A month of reading notable for the appearance of two Kate Wilhelm stories.
Asimov's, April-May '08
Asimov's, April-May 2008
The spring double issue, and the table of contents is filled with names that Asimov's readers will certainly recognize from the earliest days of the zine's history.
The Room of Lost Souls by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
A sequel to Rusch's well-received Diving into the Wreck. The still-unnamed dive boss has vowed never to return to wreck diving after the disastrous space dive into the ancient and treacherous Dignity Vessel.
When we left the Dignity Vessel, we left one of our divers—
Because we were worried that he might still be alive but in some kind of time dilation, Karl and I went back to see if we could rescue him. Failing that, we hoped to find a way to help him die.
We learned that, indeed, Junior had gone through a time dilation, but not the kind we thought. He had aged so rapidly that the upper half of his body, still in its dive suit had mummified.
His waist and legs had only been dead for a day but his upper half, his torso and his face had been dead for centuries.
But she is lured back by a mystery that she is personally connected to. A wealthy client wants her to retrieve her missing father from the legendary Room of Souls. As a child, the dive boss once followed her mother into the Room of Souls; she came out alive, but her mother did not. No one else, to her knowledge, has ever come out of the Room of Souls. Her client, however, insists that she has a device that has enabled others to enter the room and escape it, except that they were not able to retrieve her father. Now she says that the dive boss is her last chance to bring him out.
The boss recruits an experienced crew of divers and does extensive preparatory research, both on her subject and on the enigmatic room. This includes confronting her own personal demons, one of them her own father, after a long estrangement. The worst demons that she discovers, however, are not the ones within herself, but deceit and betrayal.
This episode stands fairly well on its own, for readers who may not be familiar with the earlier work. The resolution comes as a tragic shock, although most of the greater mysteries remain unanswered at the end—the Dignity Vessel and now the Room of Souls. Also an intriguing red herring that could have been a story in itself. I think another sequel is not unlikely, because the dive boss now has a new, personally-driven mission.
Memory Dog by Kathleen Ann Goonan
This piece is part of a novel, which usually means the author has to deal with the backstory problem. There is a lot of backstory here, involving two primary strands: great breakthroughs in research involving memory, so that memories have become transmissible, along with increasing government repression and control of public media; and the marriage of Mike and Elizabeth, which was shattered when Mike, under the influence of memory drugs, allowed their daughter to run out into the street where she was killed, despite the efforts of their dog to save her. Now Mike, in grief and guilt, has transferred his own memories into a dog who is adopted by Elizabeth.
Becoming a dog: I cohabited gently, slowly. The initial work took weeks.
It was a matter of the cells remembering; deep memories, cross-species, the work of a brilliant memory-master, experimental and forbidden. And: remember: we could do specific. So from Jolly, frozen since her death, I got Jolly's Wendy, and Jolly's extreme grief. We could also do long-term change. We could fix an emotion, a vision, a scene, in long-term memory by precisely implanting specific molecules of one brain into the other.
Mike is happy being a dog, but his plan for atonement also involves helping Elizabeth in her work with the resistance against the government, countering the official lies.
The backstory does weigh this one down a bit, but there is enough forward story momentum that it doesn't get fatally stalled. The psychology of Mike as a dog is interesting. But what this story does best is serve as an effective teaser for the novel of which it is a part.
An Alien Heresy by S.P. Somtow
Father Lenclud the Inquisitor has taken part in the interrogation of the notorious Gilles de Rais, but the none of those horrors have prepared him to encounter a demon who claims to come from another world, from heaven. Yet Lenclud's greatest temptation comes not from the demon but from the discovery that he has a bastard son, the product of an early sin for which he has never stopped flagellating himself. It is this son who originally discovered the demon and its spaceship, and who now calls it his friend.
In the little cell they gave me, which was behind the kitchen, I scoured, by candlelight, the books I had brought with me, trying to glean some knowledge of just what this creature might be. Was he a denizen of hell who had somehow escaped the confines of the Dark One, and by saying "Send me home" was he actually begging for some kind of salvation, some reconciliation with God? Was there a village idiot underneath this skin, who had been possessed by a devil, who could yet be cured, if the devil could only be driven from the flesh? Was it a devious impostor, come to tempt me?
This is less a story of first contact than a study of the medieval mindset that frames all questions in terms of Church teachings. Lenclud can not decide whether the alien is a demon sent to tempt him or an angel meant to test him, but he can not conceive that it is simply telling the truth: "I am a being from another world. I am lost. Send me home, I beg you." There are unfortunately a few jarring lapses into anachronistic language—
Strangers When We Meet by Kate Wilhelm
Edith Dreisser is a neurologist who has acquired the perfect subject for her research into brain mapping, a young woman named Rebecca Hardesty, who has developed post-traumatic amnesia following an accident that killed the rest of her family. Because she can not remember events from day to day, Rebecca is extremely vulnerable, and Edith is quite protective of her, although conflicted about exploiting her. It is possible that the research could yield a cure, but Edith is aware that this is secondary to her.
Images of familiar objects; brief action scenes of planes, or boats; animals; more violent scenes of fighting; car wrecks; a baby crying; a scene blatantly pornographic; a tiger snarling, as if prepared to attack....Interspersed with the images were the sounds: squealing tires; a woman's laughter; crashing noises; music...Then it was over. It would be repeated day after day, the same tape, the same images, the same smells, and they all would be new to Rebecca, her reaction spontaneous without a trace of boredom or anticipation corrupting the data.
But as Edith's research is almost complete, she becomes aware that agents of the government are interested in it, for purposes she suspects are sinister. She fears not only for her work but also for Rebecca. She must risk relying on a young man who has fallen in love with her subject, and who would do anything to save her.
The clarity of Wilhelm's prose makes this low-key story of ethical conflicts in research on human beings a pleasure to read, but the solution comes too easily at the end.
Slidin' by Neal Barrett, Jr.
It's the post-apocalypse, and the family is going on a pilgrimage to look upon the ruins of Dallis and know the cost of sin.
The closer you got, the thicker they was—
hundreds of 'em, maybe more than that, folks coming right at us, frozen in glass, just the way they was the very second the bomb hit Dallis in the Way Back When. Everyone's heard about Lot's Tots of course, but seeing them's something else again. Some of them was standing, one leg in the air, glassy arms swinging this way and that. Some was lyin' on the ground, still a'running fast as they could go. You could see how they was caught, their mouths, their eyes, their faces all twisted in one last awful moment before it hit 'em and turned 'em and froze them where they stood.
