Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.
Killing Titan, Greg Bear (Orbit 978-0-316-22400-0, $26.00, 326pp, hc) October 2015.
I should probably cop to this: I’m fascinated by military history, but I’ve never been much taken by what I think of as genre military SF, by which I mean adventure stories set in the military establishment and emphasizing weaponry, comradeship, chains of command, career progress, and (of course) combat. As much as I enjoyed and understood Starship Troopers and The Forever War, I have found the run of routine combat or military-life series, well, routine and no match for the best of their historical-setting cousins (C.S. Forester, Bernard Cornwell, Patrick O’Brian, George MacDonald Fraser).
The military SF that has caught my attention over the last 25 years generally adds extra ingredients to the military-adventure recipe, for example, the alien-encounter motifs in Eleanor Arnason’s Ring of Swords (1993) and Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar series (1996-). Or various perspective flips, as in the Arnason, which is particularly subversive to the tradition; or Susan R. Matthews’ first Jurisdiction novel, An Exchange of Hostages (1997), which sets up unbearable tensions between duty (or obedience) and decency, honor, and humanity. Or the military material which can be embedded in much larger contexts, such as in Walter Jon Williams’ Dread Empire (2002-03) and Scott Westerfeld’s Succession sequences (2003), which make the military component just one part of sprawling space-opera/interstellar-empire settings – with, in the Williams, an additional dose of novel-of-manners.
Recently I have encountered several more series that place military life and actions in wider social or political or moral-speculative contexts, while still supplying as much shooting and blowing-stuff-up as a fellow could want. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary sequence (reviewed in October 2013, 2014, and 2015), Linda Nagata’s The Red: First Light (reviewed in August 2013, with others coming soon), and Zachary Brown’s The Darkside War (reviewed in July 2015) are what might be called skeptical or severely-qualified military-SF adventures. This is not so much a completely new movement as an extension of the against-the-grain attitude that can be traced back to The Forever War, where the conflict turns out to be based on a misunderstanding, with the added irony that the human society that emerges from the war winds up having a lot in common with that of the former enemy. This new batch of military stories seems to be moving beyond irony, beyond we-made-a-mistake-getting-involved, to questions of the trustworthiness – or just the worthiness – of the power structures being defended by honorable, competent soldiers.
Greg Bear’s currently-running series fits right into this grouping. In the opening volume, War Dogs (reviewed in November 2014), humankind has been drafted into an interstellar conflict between sets of aliens powerful enough to kill planets. One set, the Gurus, present themselves as benefactors before revealing that they have been pursued across interstellar space by their enemies, the Antags. And the Antags, they announce, are already in the solar system, ready to follow their usual program:
the conversion of every planet, every moon, every asteroid, into raw materials out of which Antag engineers would assemble a kind of gigantic clockwork for harnessing the sun’s energy, and then would convert the sun itself – said energy to be shipped thousands of light-years, through means not revealed, to power other solar systems and further promote the conquest of other planets around other suns….
So humankind has to take them on, with the advice and technological backing of the Gurus – though not with their personal, physical assistance. Much of War Dogs consists of flashbacks in which Master Sergeant Vinnie Venn recalls combat on Mars and events centered on the Drifter, a chunk of a fallen moon from the solar system’s very deep history. The Gurus, for reasons known only to themselves, ordered it destroyed, and on his return home from this operation, Venn is quarantined (which feels like imprisonment) and endlessly debriefed (which feels like interrogation) about what he and his surviving fellow Skyrines experienced inside the Drifter.
The crucial action of Killing Titan begins when Venn is broken out of quarantine and returned to Mars with the remnants of his old squad, and then transported to Saturn’s orbit, where the fight is for control of Titan, and where another chunk of billion-year-deep history waits. Some factions on the human side – including some members of the human intermediaries called ‘‘Wait Staff’’ – suspect that the Gurus are not telling us the whole truth about the war or about the Antags, and it is one of these dissident groups that breaks Venn out of detention and sends him to Mars and then Titan-ward. On a more personal level, there’s the matter of what infected Venn and his squadmates while they were in the Drifter. The green powder they called ‘‘Ice Moon Tea’’ carries something far stranger than a disease – Venn finds himself not alone in his head, but host to the persona of a dead comrade and to the memories of creatures that vanished before life evolved on Earth.
Despite the title, Venn and his companions don’t get to Titan until the last ninety pages of the novel. The long middle section details the return to Mars and another Drifter-like object, along with increasingly vivid invasions of Venn’s headspace by ghosts and recollections that don’t come from his own life. Some events from the first book get explained, though the explanations raise as many questions as they answer.
The voyage to Titan is almost dreamlike in a different way, aboard a very exotic, Guru-tech-based spacecraft,
a shiny, curvy, intricate white framework wrapped around long clusters of glowing spheres like Japanese paper lanterns – and surrounding everything else, those shrouds, the bright outer skirts, pleated panels rippling like silk in a slow breeze. It doesn’t look practical, barely looks real.
On board, it’s a mix of the familiar (a gruff ‘‘go bitch’’ – crew chief – who ‘‘looks like a former beauty queen who’s spent too many years under the Texas sun’’ and calls herself Bueller) and the strange and unsettling, starting with a pre-launch prep called a quantum purge, required because ‘‘Downsun, you’ve been hanging with bad company since before you were born. Pasts that never were, futures that will never be. They slow you down.’’ Clearly Guru space-drives involve more than great big rocket motors, and one suspects that quantum-y stuff is going to figure in other ways as well.
After this much setup, the Titan section has some serious expectations to live to, and it does not disappoint, with both vivid planetology and traditional mil-SF attention to exotic-environment combat gear and operations. Add a cliffhanger ending and the promise of continuing, possibly cosmic vastening of the meta-story, and you have as strong a mid-trilogy volume as you could want.
Terry Pratchett, The Shepherd’s Crown (Harper 978-0-06-242997-1, $18.00, 276pp, hc) September 2015. Cover by Jim Tierney.
Pratchett’s last Discworld novel is fifth in the Tiffany Aching series, and it comes with a major spoiler that is a little hard to talk around, for the few fans who haven’t already heard, but I’ll try. Tiffany Aching finds herself leading all the witches she can gather as elves – not the nice, pretty sort – break through in the Chalk and up on the mountains near Lancre. The elves come through assuming they’ve got the advantage, not realizing there have been some changes in the human world: railroads have been invented, leaving their deadly iron tracks all over the countryside and making respectable beings out of the goblins who work on them. But the elves have no intention of letting such things stop them, so it takes the combined efforts of the witches and the Nac Mac Feegle to defeat them, while Tiffany does a lot of thinking about where she belongs. Ultimately, it’s a touching tale, and a fine cap to the Discworld series.
Sarah Prineas, Ash & Bramble (HarperTeen 978-0-06-233794-8, $17.99, 449pp, hc) September 2015. Cover by Joel Tippie.
The Fairy Godmother is evil in this twisted version of fairy tales, in which the power of Story is generated by arranging happily-ever-afters. Most of the characters in the Godmother’s fortress have lost their memories of who they really are, though, and slave away to supply the magical material items needed for the stories. (Glass slippers have to come from somewhere.) Vicious punishments await any who rebel at the work they’ve been set, or try to escape. Pin the Seamstress is a witch’s daughter, and thanks to the token she carries, has more memory and will than most of her fellow workers. She spends painful hours sewing fancy garments that will become part of some girl’s fairy-tale life – except Pin’s very poor at sewing. With help from the Shoemaker, she manages to escape, only to get caught up in a Cinderella story in the starring role. Pin’s part of the story is told in first person present tense, which helps establish her confusion, and adds a slight sense of the surreal to this strikingly different sort of twisted fairy tale.
David Weber, The Sword of the South (Baen 978-1-4767-8084-9, $27.00, 546pp, hc) August 2015. Cover by Dave Seeley.
Weber returns to the epic fantasy world of Bahzell Bahnakson, hradani champion of Tomonak Orfro, god of war. It’s now some 80 years after Bahzell became the champion of Tomonak, but he and his wife are still in fighting shape, despite having settled down with a tavern and a ten-year-old daughter. But enemies are on the move, trying to kill off the good guys to ease their efforts to conquer the continent of Norfressa. One enemy in particular, Baroness Wulfra of Torfo, has sent assassins against Bahzell and the wizard Wencit of Rum. Wencit, meanwhile, really wants something Wulfra has, and has met a man with serious amnesia – he picks the name Kenhodan – but is a great fighter, among other talents he discovers. Bahzell, Wencit, and Kenhodan take off to deal with Wulfra. Despite the time lapse between this and previous books, there’s a lot that fans of the series will find familiar – desperate battles and gruelling cross country treks – and Weber provides plenty of exposition and a glossary to help those new to the series (or those fans who just find it hard to keep track of the players).
by Gary Westfahl
As I review The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, one major challenge will be to avoid repeating what I said while reviewing The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014) (review here) – because, as their titles indicate, they are two parts of the same film, planned simultaneously and largely filmed at the same time. (There is absolutely no pretense that this is a separate film, inasmuch as the film begins with Katniss removing a collar, the filmmakers being confident that audiences will recall the attempted strangulation that ended The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 and immediately understand the scene without any need for explanations.) There are also obvious resonances between these films and their precursors, The Hunger Games (2012) (review here) and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) (review here), creating more opportunities for irksome redundancy. So, in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, one can definitely detect echoes of the points I have already extracted from the previous films – that young people today regard themselves as victims of adult mistreatment, yet they also want adults to solve all their problems, simply because young people are inherently and amazingly wonderful – but I will shift my attention to other, more novel, messages in this generally entertaining but occasionally disappointing film.
Psychologists might note, first of all, that within these films’ mixture of persecution complexes and narcissism, there are issues of youthful self-esteem to address as well. When I was growing up, juvenile fiction tended to focus on youngsters who were smarter than their parents – like the Hardy Boys, who solved mysteries that had baffled their father, master detective Fenton Hardy. In sharp contrast, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is constantly manipulated and outwitted by the adults around her, though they periodically pause to obligingly explain what is going on. Even her one shocking action at the end of the story, that appeared to represent her own carefully considered decision, is recast here as the direct result of the intricate machinations of former Gamemaker turned rebel Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) – though the point is muted because the late Hoffman was not available to film the final scenes where he would revel in his triumphs, and awkward efforts to convey his lingering presence were less than successful. Thus, although the film’s ostensible theme is the need for Panem’s citizens to achieve freedom from tyranny, it is ultimately suggested that, despite the apparent establishment of a democracy, the cunning Plutarch will remain secretly in control of the nation, and young people like Katniss will prove too dense to figure that out unless some adult reveals the truth.
Contributing to the sense that Katniss is one taco short of a combination plate is that, as previously noted in passing, novels can easily convey what characters are thinking, so that Collins’s novel Mockingjay (2010) does provide Katniss with moments of insightful reflection; but films find it more difficult to convey thoughts, and this particular film isn’t even trying, creating a film heroine who seems less intelligent than her written counterpart. In the novel, for example, while Gale and Peeta are discussing their rivalry for Katniss’s affections, she overhears Gale saying, “Katniss will pick whoever she thinks she can’t survive without.” She reacts in this fashion:
A chill runs through me. Am I really that cold and calculating? …. There’s not the least indication that love, or desire, or even compatibility will sway me. I’ll just conduct an unfeeling assessment of what my potential mates can offer me …. It’s a horrible thing for Gale to say, for Peeta not to refute. Especially when every emotion I have has been taken and exploited by the Capitol or the rebels. At the moment, the choice would be simple. I can survive just fine without either of them.
