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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late February

Concentrating this time on a fairly substantial anthology set on retro-Venus, from which I give the Good Story award to Ian McDonald’s “Botanica Veneris“.

Publications Reviewed



Old Venus, edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois

A companion volume to the editors’ Old Mars, presenting sixteen stories in the mode of the previous century’s SFnal visions of this planet, before the planetary romance age was cast down by the dusty facts and dismal reality of actual science. So while Old Mars had canals carved into a desiccated red soil, Old Venus had swamps and incessant rains, at least according to most of the skiffy visions.

Venus was never as popular a setting as Mars, so the models are fewer. For some readers, a large part of the interest in the anthology will be attempting to trace the lines of influence: Is this Burroughs’ Venus? Is it Heinlein’s? Or the author’s own interpretation of the setting? For the most part, the tales here can be appreciated without reference to antecedents, and this is generally how I have read them. [Readers more interested in this aspect may want to see Russell Letson’s take.] But I do think readers who have at least some familiarity with the earlier works will appreciate most of these a bit more.

These stories are of a good length and a good variety, from the pulpiest fantasy to real science fiction. Aside from inescapable similarities in the setting, I find less redundancy than in the Mars volume, less repetition of themes. Some authors are present in both books. Quality, as it usually does, varies, but for the most part these are entertaining reads, and some offer even more value.

Readers will notice one seemingly-odd common theme among certain of these stories: the colonization of Venus by a surviving Soviet Union or its descendants. This is no coincidence. As the anthology’s introduction reminds us, the year 1962 saw probes from the rival USSR and US sent to Venus, resulting in the drastic re-evaluation of the planet’s nature. For any scenario set before that dividing date, a Soviet or Russian aspect would seem natural.

“Frogheads” by Allen M Steele

One of the Soviet-settled versions of Venus—two now-obsolete visions of past futures.

Veneragrad was as utilitarian as only a Soviet-era artifact could be: a tiered hemisphere a kilometer in diameter, a shade darker than the ocean it floated upon, the long wooden piers jutting out from its sides giving it the appearance of an enormous, bloated water spider. Rickety-looking platforms, also constructed of native timber, rose as irregularly spaced towers from the outside balconies; they supported the open-top steel tanks which caught the rain and distilled it as the colony’s drinking water. Radio masts and dish antennae jutted out odd angles from near the top of the dome; a helicopter lifted off from a landing pad on its roof. An ugly, unwelcoming place.

Ronson is a detective come to Veneragrad in search of a rich tourist kid who disappeared about a year ago. A local cop gives him a lead, tells him to talk to the frogheads, the aboriginals, who not only recognize young David Henry, they’re eager to get him off the planet. They lead Ronson out to a floating dope farm, where he learns the reason.

Despite initial appearances and a hardboiled narrative, this isn’t a detective story; Ronson is more of a witness than a protagonist. The real story here is exploitation, and it doesn’t matter whether the perpetrators are Soviet or American; this is a human pattern, it’s what humans do when they discover resources they covet and populations that can’t resist a stronger force. It’s an old story, one that science fiction has often told. But it has a novel twist in the character of Mad Mikhail, a Russian gone native who considers himself the champion and protector of the indigenes ["Don’t call them frogheads."] without wondering just what they think of him.

Given the steamy climate of the place, I’m surprised that the chocolate, brought by Ronson brings as a payoff to frogheads, doesn’t melt.

“The Drowned Celestial” by Lavie Tidhar

There are clues here to suggest our model is a Western: the setting is a place called Port Smith, where a guy named Colt is playing Martian Wild Card Stud while packing a gun. Just as he loses the hand, a dying man rolls through the door of the bar, his last words of treasure and an enemy. Colt has an interest in treasure and willingness to take on the enemy. His Venusian opponent at cards turns out to be handy with his own weapon as well, and the two of them team up in search of the treasure, leaving behind the Western theme and finding a witch in the swamp, who directs them to the treasure and warns them against it. Our Heroes, of course, seek it out regardless and find themselves enslaved by a megalomaniac in a swamp full of the zombified dead.

They were everywhere. They floated in a thick glow of decomposition and decay, staring at Colt with white, milky eyes. Venusians and Earthmen and Martians, sacrificed each day for the crazed god at the bottom of the swamp, this Roog, and with each death, it had grown stronger and more insane.

By then, the story has shifted from the Western milieu to damned Atlantis, to decayed temples where mad gods were once worshipped. Plenty of eldritch and monstrous wonders abound in the midst of this adventure. But hand in hand with them is the more mundane and common monstrosity of exploitation, as humans gnaw away at yet another world for the sake of profit. It’s an odd, imaginative mix, altogether an oddly entertaining setting for this tale of planetary romance.

“Planet of Fear” by Paul J McAuley

Well-described non-fantastic setting here:

Across the glistening slick of the subtropical sargasso, amongst shoals and archipelagos of bladderweed, several thousand sunfish floated in intersecting circles of churning foam. They were big, the sunfish, big humped discs ten or fifteen or even twenty metres across, patched with clusters of barnacles and thatched with purple-brown thickets of strapweed and whipweed, and all around them soldier remoras flailed and fought, flashing and writhing in frothing, blood-blackened water.

Here we have another Russian People’s Republic, where biologist Katya is studying the sunfish until an emergency calls her craft away to the Makarov Mining Station, which claims to be under attack from monsters. Katya finds the notion of monsters professionally intriguing, perhaps a new species, as Venus isn’t known for its megafauna. The ship’s captain, on the other hand, is eager to find cause for a confrontation with the Americans, also colonizing the planet. What they find is carnage, several executed miners, and a single survivor driven insane with terror. Katya sees evidence that the miners have been infected by disease, but Captain Chernov insists the madness was caused by American psy-war agents; his actions threaten to ignite the local cold war into a shooting one.

While several of the tales here are fantastic in some manner, this one is pure science fiction, given the parameters of the premise. Nor is it explicitly Venusian, as it could have been set on any human-habitable planet. What it evokes more than anything is the terrestrial cold war, with armed Soviet and US fleets playing brinksmanship games, the most explicit example of this trend in the anthology. Only five years before 1962, the dueling powers had initiated the space race during the International Geophysical Year, a cooperative project that Katya’s survey is emulating, to Captain Chernov’s disgust and suspicion.

Readers might be alert to clichés here, with our feminist scientist paired off against the chauvinist-warmongering-authoritarian military male, but the author is better than that. Both characters are impulsive and inclined to disregard orders, but Chernov is a genuine hero, admired by his men. And neither of them are totally right or totally wrong in this novel situation, both too much influence by preconceptions. The winner here is science, which makes this real science fiction, touched lightly with horror.

–RECOMMENDED

“Greeves and the Morning Star” by Matthew Hughes

Part of the author’s series featuring a pastiche of a well-known gentleman’s gentleman. It seems that our gentleman, Bartholemew Gloster, has been hijacked to Venus by Slithey Tove-Whippley on behalf of their fellow brother of the Inertia Club, Baldie Spotts-Binkle, lover of newts who supposes that the Venusian swamps must be ideal for breeding the creatures. At which, we surely get the idea but perhaps not the degree of the absurdity about to ensue.

Readers may conclude, upon completion of this work, that it is a bit much. Or a bit much too much. Of course, some may have already concluded that the original model of this pastiche is a bit much himself, but these would not be the ideal readers for the work before us here, which, as pastiches go, contains the essential elements of the model, including the predatory marriageable female before whom all the Inertial brotherhood must quail—more, in fact, than one such.

I must say, however, and I’m sure that Greeves would agree, that while plus-fours and tweeds are eminently fashionable in the country, such as Slithey’s Venusian estate, they wouldn’t do in Belgravia, the very center of fashionable Town.

“A Planet Called Desire” by Gwyneth Jones

The travelogue through strange, wondrous and exotic worlds is a classic SFnal device, and this one twists it slightly as billionaire adventurer John Forrest takes an experimental trip to a primordial Venus, at the era when it is beginning to die. He is immediately attacked by nasty predators and parasites and then saved by a strangely sexy Venusian lizard lady from the civilization that has fled the inhospitable surface to the clouds. After various adventures, she takes him home, only to find more adventures there.

Their arrival at Tessera Station was as dramatic as darkfall, in its way. Her city, a sky raft the size of Manhattan Island, had come to meet them. Moored by mighty hawsers, it stood at the sheer edge of the Tessera Plateau, beside the cable car buildings. Forrest watched the underbelly as they came in: a mass of swollen, membranous dirigibles, layered and roped together in a gargantuan netted frame.

On Venus, as on Earth, politics is as deadly as any predator or parasite. Yet Forrest is in love, and willing to do a lot for it.

It’s not just this version of Venus that lies in the past, but the sensibility of the story, which hails from the Manly White Adventurer era of planetary romance; we can just see Forrest in his khakis and pith helmet. The sex, in which her tail plays a central role, is surprisingly sensuous, perhaps more so than the original models might have dared.

“Living Hell” by Joe Haldeman

The narrator is part of a survey team on Venus and wishes he weren’t. The planet seems to be governed by Murphy’s Law. Thus the space elevator’s cable snaps just about the same time a solar flare fries the electronics. Being aware of Murphy, the survey has gone for redundancy: there are two bases, each with a shuttle, and each base with enough supplies for the dozenish human population to survive. So when the broken cable smashes up the equatorial base and its shuttle, all the narrator has to do is fire up the other one and go rescue the survivors. Easier said than done. Among the many complications are large Venusian monsters that can’t digest humans but are happy to kill and eat them anyway. Adventure and direness ensue.

I tried for the beach and almost made it. Branches slapped and scraped and did break my fall. I gouged up about thirty meters of sand and came to a stop just before finding out whether the thing would work as a submarine.

A generally science fictiony piece. The narrative voice here is dark cynicism, the tone belongs to someone at the mercy of bureaucracy, sent somewhere he doesn’t want to be, where no one human ought or needs to be. He mentions that he was a soldier in his youth, and this piece is a clear metaphor for the hell of jungle war. The story opens with the narrator giving us a number of the lessons he’s learned from his experience, not all of which seem directly relevant to them. I don’t really see the reason for staffing the equatorial base exclusively with females, not that it seems to make much difference to anyone’s chances of survival. What the piece boils down to is the action and the attitude, with a sort of pseudo-scientific bonus.

“Bones of Air, Bones of Stone” by Stephen Leigh

Tomio is the spoiled scion of a wealthy family who falls in love with a professional adventurer—as self-admitted “adrenaline junky”, the kind who has to be first to climb the highest mountain, dive into the deepest abyss. Tomio gets the family to sponsor Avariel’s climb of Olympus Mons while he tags along with her entourage; later, she lets him accompany her on the dive into Venus’s Great Darkness. But there he has an accident that costs him his legs and it costs Avariel her dive, bringing him out. Now she’s trying it again, and Tomio is definitely not wanted on the trip. While waiting, he makes the acquaintance of an indigene who had helped her get the permit to make the dive again. Tomio had known, before, of the local legends about the Great Darkness where the indigenes take their dead, where the Lights-in-Water meet them as they fall into the abyss. Hasalalo is one of the indigenes who will never meet the Lights, whose bones are too light to let them sink; the bodies of his kind are thrown into a pit to rot, lest the Lights be angered. So he asks Tomio for a favor.

This science fictional story of friendship and remembrance has no real surprises. We know that Tomio has finally acquired maturity and self-insight after his near-fatal experience; we know that Avariel has not and never will. And we know that a bond of mutual understanding will form between Tomio and Hasalalo. The stones make a good metaphor. I had one of those rock polishers once, and they do sometimes reveal a surprising hidden beauty in some gray lump.

“Ruins” by Eleanor Arnason

Venus is struggling with economic difficulties and wealth inequality, as well as a political divide between Russian and American colonies. We find Ash at a table in a bar, approached by a video editor from National Geographic, who wants to do a story on the charismatic megafauna of Venus. He pays well. The expedition is promptly underway, but it gradually turns into a contest between the Petrograd Soviet tour guides and the CIA agents lurking in the outback.

An adventure travelogue with political skullduggery, another story with a Venusian cold war.

“I’m an analyst for the political police,” Boris replied. “But my hours have been cut, due to the Soviet’s cash flow problems – which we would not have, if we had more tourists.”

“Or if the executive committee stopped listening to American economists,” Arkady added.

“I don’t want a lecture on economics,” Boris said. “I needed a second job. Arkady gave me one.”

The author develops the local lifeforms scientifically, with some kind of space impact carrying terrestrial microbes to Venus, where they developed in their own ways, waiting for the tourists to arrive and stimulate the local economy.

“The Tumbledowns of Cleopatra Abyss” by David Brin

An interesting and unusual premise. Human settlers fleeing to Venus long ago built bubble habitats near the volcanic vents on the floor of an oceanic abyss [and also in other deeps we don’t see]. The plan was to terraform the world to create oceans and a breathable atmosphere by crashing comets onto the planetary surface. As long as the denizens of the Abyss can recall, the thumps of impact have been a regular part of their lives. But now, as the thumps become fewer, the bubbles have aged and deteriorated, until some of them begin to collapse with the loss of thousands of lives, a great catastrophe that leads people to wonder if their own habitat might be next and preparing for the possibility of war when the surviving colonies can’t take in more refugees. Suddenly, Jonah is no longer a superfluous, troublesome boy but a man skilled in mechanics that might prove valuable in combat. His marriage price rises sharply, since he brings with him as a dowry a small, rebuilt submarine. Then, on the journey home to his wife’s bubble, things start to go wrong and all the lives onboard depend on Jonah.

