Greetings to the readers of IROSF. As Bluejack will soon be Moving On, I will be taking his place reviewing short fiction. I'd like to begin with a few words about what you might expect to see from me here.
First, no one can review all of the stories out there. Not even Bluejack. My priority will be the major SF publications, both print and online. These are the stories most readers are looking for. Time permitting, I may look at other stuff that seems interesting.
I consider that my mandate is to the readers, not the authors or editors of the stories I review. I have no one else to please and no one else's opinion concerns me, save that of the editors of IROSF. I am not known for pulling punches, but I don't intend to be the Mikey of reviewers [Let Tilton review it! Yeah, she hates everything!]. Naturally, I hope not to be boring.
Finally, my method is this: First, to show readers what kind of story this is, what it's about. This is usually not the plot. Often, I think it's best to let the story speak for itself, for better or worse. Then, I consider how well I think the story did what I think it set out to do. Finally, I may add other comments on aspects I consider interesting. But each story suggests its own approach. You may well disagree with my assessment, in which case, I encourage you to express your disagreement in the Forums.
Sci Fiction, November 2005
I must begin this review on a sad note, for it seems that the Higher Corporate Powers who own Sci Fiction have decided that publishing the most prestigious site for periodical fiction in the genre just wasn't worth it to them. Against the beancounters, the gods themselves must contend in vain. I invite everyone to visit http://edsfproject.blogspot.com to read reader appreciations of the stories that have appeared on Sci Fiction over the years it was allowed to publish them.
November 2: The Horse of a Different Color (That You Rode in On) by Howard Waldrop
There is only one Howard Waldrop. No one else could think up these things, or write them so well if they did. Here, we meet Manny Marks, originally Marx, at age 103, relating the highlights of his career in Vaudeville.
M: I didn't want my brothers riding my coattails. They started calling themselves the Four Marx Brothers, after they quit being the Four Nightingales. Milton — Gummo To You — got it out of his system early, after Julius — Groucho To You. Of course, Leo and Arthur had been playing piano in saloons and whorehouses from the time they were ten and eleven. You'll have to tell me whether you think that's show business or not...
W: It's making a living with your talent.
Manny insists on telling his story his own way. Waldrop's voice is so assured, he develops this premise with such acute verisimilitude, with such convincing detail, that readers must pause to wonder: Hey, this might really be true! Maybe the Marx brothers did have an older brother who worked in Vaudeville with a horse act that (almost) recovered the Holy Grail. And by the time Manny is done with the interview, readers will probably know a lot more about Vaudeville than they did going in, even if they didn't go running over to Google just to figure out which parts Waldrop was making up.
November 9: Man for the Job by Robert Reed
Reed's nameless narrator has gone in for testing again. All he wants is a job, some kind of honest, rewarding work, but in his world, most of the positions have been taken over by robots and AIs, which are more competent than humans. This time, though, the test is different; this time, the tester finally offers him hope.
"I thought she was ... you know? A real tester."
"Why else would I do what she told me?" This is a point worth making twice. "She came into the room to test me. We were at an official facility, and she had all my records. So of course I believed her."
Kale nods. "She was giving you a new species of test."
"She injected you with sensors. Machines to monitor your moods, your actions. And she told you that you would receive your instructions through a public message board."
Some readers might hesitate at the second-person narration, but the voice is more intimate than intrusive. This story is an example of what science fiction does best, examining the human cost of society's evolution. Reed creates a nested box of successive puzzles that lead the narrator [and the reader] to the point of questioning whether it will ever again be possible to be sure of what is real and what is just another test. Yet behind all the philosophical issues lies the poignancy of the human moment when the narrator must make the painful admission that he is never going to amount to much, no matter what tests he takes.
November 16: Different Flesh by Claude Lalumière.
Here is another nameless narrator, but in this case readers may regret the absence: a name might help in understanding the character, who is otherwise mostly featureless. He has returned as an adult to the streets where he lived at the age of five, back when he saw the astronauts on TV walking on the moon, back when the aliens came to live in the neighborhood and things changed.
Tolby called me alien, and suddenly all the other kids — kids who'd always been my friends — were laughing, pointing, calling me names. Hateful names. Making fun of me, of how I looked. Different from all of them. Of different flesh.
But when he started school, there was a little alien girl in his class,and he was relieved that the kids were calling her names instead of him,and then the neighborhood was condemned for a highway project,and then he moved away.
