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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-August


Just two works here this time: the September issue of F&SF and a cyborg anthology from the publishers of the ezine Clarkesworld, which adds up to just about as many stories as usual, or maybe more.

Publications Reviewed

  • F&SF, September/October 2014
  • Upgraded, edited by Neil Clarke


F&SF, September/October 2014

Back to the regular lineup of suspects here, after the last, guest-edited issue that offered some rare fresh author faces. I’m happy to report that there are a couple of promising new author faces in this issue, and I recommend the Cigut story.

I usually look forward to the September issue of this magazine as the best of the year, the issue that the award winners are likely to come from. Unfortunately, while there are some good reads, I don’t see any really superior work or potential award winners here. The predominant tone is humor, with regard to which I recall the mortal adage: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Also a reprint from Phyllis Eisenstein.

“The Rider” by Jérôme Cigut

A cyberpunkish tone in this one. Luke is a former failed poker player, made obsolete by big-money technology [it’s apparently now OK to cheat], and now the rider* for an advanced AI named David. It seems that several years ago, a rogue AI engineer named Tahara stole equipment from his employer and created his own line of AIs, superior to any others in existence. The Taharas are all unique and self-directing, gravitate towards crime, and often complete with one another, sometimes fatally. But they also network.

He had mentioned this in the past, but it had never made much sense to me. These guys spent their time trying to physically destroy each other, using riders like me, yet they were in constant contact on the net, probably chatting like magpies. Go figure. The A in AI stands for “artificial,” but for me, sometimes it feels more like “alien.”

For many of their activities, they need humans to do the legwork. Luke and David have been associates for some time and trust one another. This is good when a new line of AIs comes on the scene, produced by Tahara’s former employer, with the prime directive of hunting them down.

This is an action piece without a lot of techno-neepery, but the characterization is key. The milieu is a world where ruthless players with money and power can only be defeated by others more ruthless, rich and powerful. And intelligent. A good read, although I could have done without the pause for the backstory.

[*] I would have rather said that the AI is the rider and the human the vehicle.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Wild Ones” by Albert E Cowdrey

The most regular of the regulars arrives in leaden boots with a work of humor. It seems that humanity, having ruined the Earth, long ago departed to ruin Proxima Centauri. Actually, it seems that the original departure from Earth was stimulated in part by a terrorist virus that turned the rest of the world’s species in a murderous frenzy on the humans – this information coming near the story’s end as an apparent afterthought from the author. The flora and fauna flourished in their absence, until someone on the new world got the bright idea of going back to the old one, which is to say, sending the dregs and scrapings from the prisons back to get rid of them.

On the starship Mahatma, things were already less than perfect, as they tended to be when people were around. The Recolonizers were an ill-starred and ill-assorted bunch. People who abandon their homes for an unknown country usually are losers of one sort or another — why else would they do something so dangerous and dumb? The present company was no exception.

The worst problem onboard is the presence of a brat nicknamed Mowgli for his feral ways, although surprisingly, given the murderers among the passengers, no one kills him before they reach Earth, or his little girlfriend. The homeworld proves to be unwelcoming to the returnees, the virus still being active in the animal population. Only Mowgli and his companion seem to be immune, and there’s a reason for that.

This one is not actively unfunny, although the humor is both heavy and predictable, predictably.

“Avianca’s Ghost” by Matthew Hughes

A Raffalon story. The thief carelessly gets taken by the Watch and sold at auction to pay his accumulated fines, becoming the property of a wizard who spell binds him to obey. His new master sends Raffalon to steal a potent magical item from a witch which whom he has a failed relationship, but it turns out that he isn’t really a very accomplished wizard and also underestimates his thief.

During this brief but fraught moment, Raffalon had been thinking quickly, then acting with equal speed. By the time the witch had completed her preparations, he had let go of the pole and retrieved Avianca’s Bezel from its hiding place. When Groger aimed at him and spoke the activating syllables, he was holding the lozenge between thumb and forefinger of his alienated hand, its rune-incised surface facing toward her.

Hughes is always a lot of fun. The series here is happily one that requires no backgrounding in the previous episodes for readers to enjoy fully. Plots and complications, as always, pile up satisfactorily during the course of this lengthy novelette. I was particularly taken by the description of the planes of existence, the mundane being the Third, with the Under and Overworlds above and below; most intriguing is the thought that below the Underworld there must be one worse.

“The Thing in the Back Yard” by David Gerrold

The narrator, who might be named David Gerrold, makes the mistake of telling an annoying acquaintance about his burglary problem. The acquaintance seizes the opportunity of foisting an unwelcome juvenile troll on him, ostensibly to frighten away intruders. The narrator doesn’t want little Emmett-Murray in his yard, but somehow he finds himself talked into it. And then can’t get rid of him when he becomes much bigger, smellier Emmett-Murray.