“Let’s say the hull compartments hold. This is a tough old bird.” He patted the nearest curved flank. “We can help protect against blowout by venting compartment air, trying to keep pace with falling pressure outside. In that case, we’ll suffer one kind or another kind of pressure-change disease. The most common is the Bends. That’s when gas that’s dissolved in our blood suddenly pops into tiny bubbles that fill your veins and arteries. I hear it’s a painful way to die.”

This is the old Right Stuff. This is high skiffy adventure and action in a classic SFnal problem story that the engineer protagonist has to solve at all costs. This is Sensawunda generated by the ambitious terraforming project [and even more, by the hints that the original settlers were refugees from the conquest of Earth by an alien species]. This is speculative fiction considering the effects on human species and society of a completely new way of life, in which the most urgent problem is viable reproduction; by the end, there is more speculation about the ways the population’s life is about to change once again.

I note that, despite the anthology’s premise, this isn’t really Old Venus. The setting seems to be Real Venus transformed in a SFnal future to resemble the habitable water world of the ancient legends. And I consider this a Good Thing. The story has the advantage of difference, which imparts a refreshing novelty to the reading. And that brings me to the subject of anthologies. People don’t send me the guidelines to these things, but it’s possible to conjecture from the contents that in this case they put a strong emphasis on indigenous Venusians and very likely the Soviet Union factor. Which gives us lots of faux cold war stories as well as lots and lots of stories with Venusians. This can be a problem, as I noted in last year’s Mars anthology. So if Brin has decided to give us something different, even if it ignores some guidelines, I say it’s all for the best. [Although it’s possible to see the mutated human settlers here as native Venusians.]

–RECOMMENDED

“By Frogsled and Lizardback to Outcast Venusian Lepers” by Garth Nix

Shuttle pilot Kelvin is unhappily reminded on landing at fungus-infested Venusport that he’s liable to be reactivated as part of the Terran Navy’s reserves. The press gang tells him that the spoiled scions of some VIPs ["plutocratic larvae"] have idiotically crash-landed in the worst part of the Deep Swamp, and Kelvin was the closest qualified pilot they could nab for the job of rescue. He’s joined by one of his clone-sisters, who has gone more-or-less to seed on Venus.

There were broad blue patches of what the locals called swamp lichen growing on her forearms and up her thighs. More grew on her face, here carefully guided by the sparing use of antifungal agents to grow in concentric circles on her cheeks, across her forehead, and around her neck.

But even Vinnie regards the swamp-dwelling humans known as “Lepers” to be extreme. However, given no choice in the matter, off they go on lizardback, wondering what information the military is holding back, knowing that the military regards reservists such as themselves to be expendable. Turns out they’ve been holding back a lot. A great deal of action ensues, some involving imaginative batches of lethal Venusian fungus.

A fun, adventure-filled skiffy read, making the best of the setting. Given the nature of the military secret crashed in the swamp, readers do have to wonder exactly why they drafted Kelvin for the job. I’m thinking it had to be a cover-up story, but not a very effective one. Lies often aren’t.

“The Sunset of Time” by Michael Cassutt

Here’s an unusual version of the usual scenario, Terrestrians settling Venus with antisocial exiles, which the Venerians complacently allow, since to them it doesn’t really matter what the Terrestrians build, as it will all soon be washed away in

the great Sunset of Time, that moment each ten or hundred-thousand or one million (accounts vary, depending on which Venerian clan is asked) years when the clouds fade . . . the Sun is clearly visible. And it sets as Venus creaks into a partial rotation, unleashing storms, floods, ‘quakes. Remaking the landscape. Where once was Twi-Land would now be Noon, or Nightside.

The Terrestrians, a particularly fatheaded set, even for humans, naturally scoff at this prediction, for which their inferior science finds no evidence. They concentrate on building up their settlement, even as the Venerians dismantle their own, reducing every material to its basic constituents—bricks to mud, glass to sand.

Now it’s obvious from the first couple of pages how this situation is going to end. But that’s not really what the story is about. The story is about Jor, a once useless spawn of a powerful family on Earth, now risen in exile to head up the construction of the Lens, which when complete will generate a portal through which more Terrestrials will pour onto Venus. Jor, unusually in this setting, has a Venerian lover whom he never quite understands. Abdera is looking forward to the Sunset, to riding out the cataclysm on an oceanic skiff. Jor yearns for commitment from her, for a future with her, but she is unresponsive when he brings up the subject; yet she does seem to want something from him, something of crucial importance that she won’t reveal. Jor will have to figure it out for himself.

We don’t really come to understand either group of people. From the human point of view, the Venerians are enigmatic, but the Terrestrials are almost as much a mystery, with their abhorrence of calculating devices and their social deviance quotient [the human settlers on Venus take perverse pride in their quotients, the higher the better]. There’s no making sense of this from our own perspective of today; how the people of Earth arrived at this condition isn’t revealed to us. And I find it very dubious that even humans could be quite so offensively wrongheaded. It’s the weakest aspect of the story, Jor being the only one who isn’t a caricature.

“Pale Blue Memories” by Tobias S Buckell

Not Soviets this time, but Evil Nazis who shoot the narrator’s rocket ship out of the Venusian sky, where they aren’t welcomed by the locals. [I’m not clear why the Americans were heading to Venus during this alternate WWII.]

The ground thudded. And again. I looked oh-so-slowly over my shoulder. A ten-foot tall, six-legged beast with dappled green hide and a fiercely reptilian face hissed at us.

But that wasn’t what made my stomach clench. A thin-limbed man, with skin so pale it looked almost transparent, stood up on leather stirrups and pointed what was unmistakably a long-barreled weapon at us.

Classic scene planetary romance scene, that. Once captured, the crew is sold into slavery, where the adventures shift into moralizing.

This is a highly unsubtle and unoriginal work, the tired old inversion-of-fortune bit, studded with clichés like a fruitcake. Our narrator, Charles, is a mixed-race American passing for white. Because his father has told him stories about life under slavery, he has some appreciation for the realities now facing him. On the other hand, the rocket ship commander is a “red-blooded American” named Heston [!] who blathers clichés cluelessly and fails to face the reality that he is now an inferior. The Nazis, of course, are evil because they’re Nazis, which is why we have Nazis, for the convenience of authors looking for disposable characters. I find it interesting that Charles is still loyal to slavery-apologist Heston because they’re fellow Americans, and he mates with a Venusian because they’re fellow slaves, yet refuses an offered alliance from the Nazis on the grounds of fellow humanity; there is no notion of their being individuals in their own right, which is remarkably prejudiced. But, hey, Nazis!

“The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” by Elizabeth Bear

Here, the adjectival term for things pertaining to Venus is Cytherean, which I like better than most alternatives. We’ve got a small bunch of scientists onplanet, doing scientist things—exploring and discovering and the like. Of these, Dharthi and Kraken are lovers and partners, Kraken highly successful and respected, Dharthi jealous of her success. So she stupidly decides to prove herself by going out alone into the perilous jungle until she discovers something or other. Because she’s the author’s surrogate here, naturally she does.

Here’s a case where adventure is boring, because predictable. We know Dharthi will encounter perils. We know she’ll survive them. She seems to care much less about object of her quest than using it to one-up her lover. I don’t care about this relationship and her inferiority complex; she’s a self-absorbed, self-pitying fool. “If she could have this, Dharthi thought, just this–if she could do one thing to equal all of Kraken’s effortless successes–then she could tolerate how perfect Kraken was the rest of the time.” Whine, whine.

The author tosses anachronisms into the text. One, Kraken warning Dharthi, “You’re going to get eaten by a grue,” is kind of funny, for anyone old enough to get the reference. But we also get this observation, coming out of nowhere as Dharthi contemplates the landscape before her:

For a moment, Dharthi considered such medieval horrors as dentistry without anesthetic, binary gender, and as being stuck forever in the body you were born in, locked in and struggling against what your genes dictated. The trap of biology appalled her; she found it impossible to comprehend how people in the olden days had gotten anything done, with their painfully short lives and their limited access to resources, education, and technology.

Way to jerk readers out of the story and remind them it’s not really future Venus but here-and-now 2015. I had expected better from this author.

“Wizard of the Trees” by Joe R Lansdale

Jack Davis, once a performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, was on his way home aboard the Titanic when it went down. He was on the way down with it when something intervened and he found himself in a pool of mud on Venus. Being a veteran of wilderness survival, he sets about doing just that when warring Venusians intervene.

Flapping down from the sky were a half dozen winged men, carrying swords and battle axes. Except for the harness that would serve to hold their weapons, and a small hard, leather-looking pouch, they, like the others, were without clothes. Their eyes were somewhat to the side of their heads, there were beak-like growths jutting from their faces, and their skin was milk-white, and instead of hair were feathers. The colors of the feathered were varied. Their targets were the yellow men in the shiny machine on the tremendous tree limb.

Typical of this sort of tale, one of the yellow men turns out to be a woman, and they’re passing familiar with Earth. Davis falls in with them, having assisted them in their fight, and in love with her, so he’s off on quests and adventures, which readers will recognize if familiar with the classic pulp-era Sword and Planet tales. More than any other piece here, it exactly fits the model. As such, it’s pure fantasy, with no real attempt at a scientifically sound explanation for Davis’s translation to Venus. In fact, as it winds down, readers might suspect the whole thing might have been a dream, or a dying hallucination—a literary device well-known by the pulp era.

“The Godstone of Venus” by Mike Resnick

Here we meet again Scorpio and his telepathic partner Merlin, from the companion Mars anthology. Scorpio is human and Merlin is hungry. A criminal human client hires them to help find the eponymous stone, reputed to confer great mystical powers on its possessor, but in fact his mind is controlled by his Venusian female companion Sapphire, whose mind Merlin can’t read—and that scares him. But Scorpio says they need the money.

I like this one rather more than the Mars story, the mystery it adds to the adventure, which is not the Mcguffin godstone but: What exactly is this Sapphire person?

You ever see her eat, or sneak off to relieve herself?

No. But I already told you she wasn’t human.

I could fill a book with things she isn’t, replied Scorpio. What the hell is she?

Which at last we find out, in a fun read.

Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathangan” by Ian McDonald

Over fifty years ago, Ida Granville-Hyde [for she repudiated her late husband’s title and name] visited Venus and, disappearing there, left behind a collection of diaries, notes, and sketches, as well as the completed art, which has since greatly risen in value. Now her great-niece has published these in an illustrated volume, of we have unfortunately only the catalog descriptions:

Plate 1: V strutio ambulans: the Ducrot’s Peripatetic Wort, known locally as Daytime Walker (Thent) or Wanderflower (Thekh). Cut paper, ink and card

From the title and the framing introduction, we might get the impression that this is a list story, and/or one of those fictional collages interspersing journal entries with ticket stubs and grocery lists, from which readers are meant to assemble a coherent narrative. But this narrative is sufficiently coherent as it stands, consisting of Ida’s personal diary of her travels and the accounts she hears from the persons she seeks out on her quest. For while ostensibly on Venus to create the Botanica, Ida is in fact searching for her missing brother Arthur, suspected by everyone as the thief who stole her family’s heirloom jewel, her dowry, on the very eve of her wedding. To this end, she has embarked on an increasingly-perilous travelogue of wonders across a well-imagined Venusian landscape.

The rolling travel of the high-train made me grip the rail for dear life, but the high-plain was as sharp and fresh as if starched, and there, a long line on the horizon beyond the belching smokestack and pumping pistons of the tractor, were the Palisades of Exx: a grey wall from one horizon to the other. Clouds hid the peaks, like a curtain lowered from the sky.

At each stop, she draws closer to Arthur and learns more details of his very checkered career on Venus, coming to a final revelation at the conclusion of her journey, which is in moral terms, a hellward descent, a road marked with crimes and atrocities winding through the wonders of the world.

“All Arthur would say about it was, that’ll make some fine china. That’s what made porcelain from the Valley of the Kilns so fine: bones–the bones of the dead, ground up into powder. He would never drink from a Valley cup–he said it was drinking from a skull.”

Of all the stories in the volume, this is the one I see as least likely to have been published during the heyday of Old Venus, given its literary devices and the delightfully mannered prose. There’s a subtle mystery here—in fact, more than one—with secrets slowly revealed, so much so that it amply rewards a second read. Definitely my favorite.

–RECOMMENDED



Tor.com, February 2015

Not such an outstanding month for this site.

“The Human Engineer” by Jessica Brody

The third in a ridiculous series published here, for some incomprehensible reason, about an Evil Corporation that commits crimes no actual company would ever get away with even contemplating. An insult to readers’ intelligence. Also featuring a whining, self-pitying protagonist, which seems to be a theme here this month.

