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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early August


Here are two anthologies along with the regular first of the month ezines. Also a new start for an established poetry zine, now offering fiction as well as verse. Best stories are in Clarkesworld and Lightspeed this time.

Publications Reviewed



Starship Century, edited by James Benford and Gregory Benford

A mixed anthology of fact, opinion, and fiction on the theme of interstellar space travel being a Good Thing and a possible one. The project originated in 2011′s 100 Year Starship Symposium and might almost be a volume of Proceedings. It features such scientific luminaries as Stephen Hawking and Freeman Dyson, as well as several bright lights from the SF world. While the nonfiction takes up the bulk of the book, there is also fiction, one story being a novella by Neal Stephenson, the showpiece of the collection.

I had been looking forward to reading this, because real science fiction is something we don’t see enough of anymore. But it was a crashing disappointment. The Stephenson excepted, the pieces of original fiction gathered here range from the mediocre to the flat-out unreadable. Many of them can’t really be considered stories; the characters are just talking heads assembled to deliver the author’s message. The audience for all the preaching here is going to be the choir, already embracing the gospel and crying Amen!

Back in the last century, and even the one before that, the vision of spaceflight to new worlds was new, fresh and exciting, generating a lively sensawunda and giving birth to the classics of science fiction that ignited the imaginations of generations. This anthology has done more than anything to convince me that the vision has senesced and gone moribund, its potency gone to dust, becoming incapable of generation. If most of the fiction here is an example, its only remaining power is to bore readers as it delivers its tired message and didactic lessons instead of story.

Again, I except the Stephenson, which does deliver Wonder and suggests it may not have died, after all. The anthology also offers a reprint from the 1970s, Joe Haldeman’s “Tricentennial”, which mainly serves to illustrate what kind of story the vision of space travel used to inspire, but did not here.

“Cathedrals” by Allen M Steele

Fiction imitates fact in this story set in the symposium that generated the story, populated by authors found in the ToC. Frank is presenting his paper.

“You know,” he began, “I’ve been thinking about how we should go about interstellar travel, and it occurs to me that we do this much the same way the great cathedrals of Europe were built…”

We then flip forward several generations to the planet Coyote, scene of the author’s novel series, where we find Frank’s descendants discussing their heritage and illustrating the message that it takes generations to produce a great work like a cathedral or spaceflight.

The story values here are negligible, coming in way behind the Message. Not an auspicious start to the fiction selections, most of which don’t get any better.

“Atmosphaera Incognita” by Neal Stephenson

Former middle-schoolmates, Emma is now in commercial real estate and Carl is an eccentric billionaire whose current project is building a 20 kilometer high tower for reasons he doesn’t initially disclose. This involves novel problems of engineering and site selection, which is Emma’s job, along with the PR, convincing the residents within the possible crash radius that the thing isn’t going to fall on them.

Because one of the questions people had asked was “what if it gets rusty and falls over?” and Carl’s answer had been “then we’ll use demolition charges to fell it like a tree down the middle of the Swath” as this territory had come to be known. Which to me had seemed like bending over backwards for the NIMBY types, until I’d understood that Carl had always intended to use the Tower as a catapult for launching space vehicles, whose trajectories, for the first twenty miles, would pass right down the middle of the Swath, which he therefore needed to keep clear anyway so that failed rockets would have a place to crash.

There are, however, unexpected perils, “not of outer space but of the atmosphæra incognita that, hidden from earthlings’ view by thunderheads, stretches like an electrified shoal between us and the deep ocean of the cosmos.”

Here we have a Wonder. A super-scaled Wonder that elicits an equally-scaled reaction from the universe. It’s a creation mostly of engineering, on a scale that necessarily has to take into effect the atmosphere as well as the instability of the Earth’s crust. Planets are pretty big things, too. The thing is worked out in fascinating detail, the author having thoroughly worked out the political, sociological and economic implications as well as the physical. Something very large is going to generate large waves of change, some of which won’t be predicted.