Essentially, this: if a troll doesn’t want to leave, there’s not much you can do about it. And the more you nurture a troll — the more you resent him — the more he thrives, the bigger he gets. You can go out on the patio and stand and stare and hate him intensely and watch him grow five centimeters per hour.

Moderately funny stuff, in the manic/absurd mode. Alas, it concludes with a pun.

“Marketing Strategies of the Apocalypse” by Oliver Buckram

Product placement in the End Times: “As you can see, bimonthlies are the ideal format for today’s busy readers.” He handed the magazine to Johnny. “I’d like to see one of those flimsy monthlies stop a bullet. And don’t get me started on online magazines.”

Once a newcomer whose witty stories greatly amused me, Buckram has unfortunately become a regular here, with the usual degradation of quality that this promotion seems to entail. You can tell a regular when you see him getting to make in-jokes about the venue. Fortunately very short.

“Sir Pagan’s Gift” by Tom Underberg

Sir Pagan is an alien voyager, come to this poor human village on his pilgrimage to spread the truth and found his own hive. Alas, the village’s truth threatens the powerful of this place, the fishmongers and the church, thus he is denounced and sentenced to death.

In the afternoon the village children come to watch Sir Pagan from the safety of the churchyard. He can smell the fisher children, rank and ripe; hear the labored breathing of logger children. Sir Pagan was kind to them and they grant what favors they can in return: a sip of water, a gentle touch, a hunk of hardened bread.

The fishmonger children come to throw stones.

The author is another newcomer to the zine’s pages, and his fable is engaging. Key to the tale’s success is the simple and repetitive narrative voice, giving the story a rhythmic pattern as events proceed with inevitability to the conclusion, the fulfillment of Sir Pagan’s quest, the triumph of his truth.

“Other People’s Things” by Jay O’Connell

Chris has never been able to get a date or make friends or get along with people. He knows there’s something wrong with him, so he goes to a consultant. Peebles is thorough. He does a complete analysis of Chris and concludes there’s lot of stuff wrong with him. He’s a mess. He has social deficits. “In lots of primate species, there are males that never reproduce. There are theories about them, what they’re good for. I won’t bore you. You don’t want to be one.”

This is sadly funny, sad because it’s too true. The humor comes primarily from the character of Peebles the consultant, who is quite a character indeed, and the blunt manner in which he delivers uncomfortable truths.

“The Culvert” by Dale Bailey

The lives of Douglas’s entire family were blighted after his twin brother Danny disappeared. They were thirteen years old, and they had secrets together, doing things they know their parents wouldn’t have allowed, like exploring the culvert out by the highway.

Like all children, we had our secret lives. We orbited a star of our own, as isolate and self-sufficient. Secrets were our watchword, lies our sigil of conspiracy.

There was a fissure in the side of the culvert, and it led into secret tunnels that were constantly changing. The boys kept going back, until the day they failed to keep close together, and Danny never came out.

This is a dark fantasy, in a mode that I might call magic realism. I think that even if the author hadn’t led with Danny’s loss, readers would know from the outset those tunnels were places where the boys should never go, that only tragedy could come of their explorations there, even before we realize that there is something unnatural about them. But kids have a strong need for there to be magical places in their lives. The author also wants to make the story about twin identity, but I don’t think that part works quite as well. The strong emotional loss here would be much the same if the boys were simply brothers or even friends.

“Embrace of the Planets” by Brenda Carre

The store that moves through space and time, only opening for the right people. One of those people is Eleanora. She’s seen the store named Trove many times, but it was never open until today, on the equinox. The proprietor knows she’s the right one when her cell phone rings inside the store, which it shouldn’t be able to do.

She told him things she’d never told another living soul before. How even before the accident she’d felt like some kind of changeling, born out of her own time and place, never fitting in.

A pretty shopworn premise, one of those so much beloved by SF readers who have always known in their hearts that they were changelings. The references to Verne give this one a slightly sinister tone and make it stand out, but not by much.

“Will He?” by Robert Reed

The best men were geniuses and curmudgeons, and they came home whenever they wished, giving orders to obedient wives before sitting in their studies, eating alone while doing their important work, and always, without exception, drinking whatever they damn well wanted to drink.

Or so Adelman’s father declared, making it clear that he was a man of that sort, and giving the boy the ambition to emulate him. But the son lacked the talent of his sire, and drank even more alcohol, and became increasingly embittered by an overcrowded world that failed to recognize his superiority. Thus he decided to create a virus to kill most of humanity, along with a vaccine to ensure that chosen persons would survive alongside himself — a boon that the chosen fail to appreciate as they ought.

Readers can never be sure just what they’ll find in a new Reed short, but it’s usually something unexpected. We might call Adelman a mad scientist, but this intimate portrait comes with an inconclusive ending that leaves us guessing, which is the idea.

