My Story Recommendation of the Week is for "The N-Body Solution" by Sean Williams, the second SROTW from the anthology Armored, edited by John Joseph Adams.
The best science fiction can inspire awe with galaxy-spanning concepts, while simultaneously pulling the reader into the story through the characters' personal dramas. "The N-Body Solution" is a wonderful example.
"The N-Body Solution" is set far in the future, as we learn on the opening page, when the first-person narrator Alex enters a bar to get "as plastered as the ancients," and describes the place as containing "humans, sub-humans, post-humans, poly-humans——every category I'd ever heard of, plus some types that probably weren't human at all."
At the heart of the story is "The Loop," a series of matter transmitters left behind by a vanished alien race, which allow you to step from one world directly onto another. Each transmitter, however, is one-way; you cannot turn around and retrace your steps. But the name "The Loop" implies that if you keep going forward, eventually you'll come back to where you started.
Except that on Cyernus, Loop Junction 163 is broken. It appears to be in working order, but when you step into the "wormcaster," you're still on Cyernus. Cyernus is a dismal little world, and people who expected to have a whole galaxy ahead of them to explore do not react well to finding themselves trapped there. The suicide rate is high.
On Cyernus Alex encounters Enforcer Ei, who has a female voice, but it's hard to know for sure, since she never removes her powerful mech suit. The failure of Loop Junction 163 affects Alex and Ei in a similar way——it keeps them from outrunning their pasts.
The ultimate explanation for what has gone wrong with The Loop is simple and elegant, one of those things that seems immediately obvious after you learn what it is. Equally important, the character development of Alex and Ei, and how their encounter plays out on an individual level, is most satisfying.
Sean Williams is perhaps the most decorated Australian author of science fiction and fantasy ever, with eight Aurealis Awards and seven Ditmar Awards. He is equally adept writing solo work, collaborations, and media tie-ins (his Star Wars work has hit #1 on the New York Times best-seller list). He is also a favorite of our book group after hanging out with us late into the evening one night during the Denver Worldcon, as we discussed his outstanding novel The Crooked Letter. "The N-Body Solution" demonstrates that, even after 35 books, the quality of his writing remains as strong as ever.