“The Language of Knives” by Haralambi Markov

A world in which the bodies of the deceased are ritually dismembered and formed into cakes [which would seem to me to be more like meatloaf]. The narrator, in the 2nd-person “I”, is a master of this rite, in which his daughter has been training ever since her favorite father, the narrator’s husband, died. Now the apprentice faces her test of mastery. All through the process, she is expert and controlled, with a “stone face” showing no emotion, all while the other parent wallows in self-pity, both at the loss of his husband but more the fact, that their daughter always loved the other father best and blames him for his death.

It’s a pretty dull story, with the lengthy process of preparing the body described in detail, while the narrator is consumed with his emotions but fails to evoke much empathy, either in daughter or reader.

“Acrobatic Duality” by Tamara Vardomskaya

The narrator was an acrobatic gymnast—a competitive sport involving pairs competition—when she was translated by some sinister process into the bodies of two other young women who can now compete with one mind.

The extra difficulty points of our blind front salto are undeserved, since the base can see where the top’s feet are going. We know where both our body centres are; we can feel it. We think of our two spines as others think of their two legs. Synchronizing is as easy as moving two arms at the same time. Cooperating is as easy as being one with ourself.

While each of them has another identity, they both now consider themselves Jennifer Smith and constantly wonder what happened to her, and what happened to the people who they used to be. Their coach says he isn’t allowed to tell them. Then Kim, the top, begins to date a young man, and the two are no longer one, no longer move as one, as their experiences and concerns diverge.

Interesting premise related to the philosophy of mind and the problem of identity, as Kim and Alana’s identity shared begins to diverge. The narrative is filled with details of the competition, very immediately described. The conclusion, however it resolves the pair’s uncertainty, offers no explanation to readers.

“Schrödinger’s Gun” by Ray Woods

Set in a sort of alternate ‘30s Chicago, with rival gangs shooting it out over territory, where certain law enforcement officers, like O’Harren, have “heisen” implants that allow them to perceive and select alternative possibilities and timelines. This is supposed to increase their detecting ability, mostly in interrogation situations. Now the gangster Johnny Rivers has been murdered, and O’Harren is investigating, with the possibilities narrowing down to two: gang business as usual or a crime of passion.

They stood there, overlapping, like two different movies projected onto the same screen; a fault line between two universes. A perfect quantum tightrope. I was looking at the cat inside the box, alive and dead at the same time, and I had seconds left to choose which possibility remained when the lid came off. I couldn’t speak. For a moment, two versions of myself stood inside of each other, our hearts beating different rhythms.

The heisen also, as in O’Harren’s case, causes problems with personal lives, her marriage and child. She occasionally falls into some self-pity over the situation, but usually resists the impulse. This is one of the most common plot formulae in genre fiction: the parallel professional and personal problem; solving one usually leads to an epiphany about the other. I’m happy to say this one doesn’t really go there, instead deploying a really appropriate ending.

Still the difficulties that O’Harren encounters make it clear that the heisen device is really a bad idea, more trouble than it would ever be worth.

“The Hell of It” by Peter Orullian

Malen works scrubbing fish guts off the deck of a trawler to support the young son he must raise alone, until the corrupt oppressive tax system forces his boss to lay him off. Malen then proceeds to make a series of idiotic but honorable choices which all leave him even worse off, the corrupt oppressive system being stacked against the poor-but-honest, as oppressive systems usually are.

Malen doesn’t wallow in self-pity here, because the author has assigned that task to readers, jerking on our emotional chains like a whole gang of cathedral bell-ringers. There is also no unambiguously fantastic element present.

Lois Tilton is reading original short SF and fantasy fiction. Editors can send electronic files of magazines and original anthologies to: loist a*t sff.net

For print materials, please query me by email for the address.

For an index of Magazine Issue reviews posted on Locus Online, including Lois Tilton’s, see Index to Magazine Reviews.

Russell Letson reviews Old Venus

Old Venus, a companion volume to last year’s Old Mars, again offers stories set on a version of the titular planet that no longer matches what science tells us about it. In the introduction, co-editor Gardner Dozois writes that he and George R.R. Martin were looking for a return to the ‘‘heyday of the Planetary Romance,’’ when ‘‘the solar system swarmed with alien races and civilizations, as crowded and chummy as an Elks picnic.’’ But in 1962, everybody’s fun with Venus was spoiled when information from the Mariner 2 spacecraft revealed that the real planet was not the home of tropical jungles and swamps, big lizards, lost temples, and sexy aliens, but a lifeless hellhole of heat, toxic chemicals, and crushing pressures, ‘‘duller than a supermarket parking lot.’’ These 16 stories, mostly of novelette length, aspire to resuscitate not only the obsolete, imaginary planetology of Old Venus, but the iconography and tropes that filled the pulp adventure stories once set there: the rain-soaked frontier outback where questionable characters meet in roughneck saloons before setting out to find abandoned temples or lost cities, guided or preyed upon by aquatic or amphibious natives, pursued by hungry local fauna, and perhaps tempted by exotic-erotic possibilities.

Venus is a tougher planet to re-imagine as a usable setting than is Mars, and part of the fun of these stories is noting the ways the collection’s participants refurbish the old setting as a story-space that contemporary SF readers will accept. The writers take a variety of approaches to this end, and the enabling devices are ingenious and often powerfully transformative: time travel, alternate history, far-future terraforming, and panspermia. Then there’s the brute-force option: no disbelief-suspending fig-leaves, just a naked assertion that Venus is the swampy, cloud-shrouded tropical jungle of the pulps, so the story can roll on without any worries about pesky counterfactuality.

On the motif-and-trope side, the one most often employed is the trek into the interior. Allen Steele’s ‘‘Frogheads’’ sends a private investigator to floating islands where drug dealers exploit the natives; Eleanor Arnason’s ‘‘Ruins’’ sends a National Geographic team out to get pictures of Venusian megafauna; Joe Haldeman’s ‘‘Living Hell’’ and Garth Nix’s ‘‘By Frogsled and Lizardback to Outcast Venusian Lepers’’ mount rescue missions; Paul McAuley’s ‘‘Planet of Fear’’ diverts a science expedition to investigate reports of miners being attacked by monsters; and Mike Resnick’s ‘‘The Godstone of Venus’’ sends a couple of stranded soldiers of fortune after a magical, mythical object.

Of course, a trek is just a framework on which to hang other fictionally interesting features, if only the touristic ogling of the lush landscape, indigenous critters, and colorful native folkways. We get plenty of that in all the above-mentioned stories, along with other agendas and frequent doses of authorial playfulness. The Arnason entry opens with an explicit acknowledgment of the collection’s rule-set: ‘‘Of course the story began in a low dive in Venusport, in the slums up on the hillside above the harbor.’’ Then it veers off into an alternate-history world (carefully outlined in an authorial postscript) that includes solar-system mechanics, the last extraterrestrial outpost of a failed Soviet system, CIA shenanigans, a lost city, and a talking pseudo-pterosaur named Baby. McAuley’s ‘‘Planet of Fear’’ also plays out against Cold War tensions that have been exported to Venus, though the foreground is a familiar McAuleyan hard-science evocation of an alien environment and biology, and of human adaptations to it. Cold War echoes also show up in Steele’s ‘‘Frogheads’’, which begins with a touchdown in Veneragrad, ‘‘utilitarian as only a Soviet-era artifact could be,’’ before moving on to those floating islands. The reappearance of this recurring Cold War motif is perhaps an inevitable option for writers to pick up, given the political atmosphere that dominated the last decade of the Old Venus story-space.

The range of textures and atmospheres is broad and impressive. Some contributors remain close to their pulp models. Mike Resnick’s ‘‘Godstone’’ and particularly Joe Lansdale’s ‘‘The Wizard of the Trees’’ (which is right out of the E.R. Burroughs/Otis Adelbert Kline bag) could have appeared in Planet Stories or Startling in 1953 and nobody would have blinked. Others drop in homages to C.L. Moore or Leigh Brackett. Lavie Tidhar’s ‘‘Drowned Celestial’’ plays a strong C.L. Moore hand (the story is sprinkled with references), mixing the hard-boiled and the exotic-homoerotic in a lost-temple framework. Gwyneth Jones’s ‘‘Planet Called Desire’’ takes its cue from a different part of the Moore-Kuttner repertory: an explorer crosses a gulf of space and time to encounter a world that satisfies his appetite for adventure and a mysterious and powerful not-human woman who satisfies other appetites. Garth Nix’s ‘‘By Frogsled and Lizardback to Outcast Venusian Lepers’’ (which should get the Gaudiest Title Award) offers a modern version of pulp adventure with contemporary genre furniture: a multi-Great-Power Solar System with a recent history of wars; tailored clone soldiers (retired but reactivated); Venus-bioadapted human settlers; linked-telepath communicators. Oh, and the title turns out to be as accurate as it is gaudy.

Pulp does not rule the entire volume. The SF machinery of Elizabeth Bear’s ‘‘The Heart’s Filthy Lesson’’ is even more modern than Nix’s – quantum-entangled lovers and extensive physical modifications – and, as the title suggests, its journey of exploration and discovery is as much inward as outbound. In ‘‘The Sunset of Time’’, Michael Cassutt builds a complex pattern of Earth exiles, a giant construction project, and a cross-species liaison, along with misunderstood alien cultural patterns. Stephen Leigh’s ‘‘Bones of Air, Bones of Stone’’ also plumbs the mysterious (literal) depths of Venusian religious beliefs and the human urge to go where nobody else has ever has – in this case, with good reason. Tobias Buckell’s ‘‘Pale Blue Memories’’ uses Venus as a stage for an adventure-parable about slavery and survival (perhaps with a sideways glance at Heinlein’s ‘‘Logic of Empire’’). David Brin’s ‘‘The Tumbledowns of Cleopatra Abyss’’ is partly a coming-of-age story and partly about what it is like to be on the receiving end of a far-future, generation-spanning terraforming project. (And, with its subaquatic colonies, there’s a distant echo of James Blish’s ‘‘Surface Tension’’.) Joe Haldeman’s ‘‘Living Hell’’ feels like one of his future-war stories, but here the enemy is an entire planet hungry enough to try to munch on indigestible Earth-folk, with unfortunate results for all involved. ‘‘The creatures who eat us get very sick,’’ the narrator observes, ‘‘which seems only fair.’’ The story’s payoff turns the whole thing around quite admirably. Matthew Hughes’ ‘‘Greeves and the Evening Star’’ gets the Most Unexpected Mashup Prize with its goofy mix of cross-species sex and Wodehousean silly-ass-Englishman nonsense.

Ian McDonald’s ‘‘Botanica Veneris’’ is perhaps the most complex structural and thematic response to the book’s challenge: it evokes those adventurous Victorian ladies who traveled the exotic and wild parts of the world, somehow carrying their First World culture in their extensive baggage, while still appreciating and even understanding what they encountered. It also recalls the touristic rambles of Jack Vance, with occasional whiffs of Wodehouse (again) and Jane Austen, plus stronger nods to Hemingway and Kipling in its embedded narratives.

Old Venus presents an impressive range of responses to the challenge of producing satisfying fiction while staying within the inhabitable-Venus givens. Some of the pleasures here come from watching the enabling devices get re-engineered and -deployed, but there is more on offer than clever retreads of the old tropes. For those of us who live with writers and are used to seeing the sausage factory in operation, watching craft become art is endlessly fascinating. For any reader, this is more than an exercise in nostalgia; it offers us a way to get from what we know to what we want to dream.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Tom McCarthy

Back in 2011, in my capacity as a judge for the John W. Campbell Award for best novel, I had occasion to read my first book by Tom McCarthy, C. Here are my initial notes to my fellow judges. (And I don’t think that at such a late date this tiny behind-the-scenes peek at our deliberative process is too forbidden.) “Did you like Priest’s The Prestige, or anything by Ian MacLeod?  That’s the affect here.  Weird elegance.  Proto-technologies mapped subtly onto the present.  I think the reviewers make too much of the avant-garde and experimental angle.  They simply don’t know how to read SF, even of the steampunk variety. Echoes of Paul Bowles, Patrick McGrath, Ballard. Pynchon and Whittemore above all.  Very clear and cold-eyed.  Acid humor.”

C was an elegant, stimulating book, prime speculative fiction slipping in under the mainstream rubric, and I’ve much anticipated McCarthy’s next one. Five years onward, here it is. I am happy to report that it is just as winning and immersively enrapturing as its predecessor, but in a different way. Whereas C was somewhat old school and massive, a big canvas with lots of characters, the new book is slim and bleeding edge, almost a claustrophobic monologue. But it’s a compelling, fascinating monologue, probably the best J. G. Ballard book not written by JGB himself.

The book’s front cover delivers a hint of the multivalent, almost stream-of-consciousness nature of what we are about to read. Arrayed around the standard legend “A Novel” are other descriptors, with strike-through marks denying or hesitating over their usefulness. “A Treatise.” “An Essay.” “A Report.” “A Confession.” “A Manifesto.” Of course, despite the apparent dithering of the book’s fictional author—a corporate anthropologist dubbed simply “U.,” who works for “the Company”—his first-person account is all these things and more.