“The Way We Are” by Ray Vukcevich

If This Goes On: “I need to think, I need to pee, I stand up and turn away and realize I don’t remember the password for my pants.” Gotta laugh, consider knocking my head against the wall.


Upgraded, edited be Neil Clarke

An anthology can be a strange thing. The editor developed this theme of artificial upgrades to the human design after a personal experience of being medically upgraded. His motto for the anthology is taken from the old bionic man TV show: Better . . . stronger . . . faster. All of which suggests a book full of positive, optimistic stories in which science and technology improve human lives by upgrading the abilities of the population and transforming us into a race of cyborgs. But what readers will find here is a book in which the stories are more often negative, in which artificial augmentation proves to be either an ill in itself or the means by which part of the population is exploited. The cyborg future imagined by a number of these authors may be stronger and faster, but whether it’s going to be better is questionable.

There are a lot of these futures here, twenty-six stories in about 350 pp. That’s a lot of stories, but it means that most of them are quite short; I regard the longest, by Ken Liu, as also one of the best. Readers of Clarkesworld will recognize the author lineup, with a fine selection of the genre’s newer stars. As we might expect, there are many different approaches to the cyborg idea. Quite a few of these pieces deal in the theme of memory; in many of them, the enhancements are mental, not simply physical. There are also a surprising number of references to ghosts.

“Always the Harvest” by Yoon Ha Lee

This opening piece sets a negative tone. We have a human colony settling into the ruins of a city that proves to be conscious and protean, reforming itself according to its own understanding of these new inhabitants.

From the walls grew tangles tendrils of wire, and the tendrils fused together into bones of strong composites, and the bones hinged together into hands, or feet, or hips sheathed in plastic or metal. There were eyes in every conceivable color, growing like fervent grapes from pillars, the sensors glittering pale and vigilant; there were infrared sensors and scanners and seismic analyzers.

Eventually, the human inhabitants develop an obsession with the various prosthetics, and the Harvest becomes the apparent foundation of life there. In this society, Nissaea is an outcast, an illegal scavenger in the mazeways and catacombs. There, she meets a strange person who turns out to be part of the city, having made itself part-human just as the humans have made the city part of themselves.

The prosthetics here are essentially symbolic of the defective human population. On any other basis, the premise simply makes no sense. The settlers haven’t adopted the machine parts to make themselves better, but because they confer status; it’s a fashion thing. Readers may feel sorry for the city, transforming itself to emulate such a flawed model. I can’t really consider either city or human society as credible, not an economy that apparently centers around mining spare parts for which they have no market but themselves.

“A Cold Heart” by Tobias S Buckell

The central character is a cyborg mercenary, a deadly killer once enthralled by alien masters who took her memories and held them hostage for her service. She will do anything to get them back, to know who she used to be. Thus she puts others and the future of humanity at risk for her own selfish purpose.

The character called Pepper definitely has a cold heart, or none, and I find her intensely unsympathetic – distasteful, in fact. Whether she finds her memories or not, I don’t care at all. She’s far too willing to pay in others’ lives for them. In consequence, I’m not much interested in the philosophical issue of the relationship between self and memory that she embodies. The cyborg element is peripheral to the story. Pepper undoubtedly couldn’t have accomplished what she did without her deadly augmentations, but that’s not what the story is about.

“The Sarcophagus” by Robert Reed

A Great Ship story, which means a story of immortality, as the population in this far, far future has been improved to the point where true, permanent death is a rarity. The Remoras live and work on the ship’s hyperfiber hull, protected by lifesuits that grow as part of themselves from the point of conception. The mass and velocity of the ship make it impractical for it to alter course in order to avoid collisions; repairing the consequent damage is the Remoras’ job. In the course of these events, the ship encounters a derelict lifesuit from a long ago ship. The wearer of this suit was out on the hull of his vessel to make a repair when an accident happened.

The starship was no more. There would be no rescue or even a sorrowful greeting from the black of space. An undeserving life had been delivered to this one creature, and it came for no good reason, and now his suffering would stretch into an eternity.

Until now, when the Great Ship crosses his path.

A lot to take in here. There are the cold equations of physics that govern the Ship’s movements, there is the Hard SF activity of the Remoras to minimize the damage of the anticipated impact, there is the existential despair of the solitary, doomed spacer. And there is time, almost unimaginable lifetimes, of which the longest belongs to the senior Remora called Orleans, whose job it is to instruct the young Remoras in the traditions of their craft. At the end, we find secrets and possibilities along with tragedy.

The Remoras are definitely cyborgs, human by descent but no longer form, as in this future they grow their enhancements and modify them at will. These are entirely necessary for them to survive and function in the environment of the Ship’s hull, exposed to the hazards of space. The stranded spacer, likewise, has modified his form, which probably wasn’t ever human. Yet what they have in common transcends mere species, and there is the heart of the story.