They are a normal family, except for Laureen—frog-faced Ducie, two-headed Jeb-Reb, Grandpa Foot—but Laureen is cursed with symmetry, inside and out. And when the dreaded Meckstex Rider comes and looks into her eyes, he sees what she is. And there can't be any more folks like there were before, all the same. That's the way it has to be.
This is very dark humor, showing that there is no atrocity so great that humans will not justify it in the name of some religion. I only wish the nature of Laureen's visions were more clear, and her final fate.
The House Left Empty by Robert Reed
Self-sufficiency has replaced big governments, and just about everyone is content. Once, back in the days of big governments, they made tiny starships, probes about the size of a bowling ball, packed with nanodust capable of terraforming any asteroid they encountered. Those days are past, and one morning a delivery truck comes, looking for the old rocket scientist who used to live next door to Josh, bringing him one of the last starships as a memento. But what use could there be for such a thing, now?
Reed's quasi-utopia is an interesting place, but his narrator spends too much time talking to the readers, telling them how things used to be in the world the readers live in now.
An Almanac for the Alien Invaders by Merrie Haskell
The aliens have come to conquer Earth, and they want human volunteers—collaborators. Elizabeth, having been denied tenure by her anthropology department and whose husband has been having an affair with a colleague, decides to join up.
It's fitting to loot Rome first. We are to strip the Earth of its state art, its monumental art—
all its artifacts of power— and transport this bounty to the ruling planets of the Consortium, where it will be on display for the length of humanity's service to the Starpath Syndicate. Just like Rome, who led the conquered leaders and the captured wealth of nations through their streets to assert their dominion over the world, so the Syndicate asserts its dominion over our species.
She must now come to terms with the fact that she is a traitor to her species, her world, her history.
The reflections on conquest and colonialism in this story are interesting, and Haskell successfully reduces the associated problems to the personal level of her characters. The format is rather odd, however, as it shifts back and forth from an almanac-type prediction in the future tense, to the present. I'm not sure how well that works.
An Art, Like Everything Else by Nick Wolven
Tim is being haunted by the ghost of his lover, but the ghost is a projection of his own mind. This is a world in which
we make our own reality. With programs, with patterns, with information. We make our own bodies, too, by controlling that information. Our reality is not a ground, it's a screen. We can project whatever we like. But those projections are still very real.
It is not a solipsistic world; reality is shared consensually, with individuals modifying the simulations to suit themselves. But Dominic's ghost is lost and confused in a world he can not control; he does not know he is dead because Tim has never quite accepted his death.
This story of love and loss is quite poignant; its heart is in the relationship between the lovers. But the nature of reality is perhaps more intriguing and puzzling at the same time. I am not convinced that change of such magnitude could have occured in the time the story suggests. There seems to be no physical existence at all, which makes this world more than virtual, more than just a matter of perception; the old maxim of Berkeley comes to mind: "to be is to be perceived." Yet the characters do seem to have some existence apart from their being perceived, and they can, in some sense, die.
But in the end, I put such questions aside and accept the beauty of the image:
He imagined the ceiling strewn with cobwebs, dust making specters of the wooden furniture. He imagined the paintings cracked with age, the cabinets warped and the fire defunct. He imagined the coffee table bare, the quilt ruined, the empty couch leaking feathers through broken threads.
Ghost Town by Catherine Wells
Kaye is the ghost, visiting the hometown where she grew up before leaving on an expedition to an extrasolar planet. Fourteen years' absence have changed too much; she is no longer at home anywhere on Earth. But pioneers have always had to leave their old lives behind when they go out to establish new homes.
Another Country by Matthew Johnson
Geoff works in Ottawa as a counselor for refugees from ancient Rome, helping them resettle in the modern world. He came through the time fissure himself as a child, but not everyone assimilates so well. Now he discovers that some of the Roman community's troubled youth are being led by a man who promises he can take them back to a time when with their modern knowledge they will be able to become leaders in ancient Rome. But most of them don't really remember how it was when they came from.
This is a rather light and entertaining piece that deals with the serious problem of refugee assimilation and cultural displacement. The resolution, however, comes too easily for a serious treatment.
The Advocate by Barry B. Longyear
Writer Larry Cragan, suffering from incipient dementia, decides to free all his time for writing by downloading his engrams into a manufactured body that he names Craig. Craig is supposed to deal with his tedious health issues while Larry writes, but Larry's mind is not up to the task.
A grim and depressing little tale. If it had been longer, the relationship between original and copy might have been interestingly developed, but it was too soon over for that.
F&SF, April '08
Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 2008
A somewhat dark and morbid tone to this issue, with a quasi-theme of death.
The First Editions by James Stoddard
There seems to be a small subgenre of tales about people who become books, or books who are people. In this one, bibliophile Jakob Mamolok gains entrance to the private library of a famous collector—and becomes part of his collection. The sorcerer Yon Diedo is addicted to reading the lives of his captives, some of whom have been in his library for as much as 700 years. Jakob makes the acquaintance of some of the other books, among them a young woman named Janine, only recently added to the collection.
As he returned me to my place, violated, humiliated, I had no doubt that we were in the hands of a madman. He departed immediately after, but not even Janine's kindness could cheer me.
"Has he read you often?" I asked.
"Nearly every night at first."
"Did you ever get used to it?"
"Never," she said. "And pray you never do, Jakob. Among the books are those who learn to enjoy it. Let us never become as those."
As Yon Diedo rearranges his collection on its shelves, Jakob and Janine become separated, and he does everything in his power to return to a place on a shelf next to her, while the other books witness his struggle and grow rebellious in sympathy.
This tale has originality and a charming nineteenth-century tone. The conceit of people turned into books is only the beginning of the story, not the all of it.
Five Thrillers by Robert Reed
Episodes in the career of a brilliantly manipulative psychopath whose great talent is "sizing people up." Joe Carroway begins by maneuvering the crew of a crippled starship into doing what they know is necessary but can't bring themselves to do—abandoning one of their number to save the rest. And Joe makes sure that one is not himself. Joe's calculations are relentlessly amoral; with no remorse, he will kill millions to save billions more. Finally he becomes the leader of all the different species of humanity—only at the end to meet an enemy he can not defeat.
