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Gardner Dozois reviews Ian R. MacLeod

Frost on Glass, Ian R. MacLeod (PS Publishing) May 2015.

This month brings another early contender for the title of Best Collection of the Year, Frost on Glass by Ian R. MacLeod, a collection of 11 stories and copious interstitial material (forewords, afterwords, and autobiographical non-fiction pieces), mixing science fiction, fantasy, and harder-to-classify slipstreamish stuff. It’s hard not to compare this to Ian McDonald’s collection, The Best of Ian McDonald, which I reviewed here last time – like McDonald, Mac­Leod is another British writer who’s not exactly an unknown name to genre readers (he’s won two World Fantasy Awards and a Clarke Award), but who tends not to get the kind of appreciation he really deserves, either, especially on the American side of the Atlantic. Probably neither of them pulls in the big bucks from publishers, and they only occasionally feature on Hugo Award ballots even in non-Sad Puppy years, but both of them really should be ranked amongst the top SF/fantasy writers producing today.

I think that between the two collections, I give a slight edge to the McDonald, if only because you get more fiction in it. The MacLeod collection devotes a lot of space to the aforementioned non-fiction pieces, and although they’re all interesting and informative, and, full of personal information as they are, help to give us a better picture of MacLeod the man and his life than we may have had before, it’s a shame that room couldn’t have been made here instead for some of the stories from his previous collection, Snodgrass and Other Illusions: The Best of Ian R. MacLeod, which was practically stealth-published in an e-book edition noticed by just about nobody in the business. Stories from that collection deserve to be seen by a wider audience than the few who actually saw the e-book, and their inclusion here would have made this a stronger collection. Nevertheless, quibbles aside, Frost on Glass is very strong. There are a couple of stories here, on the slipstream side of the spectrum, that I didn’t warm to, like ‘‘The Traveller and the Book’’ and ‘‘The Crane Method’’, but the majority of the stuff here is strong, vivid, core science fiction, such as ‘‘The Discovered Country’’, ‘‘Entangled’’, ‘‘Re-Crossing the Styx’’, and ‘‘The Cold Step Beyond’’. I considered ‘‘The Discovered Country’’ to be perhaps the single strongest SF story of 2013, and ‘‘Entangled’’ is very nearly as good. There’s also a previously unpublished novella here, the title story ‘‘Frost on Glass’’, about a once-famous writer now living in a community for writers in what seems to be an England taken over by a totalitarian Communist Red Guard-style revolution. He must somehow break a decades-long writers block and produce something new or face exile or even death. The story is bleak and autumnal, with regret for lost years the dominant emotion, but it is beautifully, even lyrically, crafted, and the character of the writer, who sees his own shortcomings and failures all too clearly, a glum but interestingly complex one.

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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early July 2015

Here are the Dell digests, along with a couple of ezines. I found plenty of stories this time to reward the reading, if not to add to the award list.

Publications Reviewed

Lightspeed, July 2015

The zine is only posting three individual stories this month, with two installments of a long novelette. The editor clearly thinks it’s worth making the exception to his usual length restrictions, and I have to agree.

“Saltwater Railroad” by Andrea Hairston

Historical fantasy. The main strengths here are setting and atmosphere. The year may be 1833, from the evidence of the famous Leonid meteor storm that was viewed by many at the time as a portent—of something. An assorted group of fugitives from slavery has gathered on a barren coastal island, a place with natural hazards that make it difficult for pursuers to approach.*

Miz Delia’s Island was protected by deadly reefs on the Georgia/Florida side and nine hundred feet of jagged cliffs on the other. Indians called it Thunder Rock, a place where the wind and sea played rough and tumble. Spaniards named it Ghost Reef because of whirlpools, deadly fog, and wailing drowned folk who wouldn’t rest. English sailors claimed that Delia was a vengeful slave haint, howling demon talk and luring men to a bloody death. What ship’s captain would risk his crew or his own hide on quicksand beaches and breakneck ledges?

Delia calls the islanders “Run-tos” because they’re in search of a place where they can live securely in freedom, as the title suggests. The island, despite its natural advantages, is not the right place. As their numbers grow, the Mainland is increasingly aware of their presence, and they live in constant watchfulness for the approach of raiding ships, after the reward for the capture of fugitive slaves. So when a young woman is washed ashore under mysterious circumstances, some of the islanders suspect her of being a spy.

Conventionally, readers might expect the plot would center on the islanders’ aspirations to freedom, whether an attack from the Mainland can be averted or repelled, whether they find another path to freedom. These matters are taken care of by the end, yet most of the interest lies in the past. The center of the story, and the center of the fantasy, is Delia, a middle-aged woman with a dark and guilty history that both islanders and Mainland know but poses a secret to readers. There remains a lot about Delia that we never come to fully understand, but these are matters she wants to put behind her. She is haunted by spirits both waking and dreaming; they seem to be ghosts of her kin. Their messages don’t always seem to make sense, but making sense of them is a large part of what the story is about.

This is an unambiguous fantasy; the presence of magic is quite evident, but this doesn’t mean that every fantastic message can be taken literally. Spirits tell Delia that castaway named Rainbow is fallen from the stars, but we later learn she came from a ship named L’Etoile. Delia thinks an underground railroad to freedom must be a tall tale, but we know the name is a metaphor for a real escape network [that was not, however, known as such in 1833, if this is the story’s date]. Both Delia and Rainbow are linked by mystery and magic. Both suffered mutilation at the hands of slavemasters; both magically had lost limbs replaced by “Ethiopian” flesh, darker than their own—evoking an ancient miracle. Magic and miracles aren’t distinguished here, and Rainbow’s transplanted hands sparkle in the dark like stardust. The younger woman is secretive about her origins, but despite this, Delia and most of the islanders accept her presence—Delia, certainly, because her coming was foretold by the spirits and, indeed, miraculously brought to pass. And the islanders have seen too often the results of Delia’s foretellings.

Overall, the atmosphere has a misty, evanescent quality. Spirits and apparitions float in and out of dreams, but the characters, likewise, are hard to grasp. At times they put on masks and seem to take on another identity, perhaps a spirit one. There’s a large named cast here, ethnically varied: the escaped slave Maroons that Delia has led to the island, members of several American Indian tribes—Seminole, Muscogee, Creek—and whites; some are described as pirates, evoking the earlier history of this coast, although any raids they undertake now are on a minor scale. The personal histories of these individuals, however, are more indistinct, and we learn just enough about some of them to make us want to know more than we ever do, almost as much as the details of Delia’s past.

The narrative has its odd points. While Delia is the central character, she is neither the narrator nor the sole point of view. The story seems to be told by some figure from its future, relating these events from an omniscient point of view, with an acquired a patina of legend from sources like the renowned “They Say”. It’s this narrator who first recognizes and names Rainbow when she’s washed ashore, not Delia. Indeed, the other characters seem already known to the narrator’s audience, as figures from legend would be. The tale washes backwards, mingling in the tidepools of story with streams of miracles and magic, becoming mist.

[*]While the physical setting, the island, strongly informs the story, it also poses problems. Such an island, as described, with its perilous reefs and nine hundred-foot high cliffs, doesn’t exist where the author very specifically places it. Nor, more to the point, would it be likely to. Islands in that part of the coastal region are low-lying, essentially built-up sand bars. Nor can we say, “Well, it’s just fantasy, it doesn’t matter.” It matters. As closely tied as this story is to the historic, it has to fit the given historic setting. Nor is the magic here of a kind and degree that could have created this anomalous island and placed it where no such island was.

A related problem: when Rainbow asks Delia where the food comes from, Delia puts her off. But in fact, the unshortage of food on the island demands explanation. The text tells us the island is barren, although there are apparently kitchen gardens. Mostly, the islanders survive by salvage, collecting flotsam washed up on the beach. But fresh peaches** don’t wash ashore, nor does dry unspoiled cornmeal, and there don’t seem to be peach orchards or cornfields on the island. The text makes it clear that the islanders can’t be making regular forays to the mainland for these supplies; detection is too great a danger. And again, there’s no sign that anyone is magically conjuring them up. Food would have been a real concern for actual refugees under these circumstances, and I wish the author had addressed it.

[**]Circumstances in the text suggest the peaches could be magical, but I’m still not buying the cornmeal and beans.

“Crazy Rhythm” by Carrie Vaughn

Making silent movies in Hollywood. Margie is the director’s long-suffering assistant, and the current production, a war movie, is over schedule and over budget because of her boss’s grandiose and impractical ideas. One of the mechanics back in the scene shop is a shell-shocked veteran, and Margie can tell he’s upset by the false depiction of the recent war. He tells her, “I just wish I could give him a taste of the real thing is all. Show him what it’s like to be afraid.” At which, we have a pretty good idea what’s about to happen.

This is listed as SF, but in fact there’s nothing really speculative in it, so I’d have to call it straight historical fiction. Pretty good use of the setting.

“Violation of the TrueNet Security Act” by Taiyo Fujii, translated by Jim Hubbert

It seems that about twenty years ago, a recovery program in Internet servers worldwide malfunctioned and took then entire system down. It was replaced by a more advanced net based on quantum programming, with stringent security measures in place to prevent a repeat of the previous failure. But especially in Japan, a legion of old, redundant servers remains up in place. It’s now Minami Takasawa’s job to staff the night shift and hunt the orphaned zombie programs still running on them, “shuffling around, firing off mails to non-existent addresses, pushing ads no one will see, maybe even sending money to non-existent accounts. The living dead.” Minami was once a program developer, but he never learned Q coding and now he’s too old to catch up, so he’s relegated to a role that could have been automated except for the requirements of the security law. One night he happens to find an old program of his own, still running, and he decides to take a look at his old code.

If the settings were intact, I should be able to log in, move all that musty old PHP code and try updating it with some quantum algorithms. There had to be a plug-in for this kind of thing, something you didn’t have to be a genius like Chen to use. If the transplant worked, I could show it to my boss, who knows–maybe even get a leg up to Project Design. The company didn’t need geniuses like Chen on every job. They needed engineers to repurpose old code too.

But what he finds is that someone has been messing with it, for no purpose that he can figure.

This is definitely science fiction, and fairly hard stuff, too, centered on computer science. There’s a lot of neepery and even paragraphs full of code, and I surprisingly find that my inner geek must actually live, because I rather enjoyed all this stuff, the details of bringing obsolete tech back to life. I must note that my inner geek isn’t up to the task of determining if this quantum computing network makes actual sense, but it projects sufficient authenticity to fool me if it doesn’t. I also find it rather heartwarming to discover Anonymous still active after all those years, complete with iconic mask. Minami, it seems, has the soul of a hacker, after all.

Asimov’s, August 2015

A pretty good issue. The main event is a science fiction novella by Will McIntosh. My favorites are a couple of the shorter stories.

“A Thousand Nights Till Morning” by Will McIntosh

There’s a human base on Mars; it seems to belong to the US. Some or all of the staff is on a mission to divert an asteroid threatening to strike Earth. But while they are there, an alien invasion force shows up on Earth and wipes out most of the human population with bioweapons, leaving only a small population in Chicago to serve as a gene pool for their experiments. The force on Mars gets the idea of striking back by diverting the asteroid to strike the homeworld, which it was going to miss, after all. Only afterwards do they realize that survivors are still alive.

This general scenario seems fairly familiar in outline, but the details make the difference, and in particular the characters. Our anti-hero, Aiden, is a most improbable and unlikeable protagonist, likely to evoke both dislike and contempt in many readers. He suffers from crippling anxiety disorder, washes down handsful of Xanax and Paxil with alcohol, and is generally as useless a git as ever wasted space. The rest of the crew might be better, but not a lot. When they decide to take a shuttle back to Earth, for no particular reason revealed to us, their lack of leadership renders the expedition dysfunctional. Some individuals selfishly take off to try to locate family members, despite being needed at the ship.

The captain argued, but really, her authority was limited. Since the quiet, bloodless coup that ousted Manes as leader of the colony, orders had become more advisory than compulsory. In the end Mahajan relented rather than suffer the embarrassment of having her order defied.

A lot happens, and much of it is pretty unpredictable. The author does a good job subverting the expected plot elements, but for the most part, this rests on the characters, who aren’t the usual steely-eyed, granite-jawed heroic types of the usual SF adventure. Reflecting real, flawed and fallible people, they’re in large part a mess; they make mistakes; they fail. I only wish the author hadn’t felt the need for a concluding speech along these lines at the conclusion.