–RECOMMENDED

“Oil of Angels” by Chen Qiufan, translated by Ken Liu

In a world after some unexplained Catastrophe, people have been fitted with implants to erase the traumatic memories, at first of that event, then of all traumatic events. The narrator has gone further and had the associated emotions purged from her memories. But on a visit to an aromatherapy specialist, she finds herself unexpectedly thinking of her estranged mother. It seems that certain scents free buried memories, including epigenetic memories passed on by ancestors. A group of researchers are attempting to use these recovered memories to discover the long-erased truth about the Catastrophe. But the truth isn’t as simple as they had supposed.

The long passage of time and the multiple generations in between meant that the original memories had become blurred, twisted, broken, and were now mixed with the real memories of my mother and me, as well as the official explanations and propaganda about the Catastrophe.

The author is Chinese, and the story makes me think of the current Chinese government’s attempts to cover up and erase events from history that it doesn’t want the population to know about, lest they protest. The Catastrophe, I have to suspect, was likewise someone’s fault, someone who didn’t want to suffer blame or retribution and thus attempted to wipe all evidence of it from history. The story seems rather in sympathy with this impulse, preferring the reconciliation without the truth. “Too many things had changed. People needed time to adjust.” I rather wish the project had worked as the researchers had expected; that seems like kind of a neat historical idea, particularly if the premise, with its epigenetic memory, had been less contrived. The minimal cyborg element, the memory-blocking implant, is also pretty marginal, but definitely on the negative side.

“What I’ve Seen with Your Eyes” by Jason K Chapman

In this world, the slums lie in the exurbs, where the underclass lives, forced like Lisa Wei to sell the surface of her artificial eyeballs for advertising space. Lisa’s only family had been her brother Eddie, but he has just been murdered. The cops think Eddie was involved in some sophisticated netcrime.

“Someone hacked your eye feed,” Perez went on. “They used the ad stream to map the thing you saw over the killer’s real appearance. That’s pretty sophisticated stuff.”

This one has a definite cyberpunk sensibility, but it’s a pretty benign cyberpunk milieu. Despite the inescapable fact of Eddie’s murder, an originally suspicious Lisa discovers that the word isn’t as hostile as she had supposed. The setting is one in which the bionic element is exploited, but Lisa’s artificial eyes are, in themselves, a good thing; without them, she would be blind.

“No Place to Dream, but a Place to Die” by Elizabeth Bear

Cyberminers.

In the old days, back on Earth, they cooled and ventilated the mines with air blown over ice. These days, they just cool the miners. We huddle in our carapaces. We pack in our own oxy, our own H2O. It’s hot and toxic and tight down here, but we slip through like roaches in the walls of the world.

The narrator is an illegal miner working for the Syndicate, as opposed to the legal ones working for the Company. There’s not much difference between them, as the story illustrates, although the Company miners think of the others as ghosts, and they tap the Company’s supplies; sometimes, they engage in surreptitious trade, if the bosses and the guards aren’t looking. It all depends on who you owe, who owns you. Kely is working to set up a refiner in an obscure side tunnel when she [?] spots a lone Company miner coming in that direction; but before a confrontation is possible, a blocked pressure release explodes, trapping them together in the cave-in.

A survival story, as the two miners work together to get themselves out of a potentially deadly situation. Pretty gritty stuff. The cyberenhancements, the carapaces loaded with tools and manipulators, are completely essential to both the characters’ work and to their story. It’s also a good example of worker exploitation; hum Sixteen Tons to get in the spirit, because both characters owe their souls to the Company/Syndicate stores.

“Married” by Helena Bell

This is a sufficiently far future that we can’t know how things work. It’s an experimental material called Sentin, something along the lines of a nanomaterial, that possesses an awareness; when it senses imminent failure of some tissue, it reaches out and replaces it. The narrator’s husband has it; gradually, it’s replacing him. The narrator hates it. She claims that her husband is being taken over by a ghost.

When I realize I am pregnant, I do not tell them. I do not wish to give birth to a ghost child who will grow ghost teeth, whose hair will be silver and cold and will resist the care of my hands. I have no lessons for ghosts, no wisdom to impart on the dating of ghost boys.

The upgraded persons here are not what one would call cyborgs, but something else again, of a technology advanced beyond the cyber. It’s not an unalloyed success; there are a lot of failures in these experimental cases. But the narrator’s negativity has less to do with this fact than an overall refusal to accept the altered individual as the same person, as alive. This seems to be an irrational attitude; the narrator is clearly depressed, and we don’t really know if her husband’s alteration is the cause.

“Come from Away” by Madeline Ashby

YA. Hwa, having dropped out of school, has taken up bodyguarding, for which profession she has become duly enhanced. Today she starts work for a new rich and powerful client, guarding his teenage son against vague threats. Threats duly materialize, and Hwa dutifully meets them. But there are things about the scenario that just don’t seem to make sense, and at the conclusion, Hwa learns the reason.