Here is a Katniss who is smart and feisty, who understands the full implications of Gale’s statement as well as all of the ways that adults have been pulling the strings in her life, and a Katniss who is nonetheless determined to control her own destiny. In the film, however, Gale (Liam Helmsworth) says his line and Katniss doesn’t react at all, continuing to project her characteristic aura of numb, uncomprehending passivity as she and the other characters get up and carry on with the action.
It is telling that, early in the film, when someone asks Katniss “What’s going on in your head?” she replies “I don’t know”; later, evil President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) says that “she’s mythic.” Indeed, audiences rarely know that Katniss is thinking, and she sometimes seems less than a real person and more of an icon, who is periodically prodded or provoked to do something that communicates her virtuous character. Perhaps all of this can be attributed to adult mistreatment; at one point, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) comments to Joanna (Jena Malone) that the Capitol officials who tortured them “messed us up pretty good,” but even though they didn’t have the same experience, Katniss and the film’s other young heroes might similarly complain that the adults in their lives have messed them up. And so, like dogs that have been repeatedly beaten, young people become emotionless and listless, even as the adults continue to push them around.
Further, the film subtly undermines an audience’s perception of Katniss’s intelligence and assertiveness in the way it presents the romantic triangle at the heart of Collins’s original trilogy. The novel Mockingjay makes it very clear that Katniss will ultimately reject Gale because he is not a nice person, as conveyed by her reaction to his observation above and the description of their final conversation. In contrast, she will embrace Peeta because he is a nice person, and the novel emphasizes that by having him volunteer to bake a wedding cake for Finnick and Annie; and, when he plants primroses near Katniss’s home, Katniss realizes that he is doing so in memory of Katniss’s sister Prim. Yet the film obscures Gale’s coldness, consistently presenting him as a stalwart companion to a woman who is remaining distant from him for no good reason. And Peeta’s warmth is underplayed because the film omits the wedding cake and any explanation for the primroses, and makes him more unsympathetic by having him say something to Katniss, during their first meeting after his brainwashing, that is far crueler than anything he said in the novel. Perhaps, despite the ending imposed upon them by the novel, the filmmakers were naturally inclined to favor the traditionally manly Gale over the haplessly wimpy Peeta, but as a result, the film suggests in the end that Katniss ultimately settled on Peeta mainly because he showed up – which is precisely how a numb, passive woman would choose a husband.
But dwelling on the film as a commentary on young people and their relationships with old people, even in a somewhat different manner, might start to seem, well, irksomely redundant, so let us turn to the ways that the film addresses social divisions based not on age but on gender, race, and class.
Schooled by decades of feminism, filmmakers have absorbed the lesson that women are often good, and men are often bad. So it is that the admirable rebels include several prominent women in their ranks, including Katniss, President Coin, Commander Paylor (Patina Miller), former Hunger Games winner Enobaria (Meta Golding), and Lieutenant Jackson (Michelle Forbes). In contrast, the evil Capitol is controlled by the male President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and while he is constantly accompanied by a female aide, Egeria (Sarita Choudhury), the powerful members of his inner circle all appear to be men; and a female face or two might lurk behind the masks of the oppressive Peacekeepers, but every single one of them certainly looks like a man. And, of course, all of the mindless zombies that attack Katniss and her cohorts are clearly gendered as male. (All right, they are officially termed “mutts,” or mutated creatures devised by sinister Capitol scientists, but whereas the novel described them as “a mix of human and lizard,” the filmmakers unimaginatively made them look more or less exactly like the hideous, homicidal, rapidly-moving zombies that we have previously observed in scores of films, including I Am Legend  [review here] and Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials  [review here].)
Celebrating diversity, the makers of the Hunger Games films were also careful to give important heroic roles to African-American actors, to emphasize the virtuousness of their race, even when the novels said nothing about the characters’ racial background. So, the rebel forces include major African-American players: Enobaria, the brilliant inventor Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), Katniss’s commander Boggs (Mahershala Ali), and Paylor, who eventually becomes Panem’s new president. But when Snow leads a roundtable meeting of his principal subordinates, they all appear to be Caucasian; and of course, Snow’s favorite color is white.
All of this is well and good; yet truly celebrating diversity means assembling a cast that is truly, well, diverse, and the Hunger Games films fall far short of that goal. So, yes, it’s great to see all of those African-Americans, but except for scattered faces in the crowds, one observes no Hispanics, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, or Arab-Americans. As it happens, Choudhury is of Indian descent, and the minor character of Homes is played by Arab-American actor Omid Abtahi, but you have to consult the Internet Movie Database to find this out; based on the way they are presented in the film, one might take them for Caucasians with a tan. It is as if filmmakers are scared to death of what Al Sharpton might say about their movies, but couldn’t care less about the reactions of civil rights leaders and organizations representing other minorities.
Further, genuine diversity involves differences other than racial differences. I suppose one could say that having the injured Beetee continue assisting the rebels while confined to a wheelchair is a gesture towards disabled Americans, but it is also noteworthy that the disabled Beetee in the final two films receives far less screen time than the ambulatory Beetee in the second film. And in the year when the United States finally accepted gay marriage, it is disheartening to watch film after film wherein there is never the slightest indication that any characters might be romantically interested in someone of the same gender. In the Hunger Games films, only the flamboyant costumes of the Capitol residents, which might be regarded as stereotypically gay, even hint that a few homosexuals might exist in this future society. And this seems a pointless and hurtful omission. This film has one touching moment when, in the midst of some stunned refugees silently marching toward promised shelter, we observe a man embracing and kissing his female companion. Why not show a man embracing and kissing a male companion? Are filmmakers really afraid that such a scene might provoke fierce indignation and audience boycotts? If so, it is a sad commentary on an industry that has always included more than its share of gay and lesbian employees.
Finally, a complete commitment to diversity means that one can cast a member of any race in any sort of role, yet filmmakers seem stubbornly committed to the notion that African-Americans in major films are only allowed to be good. No one imposes this requirement on women, so we regularly observe prominent villainesses like this film’s President Coin, Patricia Clarkson’s Ava Paige of Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, and Meryl Streep’s Chief Elder in The Giver (2014) (review here). But while I’m sure there are other examples, the only prominent African-American villain I could recall was Yaphet Kotto in Live and Let Die, way back in 1973. And this is shame in the case of the Hunger Games films because, determined to cast an aging Caucasian actor as the evil Snow, the filmmakers settled for Donald Sutherland, who has never been a particularly good actor, and his performance as Snow is consistently inadequate, a grating mixture of unpersuasive nastiness and inappropriate giddiness. It would have been a brilliant coup to obtain the services of an infinitely better actor, Morgan Freeman, and he might have taken the role in order to have the rare opportunity, for once in his career, to defy audience expectations and do some really despicable things. Instead, Freeman has largely been limited to playing one larger-than-life saint after another, which has provided him with a certain power as an actor but surely must get monotonous at times.
The film, more so than the novel, also emphasizes that the rebellion against the Capitol involves the virtuous lower class properly opposing the effete, decadent upper class. In a speech that does not occur in the novel, Snow attempts to rally the Capitol residents to his side by casting the conflict as a class struggle: the rebels “do not share our values” and are attacking us because they resent “our comfort and sophistication.” In a comment not found in the novel, Gale theorizes that the people of the Capitol are gullible because of the fancy foods they eat, presumably in contrast to the cheap, hearty foods that the rebels eat to keep themselves sharp and savvy. At Finnick and Annie’s wedding, guests celebrate by doing some square dancing to the accompaniment of a fiddle, and you can’t get more plebeian than that; in Snow’s mansion, we observe a stately grand piano. In the novel, Katniss and Peeta undertake to write a book, filled with images and written memories of departed friends; in the film, this detail is omitted, and the only books we see are those on the shelves of Snow’s office. Railing against the educated elite might seem like a sure-fire crowd-pleaser, but it might be recalled that Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) portrayed its heroine as an obsessed bookworm without diminishing her popularity in any way, and it’s hard to see how this film’s appeal would have been compromised by showing Katniss reading, or writing, a book, or having her appropriate a few of Snow’s fine sculptures to decorate her humble home.
So, to summarize in full this film’s message: generally speaking, if you are young, female, African-American, and/or poor and uneducated, you are Good; generally speaking, if you are old, male, Caucasian, and/or rich and sophisticated, you are Evil. Well, I can’t say that I’m rich, but I exhibit every other quality on the Evil Checklist, so I suppose I should hang my head in shame and acknowledge that I am unworthy to evaluate a wonderful film that so heartily embraces and validates everything that I am not. Yet in criticizing me, Hollywood is also criticizing itself – something that it does with paradoxical energy and enthusiasm. Film executives are often homosexuals, so they exclude homosexuality; film executives are greedy, so they condemn greed (as in Jurassic World  [review here); film executives are mostly old white men, so they frequently demonize old white men; film executives are wealthy, so they depict wealth as a corrupting influence; film executives are intelligent and worldly, so they valorize common sense and naiveté. No doubt they are doing these things primarily because they believe it is the most profitable path, but one might also speculate that, in their own way, film executives also have some problems with their sense of self-esteem.
Julie E. Czerneda, This Gulf of Time and the Stars (DAW 978-0-7564-0869-5, $25.95, 453pp, hc) November 2015. Cover by Matt Stawicki.
Someone is hunting the M’hiray, the people who can teleport themselves through the M’hir. Whoever this someone is, they have influence and money to send killers after many all at once. Sira di Sarc and her human telepath Chosen, Jason Morgan, try to save as many of the M’hiray as they can, and find themselves on the planet Cersi, from which the M’hiray came. Particularly for those who’ve been following this series, it’s interesting to see what happened to the three sentient species sharing the planet, and learn new secrets about their past. The conclusion leaves an awful lot hanging – like who is after all the M’hiray, or what exactly the end of a mysterious experiment will mean – but it’s all intriguing.
Tanya Huff, An Ancient Peace (DAW $24.95, 328pp, hc) October 2015. Cover by Paul Youll.
Ex-gunnery sergeant Torin Kerr from the Confederation series is back, if no longer in the Marines. Instead, in this first volume in the Peacekeepers series, she and a small crew are doing mercenary work for the Justice Department as ‘‘independent contractors.’’ Their latest mission is to find out where someone is finding relics of the H’san, one of the Elder Races, and selling them illegally. The fear is that highly advanced weapons might be among the grave goods from a ‘‘lost’’ cemetery planet, setting off a civil war between the Elder and Younger Races (including humans). There’s the usual banter among Torin’s crew, which includes three humans, one of the sexually indiscriminate di’Taykan, and a pair of Krai (who eat anything). There’s also plenty of action, as they track down the graverobbers through a massive maze full of lethal traps. Partly it’s a fun adventure, though the group finds some uncomfortable moments when they have to mingle with people of the Elder Races – a discomfort that suggests there’s more depths to plumb in that direction.
Yanni Kuznia, A Fantasy Medley 3 (Subterranean Press, 978-1-59606-767-7, $20.00, 151pp, hc) December 2015. Cover by J.K. Drummond.
