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February, 2005 : Review:

Short Fiction Reviews, February 2005

Well, there's a big batch of reviews this month, and a stack of magazines waiting to be read—a few of which are still from 2004! This column will mark the last effort of trying to be comprehensive, so look for another round of format changes next month.

Covered in this volume are:

So... without further ado, then, let's leap right in!

Strange Horizons (December 2004 - January 2005)

Apparently, Strange Horizons saved some of their best stuff for last. December's stories seemed both stronger and more compelling than anything I've encountered in this venue for some months.

Warning! second-person story alert! The Floating Otherworld by Tom Doyle begins with a Lost in Translation feel, but things soon shift into an overdrive in which strange Japan interfuses with an even stranger dream world that operates according to rules ‘you' can't fathom. The second person structure enhances the flavor of dream here, but Doyle plays the surrealism in fine Japanese style. The unreal, the beyond-real, and the possibility that it is all all-too-real coexist as plausibly as in a Murakami novel. The difference between metaphorical and the literal has no meaning. This piece has marvelous build-up, but I found the resolution somewhat disappointing. I was expecting revelation, or perhaps confusion, but what I felt was wish fulfillment. Things came back together without any apparent cause or choice. There seemed to be no sacrifice, no cost. The magic simply faded away like a receding tide, and left an unconvincing sand castle standing on the smooth beach.

2:30 by Leslie What opens be declaring the narrator unreliable: "I suffered from Narcissistic Personality Disorder and was the only one who could depend on the things I said." According to this narrator, his marriage may be on the rocks and he's got a bad tooth. It's infested with micro people, possibly thousands of them, and the dentist is unwilling to commit genocide. (By the way, if you're wondering what NPD looks like, consider this beautiful little conundrum: "Thinking of myself was what I did best, and I didn't understand why nobody else understood that.") Marriage and dentistry turn out to be closely related, in more ways than one. The micro people? They offer to help poor Clark save his marriage in exchange for their very lives. They mate for life, you see. ("By the way, how long do you live?" / "About a month," he said. "I catch your drift, but the principles still stand.") They specialize in empathy. Bear in mind, however, the micropeople are a colony. Parasites even. Another outrageous and brilliant piece of work from Ms. What.

Elizabeth Bear's Two Dreams on Trains is a haunting tale of intergenerational non-understanding, set in a far-future New Orleans that floats on the risen sea above the sunken ruins of old New Orleans. Patience is studying hard and working hard to build them a future; Javier has interest only in his futureless, useless, economically unviable art. Even if he is good. One hopes that these two will find a way to bridge the gap, but Bear offers no easy hope. The story is noteworthy for a particular efficiency of description and world building that hints at a broad and compelling future, as dark as Blade Runner and as elaborate as something out of Mieville. There's blockbuster novel world building behind this little story, and yet the story is whole—it leaves you wanting more, but mercifully, not wishing for an ending.

If Rapunzel were actually a twenty-first century girl, maybe already through a round of therapy or two, she might think like the Rapunzel who narrates Inside the Tower by Stephanie Burgis. This Rapunzel has come back to the Tower, to help her mother through the last stages of her mortal decline. This Rapunzel may still need another round of therapy.

Jenn Reese—and Strange Horizons—promise a 12-story series, beginning with: Tales of the Chinese Zodiac: Monkey. And twelve seems to be the number of the day, for the story begins with twelve monkeys falling out of a tree. If this is a promise of the stories to come, expect a series of short fairy tales of classical construction. This is work along the lines of Bruce Holland Rogers' work in Realms of Fantasy, although perhaps expressing a less lofty, more down-home sort of wisdom than Rogers' High Morality.

SciFiction (December 2004 - January 2005)

From Terry Dowling comes a strange little work of horror.... At Macklin's there is a room they call the Clownett. Not the best, not the worst, but it does have a blotchwork stain on the wall and no number of repaintings remove it. Mr. J calls it the Motley. In some circumstances, yes, it looks like a clown. Not only can't it be removed, stranger still: it can't be covered. Huh? Read on. Mr. J is never excited to be given the Clownett, but on this particular occasion it's not being assigned the room that's the worst news: the staff is treating him differently. Something's up. Well, Mr. J has made some plans of his own for his next occasional encounter with the Clownett— he wants to test that uncoverable-blotch claim. He wants to prove to himself that the Motley moves. Having covered it with a painting, however, Mr. J wakes up in the middle of the night to discover that testing the Motley may not have been the best idea. What follows is an eery piece of surrealism with all the nightmarish, escalating terror of a fever dream. And also, in its own way, a convincing meditation on the natural horror that is hotel-space.

In Luciferase, Bruce Sterling combines the sexual dynamics of an internet chat room, stylistic philosophy on romance and the meaning of life, and bug chemistry in this crazy romp of an adventure. Fireflies, jumping spiders, and—new to me—the Photuris relative of the firefly that actually mimics the flashing of lightning bugs in order to prey upon them are the characters in this dramatization of a 1997 Cornell study of Photinus, Photuris, and the Phidippus jumping spider. (See press release.) All that plus a carefully crafted plot with well-prepared surprises, cause and effect, and some of the most plausible character motivation I've encountered in some time.)

Nocturne by J.R. Dunn, introduces the reader to a tough-nosed security expert, hired to help protect a billionaire from his protege's family. Bio-tech, government investigations, and....he billionaire's protege's family all have a role to play in this story about someone who will sacrifice everything to transcend mediocrity.

Elizabeth Bear's second offering on the internet this month is Follow Me Light, which mixes the Las Vegas legal community, aura watching and tarot-reading, all with some sort of creepy Old Testament fish people. It's also a charming love story. It doesn't have quite the vividness that her offering in Strange Horizons conveys, however.


Paradox: #6

Paradox (Winter 04-05, #6)

The cover of the magazine nicely illustrates The Three Truths by Adam Stemple, although like most of the illustrations in Paradox, the painting is historical, out of copyright. (This is an ingenious solution on the part of the editors: Paradox has better illustrations than any print magazine, excepting, perhaps, Realms of Fantasy, and all at presumably no or little cost—plus the whole thing introduces the reader to a history of illustration.)

In any case, it's a fine illustration for a very entertaining story: Stemple combines Sherlock Holmes with the age of the samurai, complete with a bumbling Watson. Bumbling he may be, but in this story he saves the day. Despite the astonishing powers of reason, and the amazing martial talents of Master Shichiro, loyalty to the feudal order has clouded his judgement. He has been politically outmaneuvered by his enemies, and only his trusty, if not entirely competent, man-servant can save him. In the range from historical to speculative fiction, this tale remains fully on the historical side, but it has a clear genre feel that will delight any mystery fan, and a few Hong Kong action film moments as well. Moreover, Stemple proves himself a natural storyteller by his use of compelling characters, rising tension, and pleasantly complex villains. A strong effort.