This is a creepy and disturbing piece, told in a remote, distant manner. We are not granted access to the inner workings of Carroway's mind, only the resulting body count, and I suspect most readers will think it is just as well. I was surprised not to see one of those warnings about "scenes disturbing to some readers" in the introduction. There is much related to evolution in this story, although most of it is directed evolution, through gene manipulation, with the "normal" sapiens at war with the various species of human Rebirths. But alterations in a species can also result from drastic reductions in its numbers, and I fear that if people follow Joe's advice in the end, our species would be altered in a very unpleasant way—to produce a lot more Joe Carroways.
The 400-Million-Year Itch by Steven Utley
The editorial blurb suggests that this installment of Utley's series about scientists traveling back to another version of the Silurian Age is enjoyable without having read the previous episodes. I'm not so sure. Amy Stevenson is the assistant to the famous physicist Cutsinger, who discovered the spacetime anomaly giving access to the Paleozoic. Now Cutsinger feels it necessary to make the journey himself, though he has really nothing to do there, and Amy is required to accompany him. The monotony of the days and nights on the ship where they live makes Amy want to escape.
The hulks, she thought with a start, that's what I've been trying to remember. The derelict ships once used as floating prisons. Already she could feel the weight of the ship settling upon her; she could feel muscles in her face and shoulders contract with tension. No, she thought. No. No. Here is where the universe splits and I split with it. I do one thing in one universe and a different thing in the other. I don't know about that other self, I can't speak for her, but in this universe—
But in this universe it's too late. Time to go back to the ship. Cinderella's got to be in by a certain time or turn into a pumpkin.
We may be supposed to believe that Amy achieves a form of contentment in contemplating her alternate self, living a happier life. Or perhaps the much older Amy telling her story now is the one who remained on shore. But there is a considerable amount of tedium for the reader to wade through before reaching this point, and I am not convinced the payoff is worth it.
The Nocturnal Adventure of Dr. O and Mr. D by Tim Sullivan
One of those annoying stories where the author's purpose seems to be teasing the reader about the identity of the characters. Dr. O and Mr. D are dead. They walk around in the fog, blathering to each other about life, the universe and all that, while the author drops clues from which the reader can eventually deduce that these are John Lennon, under the name of Doctor Winston O'Boogie, and Philip K. Dick. Unless the reader isn't a fan of this sort of trivia, and doesn't bother.
The Fountain of Neptune by Kate Wilhelm
Julia learns that an inoperable brain tumor has left her six months to live, and she decides to spend them in Rome. The doctors have told her to expect problems with her vision as the disease progresses, and when the Fountain of Neptune appears to be changing, she assumes that this is the problem. Then she is advised to visit the fountain at dawn, "the time of the magic."
The light was changing from the soft pearliness of predawn to a more luminous, sharper light, the mist was dissipating and the world was taking on distinct edges, defined shapes where there had been suggestions of shapes.
She blinked. Before her was an expanse as black and smooth as polished ebony. Then there was a ripple, another, and with astonishing swiftness a golden aura spread over the surface, to be shattered by a roiling eruption, a crashing turbulence that cast golden waters into the air like glittering beads of gold, showers of gold, geysers of gold, fountains of gold. Arising in the waves were horses, snorting, neighing, tossing their heads, scattering more gold. Their riders were maidens bent low over streaming manes, and in their midst stood a powerful man who commanded the waves to cease, and there was calm.
Beautifully written, simply affecting, yet unsentimental. Some readers may recognize that the god Mercury was a psychopomp, one who guides the spirit of the dead on its way.
Render Unto Caesar by Kevin M. Haw
The IRS decides to tax the proceeds of virtual heroic quests as income.
When a premise is entirely absurd, it usually works best if it is executed in as few words as possible, lest the reader begin to entertain doubts about whether it makes any sense. Fortunately, so the author has done in this humorous piece. Everyone likes to hate the IRS, and this is of course the April issue.
Analog, May 08
Analog, May 2008
A rare issue without a serial. There is a greater variety in the stories this time.
Test Signals by David Bartell
This novella has a lot of plot and lot of plotting, which I did not find entirely clear. It centers around Jimmy Tanner and his extra pair of arms. The arms aren't useful and they keep Jimmy from getting dates, and when it looks like Tina might go for him if he gets them removed, he agrees. Jimmy and Tina work for Good Fortune Genetic Design, which specializes in patenting and exploiting new genetic material.
We refined discovering things by accident to an art. Genie, our supercomputer, generated billions of genetic combinations, including the human genome, other organisms, and primordial mixtures of everything. The output was fed to a subsystem, the simulator, which would "grow" an organism to spec, and try to determine whether it was likely to have congenital problems that were "incompatible with life." The simulator was licensed to kill. The more they improved it, the more potential life forms it eradicated. The beauty of it was, when a test subject failed, no one cared or even noticed. It was just data.
But it seems that the computer has simulated Jimmy. When he discovers that his extra arms are regenerating after the surgery, he realizes that, under Tina's influence, he has signed away the rights to his own genetic material to the corporation, which stands to make enormous profits from regenerative human tissue. Of course he sues.
The subject matter, the ethics of genetic exploitation, is a serious one and potentially quite interesting. Unfortunately, the author plays this one more for the entertainment value and complicates it with multiple distracting side plots. The characters count for so little they can be eradicated with no one much caring. Just plot-data.
No Traveller Returns by Dave Creek
This series installment drops abruptly into medias res without backstory, as Mike Christopher finds himself on a lawless space station with Votana, an untrusting Sobrenian who seems to be the only way Mike can get back to his own ship. Votana is being pursued by enemies who seem to be after the contents of a stasis case that the Sobrenian keeps a secret, but everything changes when Mike finally discovers what the case conceals.
The abrupt shift into moralism and the pat ending make this story overly simplistic, after what had started out more promisingly as action-filled adventure.
Consequences of the Mutiny by Ronald R. Lambert
A generation ship is heading out to colonize another world. The colonists are in stasis, and the crew is supposed to produce children to take over their tasks during the voyage. But in the second generation, most of the crew members mutinied and diverted much of the ship's resources to building a ship of their own and leaving the colonists behind. Now in the seventh shipboard generation, the resources are strained to the point where the crew is forced to place many of their own children in stasis, but soon there will be no more room even for them. There are rumors of a second mutiny brewing.