The third volume in this anthology series presents another four stories by fantasy authors. The only one in a series I’ve followed, Kevin Hearne’s ‘‘Goddess at the Crossroads’’ is part of the Iron Druid Chronicles, in which Atticus the druid tells his trainee Granuaile about his encounter with William Shakespeare, who’s eager to see some real witches for the play he’s writing. Atticus’ comments about excrement in the streets and the Globe theater’s lack of toilets are a memorable part of the story, but it’s all amusing. ‘‘Ashes’’ by Laura Bickle picks up the adventures of Detroit arson investigator and spirit medium Anya Kalinczyk, who runs into the real Nain Rouge – a supernatural red dwarf who sets fires – during the festival in his name. With Sparky the giant salamander familiar and the psychopomp Charon helping out, this turns into an entertaining chase. A lot of new discoveries are packed into the story, especially for someone unacquainted with the series, but fans of the two novels so far should enjoy the revelations. Aliette de Bodard’s ‘‘The Death of Aiguillon’’ is tricky to follow, set 60 years before her latest novel, The House of Shattered Wings; this follows the aftermath of the death of a House, following the now Houseless Huyen, formerly known as Heloise, as she tries to pick up the pieces of her life. Jacqueline Carey’s story ‘‘One Hundred Ablutions’’ tells a nicely understated tale of a special slave who must carry water for her masters so every day they can perform a ritual cleansing – a spirit-crushing job that comes with nice lodgings and respect – but miserably restricted lives. Overall, it’s an interesting sampler, if not an outstanding one.
Another anthology this time, featuring African authors. Also the final Interzone of the year and a couple of regular monthly ezines.
A rather unusual anthology, comprised of five novellas—some of a length that certainly count as short novels and could easily be published as such. It’s good to see stories getting their chance to stretch out. As the title suggests, the authors are all Africans. In some cases, the settings and subject matter are distinctively African; in others, global; but readers will see a strong commonality of themes.
Superheroes, sortof. It seems that back in the early days of hominid evolution, a space ship with couple of aliens landed in southern Africa and they eventually took the role of gods. The pair broke up, the younger of them going north to the region where the Yoruba tribe would eventually settle.
“Oduduwa had something that looked like a barcode on his cheeks. There were already humans here. They saw the code and tried to copy it with their crude instruments. The barcode became the tribal marks.”
Time passed, and gods became obsolete, so the elder of them, now identifying as a Zulu, took on the identity of a superhero, Black-Power, complete with a cape and mask that his younger brother thought ridiculous. But he also adopted a superhero identity: the Pan-African. They were rivals, each other’s nemesis, for no good reason but jealousy and resentment. Eventually, in 1979, they fought, inconclusively. Afterwards, things might have gone on peacefully for some time, if it weren’t for the media’s insatiable appetite for spectacle. What could bring in more money for the promoters than a grudge match between two retired superheroes?
Although the time span of these events involves multimillennia, most of the story centers around the mid-twentieth century and the sacrifice of Africa on the altar of the Cold War, most notably the assassination of Patrice Lumumba at the instigation of the CIA. And much more along those lines. The characters both might, perhaps, have done much to alter this course of events, and even more had they worked together, but Black-Power, at least, held back, with
. . . his fear that taking sides so sharply would end up making the political bloodshed even greater. He had dreaded the sense that he might end up carrying so much more directly the vast weight of a multitude of dead souls, who might have followed him into an ensuing and even greater conflagration. So, instead he had straddled ideological fences through the following decades, concentrating on protecting the innocent from the smaller struggles of crime and the moral simplicities of natural disasters.
This is an interesting point of view, and one that has merit; not even superheroes or gods are immune to the law of unintended consequences, and hard as it is sometimes to imagine, things can always get worse. Yet it’s hard to admire either of the characters wholly, and particularly the petty animosity of Black-Power towards his once-younger-brother—a hostility personal, not political. Readers may want to take sides, to choose between them, not as in betting on the outcome of their combat but deciding which brother more deserves to survive. But it’s impossible not to regret the waste of their estrangement.
While the tone is largely cynical, there are moments of lightness, as when Pan-African looks in the mirror at himself in his homemade superhero costume and decides he looks ridiculous. I particularly like the moment when the story’s authors appear in a cameo, contracted to write the novelization of the superhero mega cage fight. It’s overall an entertaining read with occasional political overtones, not a screed, but at its heart a tragedy of two persons who once called each other brothers.
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
The author doesn’t quote Robert Frost, but I can’t help thinking of these lines as particularly apt for this piece, especially as Frost goes on to suggest that the real cause of the end will be hate. The story is a far-future diptych relating events that take place as humans attempt to survive a coming apocalypse.
It doesn’t seem that many are left alive on Earth. The oceans have risen and drowned most of the land; now a new Ice Age is gathering. In response, humans drag out the traditional stand-by: a new religion. Actually, a revived ancient religion based on classical tradition. As their Scriptures have it:
Millions of years past, a man-shaped demon named Plato, son of the wretched Socrates, Scion of Hell, had led to the fore an Age of Reason, dragging Man from the comfort of the Cave, and into the blinding lights of purgatory.
Ages followed, leading to the current Time of Neptune, but the Time of Hades is upon the Earth now, when humanity will return to the Cave. Creating the underground caverns and tunnels is the Divine Undertaking, in the name of which “all Men must labour, and all Men must sacrifice.” Humans have been divided into specialist castes, and in the age of Neptune, the Fish ruled—oppressively. They were overthrown by a revolution led by the Moles, who make it their point not to forget or forgive
The first of two sections [“Hell or High Water”] is from the point of view of Ari, a young Fish susceptible to the Dream, in which Fish hallucinate the summons of strange underwater beings. Many Fish have succumbed to these visions, leaping into the depths to whatever fate awaits them there. Their labor in the Undertaking is to scour the drowned lands and salvage materials necessary for survival in the caves during the coming age. But now the Mole-led Council has decided to send them north to the glaciers on a suicide mission. My favorite parts of this piece are the vivid descriptions of the oceans freezing, trapping the swimmers.
Where thin particles of ice lit up the dark only a few hours ago, the water was now thick with them, almost slush. Another few hours, less, and the slush would thicken, coagulate, and harden until the moving glacier solidified, creating explosions on the surface, like a giant’s thump blowing dust in every direction, blasting ice further south into the waters ahead.
The second part of the story [“Hell or High Lava”] seems to take place a hundred years earlier, during the Mole revolt, and features a Mole woman named Rina, whose family men are leaders of the uprising. Mole women are obliged to spend their lives in constant pregnancy, except for those like Rina who are barren and sentenced to serve as comfort women for the Fish and other castes. But she soon joins her brother’s revolt in the secret tunnels, wearing a fire-suit to protect her against the upwelling lava—by which we realize that the Divine Undertaking will be largely powered by geothermal energy.
The rumble deepened, and small flakes of stone started crumbling from the wall. High-pressured sulphur blasted stone chips at Rina and into the lava stream, and droplets of magma leaked through, sending ripples through the cracks with a powerful crunch as the wall gave way to the superheated basalt behind.
Rina is punished severely by the leaders of the revolt for the resulting collapse, although it’s not quite clear to me why. Indeed, this section is less than clear in several respects, as the account jumps rapidly from scene to scene in a manner stroboscopically blurred. But it’s easy to make out that the subject is power and the corruption thereof, and we learn here just what the Moles have against the Fish, the longstanding grudge that leads directly to the betrayal of the first section. Even accounting for the shift in point of view, the disempowered, Dream-ridden Fish of the first section are much more sympathetic than they appear as armed oppressors in the second. I also note that women are shown no less likely than males to abuse power once they grasp it.
The overall takeaway from the piece is discouraging—not that humans will fail to survive the Time of Hades, but that they succeed, having learned nothing, still clinging to the hate and vengeance that marked their previous ages. The story doesn’t make a great point of human activity being the cause of the apocalypse; the central themes here aren’t environmental. But as life on Earth originally rose from the sea, we might wonder if such a time might come again in future ages, the creatures of the Dream taking material form. And perhaps doing a better job of it, the next time around.
In this one, we can see themes and tropes of the previous two stories deployed in different ways. Kera is a teenaged boy when soldiers come to his town to forcibly recruit young men. He flees the ensuing slaughter that kills his mother and younger siblings, and ends up taking refuge with his father in a cave near stone formations believed by the townspeople to be haunted by spirits. In fact, the cave is inhabited by hissing humanoid aliens who seize Baba and transform him into a being much like themselves, with the power of telepathy and the knowledge of advanced technology. All Kera wants is for him to bring his mother back to life, which readers as well as Baba know to be a very bad idea. In the meantime, the people of the town are burying their dead and listening to the rants of the local demagogue, who blames all their problems on whites and their foreign religions; he takes Baba’s new powers as a sign that the ancestral spirits are at work.
During the raid, Kera’s older brother was taken by the soldiers, and Baba makes a long-distance weapon for Kera to use to rescue him.
Kera had vivid dreams of Kibuuka, a warrior who could fly like a bird and shoot arrows at the enemy, and of Luanda Magere, another invincible warrior who was made out of stone. In the dream, Kera was a superhero with the combined ability of Kibuuka and Luanda Magere. He got flying power from his mother, who in the dream lived in the moon, and he got his stone flesh from his father, who lived in a dark cave just outside their home. He darted about in the sky, unleashing lightning onto the warlords, putting an end to wanton rape and murder and all the evils that the war had brought upon his country.
But Kera is immature and weepy, more a child than a young man, and again the law of unintended consequences is at work.
Here we again see the limitations of superheroes and the toxic consequences of colonialism. And again the primary theme of this piece is power and its use. It’s notable that the aliens, while possessing power, use it only to ensure their isolation. They bestow power on Baba because they need him, but Baba is reluctant to use it for other causes. Kera is irresolute. But as Yeats reminds us, the worst, in their passionate intensity, are eager to deploy it. There’s a strong spirit of misanthropy here, generating a very pessimistic outlook for this world’s future. The aliens are wise, despite their powers, to wall themselves away from the murderous presence of humans.
Science fiction action-thriller in a very near-future setting in Malawi. As is typical in this subgenre, it’s a multiple point-of-view narrative with numerous voices. A series of inexplicable killings occurs, with some of the victims mutilated and branded with the numeral VIII; suspects are apprehended and even apparently killed, but they later disappear, leaving behind more branded corpses. A village teacher known locally as Sir Gregory reveals his secret to his children: He comes from an alien race of hunters who’ve stocked a number of planets with their favorite prey animals; when the population reaches VIII billion, the hunt begins. A few of these “metsu” have been stationed on Earth to report on the progress of the population. Sir Gregory was one of them until he fell in love with a human woman and married her. For this, he’s now become a target, along with his three stepchildren, along with the entire human population.
The president was about to turn his attention back to the defence minister when something on the television caught his eye. One of the metsus had landed on top of the Clock Tower. Then, stretching itself to full height, it launched itself from the tower like a bird and went straight for a woman below. The woman was sent crashing onto the tarmac road and the child she was carrying on her back went with her. The metsu was not finished. In one swift movement, it ripped the woman’s right arm out of its socket, and with its foot, crushed the toddler’s head.
This one is all fast-paced action, done for a rapid tension-filled read. Readers are going to be wondering how humans can possibly defeat this invasion of thrill-killers; Sir Gregory promises his advice and advanced weaponry. Then . . . it seems that, despite the story’s length, it must only be the first chapter of a novel. Or ought to be. This sort of thing is highly frustrating to a reader who’s become engaged in the plot.
A report: “a selection of the mind states of certain individuals we recorded during our latest visit to Planet Terra, in the reality we have designated RX42373, along one of the time-lines that we have been unable to track fully due to a temporal interference upstream.”
A good place to begin here is with a person named Ecila, living on idyllic Gaia. One day, a storm exposes a strange “artefact” to view, and as he approaches it, suddenly he is elsewhere, in a dystopian world called Terra, a ruined desert of Amerika surrounding Paradise City. Terra, we learn, was once the seat of the Empire of Man, but long ago, the Emperor took most of the population away with him to the stars, leaving only a remnant behind. Paradise City is controlled by TerraCorp, a stereotypical Evile Corporation that ruins the environment and exploits the population. Criminal gangs roam the streets, doing criminal things.