Inside we find relatively compact chapters consisting of numbered sub-sections, like a work by Wittgenstein. Our narrator is plainly concerned with ordering his scattered, flitting, associative thoughts in the most rigorous and efficient fashion possible. And that is because he is embarked on formulating the “Great Report,” a kind of totalizing anthropological summation of civilization and its discontents. Or rather, he would be embarked on such a pursuit if he were not obsessing about dead skydivers (shades of JGB’s aviators), oil spills, and Present-Tense Anthropology, a new discipline which would eventually result in a cabal of terrorist academics like the Baader-Meinhof Gang, intent on reinstituting a kind of prehistorical now-centered mindfulness among the populace. Oh, yes, the Company, his tentacled employer, in the form of its leader, Peyman, who is a combination of Malcolm Gladwell, Elon Musk and Richard Branson, also would like U. to get cracking on the Koob-Sassen Project, a revolutionary agenda whose actual lineaments will never be disclosed, even though we learn it has a potential impact on every aspect of modern living.

U. is also concerned with his relations with his lover, Madison. The man and woman exhibit odd behaviors together, which U. seeks to categorize and analyze. He begins to fill his office walls with pasted-up clippings of all sorts, rather like Rip Hunter at his blackboard trying to make sense out of the conflicting boardroom-dictated continuity changes at DC Comics.

All of this blackly humorous, paranoid, schizophrenic behavior and intellectualization makes for surprisingly hypnotic reading. It’s rather like trying to follow Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis. You can’t stop reading as U. builds a crazy quilt template he tries to lay down atop squirmy life. This is not to say that exterior events don’t also intrude. One of the most touching incidents is the illness and death of his co-worker Petr. And then there are two pivotal moments. In section 12.11, U. is vouchsafed a potent dream of “Satin Island,” a kind of entropic kingdom of waste. He will eventually come to identify this vision with the real-life Staten Island and seek to make a pilgrimage there in the final chapter.

But the mysterious center of the whole book seems to be a David-Lynch-style narrative from Madison’s past, which she discloses in a long account in Chapter 13. It’s not satisfactory as a straight answer to everything, but it’s brilliantly evocative of the whole conundrum.

McCarthy of course channels Kafka throughout all of this. But two genre writers other than Ballard loom as cousins. John Sladek, specifically in his great “Masterson and the Clerks.” And Barry Malzberg, in his entire oeuvre. Pick any paragraph in McCarthy, and you could find its like in Beyond Apollo or Galaxies or Herovit’s World.

“And yet… And yet… And yet. The Great Report still has to be composed. That was the deal: with Peyman, with the age. Even if it wasn’t composed in a way that conformed to any previous anthropological model, it nonetheless had, somehow, to find a form. It was all a question of form. What fluid, morphing hybrid could I come up with to be equal to that task? …how would it all congeal, around what cohere?”

Like a mix of David Cronenberg’s Consumed and Dave Eggers’s The Circle, Satin Island performs the role of a half-mad Doctor Benway who anesthetizes his patient—civilization—and then conducts an autopsy whose goal is more gory performance art than science.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Kelly Link

Kelly Link stories are not particularly hard to find these days – all but two of those in her new collection Get In Trouble have already appeared in various anthologies (five of them in ‘‘year’s bests’’) – but a new Link collection is still major news, in part because you can never really read a Link story for the second time, much like you can’t step in the same river twice. It’s not just that the stories are fluid, with unexpected eddies and odd new things always floating downstream, but that part of the pleasure of reading a Link story lies in deciding how to read this particular Link story. There are, to be sure, some recurring themes – rich kids and outsiders, superheroes and ghosts – and there are occasional allusions to other writers, such as when she borrows a Shirley Jackson title in ‘‘The Summer People’’ or a character named ‘‘the demon lover’’ in ‘‘I Can See Right Through You’’, but there’s also a sense of a master chef improvising with available ingredients. ‘‘Light’’, for example, is a story already packed with pocket universes, mysterious sleeping bodies turning up at random, detachable shadows as in George MacDonald or J.M. Barrie, and a hurricane, but you get the sense that at some point Link decided the story needed more iguanas, so there are more iguanas. And it works.

Jackson’s stories sometimes took place in fairly mundane settings, with disturbing things happening just outside the frame of the narrative. A good many of Link’s stories also hang on a fairly domestic framework, but she likes to bring these ancillary disturbances fully onstage. At its simplest level, ‘‘Light’’ concerns a somewhat hard-bitten woman with an unfulfilling job in a Florida storage facility, whose dissolute brother arrives on an unwelcome visit and gets involved with one of her co-workers. That’s a pretty mainstream plot, except the storage facility houses those mysterious sleeping bodies (identified only by the towns in which they were found), people vacation or even retire in pocket universes, shadows can detach or even multiply, and there are all those iguanas.

Similarly, ‘‘Secret Identity’’ begins as a familiar, sad tale of a 14-year-old-girl who makes her way from Iowa to New York for a planned liaison with an older man she met on the Internet – but the hotel where the assignation is to take place is filled with conventions of superheroes and dentists, a kitchen worker who makes elaborate life-size replicas of superheroes out of butter, and a rich kid who lives in the hotel and thinks of himself as Eloise. Another rich kid figures in ‘‘The New Boyfriend’’, told from the point of view of her friend Immy, who’s not only jealous of her boyfriends but falls hopelessly in love with one of them. All these boyfriends are lifesize robots drawn from the fantasies of teen urban romance – a vampire, a werewolf, and now a ghost, who can appear either in physical or ‘‘spectral’’ mode – which means he can pop up unexpectedly almost anywhere within range of his base station. Of course, he’s the one who is the object of Immy’s infatuation. Privilege is also an important aspect of ‘‘Valley of the Girls’’, in which the rich kids not only have avatar ‘‘Faces’’ for their public lives, but construct for themselves elaborate Egyptian-style pyramids as burial chambers, some of which have walk-in closets. It’s a kind of literalization-of-metaphor treatment of what a lot of young people already are doing on social media sites, and it’s a good example of Link’s unique approach to the materials of science fiction.

Even though Link has sometimes self-identified, at least informally, as an SF writer, Get In Trouble gives us more actual SF than her earlier collections, not only with the robot boyfriends of ‘‘The New Boyfriend’’, the futuristic avatars of ‘‘Valley of the Girls’’, and the pocket universes of ‘‘Light’’, but in one of the strongest stories here, ‘‘Two Houses’’, originally written for a Bradbury tribute anthology, which takes place during a decades-long starship voyage but shifts focus into a series of ghost stories that the crew decides to share with each other. The main one involves a boy who’s mom has inherited a pair of houses in England, one an Arizona ranch house transported piece-by-piece as part of an art installation, the second an exact replica of the first house, on the same estate. It’s an effective blend of space voyage, club story, and postmodern puzzle (mostly in that art installation project), and it even captures some real Bradbury language along the way.

Language is, after all, what really makes Link’s stories unique. She’s especially apt at capturing the querulous, lonely sarcasm of the precocious but disaffected teen, and her stories are peppered with funny lines that work as zingers even as they mask the character’s inner desperation. My guess is that the most popular story here will be ‘‘The Summer People’’, with its relatively straightforward narrative of a girl whose father has abandoned her and whose job is to look after seasonally occupied vacation homes, except that one of those home houses a mysterious unseen family with magical abilities, which they use judiciously. Stories like ‘‘Origin Story’’ and ‘‘I Can See Right Through You’’ capture the language of older protagonists, and a sense of loss that comes from hard experience. ‘‘Origin Story’’ is so dialogue-heavy it’s practically a one-act play, as two superheroes reflect on their past in the ruins of an Oz theme park (one’s superpower is only that she can levitate a bit, but many of the superpowers in Link stories aren’t that super, and are often useless). ‘‘I Can See Right Through You’’ also depicts two friends reflecting on their shared past, which includes having become media celebrities after appearing in a vampire movie together; now she is hosting a ghost-hunting TV program at the site of a former nudist colony where all the nudists inexplicably disappeared. Stories like these reveal a complexity of character and even a sense of regret that is less evident in Link’s stories about younger people, and in general the tone of Get In Trouble is a bit darker and the characters a bit more damaged than in earlier Link collections, but the magic remains, and so do the iguanas.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Judd Trichter

The immediate instinct of all veteran SF readers—and veteran fans of SF cinema—will be to compare Judd Trichter’s debut novel to Blade Runner and Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence. And those first critical impulses would be correct. Subsequent comparative thought might ring in Richard Calder and his Dead Girls trilogy, and this perception would fit the novel accurately as well. Finally, echoes of Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon might resound in the ears of sensitive readers.

But these ranging shots would fail to capture the book’s unique voice, and also fail to pinpoint an important extra-literary influence on the story—for it is no mere “book compounded of other books”—and that tributary would consist of recent topical headlines and controversies. With its portrait of a collapsing, jury-rigged, inequitable infrastructure and economy; a human species that is its own worst enemy, unable to muster up the vision or will to change its bad habits; and the rampant spread of prejudice, hostility, inequality and lack of compassion, Trichter’s book takes the pulse and temperature of our global civilization circa 2015 and finds the patient nearly terminal. Black and despairing as those literary models cited above once appeared, they are Pollyanna visions compared to Trichter’s cynical diagnosis and nasty portrait. Are things really this messed up? Your mileage may vary, as the saying goes. But it’s a testament to Trichter’s skills that at least for the duration of the book—as with Orwell or Huxley—you believe they are.

The milieu is Los Angeles in the “late twenty-first century.” (And that vivid setting slots the book comfortably into another category, “great literature about L.A.”) Our protagonist is one Eliot Lazar (and please recall that “lazar” is an archaic synonym for “leper”), who is a salesman at a company that makes and sells androids for various commercial purposes. These artificial humans—dubbed “spinners” for their onboard vaguely gyroscopic power plants—are indistinguishable at a distance from the “heartbeats” or humans. Seemingly fully sentient—although their free will and depth of feelings remain debatable (as is also the case with humans, ironically)—they are generally considered property or slaves, except when manumitted. But even then, they remain second-class citizens, unprotected and preyed-upon.

Eliot has had the fortune—or misfortune—to fall in love with a spinner, Iris Matsuo, who returns his devotion. With spinner-heartbeat miscegenation constituting a low-level, generally unpunished crime, but also a slap in the face to many bigots, a social offense that enrages and leads to assaults, the pair have their hearts set on travelling to the pirate nation of Avernus, where no such prejudices exist. But before they can make their getaway, tragedy strikes. Iris is kidnapped and broken up for parts. The novel becomes Eliot’s quest—quixotic, fevered, dangerous, obsessional—to reassemble her, and thus awaken her “soul” once more. This odyssey will take him across every stratum of society, from industrial plants to the HQ of the spinner terrorist, Lorca.

A writer from outside the genre confines, Trichter nonetheless possesses the full suite of stefnal tools and paradigms and thought habits that define a great SF writer. He’s even as easygoing with a necessary infodump as Kim Stanley Robinson. The implications of his one simple conceit—androids—have been allowed to permeate every interstice of his future, from economics to culture, from art to crime, from sexual mores to child-raising. And it all hangs together organically.

Moreover, Trichter is not remiss in his homages. Asimov and Dick being primary influences, Pohl and Kornbluth also come into play, especially in the description of how androids were engineered to be pre-hooked on caffeine and cigarettes. There’s also, I think, a great riff on Lang’s Metropolis, with Iris being the female robot Maria. The city of Heron, California, where the android industry began, is described thus: “The Heron of today, however, rises conspicuously like some Gehry-esque volcano belching black smoke into the clouds. Its towering clusters are as recognizable as the Hollywood sign and can be seen from any point in L.A., and though few heartbeats ever set foot into the city itself, all of the world is familiar with the orgy of production that grows Heron every day like a tumor on the California spine.”

Another excellent thread and character is found in the figure of “the old detective,” who functions like Inspector Javert from Les Misérables. Eliot’s mad quest to reassemble Iris involves a lot of drug-addled violence (Eliot is addicted to drip, a drug created by androids out of “old plastic”), even unto murder, and the police naturally get involved. As a voice of humanistic reasoning and sentiment, the best parts of a vanished era, the old detective serves as a kind of moral counterweight to Eliot’s actions, a selfless corrective to the younger man’s egocentric manias.

But of course Eliot can be somewhat excused for his manias. His father was a kind of Howard Stark figure, the inventor of androids, and murdered by his creations in the presence of a teenaged Eliot. This of course makes Eliot Iron Man, and indeed, he has a cyborg arm as token of his interface between the two realms of heartbeats and spinners.

Trichter’s noirish dystopia is hallucinogenic naturalism, a prickly, disturbing descent into a world where only love—carnal or positronic—can offer a shelter from the artificial storms.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-February

Looking at the Dell digests plus some of the regular zines that publish throughout the month, with remarks on the rigor of fantasy as well as continuing my comments on science fiction begun in the previous column.

Publications Reviewed



Lightspeed, February 2015

Featuring stories with titles that begin with “And”. And there’s no problem identifying which of the pieces here are science fiction.

“And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander

Cyborg cyber-warriors.

The first time she meets Rack, Rhye’s fresh out of the army and fresh back from one of the meat-grinders the humans pay her kind to fight in. The children of wires and circuits aren’t worth a tinker’s fuck compared to the children of real flesh and bone, so far as the world’s concerned. The recruitment agents pluck her off the streets when she’s twelve and send her to a training camp and she’s good with linguistics and better at killing, so they keep her hands busy until she’s twenty-five and then they spit her back out again like a mouthful of cum.