The aliens are well done, properly enigmatic and science-fictionally plausible. I like their biotech, which suffers catastrophic failure when the asteroid strike sets off a non-nuclear winter—a consequence unintended but serendipitous from the human perspective. It’s interesting that we see no great debate among the Mars humans over making the strike, also over the proposal to take the shuttle back to Earth. This is an awfully large jump cut in the narrative line, and I’m not quite sure it works.

“No Placeholder for You, My Love” by Nick Wolven

Claire dwells among the beautiful people in beautiful settings that we can tell from the outset aren’t quite real. At midnight, evoking Cinderella, a chime sounds, and the whole scenario stops, only to begin again somewhere else, with a different set of characters. Only if two people tell each other, “I’d like to see you again” will they meet more often. We realize that it’s a matchmaking game where no one lives happily ever after.

A scenario of eternity spent in luxury could be considered either heaven or hell; I vote for the latter, a Sisyphean version. But as Claire illustrates, we can make our own hells. She reminds me of Jacob Marley, who wears the chains he forged in life; Claire is apparently reliving the life she used to live. “I’m no one anyone should care about. I don’t even care about me.” Here we see how she might have become that way. A depressing, revealing piece.

“Caisson” by Karl Bunker

In the later 19th century, Dudek is an immigrant from Poland who one day meets a fellow-countryman, Mischke. Through him, Dudek gets a job working under water to dig out the foundations of the Brooklyn Bridge.

In a very real way, this is science fiction, for some definition of SF that includes engineering and allows for exploring the engineering of the historical past. The engineering of the bridge was a wonder of its age, and the story’s details effectively create a sensawunda quite as much as might a story of constructing an orbital habitat, or space elevator, or a bridge across a river of toxic mist. It also serves as a reminder of the way the physical underpinnings of our civilization were built, well into the last century, by brute muscle power, by laborers with shovels, even if assisted by mechanical pumps. As Dudek tells us,

I worked. I shoveled dirt, I cracked boulders with a pickaxe, I learned how to drill holes for gunpowder in the larger boulders. And at the end of each day I drank, I ate, I slept, I missed my home.

I would have been satisfied with this as historical fiction, but it does late in the story morph into something SFnal when Mischke makes a discovery.

“Two-Year Man” by Kelly Robson

A two-year man only served a short time at war in the colonies, coming home to find only menial jobs waiting for him, with four-year and six-year men lording over him. Mikkel’s job is as a janitor in a bio-lab where babies are grown in tanks, and one of his duties is to incinerate the waste. One day in the incinerator bin he finds a living baby, a “taint” as they call a defective one, with a beak and talons. Mikkel immediately knows he was meant to find her, to take her home. His wife Anna had sold her ovaries to the lab and can’t bear children. Now they have a child.

Mikkel laid the baby on the bed. He diapered and dressed the baby, and then trimmed her talons with Anna’s nail scissors. He fitted a sock over each of the baby’s hands and pinned them to her sleeves. Then he wedged Anna’s pillow between the bed and the wall, tucked the baby in his arms, and fell into sleep.

This is a truly heartbreaking story about a genuinely good man who wants nothing more than a home filled with love. The author creates an ominous tension that builds throughout Mikkel’s day at work, thinking every moment of the baby at home, waiting for him. The setting is realistically dystopian; we learn enough about it to understand Mikkel’s situation, but the text isn’t slowed down with unnecessary details. Well done.


“Wild Honey” by Paul McAuley

In a post-apocalypse world, Mel [means honey] is the keeper of a bioengineered bee colony, linked to the hive by quantum ties. From their honey, she distills elixirs and medications.

But the bees didn’t love her back. Every keeper had to accept that. Some outsiders believed that because they were tweaked and networked the bees had somehow acquired sentience, but they hadn’t. And even if they had, it was doubtful that they would have acquired any concept of love or hate, or free will.

When a band of outlaws shows up with a sick man, Mel agrees to help him, knowing the risk; knowing, and therefore prepared.

There’s not a lot of surprise in the storyline here. What stands out is the hard-minded, unsentimental attitude, refusing to romanticize either the bees or the world they live in.

“The First Step” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

This one, on the other hand, is entirely sentiment. Professor DeLeo makes a time machine so he can go back to a moment in his past. He repeats his intention a lot, while readers come to suspect that the eventual reveal won’t mean much to them, or to anyone not DeLeo. Disappointing from this author.

Analog, September 2015

Continuing the Schmidt serial and another installment in Shoemaker’s Aldrin series leaves room for only a few independent shorts. Readers who aren’t regular followers of these continuations are going to be seriously shortchanged with this issue, although the quality of the shorts themselves is quite adequate.

“Live from the Air Chair” by Maggie Clark

Post-apocalypse. Earth has gone bubbledy-goo, and the surviving population [which doesn’t seem to be very large, as everyone seems to know everyone else up there] is eking out survival in space aboard AI-run ships. Whately occupies his time as a music salvager.

“Goooooooood morning, space trash! This is DJ Whately coming at you with Wailin’ through the Ages: bringing you the best of what our shitty forefathers left behind.”

The overall mental health of the survivors doesn’t seem high; the space is full of nutcases, some of them dangerous.

The story could perhaps best be considered an incident. Stuff happens, the situation is resolved, though we don’t know how. Mainly, we see Whately and Eline get back together, which is a trivial outcome considering the dire possibilities that were briefly raised and the human cost some people had to pay, not to mention that we didn’t see them break up in the first place.

“The Crashing of the Cloud” by Norman Spinrad

Cyber jihad. Upon seeing which, readers may feel a chill of suspicion that this one will turn out to be political, perhaps even a screed. Not so, happily, it’s hackery and mostly fun stuff. It seems that Brother Rat, the Ace of Aces among hackerdom, has taken down the IRS, mostly for the lulz. The IRS, however isn’t laughing.

It had never occurred to him that Federales, lacking any sense of humor or appreciation for his masterpiece of the hacking art, would be so pissed off that, knowing that no jury would ever convict him, would instead decide that they needed to hit his delete button by whatever means necessary before he did something even worse. Meaning a presidential finding invoking extreme prejudice and turning the contract over to the Black Ops Boys, human or otherwise.

Thus he now finds himself too-hot-to-touch self. And naturally, the Caliphate wants its quid for the quo of harboring him.

The narrative slides back and forth between BR’s point of view and that of Hassan, the Islamic cyberwarrior who is now his guard, both men very different and much alike. It’s only marred slightly by a few contemporary references, such as to Snowden. We can live with that.

[It’s interesting to compare this one with the Fugii from Lightspeed, above, on the issue of the impossibility of actually taking down the Internet, whole and entire.]

“Endless Forms Most Beautiful” by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Advanced art collecting in a decadent-seeming far future that emits a certain scent of Vance. Of all the artgraves [from the German graf, or count] one of the most reclusive, pretentious, and arrogant is the palsgrave Greshmenn. As the story opens, he is obsessed with a flaw in a valuable Evolutive painting.

“If your visual memory enhancements allow, you will notice that the painting is subtly different now from what it was seconds ago. Diminutive alterations are occurring every instant: color, texture, angle, style of brushstrokes, and so on. That’s the norm for all Evolutive art—endless change. The work reassembles itself bit by quantum bit,” Greshmenn said.

A stranger offers to repair the flaw if Greshmenn, in turn, will edit a collection even more valuable than his own. There is, of course, a trick involved.

The setting is the primary interest here, intriguing but not very informative, as this world would doubtless consider primitive entities such as ourselves to be insufficiently evolved to appreciate the precious elegance of their milieu. The trick, however, is one that we can appreciate, in our own unadvanced way. Sneaky.

Kaleidotrope, Summer 2015

A good issue this quarter. A couple of the pieces are dark fantasy, strongly flavored with grue. I found only one real clunker. Maybe two.

“The Posthuman Condition” by Charlotte Ashley

The drawbacks of performance death art. Jesse is the stage manager for the posthuman band Carnopolis, posthuman in this case mostly meaning surgical modification.

Her own commitment to transhumanism had never gone beyond nanotech implants. She was a tech girl, really; a punked-up gadget-head with more virtual than real friends as far back as middle school. A neural upgrade that would allow her to interface with a wireless network? Sure, hook me up!

But H+ catered more to the biotech crowd, those freaks sharing blueprints for new organs or lighting systems spun from bioluminescent cephalopods. She’d exhausted her capacity to be shocked by what printed out of those spinners.

Or so she had believed before Michel’s performance suicide, which Krynn insists on leaving in situ for art’s sake. But this self-sacrifice is only the opening number.

Dark humor here with SFnal material. Jesse makes a lively narrator, as she punctuates her attempts to cope with invented monograph titles: Technological Transhumanism: Severing Ourselves from the Weaknesses of the Flesh. A Damn Good Idea From Jesse Bauman. I might also suggest: There’s no idea so crazy it won’t be embraced for fashion’s sake.

“Shuffle” by Jennifer K Oliver

Zombies—the brain-eating kind. Our narrator was Sarah when she was alive, and occasionally still remembers it after a full course of brains, but the cognitive boost fades quickly. Zombie point of view is pretty well done, for zombies, but I’m ambivalent on the conclusion.

“Bitter Medicine” by C A L

Here is a piece that starts with subtle strangeness in an artificially mannered world full of Beautiful People of the Fin de Siècle. Raoul is taking Percival from Paris to visit a friend in Siberia. Percival apparently once studied atomic theory at the Sorbonne with the Curies, but he’s suffering from amnesia; could this be the result of ODing on absinthe? There is a secret Arcane Society that they aren’t supposed to talk about. Arriving at Henral’s estate, they find him brewing up an elixir to restore his wife’s memory. He and Raoul perform tricks with matter transmission, which jog Percival’s memory.

The text is interleaved with provocative epigraphs, hinting at secrets. Eventually, the Reveal comes, and it’s worth waiting for, but there is yet more to come. Unusual premise with a strong aha! factor. Besides which, there are strong themes of memory and love.


“Chinese Poetry” by Robert Pritchard

Meta-mystery game with alternative solutions. Farcical fun for fans of this period genre, but I suspect readers may find some scenes offensive, notwithstanding the fact that the piece replicates attitudes which were commonplace in the bygone times that it satirizes.

“Her Mother’s Child” by Julie Sondra Decker

A world in which a Goddess chooses the right mate for every child at age fifteen. The narrator’s daughter is approaching that age; the mother has never been able to communicate with Iris, and this isn’t because she’s lost her voice for reasons we don’t know. Readers will know Iris’s secret a long time before the author stops repeating herself and comes on with the Reveal. A lesson story, a really old lesson, repetitively told and quite dully, too.

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

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

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

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Hannu Rajaniemi

Collected Fiction, Hannu Rajaniemi (Tachyon 978-1-61696-192-3, $25.95, 238p, hc) May 2015.

Despite a well-deserved reputation on the basis of his Quantum Thief trilogy, Hannu Rajaniemi has actually published only a handful of stories in his first decade as a writer, and only a few of those reached a wide audience by appearing in Jonathan Strahan anthologies or making it into one or more ‘‘year’s bests.’’ Others showed up in venues as obscure as a science festival or local Scottish publications, and a few even on Twitter. Nearly all of them, plus three previously unpublished stories, are included in Collected Fiction (an unnervingly definitive title for a young writer), and they still add up to a book of only 238 pages, suggesting that the principle of inclusiveness may have been as much a matter of necessity as of choice. Inclusive collections, in which a writer essentially lays out his entire career for inspection, have the advantage of allowing us to feel the fabric, to recognize what is radically new (and there’s a fair amount of that with Rajaniemi) as well as what is familiar – and, at least in this case, to watch in real time his technical development as a writer. But, to continue that feeling-the-fabric metaphor, it also inevitably has something of the aura of a yard sale: there are the treasures, and then there are the weird lamps.