Pretty standard stuff, which I’d like somewhat better if not for the YAness. Is it realistic to suppose that the dysfunctional institution of the American high school will still exist, totally unaltered, in a future such as this?

“Negative Space” by Amanda Forrest

Lan’s father knew too much, and now he’s been disappeared. Lan may know too much, as well, so Alexis spirited her away, and they’ve been on the run ever since, always just a step ahead of the corporate thugs. Lan has had enough. She plans to disappear herself and erase her dangerous memories, leaving Alexis free to take up her own life again. She already has the capacity to block and retrieve specific memories at will.

She just needed the guy to show up with the assembler cartridges. Her mind-melded nanocore was nearly complete. Just a few more assemblers to finish the storage for the really heavy-duty apps.

Clearly, this is cyberpunk-flavored stuff. Like the Buckell story, the issue is memory-wiping, except that Lan is sacrificing her own past for an altruistic reason, while Pepper’s past is held hostage against her will. An interesting aspect to the story is the doubt it raises about the motives of the corporate thugs; it seems a real possibility that Lan isn’t correct about what’s been going on, and her decision is going to be made on the basis of unreliable information. I’m not really convinced that Lan could have been quite so capable as to be installing and coding under the circumstances of the story; I would have preferred her more nearly ready from the beginning – less supergirl, more human.

“Fusion” by Greg Mellor

Glen is on a pilgrimage through an Earth evolving from flesh into metal, in consequence of what the inhabitants call a plague but actually seems to have an extraterrestrial origin. The transformation is plague-like because it so commonly involves pernicious mutations. In Glen, however, the evolution is different, particularly as he nears the epicenter of the contagion. He is becoming an angel.

As Glen points out, the plague isn’t doing a very good job yet messing with Earth’s lifeforms, but the overall tone here is optimistic, anticipating a new era of wonders.

Life is a series of new shores blending from one to another. The fusion of genetic forms within forms. The fusion of biological layers upon layers spanning immense periods of time. And here was yet another layer wrapped around the globe. Cybernetic fusing with flesh.

There is a difference here, in that this is directed evolution, not proceeding from natural selection. In either case, there is no nostalgia for the past or regret for what is being lost.

“Taking the Ghost” by A C Wise

Mac is a soldier lost on the battlefield and found by a scavenger who gives him a prosthetic arm to replace the one he lost, but the new arm needs a ghost in order to function. Fortunately[?] there are plenty of ghosts on the nearby battleground, but Mac discovers they have their own opinions and demands.

This unlikely premise doesn’t do anything for me. The prosthetic here is essentially a far-fetched plot device for invoking ghosts, who drive this tale of guilt and expiation.

“Honeycomb Girls” by Erin Cashier

Geo is a junk man in a dystopian postapocalypse future from which females seem to have disappeared, at least from the market and sites where he lives and works, scavenging and selling the ruins of the past. He is curious about the girls he has never seen. He knows that girls live in the Honeycomb Towers. “Depend on hive how many. Some hive ten to girl. Others, four, five. More money, less men.” One day a hive man comes to the market and spots a rare and valuable. Geo crafty, trades item for night in tower with girl. He becomes the new Number Four.

The character of Geo, with his distinctive voice, really makes this one. Geo has been created to be a junk man, but he knows what he knows, and he possesses a clear wisdom that makes him the superior of the hive men when on his own turf. When his customer produces cybergirls based on the items he obtained from Geo, the junk man knows the difference. “Junk-girl not girl. Junk men know junk when see it.” But it’s up to the reader to take his observations on his world and figure out how it has come to pass and where it is going. There’s also a poignancy here; Geo loves, in his own way, Sukilee, but their connection is doomed to be temporary. We wonder what became of her, what her future was, but Geo doesn’t know, and neither do we.

“The Regular” by Ken Liu

Following a tragic incident that resulted in her daughter’s death, Ruth Law has left the police force and set up as a private detective. She has the proper physical enhancements required for this job, but the one she relies on most is the Regulator, which filters out emotions and allows her to act solely on rational judgment. On the force, use of the Regulator was limited, but now that she’s on her own, Ruth keeps the function engaged almost constantly – which has its own emotional toll. Her current case is that of a murdered prostitute, whose mother has engaged her.

She still feels calm and completely rational, and she knows that the Regulator is doing its job. She’s sure that she’s making her decision based on costs and benefits and a realistic evaluation of the case, and not because of the hunched over shoulders of Sarah Ding, looking like fragile twin dams holding back a flood of grief.

The police have dismissed it as a gang hit, but Ruth correctly concludes that there is a serial killer at work.