OK, we get that this is hardcore, but does it make sense? After thirteen years, Rhye ought to be a valuable, experienced player with a lot of killing years left in her, so why dump her on the street to make trouble–except for the author’s convenience? For that matter, who makes child cyborgs and dumps them out on the streets to fend? Anyway, there is Rhye out on the streets, where she meets Rack and reluctantly falls in love. Rack is a cyber-cyborg who wears clean white shirts to engage in criminal activity, but when he messes with the wrong outfit they blow out his synthetic brains and Rhye is left to retrieve both the stolen information and the cyber-core of his real self. Adventure and mayhem ensue, culminating in self-realization.

The interest here is in the cyberpunkish adventure and Rhye’s gritty language that stands for characterization, but I keep being distracted by the number of things that just don’t seem to make sense. For another example, if Rhye is so hardcore and the Ganymede gang is merely human, I’m surprised she has such a hard time handling them. The names, also, are a bit too cute.

“Red Planet” by Caroline M Yoachim

An oft-used title, but the allusion seems to be not to any other work in particular but color vision. Tara is a biology student who has apparently been blind since birth; she gets along quite well in life and lab, except for the problem of color, which is inexplicable to her. Tara wants to study xenobiology on Mars [where microorganisms exist] where her lover Kiki is going, but the place is run

by a bunch of ableist jerks who didn’t want to make accommodations for her disability. According to them, the medical requirements were for her safety and comfort, but it was really the same bullshit she’d dealt with all her life. No one wanted to believe that a blind girl could be a scientist, especially a biologist . . .

Then out of nowhere comes her professor with an offer to take part in a retinal implant experiment that would allow her to fulfill her dream of Mars and be with Kiki there. As much as she doesn’t like the idea, the incentive is too great.

This one is definitely science fiction. Retinal implants have already been in development for some time, but here with a novel technological twist. And it could have been good science fiction if the author had taken more time to develop Tara as a real individual struggling with the problems of adapting to vision, rather than a two-dimensional poster for an anti-ableist screed, as is clear when Tara resents the implication that the surgery would “fix her”. I find the character unconvincing, from her undisclosed diagnosis to the contradiction between her resentment of her professor’s condescension and her claim that she could get a lab job anywhere on Earth. She does seem to like the idea of experiencing colors, but I find it odd that she never seems to want to see her lover’s face, when she shuts her eyes on a video call.

“And the Winners Will Be Swept Out to Sea” by Maria Dahvana Headley

An extended metaphor of liquidity. Too extended. A paragraph of this stuff is all very well, but not for page after page.

I met you, love of mine, at the end of centuries spent alone. My body has been every decorative lily pool in Japan, and every waterfall in Africa. My body’s been the Amazon, full of snakes, thigh-deep wading for explorers, and the Mississippi and her floodplains, spilling out across miles, looping and twisting to surprise the houses. My body was the last moments of the Aral sea, the final drops drunk by a camel and carried away. When you found me in that fish tank, I was too lonely to travel.

So as we can tell, the narrator is an immortal aquatic shape-changing entity with a propensity for falling in love with humans, which never works out well and leaves her depressed. The man who pulled her out of the fish tank was likewise a depressive personality. On the beach below his house there is an annual festival, kind of like a potlatch, where whoever sacrifices the most is swept out to sea. The narrator’s lover, despite her pleas, went down and got swept, and now she remains alone in his house, mourning.

In essence, then, this is a story of love. But it’s also a good example of what I call “soft fantasy”. We have to accept the narrator literally as the fantastic thing she tells us she is, as opposed to a mere metaphor or ambiguous reference, but the fantastic isn’t really at the center of the story; it’s not what the story is about. What it’s about are the very mundane human emotions of love and despair.

“Things You Can Buy for a Penny” by Will Kaufman

“Don’t go down to the well,” said Theo to his son. So, of course, Tim went to the well. He was thirteen, and his father told him not to. There was no magic to it.

Of course there is magic in the well, and the stories passed on from one generation to the next, about the wet gentleman who lives in the well and will grant a wish if you throw a penny down to him. And how the gentleman is very tricky, so you have to be careful what you wish for, which should never be what he offers you. Tim knows all these stories, and now so do the readers.

I like this narrative. Although the tale is simple, there’s wit and freshness in the telling, as well as a neat twist at the end. The material resembles that of fairy tales, also the sort of folktale involving deals with tricky gentlemen, and readers of fantasy are well aware that wells are often inhabited. Tim is the sort of character who, in fairy tales, might also be named Simpleton.

It’s also a good example of the sort of story that isn’t soft fantasy, the magic being not only unambiguous but central to the tale; how the characters deal with the magic is what the story is about.

–RECOMMENDED



Beneath Ceaseless Skies #166-167, February 2015

For readers in search of hard fantasy, this zine would be a most logical place to look. The works here usually feature some overt fantastic element essential to the story: either magic, or a secondary world, or some other unambiguous element contrary to our reality.

Issue #166 deals with revolutions; #167 with journeys.

#166

“The Wizard’s House” by Stephen Case

A direct prequel to the author’s previous work about a wizard confronting a malevolent new god and his priests. In this one, we learn how the boy Diogenes came to the wizard’s secret floating house to become his servant in exchange for saving his father’s life.

I must say that I wish this one had come first in publication order, as it does in chronological. It makes “The Unborn God” a great deal easier to understand, as time is much less out of place here. And I wonder now if the story will continue to be told in backwards order, to relate the earlier events of the war in the sky, from which weapons rained onto the ground during the battles—a compelling image.

About the wars during his great-grandfather’s time, when all the barons had fleets of airships and the emperor’s thunderheads could launch broadsides that would level an entire town. There were cities up there—maybe entire flying countries, if you believed what some said. But they all had fallen.

Now we learn that Diogenes had gone to Swords Creek against his father’s orders and taken the sword that glowed blue when pointed toward the wizard’s house, which made all the subsequent events possible. But only readers who have read the previous installment in this tale will understand the significance of what is to come. If you haven’t, read this one first.

As for the fantasy level, the abundance of fantastic elements here is so great that without them there would just be a couple of boys standing at a creekside.

“The King in the Cathedral” by Rich Larson

It seems that an Evil Magical Usurper called the Illusionist has killed the incumbent king, taken over as ruler, and exiled the king’s half-brother/rightful heir to a vast desert, where he inhabits a deserted cathedral along with a robotic companion/guard that he has named Otto. To wile away the days and years, they play games, which Otto usually wins, automatons being good at that sort of thing. Supplies are regularly teleported in. One day, a female companion is teleported in–a piece of irony, as Fawkes’ preferred companionship is not female. Eris, however, has other plans for him. Rebellion is brewing. But her plans interest Fawkes no more than her female companionship.

“My brother’s supporters didn’t want me then, and they don’t need me now. I’d be useless in any sort of rebellion. A figurehead at best.” Fawkes found he was using his wheedling voice. “Don’t you understand why I won’t go back to that?”

The tone here is fairly light, with touches of humor, beginning with the contrast between the legends that have arisen around Fawkes and the reality, which is that his imprisonment is actually pretty comfortable, suggesting that the Illusionist may not be quite as Evil as his opponents believe. Fawkes is, in fact, as Eris accuses him, rather too comfortable, although his alternatives are limited.

There are fewer fantastic elements here, but the one factor we perceive is essential: there is no way in or out of the desert without magical intervention. It would take six months to cross it on foot, without the ability to carry sufficient supplies for survival. This would seem to excuse Fawkes’ passivity, even if he were inclined to action. It also makes the conclusion less convincing, even when clever, and the fantasy rather less rigorous.

#167

“Madonna” by Bruce McAllister

In 2010 the author published a story, “Blue Fire”, about a child Pope in a Rome overrun by vampires. I praised it highly for its use of theological speculation, faith, and miracles. Since then, there have been sequels, each of which I have liked less than the original. Here, we have il Papino Bonifacio with his sidekick Emilo, the Emissary of La Compassione, on the road attempting to evade the soldiers sent by the vampires to apprehend them. Coming to Siena, they meet the next member of their miraculous band, an incarnation of the Madonna who can foretell the future.

. . . something changed in the room. In the corner of my eye Caterina was not a girl. Though it was impossible, there was a woman in Caterina’s place, one wearing something in her hair, her hair as bright as daylight. When I jerked my gaze back to the doorway, however, it was Caterina again, her back to us as she stepped outside and closed the door behind her.

What we have here is a sequel problem, exacerbated by the fact that the original story was published five years ago, and in a different publication. Without this background, the piece is quite confusing and ultimately unfulfilling. Readers unfamiliar with the previous material don’t really know who these people are, where they are going or why. We see no vampires, and there is only cursory reference to their pursuit, so we have no sense of real urgency or peril, and at the end the quest moves on to, perhaps, some conclusion or closure, of which there is no guarantee. I have the unfortunate sense that I’m reading a version of “The Bremen Town Musicians”, with each stop on the road adding another member to the troupe. That’s not a good thing.

“Y Brenin” by C Allegra Hawksmoor

In a Celtic sort of land, a fraternal civil war has left the territory in ruins, the people starving. When the Red King had his brother imprisoned, his loyal [lover] knight freed him, and they escaped to the eponymous stronghold of the north. Now, on a bloody battlefield the knight has defeated Red but can’t bring himself to kill him, knowing that the south is a desolate as the north. Instead, they begin a long and difficult slog across country, Ser Mercer hoping that the brothers can make peace and save the country. This is a long shot, as the Red King taunts him.

“My brother might forgive you if you beg and grovel at his feet for long enough, but it will all taste like ashes in your mouth. You know that you’ve failed him by refusing to carry out his order on that battlefield, and you shall always know it. It will haunt you in the dark quiet of the night between now and the day that you die.”

A pretty soft fantasy here, with no overt fantastic elements [occasionally, elements appear that suggest the fantastic but turn out not] besides the secondary world vaguely [in language at least] based on the Celtic. Given the presence of knights and their usual accoutrements, the model would appear to be more medieval, however. But the characters, particularly Mercer, don’t behave much like medieval actors, or indeed the rulers of older Celtic kingdoms, who were rarely inclined to give up a claim to a throne for the good of the starving commoners. Scenes like pulling the mired horse out of the bog are realistic; the political is not. The conclusion has the sensibility of today, not the times in which it seems to be set.



Strange Horizons, February 2015

When readers think of this zine, they may likely consider it a source for slipstream fiction, for soft fantasy and SF. But this is not always the case. The three original stories for the month are all fantasy, but like the Three Bears’ beds, they come in hard, soft and intermediate—”just right” being a matter for the reader to decide.

“The Ticket Taker of Cenote Zací” by Benjamin Parzybok

The ticket taker is Eduardo, who has come to this Mayan town seeking inspiration to write but instead is stuck in the ticket booth [how he got this job is unclear, but some of the locals find it odd]. Being an obsessive type, he’s taking to counting the ticket stubs of the tourists who go in to view the cenote and the ones who come out. The numbers don’t add up. He becomes convinced that some of the tourists are disappearing into the cenote, but no one else seems to think there is a problem. “They are long gone, Angelita said. They’ve traveled far from here already. Don’t worry about them.”

This dark tale is certainly hard fantasy, with the supernatural secret of the cenote at the center of the story. Readers should be aware that the ancient Mayans used to employ the cenotes for human sacrifice, and the author has added another folkloric element. The twist at the end is effective and well foreshadowed, but the text might be overly long.

“Traveling Mercies” by Rachael K Jones

A very short piece about a traveler never coming home but invited into the homes of friends on his journey. Nothing fantastic explicitly happens in this soft fantasy, but the author makes it clear what the traveler is, borrowing a bit from folklore on this subject yet leaving other elements for readers to guess at.

“Limestone, Lye, and the Buzzing of Flies” by Kate Heartfield

When Daphne and Tom were kids, best friends, they liked to visit the old Fort Garry museum, where the smith once told them that the smithy fire had been burning since 1815, as protection against the smith’s wife. “She came here first, tried to claim this place and all the souls in it, but he followed her from across the ocean. As long as he has this fire and red iron in it, she’ll never have dominion here.” As teenagers, they both got jobs there as reenactors; Tom became the new smith, while Daphne was one of the housewives. But as she worked pouring tallow into candle molds, a rhyme came into her head. Soon more rhymes came, and with them, a sort of moral authority over the other workers at the fort, until Tom the smith saw what she was doing.

A fairly unambiguous tale of possession and witchcraft with a strong historical base.



The Dark, February 2015

All dark fantasy here, of varying degrees of rigor. I like the Russo.

“Bearskin” by Angela Slatter

Torben is a young orphan boy recently and miserably apprenticed to a rather brutal hunter. One day, by mistake, he kills a bear cub.

There is a noise outside, closer than it should be. Something has stalked him, gotten into proximity, and he all oblivious. To one side it shuffles and snuffles . . . his finger tightens on the trigger of the crossbow . . . whoever or whatever is there moves nearer . . . Torben’s finger twitches and the bolt is released, punching through the withy screen. A thud, then a brief sigh-sob, then the sound of a small body falling to the snowy ground.

But this is a world where not all bears are entirely bears.

In this YA dark fantasy, the shape-changing is central to the story. The author spends too much time on Torben’s backstory, drumming up sympathy for him, yet reveals not enough of it to have bothered.