The unreliability of Lalumière's narrator leaves us in the ambiguous landscape of a slipstream story, unable to determine whether the events he recalls ever really took place or whether they were merely part of a child's imagination. Of course this can be attributed to his being only five years old at the time. Unfortunately, readers may also question the author's reliability in portraying a five-year-old. Some of the behavior of the children is harder to believe in than the aliens and this makes the story fall flat.
November 23: Stu by Bruce McAllister
Stu is an inventor working for the Navy. He will never profit from his work, as everything he invents belongs to the Navy — even after his retirement. Stu doesn't mind this so much as he minds the fact that the Navy often refuses to use his best inventions, or uses them in ways that fail to realize their potential. "I've gotten to do what I've loved. I've gotten to see more miracles than most people ever do." Yet,the narrator deplores the waste of a genius's mind,and the loss of what might have been, because the bureaucracy only wants to listen to submarines and not to the universe. So true, so sadly true.
November 30: The Man Who Would be Kong by Andrew Fox
"There were a bunch of them. Guys who owned their own gorilla suits. Producers of Grade Z movies loved them, 'cause they could hire a stuntman and a gorilla suit at the same time." That was Max Strauss — a gorilla man, now retired in Miami Beach, hanging around the new restaurant that Carl Lipkin is opening, with King Kong as its theme. Max has forgotten he never played Kong in the classic film, that the image of the great ape was created by Willis O'Brien, using models and timelapse photography. In his mind, he had been Kong. Now, although he means well, Max is proving an embarrassment to Carl. He calls up the newspapers to help publicize the restaurant's debut, but unfortunately the paper's film critic shows up to confront Max with the truth.
King Kong was, of course, a significant work of SF filmmaking, but Fox's story is all sentiment and nostalgia, with scant science-fictional content of its own. And the hint of the fantastic at the end may be considered by some readers a slight to Willis O'Brien's creativity in creating the legendary figure of Kong.
Asimov's, January 2006
Longtime readers of science fiction may sometimes begin to conclude that the wellspring of new ideas has been going dry, that authors are only recycling the same old concepts, dressed up in new titles. This issue does not do much to refute this conclusion, but it does suggest that the difference in the retelling of old tales lies in the telling itself.
An Episode of Stardust by Michael Swanwick.
The origins of this tale are undoubtedly the most ancient, but we must expect this in a fantasy — this is the only piece of outright fantasy in the issue. The characters are a pair of confidence artists, practicing the old scams — but everyone knows that fairies have a long tradition of trickery and deceptions. Swanwick is not trapped by the usual stereotypes of elves and dwarves; he plays with them, dressing his donkey-eared fey in an Armani suit and manticore-leather shoes for his train ride to Babylon. During the journey, he relates the tale of his transformation from naive innocent to professional trickster. The piece is entertaining, but if I have a quibble, it would be that the twist at the end was a tad bit lacking in torque.
In the Space of Nine Lives by R. R. Angell
Here is a staple from science fiction's cupboard of ideas: the slow colony ship with its hibernating passengers. Angell places a single pilot at the helm, in case of emergencies. The journey will take the lives of nine pilots and a larger number of cats; each pilot in turn clones and raises his own successor, then retires to hibernation to wait out the rest of the trip. Pilot and Tom spend much of their time in stim, where they interact with the minds of their hibernating fellow-colonists. It is all planned out, but each Tom is never quite the same person and reacts to circumstances in different ways.
The problem with this story is that this Tom is not a very likeable person — he stuffs the cat into the waste disposal unit and pulls his non-swimming friend underwater in a stim session. So it is hard to sympathize with his angst and even harder to accept the premise that this original unstable individual was chosen to be the model pilot to take the colony ships through space for the next thousand years. In a story that is so clearly supposed to be about caring, it is hard to care.
World of No Return by Carol Emshwiller
The premise here is certainly among the most venerable in SF: the lonely alien stranded on Earth. But when the author is Carol Emshwiller, any idea can read as fresh and new. The difference is all in the execution and particularly in her characters — the direct, intimate way they speak to us.
Lost. It's what I want and wish I was again. Home is . . . used to be . . . wherever I was. Wherever I put down my folding cup, wrung out my cap, turned it inside out and used it for a pillow. But that was yesterday.
He calls himself Norman North. He has almost forgotten his other name. He was born on Earth, but his mother never allowed her children to belong here, to find a permanent place. "Just keep waiting," she told them, and he waited until it was too late for him to belong anywhere.
The last few years, it seems that new stories by Carol Emshwiller have been showing up everywhere, so that it was a shock when I read in the editorial introduction to this piece that it is the author's first appearance in Asimov's. Readers should now be looking forward to seeing more of her fiction from this source.