The story element, the part involving people, is secondary but far from negligible, and well integrated into the whole. The story is Emma’s, as the Tower project gradually becomes a central part of her life, and she becomes the heart of the project. We see surprisingly little of Carl, and his motives remain a mystery even to Emma. But the project proves to be greater than its founder and longer-lived; some such enterprises take on a life of their own. Real science fiction here, even if no one ever quite gets free of the planet’s orbit.

–RECOMMENDED

“Coda: Atmosphaera Incognita” by Gregory Benford

This irks me a lot. Stephenson’s story ended in a perfectly satisfactory manner, even if no spaceships ever launched from the Tower. Benford was apparently compelled to stick his own oar into the soup kettle and use it to send Emma up into space, thanks to convenient anti-aging drugs. Again, placing Message over story. Feh.

“Knotweed and Gardenias” by Nancy Kress

A problem story. On the way to Titan, things aren’t going well with the algae-based lifesupport system or the crew.

David had slid so far down on his cushion that only his head and bloodless hands were visible above the table edge. Karen Nelson-Jones bit her lip and looked confused, although her IQ was higher than anyone else’s. Marianne felt her own face warm with fury. Before Erik could answer, Dr. Juana Pinero strode in through the garden and plopped down on a cushion. “Larsson just died,” she said flatly. Then she pounded the table with one fist, so hard that one of the mosaic inlays cracked.

Marianne, as psychologist, has the task of determining the cause of the depression. Readers will expect this to connect as well to the botanical problem, which it turns out to be, as is usually the case with this story template.

The title comes from a remark of the ship’s botanist, that some people are more adaptable than others, which gardeners will recognize as the property of weeds. The story doesn’t make as much of this comparison as it might. The description of the ship’s officers’ growing dysfunction is effective, if depressing. The solution, however, doesn’t bode very well for extraterrestrial colonization by the children of Earth. Even Earthly weeds, it would seem, need an Earthly environment.

“The Man Who Sold the Stars” by Gregory Benford

Harold Mann, farmed out to work at age ten for his own good, has an epiphany:

Saw them truly, for the first time. The whole grand sprawl of jewels across the blue-black carpet, hovering above the salty tang of gulf waters like a commandment. The Milky Way spanned the sky, vanishing into the horizon, glows shimmering of emerald, ruby and hard diamond whites.

It resurfaces a few years later as a self-made teenage millionaire when he realizes he’s fulfilled all his immediate goals. He meets a woman with the same long-terms goals that he does. In the course of many, many dull pages, they stride triumphantly into space, pursued by the grasping small-minded.

SF in the mode of Ayn Rand. Mind-numbingly tedious, predictable and unoriginal.

“The Heavy Generation” by David Brin

Colony ship where the kids of the current generation are divided into colonists who grow up in the heavy gravity section and the ship kids, who live at half-G. Jason is an H-kid supposed to study agriculture, mining and other “dirty” subjects, while the ship kids learn electronics, navigation and other apparently superior matters. Jason isn’t buying it when the ship smugly reminds him, “You are the fulfillment generations of shipfolk have lived for. You have no need to bother yourselves with the tedious technologies that run starships.” Because the shipkids are snotty and superior, mocking the Dirters. Things, change, however, once they’re all on the dirt.

The opening suggests some interest as a YA problem story, but it soon devolves to lessons, messages and morals.



Clarkesworld, August 2013

A fine issue this month, particularly the Singh and Kurzawa stories.

“Cry of the Kharchal” by Vandana Singh

Six hundred years ago a magician queen took the form of the Giant Bustard, known in India as the Kharchal. Her husband in jealousy attempted to prevent her from flying and pulled a feather from her wing, whereupon she fell to her death. But the queen’s spirit remained, unfulfilled. Now, in the luxury hotel built on the remains of her husband’s fortress, she reaches out to touch human lives and draw power from them.

Something had happened to the sandstorm. It rose above the hotel ramparts, a tsunami of sand, a hundred-headed cobra, a dark wave against the darkness, absolutely still. A faint susurrus of sand seemed only to amplify the silence. What had happened to the blaring alarm, the roar of the approaching storm? There were only soft sounds, the sigh of sand grains falling against a window, or the dance of a wisp of sand across the floor, borne on a breath of wind.