“In the Dreams Full of Sleep, Beakless Birds Can Fly” by Patricia Russo

“It is always when children are dying that the women who speak to spirits come.” Actually, the woman tells Zobei and Rin, it’s that they can hear the spirits, and they listen to them. The spirits have told her about their child, their third child to die, born with what we would call a congenital defect. The woman gives them a very hard choice.

They went into the garden. Rin cried when they buried the child, and then he returned to the kitchen and drank all the strong drink in the house. Zobei did not. She did not cry; neither did she drink. She sat in the garden all night. The woman who spoke to spirits sat with her for an hour or so, and then said she had other places to go, other people to see.

A story of uncertainty, very weird. It’s notable that the story leaves readers in that state, without revealing the outcome, breaking instead into a metafictional conclusion. This makes it an ambiguous fantasy, suspended in doubt. With one outcome, it would definitely be a hard fantasy; with the other, we would still never know. The woman made no absolute promise, only offering the possibility of hope. An unusual tale with a strong, realistic sense of grief.

–RECOMMENDED

“Welcome to Argentia” by Sandra McDonald

The haunted history of a peninsula on the coast of Newfoundland, where a large US naval base was built during WWII.

Once the area supported twenty thousand personnel. Now only a quarter of that remain. Some of the sailors and their wives weren’t even born when Argentia and Marquise were demolished, or when the construction battalions began destroying the peat bogs to build the runways.

The land, it seems, resented the assault of the bulldozers and took its revenge.

An odd, quasi-factual tale that I find unconvincing. If the land had vengeance every time it was assaulted, the entire world would be overrun with ghosts. Why should Argentia be so special? And why take out its wrath on the ghosts of those that never did it such harm? I like this best as a story of landscape, but I think it means to be more than that.

“A Spoke in Fortune’s Wheel” by Brooke Wonders

A very weird, contorted twist on the Rumpelstiltskin tale, beginning with the birth of some very unusual children.

Every child born in the year of our prince’s ascension to the throne came into the world possessed of a supernatural and supremely useful limb. The blacksmith’s son had a pair of tongs for a left hand. The baker’s son had a rolling pin for a chin. Sarasponda, daughter of the village tailor, carried a spinning wheel on her shoulders in place of her head

Sarasponda spins well, but not well enough to please the prince, because no teacher has yet come from her body to instruct her. Yet when he does, Rumpelstiltskin his own self, she isn’t happy with his advice or with the price he demands for it.

The images of the village children are particularly absurd, yet the story treats them as normal people, particularly Sarasponda, a good-hearted young woman who only means well. The whole thing is still too contrived for me to take seriously, however, and it’s definitely not to be taken as humor.



Asimov’s, March 2015

A particularly good issue featuring a long police-procedural novella, part of a series, and for once I don’t mind. Aside from this, the rest of the fiction is softer SF shading into fantasy.

“Inhuman Garbage” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Part of the author’s “Retrieval Artist” series, but readers can pretend it isn’t, because this one can be read as if it were an entirely independent police-procedural set in a dome on the moon. Rusch has a sure hand with this kind of material, and it’s skillfully done. The story opens with our detective interrogating the owner of the recycling/composting waste disposal operation where a body has been found in one of the crates. Immediately, I’m fascinated by the process, just skiffy enough to be novel but still familiar. It seems this isn’t the first such body to be discovered in the company’s waste stream, and of course Detective DeRicci is interested in the possible ways they could have gotten into the crates.

“The pieces would have to be small to get past our weight and size restrictions. Forgive me for being graphic, but no full arms or legs or torsos or heads. Maybe fingers and toes. We have nanoprobes on these things, looking for human DNA. But the probes are coating the lining of the crates. If someone buried a finger in the middle of some rotting lettuce, we might miss it.”

It’s after the victim is identified that things begin to get really complicated.

It’s clear at the outside that the detective is our primary character, but the waste disposal operator definitely holds his own throughout the entire first scene. The story’s point of view continues to move from one person to another as the investigation proceeds, all for their own reasons contributing to our understanding of the situation. DeRicci isn’t the only one with an interest in solving this crime, and some of the people she considers incompetent or corrupt are actually ahead of her. Readers are going to find some surprises here, even if they are already familiar with some of this material. I was pretty well able to read it as if I weren’t, and I enjoyed the experience quite a bit. This is one case where being part of a series hasn’t hurt the story.

Note to copyeditor: It’s livor mortis. Spellchecker disease strikes again.

–RECOMMENDED

“Pareidolia” by Kathleen Bartholomew & Kage Baker

A posthumous collaboration set in the late Baker’s Company world of immortal time travelers “making sure the right history happens”, for some definitions of “right” that mean “profitable to the Company”. And thus of course part of a series. This one has a particularly lite, humorous tone, but where it goes wrong is in wasting the entire first part of the text by slapping infodumpfish paint down on the sets in the background, making sure readers know “Here we are back in history!” Things don’t really get down to the story business until our agent Joseph gets a sudden unexplained assignment to confiscate the work of a particular Byzantine ikon painter and expunge the technique from his memory. Turns out that any normal person looking into the eyes of these ikons is likely to pop a stroke and drop over dead, or some similar drastic reaction.

That ball of multicolored fire in Christ’s hand; an aspect of his divinity? The Holy Ghost? Hell, maybe it was a magic mushroom. But the flames caught the eye of the beholder, and at once started to actually writhe; the pupils of his elongated eyes did the same thing, in their separate settings. And when I wrenched my own eyes away and looked out at the wall beside me—Christ’s face and burning eyes leaped out at me from every constellation of cracks in the plaster.

It’s this phenomenon that gives rise to the story’s title, which doesn’t strike me as quite accurate, nor do I credit the notion that it could be produced by knowledge of the techniques of Egyptian portrait painting. What I do like is the psychological verisimilitude with which Joseph engages with the period’s extreme religiosity; he could well be taken, in that time and place, to be an angel.

“Twelve and Tag” by Gregory Norman Bossert

The title refers to a bar game, the sort of initiatory activity that brings new members of a ship’s crew into full fellowship. The Tethys, an icebreaker on Europa, now has two new crewmembers.

“It’s not just ice that breaks,” Cheung said, “doing what we do.” His fingers mimed something snapping. “It’s equipment, people, whole ships sometimes. Got to know each other.”
“Gotta trust,” Nava said.

So it’s time for Adra and Zandt to prove themselves. Each is supposed to tell two stories: the worst or stupidest thing they have ever done, one true and one false; after, the crew guesses which is which. But these stories are all worse and worse than worse, with abusive families, betrayal, addiction. It’s harrowing stuff, but also hard to imagine that people seeking to prove trustworthiness in such a milieu would so expose themselves with these confessions.

“Tuesdays” by Suzanne Palmer

A UFO shows up in the parking lot of a decrepit diner, and the cops come out to conduct a routine investigation. They take notes.

There weren’t blinky lights, like in the movies,” Fredricks says, “but it was big. Really fucking big.”
Paulson holds up his pad so the truck driver can see he’s already written down “BIG,” and underlined it twice. “I’ve got ‘big,’ ” he says. “Can you describe anything else about it, sir?”

This is a character study, and for a small diner there are a lot of characters, seeming to be more than there actually are because part of the text refers to them by first name while the cop notes go by surname; this takes a bit of matching-up. The UFO is only what brings them, briefly, together. Well-done soft SF, with wit and humor.

For readers who discover that their copy of the zine is missing the story’s first page through one of those production errors that cause editors’ hair to fall out, especially when it’s the issue’s cover story, a link has been made available.

“Military Secrets” by Kit Reed

A cruelly disturbing story of children whose fathers have been declared missing in wars, placed into a state of limbo by the possibility, however remote, that they might still be alive.

If John Paul Jones had a wife and kids that he left behind to fight for whatever; if he never came back, they’re probably sitting up there in the dark somewhere near the front of our bus. Waiting.

The scenario, however strongly felt, fails to convince.

“Holding the Ghosts” by Gwendolyn Clare

Certain babies are now born with a condition that leaves them in a state of permanent catatonia, but science has found a way not to waste them, by imprinting the body’s brain with the memories and personalities of the selected dead. This, of course, is expensive, so the rentals are temporary. Baby Martinez has been imprinted with the ghosts of Abby, Chantal and now Maxine, but the process has had unexpected side effects.

Some days, a veil of déjà vu settled over her and stayed for hours, as if she’d lived every moment of the trip before. Other times, it felt as if there were traces of something unfamiliar smudged across her thoughts.

According to the text, the ghost memories have been altered so that they recognize the body as their own, but surely the people who rent the bodies can see the difference. I wonder how they can accept the strange body in the place of their loved ones. Complicating this problem is the matter of the body’s growth and aging. Baby Martinez has held the ghosts of a college student, a 50-something wife, and a middle-aged engineer. What age is this body, and what was it doing before its first implant? How did it grow from infancy? I don’t think this premise was sufficiently thought-through, and the conclusion is too predictable for it to matter.



Analog, April 2015

This zine likes to claim its place as a source of Hard SF, and here I find three pretty sound examples. The Zimring and Wood pieces are both plausible human futures, while the Wheeler has some fine examples of comet-harvesting. It does enter the realm of the unexplained near the end of the story, but since it’s not possible, from the scant details given, to determine whether these violate known science, I put it onto the SF side of the reckoning. Of the other stories, there’s a lot of humor, particularly stuff featuring silly aliens, which I count as fantasy.

“The Eighth Iteration” by Bond Elam

Yet another argument against humans trying to colonize alien worlds, but in this case the problem is explicitly in human genes. Here we have a small [seems too small for survivable genetic diversity] population attempting to survive in a domed settlement surrounded by hostile alien animals. Our Hero Jake, with his token female sidekick, gets into a fight with the self-appointed dictator and his cronies. They escape into the forest, followed by a guardian bot, where the Truth is Revealed.

It’s never a good idea when a story opens with sneering villains threatening Our Hero. The premise actually becomes more interesting once the bot starts talking and we discover the remains of previous settlements. But then we get too much talking, instead of the protagonists working out the problems for themselves. Still, the bot is the most interesting character. Yet while it tells us that Jake and Lucas Martel represent the same problem, both being leader types, all we see of Jake is the Good Guy and Martel the ruthless dictator; if the story wants to claim they’re equivalent, it’s not doing a good job convincing us.

There’s also a problem of women, Margaret being the equivalent of Smurfette here. Otherwise, all the characters we see are men. While men have their uses, the survival of a species isn’t one of them. Since there’s no sign here that the colonists can forego pregnancy in growing their population, they would need a substantial female majority, not just a single love interest for the chosen protagonist. Anyway, this world already belongs to the sentient native birds. If the idea is that human DNA is fatally flawed, let’s keep it off other species’ worlds instead of planting colonial seeds of destruction. The author doesn’t seem to have really examined his own premise. SF in general hasn’t.

“Dancing in the Dark” by Ramona Louise Wheeler

Comet hunters. The first thing we notice is the captain referring to her cometary prize as a beast, as a female.

Her core was enormous, massive, and dense. She was rich. A shroud of water enclosed her, enough water for a lake, enough water to run as a wild river through the canyons of home. We had been out on this run in the cold dark for only a month. I sat a moment longer, lost in the vision of our wonderful monster.

So we wonder, is this only figurative language, a whaling metaphor, in which case the scenario is righteously Hard SF? Or are comets here something more biological than we now assume? The characters, however, are wondering if they’re capable of capturing their dark beast with their current student crew. Which our captain doesn’t doubt in the least—confident as she is in her long experience, and in love with her quest as well as her partner. Turns out, the question they need to ask is, where are all these comets coming from? The answer is something far more wondrous.

So turns out it’s all here—sensawunda, real SF, and figurative language. And a better, optimistic view of human nature and colonization. But one noncritical scene, meant to punch up the love story, was cursory, over almost before it happened.

“Daily Teds” by Ron Collins

Ted begins this account by refusing to take his writing instructor’s advice, thus proving that he should have listened to it. Besides, his major is physics. Then he cuts to the chase by telling us about the Gamma Box and its strange results.

I was fairly sure it had to do with photons and their zero-mass property interacting (or not) with the guidance section of the experiment. If this interaction was at the root, my idea required an injection of energy to counteract the force of gravity on the Gamma Box—energy that I couldn’t explain, but I figured that could all come later.

Way too much later, in fact, if he’s correct.

This is a humorous piece of faux-SF, employing Hard SF jargon for absurd effect. I’m reminded of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, if those brooms had really gotten out of hand.

“Transfer Point” by Barry N Malzberg & Bill Pronzini

Luna has long been the immigration checkpoint for aliens traveling to Earth, and our narrator is the equivalent of a TSA agent there. He has always liked his job and is therefore devastated to be told that the entire facility is scheduled to be closed and relocated to Mars. It doesn’t make sense, and that’s not the only thing that seems wrong today.

Humor with lots of aliens.

“Partible” by K J Zimring

As a former seminarian, the narrator has never experienced carnal knowledge of women, although he was attracted to a particular woman while doing anthropology work on Kiribati. Thus it’s a shock when he receives a notice from Immigration, informing him he may have a son.