Don’t get me wrong; the best stories here are very good indeed. ‘‘His Master’s Voice’’ has already been anthologized three times, and is as rich in posthuman (almost post-biological) invention as his novels, and ‘‘Tyche and the Ants’’ (from Strahan’s Edge of Infinity and included in Dozois’s Year’s Best) is perhaps the best example in short form of how Rajaniemi can deploy his radically defamiliarized worlds in the service of a tale that is both humanly engaging and genuinely touching. ‘‘Elegy for a Young Elk’’ (three year’s bests) does much the same sort of thing, but also shows how Rajaniemi can make effective use of the natural settings of his native Finland as well as inventing a strikingly original postsingularity city of the sort that was so convincing in the novels. ‘‘The Server and the Dragon’’ (anthologized three times since its appearance in Strahan’s Engineering Infinity) is a tour de force of finding lyricism in a story that features no human characters at all, and that practically takes us beyond Greg Egan territory in telling of a lonely ‘‘server’’ sent out to seed the universe from a ‘‘darkship,’’ and its encounter with an equally abstract (but at least visualizable) ‘‘dragon.’’ ‘‘Deus ex Homine’’ (two year’s bests) concerns a ‘‘godplague’’ and an ongoing war involving AIs and humans. These stories alone are enough to demonstrate Rajaniemi’s strikingly original talent.

At the same time, having virtually all of an author’s short fiction on display, from a career of little over a decade, inevitably reveals repetitive habits and narrative tricks that I suspect Rajaniemi will eventually move beyond. For one thing – and this is as true of the novels as of some of these stories – Rajaniemi often hangs his densely original invented worlds on the simplest of old-fashioned narrative frameworks. The Quantum Thief was at core a Maurice LeBlanc-influenced story of a boy detective and a master thief, and ‘‘His Master’s Voice’’ is basically an almost Disney-simple tale of a brave cat and dog who rescue their master, despite its conceptual fireworks. Similarly, ‘‘Deus Ex Homine’’ may involve a recovering ‘‘god’’ and a futuristic war, but it also has a narrator whose girlfriend comes home on leave and who doesn’t get along with her parents. ‘‘Tyche and the Ants’’ is nearly a children’s story about a girl whose life among her virtual friends conceals from her the fact that her parents are long dead, and she’s been alone on the moon for years.

‘‘Tyche and the Ants’’ exemplifies another of Rajaniemi’s writing-workshop habits: beginning stories with one-sentence paragraphs so formulaic they almost look programmed: one temporal preposition or time code, two characters introduced, and an unexplained allusion that serves as a hook: ‘‘The ants arrived on the moon on the same day Tyche went through the Secret Door to give a ruby to the Magician.’’ Or, ‘‘The moon suit came back to Hazel the same night Pete was buried at sea’’ (‘‘The Haunting of Apollo A7LB’’, a not-too-convincing haunted spacesuit tale). Or, ‘‘On the day they finally got the Cathedral’s mermaid bone factory working, Kev told Raija he was not going to come back’’ (‘‘The Jugaad Cathedral’’, which combines a social-mediated world with a Minecraft-like virtuality). Or, ‘‘The night before Kuovi was supposed to fly home, the four of them went to bring back Bibi’s soul’’ (about a girl whose dead friend survives in an elaborate app), and so on, to the point of tiresomeness.

But for readers already familiar with Rajaniemi’s rich worlds of posthumans and utility fogs (which show up in a couple of stories here, as they do in the novels), the most interesting revelation in Collected Fiction might be his use of Finnish settings and folklore. ‘‘The Viper Blanket’’ concerns a family shunned because of their reputed link to the underworld god Tuoni, while the protagonist of ‘‘Fisher of Men’’ has to contend with a mythical sea-beast called Iku-Turso, and in ‘‘The Oldest Game’’ a recovering alcoholic returning to his father’s farm to commit suicide encounters the grain-god Pellonpekko. ‘‘Paris in Love’’ is a rather thin piece in which a vacationing Finn literally falls in love with the city, which somehow follows him home, its landmarks sprouting up in the bleak landscape of a Finnish autumn. Stories like these suggest interesting and different directions of Rajaniemi’s fiction, as do his more experimental pieces like ‘‘Invisible Planets’’, apparently inspired by Calvino’s Invisible Cities but really more in the tone of his Cosmicomics, and a version of ‘‘Snow White’’ derived from a neuroscience experiment in which the reader’s brain responses supposedly direct the movement of the story. There is also a selection of his Twitter-length microfictions, which range from the delightful to the merely contorted. The longest original story here, ‘‘Skywalker of Earth’’, suggests that Rajaniemi may have an interest in archaic SF pulp as well as older mystery novels. It concerns a young NSA agent sent to interview an aging and reclusive physicist, who finds herself caught up in a space opera conflict dating from the 1920s, but with enormous stakes. It’s lightweight fun, but weirdly makes you wonder what a collaboration between Rajaniemi and Doc Smith might look like – it would probably look like a hoot. Collected Fiction is an uneven collection, and may be a bit premature for a young writer still experimenting with voice and balance, but there’s little doubt that Rajaniemi at his best is an imposing talent.

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Paul Di Filippo reviews Nicole Kornher-Stace

Archivist Wasp, Nicole Kornher-Stace (Small Beer Press/Big Mouth House 978-1618730978, $14, 256pp, trade paperback) May 2015

I regret that I neglected to note the appearance of Nicole Kornher-Stace’s first novel, Desideria, upon its debut in 2008, shortly after her first story, “Pieces of Scheherazade,” had appeared in 2006 and garnered her inclusion in a Year’s Best compilation. Reading various reviews of Desideria now makes it sound like just my cuppa. But I won’t make the same mistake with her sophomore release, Archivist Wasp, and I can always work my way backwards along her career path! That’s why God invented Amazon and Barnes & Noble and AbeBooks.

The overarching category into which our tale falls is “postapocalypse,” a well-worked vein, especially during the 21st-century’s present cultural fix. But there are enough twists and turns to render the novel satisfyingly different. It bears honorable affinities to such classics as Fred Saberhagen’s Empire of the East series.

The small harsh settlement of Sweetwater, under the aegis of the goddess Catchkeep and her priest, is plagued by ghosts, “faceless silver paper-doll cutouts the size of mice.” But the ghosts are not harmless; they are capable of wreaking physical damage on property and persons. The villagers’ only defense against the ghosts is the young woman dubbed Archivist. With her ghost-trapping tools, including a unique blade, she can purge the spirits, rendering them truly dead. In the process, she is supposed to examine the ectoplasmic remnants for clues about the ancient collapse of civilization, some four hundred years or more gone.

Our heroine, the current Archivist, is named Wasp, and we witness her during the prologue barely surviving the ritual challenge to her duties. So she is in a grim, applecart-upsetting mood when a different kind of ghost approaches her. Man-sized and communicative—how strange!—the ghost wishes to “hire” Wasp to track down one of his dead peers. (For some odd reason perhaps peculiar to me, I kept flashing on Harlan Ellison’s time-stranded savior from “Demon with a Glass Hand” when the ghost spoke.) And so Wasp and companion leave Sweetwater behind for an odd hegira. Along the way, Wasp discovers the ability to mentally relive the pre-collapse life of Foster, the woman who is the ghost’s quarry. Thus the ancient quest to understand what brought down civilization is eventually fulfilled. And Wasp has a chance to change her village for the better.

Kornher-Stace exhibits immense fluidity and grace of prose. She is able to evoke the creepy, barren, stifled post-collapse world; the other-dimensional byways down which the ghost brings Wasp; and the pre-collapse Project Latchkey environment where Foster works, all in differing but equally vivid styles. The reader will feel the cold and damp, the scalpels and clamps, the fairytale ambiance of a ghostly “waystation,” with exactitude and weight.

Likewise, Kornher-Stace exhibits fine skills with characterization: Wasp and the ghost both emerge fully rounded. And her action scenes are cinematic.

But all these skills are, I fear, slightly impeded from full flowering by two choices the author made.

The first is that there is really no one in this book but two people. Wasp and the ghost.

The villagers get some cameo appearances at start and end. But once Wasp leaves Sweetwater with the ghost, there is literally no one else to sustain the action. This burden is something that can be brought off in Waiting for Godot or Neil Gaiman’s “‘The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains…’.” But those are much shorter works. In any novel, we yearn for a bigger cast, to have our protagonist interact with as many people as the plot will allow.

But wait, you say, what about all that good stuff with Foster? Plenty of additional characters there, you rightly note.

Well, kinda. These are visions caused by ghost blood. These people are all dead. Wasp can only witness their unspooling traces. She can’t interact. And the undeniably fixed nature of their deeds, the immutable and helpless fate of Foster and crew, however deftly the Latchkey enigma is protracted before being revealed, distances the reader from full involvement with them.

These two factors—the limited cast and the dead hand of the past—have an effect of lessening the immersiveness and immediacy of the book—at least for me. While I applauded Wasp’s spunk and took interest in her challenges and how she might surmount them, I felt somewhat thwarted from getting fully invested in this world, due to limited exposure on all fronts.

If we look at John Crowley’s masterpiece, Engine Summer, a book with many of the same themes and tropes, I think readers might see what’s missing here.

Archivist Wasp arrives from Big Mouth House, the imprint of Kelly Link’s and Gavin Grant’s Small Beer Press that specializes in books for Young Adults, and this novel is so labeled. But its vast virtues and wise lessons hold full appeal for any age group, despite its brushes with a narrowness of scope.

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

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late June 2015

Looking at a miscellaneous bunch of ezines, not finding any real stars in them. Hoping to have the digests in for July.

Publications Reviewed

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #175-176, June 2015

#175 has women going forth on adventures; #176 has women with a destiny.


“On Freedom of Agency and the Finding of Lost Hearts” by Ken Scholes

Fantasy adventure in the old-fashioned mode, with thieves, demons, wizards, gods, and a quest for a powerful talisman. Shayna is a thief—there may be a Guild involved—who indentured herself to serve a demon. Her master has now dispatched her to steal an object unspecified from a cabin deep in the woods. This turns out to be the Heart of Elyon, a god of love, which is borne by the man who once ruled the world through its power.

Ansylus of Erok, Ansylus the Conqueror, Ansylus the Enslaver. It had taken half the League of Wizards to bring him down two thousand years ago. It had brought about the treaty with the demons and restored the Art to them.

But Shayna, it now transpires, is immune to its power. After which, things go strangely but ultimately well.

Reading it, I realize how seldom I see this sort of story these days, with all these elements gathered unironically. Only the title suggests otherwise.

“Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds” by Rose Lemberg

Aviya-nai-Bashri, our narrator, was born into the Khana people, whose lives are bound with copious restrictions and requirements, many involving sex roles. Segregation is the rule, so that men live as scholars in their own separate compounds while women in adulthood form partnerships to go outside and trade, leaving behind their children and grandmothers to raise them. Aviya’s mothers have decamped, which is apparently not common, but the main problem lies with her younger brother Kimi, who appears to have some form of autism and doesn’t speak; the men will not accept him into their scholarly company, so that his auspicious male name is taken from him and he is given a girl’s.

Now this is an intricate social setting, but by this point in the text readers will have realized that its function is to allow the author to mess with the effects that a society’s sex roles can have on individual identity. In short, this is identity fiction, and the setting is there to serve the author’s message, as are the characters, each inhabiting a particular role as if wearing a mask. So that grandmother-nai-Tommah wants to be a man, while Kimi is a symbol of ambiguity, a prop for an argument against binary identity that comes right out of today’s twitter posts.

“I don’t think your grandchild knows—cares—what tai is.” Naïr used a pronoun common to many desert languages—tai, taim, tair in Surun’—that indicated ‘neither he nor she’. The Khana language lacked such a word, both in the speech the scholars used and in women’s talk. In Khana, a person was either she or he. In Khana, all the words were either she or he—carpets, carts, grains of sand, stars in the sky each had their chosen form, female or male. There was no escaping this, but the desert tongues lacked such a distinction. One could be anything. In Surun’.

This society, while well detailed, seems to be created primarily for thematic purposes and not to be realistic, which is where the story is weakest, when all men and women are constrained to follow a single line of work; this isn’t a practical way of running an economy nor a society. The notion of men as scholars evokes a kind of yeshiva world, but in fact the men are useful–tinkerers who create the goods that the women traders go forth to sell. But I can’t see why a boy needs to be verbal to be able to do this kind of work. I also wonder where Aviya’s family gets the money to survive, since the mother/traders appear to have deserted them. In our world, journeys such as they undertake have always been hazardous business, with the trade routes infested with bandits. Yet two or three women, unarmed, blithely venture forth to cross a bone-strewn desert in full confidence of being able to return safely with riches. Magic can’t be counted on to protect them, as magic is ubiquitous in this world, as likely to be wielded by evildoers as the innocent. This system just hasn’t been thought through. Nor has the notion of trading associations staffed by lovers. As Aviya and her partner discover, compatibility in love doesn’t necessarily mean compatibility in business.