The longest work in the collection, a meticulously-done procedural that makes good use of the cyberenhancements, both physical and mental. These are shown in a generally positive light, but the story makes it clear that they can be subject to abuse by people like Ruth. The only flaw that bothers me is the eye-camera used by many of the prostitutes in the story, an enhancement clearly well-known to them but completely unknown to the police, even to the vice squad. Hard to buy that.

–RECOMMENDED

“Tender” by Rachel Swirsky

A short list-type story that has to be viewed as fantasy rather than science fiction, as we are asked to conceive of a mad scientist turning the narrator’s blood vessels to steel overnight in his basement lab. But the point of all this is metaphorical, not literal, so the distinction isn’t greatly important. It’s a story of obsessive/possessive love, if love is a sickness. The narrator’s husband fears she will abandon him through suicide, so he makes her physically invulnerable. What isn’t clearly said is how he keeps her from abandoning him by walking out, but this is an easy exercise for the reader’s imagination. This is a guy who never heard: If you love them, set them free. It’s all a lot of very creepy imagery of love perverted. The frozen-fetus images are also strong and doubtless heavily freighted with symbolism, but it’s not clear to me what they’re in aid of. I think the author is trying too hard.

“Tongtong’s Summer” by Xia Jia, translated by Ken Liu

Grandpa has been injured and now he is moving into Tongtong’s house to recover. Grandpa’s forced inactivity makes him cranky, and instead of a nurse, her parents get him an experimental model of a robot as a caretaker. Tongtong notices that Ah Fu isn’t really a robot but a drone, operated remotely by one of the students who helped develop the program. Grandpa has noticed this too, and he decides he can operate his own drone.

He was dressed in a thin, grey, long-sleeved bodysuit, and a pair of grey gloves. Many tiny lights shone all over the gloves. He wore a set of huge goggles over his face, and he waved his hands about and gestured in the air.

Because of Grandpa, the elderly and infirm have the possibility of a new mobility and self-sufficiency.

This is definitely the most positive view of cyberenhancements, one that enhances the quality of life. It’s also a strongly heartwarming tale of people connecting with one another for the good of all. The author ends with a note dedicating it to all the grandmas and grandpas who, each morning, can be seen in the parks practicing taichi, twirling swords, singing opera, dancing, showing off their songbirds, painting, doing calligraphy, playing the accordion. An idyllic vision that makes me think it comes from a fantasy world, for I have never seen the like in my own milieu. I’d like to.

“Musée de L’Âme Seule” by E Lily Yu

A woman is badly injured in an accident and repaired with artificial organs, then sent to a city named Revival, inhabited by people with similar cyborganizations. Her lover can’t cope with her transformation. A man she’s attracted to rejects her. The only life she finds in the city is in the birds.

You listen to their quarrelling and think regretfully of your green and yellow budgies. Sweet-voiced things, your idea of love. They nuzzled your fingers and each other, unworried, content, knowing there’d be seeds in the feeder and water every morning.

The sight of the birds inspires her, quite a bit beyond acquiring another pair of budgies. It’s the first step, even if at first an apparent misstep.

The portrayal of cyberenhancements here is generally positive. They keep people alive who might otherwise have died, make them functional when they might otherwise be disabled. The problem lies not in the artificial organs but the society that rejects the different, the maimed and scarred, those unsightly in the eyes of this world. The title refers to the lonely soul, the individual alone in an unloving world. The second-person narrative may at first seem affected, but it turns out to be one of the most effective uses of this device that I’ve ever seen.

“Wizard, Cabalist, Ascendant” by Seth Dickinson

A post-civilization world caught between two incompatible paradigms, both based on the same Haldane nanomech infrastructure, which it is left to the reader to infer. It was Connor’s dream, to uplift the human population via the Haldane network to a singularity based [corrupted from] on the ideas of Teilhard de Chardin; in his vision, he would be the one to lead and direct humanity in the optimal direction. Tanya had a different idea; she released the infrastructure into the wild, free and undirected, ensuring diversity. But she has retained the key to a back door through which she can access every mind in the network – effectively all humanity. Now, years later, she has come to reassess what she has done, accompanied by the mental simulations of Connor and another companion, a neutral figure she trusts. Conner’s geist continues to accuse her of ruining civilization. She’s concerned that he could be right, that freedom is fundamentally unstable.

The truth is that Tanya’s been gone so long, deep in the self-catalysis trance, that she’s not sure she can relate to anyone else on Earth a more than a child. It’s the wizard syndrome, the weight of age and power, and it’s coming on hard.

Essentially a story about playing god, because programming people to be free is still programming, still depends on control. All the players here are infected with ultimate hubris, and that’s scary. History tells us too many stories of good intentions gone amok. There’s an interesting concept imbedded in all this: agnosia, a predetermined not-knowing of a particular thing, a selective [or selected] ignorance. It’s telling that Tanya needs this device to retain control.