A kid had come through SeaTac, originating in the Pacific islands and connecting through the Philippines. The passport was fake, but he claimed an American father, named me, and the allegation had to be evaluated. I was to present myself for an interview at the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center on May 5 at 1:30 P.M. Lawyer optional.

The story is expectedly heartwarming, also real SF. The anthropological notion of partible fatherhood is an interesting bonus, although not biologically applicable here.

“Down Please: The Only Recorded Adventure of Lars Fouton, Captain’s Lift Operator on the Starship Magnificent” by Adam-Troy Castro

From which title, readers will immediately and correctly conclude that the piece is humor. The premise is absurd: Ensign Fouton has apparently spent decades of his career as an elevator operator, being promoted only to the same position on this capital ship, where the elevator goes only between the VIP deck below to the bridge above. Except that the captain never uses it, other than on the rare occasions when he must escort a VIP onto the ship, such as the alien general who now takes an interest in Fouton’s position, finding it, as it is, absurd.

The story is indeed humorous and comes reliably to a conclusive twist and punchline; readers should be amused. But even an absurd premise has to exhibit consistency within its self-defined limits. We are given the distinct impression that Fouton’s existence is confined entirely to the isolation of the elevator, but this is not only impossible, the text informs us that he goes off-duty, where he would supposedly have the opportunity to socialize with the rest of the crew; indeed, he claims that he is considered a likeable person. These inconsistencies aren’t essential to the storyline at all, so it’s unfortunate that they are present.

“The Last Days of Dogger City” by Mjke Wood

Global climate change is now freezing the world. Dogger City was meant to be an offshore metropolis, originally built on abandoned oil rigs, but after a series of disasters, the ice has started to crush it and emergency evacuation has been called. But Laura’s son Josh is missing and she won’t leave without him.

The steps she had just descended were now almost vertical. The central highway sloped upward. The city, or this part of it, had moved by twenty degrees. Time was running out. Laura stood, and, hobbling at first, she began to run off the pain. Uphill.

This SF action story opens with the sound of structural collapse, as Laura tries to collect her family and get them off. Only later are we told what “off” means here, where these people are, and why, and why it is failing. For a short piece, that means a lot of interruption to the action, added to which is a load of emotional manipulation as we learn how Laura has already lost one child on this place allegedly safe for children but manifestly not.

Lois Tilton is reading original short SF and fantasy fiction. Editors can send electronic files of magazines and original anthologies to: loist a*t sff.net

For print materials, please query me by email for the address.

For an index of Magazine Issue reviews posted on Locus Online, including Lois Tilton’s, see Index to Magazine Reviews.

Adrienne Martini reviews Elizabeth Bear

There’s no better series of words for describing Elizabeth Bear’s newest, Karen Memory, than ‘‘excellent grown-up steampunk yarn.’’ And, just FYI, ‘‘grown-up’’ modifies ‘‘steampunk,’’ rather than the yarn itself, even though the story is set in Madame Damnable’s Sewing Circle, which is the polite nomenclature for a brothel in Bear’s version of 19th-century Seattle.

Bear gives the reader all of the steampunk trappings she could want, of course. There are airships and gears and submersibles. There’s a steam-powered sewing machine, too, that winds up playing a much bigger role than simply providing cover for Madame Damnable’s true business. What makes it feel grown-up is that these devices don’t scream about how cool the author feels they are. Instead, Bear makes all of the brass fittings feel lived in. She writes about them in the same way that a current writer would write about cell phones or dishwashers; all of the bits that make the world steampunk are part of the landscape.

That may also be a result of Bear’s narrator, the Karen of the title, whose way with words charms and, indeed, delights. Karen’s voice grabs the reader from the start, with her straightforward sass:

Crispin I already said about, and the thing about Miss Francina is that Miss Francina’s got a pecker under her dress. But that ain’t nothing but God’s rude joke. She’s one of us girls in every way that matters, and handy for a bouncer besides.

From these easy descriptions of her place of employment and all who inhabit it, Karen offers glimpses of her past while spinning us through her present. See, a guy who has the ability to control human minds and bodies turns up in town, followed by a Texas Ranger and his Native American cohort, although Karen has you in her narrative web long before that. Indeed, Memory is a textbook example of how voice is just as important as plot or world-building. Seeing this world through Karen’s eyes makes an already enjoyable journey into an addictive one.

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Faren Miller reviews Brian Staveley

Brian Staveley acknowledges genre tradition, yet still finds ways to undermine it. The Providence of Fire starts with a flashback connected to the title, showing royal siblings Adare, Kaden, and Valyn as children whom their father has commanded to witness an Imperial Deed from the top of a very high tower. Their empress mother Sioan frets that, when ‘‘a normal ascent might span two days, with breaks along the way for rest and refreshment… the children were too small for this furious charge’’ – a half-night’s climb. The flaming city alarms her even more, as the glare ‘‘refracted through the glass walls’’ of the inner stairway yields to an unobstructed view: ‘‘from the impossible height of the tower’s top, the streets and canals of the city might have been lines etched on a map.’’ When the emperor declares, ‘‘Have them start another fire’’, Sioan desperately wishes ‘‘to spare her children the sight and the knowledge,’’ but it’s too late. Though Adare won’t inherit the Unhewn Throne (reserved for males), this eldest child is first to recognize the danger to the crowds of people running far below, and cries out to her father: ‘‘They’re trapped. You have to do something!’’ That’s not the kind of providence the emperor intends, when fighting fire with fire. He tells his wife, ‘‘They will not be ready to rule it… until they are willing to see it burn.’’

We return to the grown siblings, after their father’s murder and the tumultuous events in The Emperor’s Blades (reviewed in issue #636), to find Kaden and Valyn together on a mountainside far from the imperial palace where they spent their childhood. Though monks brought Kaden here to find an occult portal that should transport him home to wrest the throne from his enemies, he’s not keen on the task. When he tries to sneak a look at soldiers on the slopes below and Valyn drags him back, growling ‘‘Keep your head down, Your Radiance,’’ he’s flummoxed: ‘‘The title still sounded wrong, unstable and treacherous, like spring ice on a mountain tarn, the whole surface groaning even as it glittered, ready to crack beneath the weight of the first unwary foot.’’ That sense of dangerous changes under way (the outcome far from certain) stirs up emotions closer to unease or self-doubt than to the high ambition and dogged pursuit of revenge that drove protagonists in ancient epics and classic fantasy.

Heroes ain’t what they used to be, in outlook or in gender. Many of Staveley’s female characters – elite warriors from Valyn’s flying corps, a priestess’s daughter with unexpected abilities, possibly even avatars of goddesses (Young and Old) – are strong, irreverent women, unafraid to speak their minds. As Adare (runaway princess and former Finance Minister) continues on her own wayward quest, she hitches a ride and gains a new mentor in the form of an outrageous, road-wise crone. When first encountered, Nira – ‘‘a tiny, wizened woman, well into her eighth decade judging from the bone-white hair pinned up on the back of her head and the wrinkles etched into her weathered skin’’ – is dissing her equally ancient brother, mincing no words: ‘‘[I]f our mother hadn’t’a squoze us out’a the same fuckin’ cunt, I’d knock ya on that fool fucking head of yours, take the cart my own self, and have done with ya.’’

A wild tangle of plotlines, where major characters and their significant companions veer off in all directions and undergo various traumas, breaks crucial events into fragments we must piece together to get their full impact. In Chapter 20, the Sons of Light (priests of the goddess Intarra, whom Adare wants as allies) cast her into an Everlasting Well of flame, with stunning results. The timeless moment – which begins with ‘‘Blinding light. Perfect black. Ringing like a million mouths, screaming, singing. Body instantly and utterly gone’’ – boils down to this: ‘‘Gone everything but a single voice… a woman’s voice but greater than any woman, as great as creation itself, uttering a single, ungainsayable syllable: Win.’’

When Adare’s thread resumes in Chapter 22, she is lying in bed, battling partial amnesia while an eye-witness tries to describe what struck her: ‘‘It was… brighter. Sharper. More than natural, somehow.’’ This supernatural lightning left its mark, but we don’t see the result until Chapter 24 (near the book’s midpoint), as she explores that ‘‘intricate tracery of red scar,’’ the ‘‘thousand ramifying twists and whorls snaking around her arms and torso, down her legs and up her neck like tiny red vines spreading into her hair.’’ Though the pain is tolerable, ‘‘when Adare tried to get out of bed, she felt her legs turn to water and her mind fade, all thought blotted out in a great wash of light.’’

The Providence of Fire has far too many big moments, recurring motifs and important themes to tackle here, and there’s a final volume still to come, so I won’t try to go beyond Adare’s divine command and partial metamorphosis, since they have things in common with the opening scene of Shadow.

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Gary K. Wolfe reviews James Bradley

James Bradley is an Australian novelist and critic who ought to be better known in the US; the only previous novel of his that I have seen was The Deep Field (from way back in 1999), which seems to have escaped the notice of many genre readers despite its near-future setting and its sophisticated thematic use of photography and paleontology. It could be that Bradley’s deep focus on character and occasionally meditative prose seem better suited for the kind of mainstream-but-more-or-less-SFnal markets that writers like Richard Powers and Carolyn See occasionally find themselves in. I’m not aware that (as of this writing) his new novel Clade is scheduled for a US publication. It should be. Before getting into details, it might be useful to point out that this James Bradley is not the James Bradley who writes the kind of WWII non-fiction that Tom Hanks likes, and that Clade is not the 2003 Mark Budz nanotech novel of the same title.

Instead, it is among the most literate and humane contributions to that slowly emerging tradition of what is sometimes called ‘‘slow apocalypse’’ fiction – tales that grapple with the emergent realities of climate change, species die-offs, virulent new diseases, and the inexorable pattern of the world going irreversibly to hell in a comparatively pokey handbasket. Historically, apocalyptic literature has dealt with one catastrophe at a time – deadly plagues in Mary Shelley, George R. Stewart, or Stephen King; poison gases in M.P. Shiel or Arthur Conan Doyle; nuclear war in pretty much everything from the 1950s; deluges, floods, droughts, earthquakes, meteor strikes, volcanoes, alien invasions, or just really bad weather in novels and movies you could name as easily as I can – the epic-scale equivalent of the world getting creamed by a taxi while walking across the street. These days, we’re faced with disturbing evidence that the single-use trauma may be less of a threat than a complex set of processes already well underway, and it’s a little surprising how slow fiction has been in recognizing this. There were early admonitions of multiple interconnected disasters in novels like Philip Wylie’s prescient but awful The End of the Dream back in 1971, and Kim Stanley Robinson has repeatedly called attention to these conditions, especially in his Science in the Capital trilogy, and Wil McIntosh’s Soft Apocalypse of a couple of years ago had moments of real power. Bradley’s novel may be the first to combine a deeply character-based family saga with this theme in a way that, recalling Stewart’s Earth Abides more than any recent novel, shows how each succeeding generation must come to expect less of the world.

The story covers several decades in the life of environmental scientist Adam Leith, his artist wife Ellie, their daughter Summer and grandson Noah, and other members of Leith’s extended family – the clade of the title. As it opens, Leith is in Antarctica noting the rapidly accelerating loss of the ice shelf while his wife of two years Ellie is trying to get pregnant through a fertilization clinic. A few years later, when the daughter that results is a little girl, periodic power outages, fires, and bird and fish die-offs serve as ominous portents, and a few years after that, when Summer is a teenager, the disasters have grown more violent – blizzards, tornados, methane eruptions, volcanos, coastal erosion. Still, the family tries to retain a semblance of the life that Adam and Ellie remember, while facing tensions of their own; they separate, and when Summer heads off to college, she becomes involved in drugs and petty crime, eventually ending up in a seedy kind of commune in Britain.

At this point, almost halfway through, Bradley permits himself his one full-scale disaster setpiece and his one plot-convenient coincidence, as Adam reconnects with Summer after nearly a decade and meets her young Autism Spectrum Disorder son Noah. Trapped near Cambridge when one of the periodic hurricane-force tropical storms ravages England with massive flooding, they barely manage to escape – but not before Bradley has signaled us that this section of the novel represents not only an acceleration of the pace of disaster, but his own diversification of narrative modes in conveying it. From this well-executed but familiar detour into survivalist adventure fiction, Bradley moves into a more meditative chapter involving Ellie’s meeting with a beekeeper (even Colony Collapse Disorder get added to the litany of bad news) and her involvement with the growing number of illegal refugees in Australia, and then shifts to a ‘‘journal of the plague year’’ chapter in which the diary of a young woman (whose Chinese mother has disappeared while trying to visit a sick relative back home, and whose relation to the Leith family only gradually becomes apparent) records the progression of a virulent and fatal worldwide plague. Still later chapters read more like traditional SF, as virtual ‘‘sims’’ are designed to reconstruct the personalities of those lost in the plague, and eventually intelligent extraterrestrial signals are discovered at a still-functioning observatory. Bradley brings off these various narratives with considerable skill, as if to suggest that the scope of what he wants to say can’t quite be encompassed in a purely linear narrative, but it’s his astute management of chronology, as each section leaps years ahead of the preceding one, that generates the novel’s haunting and elegiac feeling, making it a near-epic of loss, remembrance, and steadily diminishing hope.