Happily, the story isn’t intolerably didactic, and there are sufficient elements interesting in their own right and not simply message vehicles. And the narrator has a name—indeed, names are a matter of profound importance in these societies, both family names and deepnames, which designate an individual’s command of magic. Aviya’s magic is near-nonexistent and she takes no deepnames, but grandmother-nai-Tommah is a “three-name strong”, capable of safely crossing the desert alone. Kimi, too, has potent magic, which the rigid rules governing Khana society would have left undeveloped. As The Animals would say, they gotta get outa that place in order to realize their individual potential. The author doesn’t mention this, but the system also inhibits the freedom of men and women who might want to live together and even become lovers.

Definitely the best aspect of this piece is related to the cloth woven of winds, symbol of the family’s tragic past that Aviya slowly uncovers. Venturing forth into other lands with other customs, the women encounter exotic wonders, peoples who can weave the air and songs, peoples with different gods. Here is where the magic comes alive.


“The Girl with Golden Hair” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

A variation on familiar fairytale tropes which the author has turned to dross for story purposes. A girl is born with golden hair, but it’s hard and heavy and apparently can’t be sold or spent. Her poor parents believe good things will come of this, but it doesn’t seem likely, especially as they name her Oovis. In fact, her golden hair provokes the jealousy of the Evil Stepqueen.

Readers will flash on one recognizable image after another, but not much seems to come of it, other than a lesson against the destiny of birth so common in the familiar tales.

“Court Bindings” by Karalynn Lee

This daughter is a princess who has a powerful magical gift of binding animals to do her will. “You do not mean to be cruel to all the animals you practice upon, but you are.” The narrator who says this is her bodyguard, who doesn’t like the idea of the unwanted attention this skill might draw in the court, where assassination plots are rife and the queen is unpopular. The princess soon learns how to use her gift on people, until the time comes when she must confront her destiny.

A nicely mannered courtly piece with a fitting twist at the end. The story might involve destiny, but its real theme is power., June 2015

Not much original independent fiction posted here this month.

“Waters of Versailles” by Kelly Robson

One of the main archetypes of the fairy tale is the discharged soldier seeking his fortune. Our soldier, Sylvain de Guilherand, is an officer, not a commoner, in fact, a distant relation of minor nobility, which is sufficient to gain him entrée into the halls of Louis XV’s Versailles. There he’s made a mark for himself by improving the plumbing, restoring the fountains and introducing the luxury of the flush toilet. While Sylvain has done a lot of actual engineering work, constructing cisterns and a network of pipes, the heart of the project is the secret presence of a nixie he’s captured and introduced into the waterworks of the palace. But the nixie is temperamental, jealous, and makes constant demands for attention.

A drip splashed on the back of his neck, and another a few moments later. He had Annette abandoned now, making little animal noises in the back of her throat as he drove into her. Another drip rolled off his wig, down his cheek, over his nose. He glanced overhead and a battery of drips hit his cheek, each bigger than the last.

While this piece doesn’t have the form of a fairy tale, it engages the same themes and, as contemporary of the tales often do, subverts them. So Sylvain discovers that making his fortune at court and seducing ladies-in-waiting isn’t the path to true happiness. What I find missing here is the story of his earlier life, his decision to take this step, and how he figured out about the nixie. Without this, the story isn’t quite complete.

“The Deepest Rift” by Ruthanna Emrys

An interstellar setting called the inhabited worlds, which apparently means inhabited by both humans and nonhumans. Titan’s Rift is the deepest canyon in all these worlds, and in it live flying creatures called mantas. The narrator and her team of sapiologists [love that word] are attempting to prove there is significance in the patterns they form, weaving sculptures of thin wire filaments like spider silk that the observers believe are evidence of sapience. Unfortunately, the evidence they’ve gathered so far isn’t conclusive. Now an AI proctor has come to assess their progress.

A disappointingly predictable piece that slights a promising SFnal premise, being more concerned with the narrator’s personal matters than the science. The members of the research team are all lovers, and it’s clear that remaining together is at least as important to them as their research. And the narrator is deaf, seeing bias against her in the attitudes of others.

I want to point out that for all her advantages, she works without touch, kinesthesia, all the subtle senses that aid human reason. And yet she judges me deficient. But it’s the wrong argument, and I hold my fingers and tongue still.

From the first page, it’s already clear what will happen: the team will discover the evidence it needs; the discovery will be made possible through the narrator’s enhanced non-hearing senses; the team won’t have to break up; no one will have to make any hard choices; things will work out just fine.

GigaNotoSaurus, June 2015

It’s been some time since I looked at this ezine, established to provide a home for longer fiction, though I hadn’t noticed a lot of particularly long fiction here.

“The Business of Buying and Selling” by Patricia Russo

Ria lives in a world where anything whatsoever can be sold in the underground market, including a toothache [good for curses]. But the lease on her toothache has expired, so she has it back again, and the young couple down the hall has a baby that just won’t stop screaming.

If that baby didn’t stop crying, she was going to lose her mind. Her tooth was throbbing anyway, but the high-pitched bawling made her clench her jaw, and the ouch! of that sent a bolt of bright blue pain straight through her head.

This, eventually, gives Ria an idea. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out as planned.

The key to this one is being able to accept the fantastic premise. The problem is that it’s both too long and too short. Too long, in that Ria’s situation is described at rather excessive length, making for tedium. Too short, in that the ending cuts off too abruptly, leaving readers wondering, “Then what?”

Perihelion, June 2015

Also taking another look at this monthly SF zine, looking for Hard Stuff. There are eight full-length stories, along with other features. Most of these pieces aren’t really ready for the professional level, which is perhaps to be expected. But I would have liked to see more attempts, at least, at real Hard SF. The ones that did make such attempts tend to be the better stories, too.

“Au Pair, or Else” by Lee Budar Danoff

Angela is in a bind. Her large brood of kids, including triplets, is notorious on the au pair network, and she can’t get back to her job at Sea World without childcare. But an alien from Tau Ceti? The State Department puts it to her in a way she can’t refuse. “You get help with your kids, we get our ambassador, she gets to swim with Earth’s sea creatures, and your program gets funding. It’s a quadruple win.” This, of course, is less than the truth. In fact, not only can Angela not leave Coral alone with the kids, she can’t leave her alone at all. Her babysitter needs a babysitter.

This is a silly premise. If aliens want to commune with Earth’s sea creatures, there’s no need to set them up in a human residence as a disguised nanny. And as SF, it’s quite soft.

“Frail World” by R A Conine

Karl is a middle-aged physicist who was foolish enough to marry a gold-digging harpy who isn’t above murdering an inconvenient husband or two. Fortunately, she rarely follows him down to the dark basement lab where he’s attempting to create a Planck universe, but desperation for divorce finally overcomes her distaste.

The reference to Planck theory is momentarily promising, but here it’s mostly handwavium. The portrayal of the wife goes way too far into the ridiculous, and the horror ending is just hokey.

“Electra Had a Daughter” by Juliana Rew

Post apocalypse. Most of humanity is dead, and most of the remainder is feral, outside the guarded enclaves.

The humans in New Telluride were liberal as hell, but out in the hinterland, the Dark Ages were back. Those who still believed in God had the idea that they had to die purely human before they could go to heaven when God called the worthy on doomsday.

The cyborgs are in a position to inherit the Earth, such as it is, but instead they are working to clone humans from a bank of stored germ plasm, albeit with improvements and enhancements.

The overall situation here is sketchy, with the usual clichéd post-apocalyptic demonic nutcases populating the landscape, while cyborgs are the new generation of angels. At least the cloning project seems scientifically plausible.

“This Long Vigil” by Rhett C Bruno

We’re on the Interstellar Ark Hermes, a generation ship run by an AI, in this case named Dan. Orion is the only human currently awake as a monitor to assist the AI. The other nine hundred and ninety-nine inhabitants are hibernating in stasis chambers. Their number never fluctuates; when one is recycled at age seventy, a replacement is birthed. Orion, approaching his fiftieth birthday, will soon return to his chamber after selecting his replacement. But Orion is discontented.

I wanted to grasp her smooth hands and welcome her to the realm of the living; to feel the pulse of her veins beneath her skin—real human contact. Sometimes I’d watch as her chest gently heaved from the air she unconsciously breathed in through her respirator, and that was often enough to get my heart racing.

Orion finds himself wanting many things, but not to return to hibernation and await his death.

Here at least is a Hard SF concept and a somewhat different take on the generation ship—unfortunately, not entirely in a good way. The core problem is the assumption that the passengers should represent a normal distribution of ages, which is why frozen embryos weren’t packed to be thawed at the end of the trip. But this is false reasoning. If the capability exists, embryos could have been thawed in stages when the destination was reached. And if the ability to do this exists, there would be no need to impregnate an unconscious woman, which is really appalling. So I feel strongly for Orion in his position and deplore the waste of lives, but it’s a position he should never have been in, a position artificially contrived by the author.

There are other problems: The term “stasis” is misused. In a true stasis, all organic function including growing and aging would be suspended indefinitely. Here, the unconscious passengers seem to have a normally active metabolism, and that takes the resources of oxygen and nutrition that the project claims it doesn’t have to support a living population. Even in hibernation, however, I suspect that the aging process would be considerably slowed so that seventy years wouldn’t be the natural limit of life. The monitor alone would age, while the sleeping passengers would occupy the quasi-stasis of an artificially extended lifespan. So I don’t think the author has thought this situation quite all the way through.

“Old Clothes” by Eric Del Carlo

The title sort of says it all: humanity has cast off its terrestrial raiment and gone into space, leaving its discarded garments behind. They carry on as well as they can, picking up the lives of their Wearers [sic]. But matters can’t go on in that way forever. Our narrator, who uses the name Yamagata, muses, “Perhaps we simply were not meant to exist without our Wearers.” An overly obvious truth.

The concept is a kind of neat metaphorical twist on the classic Left Behind trope, but it makes insufficient sense as science fiction, as opposed to, say, sentient pets or household robots.

“Good Behavior” by Genevieve Williams

As in, imprisonment. Convicts in this scenario are dispersed among ordinary residential dwellings, with special security arrangements.

There’s always that moment of wondering whether I’ll get to go out today. They could tell you when you wake up. But no. They’ll let you wonder, and hope, and even expect. Then the buzzer will sound and the red light will come on, and you’ll find out there’s a security breach or some con made a run for it or you’ve committed some infraction they didn’t tell you about until just now. Lockdown.

Their sentence is menial labor, cleaning the Street, though not many people actually use the Street. Demetrios is doing pretty well earning good time until he’s accosted by a more effective criminal than he used to be, looking for information that only he can provide.

Here, finally, is a story that works, sufficiently original for interest. I can’t say that I totally buy the non-prison prison system, but it works well enough as conceived here, and it probably saves money. The system works because of advanced technology, the all-seeing ambient, which a much larger overall role in this society; crimjuice is only one aspect. And the piece is quite SF enough to satisfy. The best one here.

“Saving Time” by John Hegenberger

The downside of time travel. Sam got this idea for a time machine and built it to try out the theory.

This fourth dimension is the instant of time when the mind travels freely from one view to the other. Time, then, is an invisible “optical illusion.” The more complex the illusions, the more the mind is conditioned to travel uninhibited—almost in anticipation—directly forward.

But he was reckless, and the thing went wrong; he aged fifty years in a minute, leaving him with nothing but bitter regret and a wife who seems rather too good for him . We know this from the first paragraph, which is where the story starts, and from which it has nowhere in particular to go but over the backstory and over again. Also into the relationship between Sam and his wife. A decently SFnal treatment of this subject, but not the best fiction.

“World Away” by Alan Garth

Another generation ship, this one with teenagers running freely over the place, which makes the Bruno scenario almost seem preferable in comparison. But this time, it’s not Tenni’s fault, it’s the tech who sends her out to the hull with empty thrust packs on her eevee suit. Also her frenemy Freemon, supposed to be her partner on this EVA. A nice enough, though slight, space story that doesn’t quite reach the level of adventure. Tenni seems competent enough but she isn’t given the opportunity to save herself. I just don’t believe in that tech guy.