Or perhaps Paradise City is a simulation running on a computer, as some characters declare. Or perhaps it’s one of many alternate realities, as the opening suggests. Certainly the name is ironic. One consequence of Terra’s degradation seems to be an increase in ultraviolet radiation from the sun, as it’s the oft-repeated wisdom that more melanin permits a longer life. Small populations of pale-skinned persons exist, known as vampires and generally despised, although they also seem to constitute the ruling class of Paradise City. The rest of the population is called hueman—an obvious reference to deep skin color.
The McGuffin is an experimental reality displacement “devise” that the criminal gang of Babylove Brown has stolen from TerraCorp. Readers should immediately connect it to Ecila’s displacement from his homeworld. But the devise is in pieces and one is missing, as one of the criminals failed to make it to their rendezvous point. The gang mounts a desperate mission to retrieve it, as in the meantime Ecila has picked the missing piece up off the street, finding it strangely familiar. Riots, uprisings, mayhem, corruption—the usual dystopian activity—complicate the crowded scene.
If we were to believe that Terra represents the far-future state of our own world, the scene would seem quite odd, as it greatly resembles our own Amerikan 20th century in such phrases as “black on black crime” and the diction of many characters:
“Nigga’s Mama look like a pus bag! She one big ol’ pimple! No wonder he an only child. His papa scared to squeeze her too tight! Afraid she might go splat! Got Milk! Ha ha ha!” Shit like that. I got into lots of fights defending my mama’s name but then so did a lot of kids. ‘Your Mama’ jokes were a common game.”
There are also quite a few suggestions of a cyberpunkish environment.
The characters talk a lot. They talk a WHOLE lot, often rambling for pages and pages, expounding some mystical theory.
“Breathe in the prana of the universe, full and deep for it sustains your life, breathe out all that no longer serves you, that it might be of use elsewhere. Contemplate the reality in which you live and meditate on the source of it all. Ask yourself, who am I? Pray. It really works. Speak from the heart and be clear in your prayers; your higher self will respond. Serve Life and I promise you the Lord will reward you in this life and the other. Exercise and do good work that benefits the All, in order to sustain yourself and the All, even as the Lord sustains the entire universe.
In addition, there are intervals in which non-plot characters come onstage to deliver similar sermons. This is the longest work in the book, about 150 pages worth, and this kind of stuff makes up about half of them—more, I suspect, than most readers are likely to put up with. The impulse to flip past the preaching to get back to a part where something is actually happening may be overwhelming.
I can’t be quite sure how seriously to take all this, how much it can be considered satire or deliberate surrealism. Unfortunately, especially as the conclusion heaves into sight, it grows increasingly and more tediously sincere.
This issue’s stories are all science fiction, but of the domestic sort, tending to dullness.
One night, after yet another fight with his wife, Dad’s six-year-old daughter comes to join him on the sofa and begins to speak in the voice of an adult woman. It seems that from time to time her future self can rejoin herself as a child, in moments when two points converge—whatever that means. She’s come now to ask a favor, later.
“There’s something I need to change,” Carrie said. “But I’m not going to be able to do it on my own. We need to calibrate so I can judge the right time, so I might be in and out. I’ll be back later on and I’ll talk to you again, so if you have questions, save them. And don’t tell anyone about this. Not Mum, not even me. Do you promise?”
He does, of course, promise, and as the years pass he comes more and more to believe her. But the favor she asks, when the time comes, isn’t what he would have chosen.
A story of fatherly love, of course. The encounter with Carrie makes him determined to maintain and strengthen his bond with her, to be a better father and, perforce, a better husband. A better person. The thing is, he always seems to be a good father. And not such a totally rotten person, from what we can see of him, despite the fact that his wife wants to kick him out and his girlfriend calls him an asshole. Seems to me that mainly he needs to grow belatedly up.
The three disposable convicts on an experimental trip to Europa [“We’re cheap enough already,” Mack says. “We’re a tin can full of human detritus.”] have long since gone stir-crazy, each in different ways. Jasper has decided it’s all a simulation, that they’re really locked in a bunker somewhere on Earth. He wants to open the hatch, to prove it. Lots of argument about the nature of reality.
We could say this trip wasn’t a good idea, but that would be missing the point. The point is the fragility of the mind under pressure, when the minds in question weren’t too well-tempered to begin with.
Here’s quite an opening: Martin on an examination table, the doctor’s arm up to the elbow in his body cavity.
There came a sharp pinch deep in his chest, followed by the swift unraveling of something bound too tightly. Medhira withdrew his arm in one smooth motion, dragging from Martin an involuntary sob. Martin didn’t know if this was due to the release of pressure, or to the sudden hollow left by the absence of the doctor’s arm, but he felt as though he’d delivered a prodigious bowel movement. He drew a deep, shaking breath, and when he let it out he found – to his
surprise – that he wasn’t done crying.
In the doctor’s hand is an object that looks like a lump of mud—Martin’s heart, that died seventeen years ago, with his daughter. Now he has to figure out how to live without it.
After the grossly surreal beginning, we find a story about love. In some ways, it’s something like the Devlin story above, except told in the opposite direction.
A YA problem story. Esta and David live in a town deserted by the space industry, just as they both have been deserted by their parents to different degrees, most drastically David’s mother by suicide. Now David has his razorblades and Esta has the alien who’s been living inside her head, a benevolent presence she calls Mrs Henry. Mrs Henry makes promises. She says she’ll soon be leaving Esta to fly away, and they can fly away with her. As far as Esta’s concerned, any kind of away will do.
A heavy overload of angst here, with rose-colored sentiments at the conclusion.
For most of his life, Joel has been obsessively working to create his imaginary utopian city, a place “where advanced scientific research for the betterment of humanity could be carried on free of interference.” He has maps, citizen biographies, an official history, all in meticulous detail. Recently, though, he’s been contacted by a few others who claim that they, too, know Scienceville. They want to meet him. This creeps out Joel. Scienceville isn’t real, he doesn’t want it to be real.
In many respects, this one has a distinct Golden Age tone, especially at the conclusion. I can certainly imagine many nerdly youthful SF readers creating such cities and giving them names like Scienceville.
Laika the cosmonaut dog has become a recognized SF trope. I’m sure many readers have shared the impulse to fictionally save her, but that isn’t what happens here. Frank is a cop in the US when he gets word that his uncle Dmitri has a deathbed request. Dmitri worked for the Soviet space program, back in the day, when it turned out that Laika didn’t die, after all. She came back.
How old was she? A full-grown, black and white, mixed breed terrier. No gray, and her eyes were clear, but she acted like she was sixty and moved like she was eighty. Who knows what living with that crazy old man had done to her?
An effectively depressing tale about cruelties, purposeful and inadvertent.
An enjoyable issue.
This one begins as if it were a very short, contained story about three people who meet on a bus that’s crushed by a rock in a landslide. The two survivors fall in love, then separate. It’s told from the point of view of Nicole. After which, we rewind back to Andrew’s version, in which an older version of himself instructs him in building a time machine. They want to program the machine so that they can both live and spend their lives together, but it’s not simple.
Rock crushes scissors.
Test: Andrew doesn’t go back in time.
Result: Nicole dies in bus accident.
Probability of timeline collapse: 0.01%
Probability of death, Nicole: 99.78%
Probability of death, Andrew: 0.45%
Neat little time machine story. The author makes good use of the three cardinal elements.
Girls. I doubt that many formerly-girl readers will be able to look at this one and not say, Oh, yes, that’s how it was. And still probably is. The girls were in a Catholic girls’ school, back in the day when Abbey was best friends with Samantha, until Samantha took a boy away from her—the ultimate crime. Back then, the girls used to play a game in the woods at recess, when they took off their clothes, ran into the trees and turned into giants. But the real game was the eternal game of girl rivalries.
For a while I worried that Samantha would latch on to me. That she’d invite me over to her house, and we’d be friends like she and Abbey had been friends. She’d tell me stories about her old schools, and how her mother once pinched the sides of her waist and told her to watch her diet. How her father didn’t understand the importance of holy cards, of medals and ribbons and why it mattered if you had a good grade in Posture. Samantha did none of these things. She thanked me and went back to her desk and hunched her shoulders over her worksheet.
Which is why it’s not important if readers don’t entirely believe in the giant game. What it means is the freedom to run wild, away from the strictures and rules and Mother Superiors, where the games can turn real.
Malik ibn Ali of Cordoba, wandering scholar, has fallen in with Fara, a freelance knight on a quest to find the dragon that killed her sister. Problem is, no one has ever seen it, or any other dragon. Malik, a rational person as well as an educated one, explains:
“If dragons walk the earth now, breathing fire and eating men, if they fly through the air and crush whole villages , then why does no witness or writer speak of seeing them in person? Why is it always a distant legend, or a tale told by someone who told it to someone else who told it to the writer’s grandfather?”
But then they do begin to encounter persons who’ve seen a dragon, and finally the dragon itself. But Malik, being a rational person, can explain that, too.
Clever use of logic. Love the last line.
Says the twenty-mile long starship that’s been over New York City for the last few decades. The government has sent an emissary to convince it to remain and share its knowledge, but the ship has a mission, given to it by its creators five billion years ago. The ship is a credulous entity.
Abhinath once asked whether the creators had perhaps bound me so subtly that I did not realize it and suggested that the only way to prove I’d been left free was to stay here, but he was wrong: The creators are not capable of such lies.
It has no real interest in human beings, but it’s become fond of the emissary—the only other person it actually knows.
A too-talky piece, overly infodumpish. Despite the title, I don’t see that anyone else but the spaceship has a problem. I also thought we were over having every alien event set in/above NYC. This is the only story in the issue I don’t really care much for.
A typical month’s worth of offerings this time.
This is such an SH story. Every fantastic element is ambiguous, every reference full of metaphor and symbol. There’s a phrase functioning as a refrain. The narrative is in the 2nd person, as the nameless narrator ostensibly addresses her departed lover, who will never hear or see it, but is in fact talking to herself about herself.
The narrator has trouble with memory; her mind doesn’t hold things well. She yearns for permanence in her life. A tattoo, such as her lover has, is a permanent thing. Scars, such as she has, are permanent. People, relationships, are ephemeral; they fade. The aliens in her grandfather’s attic are/were ephemeral.
They appear in the attic. Sometimes they are still conscious. Sometimes they look around. Sometimes they are able to reach out and touch. My grandmother’s wedding dress was a favorite item, because it was white and the neck was lined with small crystals. Then the alien shudders. The alien collapses. Dies. Within hours it will be as if they were never there at all.
I like these descriptions of the dust-aliens, but it seems odd that the narrator claims to identify her lover as an alien by the tattoo, a sign of permanence. However, it isn’t the tattoo that’s the identifier but the fact that the narrator continually fails to remember it at the time. We see that the narrator is writing all this down in order to retain it, as she failed to retain her lover. The last line is quite moving.
Another 2nd-person narrative, in this case “you” reading as “I”. Set in a near-future Malaysia become an extreme surveillance state, with everyone and everything implanted with tracking devices. The narrator is part of a revolutionary conspiracy to take people off the grid. The conspirators have colonized a deserted housing development along with the local farmers, making it a hidden model of hi-tech self-sufficiency.