Several people from widely different backgrounds are drawn together as time stops around them – and then, time and life resume. While at the center of this story is a variation on the “animal wife” tale, it isn’t really so much about the queen herself but the lives she alters, some of them tragically.

–RECOMMENDED

“Shepherds” by Greg Kurzawa

We think at first that this is the beginning, but it turns out to be at the end, or close to it. Abel the shepherd has grown old and nears death, which he fears, not wanting to become one of the abominations that roam the hills. He descends to the settlement where he hopes to die in peace, but what he finds there is not what he had expected.

Abel is not the figure that readers may first suppose, but we’re clearly supposed to think of him, of his flock of sheep and his compulsion to travel east. The setting, however, is posthuman; all men now are named Adam and all women, who seem to have a low opinion of the other sex, Eve. The piece makes me speculate that the author may have set it as a challenge to himself: I can so sell an Adam and Eve story. It’s certainly a different one.

“Found” by Alex Dally MacFarlane

Spice in space. One of those stories told in a series of chapters, each one headed with the name of a spice, which we can assume to hold Significance, although with the exception of one, it isn’t evident. The narrator is an itinerant spice trader, put-putting from asteroid to asteroid to exchange the family’s wares for failed energy cells, because everything in the asteroids is failing. In these travels, Lo Yiying keeps looking for the only other person who has ever understood the need for a unique personal pronoun, and also seems to consume quite a bit of the family’s stock. But now the only thing that the customers care about is the rumored imminent arrival of the Cai Nu people, who will rescue them from the failing asteroid habitats. Lo Yiying isn’t so sure about being saved.

Essentially, this is identity fiction with a rose-colored conclusion resting on a happy coincidence that happens to allay Lo Yiying’s most urgent concerns about the relocation. But the whole spice thing is unconvincing. Thyme, now, is a nice, compact little herb, but cinnamon being the bark of a tree, there isn’t going to be a lot of yield when it’s grown on a shelf. More to the point, and aside from the salesperson devouring the store, there could hardly be much profit from the exchange of spice for spent energy cells when the cost of running the family spaceship is taken into account.



Lightspeed, August 2013

A good issue for August, particularly the Lee and Liu stories.

“Face Value” by Sean Williams

In a post-scarcity society based on fabricators, Sargent is a Peacekeeper, not a sergeant, when she is summoned by the Inspector to witness the arrest of the inventor Felix Frey, who has just made a portentous-seeming announcement. The authorities have received a tip that he is planning to destabilize the OneEarth government, but his target actually appears to be the fabricator economy, by inventing a material that can’t be copied. In short, reinventing money.

“Some would have it that we are thus liberated from wage slavery and scarcity, but I believe that we remain as trapped as ever—trapped by rampant consumption fueled by limitless supply.”

The premise recalls the glossed-over contradictions of the Trekverse’s replicator technology, the setting here enlivened by the personal frustrations of Sargent and the Inspector. Light stuff, but quite a bit of talking.

“The Knight of Chains, the Deuce of Stars” by Yoon Ha Lee

The tower is a black spire upon a world whose only sun is a million starships wrecked into a mass grave. Light the color of fossils burns from the ships, and at certain hours, the sun casts shadows that mutter the names of vanquished cities and vanished civilizations. It is said that when the tower’s sun finally darkens, the universe’s clocks will stop.

The tower guards the deeps where the universe’s games are confined, and Niristetz of the Nine of Chains has come to retrieve one. First, however, she has to pass the tower’s warden, whose gun never misses its target. She offers him a game: if she wins, he will help her find the game she needs to redeem her unfulfilled promise; if she loses, she will give him the secret of freedom from the tower where he is prisoner as well as warden.