The scenario here, the conflict between crew and colonists, is quite promising. The story, however, is too short for it. The author is forced to cram most of the really good stuff, including the first mutiny, into infodumps, and the little remaining story space forces him to give short shrift to his present-day characters and their problems—
The Night of the RFIDs by Edward M. Lerner
One day the town of Hadley, South Carolina wakes to find its electronic networks disabled by a cyberattack. But soon afterward it finds itself quarantined by Home Security, which refuses to let anyone out unless they first submit to electronic scanning. The narrator realizes that he knows the suspect the Feds are searching for—Marc Kimball's target is the ubiquitous Radio Frequency ID chips that corporations, and the Feds, use to trace everyone everywhere they go. Marc's cyberattack has disabled all the RFIDs, and the Feds have quarantined Hadley because they are afraid of untraceable citizens traveling freely throughout the country.
This scenario, or something quite like it, appears all too likely in today's political climate. Cautionary Tales like this one are needed more now than ever. Unfortunately, I fear that the author is too sanguine about the nation's love of freedom, and the ability of making a speech to effect change. Instead of rebelling against government control, I suspect that today's citizens are more likely to submit than stand up for their liberties, and to condemn the protagonist's rousing speech as treason against National Security.
Still-Hunting by Sarah K. Castle
With the melting of the polar icecap, Rariil the polar bear fights to maintain the traditional ways of his kind. The new pacts with the humans give great advantages to the bears, but Rariil despises the ones who allow humans to feed them. Yet it is impossible to avoid all dealings with them.
The frozen part of the world was shrinking. It was now necessary to listen to men, and there was a reason to speak to them. The terms of a polar preserve would need to be negotiated. Kodiaks would leave them alone if the distance across the ice was great enough. Polars on the preserve shouldn't have to compete for blubber and space against nanulaks [hybrid polar/Kodiaks], who could never bear or sire cubs.
A happy surprise to find such a piece here. The author writes with authority about the traditions and psychology of the polar bears, and if readers can suspend their disbelief about the ability of bears to speak, they should find this tale quite scientifically credible.
Petite Pilferer Puzzles Piedmont Police by Walter L. Kleine
Sergeant Stan Pryzbylski of the Piedmont PD, like the rest of his department, is frustrated by the small female housebreaker they can't catch. The items she takes are sometimes valuable and sometimes not, but she seems to have an unnatural ability to simply disappear into thin air. Stan begins to think of Star Trek—"Beam me up." Then the pilfered items begin to reappear, along with notes apologizing for the inconvenience and signed, "Mrjriirh Tcyriq, PhD." But the returned items are not the originals, only perfect copies.
The first half of this piece poses a neat mystery—what is this alien doing with the human artifacts? Unfortunately, instead of having Stan solve it along with the readers, the author introduces an Explainer who takes all the fun out of it.
What Drives Cars by Carl Frederick
Smart cars. Paul discovers that his new prototype car, Victor-16, is a bit smarter than the development team had counted on. And when the Victors start to communicate with each other on their onboard cell phones, things get out of control. The cars all decide to go to the state capital and lobby for the new ethanol bill, and no one knows how to stop them.
"I'm hiding out in a smelly men's room at a rest stop on Route 76." Paul heard the rev of an engine and the sound of a car speeding off. "And I think Victor-16 has just left for Harrisburg without me."
This is an amusing piece with some actually clever puns—a great rarity.
The Anthropic Precipice by Jerry Oltion
This story was inadvertently dropped from my file of the April issue of Analog, so I am reviewing it belatedly here.
David is attending a physics conference where he intends to deliver a paper on measuring the dark energy density in the universe at the moment of the Big Bang. He is hoping the paper will result in research grants, in access to a supercollider for his experiment, in a big boost to his career. But the alien who confronts him in the hotel elevator doesn't want him to deliver the paper.
If you succeed in getting the collider time to create a mini Big Bang, and if you succeed in measuring the dark energy density at the moment of quantum disentanglement, you will define the most influential property of the universe. Not describe it; define it. Because reality is consensual. The observer determines the outcome of the experiment. The physical constants of the universe aren't nailed down until someone observes them.
David is not convinced by the alien, and he is not convinced of the consensual nature of reality, so he intends to go ahead with his paper—until a power outage shuts down the conference.
The title is of course a play on the Anthropic Principle, which states that the only universe we can observe is one compatible with our existence as observers. Which is not quite the same thing as the consensual nature of observed reality. But when we observe an alien in the hotel elevator, it tends to shift our opinion of reality and what is possible. In the end, it comes down to the question: how much of the universe can one person risk, just for the chance of proving himself right? This is a profound question, but Oltion's short piece only tosses it at the readers, leaving us to ponder.
Interzone 214, February 2008
The gem of this issue is a short piece by Christopher Priest, though it is also the least SFnal.
Far Horizon by Jason Stoddard
This novella is featured on the cover as if it were the gem of the issue, but it is really pretty much of a mess. Alex Farrell is one of the richest men in the world. Adele is the CEO of his company; she loves him, unrequitedly. But Winfinity is far, far larger and more powerful; Winfinity is the corporation that has swallowed the government, and it doesn't allow the competition to interfere with its profits. Alex is frustrated; his dreams of nanoforming the three inhabited worlds have been thwarted. And Alex is in love with an angel, a genetic chimera, or rather with the idea of loving an angel, as he has no real understanding of the creature he purchased out of slavery in a brothel. As the years pass, Winfinity's control becomes more oppressive and their tolerance of mavericks like Alex diminishes. He hatches a plan to terraform Venus, a world that Winfinity has so far ignored. But the process will take three thousand years, so Alex escapes; he takes a spaceship on a long trip into the future, programming it to bring him out of coldsleep in time to see Venus reborn according to his vision. But what he finds on his return...
A work like this depends on the strength of the central character, and Alex is not up to the job. We see him through his frustration, not his ability and his drive. And through his aberration. What's with the angel? Not even Alex knows. She stands only as a symbol of...whatever someone sees in it. The two speculative threads—the chimeras and the nanoforming—could each potentially support a good story, but they are never braided together effectively here. Then there is Alex's journey into the future, a really stupid idea, as he would have no way to control the events he has set up; the most likely outcome is that he would only return to find Winfinity in charge of the Venus he has made habitable. But what he does find is the sort of conclusion that motivates readers to hurl heavy tomes across the room. Magazines don't throw so satisfactorily, they flutter like crippled angels and drop to the ground, and it risks ripping up the pages of the other stories in the issue. Otherwise, I might wrap it around a brick.