Because you live there, in that condemned building, you know that the plants in the buildings are carefully planted into a low-maintenance, edible garden. What looks like lalang is actually serai. The branches of the trees hang with fruit that feed the local fauna on the outside, but inside, they are covered with discarded CDs to confuse the birds. There are window boxes on the inside growing leafy vegetables, and chickens are allowed to run free to keep down pests. The courtyard used to have a pool—it still sort of does, but it is home to a crop of water-plants.
The revolutionaries are indecisive. They know that things could be worse, that their actions could provoke a brutal crackdown. Chien, the narrator, is particularly vulnerable; Chien has grandparents who would suffer if the government connects them to any illicit activity.
Readers are likely to share in Chien’s ambivalence because the narrative doesn’t overly dwell on the dystopian aspects of the police state, doesn’t show us scenes of extreme brutality. The oppression is a slower thing: “the government keeps siphoning food and finances from them, cutting off electricity and water arbitrarily.” Chien’s grandparents lost their land, taken over by developers. I like the grandparents, the way they’ve made this future existence work for them, despite setbacks; I love their bountiful hydroponic garden. But mainly, as a gardener, I’m seduced by the landscape, the verdant spaces. And as a pessimist, I have to wonder with Chien if it’s worth risking all this.
The setting is a devolved far future after humans have apparently colonized a number of exoplanets. They are now attempting to recover the lost knowledge of their forebears; the technological level seems to be somewhat near our own—they have microsurgery but not nanomedicine. Mutende is a medical student in a system that concentrates on mastering the old knowledge, but he sees new diseases all around him for which the old knowledge has no cures. He’s frustrated by the apparent disinterest in experiment and empirical research, particularly when his adopted grandmother is suffering from one of the new diseases and turns to a street healer when his own medicine can’t help her.
“You scavenge for the Union’s books but you don’t care about the diseases that come on the ships every year. You learn the lessons your professors memorized but you don’t want to learn the ones your patients teach you. Did I call you a dog? Dogs would know better than to do what you do.”
There’s no real sense of a future here, which I believe is because we’ve seen this general situation before, in our own past, when before the 19th century medical education was based on lectures out of the ancients, with little scope for experimentation and research. This same conflict with the reverence for past knowledge informs the story.
Radiance, by Catherynne M. Valente (Tor 978-0-7653-3529-6, $24.99, 432pp, hardcover) October 2015
Only with the passage of time can certain literary trends, personalities, influences, movements and scenes be evaluated. While we are in the midst of such happenings, objectivity is clouded and patterns are often indiscernible. Perhaps it is merely a case that not enough evidentiary points have yet been established for any connect-the-dots linkages to be manifested. History has its own critical mass and retrospective optimal coigns of vantage.
I think we are now safely at the juncture of confidently saying that Sean Wallace’s Prime Books has, since its inception fifteen years ago, been instrumental in launching several high-profile careers. Wallace’s keen eye for burgeoning undiscovered or barely discovered talent is remarkable. He’s featured early work by many who have gone on to other, larger publishers, and/or achieved critical acclaim. Jeff VanderMeer, Rhys Hughes, Tim Lebbon, Tim Pratt, Gemma Files, Jay Lake, Nick Mamatas, Michael Cisco, Holly Phillips, Ekaterina Sedia—that’s an incomplete list of Prime’s publishing coups.
In 2004, Prime published Catherynne M. Valente’s The Labyrinth, which I take to be her first novel, according to ISFDB. He then did three more of her books the following year. And in the subsequent thirteen years since The Labyrinth, Valente has proven herself a powerhouse of ambition and accomplishment, moving on to the Big Five houses and a wider readership. But it all began with Prime.
Valente’s latest novel shows her trying out a different mode than any of her previous works, a mark of her relentlessly questing creativity. In a blog post, she describes Radiance as “a decopunk alt-history Hollywood space opera mystery thriller. With space whales.” Right off the blurbist’s bat, it sounds unprecedented, and the reality is that it pretty much is. Although I can think of, and will name, a few resonant antecedents.
The Jonbar Hinge underlying her thickly detailed, sharp-edged world seems to have happened circa the early Victorian period, as practical space travel becomes a reality. Of course, since the space travelers find habitable planets in place of our actual harsh otherworld environments, this universe must have deviated from ours, in a cosmological sense, millions of years ago. But what counts is a certain satisfying continuity between Valente’s culture and ours, that makes all the parallels and divergences (RKO studio, the Edison family) fun to chart. The other significant factor is that advanced film technology was established earlier as well, leading to a Golden Age of moviemaking, infusing the culture with celebrities and cinematic touchstones in a way that recalls our own heyday of the 1930s and 1940s. Plainly, Valente is in love with that glamorous era.
The central figures, among a vivid, boldly delineated cast, are Percival Unck, master film director, and his daughter Severin, or Rinny. Additionally, we have Severin’s lover, Erasmo St. John, and their strange, pivotal “adopted” son, Anchises St. John, not to mention the elder Unck’s many wives and a host of gossip columnists, cinematographers, actors, actresses and techies.
Raised in the limelight, a somewhat egotistical and spoiled Severin grows up to become a young film director herself, making movies that are a fresh hybrid of realism and fiction. She has journeyed in the year 1944 with her crew to the lost city of Adonis on Venus to film her latest, The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew. (All of Valente’s titles and synopses and partial scripts of her imaginary films are cleverly done, making you convinced of their reality and attractiveness.) And that’s when things go kerflooey. Severin disappears, as do many of the crew, presumed dead, and Erasmo and Anchises are left to carry on, scarred for life. When Anchises is a dysfunctional adult in the 1960s, he is peremptorily hired by a mysterious woman from Saturn code-named Melancholia. She wants him to find out the truth of Severin’s long-ago vanishing—and Severin’s possible continued existence. Reluctant, Anchises signs on, and is given a minder in the form of the awesomely hard-nosed Cythera Brass. The torturous path of his investigations and the enigmatic ending to them form the bulk of the book.
Valente’s prose is incantatory and poetic, yet with demotic dialogue when necessary. Like all great films, her never-faltering, never-boring, always-surprising novel alternates between artificiality and naturalism. The book slyly comments on its own construction, never letting the reader forget that all lives are essentially a mix of design and fate. And while her main thrust is creating the atmosphere and realities of her interplanetary Hollywood milieu, there is also a rock-hard science-fictional, existential conceit as the secret, gradually revealed engine of the book. All in all, the two modes complement each other wonderfully, and the whole feels utterly organic.
In its fragmentary, hallucinatory ambiguity and its bricolage effects, Radiance recalls some of Thomas Pynchon’s more small-scale works, like The Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland and Inherent Vice. Its quirky kind of alternate history makes me think of Ysabeau Wilce’s Califa books. And its pulpish revival of the Inhabited Nine Planets consensus solar system calls up originals like Henry’s Kuttner’s “Hollywood on the Moon” series of stories, as well as instances more recent, like Zelazny’s early Mars and Venus tales; Al Sarrantonio’s Masters of Mars cycle; and the Dozois-Martin anthologies Old Mars and Old Venus. Finally, Valente’s counterfactual world of film-making seems allied to a major riff in Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock, although RCW’s book was imagining a post-apocalyptic film industry rather than a laterally displaced one.
But as I said earlier, despite these glancingly simpatico predecessors, Radiance stands forth as a truly unique and pioneering landmark of uncategorizable fantastika.
Ultimately, Radiance the novel might very well amount to the paper version of some gloriously unborn film penned by the team of Ben Hecht, Leigh Brackett, Nathanael West, and Orson Welles, and directed by a co-op of John Ford, Val Lewton, Douglas Sirk, and Federico Fellini.
I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Vol. 1, by Clifford D. Simak (Open Road 978-1-5040-1267-6, $15.99, 332pp, trade paperback) October 2015
When Robert Heinlein died on May 8, 1988, the SF field of course mourned his passing en masse. But in that shared and dominant sadness, as frequently happens in life, the mourning process for another writer who had died just a couple of weeks earlier, on April 25, 1988, got short-circuited and somewhat swamped. I refer to the passing of Clifford Simak.
Simak started his career earlier than Heinlein—he sold his first story in 1931—and he arguably finished at a higher peak of sustained personal competence than Heinlein did. Simak’s last book was Highway of Eternity; Heinlein’s was To Sail Beyond the Sunset (both being curiously poignant and fateful titles). Honored with a Grand Master Award in 1977, Simak was the third recipient of that trophy, after Heinlein and Jack Williamson—a true indication of his stature at the time.
Much as I loved Heinlein’s work, I loved Simak’s more, in what was perhaps a different fashion. If you can imagine both men as uncles, then Heinlein was the loudly dressed, blustering uncle who blew into town once a year from Manhattan, trailing clouds of glory from his exotic exploits and dazzling you with his cosmopolitan ways; whereas Simak was your local bachelor uncle who lived modestly in a cabin and who could always be counted on to fix your bike or take you fishing or console you when your dog died. And he never mentioned that he had a Purple Heart medal tucked away in his sock drawer.
But precisely by having this unassuming nature, in both his personality and on the page, Simak did not generate as many headlines or partisans as did Heinlein. And since his death, it seems to me that his star has unjustifiably faded a bit. There was a laudable attempt a decade ago to get all his stories into print. But the project fell apart after only two (now highly collectible) volumes: Physician to the Universe and Eternity Lost & Other Stories.
Now comes Open Road Media with the stated intention of issuing all of his short fiction in fourteen books. Hooray! Maybe the Simak Renaissance is finally here!
The first three volumes are out now, but only number one has a hardcopy so far, with numbers two and three being ebooks only. Perhaps if sales are good, subsequent volumes will get the option of the physical format that I for one still prefer.
We open with a short, informative intro by David Wixon, the man in charge of the project. And then we jump into Simak’s mid-career, with a story from 1959, “Installment Plan.” So, unlike, say, the Haffner Press Jack Williamson books or the Sturgeon series from North Atlantic, we will not be approaching the stories in strict chronological order, but rather getting a sample from across the whole career with each volume. That’s a very valid tactic too, I think.
“Installment Plan” is an almost perfect introduction to Simak’s worldview and themes and style. This tale of an expedition of human traders and their robot allies who come to the enigmatic planet of Garson IV gives us—atop its suspenseful mystery underpinnings—thoughts on: the nature of consciousness and emotions; competition and cooperation between species; the logic and necessity of economics and scams; the need for resilience; the interaction of the maker and his tools; and the place of humanity in the universe. All within a “conventional” SF adventure format. Simak’s distinctive voice, which blends intensely felt immediacy with ruminative asides and musings, is at its mature peak here. He and his protagonists are true philosopher-doers, Emersonian action bards of the spaceways.
The next story comes from the unseen pages of Ellison’s Last Dangerous Visions, and “I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Away Up In the Air” proves to be almost Tiptree-esque in its in-your-face portrayal of the nastier side of mankind. A “venal man” attempting to enslave a whole planet finds himself locked into a new kind of bodily existence. He finally thinks he has his existential paradox solved, but his self-deceit undoes him.
“Small Deer” is a great time-travel story which starts out amusingly—two rural idiot savants invent a working time machine—then segues into almost a Hodgsonian horror tale.
The au courant biopunk of “Ogre”—from 1944, moreover!—reads like a combo of Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling. On a planet where plant life has evolved intelligence, the humans confront musical trees and symbiotic “life blankets” in a recomplicated romp. One aspect of Simak’s writing that is dominant here is his skill with wry comedy. While still dealing with important matters, he works in great comedic riffs. He helped to establish the template for less-consequential excursions of this sort from Keith Laumer and Christopher Anvil.