Apparently because there is reference to spaceships here, and universes and skiffy stuff, the editor has slotted this one as science fiction, but its mode is the high, high fantastic that happens to be set in an imaginary future, using the terminology of science fiction in the service of the vision; the essence of the fantastic here is in the prose. When we read lines like, “I was made of pittances of mercy and atrocities sweeter than honey. I was made of carrion calculations and unpolished negations.”, this isn’t literal language; we don’t expect to know what it means but to appreciate the tones rung by the words and the images they evoke. Many of which involve games, their tactics and strategy, and their relationship to war. Game here is more than a metaphor; it’s a model of life. The characters are of legendary quality, archetypes, with qualities more than human. Yet they are strongly motivated, and their motives drive the story to its satisfying conclusion.

–RECOMMENDED

“Breathless in the Deep” by Cory Skerry

Jantz is an indentured pearl diver close to earning out her debt, her lungs fed by the magic tattooed into her skin. The work is dangerous. Her partner has lost an arm to the powerful shell of the pearl oysters, and there are predatory krakens, with their valuable ink. And ghosts in the wreckage of dead ships.

There were three below her, reaching for her feet. Their dark mouths opened, and far down their black gullets, she saw the faint glow of more pink magic. Whatever bright energy leaked out of the glyphs on their skulls also lurked in their bellies.

A neatly-done, atmospheric ghost story.

“The Litigation Master and the Monkey King” by Ken Liu

A story of heroism. In Qing dynasty China, Tian Haoli is what we would call an unlicensed lawyer whose clients are the illiterate peasants who would otherwise be helpless against the rich and powerful.

Who knew the secrets of the Great Qing Code? Who understood how to plead and prove and defend and argue? When the magistrate spent his evenings at parties hosted by the local gentry, who could predict how a case brought by the poor against the rich would fare? Who could intuit the right clerk to bribe to avoid torture? Who could fathom the correct excuse to give to procure a prison visit?

Tian is also a long-time intimate of the heroic Monkey King, who visits him in dreams and whispers. When an exiled rebel begs him to save the proscribed manuscript of Wang XiuChu’s account of the massacre of Yangzhou, Monkey urges him, against his own prudent objections, to act.

This is historical fiction, with an almost-ambiguous fantasy element. The Monkey King, in this account, does no great deeds, leads no armies, routs no emperors. He merely defends the truth. The events described here, the atrocities of the Manchu conquest and the suppression of the written account of the Yangzhou massacre, are factual. But martyrdom in the defense of truth is an act of heroism that can apply to all times, including our own.

–RECOMMENDED



Apex Magazine, August 2013

A couple of darkly humorous versions of skiffy classics.

“Victimless Crimes” by Charlie Jane Anders

Teri was happy with her baby for six months until the Action Squad discovered Flo was the incarnation of the recently-deceased Captain Champion. They take her away to be a superhero again, and Teri doesn’t even bother with the spiral on the way down.

Teri thought about a documentary she’d seen, about people who left their children behind in their SUVs, because they forgot the kids were even there. She went into the liquor store and found a jug of bourbon almost the same size and weight as her baby.

Turns out Flo isn’t really happy with the situation, either.

Nicely distorted look at the superhero phenomenon, with some sideways glances at the problems of reincarnation, You Tube, and celebrity culture.

“A Matter of Shapespace” by Brian Trent

“It’s all matter,” says Jacob’s friend Jocelyn, and it can be shaped any way you have the money to pay for, while consciousness is stored in the cloud. But mistakes happen, which is why Jacob supposes there is now a large pyramid in the center of his house. Actually, Jacob’s house has been hacked in the course of a megacorps war. The powers planning a hostile takeover have grandiose plans.

“We’ll reduce the collective mass of all Sun Ragnar inhabitants and buildings and trees and streets into a protean apocalypse, racing across the ocean like a shockwave. Right at their shoreline we’ll rise up! Oh, it will be beautiful! A towering wave of biomass rising like… like… a pyramid!”

But mistakes happen. Or rather, are made.

The author turns absurdity on the commonplace SFnal notion of uploading consciousness into a virtual paradise, darkening the vision considerably.



Mythic Delirium 0.1, July-September 2013

Change comes to all, in one way or another, and it’s come to the poetry printzine Mythic Delirium, which is now transitioning to an electronic quarterly featuring both prose fiction and verse. In this initial installation, there are three short stories, the first two quite mythic, as is appropriate here, the third not very storylike.