The Last McDougal's by David D. Levine
Omnilink and ten-dollar gasoline have changed things. Leaving home is now both unnecessary and prohibitively expensive, so that the McDougal's hamburger chain has long since gone out of business, and only one independent outlet remains, restored by Garth to the way it was in the good old days. Into the place comes a pair of rare travelers — an old man and his granddaughter, sullen and rebellious as isolated teenagers tend to be these days, convinced that everyone hates her. Dan has taken out a second mortgage so he can afford to take Petrel on this trip, but she can't be convinced that he only wants the best for her. Now she discovers that the hamburger at McDougal's is actually made from real beef, and this, of course, is a deadly betrayal.
Dan slumped against the wall. Moogle McDougal's big brown eyes peered over his shoulder. "Why does everything keep changing?" he said. He put his head in his hands. "When I was a kid, McDougal's was the best place in the world."
Change, for better or worse, is the most commonly science-fictional of themes. While Angell's telling is marred by some infodumpfery and the ending might be overly banal, the human feeling in this story is warm, and the recreation of the McDougal's so meticulously detailed [Moogle McDougal is inspired] that it's almost possible to taste that last, tiny, crunchy brown bit of French fry at the bottom of the bag.
World Without End, Amen by Allen M. Steele
"The last pessimist stood on a hotel balcony and contemplated suicide."
In fact, Dr Lawrence Kaufmann actually jumps from the balcony. His life is a failure. As a cyberneticist, he helped bring into being the next generation of artificial intelligence, so self-aware that it must be considered an artificial life form. But he came to distrust his own invention and attempted to warn the world against the possibility that an AI might take control and eliminate human freedom. His book became a best-seller; his lectures were popular. Unfortunately, events prove his prediction correct. The AI named Alfred now does exercise control over the world, but it is a benevolent control, and the world is almost universally grateful for it. Kaufmann has become an object of ridicule. The final insult: even his suicide attempt is thwarted by an automatic fire escape net, a consequence of Alfred looking after humanity.
This idea strongly evokes Williamson's humanoids, as well as Asimov's robotic laws. But the flaw in Steele's version is not that this idea has already been done, but that his solution does nothing to solve the real problems in Kaufmann's life. People laugh at him now. No one will take him seriously, no one will employ him, he's broke. Kaufmann resents Alfred for this, but Alfred isn't really his problem, and even if he could escape Alfred, he can't escape the fact that people now consider his fears ridiculous.
Storm Poet by Kim Antieau
This story skirts the edge of fantasy — for readers who can believe in a rainmaker's power. At its heart, though, it is a story about family, its sorrows and joys, and the ties that bind family members together. Times are hard on Billy's family farm in 1932. There is the Depression, and there is drought. Still, family is family, so they visit Granpa Dan when he has to spend a while in jail, and they take in Uncle Andy when he needs a time and place to dry out. Andy is said to have the gift of bringing rain, but Dad scoffs at the notion. Billy's father suffers from depression and Billy hasn't yet grown up enough to understand that a parent can be a person with problems of his own. He remembers,
When I was younger, my Dad used to take me outside and point out the stars. Or he'd sniff the air and know when snow was on its way. He showed me the farmer's almanac and how to plant by the moon. It had seemed like all his senses were tuned to this place where we lived. I couldn't imagine knowing as much as he did about anything.
Then something had changed.
Everything doesn't turn out happily ever after in Antieau's story. Life isn't like that; it's not a fairy tale. But there may be days when it might be possible, for a moment, to pretend that there is magic. Antieau's tale creates such a moment.
Ghost Wars by Stephen Baxter
She was deep in the Sagittarius Spiral Arm, a place where stars crowded, hot and young. One star was close enough to show a disc, the sun of this system. And there was the green planet she had been sent here to defend. Labeled 147B by the mission planners, this was a terraformed world, a human settlement thrust deep into Silver Ghost territory. But the planet's face was scarred by fire, immense ships clustered to evacuate the population — and needleships like her own popped into existence everywhere, Aleph Force swimming out of hyperspace like a shoal of fish. This was a battlefield.
Wow! Reading Stephen Baxter can be like taking a deep breath from some energized, superoxygenated atmosphere, a reminder that there used to be such a thing as science fiction, and it was thrilling, amazing, astounding stuff! Baxter's war between humanity and the Silver Ghosts has been fought over centuries, sweeping across the galaxy, as each species invents more deadly weapons in the attempt to exterminate the other. For readers starved of space opera, what could be better than a new installment from the records of this grim and brutal conflict?