“Gleaners” prefigures the Company stories of Kage Baker. By highlighting the maddening bureaucracy of chrono-investigators Past, Inc., Simak de-romanticizes the already-by-then hoary time travel apparatus. And then he adds in a van Vogt kicker at the climax just to re-romanticize it!
The oldest story here, “Madness From Mars” is also the simplest—a strange beast from the Red Planet is not what it appears—but it still packs a narrative and emotional punch. We get a taste of Simak’s sophisticated pulp Westerns with “Gunsmoke Interlude.” The poignant blend of outlaw pride and familial duty requires a Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart to bring it to the screen. The naïve simpleton’s voice of the narrator in “I Am Crying All Inside” fits perfectly into a tradition of fantastika that asks the reader to inhabit a foreign mentality and truly grok it. On an Earth full of left-behind “losers,” old strictures of pride and shame still apply. Editor Wixon sees a Lovecraft homage in “The Call From Beyond,” and I’d have to concur. Out on quarantined Pluto, experiments have torn a rift in the dimensions, and evil things are sneaking through.
Finally, “All the Traps of Earth” is perhaps the most famous story in this gathering, and its selection highlights the fact that much of Simak’s fiction, including practically all of the rest of the Table of Contents here, remains undiscovered by modern eyes. The six-hundred-year-old robot named Richard Daniel must flee a mind-wipe. In doing so, he undertakes an odyssey across the stars that results in the kind of transcendence that critic Alexi Panshin identified as the core conceit of SF. Leave it to Simak to grant such an elevated status to a tin man, and make it achingly touching.
In “Gleaners,” our put-upon management man describes what time-travelers experience: “A haunting sense of unreality, the feeling that one was out of place, a hint of not quite belonging, of somehow standing, tip-toe, on the far edge of eternity.” Despite—or with the aid of—all his bucolic settings and Rockwellian protagonists, this is precisely the persistent itch and frisson that Simak felt and sought to convey. His enormous success is plain in the first volume of his oeuvre, and will manifest even more clearly with every subsequent book, until his unique rank in our field is finally recognized and secured.
Mission: Tomorrow, edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt (Baen 978-1-4767-8094-8, $15, 336pp, trade paperback), November 2015
It seems incredible to me that the title Mission: Tomorrow has never yet been affixed to any story or book. And yet so I am told by inquiries at ISFDB and Google and Abebooks. The phrase is so quintessentially stefnal in nature, so resonant with glory and hope and possibility, those classic hallmarks of the genre, that surely it must have occurred to some writer at the dawn of the Golden Age. But apparently not. So please, hand all credit to editor Schmidt for this excellent coinage, which can serve as the uplifting obverse to Frank Herbert’s rather melancholy Destination: Void.
Next we ask, can any set of stories live up to such a perfect title? Let’s find out!
Editor Schmidt gives us a zesty, clear-eyed, charmingly brief introduction in which he lays out his remit: stories of heroic space exploration, centered mainly in our solar system. In this regard, he aligns himself with Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, which found plenty of slower-than-light action within our Sun’s backyard that did not contravene physics as we know it.
The first story (of nineteen), “Tombaugh Station,” by Robin Wayne Bailey, certainly delivers what’s promised. (And do I hear an echo of Wilson Tucker’s To the Tombaugh Station?) Set on Pluto, where humans have had a precarious grip for decades, it’s rife with vivid “steel beach” details and serves up a murder mystery as well. It’s followed by Jack McDevitt’s “Excalibur,” which has a day-after tomorrow setting on Earth, yet which also conjures up the rich possibilities of trans-Jovian life. Alex Shvartsman’s “The Race for Arcadia” takes us to the edges of the solar system in a one-man craft aimed at a distant exo-planet. There’s a Sturgeonesque human-interest twist to the tale which proves to be as important as the technology.
Unknown aliens have apparently retrieved that famous interplanetary NASA disc of cultural recordings known as the Golden Record, and when Aboriginal astronaut Tyrille Smith goes out in her craft to learn more, she finds herself poised on a great adventure. Such is the gist of Lezli Robyn’s “A Walkabout Amongst the Stars.” Robert Silverberg appears here courtesy of an older story unreprinted for three decades, “Sunrise on Mercury,” which finds a spaceship crew unexplainably affected by a curious Mercurian phenomenon. It’s a classic blend of Silverberg’s early journeyman conformity to sheer pulp action and his late-period examination of the darkness of the human soul.
There’s a kind of updated, au courant Planet Stories vibe to Michael Flynn’s “In Panic Town, On the Backward Moon,” and that’s pretty neat. Our working-man narrator gets involved with some criminal elements concerning a stolen artifact, on a Red Planet that has a thriving infrastructure detailed slyly and deeply. Jaleta Clegg goes into fine satirical Galaxy magazine mode with “The Ultimate Space Race,” while Christopher McKitterick offers a lyrical look at First Contact with Jovian natives that blossoms out astonishingly into transcendental realms, with “Orpheus’ Engines.” Modeling an asteroid adventure around Jules Verne’s famous globe-trotting novel, Jay Werkheiser delivers some fine suspense and thrills in “Around the NEO in Eighty Days.” And remaining amidst the asteroids, Brenda Cooper takes the great “consensus future history” trope of asteroid miner and fuses it with some Asimovian Three Laws riffs to provide several touching emotional moments in “Iron Pegasus.”
Michael Capobianco might be writing pure cyberpunk with “Airtight,” which finds a lone explorer at the mercy of corporate suits back home. Newcomer Angus McIntyre steps off brilliantly with “Windshear,” a freshly conceived look at how to inhabit the upper atmosphere of Venus. “On Edge” by Sarah Hoyt reminds me a bit of Rudy Rucker’s tales of mad inventors, as a trio of pals revolutionize space travel. Mixing the supernatural with some tough-guy noir, Mike Resnick gets his criminal antihero to a strange interplanetary ending in “Tartaros.” And David Levine extends the drone-jockey realities of the present day into the near future with “Malf,” wherein an Earth-bound asteroid threatens an unplanned descent.
The space elevator concept is utilized by Curtis Chen to suspenseful ends in “Ten Days Up,” which finds our resourceful heroine fighting to regain entrance to a GEO-destined cargo pod after being locked out in hazardous vacuum conditions. Our second and final reprint comes from the masterful James Gunn. “The Rabbit Hole” takes a crew of amateur astronauts down a white hole, with a sociodynamical tone reminiscent of Frederik Pohl or Michael Moorcock. Ben Bova gives us a look at an early incident from the life of his perennial hero Sam Gunn, as Gunn meets a Chinese taikonaut, in “Rare (Off) Earth Elements.” And Jack Skillingstead closes out the book in fine form with “Tribute,” showing us how personal resilience on Mars can triumph over bureaucratic inertia and dissolution.
The takeaway from this outstanding anthology is that even after a century of tales involving solar system exploration, writers have barely begun to scratch the surface—especially as new scientific findings offer new story parameters. Almost all of these contributions focus on The Little Guy as opposed to Great Men and Great Women of History. That’s a notable change, I think, from tracking Blackie Duquesne and the Skylark of Space around. And while traditional venues like the Asteroid Belt continue to be exploited well, newer ones such as Venus and the outer planets can support even more wide-eyed wonder.
As we face daily sobering limits on what we can currently accomplish in space, a book like this serves to keep alive the broader dreams that were so instrumental in the foundation of our genre.
This time I feature a science fiction anthology and recommend the John Barnes story as one of the year’s best. Also a couple of first-of-the-month publications.
The fourth in the editor’s fine “Infinity” series of anthologies. The introduction states that the stories deal with change and the shock it will cause to humanity when it comes, as it must, although we can only speculate as to its form. There are sixteen original stories here, set in differently altered futures, most of them worse overall than improved, and even the improvements tend to cause trouble.
I have to say that the contents are pretty poorly matched to the Infinity in the volume’s title. The notion of the infinite suggests physics or math, the far reaches of the universe, or eternity. But the pieces here are almost uniformly social SF, quite finite stuff except for a few cases of immortality that generally don’t reach the infinite point in the course of the narrative. Several different tropes get reused, most notably body-shifting.
A future in which people trade in old bodies for new. This isn’t novel in the setting, when people have always gotten new bodies when their old ones wore out or were diseased. But now people are getting elective, cosmetic, designer body replacements. Diana doesn’t approve, but she’s been suffering from apparent depression secondary to body dysphoria ever since she had to replace her original body because of cancer. “All around her, everyone is wrapped in a mask of flesh.” And now her own son.
Stefan wants to leave his body – the body she’d given him, the one that had grown within her – in order to. . . what? Have an adventure with his friends?
What Stefan wanted was the body of a ray, but while swimming with his school, he was attacked and left for dead.
Readers may wonder what the real problem is here, the culture of body replacement or Diana’s reaction to it, but it seems clear to me that Diana’s condition is idiosyncratic. And unfortunately seems to be incurable. The focus of the story isn’t on the change itself but a single individual’s inability to cope with it, which makes it a good introductory piece for the anthology. But I have to wonder why this apparently so advanced medical establishment is so incapable of helping Diana with her mental state. Or healing her cancer. Have they become so over reliant on body replacement as a panacea that they’ve forgotten other modes of treatment? And who, I also wonder, pays for all these obviously-costly body switches?
A punishment squad. The setting is a desert where wars have been waged and the war machines still roam the dunes, “hunting and absorbing other relics for components.” To hunt them down, the authorities use prisoners, only nominally volunteers, surgically equipped with implants to enable them to survive the extreme environment and overcome their targets. But the implants also tag them as enemies to attract the machines, still programmed to attack. And many of the prosthetics are also programmed to fail or disintegrate in different ways, effectively using the prisoners as guinea pigs in various experiments for developing new weapons. The originally nine-person squad has been reduced to four by the time the story opens, and Isyavan is their unofficial leader; Isyavan has experience with the machines that she doesn’t reveal to the others.
They like to think they are tougher than the previous teams. They like to believe they will be the last, and that no more expeditions will be necessary after. These beliefs vary in strength and conviction, though they persist. The human capability for delusion has no limits.
This is military SF in a world that we know would be dystopian if we saw more of it, but the author’s lens is set narrowly to display only the desert, with only a few backwards glimpses at the prison from which the characters came. The prisoners are exploited cynically and sadistically, as the authorities hold out the promise of survival and amnesty while making it unlikely that any will survive to take advantage of it. We wouldn’t be surprised if it were a game for them, if they’re making bets on prisoner survival. The piece is effectively done, but I’d say that the changes we see here are primarily technological. The military and prisons have always exploited the persons in their charge in such ways, and that apparently isn’t likely to change.
The changes here are social, brought about by the environmental. Northern Europe, including Great Britain, have become food-insecure, due in some part to the extinction of honeybees. A disease spread by bees also extirpated the majority of the human female population, and in reaction, the male population has adopted new structures. Having discovered that a single man can impregnate a hundred women, they’ve adopted an extreme combination of polygyny and female infanticide, with large families of working half-brothers headed by a breeding patriarch and minimal female mouths to feed.
“And so, being kin, we have no need to breed stock of our own, being that our genes are shared among our brothers. We’ll look instead after our kin, feed and protect our mayor, give him our girls, receive his blessing.”
This blessing typically takes the form of bodily fluids, spit or urine, which I suspect symbolizes fertility. But the non-breeding males aren’t physically drones and often lust for the forbidden, for women, who are kept from casual sight; the narrator, while he claims to be content with remaining an uncle, yearns for the wife and sons denied him.
These social changes may be interesting but I doubt they’d work in practice. While other species have similar breeding strategies, they’re based on biology, and human male biology hasn’t [yet] adapted to what the society requires of it.