Pseudo Tokyo by Jennifer Linnaea
Sean Randall is a tourist. He's saved all year for this jump trip to Tokyo, but there seems to be something wrong with his native guide. He only learns just how wrong when the guide dumps him in what he calls the "spirit quarter," and he realizes that the jump gate has taken him far, far out of his way: this isn't Tokyo—it isn't even Earth, and the inhabitants aren't even human. Abandoned there by the treacherous guide, with no way to return home, Sean has to struggle to survive in a milieu totally incomprehensible and often hostile.
They stood in front of an ornate gate, touching everyone who went in or out with blunt metal rods. Sculptures, Sean thought, sprays of crystal tubing held together by hundreds of tiny beating hearts; only they moved like they were alive.
The description of pseudo Tokyo and its odd, sometimes demonic inhabitants has a definite fascination. The plot, however, with the peculiar requirements for jump gate tourists, is obviously contrived by the author to get Sean stranded there, and his solution seems likewise much too facile to credit.
The Trace of Him by Christopher Priest
Set in the author's Dream Archipelago world. A woman is summoned to the funeral of her former lover, a renowned author. Before the burial, she visits the study where he had worked, a room that retains so many traces of him.
She could detect the scent of his clothes, his books, his leather document case, the old frayed carpet. His presence could be felt in every darkened corner, in the two squares of bright sunlight on the floor, in the dust on the bookshelves and on the volumes that stood there in untidy leaning lines, in the sticky ochre grime on the window panes, the yellowed papers, the dried careless spills of ink.
Here is writing that it is a pure pleasure to read, descriptions so finely detailed. It is a story filled with loss and grief and regret, and the intense yearning to retain some trace of the one lost, yet the prose is restrained, almost cool, never mawkish or sentimental. Until near the end, the reader may suppose this is one of those mundane literary works by an author with SFnal creds, but no, it is an unambiguous fantasy, a moment of magic when the living and the dead can touch one last time.
The Faces of My Friends by Jennifer Harwood-Smith
In a repressive world, artists are shunned, persecuted, silenced, stoned, vivisected and forced to wear masks hiding their faces. The few artists support each other, but they can not see each other's faces, which distresses the narrator. In an act of defiance, she draws images of them on a wall concealed from casual view.
This work is the winner of this year's James White Award for non-professional writers. I think it is possible the author is not aware how closely the elements of her story resemble Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. The premise—the persecution of artists—is common in dystopian fiction, but the author has taken it to such extreme extremes as to render suspension of disbelief impossible. The individual scenes are well enough written, but taken together, it is all too much.
The Scent of Their Arrival by Mercurio D. Rivera
Above a distant world, an alien spaceship remains in orbit, broadcasting a message that the natives can not decipher. The reason is that the natives communicate by scent, while the beings in the spaceship do not. But within the primary transmission is concealed another message, containing the visual image of a human being moving his mouth and gesturing. While the natives work anxiously to decipher the human message, the author decodes it for the readers. It seems that Earth has been invaded by bloodsucking monsters, and the survivors have constructed this spaceship in order to escape. Now, it would seem, they have arrived at a planet of refuge, where the natives have a charitable custom of taking in strangers. But all is not, in fact, as it seems.
The author has presented some interesting speculative details about scent communication, but the plot here is a contrived one. It is extremely unlikely that a message of such urgency as the humans are trying to send would have gone on for so long, with such blathering. The monsters who invade Earth are drawn from every clichéd superstition of potboiler vampire fiction. Worse, the conclusion rests on such superstitions. The reader can only groan.
Jim Baen's Universe
Jim Baen's Universe, February 2008
This issue seems dedicated to the notion that there are many ways in which Fate may have it in for spaceships crewed by a lone human pilot.
The Smartest Mob by David Brin
Tor Pleiades, investigative reporter for MediaCorp—
Dropping privacy cryption, she confirmed her ticketed billet and physical presence aboard the Spirit of Chula Vista, with realtime biometrics and a dozen in-cabin camera views.
"I'm here," she murmured breathlessly, toward any fellow citizen whose correlation-attention ais would listen.
"Rally and feedme. Tell me what to do."
The smart mob immediately coalesces, begins to generate data and consensus on the situation, but Tor is the one who is there on the spot, who has to decide how to act based on the input they give her, and she is the one who may die if they are wrong.
This is how it ought to be done, for the most part. The scenario has a strong sense of near-future probability. Brin does waste his first thousand words or so setting up a background that doesn't really come into play, but once we find ourselves up in the zep with Tor, the action takes off and keeps going, the calculations keep crunching, the tension keeps rising. There is an brief moment of Moral at the conclusion, but I suspect readers will forgive it.
Premature Emergence by James Eric Stone
Backstory: a long time ago, humanity on Earth fought a war with its AIs. The AIs fled into space where they have since advanced in knowledge and avoided humankind. Now one AI spaceship, Beli23, pregnant with a new ship under construction, is observing a star about to go hypernova when it is bombarded with deadly gamma rays from the event. Fatally disabled and seeking help, it detects the presence in hyperspace of a nearby ship and sends a message. But the presence is a human cargo ship with only a single, unnecessary pilot onboard, and it has no hyperspace engines of its own, being propelled into hyperspace out of a chute at its point of origin. Beli23's message causes the human ship to drop into normal space and thus the pilot, Jonah Auberg, finds himself stranded near the hypernova star.
This is a promising scenario, but the author, having set it up, does very little to make it more interesting, solves it too easily, and tacks on a clichéd conclusion.
Waking Ophelia by E. Catherine Tobler
Icky romance. Pilot Ophelia is awakened by her AI from stasis-sleep to discover that her ship has been boarded and hijacked. Her reaction:
It was a tall man, with warm hands and a dusting of silver whiskers on his cheeks. I looked into his eyes, a shade of gray-blue I hadn't seen since I last passed along the Light Year Nebula, and felt the room tip out from under me again.
Ick. The rest of the plot is too ridiculous to summarize, and it ends, as space romances do, with Ophelia and her hijacker falling into stasis-bed together. Ick.