“The Wives of Paris” by Marie Brennan

Alternate Trojan scenarios. What if Paris had chosen differently? How might it have worked out?

Fate’s a bitch —three of them—and mountainsides never work like they’re supposed to. You can’t blame Helen: her face may have launched a thousand ships, but Paris is the one who brought them to Troy. He was always going to bring destruction. Athena and Hera couldn’t change that. No woman, mortal or divine, could.

I like this, as I like just about anything involving my favorite epic. The author has clearly been messing around in the depths of the mythos and dragging out neat bits to play with. These variations all center around the woman alleged in several versions of the greater story of Troy to have been Paris’s first wife, Oenone – about whom there are also several variants. But in all cases, when the goddesses come with their gifts, Oenone is fated to be abandoned for greater things, the woman scorned.

“Hexagon” by Alexandra Seidel

Scheherazade in the modern world. A story in six steps, all of them doomed. Awfully like a poem.

“Echoes in the Dark” by Ken Liu

Captain John James Carrington has come to Shanghai in the 19th century to advise the International Settlement on defense against the Taiping rebels. But when he is captured by the rebel leader, he gains valuable new insights, including a scientific principle actually perfected in our times. The rebels get nothing in return.

He became silent and thoughtful. At length he said, “My ancestors were once a people full of invention, too.” He paused, and then added, “Perhaps we will be again, someday.”

Other than the technology and the historical setting, there isn’t a lot of story here.



Pathlight: New Chinese Writing; science fiction issue, Spring 2013

Recently, Lavie Tidhar announced he was closing down his World SF project because it had fulfilled its goals. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that I’ve lately been receiving a number of “world” anthologies showcasing fiction from different countries or regions. This one, as the title states, is from China. The volume isn’t a long one; there are ten stories, and with one exception, I’m not familiar with either authors nor translators. While not all the authors are male, the default narrator or protagonist tends to be male; there are very few women’s points of view here. Overall, there’s some pretty good stuff here, although some of the authors are more concerned with explicating an idea than developing characters and story. There is plenty of variety in the stories, though largely the settings are future China or a future in which the characters are Chinese. Many deal with social change and point to problems resulting from the transformation of Chinese society in recent years, such as wealth and social inequality.

“Doomsday” by Han Shaogong

After a team of seismologists survey the peasant village, the people convince themselves that an earthquake is imminent.

What’s more, Blind Fourth Granny by the mountains had let it be known that this time the Dragon King was enraged, the Earth Tortoise was set to flip over, and the Lord of the Heavens wouldn’t stop until He’d culled one hundred thousand souls.

Kun, the Production Team leader, realizes that they are immune to rational consideration of the matter. Whatever he says, they will perversely take the opposite of what he intends. With their doom pending, the villagers behave in odd and curious ways; some go preemptively into mourning, others, like the scheming Sun Zebiao, consider the potential advantages of the situation.

A fine work of fiction, exposing the various characters as they react to the crisis. Alas, it can not in any way be considered science fiction.

“Shadow People” by Can Xue

The narrator came to Fire City, where the sun has gone toxic and never sets, so that the people hide from it inside and turn into shadows through a process of “inner extrusion”. On his arrival, he was pulled into an old house full of shadows who listen obsessively to a wind chime; someone there is cooking broth that may be made from non-shadow human flesh.

Where had the people gone? We hadn’t gone underground, nor were we hiding inside the hollow walls. We were in the room. If you carefully investigated the foot of the bed, the back of the bookcase, the corners of the room, the backs of the doors, and other similar places, you would discover pale shadows f flexing and twisting.

The narrator first wants to leave the place, then tries to return but is rejected because he has grown a tail.

A fabulist piece that seems to be full of symbolism, but I find the significance obscure. This is one piece where the narrator is actually given a name yet doesn’t thereby acquire personhood. The strangeness and the imagery are compelling, but it’s frustrating not to grasp what it might mean, or to know whether a Chinese reader would find it equally inaccessible.