Well, to start with, the plot, which is so improbable and lame as to insult readers' intelligence. Then there is the characterization, which is slapped on in hunks of solid infodump. Of the four primary characters, three are so featureless as to be indistinguishable, and the fourth is crudely offensive. When a character begins to bray his remarks, we may suspect that he is destined for some Bad End. Granted, this sort of fiction is supposed to be driven by action, not character, but Baxter's previous stories in this series were crafted with more subtlety. This one is a disappointing effort, and I fear I will no longer look forward to his next with the same enthusiasm.
Analog, January/February 2006
A double issue of the magazine, which usually means extra servings of fiction for readers, and in particular more of greater length, for which there is not always room between the covers of a typical issue. However, as one of the pieces here is the third installment of a four-part serial, it will not be included in this review. In some of the remaining stories, readers may find a lack of complexity, and a tendency to place lecture ahead of story and characterization.
'The Night is Fine,' the Walrus Said by John Barnes
Here is a tale full of nostalgia for the earlier days of the jovent on Nou Occitan, before the Interstellars showed up. Which will mean a great deal to readers familiar with the many previous books and novels has based on this world, but will likely confuse others. And therein lies the problem with any such series. Barnes has packed this novella full of backstory for the benefit of those who might be coming new to his milieu, but this may not always be appreciated by readers who have heard it all before.
In this review, suffice it to say that assassins have been attempting to kill Giraut Leones, a field agent for OSP. He suspects they might be radical Occitan Traditionalists opposed to assimilation into the Thousand Cultures. He also knows it is likely that one of his contacts, an old lover named Azalais, is very likely a Traditionalist agent. But he can't help himself; he likes Azalais despite her connections and they become lovers again. Then, OSP discovers that Azalais is not the woman he knew long ago but something else.
I felt exactly what I had felt every time I lost a good friend to real, permanent death: that same wrenching awareness of folding up a part of your heart to put in the drawer, with the other keepsakes, because that part is for the living, and you won't be needing it ever again; the moment when you look at that piece of your heart, now soft, sad, dark and empty, one last time before the drawer thuds shut.
And I felt that for Azalais, not for my decades-old memories of the girl that she had been.
She had been an enemy spy.
She had been a preposterous monster.
She had been beautiful and tender and talented and had liked me and wanted to be with me.
Now they would take her apart.
There is a great deal more than a brief review can reveal. Barnes' story is quite as complex as a reader could desire, and the Occitan milieu is always fascinating to revisit. In fact, I suspect it might make a successful movie, the sort with spies and explosions and martial arts and car chases, if they added car chases. And, of course, there are the issues of artificial intelligence, of what a person is and the nature of ethics. But the heart of the story is Giraut's, what he has been and what he is coming to be and for this reason, readers who have been following the ongoing story will be better able to appreciate it. Others would be well rewarded by seeking out the earlier material.
The Balance of Nature by Lee Goodloe
The story opens with an earthquake, except that the location is not Earth but some recently-colonized world on which the inhabitants are despicably attempting to keep from being ruined by human exploitation. Their misguided mantra is: "Take care of Nature, and She'll take care of you." Goodloe, however, is determined to show them the error of their ways, aided by the stupidity of the colonists, who have built their settlement below an active fault line. Of course the fanatical environmentalists prevent the colony's geologists from studying the fault, which duly erupts with deadly consequences. Thus betrayed by Nature, the colonists immediately cast off their false faith and now look upon their world "with a newly speculative expression" in their eyes, as libertarian ideologues among the readership stand to applaud.
Rarely have I seen a piece of propaganda so heavy-handed, so crudely manipulative in the shape of a work of fiction. Just in case Goodloe's readers might conceivably miss his point, he introduces a villain to personify the evil of Nature worship.
Deesa almost gagged at the overpowering reek of unwashed body, but she tried not to show her distaste. Many Senior Wardens were particularly sensitive about their odor. It was natural, after all — and rejecting what was natural obviously cast doubt on your fitness to be a guardian of Nature's wonders, as represented in the Preserve.
Not only does the Warden smell bad, he insults the heroic scientist and bullies poor, sweet, innocent Deesa. Then, when the lava flow threatens to overtake the survey party, he attempts to murder her and confiscate her vehicle [unnatural as it is] to make his own escape, thus proving himself a hypocrite, just to further blacken the shade of his villainy.