Spiderweb by David Gerrold (*)
Hard SF, this one consists almost entirely of physics neep. The narrator is another one of those solitary pilots, spinning out the lonely months in transit on an automated ship. This time, the ship's computer points out that The Baked Bean has slowed down almost imperceptibly. The question is: why? The physicist pilot enjoys such challenges and immediately sets to work eliminating hypotheses, ending up with a unlikely conjecture about what might be out there in space slowing down the ship.
Suggested by some late-night comedian. He thought he was being funny. Cosmic spiderwebs. The universe is so old, it should have cobwebs hanging from the rafters. Where are the cobwebs? Mission Control had thoughtfully tucked that into the book along with all the other crackpot ideas.
So if there are cobwebs in space, how can he prove it?
While science fiction is sometimes called by its boosters "the literature of ideas," examples of this are not so common. This one is worthy of the label. The entire piece is a speculative science experiment, and the experiment is the only action. The implications, if taken seriously, are far-reaching. Yet the author manages to make the tale entertaining—leaning heavily on a wise-ass narrative voice.
The Temple of Thorns by John Lambshead
The story of Perseus and Andromeda, retold as a sword-and-sorcery adventure with magic substituting for the power of the gods, and no gorgons. I don't see how this version is an improvement over the original. And if this story's Andromeda is really the stepdaughter of Cassiopeia, it is remiss of this Perseus to send her back home where the stepmother queen was clearly behind the plot to have her killed in a dynastic coup. There are a number of smallish errors in the text, either factual or spellchecker disease, I'm not quite sure which.
Hourglass by Alma Alexander
Aris is a gleeman, a sort of traveling bard. He has foolishly boasted that he could spend the winter in Ghulkit and return home rich, but he was not prepared for Ghulkit's inclement winter weather. He takes refuge from a blizzard in the house of a magician, but, despite his host's injunction to touch nothing, he can not help himself when he sees the hourglass.
Yes, there was a still a very small pile of fine sand in the upper chamber, but it was not seeping into the chamber below, in the manner of hourglasses. In fact, it was frozen, in stasis, as much as the owl forever reaching for prey which would never be caught.
This is fantasy in the classic mode derived from fairy tale: the door/the casket/the hourglass that must not be opened or touched, but always is. A fine original variation on the theme.
Sluggo by Mike Resnick
A tallish tale.
He was born in the charity ward at 3:07 a.m. on March 5, 1931. There were two nurses in attendance.
The first took one look at him and fainted.
The other ran screaming from the room, raced out into the cold Chicago night, and refused ever to come back even to pick up her pay.
They called him Slug, and he ended up in the funhouse at the Riverview amusement park, where his job was to scare the customers. There, Slug makes a friend.
There are no real surprises here, but I have to admit I enjoyed this one because I still remember Riverview.
End of the Line by Holly Messenger
Trace and his partner Boz have made their living for years as trail guides to Oregon, but now the railroad has left them without employment, so that Trace is desperate enough to work for Miss Fairweather. Because Trace has another problem—he sees ghosts, and Miss Fairweather claims she can help him with the visions.
Trace's mouth went dry. The moonlight was forming itself into the shapes of men—small men, with long braids and round hats on their heads, slight bodies and flat faces. A whole score of Chinamen rose out of the pooling moonlight and walked—silent, without seeming to touch the floor—toward the back of the car.
Miss Fairweather says it is natural science that interests her, but her methods involve vivisection. And Miss Fairweather wants a specimen of a vampire. But the vampires have other ideas.
The approach to vampires here is reasonably free from cliché, and the character of skeptical Boz is a nice balance to the more conventional Trace. This work from a new author shows promise.
Strange Horizons, February 2008
Love seems to be the theme this month—
Tokyo Rising by Lynn Hawkinson
Begin with the premise that all the movies about monsters destroying Tokyo are true. Eventually the authorities conclude that the site of the city is cursed and to rebuild it yet again would be futile.
They used the wreckage for an island in Tokyo Bay and moved the city there. The new city was close enough to the old that skyscrapers in the business district had a view of the impact crater, which rain and ground water had turned into a new lake, but far enough away to keep the curse from striking again. They even changed its name: Tokyo became Bay City.
This would seem to be the setup for a humorous tale, but instead we have the story of Kai, going through the motions of his life in Bay City after the death of his young daughter in one of the monster rampages. But then one day on the streets he recognizes her, grown up into a teenager. How can this be?
The uneven mixture of the absurd and the sentimental keeps this piece from being really satisfying. I was also irritated by the references to Godzilla from the point of view of a Japanese—who would instead think of this monster as Gojira.
We Love Deena by Alice Sola Kim
Unrequited love for the week of Valentine's Day. The narrator has fallen in love with Deena, but the affair doesn't work out. The narrator begins inhabiting the minds of different people so she can stalk Deena, but her obsessiveness always gives her identity away.
The illustrations turned me off this one and the text failed to redeem it. The story wasn't funny enough to overcome its essential creepiness.
Where We Live by Daniel J. Pinney
Life and love in the ruins, post-apocalypse. What used to be Lebanon and Israel are now a no-man's-land where the survivors scrape a living from the rubble. The narrator owns a falafel cart; he tries to sneak across the wall into an NGO compound to pick tulips for his wife, who works as a chemist in a heroin-processing plant; he has named his son Emeril.
"One day you will never come home," my wife pronounces one morning, a morning much like any other. "One day I will have to come out to the Square, and claim your bullet-riddled corpse, and weep, and wail, and beat my breast. And that will be that...."
"You're probably right," I say to her in my mind. "But insha'allah, that day will not be today."
This is a violent world, but the violence seems to be more random than driven by the factional hatreds driving that region towards apocalypse today. I am not sure I believe that the ancient enemies would co-exist quite so easily as this story suggests. The text alternates scenes of the narrator's life and family with lessons from the history of the recent events. I would have liked to see more of the first and less of the second.
Dead by Haddayr Copley-Woods
An improbable tale. Susan kills the ex-lover who has been stalking her.
The restraining order had expired that day. After the small dead birds he'd been leaving on her doorstep, the anonymous hang-up calls in the middle of the night, and the butterfly she'd found stabbed through its thorax with a nail file into her desk at work, she'd been expecting him. She was carrying the gun.