Aphelion, 196 June 2015

I couldn’t resist the idea of taking a look at this one after the similarly titled Perihelion. But despite the spacey title and space-themed cover image, the zine takes a broad approach to the genre, including fantasy and horror. I like that it’s open to longer works, I don’t like that they’re serialized; there is one serial in this issue. I read the five full-sized short stories, rather better written and more incompetently copyedited.

“Groundhog Days” by George T Philibin

A virus makes all the animals intelligent, which is one thing, but giving them a government subsidy is just silly. Feasters the groundhog decides to go see the world, and he doesn’t much like what he finds, which is that intelligence and government checks don’t make for happiness. The rat, at least, has a useful job, but all the groundhog does is scarf down free food, which means that intelligence hasn’t changed that species much. In the not-thinking-things-through department, we have carnivores eating steaks when all animals have the legal right to life. Nope, silly. Readers who think groundhogs are cute might find this appealing in a way, but I’m a gardener and I know better.

“Mr Bramble and Mr Thornapple Redecorate” by Jill Hand

When her house disappears into a sinkhole, Donna buys the only replacement she can afford, which is kind of a dump but all hers, including a parcel of woods. While hunting one day for her escaped cat, Evil George, she encounters what readers will recognize as a couple of fairies in knee-breeches, who offer her a boon in exchange for their trespassing. This will probably remind readers of a certain fairy tale. Amusingly done.

“Finding the Ice Sculptor’s Castle” by Sean Mulroy

Told in late tsarist Russia by a narrator who had appreciated the works of the master ice sculptor in St Petersburg when a young man. But Mikhail Cherevin was never completely satisfied with his work, as even in Russia his palaces had melted under the summer sun. He disappeared after his last successful season, and wasn’t seen again in Russia for nineteen years, when the narrator recognized him, grown old, and learned his story.

An oddly-done piece, essentially historical fiction.

“Until We Part” by Rajeev Prasad

Mack is chief of security for a large bioengineerng corporation that engages in morally dubious projects attractive to criminals and vulnerable to corporate rivals. “Corporate expects me to get the job done, but whenever they come around, they make things difficult.” But now someone in corporate is trying to dispose of Mack’s lover Yuki, and he’s not going to let that happen, no matter what, even after he learns her secret.

SF action thriller, competently done, but a lot of stuff is left to be explained until late in the action.

“A Life of Simplicity” by Emerson Fortier

The narrator is a refugee from the war immolating his world, destroying his home and killing the rest of his family, a reminder that a disproportionate number of war casualties are civilians, children.

I’ve watched men lined up for holding to some ideal, watched other men come down the line with a laser rifle and watched the heads evaporate from the beam of energy before their bodies were kicked into the stream. Dozens of them killed by men who were filled with rhetoric. Arguments are simpler with a gun, less difficult to understand, less complicated to contend with.

SF for the advanced technology and extraterrestrial setting, but otherwise what we can see here on Earth today.

Fireside, June 2015

This one is subheaded “many genres . . . just good stories”, which is great if you can pull it off. There are only two full-length shorts, plus a serial and other content.

“If Wishes Were Obfuscation Codes” by Malon Edwards

The narrative here is pretty well obfuscated by language, cyberpunkish jargon mixed with the Haitian Creole that the author has employed in other settings, and a lot of brand names for the status factor. This must be considered a feature, not a bug, a tool for creating the cyber-exoticism of this future setting but it can make for a thorny reading experience.

My plan had been to go into Yumi Kobayashi’s nexus with guns blazing, true Doré style: Custom-made hot-pink AMT Hardballer Longslides. Glammed-up silver-dyed kink curls. Golden brown skin oiled to a light sheen. Sleek dark sunglasses. Black leather halter, black leather pants, black leather calf boots. Bad attitude.

So starting out, this sounds like a lot of fun. Our narrator is actually supposed to be on the side of the Law Guild, a forensic detective no less, not that you’d know it. She claims to be an infiltration programme, which seems to mean that she’s running one in the nexus, and is, like everyone else in this milieu, enhanced and cyborged, unless they are wholly artificial like holograms and murderous gynoids like Yumi Kobayashi, the target of her raid. She calls dj gruv grrl an obfuscation programme, and she’s a lot more than just a dj. Doré is supposed to be targeting Yumi Kobayashi on a murder charge, but she’s totally distracted by dj gruv grrl, which is either dereliction of duty or cyberattack, or undoubtedly both. And things then get even more complex.

All this glitz could be construed as just seksi cyber-thriller adventure, but it’s not, as we discover by the end. It’s bad shit, it’s betrayal, it’s cold-blooded murder, it’s outright evil—nothing to have fun about. Which gives the ending a very bad taste in the mouth.

“Fluffy Harbinger of Death” by Alex Hughes

Myss is a harpy, for some definition of harpy with no relation to the original creature of myth, and that’s something I don’t like. Harpies don’t sing; sirens sing. Harpies torment people and shit on their food, they don’t escort them to heaven. They don’t belong noway nohow in the Christianized heaven Upstairs, rather, if anything, the other place. So it makes me irritable, and the story with a feelgood moralistic ending brings nothing to alleviate this.

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

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

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

Paul Di Filippo reviews Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter

The Long Utopia, Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter (Harper 978-0062297334, $26.99, 368pp, hardcover) June 2015

I inadvertently drifted away from this splendid series, a collaboration between Hard-SF guy Baxter and Funny Fantasist Pratchett, after the second volume, strictly from the usual cause of “not having enough damn time to read everything.” The appearance of the fourth installment happily gives me reason to catch up.

For those interested in what I thought of volumes one and two, my piece is archived at The Barnes & Noble Review, an online venue which dispenses brilliant criticism daily, for free, and with which I am most proud to be associated.

The Long Mars is book three in the series, and it unrelentingly and thrillingly continues the radical destabilization of Life As People Know It in the 2040s.

Datum Earth—our origin world in the multiverse, where the cross-dimensional Stepper device was discovered—has just experienced a cataclysm (the long-predicted explosion of the Yellowstone volcano) that renders much of the planet uninhabitable. Survivors and refugees are being shuttled to alternate colony Earths, which are strained under the influx. At the same time, a mutant race of sociopathic genius humans, the Next, has been born and is making plans to take over the multiverse from their locale at Happy Landings. (If any reader is flashing on Asimov’s Mule, times many, I think your intuition is correct.)

The Aegis—the loose confederation that seeks to coordinate the human diaspora—has mounted an expedition to set a new record of Stepper travel and exploration, and the dual-dirigible mission will, after many adventures, eventually reach a continuum some 250,000,000 universes removed from Datum Earth, then make a safe return with much knowledge.

A vastly smaller expedition elsewhere provides the rationale for the book’s title: three explorers have voyaged to Mars by conventional means and begun Stepping across the timestreams from that locale, surveying alternate versions of the Red Planet, until finally they reach one that boasts an ancient space elevator, their Grail, which will give humanity the same technology to reach space more easily.

If that sounds like a lot to cram into one book—a book not even particularly large in this age of 800-page hypertrophied tomes—your feelings are once again correct. Pratchett and Baxter are writing in “info-dense” mode that seeks to overwhelm and inspire wonder with sheer plentitude.

They certainly do not switch horses in The Long Utopia, volume four, a book with a slightly inappropriate title insofar as it depicts no conclusive settled state of perfection. But despite its similar generous overstuffed condition, the book nonetheless has a bit of a different feel, insofar as its venues are more compact, less spread-out: no journeys across millions of continua. But this does not preclude cosmic visions. As to whether this book concludes the series or not, especially in light of Pratchett’s death, the evidence is non-determining.

Throughout the series one of the main foci has been the exploits of that pioneering pair of “natural” Steppers (they do it sans machinery), Joshua Valienté and Sally Linsay. Their prickly friendship has been a dominant chord, and its sees its melancholy closure here, through developments I shall not reveal. It’s a truly affecting piece of the book. And in another aspect of character development, we get some Victorian backstory to Joshua’s powers (readers might think of Heinlein’s Lazarus Long at this juncture), and some more ruminations on Sally’s role as “the conscience of the Long Earth.”

Other threads picked up from prior installments include the ultimate fate of Lobsang, the guiding artificial intelligence who houses himself in various humanoid avatars. You might recall that one of those avatars was left talking to First Person Singular, another deific type. Get ready for that avatar to resurface. We also learn more about the Next mutants and their hidden home, the Grange.

The new developments in this book, which has moved ahead to the 2050s, concern the discovery of a race of self-replicating assemblers and disassemblers and the threat they pose to the entire Long Earth “necklace” of universes. Baxter and Pratchett rousingly approach Greg Bear territory here.

This series has shown a rare desire not to replicate familiar thrills from one volume to another, but rather to always be moving into new frontiers of plot and future history, a strategy congruent with the very nature of their SF novum. This volume, more than the previous three, really drives home the weight of the changes, the resonance for the characters of all their shared weird history, and so perhaps ultimately does justify its Grail-assonant title.

The Outward Urge is the title of one of John Wyndham’s lesser-known novels, and I always felt that the phrase captured one of the core qualities of science fiction. “Beyond this horizon.” “The lights in the sky are stars.” “The day after tomorrow.” “The door into summer.” “Ten thousand lightyears from home.” All of these other coinages express the innate human desire to see what’s up the bend and over the next mountain. It’s a trademark SF theme.

Baxter and Pratchett have found and reified the perfect objective correlative to this overwhelming and undying desire, providing readers with a new model for the same valuable and life-affirming vision of infinite frontiers that has motivated both the genre literature and the reality of the human condition since the first hominid contemplated leaving the hearth for parts unknown.

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

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-June 2015

This time I feature the latest “Destroy” special issue from Lightspeed, from which I give the increasingly rare Good Story award to Chaz Brenchley. Also the June stories from Strange Horizons, from which I like the Evanby.

Publications Reviewed

Lightspeed, June 2015

Special “Queers Destroy Science Fiction!” issue, the latest but not last of the “Destroy” series, this one with Seanan McGuire heading up the large editorial cast. I’ve not been exceedingly excited by the previous entries in this list, and I was a bit disappointed here to miss the names of some of my favorite authors on the ToC, although I wasn’t really expecting to find them. I did expect to see rather more identifiable men, authoring only four out of the eleven full-length stories. Given that women, including queer women, had the starring role in all the previous issues of the series, readers might have had good reason to expect, finally, more male contributors. [I know they’re out there.]

But my main concern with this issue is a different matter. When the submission guidelines first appeared, they made it clear that contributors would be selected on the basis of the queer identity of the author, not the subject matter of the story. Readers might have assumed that the quality of the story would have entered into this equation. Several of the stories here are good ones, obviously by competent professional authors. Some are quite good, and I single out the Brenchley. But there is a sharp, obvious contrast between these and the rest, which don’t rise anywhere close to the same standards. I can’t imagine what the fiction editor was thinking, except perhaps that any story by a queer author would be good enough for this issue.

And this points to a fundamental flaw in projects like this series: they are author-driven. The assumption seems to be: let’s have a publication where we can all place our stories. This can shortchange the reader who doesn’t care so much about who the authors are but wants to find some good reading. Too many of the stories here suggest that the editor prioritized the interests of the authors over the readers, and I don’t think that’s what publication is supposed to be about.

“勢孤取和 (Influence Isolated, Make Peace)” by John Chu

Military, or rather postwar SF. In the course of the late war, the military created cyborg supersoldiers, who aren’t considered human, even if they once were. Now the peace treaty mandates that they be decommissioned, which means eliminated. The cyborgs have other plans, but to succeed, they have to be able to fit into human society without arousing suspicion. To test himself, Jake sits down at a cafeteria table with a human soldier and engages him in conversation.

Jake discarded the sarcastic remark that headed his list of conversational alternatives. Snarking with every response was a decades-old gambit that anyone on base would recognize. Cyborgs soared through the Turing Test–they still had some human brain function, after all—but composing words was just a sliver of what he needed to do. He couldn’t merely pass for human; no one could be allowed to suspect he wasn’t.