Since Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, alternate histories in which Germany won the war have been a dime a dozen. Matthew S. Rotundo takes a slightly different take on it in The Alternate History of Arthur Eisen. For most of the story, it feels like another Germany-won-the-war stories, with America being run by Nazis, Jewish people being gradually marginalized, separated, and—possibly—killed, while a slightly horrified populace looks on in moral paralysis. There is a twist at the end that gives the premise a little more life, but for a theme that has been extensively worked, it still came off a bit slight.

Osiris Rising by Resa Nelson opens with a hook that is also worn smooth from overuse: "After she was murdered, Jemma left Earth to..." Nelson makes use of some rather threadbare tropes of science fiction to lay the groundwork for a story that is otherwise quite intriguing. This Jemma has returned to Earth to see the alien that has all the media abuzz. It's her first time back to the planet since her first body was murdered and naturally she arrives with some trepidation. But she feels powerfully drawn to the alien. The narrative is intercut with tales from the mythic age of Egypt, as we view Isis and Osiris as a love story that involves the attempt of an alien race to bring a civilizing influence to humanity. Humans don't universally take up the ideals of non-violence and mutual prosperity, however, and Osiris is forced to take a lengthy vacation. This is his return, and he is performing a strange ritual that just may have something to do with Jemma. There's a lot that doesn't quite work here: Jemma is a rather tiresome character at times; a number of the details don't ring true; and yet the premise is fascinating. Ultimately, this is a good story from an author who does not prove herself a natural storyteller: but there's enough here for one to hope she gets there.

In Tiger Heart Wrapp'd in a Woman's Hide, Karen L. Abrahamson has the gods of the jungle (a jungle in India, I think) doing in their shaman (does India have shamans?) because he has failed to protect the jungle from loggers. There is a peculiarly misogynistic subtext throughout: everything the hapless shaman does wrong, he does to keep his avaricious wife and daughter off his back. It's hard to care much for this spineless twerp, or his family of harridans, so my reading the story consisted of skimming along until such time as the gods got around to taking care of business.

Milk in a Silver Cup by Meredith Simmons tells the story of a Golem hired to protect a Jewish moneylender in England during the middle ages. Well, he's not really a golem: he's just a really big guy who in his youth was disfigured by fire—and his disfigurements included the loss of his voice. But the Jewish enclave all think he's a golem, or they half do. Eventually he meets his employer's half-sister, a witch. A real one. The resulting love story is a very compelling, well-crafted tragedy. Among the elements that make this story particularly memorable include the subtleties with which Simmons handles the psychology of the outsider, the outcast. You can feel the loneliness and the isolation of this Golem, particularly ironic since he is an outcast among an outcast people! The love story is both convincing and powerful. A very fine effort.

Isandhlwana at Dawn by Clyde E. Miller is a short two-page tribute to the valor of the Zulu warriors, but not one that made much impression on me, I'm afraid.

Those familiar with the general form of the fable will find few surprises (but plenty of good storytelling) in Lady of the Birds by Beverly Suarez-Beard: an ugly girl falls for the handsome prince, even though he's a rotten scoundrel. There's a good guy, too, of course, whom she doesn't fall for until it's too late.

For You, Lili Marlene by Rita Oakes takes place in the aftermath of World War II. This is an elegant and subtle work of historical fiction. A gypsy (Roma) is surviving from camp to camp, helping the Americans or whoever will pay him in cigarettes. He's lost his wife, his people, and his honor. He survives. Until, that is, he sees a woman, a prostitute, who looks astonishingly like his lost wife. Oakes offers a glimpse into the disintegration of the Roma people, and a delicate, difficult story.


F&SF: Jan

F&SF (January)

There's a minor arts theme to this issue. We begin with music and painting.

With the unweildy title of Keyboard Practice Consisting of an Aria with Diverse Variations for the Harpsichord with Two Manuals you might expect this longish novelette from John G. McDaid to be annoyingly pretentious. In fact, for any reader with an interest in music, or a smattering of education in music theory, this story constitutes a fascinating philosophical excursion with music theory, phenomenological thought, and complex character dynamics intertwining like the voices in one of Bach's canons. And there is nothing accidental about that: McDaid makes several departures from the linear flow of text as he explores this theme. Indeed, the story itself is a composition in 30 "variations," mirroring Bach's Goldberg Variations, which are central to the story. Oh yes, it is also fine science fiction: one of the central characters is an artificially intelligent piano. And it is also a ghost story.

Like one of Bach's complex creations, this text bears considerable scrutiny; it works on many levels. The observations on musical history and theory are—at least to this amateur— riveting stuff. The futuristic speculations are immensely enjoyable: there is a voice transcript from a future car as it tries to avoid a crash its driver seems intent upon completing that is just perfect, and also a crucial plot point for several of the levels of the story. Many of the variations begin with a quote from fictional genius Steven Janacek, a great number of which are actually quite thought-provoking, and which are purportedly drawn from sources as amusing as the liner notes to "E-Dubba" and "Private Minds, Crazy Thoughts." Not to mention: "Within the Canon."

It is also very tempting to view this as a Clarion story. McDaid attended Clarion in 1993, and while the central story here is an elimination-process contest of musicians, there is much in the dynamics that will feel familiar to anyone who has attended one of the Clarion workshops. In fact, the least sympathetic character in the tale is the contest judge, a Davros-like woman named Mona who casts bitter excoriation on the contestants after the style of Harlan Ellison. The Clarion connection is strengthened by McDaid's use of one famous Clarion critique "The best thing you could do for the sake of art would be to cut off your hands and bury your typewriter." (Spoken at Clarion ‘85, by someone named "Bob" as reported by Bill Shunn.)

But there is so much more to this than some banal "How I spent my summer, and joined the literary elite," that it's hardly worth pursuing. Since the Science Fiction's New Wave, there has always been a lot of interest in fiction that dances on the fence between "mainstream" and genre. Often this fiction finds itself the subject of debate because the "speculative" element is either slender at best, or something peripheral to the central narrative. But this story seems to stretch the boundaries from the other side: there's no question that it is science fiction, but there is so much literary merit here that you will want to share it with your (musically educated) mainstream-only friends.

