The third and final in this artistically, if perhaps not commerically, successful series doesn't disappoint. There are no truly bad stories, just a few that didn't do much for me. Most I found good and one truly memorable. Mann lives up to his writ of widely varied stories that diverge from near future dystopianism.
Curiously, many of the stories seem twinned, thematically or in images or feel, with other stories. The "gothic suspense" of John Meaney's "Necroflux Day" with its story of family secrets in a world where fuel and information are stored in bones is also conveyed, better, in the gothic "A Soul Stitched in Iron" by Tim Akers. The latter story has an aristocrat, fallen on hard times, tracking down a putative murderer that's upsetting a crime lord's plans. That murderer happens to be an old friend of the protagonist, and the killer's motives involve subterranean secrets that underlie the status of a noveau riche clan. Meaney's story didn't do much for me. Akers interests me enough to that I'm going to seek out his Heart of Veridon set in the same city.
Alastair Reynolds' "The Fixation" and Paul Cornell's "One of Our Bastards Is Missing" are both, loosely defined, alternate history. Reynolds' story has a scientist restoring the Mechanism, very much like our Antikythera Mechanism - an ancient clockwork computer. In her world, while the Romans found no practical use for the Mechanism, the Persians did and founded the predominant power of the world. However, other universes are also interested in their versions of the Mechanism and prepared to vampirically leach its information structure from other universes to facilitate a complete restoration. The central idea is interesting, but the alternate history speculation is at a bare minimum. Not even really alternate history but an annoying, distracting melange of medieval European, Rennaisance, and 19th century politics, Cornell's story features personal teleportation, so called "Impossible Grace", that binds the solar system together and greatly complicates the balance of power in the royal houses of Europe. For me, its plot of political intrigue was ruined by the story's capricious use of history. Stephen Baxter's "Artifacts" is Baxter in his deep cosmological mode. Its scientist hero, provoked by the religious ideas of his father and early death of his wife, ponders why our brane (if I understand the concept correctly, a cluster of universes) has time flowing in one direction and the consequence of death. His discovery oddly echoes the theme of Reynolds' story, but I also liked the story's near future Britain noticeably not affected by any Singularity and poor enough to have to recycle computers for rare metals.
I've always had a soft spot for menacing vegetation in science fiction stories, and two stories supply that need here. Jack Skillingstead's "Rescue Mission" has a planet with a "gynoecious" jungle that has designs on a spaceman who has landed there. Adam Roberts' "Woodpunk" locates the central processing of Gaia's mind in the forests around Chernobyl and reveals the goddess' plans - after she gets a needed upgrade. I liked both stories with the Roberts' one being especially clever.
The world robots make after man has vacated the stage is the setting of two very different stories: Paul Di Filippo's "Providence" and Scott Edelmann's "Glitch". The former story reminded me, in its depiction of odd robot obsessions, here for analog music recordings, of Brian Aldiss' "Who Can Replace a Man?". "Glitch" is something very different, a melange of an authoritarian future albeit in a robot society, a story of a troubled marriage, and a plot rather like those erotic tales of a person initially repulsed - and then embracing - of a lover's sexual kink. And the narration, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Frederik Pohl's "Day Million", is directed right at us, the protagonist's spiritual ancestors. Both stories are some of the highlights of the book.
Warren Hammond's "Carnival Night" is an effective mystery set on an impoverished colony world that caters to offworld tourists. It shares its setting with Hammond's KOP novels.
Ian Whates' "The Assistant" is part of that long and honorable line of a "day at work" science fiction stories. Here the job is clearing buildings of infestations of nanotechnology and microrobots, most put there as tools of corporate espionage.
Jennifer Pelland's "Minya's Astral Angels", a tale of a corporate heiress defying her mother to free a race of sentient, corporate chattel, was my least favorite story in the book. While the heroine's status was different than that of the usual sort of protagonist in this type of story, it's not a plot I much care for.
Ian Watson's "Long Stay" struck me as a more sociable version of J. G. Ballard's Concrete Island: A Novel. Here, though, the Robinson Crusoe-like retreat from urban life - while still in the midst of the city - may serve an actual agenda. Its protagonist gets stranded in a giant offsite airport parking facility.
"iThink, Therefore I Am", a short short story by Ken MacLeod, tells of a future Apple product that will record your thoughts - and that also comes with a rather disturbing applet that illustrates the possible fiction of free will (based on the very real Libet experiment).
The gem of the book is Daniel Abraham's "The Best Monkey". Its narrator encounters an old lover who heads the wildy successful Fifth Layer. But, as he investigates the company and remembers his conversations with her, he wonders what mutilations of human nature lie behind her efforts. A memorable extrapolation on neuroscience and evolutionary psychology.
Fifteen stories with only Cornell's, Pelland's, and Meaney's not appealing to me. Definitely worth reading.