Infinity Wars
Jonathan Strahan
Rebellion, 356 pages
Reviewed by Ian Hunter

It was inevitably, I suppose, given that the previous five entries in Jonathan Strahan’s Infinity Project—at least from their titles—had a hopeful air about them starting way back in 2010 with Engineering Infinity right through to more recent offerings, that things would take a turn for the worse. So in book six, we have reached Infinity Wars. War is eternal, and one thing that mankind can always be counted on is its ability to be creative when waging it. I couldn’t help recalling the late great American writer, historian and commentator, Gore Vidal, saying that the American economy always needed a good war from time to time to kickstart employment, investment and innovation. Some of these stories perhaps share Vidal’s cynicism in depicting the lengths that the military, big business and even the government will go to win, or make money, or manipulate their populace into thinking that what they are doing is right.

Strahan, ever the consummate anthologist and editor brings together a variety of stories from writers who are either well-known to science fiction readers, such as Elizabeth Bear, Garth Nix, Peter Watts and Alieete deBodard; or are writers who are less familiar, but they all share one thing in common—they can all tell a tale. Often that tale isn’t what you would expect in that it is not a straightforward military science fiction tale. One reads like a murder mystery, one is about the supply side of war, two are set in post-climate change futures, one might even be called “Full Metal Jacket with Zombies”, while others featuring AIs, and a couple are deep, multi-layered tales that require a re-reread. All of that should offer a clue to any prospective reader that many of these are stories are character driven, revealing the effect that war has on the central character or their families and friends.

In his introduction, Strahan muses that war has changed and is no longer as straight-forward as a simple country versus country affair. For me, the game changer was the first Gulf War, which was covered almost live by the BBC, showing cities being bombarded as the night sky blossomed into reds and oranges, which actually meant that buildings were being destroyed and people were being killed. We had briefings by military personnel standing in front of screens showing targets being obliterated from above. Now, the waters are muddied watered by drone strikes, invaders, insurgents, terrorism, and collateral damage, and the fifteen stories gathered here take several different aspects of the “war machine” and extrapolate them into the future.

An anthology is always going to have some hit and miss stories, depending on the taste of the reader, but there are some stand out stories inspired by some highly original ideas such as in Caroline M. Yoachim’s “Faceless Soldiers, Patchwork Ships” where a soldier is modified to look like the enemy in order to infiltrate their ship, but that the catch being that if she doesn’t complete her mission in time she won’t be able to be restored to her true form and will remain looking like the enemy. A total change of tact, and very funny too, is Garth Nix’s “Conversations with an Armoury” where some soldiers at an isolated outpost are facing an imminent attack, if only they can open the nearby armoury and get to the weapons inside they might have a chance of survival, but the problem is that way in is controlled by an AI that is a stickler for the rules, and getting in isn’t going to be as easy as it seems. AIs also feature in “Perfect Gun” by Elizabeth Bear, where a mercenary buys a war machine with an AI for a brain, and while their relationship grows, perhaps the AI running the ship has more morals than the human who owns it. Relationships are also to the fore in “Mines” involving the clearance of mines and the trust and reliance and maybe even love, that grows between those who clear the mines, even if one of them isn’t human. The use of information features in two stories: “The Last Broadcasts” by An Owomoyela where the truth has to be concealed and altered for the so-called greater good, but if you know about the lie, how will it effect you, and what can you do about it? And in E. J. Swift’s “Weather Girl” information about weather systems is being withheld from the enemy to allow storms to become weapons.

Other aspects of war range from the use of predictive software through occupying alien worlds to the effect of war on the survivors and their families. The anthology ends with a bang in Peter Watts’ lengthy tale, “ZeroS”, where humans are resurrected and upgraded to become weapons who are tested by being sent out on missions that makes them question what they have become, what it means to be human, and how far they are willing to go to become human again.

All in all, file “Infinity Wars” under “r” for recommended.

This review was first published in Shoreline of Infinity issue 10.