On to the other fiction in this issue... The Lorelei by Alex Irvine takes place at the close of the nineteenth century. A young man, aspiring to fame and fortune as a painter, makes his way from Maine to New York City only to find that the city is large, uncaring, and not easily impressed. Competent, but not much past the level of mediocrity, our narrator finds success only by plagiarizing his mentor and, perhaps, stealing his muse. Irvine plays with the nineteenth century image of artist, genius, and inspiration—with a heady addition of magic and betrayal. He maintains an authentic period tone throughout. Ultimately, however, I felt there was one character missing, and that was the muse herself, the Lorelei. She was a haunting spirit, an ideal, but there was very little of her in the story. Perhaps this is appropriate for a story told by one who only experiences the muse secondhand, but nonetheless, it seemed a palpable absence.

Some short stories are structured according to the ancient principles of the joke. The puzzling intro, the tantalizing build-up. The punchline that upends all expectations. Born Bad, by Arthur Porges, has this structure... but as jokes go, it's a bit of a flop.

In The Blemmye's Strategem, Bruce Sterling gives us another in the recent sub-genre of Crusader stories. This one imagines the ancient precursor to the military-industrial complex: one Abbess, the wealthiest woman in the world, is in secret alliance with one Sultan, the most brutal militar commander. Together they manage both sides of wars that reach from distant East to the furthest shores of Europe. Together, they serve the Silent Master. Ok, here it gets weird. While much of the story recounts their lifelong love affair, it intertwines with an engaging alien contact story, for Silent Master is some unearthly Romeo, married to a hellish Juliet, and together they are spawning a brood that, in the end, will require all the resources of East and West to subdue. Certainly an enjoyable tale... but Crusaderpunk? I think that's pushing punk just a little too far.

Long, long before the Crusades were a gleam in Pope Urban's eye, there was Ancient Sumeria. And in Ancient Sumeria, Esther M. Friesner concocts an entertaining comedy: Last Man Standing. In contemporary voice, Namtar, potter of Gilgamesh, narrowly escapes his deceased Master's funeral proceedings. One thing leads to another, however, and the Goddess Inanna has him in the underworld even so, hoping to parlay his unworthy soul for that of a soldier she had enjoyed. (A soldier with a big spear, you know how it goes.) Namtar is not particularly bright, but he's pretty clear on his chances; but when the various Goddesses and Heros get embroiled in their various disputes, he makes the best of his situation. This is fluff—fine fluff, that is a welcome respite from the usual retelling of myth and legend that is, if anything, even weightier with import than the original.


F&SF: Feb.

F&SF (February 2005)

There's good news, and there's better news. The good news is Matthew Hughes' delightful noösphere has apparently made it to novel form. The better news? Guth Bandar is back in the pages of F&SF in Inner Huff. As in Bandar's previous appearance, things start off slightly absurd, and speedily go from bad to worse. In a Homeric scene, Bandar finds himself transformed into a pig. In pig form he cannot manage the magic that will get him out of the noösphere or back to his more usual human status. He does manage an escape, but it takes him into the three little pigs archetype, and neither pig nor wolf are prepared to befriend him. Coincidence? There is no coincidence in the noösphere. His presence manages to disrupt that scene fiercely, and the next scene he manages is a hopelessly muddled affair: what should be good prairie bison have pig tails and snouts. And there's a wolf among the storm clouds. Has Bandar done irreparable and unforgiveable damage to the noösphere? Or has he discovered something that will, at last, bury his old rival, Didrick Gabbris? And will he survive to tell the tale?

Although not, perhaps, as laugh-out-loud funny as Bandar's first appearance, Hughes demonstrates his mastery of pace and voice as this thoroughly enjoyable tale shifts speeds, scenes, and problems, all while dancing on the fence between High Academic and Three Stooges.

If you have encountered R. Garcia y Robertson's writing before, you'll know what to expect from Queen of the Balts. Sex and adventure and good strong female characters. In fact, reading this story, the latest in Robertson's Markovy series, has a bit of déjà vu to it. On first taste, these stories are wild, wonderfully inventive, and tons of fun—big, sexy adventures in which the wily protagonist, beset by hostile males, must use her wits, her wiles, and her body to turn the tables. The stories are fun, but after a few of them, I observe that many of the characters lack distinctiveness. There seem to be certain archetypes: the strong, sexy princess being the most common thread, while the males are fairly predictable—the three primary male characters in this story, for example, are completely indistinguishable, all being interested in one thing only, and that's bedding the Queen. In fact, the Queen brings down two of them with the same trick.

I'll never look at the Mima Mounds the same way again. Laird Barron's Proboscis follows a middle-aged man through the aftermath of a strange mission. Some would-be bounty hunters have tracked down a serial killer, and turned him over to Canadian authorities. They're not exactly good guys themselves, and the whole thing trip has a mayhem about it, something a little stronger than a frat-boy road trip, but not quite a Hell's Angels run. On the road home, though, things have gone stale, and tired, and for no good reason one of the bounty hunters wants to make a pit stop to visit one of Washington State's lesser-known mysteries, the Mima Mounds. Our protagonist, who was along with his video camera to document the trip, has found the experience exhausting, and progressively strange. But by the time they get to the Mima Mounds things are going to be a lot stranger. This is dark, somewhat surrealistic fiction with a very real, gritty edge to it. Good stuff in the horror vein.

In From Above, Robert Reed imagines the first touch of a transdimensional being against human society. And it's a strangely petty touch: a sphere, in the woods, speaks to a pack of children, insulting them. As it happens, however, it's not just any woods: a brilliant physicist, twice nominated for the Nobel prize, happens to be near by, and this is no accident. Reed has surprises within surprises in this multitextured, multilayered short story. The boys, you see, were engaged in the destructive business of chopping down a hackberry tree. Death to a noble old thing, and trouble to all those relying on it for life; and yet, rebirth of new undergrowth and new life on the ground as light is admitted to the forest floor. Reed takes the reader on a surprising journey into the circularity of time, complete with themes of death and renewal. To be honest, though, the ending is a trifle enigmatic. Perhaps the whole thing is just about madness. In any case, it is always instructional to observe Reed's craft: in this series of third-person close-camera narratives the shifts in voice and tone and smooth transitions are masterful.

Dutch by Richard Mueller feels like a ghost story, what with a flying Dutchman and all, but it's more of a curse story. A hobo riding the rails is known to all the railroad men around the country. Everyone knows him, but nobody knows his story... until one man finally takes an interest. Overall, a fine tale.