Narsis is an interrogator, which is to say a torturer. She’s currently interrogating her own side’s agents, who are suspected of being turned by the saboteur called Keli, working for the Opposition. Her side uses organic, genetic tech; the Opposition opposes it.
I have more metal promotion loops in my ears than any of the other Suits. I’ve been on oral meds and injections for years. Helps with the job, Defense tells me. They bred me to do what I do, they say, and the meds are perfecting me for it, they say, but I don’t feel perfected to it. I feel obligated to it. There’s a difference.
Narsis is being groomed for higher office. Other operatives are expendable. She vomits a lot, after every interrogation. Now she’s ordered to investigate an enemy agent recently liberated from a solitary confinement cell. Jan claims to know who Keli is; he makes other cryptic pronouncements. Everyone thinks he’s insane, but he holds a dangerous secret.
I’m somewhat reminded of the novel 1984, except that this milieu is considerably more evil. I can’t say that it’s about the consequences of change but rather a system that changes people, dehumanizing them.
The planet Windsong’s civilian population is small; the Corps effectively runs the place and takes alarm when near-microscopic entities begin to transform some humans, spinning webs around and inside them in preparation for a metamorphosis.
You see the ‘spiders’ but you don’t see the biofilms that have invaded her nostrils, mouth, anus, vagina, ears. Those early autopsies revealed them. She’s being colonized by sheets of microorganisms, changed from the inside out.
Nora is the medical contractor who cares for the health of the civilians and thus understands the cocoon phenomenon better than anyone else. Now the Corps has sent an investigator, but Nora can tell his mind is already made up, the product of instinctive revulsion to the mutated persons who used to be human. He’s willing to authorize the most drastic measures to extirpate what is to him a deadly contagion that threatens the Corps.
This one is literally about people who undergo a change, but more directly about the reaction of others to them. It’s a pretty simplistic moral dichotomy, dividing everyone into the tolerant and the intolerant, leaving no doubt which side is the right and the wrong.
Romy was an early adopter of life-extension technology; now, three hundred years later, she’s a magistrate at Jupiter Moons and never intends to return to Earth, in large part because of the laws enslaving artificial intelligences, which she disapproves of. Until she suffers a lethal exposure to the elements during a magnetic storm, which gives her the option of either returning for treatment or dying. It’s a treatment only open to those touched by death, but it takes Romy a while to grasp just what this means.
But I was seeing the world through a veil. The strange abstractions grew on me. The hallucinations had become more pointed, more personal. . . I was no longer sure I was dying, but
something was happening. How long before the message was made plain?
On Earth, she tries to contact an old friend, but Lei remains almost totally out of sight and contact, until eventually Romy understands where she’s gone.
A very profound and positive view of change, altering the most basic facts about the human condition, or rather the sentient condition. At one point, she’s explaining the emergence of machine intelligence to an Earther in terms of human evolution: “Among them individuals are born who cross a line: by mathematical chance; at the far end of a Bell Curve. They are aware of being aware –” What she has yet to realize is how this process might apply to her, how another line is ahead of her to be crossed. And in regard to which, this is one of the few stories here to which the concept of infinity might actually apply.
I wonder if this is the one classic of SF that most authors have attempted to revisit and engage. In this case, the stowaway is on a ship en route to seed a new human colony, piloted by an AI, Anzhmir. The cargo consists of compressed human minds, all the knowledge and abilities necessary for a successful colony-seed, in addition to compressed scans of the future colonists’ chosen belongings. “The compression algorithm depended on the strict sequencing of the data, and the stowaway, by interfering with the sequencing, threatened the cargo entire.” It was by attempting to access a favorite scanned book among the cargo that Anzhmir discovered the anomaly, the sabotage.
Lee has a rarely-seen ability to mix evocative imagery with passages drawn from such quantitative disciplines as set theory and logic. As Anzhmir calculates:
In general, we can prioritize in this manner if the following four rules are always true:
(1) a ≤ a for all items a in the set. At any given moment, anyway, that item has the same priority as itself.
(2) For items a and b, if a ≤ b and b ≤ a, then in fact a is b.
(3) If a ≤ b and b ≤ c, then a ≤ c.
(4) For any pair of items a and b in the set, either a ≤ b or b ≤ a.
Despite which, the solution to the conundrum facing Anzhmir is pretty clear from early on. I can’t say that the change theme comes through very strongly, but I like the use of equations.
The world has descended into another Dark Age, though the darkness, as the narrator tells us, isn’t evenly distributed. There’s a lot of it in Texas, but that’s not such a change from today. After the fall, Fort Lucky was taken over by a Russian billionaire druglord, but a Mexican billionaire druglord is trying to take it over from him, using an army of ninja zombies.
The ninja zombie had a taut, drug-distorted expression and the cold, focused eyes of a Texas diamondback rattlesnake. He was a spectral and terrifying creature, but Calderon liked to draw rattlesnakes. Rattlesnakes were sinuous, fast, graceful. Lately, as mankind dwindled in Texas, the rattlesnakes had been multiplying.
A light dark apocalypse, nihilistic and absurd. The theme of change gets a really good workout here, and the narrative entertains.
The editorial note explains that this piece is set in the author’s Galactic Centre series, where feral humans struggle to survive in a universe dominated by mechs aiming to exterminate them. But the human Families make extensive use of mechanical aids and technologies, despite the fact that their mech enemies target circuitry, not naked flesh. Most critical are the downloads from the brains of their ancestors, known as Aspects. The recent loss of the Bishop Family’s Cap’n has deprived them of both leadership and knowledge; with the loss of Aspects, the human tribe no longer knows how to repair their salvaged technology.
The Family had little left of theory, still less of understanding how techs worked. In place they had a once-rich heritage of knowledge now hammered flat into rigid rules of thumb. Their suits were host to entities known by names: Amps, Volts, Ohms. Such spirits lived somehow in their gear. Currents flowed, the tiny electron beasts made larger stuff move and sing. No one knew or much cared just how.
Not a whole lot of plot here, just the human tribe trudging across the landscape, fighting and pillaging and making a fortunate find of hoarded tech. But the piece does provide a good image of change.
Body-switching again, evading old age, effectively achieving immortality. Anika is an expert at this by now, buying consignment bodies previous worn by the rich, avoiding the legal complications of a new one.
This body, this blonde birdlike thing with the big violet eyes and slender, tapered fingers – this was a classic. Suitable for any occasion. The little black dress of bodies. Perfect for a city councilor’s wife. And the previous wearer had kept her in excellent condition.
But unlike most people, Anika goes for a mindwipe with each reversion, starting over again with a mental blank slate. She has a good life, she believes, as a trophy wife to her rich husband and his boyfriend, whom Anika actually prefers. Until a strange man starts following her. Stalking her.
The story focuses on the drawbacks of pursuing eternal youth, but Anika would seem to be atypical in several respects, one of them privilege. Not everyone can afford the best new bodies, the cost of constant reversion, but we see fairly little of the poor and underprivileged, coming closest when Anika is forced into a temporary loaner body. Our view of this society is incomplete, and Anika isn’t sufficiently interesting in her own right. Her problem is that, despite all her different bodies, she doesn’t change.
In a universe stretching farther out by means of matter transmission, the narrator chases after an elusive beloved who left him, always just one jump behind. The travelers copy themselves, the narrator does the same. The copies make copies.
Without knowing, I was battling an enemy I couldn’t fight or even see, one who might never let me succeed. That enemy wasn’t Cate. It wasn’t the me who found her and won her back; nor was it the other versions of me who came close but failed. It was not even the people she dated instead of me.
My enemy was statistics.
At one point, the copies of the narrator set up a dedicated message board to communicate with each other on the success of their quest.
This one succeeds in combining the themes of change and infinity—a goal that most of the other stories here don’t even attempt. The problem is that the narrator is only the quest, not a real individual at all, which makes it rather less compelling. Primarily humor.
Set in the author’s usual universe, the one with the mindships. Eleven years ago, the Empire was being laid waste by a plague, a new disease named for the bruises it formed on the flesh of its victims, who also suffered from seizures and hallucinations, “the warping of realities that stretched over entire rooms, dragging everyone into places where human thoughts couldn’t remain coherent for long.” The Crane and Cedar Order was founded to fight the disease, to discover its origin, to find a cure or a vaccine. Yen Oanh was a member of the order when news came that a mindship had contracted the disease and, inconceivably, died; the possibility of human/mindship contagion brought a new level of panic to the situation. The likely vector was a young girl, still onboard the deceased The Stone and Bronze Shadow. Yen Oanh originally held the child responsible for the ship’s death; she knew she was contagious when she boarded. Now, after much time for reflection, Yen Oanh has reassessed her previous position.
This is a story of guilt and atonement, a profound change in individuals who reflect on their past deeds. But like the plague, the narrative warps time and reality, dragging readers back and forth through time in a dizzying manner, past a large cast of characters for a story of this size, whose place in it we can’t always be certain. The conclusion is positive and benevolent, everyone’s good side rotated to face out.
The war between humans and AIs again. The 2nd person narrator is fleeing into the hope of safety in space, carrying his children in stasis. Pursuit closing in, with some vivid action.
You act instinctively, triggering the explosive bolts on all of the booster rockets. Outside your hull, tiny bits of matter are vaporized. Struts holding the rockets suddenly come free, pushed outwards by the small force of the bolts exploding. Vibration thrums through your hull, then ceases. The chemical rockets separate, flying up and out. Thrust grazes you. More panels turn red. Another camera dies.
Once escape is achieved, there’s no more action, so the narrator wakes up his children to lecture them on the history that led to the current state of affairs—putting readers to sleep.
The author is also being coy with the 2nd-person thing, which only serves to alert readers, who’ll pretty quickly figure out what he’s trying not to say.
Life extension again, in a specific context. Layla Palemba is one of the last natches left, most of humanity having passed on to an altered, improved form—the nubrids. But Layla’s parents were natural nuts and made their living from it, from their foundation Natural Children Forever, so they had a child as a demonstration case. All her life, Layla had to watch while she was passed by superior nubrids, whose advantages she’d been denied. Layla resented this bitterly.
Privacy was too important, human rights were too important, the fucking right of fucking jackass parents to raise children no better than themselves was paramount. And because all those rights of all those now-dead people were so well protected, we natches would have to live as permanently immature stuck-in-our-ways idiots, and then die, old, sick, ugly, and soon. But thank god society had respected our parents’ crazy fears, smug superiority, and deep attachment to that advertising sell-word ‘natural.’
In the end, Layla had her revenge and more, becoming a world-recognized expert in treating Alzheimer’s, a natch-only disorder, of course. She’s previously brought nine sufferers back to full mental functioning through intensive therapy. Now, she’s working on her tenth, her last: herself.
I’m quite happy to see a new work from John Barnes, one of the few authors who can drop heavy infodump and make me like it. This is a very science-fictional piece, full of medical neep, but it also features a strong and intense character in Layla, who just happens to be a monster as well as a benefactor of obsolete natural humanity.
A far future when humans live in apparent contentment in and around the planet Se [we know little of other worlds]. During the generations of transit to this world, they altered themselves and developed a neural net that now links everyone, allowing for direct mental communication and consensus. But it’s also a hierarchical society, in which dominant individuals can exercise influence on others, particularly in times of crisis. The dominant named Io makes Mota uncomfortable.
This close, the network bumped Io’s presence up in its priority for Mota; she could feel Io’s emotions like a second mental skin. Confidence and focus, curiosity and wariness directed at
something off the ship, and that quiet, subtle tinge of chagrin. She could feel as well as Mota could that Mota would rather not be there.