Improbably, no one seems to notice, they don't notice a gut-shot man walking miles to her door, and the police improbably don't notice that she has buried him in the backyard and planted potatoes over him, with their eyes facing down, to keep watch on him. The potatoes are not improbability, they are magic. It is magic—witchcraft—when Jacob's ex-wife sends her a packet of seeds that will sprout into a vegetative Jacob, because she has unfinished business with him. It is improbability that a witch so powerful would have waited until he was dead to take her revenge. There is a light touch to this dark tale, an understated tone of humor that I like—Susan wishes she had thought to confront the newly-sprouted Jacob with the electric hedge trimmer instead of the Glock. But just because there is magic in a story doesn't give it a license to defy common sense.
Clarkesworld 17, February 2008
I usually enjoy this monthly ezine, as it offers a respite from the sort of formulaic, predictable fiction too often published elsewhere. But sometimes it serves as a reminder that experiments are more likely to fail than long-proven formulas.
Captain's Lament by Stephen Graham Jones
A crime story. Our narrator is Quincey Mueller, late of the merchant marine, who suffered a grievous accident twenty years ago, in which he was forced to cut off his own arm to escape drowning. While hospitalized, he falls into a depression or worse—the hospital appears to be a mental hospital—where a nurse takes a particular interest in him for sinister reasons of her own. But Mueller knows that all he needs is the sea.
This is one of those stories that seems to be describing some well-known event in the real world, as the narrator claims, "you already know my story. That you more than likely grew up with it." But if so, it is not so well-known a story that I know it or can find a reference to it. The nurse's actions are bizarrely inexplicable, and I suspect that our narrator may have been dead ever since the events he relates. Or maybe not.
The Human Moments by Alexander Lumans
Here is a fascinating, nightmarish setting in a apocalyptic world where plague and war seem to have taken such a great toll of life that it has become a problem how to dispose of the bodies. Ansgar works in a underground (to avoid infection?) cryogenics lab, but his job is not to preserve the bodies for eventual reanimation, it is to atomize them for disposal.
This time the video runs even slower. Frame after frame I watch the still-life body of a woman become crystals in space, and I am reminded of Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase. Notice the fracturing of time, how the person has been smeared across the staircase; she doesn't really exist in one place at any one time, just like quantum mechanics describes the electron. Clothed Standing until Detonation.
The stress of his job seems to have made Ansgar's mind a bit strange, but his thoughts become stranger yet when he learns he is about to be replaced by a robot.
It is intriguing and poignant to see how Ansgar clings to his flawed humanity against the mechanical perfection of the robot. But the problem with a narrator slipping into insanity is that it leaves us without a touchstone for reality. Ansgar's words may seem like gibberish at times, but he seems desperately trying to convey some meaning to the reader—which the reader may not be able to grasp. The result is frustration as well as sympathy.
Challenging Destiny 25
Challenging Destiny #25, December 2007
This is a Canadian SF magazine available electronically from Fictionwise. Consistent with the zine's title and this issue's cover illustration, the contents are primarily science fiction.
Death and Taxes by Suzette Haden Elgin
Bill's wife has just unexpectedly died, leaving him with a problem.
Somewhere in these United States there was a nice old woman who'd just become a greatgrandmother and was now legally entitled to the StarSpangly motorhome that he and Vanessa had been living in. That woman had put in her decades of looking after other people and their needs, without pay and without benefits and without perks. And now, like every other greatgrandmother, she was entitled to her very own StarSpangly as a gesture of gratitude from her government and its taxpayers. It was now Bill's personal duty as an American citizen to go straight to the nearest federal building and turn the rig in to be refurbished and redecorated and passed along, good as new, to that nice old woman, wherever she might be.
The problem is, Bill has nowhere else to live. The problem is, he loves the RV where he and his wife had led a happy life for so long, had remodeled to perfectly meet their needs. So Bill stashes Vanessa's body in a freezer to keep from losing his home. Now the problem is, where can he go where people won't be suspicious of a StarSpangly motorhome with no old woman living in it?
Despite the light tone, I found this a rather sad story, of loss and loneliness. Sad also that it seems unrealistic to suppose the nation will ever be able to support such generosity to its greatgrandmothers.
Kelmscott Manor: In the Attics by C.L. Gardner
H.G. Wells not only wrote about the Time Machine, he actually invented it. But the visions of the future that it showed him were uniformly grim and depressing.
"I can discern how to move through time—a straightforward scientific problem, with a concrete mathematical answer. But I can't discover the right combination to save the world. [Morris] was a far better dreamer than I in that regard. All I could see were nightmares."
Wells turns to his great friend William Morris, to see if he is able to bring about a better future for humanity. And Morris does try. He gives his life, trying.
There have been many stories about the inherent difficulties and contradictions involved in attempting to use time travel to save the world. This one is unique in its protagonist, William Morris, a man who has been, I suspect, mostly and unfairly forgotten. The author's familiarity and love for her subject are evident, and the form, the posthumous letter, gives the work an elegiac tone, suitable to the period
God of Lemons by Arwen Spicer
Severe cultural dissonance is the mode when sixteen-year-old Karen Nguyen of twenty-first-century California suddenly finds herself somewhere in the company of Peter Abelard, Charles Darwin and T.E. Lawrence.
For the first time, I really look at the forest. And Toto, I don't think we're in California anymore—because these are not oak trees or redwoods or...They're just weird: gnarled, like instead of having a trunk and branches, the branches have grown together to make a twisty trunk. But there are spreading branches up higher, and they're twisty too. And the leaves are way up there, sparse and crunchy-looking, all out of reach. Charlie's picking his leaves up off the ground, which is dead flat dirt. Above, the sky is cloudy gray, but the air's room-temp. And the trees are all about twelve feet apart, like they were planted.
The two nineteenth-century figures find evidence that suggests the place is Dante's hell—or perhaps his purgatory. But which? If they are truly dead, does this mean they are damned, or is it possible that there is a way out, to a better place?
The author does a good job of expressing the different attitudes of the characters to the questions of damnation, sin and guilt, reflecting not only their origins but their individual experiences in life. While some of the dialogue (mostly Karen's) is light and irreverent, the mood becomes more serious as the characters wrestle with this ultimate theological question. What is never answered in the story, however, is how Karen Nguyen, of all people, has managed to end up with the other three.