His target turns out to be named Tyler, and he turns out to have a lot in common with Jake—they are both expert at the game of Go, they both originated in a part of China, and there is a hint of mutual attraction. But Tyler is something else, which forces a drastic change in the cyborgs’ escape plans.

The basic premise is one we’ve seen before, but Chu works it up well, giving us a good idea of what the cyborgs are without showing them in military action or suggesting that they’ve been permanently harmed by it; they apparently have advanced healing abilities, and perhaps that extends to the psyche, as well. A strong and promising opening to the issue.

“Emergency Repair” by Kate Galey

Following the instructions:

2. Drain and flush the ferrofluid circulation system.

Along the clavicular ridge, I find the port to the circulation. Every system in my original design corresponds to human anatomy, a complex advertisement of the medical applications the technology could have. It’s designed to be drained, and even with my improvised IV drip system the silver ferrofluid rushes out when the pressure is released.

It was the narrator who invented the androids and wrote the instructions for repairing them. The narrator is one half of a couple: the mad scientist, not the hero surgeon who now lies dying while the scientist works desperately to save the human life by transplanting the android core into the surgeon’s heart, using the techniques of both professions. It’s a neat military SF idea, but unfortunately overloaded with backstory, too much of which focuses mawkishly on the romantic relationship between the couple, who, after all, we haven’t really met.

“Trickier with Each Translation” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

Rosalinda warns us:

It is difficult to tell a story out of time just as it is difficult to live out of time. I try to keep hold of the present, but it’s trickier with each translation to know the present, to remember if a scene is new or old. And in a way each moment is new because I look on it with new eyes.

This is a world with superheroes. One of these, a man named Archer, has the ability to control time, and also apparently to read minds. Archer falls in love with Rosa, who is in love and married to Logan. To keep her from Logan, he keeps yanking her back and forth in time, often to the years when she was in love with a woman named Webber. But there is no time that she loves Archer.

Basically a relationship story, not a lot going on with the time travel aspect. In fact, I would call the piece fantasy. None of the characters ever develop real personalities.

“The Astrakhan, the Homburg, and the Red, Red Coal” by Chaz Brenchley

Martian steampunk. Let’s assume that the British Empire, before it was quite an empire, colonized Mars and subsequently employed it as a penal colony, rather on the lines of Australia in our own timeline, although apparently less brutal. Our narrator and his companions have been exiled there for the crime of sexual deviancy, or, as he says, “so many names for our kind–leering, contemptuous, descriptive, dismissive . . .” There is a newcomer among them, a famous individual that readers will certainly recognize, despite a bit of coyness on the part of the author concerning his name. But their gathering is interrupted by an officious official who wants to draft them into an experiment, communicating with a telepathic alien species also residing on Mars. His rationale:

“Our wise men speak of the, ah, inversion of the generative principle, as a bonding-agent stronger than blood or shared danger or duty or sworn word–but again, there is more than that. You gentlemen may be a brotherhood, drawn from within and pressed close from without; we can make you something greater, a single purpose formed from all your parts.”

Fine writing, excellent use of character in this imaginative story—the sort that can make an entire issue worthwhile on its own. The pompous-ass officer, the casual class snobbery, with the assumption that the enlisted men are drawn from a different order of humanity—all ring with an authentic tone. The milieu, the time and culture of the setting calls for a different sort of prose, but not every writer can recreate it well. Readers with contemporary sensibilities may feel uneasy at the narrator’s description of the tavern potboy as collective bedwarmer to the group [What do you mean “boy”? Pedophilia!] but Brenchley knows that no one of the age would blink at the connection. Even more, there is the clear assumption among the group that the poet will speak for them all—and the poet certainly does so. Oh, and the powerful concluding image. A whole lot to like here, and I plan to look forward to more from this author.


“The Tip of the Tongue” by Felicia Davin

Here’s a really hoary dystopian premise right out of 1950s fanzines, when They come and take away all the books and printed matter, expunging the ability to read from the people’s brains, for good measure.

It was for the greater glory of the city and the people, they said. Text couldn’t be trusted. This way, we have all been purified, they said. We have all returned to our natural state. Now we can truly build the society we have always dreamed of, they said. Good will reign, they said.

The reader wonders: Satire? Alas, no such luck. The author is unfortunately serious with this effort. Alice tries to remember how to read and ends up kissing the pretty librarian. There is nothing, of course, to suggest how a society could actually function under these conditions, and the excuse for it makes no sense whatsoever. But worse, I can’t help being reminded of the fate of Cambodia under Pol Pot, when literacy was forbidden and the urban population was displaced to forced labor on the farms. I don’t know if the author actually meant this comparison, and there are no actual scenes of torture and genocide, but the association is enough to make me quite uncomfortable. Some things should be beyond trivialization.

“How to Remember to Forget to Remember the Old War” by Rose Lemberg

More postwar SF. The narrator is a damaged ex-soldier who seems to have once been minimally cyborged, but the military implants have been removed and the human remnant cast ashore. The narrator has flashbacks and breaks things, and manages to keep it all under control in the times and places where this matters.

I wish they’d done a clean job, taken all my memories away so I could start fresh. I wish they’d taken nothing, left my head to rot. I wish they’d shot me. Wish I’d shoot myself and have no idea why I don’t, what compels me to continue in the conference rooms and in the overly pleasant office and in my now fashionably gray house. Joy or pleasure are words I cannot visualize. But I do want — something. Something.

Or someone. Someone who shares what the narrator can’t remember to forget.

This one makes an interesting contrast with the Chu story above, so that readers might well wonder which is more humane—to euthanize the no longer wanted military cyborgs or discard them to live with their pain. Here, the narrator and other damaged war veterans are fully human, which is what makes them so different from those around them, who haven’t been where they have been, or seen and done what they have seen and done. We can recognize them in this effective work.

“Plant Children” by Jessica Yang

So Qiyan is a sort of slacker who’s put off her senior thesis in plant engineering until almost too late, so she decides to create sentient plants, and does, just like that! Although the story doesn’t say how or give the slightest indication how this might be possible. In the end, of course, she learns a lesson about love. This certainly isn’t science fiction, and I can find no sense, originality, or merit in it.

[For readers who wonder, as I did at first, this author is not J Y Yang, who also appears in this issue, in the flash fiction section.]

“Nothing is Pixels Here” by K M Szpara

Ash and Zane, lovers, have lived most of their lives, decades, in the SimGrid, while their physical bodies lie on medical beds somewhere. But Ash starts to want more, to know Zane in physical reality, to live actual lives together. At the same time, he’s nervous because he only knows Zane’s avatar, based on Zane’s mental image of himself; what if the physical reality is less attractive?

This is another completely ridiculous premise, beginning with the idea that abused five-year-olds would be allowed to sign such a contract, signing away their entire lives into virtual slavery. Or so it seems to be. The simulations are called contractors, and we’re supposed to believe that in some undisclosed manner the company makes a profit from the games they play in simulation, all the while keeping the physical bodies in working order for decades—an expensive proposition. This makes no sense whatsoever, no more than the idea that a body lying on a bed for decades could just stand up and walk around. I’m buying none of this.

The story has more explicit sex than the others I see here, which makes me wonder if the simulated avatars are growing older at the normal rate for a physical human, aging at the rate their bodies are, getting wrinkled and flabby and eventually impotent. Ash and Zane, those Peter Pan lovers, never seem to consider such eventualities. They blithely assume that they can step into the real world and make places for themselves there, with no experience at actually living. The author clearly hasn’t thought through these matters any more than his characters have.

“Madeleine” by Amal El-Mohtar

Memory and time, a theme the author introduces with both the title and an epigraph from Proust. Madeleine has been depressed since her mother was dying of Alzheimer’s.

when Madeleine couldn’t sleep without waking in a panic, convinced her mother had walked out of the house and into the street, or fallen down the stairs, or taken the wrong pills at the wrong time, only to recall she’d already died and there was nothing left for her to remember.

She has recently taken part in an experimental memory drug trial, which has left her suffering from episodes in which she flashes back to her past, often after an olfactory trigger. She is reluctantly seeing a therapist who always seems to address issues irrelevant to Madeleine’s real problem. But everything changes when her memories begin to include another girl named Zeinab, who had never been part of her past. Soon Madeleine is welcoming the episodes and spending time with Zeinab, even deliberately attempting to trigger them, which the therapist regards as a sign she is regressing. But it is Zeinab who finds the solution.

Emotionally strong story with a well-done portrayal of the effects of dementia on a caretaker. The time aspects are also well-handled, with vivid descriptions of the remembered past.

“Two by Two” by Tim Susman

The earth is dying and the rich and powerful are escaping by spacecraft to settle and ruin other worlds. Fortunately for Daniel and his husband Vijay, they are part of a rich and powerful family. Unfortunately for them, the spacecraft is under the control of the Texas-based Christian States of America [CSA, get it?] where not only is their marriage is disallowed, they would have to retreat to the closet. Decision making ensues.

I don’t have the digits to enumerate the number of times I’ve read this story. At least the premise doesn’t violate common sense. The best element is the feisty old lady. Everyone likes feisty old ladies.

“Die, Sophie, Die” by Susan Jane Bigelow

Cyberbullying. With stunning unoriginality, the author gives us Sophie, who wrote an article on sexism in gaming and became a target for trolls, which drove off her boyfriend, good riddance. But the messages from @diesophiediebot seem to be asking for help. A lesson story, of course: “Kindness is never wrong.” The triumph of the banal. My own lesson would be to stay off social media.

Strange Horizons, June 2015

This month features a two-parter historical fantasy that makes good use of the double story slots.

“Utrechtenaar” by Paul Evanby

Strongly informed by the history of the Low Countries in the eighteenth century. The title originally meant “resident of Utrecht”, but it was used as a synonym for homosexuals after the persecution of the sodomites there, beginning at the time of the setting: 1729. For some time previously, the religious officials of the city had been convinced they were suffering from divine wrath after a series of calamities, including the collapse of the Domkerk cathedral’s nave. The ruins became a place where men would meet for illicit congress. One night Gysbert, a student, with his friend/lover Raphael, are attempting to evade the watch when he falls through the collapsed ceiling of a level below the foundations and finds himself in the remains of the Roman castellum on top of which a succession of churches were subsequently built. There he meets a Roman auxiliary soldier named Ilurtibas, with whom Gysbert can haltingly communicate in school Latin. The Roman has been in the ruins for centuries, stationed there as a guard, although he can’t quite say by what authority.

He tells of battles, campaigns, friendships, loss. Time becomes fluid when he speaks of centuries that might have been days, and nights that stretch on forever. Repeatedly he refers to himself as a praeteritorum custos, and gradually I realize he does not just think of himself as a soldier, but as a watchman: a guardian of things past.

So Gysbert is saved, but when he returns to the present level of the city, he discovers that Raphael has been arrested and faces execution.

There are two story threads woven together here, and while Gysbert is the narrator and point of view, I think the primary story belongs to Ilurtibas, the exile from time, the sentry left on perpetual rear guard. I definitely find him the more interesting character, coming as he does in three versions: youth, soldier and sage. But both phases of this history are interesting in their own right. There have recently been archeological excavations in the city, uncovering buried details of Utrecht’s history, and I imagine these might have been instrumental in inspiring this story.


“What We’re Having” by Nathaniel Lee

A relationship story with twisted-up time, which is generally more interesting than relationship stories. It seems to be the nameless narrator’s fault, because he was lazy and didn’t go to the store to buy the bacon. He knew his partner Frankie, whom he is addressing here in apology, was counting on the bacon for breakfast. He hadn’t bought it, but there it was anyway, sizzling in the skillet, because it was tomorrow’s bacon in the skillet today. And the next day, the next tomorrow’s grilled sandwiches. Now the thing is, Narrator works the night shift and Frankie the day, ships passing each other, and days might pass when they don’t ever really meet. Which is the relationship problem for which the time twisting is the metaphor. That’s how these things go.

Maybe you did, but you ate them at the right time, with the right version of me responding to your actual notes and e-­mails and not whatever you’d said the day before or what I thought you might say tomorrow. A lot of times I feel like I’m talking to you a day late anyway, even when we manage to get into the same room at the same time.

The narrative is kind of clever and the time twist is kind of interesting, and the nameless narrator is kind of irritating, but less so than they often are, since I see few natural occasions for someone to be addressing him.