“Memories and Wire” by Mari Ness

A love story, of sorts. James has a girlfriend, of sorts, a cyborg who does top-secret work for the government, and she has a problem: she needs human touch. It’s a hormonal thing, it balances her system and keeps her body from rejecting her implants. Sort of.

Parts of her were fragile, very fragile. Even the parts that could rip him apart. And hideously expensive. Many of her parts would be recycled afterwards. Possibly in other bodies.

Now her systems are failing, and there’s nothing he can do.

Love works in strange ways. Rationally, there would seem to be no place for it in this very uneven relationship. N never displays it. But in her wires, there are memories. I like the way James balances disgust with what he’s doing with the love he can’t quite admit. His sense of helplessness is well-portrayed.

“God Decay” by Rich Larson

Ostap is a cyborg superman, created as a scientific experiment, who has gone on to be an athletic superstar, the world having moved on to allowing augmentations and enhancements in sport/entertainment. Now he discovers his body is failing, and both he and the doctor who created him confront the consequences of their decision. This one is essentially Achilles’ choice, with a kind of distasteful taste as we see Ostap’s revulsion at the natural aging of his former lover.

“Small Medicine” by Genevieve Valentine

Sofia’s grandmother had a copy of herself made, although Sophia can tell the difference. Grandmother is a robot, not a cyborg; the cyborg is Sophia, who has nanomed to cure what may have been leukemia. Sophia both resents the artificial grandmother for taking her real one’s place and feels sorry when people switch her off or have her reprogrammed to be more convenient. But she comes to feel that they are both, in different senses, artificial; she has a strong sense of personal dignity. This one explores the nature of personhood and finds it often violated. I get a definite sense of unease with this world, where such cyber-advances are restricted by price to the moneyed elite, the only people we see here, although it’s clear there are others, to whom Sophia’s problems might seem like blessings.

“Mercury in Retrograde” by Erin Hoffman

Cyberpunk, the purest of example of it here. Eleven years ago, Jennifer ran away from her controlling plutocrat mother and became Mercury, a successful social media consultant. But she unwisely ignores the warning of her PDA when she downloads a new app from an untrustworthy source, and she finds herself with only hours to get it out of her system, if she can evade her pursuers.

The story is all action, not much more, as Mercury has to cope without the enhancements she’s grown to depend on.

The doors opened on the lobby level, swarmed as usual with the human detritus of the evening commute. Heads turned as she stepped out of the elevator, glances lingered – were they scanning her? A passing cyclist swiveled his helmet toward her, and a mist of viz clouded over his left eye – what was he pulling up?

“Coastlines of the Stars” by Alex Dally MacFarlane

Ngoc is an individual who leads a lifestyle of isolation, largely filtered through her array, and who possesses an acute tactile sense. She is attracted to the work of the artist Sermi Hu, whose work has tactile elements:

Waves drawn in white on dark blue in neat and intricate details, moving rhythmically across the screen. She stepped closer. The white lines were raised: touchable. She held a hand to them.

Waves moved against her.

Sermi is particularly notable for her maps, which are also available in three dimensional forms. But Sermi has been missing for a year, presumed dead in the Ivuultu debris field, which she had been attempting to map. It seems that the scavengers [wreckers, I would call them] of Ivuultu have set up an array of traps to ensnare unwary starships; the debris would seem to be their discarded remains. No one has ever successfully navigated these traps, but the reward for retrieving Sermi’s body is large enough that some people are ready to try. And Ngoc, having studied her maps, both the maps she made in Ivuultu and her star map, thinks Sermi had discovered the secret before she was caught. Unfortunately, Ngoc isn’t verbal, so she can’t tell us exactly how it works; she feels it.

The cyborg element here is minimal. The arrays that Ngoc works with are essentially an advanced version of our cyberspace, and her unusual abilities appear to be natural, not an artificial enhancement. There’s nice imagery, and good interaction between the primary characters, but we have to take Ngoc’s insight too much on faith. The character may not be verbal, but written stories should be.

“The Cumulative Effects of Light over Time” by E Catherine Tobler

This one begins, at least, as military SF. It seems that about a decade ago, the prisoners on a vast alien ship revolted, and in consequence the vessel crashed into Earth. The prisoners had bred onboard, and their [nonsentient?] young are starved, ravenous, insatiable; when they devoured a division of human soldiers, desperate war naturally ensued. In order to save many of the human casualties, surgeons spliced them together, forming chimerical cyborgs with advanced abilities, such as Lilliana, our narrator, whose story is often interrupted by comments from her other part. There is now an uneasy peace, with the aliens stranded on Earth and recognition that hostilities had not been intentional. But both species, and the planet, have been altered beyond retrieval. Now Lilliana has been sent with one of the aliens to search for an abducted alien hiveling somewhere in the derelict ship, sunk miles into the Earth.