Andromeda Spaceways

Andromeda Spaceways: Dec-Jan, 05

Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (Dec-Jan, 04-05)

Andromeda Spaceways carries on its tradition of providing a fun mix of mostly light science fiction and fantasy. In addition to the fiction, and the features, it's always worth spending a few minutes enjoying the promotional materials for the Andromeda Spaceways interstellar transport service. Magazines with a gimmick behind the title (many readers probably remember Aboriginal SF) keep the idea fresh by playing with the gimmick, and it's obvious that the people who put Andromeda Spaceways together are still having fun with it.

What was that about light? ASIM regular Lee Battersby starts the issue off with a story that's not light at all: Through The Window Merrilee Dances recounts a doomed love between a crippled assistant pig keeper (no relation to Prydain's Taran) and a challenged princess. This is a stronger story than most of Battersby's previous offerings in ASIM. Another not-so-light story is Lesleigh Force's first foray into print: Samhain—Lessons From The Dead, in which a ghost settles an old score.

It's sometimes a little hard to distinguish the fiction from the features in ASIM, as the editors have a thing for funny little pieces that aren't quite either. Position Vacant: Santa Claus (Valerie Toh) is one such, classified as fiction. Another is The Universe Construction Set (Wade Albert White), also fiction. Ben Cook's Dragonslaying For Dummies, named as a feature, is not far different, however.

A number of stories were successfully amusing, but not particularly memorable. Cable And The High Seas by Mikal Trimm seems to be part of a series about a very old boy and his very ugly dog. In this episode they try their hand at piracy. In Soulfood, by Paul E. Martens, the representative of the alien consortium meets his match in Augusta van Rensselaer. He has been dispatched to eat one human in order to digest her soul and determine whether humanity is fit for inclusion in the grand, technologically advanced universe. In a long tradition of humans besting their technological betters, van Rensselaer turns the tables. Tansy Rayner Roberts gives us Delta Void and the Stray God, a comic fantasy in which a dynamic duo of improbably clad adventuresses hunt down one of the few surviving gods.

Humor, of course, is not quantifiable. Some may find one or more of the above side-splittingly funny. Only these next two struck me that way, however.

First is CDX by Tracina Jackson-Adams. The narrator's girlfriend has left her, abandoning a dog in the process. The dog, Samson, is not a particularly special model, but when it's operating system gets corrupted, the narrator relies on a neighbor's teenaged daughter's extra-legal expertise in order to install a bootlegged OS. Things come to a particularly amusing crisis when villains dognap Samson. It's worth observing that this is a very fun story about recovering from a traumatic end to a relationship, but the fact that it was a relationship between two women is never more than a detail. I, for one, find it very refreshing to encounter a story in which gay/lesbian stuff is part of the story without being the point of the story.

The strongest piece, however, was by Douglas A. Van Belle: A Small Blue Planet For the Pleasantly Insane. Again, super-powerful aliens come to earth, but this time to study the primitive presentient life form that is humanity. (And, more importantly, to demonstrate the need for increased funding of the Primitive Intelligences in Isolated Systems program.) Despite it's magical technologies, however, the alien's attempts to fit in with local culture in order to observe human society are... ineffective. Consider its introduction: "I am a friendly member of your species wishing to establish the familiarity necessary to facilitate casual verbal dialog." The fact that the human disguise it has adopted is purple does not help it fit in. Van Belle takes this story to the next level by having the alien fall in with a group of paleontologists, themselves trying to get better funding for their own researches. The hilarity, of course, is in the escalating misunderstandings of human culture on the part of the alien—not a new concept, but very well executed, and tons of fun to read. I read most of this story on the bus, where I frequently burst out in laughter.


Analog: Dec 2004

Analog (December 2004)

Baby on Board by Kenneth Brady describes a future in which SUVs have on-board AIs. Alan helped invent these AIs, and now he's helping to liberate them. Liberate them from the humdrum commuter life they have been stuck with; liberate them to the possibilities of off-road revelry that their chassis have been built for. Not to put to fine a point on it, Alan steals cars. And then, having woken them up to the potential inherent in their own manufacture, he returns them. The story takes its time getting to the pivotal event: Alan's 200th liberation. Not any SUV, either— a Hummer.

It's when Brady takes on the Hummer that this story really starts humming. Sergeant Rock is a Hummer with more than just a little attitude: driving modes are "Standard" and "Agressive": Standard displays the vehicle cruising across the desert. "Agressive showed nothing but a set of crosshairs." The owner? "He's a soldier for good, opposing the forces of evil which currently run the government." Despite his sense of misgiving, Alan decides to liberate this Hummer all the way. He chooses agressive.

The story gets considerably more complicated with the introduction of an ex-wife and possibly once-again love interest, government shenanigans to control SUV AIs from within, a virtual reality where Alan's liberated cars go to play, and a conspiracy underlying it all. If you've ever thought that SUVs were just one more sign of the decline and fall of American civilization, with HumVees leading the vanguard of decay, this story will both confirm your worst fears—and give you pause. Because you're going to have to trust in the wacko survivalists to protect you from the big, bad government. I can't tell whether Brady intends the conundrum or not, but this story opens the whole kettle of worms that is the worst of post-911 fascism and lunatic paranoia all rolled into one.

Xeno-archaeologists investigate the ruined remains of a civilization in which only the largest indicators of civilization remain in A Plague of Ruins by Joe Schembrie. In their haste to make the big discovery that will, at last, justify their big budget, the team of researchers ignore every sign Schembrie lays down for the readers. You'd think they'd catch on once they realize that every computer chip on the planet is fried—and their own are starting to show signs of Alzheimers. The mission leader of this story, however, is agonizingly inane. I know that here in the real world there are bad managers and bad leaders like the "Helen" of this story, but for those of us who like our escapism, reading about it can be of limited entertainment value. Fortunately for the characters in this story, the lone male survivor manages to save all the women who have screwed up the mission.

Another interesting story in this issue is Savant Songs by Brenda Cooper which imagines a graduate student building a career on the wild ideas of his autistic-savant professor, "the fairy queen of physics." Adam is only the first tier in a hierarchy of academics building their careers off Elsa's mad, nonsocial genius. Yes, it's a love story. It's also a multiverse story. Cooper pulls together consistent, convincing emotions with a compelling voice. Of course, character motivations are hard to fathom—we are working with an autistic as the focus of attention. Scientifically, there's all the right jargon in all the right places. Ultimately, this ends up being a story about the longing to know the unknowable, to understand the deepest mysteries, to transcend the biological limitations.