“The Beekeeper” by Wang JinKang

A mystery. Lin Da, a promising young researcher into artificial intelligence, died unexpectedly from an overdose of sleeping pills, leaving the cryptic line on his computer screen:

The beekeeper’s decree: Do not wake the bees.

On the grounds of this line, the investigators, in the manner of carpenters who see all problems as nails, conclude that the death was likely murder rather than suicide. According to his girlfriend,

he would often discuss the “collective intelligence” of honeybees, saying that a single bee consisted of no more than a few ganglia strung along a central nervous cord and had no intelligence to speak of, but that when a group of them reached a certain critical threshold, they began complementing each other, creating a beehive that even humans would view with amazement.

Irony here, contrasting the theory of collective intelligence as manifested by the bees with the thick-headed mental processes of the investigators. Irony also in contrasting Lin’s insight with the conventional notion of the artificial-intelligence singularity. Perhaps we have been looking in the wrong direction.

“The Arms, the Arms” by Xing He

The narrator, like everyone else in his world, overlays his drabby existence with virtual glitz. He is going to purchase the new mecha arm he craves, but at some point the virtual and the real become impossible to distinguish.

Mecha arms by the hundred, by the thousand: the SWT100 series, the SS02s, the AC 8-Digit series, the HZ2010s, and who knew how many other types of manmade arm, among them the Type RL03-1 Power Arm I had coveted for so long. They lay around in random heaps, like piles of roughly-processed pig organs.

What he has really lost has been his own reality, which he can no longer distinguish from his imaginary version.

The virtual-reality premise has been often done, and this one at first seems to offer little new, but it eventually coalesces into a satisfactory eye-opening for the narrator. Of course the readers will realize the truth long before he does. The story also exposes the problem of the wealth gap, that all the lies a person tells himself about himself in a virtual world can’t erase when it comes to reality. A Cautionary Tale.

“4/1/2018″ by Liu Cixin

Social upheaval has resulted from the recent development of “genexing” – life extension through gene modification. Because of the cost, few can afford it and the masses are rising in resentment: the wealth gap again. The narrator has been embezzling from his employer for several years and now has enough to pay for the treatment. He has it – almost – figured out.

The fine for illicit appropriation was five million, the maximum sentence twenty years. After getting out I would still have more than two hundred enticing years of life ahead of me. The problem was this: given such simple arithmetic, could I really be the only one doing the math?

Several potential complications give the narrator pause, but none of them prove to be serious. What these all do, however, is give the author room to talk a lot about the implications of social change, rather than tell a real story.

“The Endless Farewell” by Chen Qiufan

Xiaochu kisses his wife goodbye one morning with the assurance that he will never leave her while he is alive. Hours afterwards, he has a paralyzing stroke. Since he is otherwise doomed to the life of a vegetable, he doesn’t hesitate to take the military offer to meld his mind with a recently-discovered intelligent sea worm. The payment will at least take care of his wife, who objects to the arrangement, fearing for him. All he hopes for out of the deal is to remember her, but in the alien mind, his memories gradually fade. Yet the experience has compensations; the worm is an extraordinary individual

This was the most bizarre experience in my life, dizzying and also a little crazed. It was as though we formed a pair of conjoined twins sharing the same brain. I could feel the other’s temperature, texture, and tremors, but also perceived my own body’s stimuli. I touched it touched me; I encompassed it encompassed me. It fed back on itself, like a microphone in front of a speaker, until it pushed our nerve impulses to their limit.

This is a rather diffuse work, wandering over a large number of issues: love, commitment, dementia, death, as well as the matter of minds coexisting in the same body. The mind-meld with the worm, which could have been ridiculous, is instead well played; the creature’s mental processes are described in interesting detail, and its higher principles are admirable. There is also a side-plot about the narrator and his wife sharing a genetic predisposition to dementia, having to wonder which of them will forget the other first. It’s a lot of stuff going on in a relatively short space, well-done for all that, but I would have liked more focus.

