlein's Have Space Suit, Will Travel, and Space Cadet --- although Higher Education has a more up-to-date level of sex and violence, more unpleasant protagonists, and rather less polished info-dumping.
Teenager Shelby Cheever is fabulously wealthy, totally spoiled, and bored out of his mind. On a whim, he decides to go on a space cruise to the outer solar system. But even that is boring. So, when he is told that he will have to wait a whole day before he can go on his special trip to the outer system, he takes matters into his own hands, but ends up stranded 27 light years from home on a mining ship where no-one knows, or cares, who he is. It will be months until he can be sent home, and, in the meantime, he will have to earn his passage as one of the crew.
This is a retelling of Kipling's Captains Courageous, a coming of age tale where a spoiled youngster discovers the value of hard work and friendship, and comes good. However, it's all a bit shallow and under-told, presumably because it's being written explicitly as a juvenile (part of the Jupiter Novel series). The technology is lovingly described, but Shelby's transformation is all just a bit too easy.