In general, I think it's a bad sign when a story resorts to Star Trek references in the first two paragraphs. What Wise Men Seek, by Mike Moscoe, quickly moves past this faltering opening to the interesting contact between nine allied species—including humans—and a lobsterlike alien that appears to hold the ultimate weapon, and the ultimate nanobattery, in its claws, and all of it on a planet with technology barely out of the stone age. The society, however, is so bloodthirsty that all direct contact seems to result in violence and early withdrawal. Those unfortunate enough to have absconded with this "weapon" returned on automatic pilot, the remains of the crew barely recognizeable. Enter the Jesuits. Leader of an ecumenical mission to these bloodthirsty aliens, the Jesuits won first chance—or shortest straw—in the hope of unraveling the xenopological mystery of the Lobsters. And what do they do? You guessed it: they bring the veneration of saints, worship of idols, and the cult of Mary to some perfectly harmless lobsters. As a story of the careful attempts at communication with a dangerous species, this story is lots of fun. Unfortunately, it also ends just before the unveiling of any actual mystery. It feels like Chapter One, and the cliffhanger ending offers no guidance as to when we can expect the next chapter.

Carl Frederick's The Fruitcake Genome is an unlikely tale about SETI, signals from aliens, and some especially unlikely signals hidden in our own junk DNA. I spent too much time during this story rolling my eyes.

A couple of rednecks go hunting, only to become the hunted in The Bambi Project by Grey Rollins.

Small Moments in Time by John G. Henry opens with the all-too-familiar truth that most lives are deathly dull, and any time traveler interested in peeping in on my existence would be bored out of his skull in about 20 minutes. Pretty soon, however, we get on to the meat of the issue: a time traveler—apparently intentionally—bringing terrible plagues down upon history. Plagues that, against all reason, target the strongest immune systems of their time. When the protagonist gets his hands on this version of Typhoid Mary, he learns that his own future is not the "first" future, and some may be much, much worse.


Analog: Jan-Feb, 05

Analog (January-February 2005)

Analog begins the year—and celebrates its 75th birthday— with this double issue. In his reflective editorial, Stanley Schmidt reminisces about the 50th birthday issue, in which he collected articles by Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague de Camp, Gordon R. Dickson, Dr. Robert L. Forward, George R. R. Martin, Spider Robinson, Clifford D. Simak, and Jack Williamson. Among others. Well, I want that issue. This occasion does bring back Jack Williamson (for the beginning segment of a new novel serialization—the man is unstoppable, even at 96 years of age!), and a pair of novelettes by Ben Bova and ("new writer") David Brin. But despite a few nice stories, this issue simply fails to come across as a grand celebration of Analog's greatest achievements. Schmidt hedges something akin to an apology for not having a table of contents similar to the last big anniversary: "We've lost too many," he mourns. Maybe so, but there have been one or two generations of writers in the last quarter century. While this is a perfectly typical issue of Analog, I must confess that if this is intended to be the best available representative work of Analog's past and future, then Analog has lost something important since the heady days of 1980.

The best of the lot is this rare short story from David Brin... And how long has it been since we've had a good Martian invasion? Mars Opposition is an enjoyable little oddity in fine Analog tradition. The Martians are highly advanced, arrive in a ship that looks like a rocky outcropping from Mars itself, and they have a long list of names. They are consummate traders: they singlemindedly trade whatever seems like a good price—buckets of gold, advanced technology—for guidance to the various names on the list. Only, when they track the individual down, they kill him or her. They do not engage in idle conversation. They are not interested in, or even appear to recognize, our political entities. They just seem to want to kill people. Very specific people. Efforts to interfere with their mission are met with overwhelming alien force, but otherwise, these mysterious traders seem to bear casual passersby no ill wishes whatsoever. Brin handles the scenes convincingly, and the contrast of expectation to reality is delightful. When the protagonist finally figures out what is going on, it is true that the government does fall into the usual stereotype of ignorant reaction. The ending could be a little more satisfying, but in general, this is a fun imagining of alien contact, well told.

I think 2004 must have been the year of the Zeppelin, possibly due to the call for stories and subsequent buzz around the collection All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories. I don't know whether Ben Bova's The Supersonic Zeppelin was originally conceived of as something for that collection, or whether he was inspired by the theme, or whether it is simple coincidence, but, yes, here's another zeppelin story. It's more of a satire than an adventure however: Bova treats the subject matter from the perspective of a nontechnical project manager trying to keep his job, as well as his company, afloat by pushing the concept of a supersonic zeppelin. Zaniness ensues. It's all perfectly cute, but Bova has enough biting insight into the relationship between government contracts and corporate skullduggery that I wished he had given the whole business a somewhat more serious treatment. I guess you can only be so serious when imagining a supersonic zeppelin.

In A Few Good Men by Richard A. Lovett, we learn that some centuries hence women will still be named "Trish." Our protagonist ("Tiffany") finds herself whisked into the future when she interrupts a time travel kidnapping. The women of the future, you see, find their best prospects of a good man involve checking out the historical record and nabbing proven breadwinners out of time. It takes an unusual time travel story to win me over, and this one does not seem to bring anything new to the table.

Apparently James Gunn's Uncreated Night and Strange Shadows follows up on a pair of stories published in 2000. In this tale, a ship full of insufferable whiners and pregnant women make a vast interstellar expedition based on the rantings (and discoveries) of a mad genius who supposedly intercepted an alien communication. Between the distasteful characters, glacial pace, endless inconsequential sidetracks, and generally incoherent premise, I'm afraid I couldn't make much of this one.

Seventy-Five Years by Michael A. Burstein may have been included because of the number in the title. The story itself is a forgettable tale consisting of one not-very-convincing conversation between a divorced couple, one of whom is a senator looking to extend the privacy date on census records from 72 to 75 years, and the other of whom has become an activist trying to keep the census records at 72. The story suffers from a lack of compelling characters or interesting conflict, and the seriously unexciting nature of the political point in question seems unlikely to be gripping reading for many.

Then there's Rough Draft by Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta. In this story a grouchy old author, a washed-up sci-fi guy who won both the Hugo and the Nebula for his sole novel before giving up writing for good, comes face to face with the work of an alternate self from an alternate universe. Anderson and Moesta articulate some of the fears of the successful author well, but as a psychological study their main character leaves a lot to be desired. He is such a pathetic and dislikeable old has-been that his gradual resurrection in the face of a successful alter-ego doesn't feel like much of a victory.

Nova Terra by Jeffery D. Kooistra would be a pretty interesting story... if anything happened. Shortly after Mike's boyhood pal dies, he receives a letter from the deceased with instructions on building a motor. Mike, being an engineer who specializes in motors, quickly realizes that this motor can't possibly work. Out of loyalty to his friend, and out of curiosity, he builds the thing anyway. It works. He is recruited by a super secret branch of the government dealing in exotic sciences. The end. This feels like a snippet of background information for a novel that does with speculative scientific concepts what Men in Black did with aliens, except there aren't any jokes here. Or story.