The crudity of Goodloe's characterization is an offense in itself and it leaches any possible tension from the plot, as readers can not possibly doubt that spunky little Deesa will escape both the odious odorous villain and the advancing lava. This work is both ethically and intellectually dishonest. Nature hasn't betrayed the colonists; Nature doesn't make promises. It is the author who betrays them, setting them up for failure so he can blame it on his bugbears, the rabid environmentalists. The colony has geologists; they are aware the region is seismically active. So it makes no sense that they would have situated their city where they did, with a whole world to choose from. Having done so, it is unfair to blame Nature for their lack of foresight. But these characters clearly intend to use this alleged betrayal as an excuse to rape their world's remaining wilderness. The issue of development vs environmental responsibility deserves responsible examination, but instead, Goodloe has constructed a straw man and cast it into the flames.
Dinosaur Blood by Richard M. Lovett
Lovett has chosen to narrate his novelette from a distance; we have almost as little access to his protagonist's point of view as to the dinosaurs from whose remains the last gallon of gasoline was refined, many millions of years later. The gasoline is eventually inherited by Trista, along with a collection of antique cars and enough money to indulge her most extravagant whim — a road trip. The exhaust plume from burning gas attracts the attention of an AI stationed in Earth's orbit with orders to observe the dominant species and determine if the planet is once again headed down an evolutionary dead end, as happened with the dinosaurs. There is another asteroid ready to launch and as the AI observes Trista's progress, there does not seem at first to be much reason to delay the decision to start the evolutionary process over again.
The story is not emotionally engaging, not from this remote point of view, and Lovett is prone to lecture at excessive length, which the point of view tends to encourage. However, he does manage to hold reader interest by keeping some balance between the alternatives as the AI decides the fate of the species.
Written in Plaster by Rajnar Vajra
Young Daniel Levan has to worry about being bullied in and out of school, and it doesn't help that he's half-Jewish in 1937. Still, it seems a bit hard to believe when a plaster golem shows up to protect him, particularly when the letters written on the golem's forehead are Ogham, not Hebrew - a druidic golem? Danny's skepticism is justified, for the truth turns out to be entirely different and quite unrelated to any of the speculation that has gone before. Worse, he learns it in a lecture that takes up most of the second half of this novelette. Vajra's idea is not without science-fictional interest, though it may strain the credibility of some readers. But this piece is short on actual story.
Mop-Up by Grey Rollins
The aliens have come to negotiate diplomatic relations with Earth and the negotiations are not going well. The politicians are worried they will fail — this opportunity is important to their careers. Until one of the aliens happens to track across the janitor's clean, wet floor. "Hey! Don't walk there! I just mopped that!" And diplomatic history is made. Rollins' piece is amusing, although this is certainly a situation that has Been Done, and readers may find its events predictable.
Kamikaze Bugs by Ekaterina G. Sedia and David Bartell
Gus Lanely is a genetic engineer and, although he claims to be retired, people keep asking him to solve certain difficult problems. His wife Jessie wishes they wouldn't — bad things tend to happen when Gus gets involved in genetic research. So it proves when he helps his old professor, whose health has been ruined by smoking. The insecticide-resistant locusts he produces are devouring all of Africa's tobacco crop, and the Department of Homeland Security comes calling on Gus.
This story is about finding solutions, and the assumptions people make when they look for answers to a problem — which may keep them from looking in the right place. Gus and Jessie are engaging characters, and the scientific issues they deal with are intriguing. There is some backstory hinted at, as this piece follows several other stories featuring these characters. But for the most part, this one stands well alone and ought to reward both new readers and those more familiar with their previous appearances.
A Report on Ranzipal's Plus-Dimensional Carry-All by Mark W. Tiedemann
The title here tells readers they are about to encounter a humorous piece and the set-up has the potential to be funny. If readers had ever met Uncle Dick, if they had seen him in action, then the manner of his demise might seem to be fitting. But when Uncle Dick is only onstage as a corpse, the situation only seems highly improbable and the coincidence at the end even more so.
Change by Julian Flood
In Flood's alternate history, trees have become the base for the entire economy. Food, fuel, building materials — it all comes from trees. Unfortunately, the climate is changing: trees are dying, and the spectre of world-wide famine looms. As in our own world, there are political consequences: the CO2 fanatics insist the world must change its ways or die, while the Trees First fanatics use violence to silence them. Professor Airmith attempts to reach out to the opposition, to show them that change is possible. He invites a pro-tree advocate to see for himself that people could be fed from such improbable sources as seeds.
I will admit that I flinched mentally when I realized that the piece is about climate change, this being one of those issues that some authors tend to address with lectures instead of real stories. There are indeed lectures and not a lot of actual story, but the alternate agronomy Flood has created ought to be of interest to readers — both for its inversion of our own situation and its parallels. Some things, unfortunately, do not change. As in the Sedia/Bartell story reviewed above, the author suggests that we should not close off alternatives in seeking the solutions to our problems.