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

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

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

Paul Di Filippo reviews Kevin J. Anderson

Blood of the Cosmos, Kevin J. Anderson (Tor 978-0-7653-3300-1, $27.99, 607pp, hardcover) June 2015

I am on record as having thoroughly enjoyed the first five volumes of Kevin Anderson’s series, The Saga of Seven Suns. The books showed Anderson incorporating everything he had learned (by helping Brian Herbert to extend father Frank’s Dune mythos) into a fully conceptualized space opera of his own that resonated with all the classics of that mode, yet which also felt fresh and unique. But by the sixth installment, Metal Swarm, which I reviewed for the late, lamented, I felt that the events of that book were protracted slightly, and that the arc of the whole series might have benefitted from a faster climax. Consequently, I fear, I let the final book, The Ashes of Worlds, slip right past me.

But now that two volumes of the sequel trilogy, The Saga of Shadows, are out, and especially since the first claimed a place on the Hugo ballot, I was moved to resume the series. I cheated a bit by swotting up on Volume 7 online, without actually taking down my copy from the shelf, but have started anew with a read of The Dark Between the Stars (one of those perfect, archetypically stefnal titles which also happens to be attached to story collections by Poul Anderson and Damien Broderick).

The internal continuity of the initial new volume finds the galaxy advanced by twenty years from the events of the Elemental War that occupied the first Saga.

Generally, peace reigns. The belligerent fire and water aliens have retreated to their native ecospheres, and the humanoid aliens, the Ildirans—with whom humans have created hybrid offspring, and who originally gave humans their stardrive—are friendly once more. The evil insect aliens, the Klickiss, and their war robots, have all disappeared from the scene as well. Human factions are generally amiable among themselves. But of course, such a mild-mannered era would hardly merit a space opera scenario, and so new complications arise.

The main villain/disaster/threat this time is from the Shana Rei, invisible creatures who seem more or less embedded subdimensionally into the spacetime continuum since before the rise of sentience in the galaxy (a very Rudy Rucker-esque concept), and who are affronted by us upstart sophonts and wish to wipe us out and restore a blissful quiet to the cosmos. The hidden remnant of the Klickiss robots ally with them, and attacks begin with a combination of entropic fields of darkness and good old robot warship depredations. I must say that these villains—the insane and hateful Shana Rei, and the robots led by the megalomaniacal Exxos—steal the show with their dastardly ambitions whenever they are on stage.

But this main MacGuffin, as you might imagine in a volume of some 700 pages, is bolstered and counterpointed by numerous subplots. One of the most intriguing thread involves the medical researches of a certain woman named Zoe Alakis and her catspaw, the sociopathic Tom Rom, and a diabolical new plague. Similarly vital is the discovery of a new kind of interstellar, vacuum-dwelling alien, the “bloaters,” who prove useful in a number of ways.

There’s a freshet of new characters introduced, and we also get reacquainted with many old favorite protagonists.

Anderson’s chosen narrative matrix features shifting third-person POV across nearly 140 chapters. But he does not merely cycle through his cast arbitrarily. Instead, he uses the jumps either to produce cliffhangers or to counterpoint or laterally advance the action. This complex, thoughtful arrangement is a mark of his skills.

If you read The New Space Opera or The New Space Opera 2, by Dozois and Strahan, or The Space Opera Renaissance by Hartwell and Cramer, you will find no selection from Anderson’s giant production. And, indeed, his work is not allied to Corey or Reynolds or Hamilton or Baxter or anyone else working in cutting-edge space opera today. Anderson’s Saga is resolutely old school. Frank Herbert or Isaac Asimov are the most advanced of Anderson’s guiding lights, and in fact one might almost add Doc Smith to his pantheon. (A clan named “Duquesne” might well constitute an homage.) But this deliberately archaic slant, once acknowledged, should not prevent admiration of his story-telling chops. And as for the pacing, I found the new books not over-extended or over-stuffed. Perhaps the novelty of the milieu was an influence here, but I think not. I attribute the relative concision to the fact that this current arc must be completed in only three volumes. (Eternity’s Mind is due next year.)

Blood of the Cosmos delivers plenty of original developments, not all of which should be revealed in this review. The war with the Shana Rei and the robots continues its teeter-totter progress, with the enemy’s ability to mind-control humans and Ildirans wreaking disasters galore. Most dramatically, a new alien race appears, the Onthos. They claim to be old victims of the Shana Rei, and also the former guardians of the Theroc forest mind. They are given refuge—but are they what they purport to be?

New weapons get developed and tested. Several microscale threads, such as Prince Reyn’s illness and its intersection with the eccentric researches of Zoe Alakis, are advanced. Anderson is always willing to take a little scenic detour away from the galactic tsuris, such as a thrilling and bloody wyvern hunt. I think it safe to say that after eight volumes in this franchise, Anderson is not going to deviate much from his trademark methods or themes, so the reader is assured of getting lots more of what he or she already enjoyed. Which is not to say that there are no surprises in store.

One notable aspect of this series is Anderson’s granting of nearly equal time to the “little people” as well as the big players. Few current or past space operas do that. But here, one chapter can be told from the POV of the Mage-Imperator of all Ildirans, while the next follows the humble doings of Garrison Reeves, Roamer miner. A very interesting character arc is that of Lee Iswander, who is a merciless capitalist, and yet who steps forward with a big altruistic gesture when he realizes the fate of civilizations is at stake.

This middle installment concludes with affairs in a vastly different configuration than they were at the start of the novel, and portends even greater doings ahead.

Above the planet, empty space tore open and black geometrical horrors emerged. Long hexagonal cylinders slid out like blunted knives of pure obsidian. The very presence of the Shana Rei ships exuded chaos, unraveling coils of capricious entropy that made the systems aboard the flagship warliner malfunction, flicker and fail.

A flurry of metallic hornets emerged alongside the hex ships, black robot warships that swooped forward in search of targets. Though their primary target was the Hiltos shrine on the surface, they spotted the Solar Navy flagship and immediately opened fire.

If you can enjoy and get behind such Skylark of Space shenanigans, then Anderson gives just what you need, in cosmic-sized quantities.

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

Our Dinosaurs, Ourselves: A Review of Jurassic World

by Gary Westfahl

If you are wondering whether or not you should see Jurassic World, here is this reviewer’s advice: either pay the exorbitant price of admission to watch the film in a theatre, or never bother to watch it at all. Viewed on a small screen, the way I watched the other Jurassic Park films, this fourth installment’s shrunken dinosaurs will not be impressive, and the flaws that have always characterized the franchise – shoddy science, illogical plotting, uneven acting, and clumsy pauses for ineffectual character development – will be magnified, making it almost impossible to endure. But when everything in the film is larger than life, accompanied by booming sound effects and marginally enhanced by 3D or the IMAX Experience, none of its weaknesses matter, as you will consistently be enthralled and entertained by the amazing spectacle of realistic dinosaurs thundering across the screen and interacting with human characters.

Since computer animation can now create all sorts of enormous creatures, the question to ponder is: why are dinosaurs so particularly fascinating? The answer may lie in a word that is repeatedly employed in this film: “control.” The billionaire who inherited the Jurassic World theme park from the late John Hammond, Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), explains that the secret to enjoying life is to realize “you are never actually in control.” Though employee Owen Brady (Chris Pratt) has trained some raptors to obey his commands, he insists that “I don’t control the raptors. It’s a relationship.” And when he complains about how the crisis of an escaped dinosaur is being handled, Owen is told, “You are not in control here.” The issue of control arises because, in the popular imagination if not Earth’s true history, only two groups of creatures have ever enjoyed complete dominion over the planet – dinosaurs, and human beings. Even though they were quite different from humans, they were also our prehistoric counterparts. If we did contrive, then, to bring dinosaurs back to life, they would inevitably compete with humans to rule the Earth. And such a conflict, on a small scale, is central to the Jurassic Park films: the humans strive to keep dinosaurs under control, but the dinosaurs get out of control, humbling and threatening their would-be masters.

As the dramas play out, each set of combatants enjoys a certain advantage: the humans are highly intelligent, but the dinosaurs have brute force on their side. But instead of a simple struggle between brain and brawn, each adversary interestingly endeavors to emulate their opponent’s strength. Instead of trying to outsmart the dinosaurs, the humans strive to overpower them with larger and larger fences and more and more lethal weapons (though only the film Pacific Rim [review here] takes the process to its logical conclusion by providing humans with the size and attributes of dinosaurs). Instead of trying to overpower the humans, the dinosaurs become more and more intelligent in order to outwit them. In this film, not only are the raptors smarter than ever, but its new species, Indominus rex, surprises its captors by displaying its own unexpected intelligence, as it conceals itself from thermal detection by lowering its temperature, removes the monitoring implant inserted into its body, and figures out how to kill an armored ankylosaurus by turning it over to attack its unprotected stomach.

The other surprising aspect of the film’s war between humans and dinosaurs is that audiences are routinely urged to sympathize with the dinosaurs: true, whenever a dinosaur is about to kill a purportedly beloved character, we are supposed to cheer when it is slaughtered, but everyone recognizes that the dinosaurs are not evil; they are only following natural instincts that were perfectly appropriate sixty-five million years ago. The film also strives to make Owen’s raptors likable, as they are given names and sometimes figure as heroes, and a dying apatosaurus deeply saddens Owen and his companion, park executive Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard). And without revealing any details about how the story ends, it is telling that the film’s final image powerfully suggests that the dinosaurs have ultimately triumphed, and that they will henceforth be in control of Jurassic World.

One reason to like dinosaurs and dislike people is that, more often than not, the people have despicable motives. The recurring cause of problems in the Jurassic Park films (and in other monster movies like the King Kong films and the Jaws films) is that people are greedy, more concerned about making money than protecting people and caring for innocent animals. And since, as Owen’s friend Barry (Omar Sy) ruefully notes, “people never learn,” they are still acting this way in Jurassic World. The park’s desire for profits is underlined by a barbed remark about charging “seven bucks a soda”; the Jurassic Trader is only one of many stores observed in the film’s park, all undoubtedly offering overpriced souvenirs; park employees constantly refer to the dinosaurs as “assets”; and one of them is criticized for regarding the creatures as nothing more than “numbers on a spreadsheet.” The film’s major villain – the enormous, predatory Indominus rex – was unwisely created by the duplicitous Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong) solely because the park needed a new attraction to boost attendance, and it was being readied for display without a full awareness of its abilities, even though Wu recognized that “modified animals are known to be unpredictable.” Then, after it escaped, the crisis was not dealt with promptly and properly because park executives wanted to avoid a costly panic that would reduce their profits, and they did not want to kill a dangerous dinosaur that represented an investment of twenty-six million dollars. Even when they are compelled to inform visitors that vicious pterosaurs are about to attack from the sky, the park announcer blandly describes the impending calamity as a “containment anomaly.”

The irony in all of these attacks on corporate greed is that the film itself is so manifestly a product of corporate greed: of course, every Hollywood film is designed to make money, but only a few, especially avaricious producers will contrive to saturate their films with conspicuous brand names, obviously incorporated in response to financial incentives, and Jurassic World is filled with them. One of its first images is of youthful protagonist Gray Mitchell (Ty Simpkins) holding a View-Master; the rights to sponsor the Indominus rex are purchased by Verizon; in his helicopter, Masrani and his co-pilot wear Alpha headphones; when he’s thirsty, Owen drinks a Coke; while Gray and his older brother Zach (Nick Robinson) are trying to get the iconic No. 29 Jeep Wrangler from the 1992 film working again, they insert a Kawasaki battery; and in the streets near the entrance to Jurassic World, one observes the Samsung Innovation Center, a Pandora jewelry store, a Brookstone gift store, a Lego store, a Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville restaurant, and a theater advertising “Pterosaur: The IMAX Experience.” The list is not complete. In sum, if you want to get really drunk, and motivate yourself to watch Jurassic World on television, you can turn it into a drinking game – everyone takes another drink every time another plug appears on the screen.