Asimov's: Dec. 2004

Asimov's (December 2004)

Strength Alone by Paul Melko tells the story of a pod of humans. Raised together from birth, the pod-humans are the evolutionary successor to singleton humans. At very close range they have a certain chemical/hormonal telepathy for consensus decision making. Each member of a pod has some particular gift. This story is about one whose ability is strength, and just doesn't seem to fit as well with the pod as the others. He lifts, he carries: they think and work on finer stuff. But when his pod is lost in an avalanche, Strength must work alone; there is another broken pod to save, and he has no other purpose left in him. This is a skillfully told adventure story, tense on the nerves and moving in its particulars.

Home of the Brave is Allen M. Steele's last story in the second series of Coyote tales. The war is over; the rebels are victorious; but peace doesn't exactly reign. Steele confronts the consequences of war, but this piece is just a coda to the great conflict that preceded it, and presumably a doorway to the next series. It does not have much in the way of independent internal tension or resolution.

Speaking of large-scale stories about human colonies, let's turn to Keith Farrell's A Reunion. This has a Coyote-like setting, but is very different in almost all other ways. The colony itself has been separated from the rest of the human galaxy by "raiders." Their robot- and nano-magic technology has shut down. The result is subsistence living and piratical predation. Until, suddenly, metalships return from the gatestation. A day no one thought would come: Reunion. Ferrell spends a lot of energy explaining magic science (interstellar wormholes) and also real science (gravitational potential energy); neither of these forays work terribly well in the short form. Eventually, however, the story begins to explore an interesting and subtle conflict: on the one hand there is the life in which machines do everything, and keep the world pristine and untouched by "development" through their magic: no food needs to be grown; no animals domesticated; no streams diverted to generate power. On the other hand, there is a life without the machines—clothing, wine, buildings are imperfect, but made with human ingenuity, and with care, and with love. Each of these circumstances has its appeal, but Ferrell does not pursue the dialectic to any end, or synthesis. Yet.

Wild invention marks the advent of The Christmas Tree by Peter Friend. A ripe Christmas Tree is quite a find, so when the narrator informs Grandma, they set out with a North Pole to see if it can be tamed. Soon Grandma is Grandma Christmas, and our narrator is her elf, and they oversee the hard work of keeping the Christmas Tree well fed. Fortunately, it's not picky: jars of spoiled jam, maggot-ridden goat carcasses. That sort of thing. The fact that they are celebrating Christmas at the Summer Solstice isn't the only sign that this is the work of an Aussie: there's also a certain lack of solemnity about the most solemn task of preparing the Christmas ceremony that feels Australian. There's also the narrator's name: Bloona. If that's not of Aussie descent, I don't know what is. However, the story itself is not Australian, it's in a wild, wonderful imaginary world all its own.

Elizabeth Counihan's The Star Called Wormwood marks a transition in the life of our planet: the death of the last human, and the end of our brief era. We have not destroyed Earth, however. We leave other animals, perhaps intelligent, perhaps on the verge of human-style sapience. So this comet, this Star Called Wormwood marks the end, and a new beginning. Counihan nicely manages a melancholic, but hopeful voice.

Mike Resnick combines pulp with depth in A Princess of Earth. We begin with the death of the narrator's wife—and a very convincing narrative it is. However, things take a turn for the science-fictional when John Carter shows up. Lost love makes a thematic reappearance: for this appears to be a perfectly real John Carter, and he's longing for, you guessed it, his Princess of Mars. Unfortunately, most of the story involves our bereft narrator refusing to believe that John Carter is John Carter—reasonable enough in its own way, but I always find it frustrating when a fictional character refuses to believe the evidence of his own senses. Like the professor bemoans in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: what are they teaching kids in school these days? Of course, the point is that eventually he comes to believe, or at least to want to believe, and in that belief there is just the remotest possibility that he will see his lost love again. But with the bulk of the story consisting of repetitive and redundant argument, and with the narrators frustratingly dense approach to the interaction, what emotional power this story might have had is seriously diluted.

The Jimmy, in Being with Jimmy by Aaron Schutz, is a telepath/empath—and he's not a very nice one. It's not necessarily his fault; as a child he was used for various perverted things. But now he's exiled to an island with two other telepaths. The point seems to be what to do with a not-nice telepath. I'm not sure Schutz fully addresses the question.

In the future, or perhaps an alternate future, the Chinese emperor rules Earth and beyond. And in this beyond, on a far flung world, one woman dreams of revolution, universal suffrage, and the right to divorce. This is Red Hands, Black Hands by Chris Roberson, apparently part of a larger world-building effort involving several novels. This, however, is a short, bittersweet story about the power of ideas.

Neal Asher's Strood takes up the story of benevolent virtually omnipotent aliens who have come to earth, apparently to do good. They can't save everyone, though, and our narrator is so far gone in his whole-body cancer that they simply don't spare him any time. They could cure it, mind you, he's just not worth the effort. They send him up to their space station orbiting Jupiter, possibly as a mysterious sort of consolation prize. However, while there, he learns an awful truth. Asher plays skillfully upon the reader's expectations, and those of us familiar with To Serve Man will enjoy this delightful, surprising take on that theme.

Echoing by James Van Pelt is a Christmas Eve, caught on the highway in a blizzard story... or maybe it's an interstellar ship that's off course and out of control at Warp 9 in M-Space story... or maybe it's about a depressed teenager on the brink of suicide. Van Pelt bleeds three stories through each other, each character in mortal danger. In fact, it's M-Space that's doing it: the superluminal magic kicks up a terrible whorl of reality as Commander Tremaine desperately attempts to bring his ship to a stop. Somehow, reality bends, and each of these three people somehow touch each other, each of them just wanting to reach... home.


Asimov's: Jan. 2005

Asimov's (January 2005)

Thus completes the changing of the guard. Some months ago the celebrated Gardner Dozois announced his departure from Asimov's, and now we receive into our hands the first issue by his successor, previous managing editor, Sheila Williams. Williams makes explicit what has long been rumor: her editorial style will not be wildly different than the Dozois style; her taste in stories may run a little more to hard science fiction, she plans to revive the letters column, if enough people write letters; she'll do an editorial now and then. So, let's have a look at what comes after the changing of the guard.

First there's The Fate of Mice by Susan Palwick, which is a short riff on Flowers for Algernon. Possibly a little too much going on here, though: at least one subplot—in which the mouse displays an unexpected familiarity with human literature—never really makes any sense; and none of the subplots seem to find much resolution.

