When I made trips up and down the length of California, to visit home in Santa Cruz area while I went to school in Los Angeles area, I would sometimes stop at a highway convenience exit for food, bathroom, etc. At one such stop, I ended up finding a Wendy’s and a bookstore within a gas station convenience store, and I picked up a collection of short stories called Vacuum Diagrams, by Stephen Baxter. I really enjoyed reading them, having been hooked by the first couple of stories involving sentient creatures on an ice asteroid that had superfluid blood, and metamathematical nanobots as part of an experiment in quantum phenomena that ended up breaking free of the experiment to become grey goo. I was in love with his universe.
Baxter writes hard sci fi, which is to say that he attempts to remain consistent to known or extrapolatable principles of science in his writing. I eat this up because of my unique position as a former student of science and as a lover of high-tech fiction. Vacuum Diagrams in particular is so great because it sketches out a cosmology and a wider universe around humans in the future through a number of interconnected short tales that are compelling on their own. Not to spoil too much, but his primary conceit of an ancient elder race that’s kind of patronizing toward humans, and another ancient elder race of true aliens that (as a by product of their life cycle) are destroying the universe is really interesting to watch unfold over the course of (essentially) human’s future-history.
I recommend picking it up if (a) you enjoy seeing some of the weird parts of real science woven (faithfully) into fiction, and (b) you enjoy seeing a science-fiction world constructed from a series of stories that are each wonderful on their own. Reading Vacuum Diagrams inspired me to pick up another one of his novels, Ring, which occurs in the same universe – it was okay, but not amazing – and I should see if Timelike Infinity, another in this universe, is any good.
Number of Short Stories (Approx): 20
Secret to Ancient Elder Race’s Superiority: Time travel (obviously)