The text here is quite dense, largely consisting of descriptions of mud, and the two parts of the narrator are increasingly engaged in conversation with each other, until their voice is merged. As a cyborg/chimera, Lilliana’s enhanced abilities are useful, but as the two-species pair of would-be rescuers reaches the heart of the wreck, they find much more profound changes going on, and a melding process that is monstrous, literalizing the narrator’s image of the ship as Dante’s circles of hell. At which point, things get incoherent and quasi-mystical, while the process through which these alterations have come to pass remains not just mysterious but impossible to conceive, given the limited and subjective information supplied by the narrator/s.

“Synecdoche Chronicles” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

This is another chip from the mosaic of the author’s far-future history involving a revolution against an all-ruling Hegemony. Charinda has had her internal organs replaced by a ribcage holding a cyberpeacock [with teeth, that sings] by the outlaw cyberneticist Esithu, to whom she now has onerous obligations. One of these involves a renegade general from the Hegemony who wants to consult her; Charinda’s specialty is simulations of hostile societies in virtual wars, but she hesitates to be complicit in the genocide of billions. General Lunha is also a cyborg, although her augmentations are less overt than Charinda’s; still the general manages to switch from male to female in the course of an hour [which makes me wonder what this means, and how Charinda could tell]. While they come to an agreement, each has ulterior motives.

This one is all imagery, fantastic, exotic, with a strong whiff of the decadent; a Lucullan dish of “ape ears, studded at lobes and whorls with pearly roe, braised in oyster essence” may be entertaining, but turning genocide into a passing fad, consumed with slices of persimmon, is not. But scraping all that frosting away leaves little else. The characters are mannequins under their costumes and the setting is all surface ornament. Without connection to the rest of the work in this universe, it has no context and thus makes little sense. Other related stories have had substance; this one, not so much.

“Collateral” by Peter Watts

More normative military SF here, specifically military ethics. Cyborg corporal Becker opens fire on a civilian fishing vessel, her augments reacting automatically to the perceived threat before her conscious mind realized it existed. This creates existential doubt in Becker and a big PR headache as well. PR decides to cast Becker as the victim, showcasing her regret and confusion. But the psych guys run her through a lot of simulations and to pinpoint and fix her PTSD problem.

All those devil’s bargains and no-win scenarios. All those exercises that tore her up inside. Turned out they were part of the fix. They had to parameterize Becker’s remorse before they could burn it out of her.

[Philosophical Exegesis: One of the classical exercises in ethical theory is called the Trolley Problem. In it, a trolley is closing rapidly on five people tied to the track. The subject has the chance to save them if he throws the switch that will shift the trolley to a side track, but there is one person tied to the side track. This is a forced option; there is no alternative or middle ground, and not choosing an option is itself a choice. At least one person will die, whatever the subject decides. In the scenario, the decision is considered as purely rational, with no emotional component – a matter of calculation, metrics for better or worse outcomes.]

Becker’s treatment is a success; one of her therapists calls her now “the most ethical person on the planet.” But gone are the non-rational aspects of her mind: “the compassion, the empathy, the guilt. The moral center.” It’s common but not universal in philosophy to make this distinction between the ethical and the moral, but Becker interestingly associates the moral with strength of attachment, with personal and subjective factors. Good food for thought. This is a clear case of the cyber-augmentation being itself morally neutral but abused by authorities.

“Seventh Sight” by Greg Egan

Teenaged Jake has had retinal implants for twelve years in order to prevent the hereditary blindness that once cursed his family. They work well. But now he has decided to hack the implants with a new app that promises vision in a seven-color spectrum instead of the usual three. At first, everything appears garish, but eventually he comes to appreciate his enhanced sight.

The ocean stretched out before us, as alien as if our last dozen steps had carried us a thousand light years. But then, even more alarmingly, the impossibly rich skeins of currents and ripples, patches of seaweed and changes of depth and turbidity, flexed like a vacillating optical illusion and settled firmly inside my old memories of the scene. What I perceived was no longer extraterrestrial: this was the same blue-green, white-foamed water I’d known all my life.

Jake now centers his life around his seven-color vision and finds his friends among a small group of similarly-abled hepts; he marries a hept woman, an artist who paints in their spectrum. At the same time, he slacks off in the trichromal world, making a living using his enhanced sight to cheat at cards in casinos. Then technology begins to develop visual apps that give tris a glimpse at the same visual world as hepts, and Jake’s abilities become unmarketable.

A nice lesson story, in which an enhancement proves to be a positive factor only if the recipient develops it productively. Jake is shown at many points in his life, facing him with options and following him down the paths he takes, for better or worse. Where I have trouble is with the unspecified hereditary blindness that seems to take every [male?] member of Jake’s family. And were all the other hepts that he encounters also blind in the same way? The author has slighted this matter.

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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