Next is a novelette: Invasion of the Axebeaks by Phillip C. Jennings. On an alien world, the semi-intelligent (or maybe moreso) Axebeaks are a troublesome pest to the humans. Even a danger. However, they learn fast and while they may look like some primitive pre-stone-age species, they are actually planning the first interstellar invation of Earth! Most of this story is just plain fun: the narrator is an interesting fellow, with an interesting story, in an interesting place. His first girlfriend, and his attraction to her, are equally strange—yet somehow plausible. The final pages of the story, however, do seem to rush through a wrap up leaving the emotional momentum of the tale out of the loop. I couldn't tell whether Jennings wanted to tie things up fast to keep the length down; or whether he just didn't have a good ending in mind for the piece.

Larry Niven has a piece in here: Rhinemaidens. Williams may have a hankering for hard science fiction, but this hard sci-fi author apparently has a hankering for fantasy. It's a serviceable fantasy as far as mermaid stories go, but this is not Niven at his best.

Mathew Jarpe, however, is in top form with City of Reason. Out on the edge of the solar system, homesteaders live beyond the reach of law, order, or any other civilizing influences. To cut down on piracy, the system has hired most of the old pirates to be "Damagers"—essentially a private police force out to protect the highest bidders from anyone else. When the narrator stumbles across an ill-favored iceball carrying a nuclear weapon from one homestead to another, he uncovers more than just a disagreement between homesteads (which the Damagers wouldn't care one way or another about, unless someone was willing to pay them to), he unravels a strange history of treachery and posthuman chicanery that reminds one of Stross on a good day, with the volume turned down a little, and characters more reminiscent of Harry Harrison.

With Water Angel, Bruce McCallister provides a short short that captures the pain experienced by someone who does something terribly wrong, more or less by accident. A fisherman spears something alien, intelligent, possibly wonderful: but he cannot undo the damage, and his efforts only make it worse. There's no real story here: the misfortune occurs, and the character lives with the consequences.

The concluding story of the issue is a novella from Connie Willis: Inside Job. The premise is outstanding: a pyschic debunker and his movie-star assistant run up against a channeller with a problem. In the midst of her channelling of Isus, ancient Lord of Atlantis, H. L. Mencken makes an unexpected and unwelcome (from the psychic's point of view) appearance in her schtick. Debunking this second-rate Isus would hardly have been worth the time, but debunking Mencken proves to be a thorny problem, particularly when the Mencken in question appears to pass every test. The narrator finds himself in an impossible situation, and it seems like the only rational explanation is that his exquisitely beautiful, and incredibly unlikely, assistant has been playing him for a chump for months, building up the body of evidence that would result in the single act of channeling that might fool a skeptic. If he's in a bad way, the Mencken-spirit is worse. He claims to be on hand to help debunk the bad Isus channeller, but if he proves himself to be speaking from Beyond the Veil, then he is undermining the whole basis of the skepticism. Willis enjoyably explores every angle of this conundrum. True, you can usually count on a Connie Willis love interest turning out a certain way—she's rather like Agatha Christie that way—but I was cackling with anticipation wondering how she would resolve the threads in this one. Which, of course, she does.


Asimov's: Feb. 2005

Asimov's (February 2005)

The ennui of the ultra-long-lived is a popular theme in science fiction. It's Jim Grimsley's topic in The 120 Hours of Sodom, which reminds me a little of a particularly jaded version of Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time. Sade, not the Marquis de, but a far-future admirer, is planning a massive, particularly debauched party for Figg's three-hundredth birthday. In addition to all the usual scenes of torture and sexually extreme behavior, the occasion is to be made particularly special by a planned suicide. In the midst of so many scenes of death, dismemberment, and humiliation, I have a hard time understanding why the suicide-for-hire of one street urchin should excite so much interest, but the story is predicated on it. Grimsley did what he could to make Figg a sympathetic character, despite his extraordinarily unpleasant company, but the almost-poignant end couldn't quite make up for the fact that I never managed to like Figg, his friends, or even the victims in this generally distasteful story.

If you're already afraid of flying, you may not want to read Angel Kills by William Sanders. He imagines a situation in which strange alien beings, or perhaps alien craft, appear out of nowhere, attempt to destroy human airplanes while they are under 5,000 feet above sea level, and then disappear. The aliens can only be destroyed by a sort of a heat-laser that humans were fortunate enough to discover by accident while testing targeting systems. Among the military pilots assigned to escort civilian aircraft during take off and landing—and among some civilian groups—these aliens are called Angels. The story might have worked better for me if I had understood the angelic connection: Sanders' descriptions of the things do not sound particularly angelic, and not only is the behavior of these things not angelic, it's not even comprehensible. Still, it's a compelling mystery, and the story about a hot young pilot on his first real-world mission is exciting to read.

I made three attempts on Polyhedrons by Robert A. Metzger and just couldn't get myself hooked. Posthumans in a transdimensional reality framework, but I never got as far as the story.

If you have encountered R. Garcia y Robertson's writing before, you'll know what to expect from Oxygen Rising. Sex and adventure and good strong female characters. Wait... is this déjà vu all over again?!?! In this science fiction story, there are humans, there are Greenies (who are not only peace-granola-and-polyamorous space hippies, they are, in fact, photosynthetically green), and there are SuperCats. The humans are the worst of the lot, being apparently descended from the most ignorant of Montana militia types, and mindlessly detesting everything about both SuperCats and Greenies, and—coincidentally—having just committed near genocide on an intelligent alien race. Derek is human, but he's on the side of the Greenies, acting as a defacto negotiator. He's got a superintelligent Greenie girlfriend whose passion in life is cooking him dinner and warming his bed. He's also falling for one of the lunatic humans. Despite the sex, the adventure, and the strong female characters, this story never seems to heat up: the story itself is constantly playing second fiddle to the world-building and other background material. Derek never gets a chance to do anything interesting, and the people who do get the chance never quite become convincing characters.

The Two Old Women by Kage Baker is the first of two intriguing ghost stories in this issue. Baker takes a vacation from her Company work to author this dark tale about the difficult lot of the fisherman's wife. Tia Adela brings back the ghost of her long-dead husband to clean up around the house, fix a few things, and generally improve her life. But there's a cost, and the sea brews up a new storm that, the reader expects, will deprive a younger wife of her new husband. Although there are some twists, and although it is a pleasure to read, as much for Baker's vivid writing as anything, this story is never particularly surprising.