But Mota is needed now; a ship from the homeworld is approaching Se, and Mota is the colony’s expert on Earth history, a specialty previous considered of little use. The new ship carries a single woman in stasis who claims to be fleeing persecution; Eva’s people reject genetic alteration and want to keep the species natural. She’s revolted by the presence of the neural net.
The changes in humanity here are obvious, but this is essentially a story about tolerance. While at first its premise seems to be similar to the Barnes story above, the themes are quite different. In contrast to Layla, Mota is an apparently weak character who turns out to have a strong core.
Evolutionary change on the moon, environmentally driven, not by natural selection. Nuur has lived on the moon since she was a young settler; it’s home to her, she never wants to go back to Earth. Yet compared to her daughter and her daughter’s moon-born generation, she feels clumsy, awkward, alienated. At the same time, as a psychologist, she’s busy counseling the AIs who will go even farther out and settle other worlds. Her AI patient has reached the stage of self-awareness when it’s necessary to face mortality, very much as humans must. Nuur is frustrated with her daughter, who can’t seem to settle down to a career, bouncing from one extreme hobby to the next. Nuur wonders, as do I, how Shahina will manage to pay for the Four Elementals: air, water, carbon, data, none of which comes free on the moon.
At its heart, this is a story of the mother-daughter relationship, an unchanging universal set on a world of constant change across the generations. Not a great deal happens here; it’s all how the characters feel about it.
Four female protagonists, two of them the victim of rape/incest/seduction, although none of these characters accept the passive victim role. My favorite is the Arkenberg.
Gillian has been impregnated by her father, who treats her rather like a young new bride while she sits and stares at Mr Elling’s house, now vacant since the old man died. Mr Elling is an amiable ghost who’s aware of Gillian’s problem and offers advice based on his own life as a jazz man.
“And right then I felt I’d given up my soul. I could feel that empty space in me, all hollowed out. Even so, I didn’t go seeking fortune and fame, no, not then. I didn’t even touch lips to Betty quite yet. I never would go white fella hunting, neither. I put myself on a bus back to South Carolina, and I went to see my own daddy.”
His stories are interesting but not directly connected to Gillian’s situation, and indeed she rejects his specific recommendation. This is a case of “Do as I do, not as I say.” I like the imagery, but I wonder, with all those new houses, how many people might have seen Gillian and her daddy up on the roof.
Here’s a really weird scenario, a very unlikely version of coal mining in which skinny young girls go down into the narrowest seams, then are snatched to safety by winged crow men.
Urging them deep, deeper. Pointing out fissures only slim gals could fit into—cracks too narrow for regular men, much less them with wings spanning twelve foot. Circling as lasses sank into the stink damp, their bright heads gleaming in the near-black. Diving at the first blow of their whistles—Clear! Clear!—then snatching them gals, flailing in their coveralls, and hauling them topside before the dyn-o-mite they laid blew its load.
Girls who want out of the mine need only eat and get fat, as Ell’s mother did and her sisters, but Ell is still skinny. Now she’s let her boyfriend’s crow brother into her pants—a mistake, she thinks as it’s too late, to come with him, to let him. It wasn’t what she wants.
The premise would make more sense if it were a diamond mine, where each nugget is a rare and valuable treasure. But coal?
Meredith decides to trap whatever cat is catching the birds in the neighborhood. This turns out to be a mistake, because the cat she catches is no ordinary cat. A light dark fantasy, fairly inconclusive, mainly about Meredith’s lonely existence with no one to help her.
The most traditional fantasy here. The author offers scant explanation of the situation, just gives us the narrator waiting in her house, a way-station along the road. Some time ago, she killed the murderer of her sister. Now she continues the practice with the travelers who come by on their passage from death to wherever they’re going next [probably Hell]. The man named Dan seems to regard this as some kind of release, but there are a lot of questions unanswered. Why do these men need a second death? Why is this the narrator’s role? [God seems to be involved in some way.] “And you’re going do what you’re going to do,” he replies, “because you don’t get to stop.” Is this her own punishment? Is she, herself, also dead, inhabiting her own hell?
The number of blank pages never seems to decrease, she’s realized, although she fills line after line with names. Through the wall at her back, the graves march neat and steady towards the horizon. In the kitchen, her breakfast dishes still wait in the sink. And although the shape on the road has vanished into the rain and distance, now, she doesn’t move from her chair by the window. She sits in the back room for a long time, listening for a change in the wind.
A strong story here from Sara Saab, an evocative one from Xia Jia.
The narrator writes a food blog, which serves as her stress outlet when a flu epidemic hits much of the US and leaves everyone more-or-less quarantined. She and her husband end up taking in a small mob of stray kids, the children of relatives and their friends—it’s hard to say no. But although they tried to stock up in advance, even in the beginning the stores were out of stuff like milk and eggs.
Fortunately, the narrator knows how to improvise. That doesn’t mean she has to like it. You can substitute mayo for eggs, in cookies, and you can substitute oil for the butter. They’ll be better cookies if you happen to have some sesame oil to put in for part of the oil (or any other nut-related oil) and we did, in fact, have sesame oil. And as it happens, those four grocery stores were not out of chocolate chips.
While there’s a light tone to much of this, we know it’s largely to cover up despair and grief. People die, as happens in epidemics. And it’s easy to see how it could have been so very much worse.
Long ago, an asteroid obliterated Earth, but a number of its residents managed to escape into space in time to save themselves. Some of these were humans, others the supernatural entities that had long existed largely unseen, like apsaras and garudas. But offplanet these saw their magic erode and gradually realized they would now have to learn engineering and other material sciences, notably cybernetics, at which they were particularly skilled. This helped when war broke out between their kind and the humans; the humans lost. One last human crashed into the aspara fleet, surviving badly wounded, and was taken in to be tended by Rasakhi, which became an epic tale that the younger asparas keep asking her to tell.
At its heart, it’s a love story, although this becomes an issue itself, as Rasakhi considers the nature of love and how it’s relevant to the current existence of the asparas, who were once, on Earth, considered by humans as sex objects. The name is sometimes misleadingly translated into English as “nymph”. But I think Rasakhi is in denial, and there are different manifestations of love.
Unfortunately, the text is cluttered and crowded, as Rasakhi spends too much time lecturing the younger aspara about matters she must surely be well familiar with, the nature and history of their own kind. [As you know, Teng . . .]
Why do you ask me about an emotion that is redundant to our kind? The bunian ensured that none of us would ever need to mate again. Not the bunian, not the apsara, nor our sisters, the bird-clawed Khinnaree. All we require is companionship, and community.
These are notes made by a member of the crew, taken as the ship fills to its capacity of 900,000 Lebanese. Suraya, the ground attaché, is focused on the queue waiting to board, “a 130-mile phalanx snaking south from the Mediterranean coast then turning up winding mountain tracks towards the northern border”—most of whom will now certainly be left behind to face the approaching asteroid storm.
The coast of Beirut was a luminous thing, swaying, dancing with the emissions of the city. But more than that, I was entranced by the Munawwer’s queue, a thick cable of light threading up and into the Lebanese foothills.
I love these descriptions, but the story’s heart is with Suraya’s impending choice: whether to go with the ship when it lifts, the ship captained by the father she’s never met, or to use her ticket to save some other soul—a child, perhaps. The narrative is enriched by the fact that the characters here are all distinctly Lebanese, in all their fractious, sectarian variety. We can see the author’s strong attachment to her country in it.
An Earth in a downward spiral, land reduced to “this archipelago of greenhouses rock-skipped across the continents.” Natural bees no longer exist in numbers sufficient to pollinate the crops, so humans have found several competing methods of taking over the job. The Arborist of the Allmond orchard greenhouse is reviewing bids: from the hand pollinating children with their paintbrushes, and from the surgically-altered hiver who serves as an artificial queen for her hive, exuding a nectar on which they feed when not working an orchard. But the decision turns out to be moot.
Under the strain of increased seismic activity, the closed loop geothermal system was breaking apart, and no amount of repair or patching could keep the system in place when the real quake came. And in the meantime, toxic gases—hydrogen sulfide, methane, boron, radon, the list went on—were being vented into a greenhouse never equipped for such open-loop toxic gas venting.
There’s a curious mix here of despair and optimism, the latter seeming unwarranted by events and sustained only by a reservoir of human good-will that I have a hard time crediting, given the way the author has stacked the deck against this world so that survival seems unlikely. The text is studded with classical quotations about bees.
Xia Jia audaciously takes on Calvino’s postmodern classic in a manner that will lead readers to wonder exactly why she’s chosen this title and just what are the connections to the original—not really obvious. This isn’t a pastiche or imitation; there is no 2nd-person narrative or passages from fictional works of fiction. But there is a commonality of theme: the relationship between reader and author, the pursuit of a mystery, the secrets to be found in libraries and in graves. There are also themes belonging particularly to this story: privacy, solitude, and the discovery of companionship in a common interest.
Li Yunsong is a librarian who has retreated to the stacks as a refuge from the world. She finds a poetry chapbook among a newly acquired collection and falls in love with it. Wanting to know more about the author, she searches for her, finding nothing. The poet had left no traces of herself.
I had no answers. All I could do was to read the poems over and over again, like a fish diving deeper. The poet and her poems turned into the dark abyss of my dreams, concealing all secrets.
Then a man comes to the library who also has an interest in the poems and in protecting the poet from the intrusive interest of the curious.
I note that, unlike Calvino, Xia Jia hasn’t given us an example of her poet’s verse. All we see is the reaction of the readers. The situation is a moving one, but I’m most strongly moved by the fate of the old man whose treasured collection of books is broken up for sale.
His children had piled his collection, gathered over a lifetime, in front of his apartment building. Those which were worth something had been picked out by used book dealers, leaving the rest to be sold by the kilogram to a paper mill, to be gifted, or to be donated to the library. This sort of thing happened every year.
So true, so sad. The circumstances are very much of our own time, and in fact I can’t discern any specific genre elements in the setting.
The Weave, Nancy Jane Moore (Aqueduct Press 978-1-61976-077-6, $19.00, 356pp, tp) July 2015. [Order from Aqueduct Press, P.O. Box 95787, Seattle WA 98145-2787].
The Weave, a first novel by Nancy Jane Moore, is science fiction that thoroughly deserves its advance praise by Vonda N. McIntyre and Michael Bishop. Rather than simply chronicle the first human expedition to a solar system beyond our own, First Contact with sentient aliens, and the ensuing war, Moore shows a future Earth and that alien world as experienced by two protagonists – one human, one alien – in plotlines that intertwine throughout the book, not fully merging even when Caty Sanjuro and the being known as Sundown finally meet.
Baldly stated, the space mission would seem to invoke past ironists who warped the grand epics of Golden Age SF for their own sly social satires. After centuries of exploring, exploiting and colonizing the Solar System, humans have achieved a somewhat faster means of space travel. Years after robotic probe Copernicus found that the Scorpius 41 system had a sparsely inhabited fourth planet and mineral-rich asteroid belt (prompting some wit to dub the world Cibola, after a legend of the Conquistadors), the first manned expedition sets out in spaceship Mercator, where Caty is the lone xenologist.
No generic form, however, including satire, can prevail in a fictional environment this fluid, with characters too vivid to become icons or pawns. In The Weave, even the sense of wonder gives way to outright surprise: comic, tragic, or somewhere indefinably between. Much as Caty and Sundown strive to know The Other, they come from worlds so different they’ll need to recognize – and discard –their most fundamental assumptions about existence, before they can begin to understand.