This is a good one, too. Sturdy. Clear narrative voice (Scotsman seeking his fortune among the stars), interesting setting (two settings, actually, but the main one is Atlas B, a heavy-metal-rich planet with a suitably adapted ecosystem), well-paced (including a couple of good action sequences), knowing (planet called Midas, group called the Robinsonade Guaranteed Lashup Company), cold-eyed about where its premises lead (brutal colonialism). It would feel wrong to ask for anything more.
Better. “Coat of Many Colours” is pretty much a pure old-fashioned idea story, nicely done. In an ecologically devastated South America, Jurassic Park-like tech is being used to engineer “a better, cheaper burger machine” — a food animal that can thrive in the desertified Amazon basin. But, in Experiment 2308, they appear to have accidentally created an intelligent creature. The Australian protagonist, Mullen, is ostensibly brought in to prove that Experiment 2308 is not intelligent, so that she can be killed and eaten without qualm; and there follows much Egan-ish discussion of the nature of intelligence, but in a pleasingly sardonic key:
Mullen bent down close to the bars, looking into the unfathomable eyes.
“I hope you don’t imagine,” she said, “that I am any sort of white knight. I am a cognitive psychologist, and it is my job to torture animals that are on the wrong side of mankind’s current designated threshold of nervous complexity by cutting their nervous systems apart and watching what parts twitch. I’m not allowed to do it to monkeys any more in most countries, but sea slugs and squid are still fair game.”
A “story-sized set of reasons” why our universe might be a space opera universe, according to the introductory notes. Sadly, neither the story nor the set of reasons is particularly exciting. An elderly man, living alone on an alien world, hitches a ride on a passing slave ship (by selling himself into slavery) in order to track down his granddaughter: the main things we learn along the way are that (a) AIs tend to think themselves into logical-philosophical blind alleys, which puts a crimp in civilization’s style but creates jobs for those who, like the protagonist, can mediate such quandries; and (b) ancient races left behind AI-based weapons that can mimic, infiltrate and destroy any societies they encounter. It’s not as perfunctory as proof-of-concept tales can be, and Green’s playfulness mostly carries it —
The superintendent scratched his forty-year service tattoo thoughtfully. “In that case, you might be of help to us. Our own mediator had arranged a system of non-overlapping magisteria between the nihilist and empiricist factions in our ship’s flight systems, but we were infected with a solipsistic virus several days ago. The accord has now broken down into open sulking. Wehave been becalmed insystem for two days while our vessel argues with itself. Our astrogator is muttering cray talk about learning to use a slide rule.”
— but I’m still somewhat surprised to see it showing up in the table of contents for a best-of-the-year volume. (And “the bunks clearly built for Svastikas, a radially symmetrical race previously conquered by the Proprietors” was pushing it a bit.)