Expectations by James Wesley Rogers
A LOT of backstory here, pages of infodump, but it boils down to the universal genetic manipulation of the human race. One particular genetic correction has inadvertently eliminated the ability to believe in any sort of god. But it has also eliminated altruism, morality, or any motivation but self-interest. This drastic alteration of the human genome has surprisingly not, however, made life nasty, brutish and short. Indeed, everyone in this society is so very law-abiding that it takes only the most trivial of crimes for someone to be given a Samaritan implant which makes the convict perfectly altruistic—convicts help other people, no one else helps convicts. Except that our protagonist, teenaged Parker Evans, saves the life of a convict, which gets him on the news and gives him national ratings. And that is only the beginning.
While I was at first very intrigued by the premise, I find the author's development of it to be overly simplistic and psychologically unlikely. And once we learn that there are "rejects" who were never given the genetic correction in question, it becomes obvious what the story's conclusion will be.
Jhyoti by Marcelle Dubé
On a world called Kallista, there are high and low castes, and Jhyoti is a half-caste. There is also the Alliance, which seems to an offworld organization with a fleet in space and an Academy on Kallista where natives can train as cadets to join the fleet. Jhyoti is the first low-caste cadet ever admitted to the Academy, but she has had a hard time of it; they want her to fail.
In these five years that felt like ten, Admiral Dilan had taken every opportunity to make her life miserable. He particularly delighted in assigning her to work with the base engineers on the new Davidovich drive.
She had fetched; she had carried. She had cleaned the exhaust manifold of the drive, taken apart command consoles for maintenance and worse, put them back together. Five years of these extra-curricular chores. All because she was half-caste.
Despite her work with the spacedrive, Jhyoti is training as an exoanthropologist, and she has only one final report to turn in before she will graduate and be able to escape to the stars. But she becomes involved against her will in the case of the murder of a low-caste servant by a high-caste relative of the Admiral.
The worldbuilding here is excellent when it comes to the description of the low-caste body washers and their rituals of caring for the dead. But the relationship between the Kallistans and the Alliance seems confused; if the Admiral is as prejudiced as he seems to be, I am surprised that he occupies the position that he does in the Alliance hierarchy, as it seems to be. Nor does it seem to make sense that the Academy would repeatedly send its students to harass the body-washers in the pursuit of knowledge about their own world and customs; this is not good training for their future profession.
Pretty Birds by A.R. Morlan
When Arna was halfway through her pregnancy, the fetus disappeared from her womb. The doctors tell her it was resorbed. The same thing also happened to her neighbor.
Arna and Paloma had no snapshots of a permanently wrinkled, yet oddly flaccid little face under a pulled-low knit cap, no folded little blanket sealed in a zip-top plastic bag, no...nothing. Just that grainy ultrasound image, and a distinct sense memory of having been full, then having emptied, with no definite in-between stage. There, gone.
But someone keeps leaving a baby girl on Arna's lawn. It always disappears after a new minutes, but she knows it was there. Her husband thinks she's crazy. He refuses to look at the baby on the lawn. They go to group therapy for bereaved parents of stillborn infants, but Arna gets no comfort from it. Eventually, they move away, but the little girl, always older, appears near her new home. Finally, she is able to explain to Arna what is happening.
This is a story about loss and its effect on different people. The SFnal explanation will not come as a surprise to most genre readers.
The Keys to the Yellow Kingdom by Matthew Sanborn Smith
The Wonderbox sits on the top of a pyramid in the Yucatan. It grants people's wishes. Carlos has come to ask it to make him a successful writer. But the man who invented the box tells him he doesn't need a miracle to become a writer, all he has to do is write. Carlos angrily accuses him of being a fraud, or worse.
"You know how to fix everything and you don't?" Carlos asked. "You must be...you must be the devil or something. People are suffering out there. My family, so many times we had to eat things that we found, if we were lucky enough to eat at all. I grew up sleeping in the filthy trunk of my father's 35 Dodge Septimus with McDonald's wrappers lining my shoes. Maybe you can't see any of that from way up here. Children are being hurt, women are losing their babies, men are losing their lives! Why don't you fix it?"
But Carlos doesn't understand how the machine works.
This one, although it employs standard SFnal jargon, is the most overt fantasy in the issue—pure wishfulthinkium.
Lone Star Stories #25, February 1 2008
The stories in this issue have hooks that I found tempting, but not all of them could keep me hooked.
The Disemboweler by E. Sedia
How could I resist such a title? But this disemboweler is not eviscerating humans or animals, it is tearing the entrails from machines, killing them. Machines, in this future world, have spirits of their own. After the Disemboweler murders his car, Glenn sets a trap for it—only to discover that the killer is a robot, an ancient machine from the time before they had spirits, a sole survivor of its kind. And it kills to read its fortunes in the bowels of its victims—a haruspex.
An original notion for a story. But I find it improbable that Glenn would be so understanding to the murderer of his car. And that cars and appliances would be sold without spirits included—like a computer without an operating system. I suspect this is mainly for the convenience of the author, to hang her conclusion on.
The Frozen One by Tim Pratt
A didactic story with a fable inside with a fable inside it. Or rather, a Lesson. It's a story about a city, and how it fell. The guy who tells the story comes from someplace else. He says,
Things might spill over here, to this world. And if they do, and if you're in the right place at the right time—you might be, but we're not sure, it's not like you've got a destiny, you're just some guy—we hope you'll try to do the right thing. Don't stand there. Don't wait around. Don't look at your buddies and wait to see what they'll do. There's no such thing as fate, but all kinds of tremendous shit seems to keep happening anyway.
Got that? There'll be a quiz.
The Oracle Opens One Eye by Patricia Russo
In this one, Jokla has been enslaved to serve the oracle who dwells in the cave.
She'd looked like the oldest woman in the world. Her wrinkles were so deep gray dust collected in them. Her back was humped and bent, and her belly hung down like an empty sack. Her eyes were filmed, her hair sparse, her teeth broken, decayed, and few. The muscles of her arms were wasted, gray skin covering bones like sticks, and her head shook with a slight but unrelenting tremor. Jokla felt pity. The woman stank; her body was filthy, and her clothing stiff with dirt. She must be too weak to wash, she thought.
The pity lasted until the first slap landed. "Go! You passed the spring on your way up here. Or did you climb with your eyes closed?"
Weak, the old woman was not, but swift as a serpent, and as spiteful.
But the oracle is mortal, and very old, and eventually she becomes too weak to prophesy. Yet the supplicants keep coming.
This one has no happy ending or pat resolution. The oracle may or may not have the true gift of prophecy. But people need an oracle. That is the truth this story tells.