Jurassic World does innovate by condemning another human foible, militarism. Its chief villain, Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), is obsessed with the idea that trained raptors could become the ideal soldiers of the future, and after the Indominus rex escapes, he initiates a crazy scheme to release the raptors so they can track down and kill the enormous menace. (Predictably, not only do they fail to bring down their target, but the released raptors then become menaces in their own right.) Audiences are supposed to admire Owen for his principled resistance to the use of his cherished raptors as weapons, but in this case, I think the film’s righteous indignation can be challenged. Wars themselves may be immoral, but employing trained animals in wars is a time-honored tradition; one of the trailers attached to the film is promoting the forthcoming film Max (2015), which celebrates a dog who assisted American soldiers in Afghanistan, and other animals like horses and elephants long participated in combat without any suggestion that the practice was evil. So, if we do ever bring dinosaurs back to life, and if we are still fighting wars, I see no reason why soldiers shouldn’t be allowed to ride into battle, say, on the back of a trained Tyrannosaurus rex as an organic alternative to a gas-guzzling tank.

There is nothing controversial about the film’s third foregrounded message, that family members need to be nice to each other. Gray and Zach’s parents are implicitly criticized for sending their children off to visit an aunt while they work out the details of their divorce, a decision that reduces Gray to tears once he figures out what is happening. His mother Karen (Judy Greer) worries about Zach and Gray being alone together because Zach is often cruel to Gray, and during their first visits to Jurassic Park attractions, Zach spends all of his time looking at pretty girls instead of talking to his brother. Karen also laments that her sister Claire has never had children, and Claire initially proves to be a thoughtlessly inattentive aunt, too preoccupied with business to escort her nephews through Jurassic World as she had promised. They soon get into trouble precisely because the distracted assistant instructed to accompany them loses track of their whereabouts. Asked to assist in finding them, Owen is dumbfounded to learn that “you don’t know how old your nephews are?” But in the end, almost everyone sees the error of their ways: while the film avoids becoming excessively maudlin by failing to suggest that Gray and Zach’s parents will be reconciling, they do travel to Costa Rica to reunite with their children; Zach assures Gray in an excruciatingly awkward scene that they will always be brothers, no matter what; once she finds her nephews, Claire announces that she will never leave them again; and after the crisis is over, she seems prepared to settle down with Owen and finally have her own children (perhaps to become the protagonists of Jurassic Park VI).

It is not surprising that director Colin Trevorrow and co-writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Derek Connolly felt compelled to include these moments of romance and domestic drama; they allow filmmakers to feel that they are making a real film, not a thrill ride, and using dinosaurs to promote family values seems like a foolproof crowd-pleaser (an approach also employed in the execrable 2014 version of Godzilla [review here]). But as calm interludes, one wishes that they had shown less of the characters’ cardboard personalities and more of Jurassic World itself: after all, this is the first film in the series that faced the challenge of depicting what sorts of rides and attractions a fully realized, functional theme park with dinosaurs would actually offer, and the result is quite an interesting place. First, since the park only offers a limited number of dinosaurs – fourteen species, an increase over the original eight – there would have to be some dinosaur-related attractions that did not feature dinosaurs. Thus, the park offers visitors the chance to play “Jurassic Tennis” and a golf course; Gray and Zach talk about going on the Spinning Dinosaur Eggs ride; we see children at the Digging for Dinosaurs playground using brushes to gently unearth realistic dinosaur bones; there is the aforementioned pterosaur film; and a display room includes a statue of park founder Hammond, holographic images of dinosaurs, and an interactive screen where an animated “Mr. DNA” (portrayed, the credits inform us, by the director) presumably explains how the dinosaurs were created. For the experience of interacting with dinosaurs, the Gentle Giants Petting Zoo allows children to pet tiny sauropods and ride on the backs of baby triceratops; we briefly glimpse people in canoes paddling down a stream filled with aquatic dinosaurs; and a rolling Gyrosphere enables Gray and Zach to travel alongside galloping dinosaurs. The larger dinosaurs have to be observed from a distance in various ways: people look at a Tyrannosaurus rex within an elevated log with a window; roaming dinosaurs can be seen from a monorail; and in a grandstand recalling a Sea World exhibit, crowds gasp as an enormous mosasaur leaps out of the water to devour a dead shark, and their seats are then lowered so they can see the dinosaur through a window, swimming underwater.

The Gyrosphere shows a humorous instructional video in which Jimmy Fallon assures park visitors that “your safety is our main concern”; however, since we hear these words coming from a Gyrosphere that Gray and Zach have abandoned because it had just been attacked and crushed by a dinosaur, it is suggested that the park’s “concern” is not entirely sincere. In fact, nothing about the park’s attractions really seems safe at all. All of the “Gentle Giants” may be perfectly tame, but they could still do some significant damage by stepping on a child’s foot; swimming dinosaurs could easily capsize a canoe; and the film later establishes that the mosasaur is capable of leaping out of the water and eating a creature standing near the shore, such as a human spectator. More broadly, the island home of Jurassic World is part of Costa Rica, a nation that happens to experience major earthquakes on a regular basis, and these might derail the park’s monorail or send that log plummeting to the ground to smash and expose its occupants to a hungry Tyrannosaurus rex. Even if human greed and aggressiveness does not complicate the picture, then, it would seem that Murphy’s Law would forever preclude the possibility of making recreated dinosaurs the centerpieces of an amusement park. (One might suggest as an alternative the use of robot dinosaurs, like those already featured at some theme parks, but Michael Crichton, author of the original Jurassic Park novel [1990], also reminded us in the film Westworld [1973] that advanced robots might not be entirely safe either.)

Yet the makers of Jurassic World, like their predecessors, manifestly were not interested in predicting a plausible future; rather, they needed a premise that would justify numerous scenes of people running away from dinosaurs, shooting at dinosaurs, and (very occasionally) petting dinosaurs, and imagining a future world where scientists raised dinosaurs to serve as theme park attractions proved an ideal strategy. This Jurassic Park film will surely prove just as popular as the first three installments, and it should inspire executive producer Steven Spielberg to pick up the pace in generating further sequels. (Only three sequels in the twenty-three years since the first blockbuster? What was Spielberg thinking?) In light of the perpetual popularity of dinosaur movies, it is very odd that during Claire’s first appearance, she declares that “No one’s impressed with a dinosaur anymore.” As of 2015, that clearly represents another prediction in this film that has not yet come true.

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

Paul Di Filippo reviews A. Bertram Chandler

Gateway to Never, A. Bertram Chandler (Baen 978-1-4767-8047-4, $14, 656, trade paperback) May 2015

In 1985, at the age of thirty, I decided to start a database of all the books I owned. I was freshly embarked on my dream of becoming a professional SF writer. I think maybe that transition formed a subconscious reason for assessing and cataloguing my library. But the main reason I recall was so that I could carry around a printout of my holdings when I went book-shopping and avoid buying so many damn duplicates of forgotten titles I owned but hadn’t read and remembered.

At this time, my books—maybe 2000 or so—were indeed divided into read and unread shelves. I had no sophisticated software for indexing—1985, remember?—so I just started grabbing books and typing their data into a word-processing file, alphabetizing manually by author as I went.

For some reason, I decided to make two separate files: the read and the unread. I could have collated the titles, but I did not.

Now my library numbers about 14,000 books, and I still capture the data on each new entry.

In retrospect, I am glad I divided my holdings into two categories, because one of these files represents a 1985 snapshot of all I had purchased and read from about age twelve to age thirty. The formative stuff, prior to trying to become a professional. I see vast swathes of van Vogt, Ellison, Asimov, Moorcock, PKD, JGB, Simak, Heinlein, Andre Norton, Poul Anderson, Gordon Dickson, Brian Aldiss, and so many other titans of the field, many swallowed whole as a teenager, when time to read seemed infinite.

With an eye toward the book under discussion today, I went to check on my record for A. Bertram Chandler, and was disconcerted to find I had read by then only The Coils of Time and Into the Alternate Universe, while on the other side of the ledger sat about two dozen purchased but untouched volumes of his.

And you know what? I do not believe I have read another Chandler book in the past thirty years.

This is inexcusable, although perhaps understandable. There is simply so much out there to read, new and old, that wonderful authors without a high profile—especially once they are deceased—can get lost in the noise.

But today I and others in my fix have no excuse not to get up to speed on Chandler, since Baen Books is giving him the omnibus treatment, as they did for Poul Anderson and Christopher Anvil, among others. The current volume is number six.

I would have liked also to survey the prior five volumes for this same essay, but guess what? Time did not permit. So we will only dip a toe into the career of Commodore John Grimes. I note from the very handy list at Wikipedia that the three novels here constitute the very final ones in internal continuity, so this book—which also includes six short stories and a memoir by Chandler, full value indeed—will be the capstone of their series, I think.

The first novel is The Gateway to Never (1972), and immediately we imbibe the pleasures of Chandler’s mythos and admire his deft strategies. We open on Grimes the desk-warrior in his office, and learn within one page not only his current status and duties, but also concrete details of his past: a clever narrative maneuver to get newbies onboard and reaffirm the fond memories of the veteran fans. Then comes the central MacGuffin of the narrative: the prevalence of drug smuggling in the Rim Worlds (nicely distinguished by place and culture as a separate polity from the several other galactic alliances). Grimes has a brief chat about his assignment—to find the source and smuggling route of “dreamy weed”—with his smart and funny wife, in the manner of Simenon’s Maigret and spouse, or Nick and Nora Charles. Then our man is off, hanging undercover with the orgiastic “Blossom People,” visiting an offworld spa, and eventually meeting bad guy Drongo Kane and surviving the opening of the “gateway to never.” A perfect artifact of the hippie era as seen from the straight world, this tale is like one of those late-career Ross MacDonald novels.

In just about 150 pages composed of swift short chapters, heavy on the light-hearted dialogue, with only minimalist descriptions, we get vivid characters—Grimes is a salty, irascible softie, old-fashioned but empathetic, with a code of honor, but not inflexible—a solid plot and a negligible but not nonexistent quota of speculative bits. Although to be sure, a far future that still uses “blue pencils” and typewriters was a tad lazy even in 1972. But the amiable, affable Chandler is not here to be Wells or Verne, he’s here to be a modern pulpster, a Max Brand or Hugh Cave or E. Hoffman Price. Is it banal to say wistfully, “They don’t write them like this any more”…?

In contrast, The Dark Dimensions (1971) offers solid stefnal wonders in spades. Fifty light years outside the Rim of our galaxy lies an abandoned alien ship, the Outsider, whose mysteries have never been fathomed by the unsuccessful prior expeditions, and so humanity has turned its back on the enigmatic hulk. But now a craft from a rival to the Rim Worlds is heading for the treasures, and Grimes is commissioned to thwart the intruders.

This time Sonya, Mrs. Grimes, comes along, in her “Survey Service micro-skirt” that possibly bespeaks Star Trek influences creeping into a prose series that predated the show. The Trek-like ambiance extends to the plot, which sees Grimes’s vessel, the Faraway Quest, meeting cross-dimensional travelers due to the weird timespace around the Outsider, including a Grimes doppelganger and a surprise guest from another famous SF franchise.

The Way Back (1976) opens directly upon the closure of its predecessor. Grimes and crew have been displaced in spacetime and must somehow engineer a return to the world they know. They eventually get as far as the Earth of the ancient Greek era, but there things go kerflooey, due to internal dissent among the castaways. However, some heroic actions on the part of Grimes and seven of his allied comrades produces a happy ending to the Robinsonade. Although Grimes’s closing thought about facing a Court of Inquiry to account for the cockup is a wry note upon which to conclude the saga. Heroism is fleeting, bureaucracy is forever.

The assorted short stories offer some nice readable interstitial adventures, including a couple of first-person narratives by protagonists other than our hero, giving us a chance to see him from the outside, so to speak.

These three novels, the essence of workmanlike competence, like all series installments, offer both variety and the solace of repeated touchstones. Grime’s habit of vocalizing “Mphm” as a wordless expletive. His favorite saying of “Spit on the carpet and call the cat a bastard.” These tics, if you will, are interspersed with fresh elements in a highly palatable matrix that conduces toward the pleasures we all seek in returning to familiar literary friends.

The memoir, “Around the World in 23,741 Days,” is a delight, revealing that the fellow behind Grimes is pretty Grimesian himself: insouciant, adventurous, not suffering fools gladly, yet cognizant of his own sins. Chandler had a full, rich life, not without its challenges, that allowed him to craft stories that reflected his easygoing, optimistic, can-do attitude mixed with a sense that the world held lots of wonders. Once upon a time, that fusion was the essence of science fiction, and still holds vast appeal.

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

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