It’s practically a requirement these days that any new collection of short stories has to open with an introduction justifying the author’s dalliance in the form. In the past 50 years, short fiction has gone from literary staple to increasingly irrelevant footnote, and the fact that Charles Stross spends the first five pages of Wireless explaining why he still enjoys writing them doesn’t change a thing. Fortunately, the nine stories that follow that explanation stand just fine on their own. Times have moved on from the days of Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names Of God” and Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall,” but Stross’ work offers a potent reminder of why short stories used to be the preferred delivery method for science fiction.
Wireless isn’t exactly a traditional collection; only a few of its stories really fit the classic one-act format. For instance, “Rogue Farm,” about the dangers of bioengineering brought to its most bizarre conclusion, or “Snowball’s Chance,” about a Scotsman who gets an unexpected chance to right some wrongs. “MAXOS,” the book’s sole piece of flash fiction, is an ultra-short short with a terrific punchline, but while it, and the other two more conventional stories, are fun, Wireless succeeds best in its longer pieces, like “Missile Gap,” which examines how a conflict between Russia and the United States might look when stretched over a substantially different geography, and “Trunk And Disorderly,” a space opera riff on Wodehousian themes.
Stross saves the best for last in “Palimpsest,” a novella that’s the book’s most ambitious selection as well as its longest. It tells the story of a secret group that uses time travel to keep humanity alive. Stross admits in an author’s note that “Palimpsest” was originally intended as a full-length novel, which is Wireless’ biggest strength and greatest weakness. While the shorter pieces are entertaining, the more room Stross has to play, the more fascinating and compelling the result; the downside is that without the space of a full-length novel, the complexities he works to convey are sometimes underdeveloped. At its best, Wireless begs for expansion, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.