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Short Fiction Reviews

Michael Swanwick
(8 Nov 2000)

Rich Horton
(23 Oct)

Mark R. Kelly:



Books reviewed in this month's LOCUS MAGAZINE


Wednesday 8 November 2000

Three Short Fiction Reviews
Michael Swanwick
(Special to Locus Online)

It’s not even Thanksgiving yet, and already they’re pushing Christmas. Case in point: The December issue of Analog contains three stories that even a curmudgeon such as myself can admire and enjoy.

The first of the three, “The Ultimate Earth”, is by living genre legend, Jack Williamson. It opens on a moon base inhabited by six children who receive regular visits from their posthuman “Uncle Pen.” Pen, it turns out, is an archaeologist who has reconstructed both the base and its inhabitants as a memorial to those who, ages before, repopulated the Earth after a meteor strike. He tells the children that they can never visit Earth and so naturally, when they come of age, three of them steal a ship and do exactly that.

On Earth, the young renegades discover they can neither stay there nor return to the moon. Perforce, they join a colony ship, which discovers a nanotech plague which is sweeping through the galaxy, cleansing whole worlds of life, and...

Well, it moves fast. There were times, in fact, when it moved so fast as to leave logical gaps in the telling. This whole mess could have been avoided, I thought when the children find themselves unwanted on Earth, if Pen had only explained things to them. On reflection, however, I realized that while a younger writer would have plugged these gaps with expository blumpf, it would have added nothing to the story but wordage and drag. “The Ultimate Earth” harkens back to an earlier pulp era when speed was valued above much else, and a hot young writer was willing to dump a lot of shielding and explanation to get the plot moving.

This is apparently the first of a linked series of stories, and suffers a little from the open-endedness that such works have. But it does move fast. It moves so fast, in fact, that before you know it, it’s achieved a genuine by-God sense of wonder. New writers could do a lot worse than to study this story and imitate its virtues.


Larry Niven’s “The Missing Mass” is the latest in his series of Draco Tavern stories and, like the others, it shows off many of his characteristic strengths. Names, for example. His alien races have charming names like Low Jumbos, Bebebebeque, Terminator Beavers, and Chirpsithra, deftly shortened to Beavers and Chirps when they get conversational. He can paint a word-picture with great economy: “Low Jumbos like crowds. They only show up when there’s no room for them. Their bodies shook; the roar of their laughter leaked through the privacy shields as a synchronized bass huf huf huf.” Rick, the narrator/bartender is a nicely anonymous Everyman, tolerant of all races but firmly in control of his bailiwick, self-effacing yet with the intellect to cut right through to the truth of most matters... In brief, as good a portrait of how the reader imagines him/herself as can be drawn.

The story here begins with a physicist coming to the bar to meet an alien correspondent. He explains the Missing Mass problem of the title to Rick quickly and succinctly (another of Niven’s strengths), and in the process reveals a more serious problem -- that physics is almost a dead science on Earth because the Chirpsithra know so much more than humans that trying to catch up seems pointless. There is a climactic conversation (bar stories are, after all, conversational), in which the first problem is not solved but the second is. After which, Rick leans back and reflectively delivers the final ironic twist. Which twist, not incidentally, deepens the story yet again.

The bar story genre is ultimately about unknowability. In its most primitive form, this takes the form of wondering whether the old boozer was lying or there really were leprechauns living in old Mrs. O’Reilly’s lingerie chest. But in the Draco Tavern stories, the unknowability lies in the fact that the Chirpsithra, for all that they’re as amiable, charming, and companionable drinking companions as anybody could wish for, are genuinely alien. Their motives and thought processes are in the final analysis, indeterminable. And this, when combined with a nugget of hard scientific speculation, makes for a thought-provoking statement about the nature of the universe.

Which is why the Draco Tavern stories stand head-and-shoulders above pretty much anything else in their small genre.


Brian Stableford has been working the biotechnology front hard and clean for some years and it’s obvious he knows his stuff, both genetic and literary. “Snowball in Hell” begins with a botched police raid on a laboratory suspected of involvement in proscribed human transgenic engineering. In the aftermath, the protagonist, an ambitious government scientist and terrifying in the way that such men can be, finds himself briefly held captive by a teenage girl whose parents may have been pigs.

There are two arguments at the heart of this story. The first is that such a teenage girl might well be someday created not by the importation of human genes into an alien genome, but by the embryonic manipulation of existing genes -- by suppressing select porcine genes and expressing segments of what used to be called “junk DNA” to create the desired product. Which argument, in my untrained judgment, seems plausible enough.

The second argument, made by the pig-girl Alice herself, is that despite her origins, anyone thus created would be as genuine a human being as anyone else. Put as baldly as this, I would’ve bet money I couldn’t be convinced. But Stableford’s explication of what makes one human is graceful and clear, and it changed my thinking. Which is, after all, one of the chief functions of science fiction.

The story’s conclusion, involving as it does human beings (though only just barely) overcoming their baser prejudices, is hopeful and even uplifting. Stableford is, it would seem, optimistic about what science may yet do for and to human beings. And “Snowball in Hell” is a worthy addition to an already distinguished body of work.


There were four other stories in this issue, and I admit to not having read them yet. But what are the odds I’d like any of them? Humbug, say I. Even at Christmas, one can only take so much sweetness and good cheer.

— Michael Swanwick

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