The term Science Fiction applies if there is a science somewhere at the bottom of the fiction. Be it the “hard” sciences of physics, astronomy and chemistry, or the “soft” sciences of sociology, psychology, anthropology, and biology lying somewhere in between, there is always an underlying science for the fiction to be considered science fiction.
But other, less common sciences than those can and do qualify for the purposes of the science in science fiction. Archaeology, and more precisely, xenoarchaeology, for example.
Xenoarchaeology, the name given for the not-yet-real study of alien remains, is not an uncommon road for science fiction, at least in terms of novels and movies.. From 2001 (recall that the Monolith was *unearthed* on the Moon) to the work of Jack McDevitt, Sheri S. Tepper, Frederik Pohl, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and the recent movie Prometheus all explore Xenoarchaeology, here on Earth or out amongst the stars.
However, despite the wealth of novels exploring archaeology and xenoarchaeology, its not a science that gets as much play at short story length.. This paucity of stories is despite some classic stories of the field that count it as a science. Omnilingual by H. Beam Piper, The Sentinel by Clarke, and several Known Space works by Larry Niven for example.
So, enter In Situ. In Situ, from Dagan Books, sets out to be an anthology of original stories exploring the themes and concepts of Xenoarchaeology.
The lineup of the anthology includes:
- Jason Andrew, “Recovery“
- Greg Burch, “The Assemblage of the Aeolian”
- Paul A. Dixon, “Requiem“
- Mae Empson,”Vessels of Clay, Flesh, and Stars“
- Sarah Hendrix, “Rachel’s Journal“
- R. S. Hunter, “Jewel of Tahn-Vinh“
- Ken Liu, “You’ll Always Have the Burden With You“
- Rebecca Lloyd, “The Stone“
- Alex Shvartsman, “The Field Trip”
- Kelly C. Stiles, “Relevant Information From the Tel Najmah Site“
- Graham Storrs, “Salvage“
- K. V. Taylor, “Chennai 5“
- Dawn Vogel, “Donning the Helm“
- Bear Weiter, “Seeds”
- David J. West, “The Dig“
A number of the authors in the collection have appeared or will appear in other Dagan Books collections (such as Cthulhurotica and Fish). I find the curation of a stable of story writers, growing their talents, to be a worthy endeavor.
The highlight story for me, given the lineup, will not surprise readers. The Hugo nominated author Ken Liu’s contribution “You’ll Always Have the Burden With You”. A strong story on how archaeologists bring their own biases to interpreting what they find, often seeing what they want to see, or imposing forms on what they see to make sense of them in their own context. Its solidly in the center of the anthology in terms of content and theme and is a clear anchor story. And, indeed, the cover illustration for the anthology is based on this story.
Lest you think the anthology is a one hit wonder, there are other delights and strong stories to be found here as well for readers.
“The Dig” by David J West brings archaeology together with World War II politics. A dig in the Sudan and a conflict between an Italian Captain and a no nonsense archaeological team uncovers the unexpected, for both sides, when Nubian remains reveal something far more than they were looking for.
“The Field Trip” by Alex Shvartman shows the cutthroat nature of far future graduate students exploring mysterious, ancient ruins, seeking to outdo each other in theories and investigations in order to obtain a coveted internship.
The tag line that the book has, “An anthology of alien archeology, hidden mysteries, and things that are better off left buried.” does reveal that the anthology branches out from the strict definitions of Xenoarchaeology. In addition to the kind of stories that might be found in a Charles Sheffield or L.E. Modesitt type universe, we also get other sorts of stories.
“The Assemblage of the Aeolians” by Greg Burch, for example, is much more anthropology than archaeology, as a time traveling team brings back a group of tourists to witness history not-quite-made in 1950’s Montana.
And “Seeds” by Bear Weiter has more of a little of a The Descent feel, as a group of spelunkers head into a hitherto unknown cave discover far more than a series of unexplored caverns, to their ultimate horror.
Overall, I was entertained by the group of stories here. I do think, though, that this collection stands somewhat better as a collection of new writers loosely gathered around the theme than a strictly composed and adhered-to subject. I might have liked some more core Xenoarchaeological stories rather than the number that did wander away from the mission of the anthology, at least in my view.
However, with those provisos, I would recommend In Situ to those readers who do like the thrill of uncovering alien ruins in their science fiction. In Situ gives you that fix at bite size story length, as well as the happy serendipity of supporting and reading the work of an enthusiastic and innovative small press.