“Chronicles of the Mountain Dwellers” by Yang Ping

The mountains are ultra highrise exurban apartment building surrounding the [unnamed] city. Ashoka was born in the mountains, where he became obsessed with the then-current fad of nerve recon, based on implanted chips. At the time, the chip seller Zhang Youzi was his idol and mentor. When he moved to the city to complete his education, Ashoka abandoned the idea of recon, which he began to see as lower-class. Later, he discovers Zhang Youzi has lost his chip shop and fallen on hard times. Ashoka wants to save him from what he believes will be a disastrous and irrevocable step.

“You’re not a recon. You don’t know the feeling of signals flowing through you, commanding the pulse of your arteries, or the sense of power you have when augmented muscle fibers fire! Now I understand all I ever wanted was just this feeling. Nothing else matters.”

At the heart of this situation is, again, social inequality. The people of the mountains have a lower status than those of the city basin. Ashoka has been fortunate in escaping the milieu and retains gratitude towards Youzi, whom he recalls as talking him out of recon. Youzi, bitter in his failure, recalls things differently. By telling the story from Ashoka’s point of view, the author collaborates in the marginalization of Youzi, whose story we might think this ought to be. Making it Ashoka’s makes it a story of recollection, of different narratives, but also of the privileged individual who looks down on the mountain dweller. There, but for the grace of money and education, he had gone himself.

“A Story of Titan” by Ling Chen

The origin of life. The narrator is the first child born in the rings of Saturn, which makes it a big media event. But at the time he was born, his father is on a mission to repair the malfunctioning Darwin probe, which is conducting an experiment to recreate the conditions resulting in life on Earth. Thus the media attention is on him, when he discovers exactly what the probe is up to on Saturn VI, as his child’s birth is being broadcast to the entire solar system, and he is the only one who had to miss it.

The odd thing here is that the narrator is the four-month-old infant, who seems for reasons unclear to have a consciousness advanced for his age. While he thinks of his mother as thick-headed, he has become quite close to his father and misses his presence at his birth.

Papa was indeed a smart man. He was the only one who could understand what I said. Through the skin of Mama’s belly, I murmured from deep within the womb, relating information obtained from genes and blood – breathing, absorption, excretion, perception, memory. I began from a fertilized egg and developed organs, muscles, skin, and bones. In those few Earth days, I’d grow 250,000 nerve cells, the steady stream of information that filled those cells filling me and making me even hungrier. The womb was, after all, too small a world, and I already knew it all by heart.

“Milk” by Ah Ding

Chen Guoqing is a curious little boy, so when watching a bunch of workers, he stares at the light of the welding torch and is temporarily blinded. His father tells him to ask for breast milk from a nursing neighbor to cure his eyes, and the folk remedy works. But Guoqing becomes fascinated by the breast milk and conceives a scheme to get more of the substance, with tragic results.

He had once shot out a streetlight with a slingshot, and the sight of the exploding bulb had momentarily seared a halo in his eyes. At the center of this halo was a bottomless darkness.

A very short story about the members of a family, interesting characters. The conclusion will come as a shock to those who regard children as innocent and not responsible for their actions.

“The Last Brave Man” by Hao Jingfang

Clones. In the Great World, most positions are held by clones specialized for given types of work. But Si Jie has long attempted to promote the subversive theory that individual differences are more important, even among clones. The authorities have taken extreme steps to eradicate his thought. Now Si Jie 47 is the only one of his clones remaining. With pursuit closing in, he takes hostage an old warehouse manager, Pan Nuo 32. Discussion ensues.

“But they want to kill every one of my duplicates, it’s got nothing to do with things I’ve said or done. As long as it’s me, or him, they’ll kill us. I haven’t adopted any stance I could change. It’s just like… just like in the past, when the first Qin Emperor burned all the books and killed all the scholars. It’s no different to destroying every copy of a book.”

The irony here is that the Great World is vulnerable to precisely the traits it promotes. But the point is made more with talk than with story. I can’t credit the fact that there still seem to be large numbers of Si Jie followers, who are clearly well aware of the ideas that the authorities are taking such pains to repress. Obviously, their actions aren’t painful enough.

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.


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