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A Myriad of Texts, Reloaded, or, The Cliché-Hoarder’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Review of Jupiter Ascending

by Gary Westfahl

It is the sort of project that might occupy the energies of individuals eager to provide novel entertainments for YouTube: gather bits of footage from every single science fiction film you can recall, and creatively edit them together so they collectively offer a somewhat new, and somewhat cohesive, narrative. Of course, if you had access to vast sums of money and the resources of a major studio, you could replace all the borrowed sequences with new, original scenes to more smoothly tie all of the disparate elements together. And that is one way to characterize what Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski have done in writing and directing Jupiter Ascending. Indeed, their film might serve as a fitting conclusion to a college class on science fiction films, as students could watch and nod knowingly at the references to all the films they had previously seen. But that class would be telling a disheartening story about the history of science fiction film, as concluding with this film would suggest a genre that has grown steadily more adroit and sophisticated in its techniques of presentation, but utterly lost its soul.

More practically, the film could also function as the class’s final exam, since the attentiveness of the students, and the thoroughness of their outside research, would be well tested by asking them to identify all of the innumerable science fiction films – and novels and stories as well – that apparently were woven into the Wachowskis’ colorful tapestry. Even an expert might find such an exam challenging, and it is impossible, with limited time and space, to cite every previous text that might be detected. But the following, incomplete list will at least provide some of the more striking resonances between Jupiter Ascending and its many precursors.

The film’s basic premise – the three adult children of a dead monarch, Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth), and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) Abrasax, are conspiring against each other to increase their shares of the inheritance – might remind some modern viewers of George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones series, but squabbles within noble families have long been prominent in historical novels, fantasies, and the borderline form of fantasy called the Ruritarian romance, featuring imaginary European principalities and most strongly influencing the ambience of the Wachowskis’ narrative. And the other major plot point – a poor but attractive young person, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), discovers that she is the true heir to the throne – constitutes one of the hoariest clichés in fantasy. (The only difference here is that she is not the ruler’s child, but rather a “recurrence” – her genetic twin.) The fact that the assets these nobles all seek to acquire are entire planets, and specifically planet Earth (currently owned by Balem), might appear novel, though an individual who purchases Earth figured in Cordwainer Smith’s novel Norstrilia (1964, 1975), and the sinister motive behind these aliens’ ownership of our world – to eventually “harvest,” that is, kill, every human to obtain a valuable substance – might be traced back to Charles Fort’s famous statement, “The Earth is a farm. We are someone else’s property.” (As it happens, Titus even tells Jupiter, “Your planet is a farm.”) As another literary reference, the long-lived Kalique rejuvenates herself in the manner of H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887) by taking a bath, though in a scientifically engineered liquid instead of magical fire. The aliens’ base of operations in the Solar System, the planet Jupiter, was also a center for alien activity in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and this film’s hero Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) is at one time imperiled in precisely the same manner as David Bowman, as he must contrive to survive unprotected in the vacuum of space (though Wise’s innovative solution is to grab a device that rapidly constructs a spacesuit around him). And a concluding image of a man and woman in spacesuits, floating above the Earth, will remind you of Gravity (2013).

Turning to the film’s visual style, the faux-Roman clothing, statues, and decorations favored by the wealthy aliens were also characteristic of numerous aliens in silent science fiction films and later film serials, while the outlandish outfits and hairstyles that some of them favor might have been appropriated from a more recent source, the Hunger Games films. The appearance of the film’s technology – spacecraft, weaponry, and extravagant architecture – could be traced back to the Star Wars films or any one of their innumerable imitators; one obsequious robotic character resembles a flesh-colored C-3PO. The galaxy’s overall system of government seems cruelly despotic, also recalling the Star Wars films, though its “space cops,” the Aegis, most prominently represented by spaceship commander Diomika Tsing (Nikki Amuka-Bird), are more like the benevolent soldiers of Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets, displaying considerably more integrity than their associates. Also like the Star Wars films, Jupiter Ascending mostly foregrounds normal human characters while striving to include as many strange-looking aliens as possible; sometimes they are said to be “splices,” genetic combinations of humans and animals. Since one of these, Caine Wise, remarks that he is more like a dog than a human, the Wachowskis might be referencing the “mahg” – half-man, half-dog – that appeared in Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs (1987). But a recurring proclivity for aliens with pointed ears must be regarded as their tribute to Star Trek’s Mr. Spock. A winged alien recalls the Birdmen of the Flash Gordon serials and the “angel” of Barbarella (1968), among others. Finally, and inevitably, the Wachowskis are stealing from themselves as well, as their basic narrative is not unlike that of The Matrix (1999): an individual unknowingly destined for greatness discovers that the world is not what it seems; unseen beings are manipulating the human race for their own insidious purposes, forcing the designated savior, with assistance from able colleagues, to take action against them.

Other stories and films might be included in this catalog, but one classic work of science fiction was clearly a stronger influence on Jupiter Ascending than any of the others – and that is, quite surprisingly, Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979), best known to contemporary audiences from the 2005 film adaptation (review here). Both stories involve ordinary individuals who are suddenly visited by an alien and learn that other aliens are poised to destroy the human race. Along with the alien friend, and other exotic colleagues soon acquired, the humans embark upon a series of adventures in spaceships and other strange environments within an inimical universe largely governed by business interests. The characters interact with a wide variety of unusual, often hostile beings, also discovering themselves to be persons of special importance to the universe. The most obvious borrowing from Adams’s story is the scene where Jupiter, assisted by the robot Advocate Bob (Samuel Barnett), must navigate her way through a labyrinthine bureaucracy, powered by anachronistically antiquated technology, in order to claim Earth as her inheritance; the sequence is so reminiscent of the same scene in The Hitchhiker’s Guide that the estate of Douglas Adams might consider a lawsuit. And in the end, having improbably survived many perils, the humans return to their familiar home, now accompanied by their true love, but with further space travel clearly in their future.

Beyond such specific likenesses, there is one major way that Jupiter Ascending resembles The Hitchhiker’s Guide, and does not resemble the other referenced stories: both films, I believe, are not intended to be taken seriously. True, all versions of Adams’s saga were overtly farcical, while there is a veneer of earnestness to the Wachowskis’ film; yet as the film’s incongruities and inconsistencies keep multiplying (all issues that could have been easily addressed by modest revision), suspension of disbelief becomes impossible, and it seems apparent that the Wachowskis were not interested in making audiences believe in their story. (They were possibly commenting on their own story’s illogic when they had Jupiter say, “a dream is the only way any of this makes sense.”) The key clue is the planet Jupiter. As the film’s titular iconic image, and as the setting for several of its important scenes, one would imagine that the filmmakers would strive to make Jupiter look as awesome as possible, rendered with breathtaking precision and brilliant color. Yet Jupiter was far more impressive in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it cannot be the case that the computer wizards of today were simply unable to duplicate, or surpass, Douglas Trumbull’s non-computerized artistry. Rather, the Wachowskis manifestly didn’t care about crafting a stunningly realistic Jupiter; if their Jupiter instead resembled a faded color photograph, that was fine – such an image served the purpose of informing viewers, “Now, the characters are approaching Jupiter.” It didn’t matter whether they were genuinely persuaded that the characters were nearing an enormous alien planet.

Readers of this review, at this point, might feel that I am relentlessly berating the Wachowskis for displaying a lack of originality. Yet I am theorizing that the film might have originated when one of them said, “Hey, let’s remake The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but take out all of the jokes.” And that represents a genuinely original idea. More grievously, though, the Wachowskis also removed something else from The Hitchhiker’s Guide, and from every other film that they borrowed from, and that is their messages.

Granted, Samuel Goldwyn had a point, even if Western Union is no longer a popular alternative, and filmmakers can go astray if they overemphasize the purported profundity of their narratives (as illustrated by the sad saga of M. Night Shyamalan). But successful science fiction films have generally managed to say something without compromising their value as entertainment. 2001: A Space Odyssey powerfully conveys that humans are still primitive beings in a universe filled with incomprehensible wonders. Star Trek offers an optimistic vision of humanity expanding its frontiers and peacefully interacting with disparate species for our mutual benefit. The original Star Wars (1977 – no, I’ll never call it “Episode IV: A New Hope”) foregrounds the inspirational instruction to always trust your own instincts and do what you think is right. The Matrix is consciously animated by philosophical and religious ideas about the illusory nature of the material world around us. Even the final version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide briefly incorporates the uplifting message that people must be willing to take chances and seek new experiences.

What, then, is Jupiter Ascending telling its audience? All I can discern is the trite morality play of the classic film serial: here are some wonderfully good characters, and here are some despicably evil characters. The good characters must take up arms to defeat the bad characters, and when they succeed, it is a good thing. One struggles to find anything else of import in this story. At the beginning of the film, even as she makes a living by cleaning toilets, Jupiter desperately wants to own a telescope, to be like her late father, suggesting something about the need to look up at the stars and ponder the wonders of the cosmos; but once she is actually in outer space, surrounded by stars, she expresses absolutely no interest in them, and when she finally gets a telescope, she doesn’t even try to use it. When Jupiter says “I really just want to go home” and “I’m still the same me,” one might think she is determined to always remain true to her original, humble character; yet Jupiter also transforms herself into a ferocious fighter and learns how to fly. Characters occasionally make portentous pronouncements – “time is the single most precious commodity in the universe,” “lies are a necessity; they are a source of meaning,” and so on – but nothing else occurs in the film to reference or reinforce these messages. In other words, every time an idea emerges in this film, the Wachowskis ruthlessly strangle it in the crib.

Thus, what the Wachowskis have done, apparently by design, is to amalgamate the myriad texts of science fiction and surgically excise all of their substance. What remains is a story that is all surfaces and spectacle, fisticuffs and fireworks, fictional lives that are, in William Shakespeare’s words, “full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” Why they chose this path is an open question. Perhaps, after being mired in The Matrix and burdened by the literary pretensions of Cloud Atlas (2012 – review here), they longed for the freedom to tell a simple story that didn’t really make any sense and focus all of their attention on colorful effects and frenetic action sequences. Perhaps they are subtly arguing that science fiction film is now an exhausted genre, so all one can do is to keep repeating tired motifs which have become incapable of signifying anything; and there are certainly more than enough current films (and novels) to support that theory. Perhaps they are aggressively asserting that all the messages in past science fiction stories were simple and stupid, not really worth repeating, and the genre’s true appeal has always rested solely in its bizarre and attractive hardware. That is, people go to science fiction films to experience what Jupiter Ascending offers in abundance – weird-looking aliens, massive spaceships, flying warriors, huge explosions, and so on – and not to learn that “The needs of the many, outweigh …. The needs of the few.” Thus, I may have argued that they have excised the quintessence of science fiction, but the Wachowskis might respond that, in actuality, they have distilled its purest form.

However, if that is the case – if the Wachowskis’ only goal was to provide mindless entertainment for the masses – their film still cannot be regarded as a complete success, primarily due to one problem that afflicts many contemporary science fiction films. On at least four occasions, Jupiter Ascending offers viewers the same exact scene. It is the same exact scene they have also seen hundreds of times in scores of other science fiction films. We all know the drill: the hero is suddenly beset by several, or several dozen, implacable adversaries equipped with colorfully lethal futuristic weaponry. Outnumbered and outgunned, the hero leaps up to engage in crazed aerial acrobatics, darting and pirouetting around to obliterate one foe after another with a series of well-aimed shots, even as every single one of the enemies’ innumerable shots implausibly miss their target. For a brief change of pace, the woman he is protecting may suddenly fall from a great height, apparently plummeting to her death, requiring the hero to interrupt the carnage and race to catch her one second before she smashes into the ground. Finally, leaving a field of corpses behind them, the hero and his companion go off to enjoy a few quiet moments of bonding and infodumping before the genocide resumes. No matter how artfully it is crafted, people cannot be entertained by a scene they have already seen again and again and again; the instant this scene begins, everyone in the audience knows exactly what is going to happen, exactly how it is going to end. I now find myself completely unable to pay attention to this scene; whenever it starts, I look at my watch, browse through my notes, or start pondering what I might say in a review. Other bored viewers’ minds must be starting to wander as well. True, one of the traditional joys of popular entertainment is the artful iteration of familiar tropes – the beautiful young heiress and the tall dark stranger; the savvy detective, the corpse, and several likely suspects – but this particular trope, I think, is being replicated far too precisely, far too many times.

In sum, while the Wachowskis may have crafted Jupiter Ascending solely to provide viewers with some frivolous fun, it ultimately seems a depressing film. Certainly, it is depressing to think that so many talented people wasted their time making it, and the film may dishearteningly signal that science fiction film is becoming a genre incapable of saying anything, perhaps even incapable of entertaining people while it says nothing. But even Jove nods, and this film may only represent a strange interlude in the history of a proud tradition that is still, like Jupiter Jones, “destined for great things” – bold initiatives and stunning new triumphs to come. If not in the year 2015, then, Jupiter may someday ascend again.

Gary Westfahl has published 24 books about science fiction and fantasy, including the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012), and William Gibson (2013); excerpts from these and his other books are available at his World of Westfahl website. He has also published hundreds of articles, reviews, and contributions to reference books, and he has appeared in two nationally televised documentaries. His next book, the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History, will be available in early 2015.


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