One expects the surprising from Leslie What, who once again demonstrates her versatility in Dead Men on Vacation. This is a ghost story about a Jewish man who survives the Holocaust only to kill himself. His anger at what has been done to him, to his family, and to his friends boils over when he finds himself in neither Heaven nor Hell. So he takes a little vacation back on Earth to try to find some justice. Even given the chance to meddle—in a small way—with history, What's main character has a hard time coming to grips with the spiritual dimension of his life (and his afterlife). Eventually, he discovers, it is not the enormity of the holocaust that is his problem: it is his own choices that still require redemption. What just manages to pull this off, despite the potential for a maudlin tale, and the kind of conclusion that in almost any other hands might come off as agonizingly simplistic. The surprise from What is that there are no pyrotechnics here, no wild flights of imagination: just a striking sincerity of heart.

Edd Vick takes a stab at time travel in Parachute Kid. The kid in question is Sam, who wants to be a firefighter. He travels in time and space instinctively, but just about always he ends up putting out fires. Vick doesn't toy around with any fancy rules of time travel: Sam does a pretty good job putting out fires because he travels en masse: hundreds of selves from hundreds of points in time (if necessary) can show up to put out a fire. It's a cute concept, but the whole thing left me confused at times. Also, there are enough narrative threads to feel like a hodgepodge of partially assembled stories. An interesting challenge for some readers, but I wasn't sure the work required to untangle it was justified by the results.

Copyright © 2005, Bluejack. All Rights Reserved.

About Bluejack

Bluejack resides in Seattle. In addition to publishing the Internet Review of Science Fiction, he herds cats for an Internet startup, designs and develops distributed software applications, and dabbles in a broad range of less useful endeavors.


Jan 31, 20:41 by Bluejack
There was a lot to review this month... Let's talk about short stories!

(The reviews are here.)
Feb 1, 12:45 by Carl Frederick
My story, The Fruitcake Genome, in Analog was briefly reviewed this month.
Unlike the Tangent Online reviewer, the IROSF reader didn't much like it. Not a problem; hard SF is an acquired taste.

The story though, had a hidden agenda--which might become apparent to visitors to the Analog website (
On the site, at the Science Behind the Story column, one can read the story for free, and, more interestingly, listen to the translation from the fruit fly genome to music (an MP3 file), and also read an article about the translation. The story was prompted by an 'untouched by human hands' translation of chromosomes to music.

I invite all to the site for words and music.
Feb 1, 12:50 by Bluejack
Thanks, Carl! Here's the direct link for people to click through.

I will say that your science behind the article, while fascinating, does make clearer one of my objections to the story: the vast number of assumptions you make in order to turn genetic material into music are all human assumptions -- indeed, they are assumptions based on western musical patterns! So to find messages in the DNA would either require assumptions the encoders could not have planned for, or else the patterns of repetition, either at the base or the codon level, would be so apparent to anyone analyzing the sequence that it would have been discovered long ago.

Hunting for patterns -- and finding them! -- where there are no patterns to be found is a fascinating side-effect of the human brain, to date the most efficient pattern-recognition machine on earth. I think you're on to some amazing stuff here, I'm sorry the story didn't work for me, but at least it worked for many! (That's often the way with Analog and me, I'm sad to say.)
Feb 1, 14:15 by Carl Frederick
Bluejack, you're most kind. I appreciate your comments.

Actually though, I'm not sure they _are_ human assumptions (I have actually, tried non-western patterns as well). I wonder if there are data that transform to asthetically pleasing forms (music, graphic art) independent of translation paradigm. But of course, this may be outside the valid constraints of short-story critique.

And once again, thank you for your time and consideration--perhaps one of my next Analog stories will appeal to you.


Feb 5, 01:20 by Thomas Reeves
Your review of the December Asimov mildly confused me. For me it seemed pretty clear that "Red Hands, Black Hands" was alternate history, not the story of a futuristic colony. Also that both "Red Hands, Black Hands" and "A Reunion" took place on Earth. The idea they don't never really occured to me while reading them, but in retrospect I could see that "A Reunion" might be set on a colony world. The idea of humans re-establishing contact with a primitive Earth kind of appealed to me more as I grew up on things like "Pebble in the Sky."

Also I'm not saying you were wrong on either. If anything I wonder if you picked up on something I missed.
Feb 5, 09:18 by Bluejack
Thanks for the comments, Camden. I love talking about stories!

"Red Hands, Black Hands" is probably alternate history, projected into a space-faring future; but it could equally be a far future that anticipates the restoration of an Emperor in a globally dominant China. Either way, it has to be considered a distant future due to the fact that the action takes place on a world other than Earth. Consider this passage, early in the story:

"The skin around his eyes and mouth was pale in comparison to his sun-darkened cheeks and forehead, suggestive of someone who had spent some considerable time outside the confines of the Tianfei Valley, out on the high plains of the red planet's surface, where the air was thin and unsatisfying, and where breather-masks and goggles were still a necessity. The council of Deliberative Officials had released a report late the previous year, which stated that the planet Hua Hsing was within four generations of producing sufficient levels of oxygen and nitrogen that breathers would no longer be necessary even at the planet's highest peaks..."

So, Hua Hsing is a planet; possibly Mars, but probably something interstellar. (Mars' highest peaks would NEVER be breathable). Also, consider the background of Madam Jade:

"She had immigrated from Earth under something of a cloud, the rumors said, though she would never admit to the reasons."

As for whether it is alternate history or not, we would have to know more about Chris Roberson's world-building: non-Chinese cultures are mentioned: British, The Mexica, the Hindu. The mention of Mexica without any mention of the US suggest an alternate history in which the dominant nation or people in the Americas are the Mexica -- perhaps a native peoples in a history without Europe's colonization of the continents, or maybe just a different route post-invasion. However, one could also imagine a future in which the Chinese have obliterated the United States and the only remaining power on the content is Mexico.

As for "A Reunion," I think it's pretty clear that it's a colony. Sparse population, pristine planet, people having lots of babies, strange animals, no signs of ruins from prior civilizations, the fragility of their infrastructure. Most telling however, the core around which all the action takes is the "landing site" -- this is the place at which the machines first wake up, indicating the return of civilizatin. The references to "landing site" are used in historical references, so it's not just the landing site of the return of humanity -- it's always been called the landing site. In fact, the whole story felt quite a bit like Steele's Coyote series, despite the differences in politics and Gate technology.

It will be interesting to see if there are more stories in the "Reunion" world on the way. This felt like the defining moment in someone who is to become a pivotal character in the future of the colony; although whether hero or villain remains delightfully ambiguous.

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