I’m happy to report that the recent science fiction drought has broken, with SF of some sort to be found in every one of the zines I read this time. No surprise to find it leading off with Interzone
, from which I recommend the Noon story.
It’d be possible to call every one of these stories science fiction, although I’m not sure I’d do so.
In a dystopian, overpopulated East L.A. rendered even more dismal by climate change, Venter hunts down social liabilities selected by the authorities for winnowing.
“Computer locates individuals with a cultural and hereditary tendency for having too many children and when that’s combined with not being within standard-to preferred social productivity scale, along with genetic markers for problematic—”
His employment report had correctly called him psychologically unsuited for this task, and he doesn’t like to take the drugs that kill his natural empathy; he’s being monitored by his bosses because he seems to lack sufficient zest for the job. He does it only to support his wife and the daughter he loves, to be productive, because there’s no other way. In the course of this hunt, he encounters a woman addicted to virtual reality stimulation, burning away her life, but she has enough spirit left to confront him about what he does.
A particularly depressing scenario, in which the question, “What is the value of human life?” is more often than not answered in the negative. Of course, this depends on the metrics being used, and here the program that selects the targets seems particularly deficient. Human life, it seems, is a perpetual, ongoing crisis that will never be resolved. Hard to argue with that, but I don’t see natural selection doing a better job.
Updating the Rapunzel story in a world where naturally blonde hair is almost extinct, and accordingly valuable. Now, Rapunzel works in a bar, but once she was locked in an old mansion by a woman named Matilda, who stole her at birth, shut her away from the world, and sold her hair, which grew back overnight, to a wigmaker.
“They’ll kill you out there if they ever see this. They’ll tear your hair out from the roots.” Rapunzel’s heard this before too. “Don’t be scared, my angel. I’ll always be here to protect you.”
One day a young man made his way into the house, and Rapunzel fell in love with him, a development that Matilda didn’t approve. While the outcome was tragic, it eventually led to Rapunzel’s liberation.
The piece has all the essential elements of the fairy tale, yet the setting is almost entirely nonfantastic, except for the rapid regrowth of Rapunzel’s hair. The world isn’t contemporary but some alternate timeline in which the society has been devastated by war and is now struggling to achieve a return to normalcy. It might almost be considered science fiction. There’s the possibility for a slight confusion as the narrative flips back and forth from present to past, always in the present tense.
An experimental piece in terms of typography and page layout, with several sections that resemble lines of verse.
Waking the same every morning, into darkness
The darkness of the eye
Waiting for the day to kick in, the first little
I don’t see much of this sort of thing these days, but I’m not surprised to find it coming from IZ, a zine that doesn’t stand still. This is a cyber future with the motto: “You are what you see.” Or, As you see the world, so you think about the world. But the only way everyone can see the world is pixelated, through implants, and in higher or lower resolution, with or without more vision-pops and ads, depending on how they can pay. Because Aiden is limited, when not on work-time, to low-rez, sometimes even when he closes his eyes, the dark starts breaking up. He has to wonder what he really looks like in the unmediated world, the zero-rez world, whether a girl might find him attractive. Then one day he happens on a mysterious black box that he isn’t supposed to have.
This sort of virtual world isn’t so new, but I’ve rarely seen it expressed with such insight and verve. There are genuinely poetic moments here, not simply apparent versification. This text would have been just about as effective if laid out on the page in a more conventional manner.
The express is a luxurious flying interstellar train carrying mining company Chief Executive Lascalles to an important trade conference on Mars. There have been riots and takeovers of her company’s prison ships, followed by several assassination attempts on members of the company’s board. Accordingly, additional bodyguards from the Syzygian Church have been called in—Anselm and his Selenian initiate Shai Laren. All members of the Church are implanted with a device called a pneuma machina, which gives them superhuman reflexes. As expected, an assassin strikes, and Shai goes in pursuit.
A flash of metal, and Shai Laren swept her fanblade into a long arch in front of her to catch the blow. Nestled against her hindbrain, the pneuma machina ran numbers. The speed of the train. The pitch and incline. The height of the stone archway racing unseen out of the umber shadows behind her.
Action in plenty here, but the setting is highly political. The solar system is inhabited by a number of semi-humanoid races, many of which are enslaved or otherwise oppressed. Shai Laren was fortunate, as a Selenian, to have the protection of the Syzygian Church, about which we know very little. Currently, the ruling corporations, exemplified by Lascalles, are attempting to break the mining unions, in which destroying the rebellious prison ships is considered crucial. Shai is naturally sympathetic to the rebels and wants to assist them, but her duty to the Church has placed her on the other side.
I don’t care for the way the piece opens, in medias res, with Shai attempting to take control of the train after its pilot has been killed and before it crashes into a Martian ravine. It’s needlessly confusing, as the narrative immediately switches back to the beginning of events, only to arrive again at the initial scene near the story’s end. This isn’t good hook technique.
Again we have alternating narratives, present and past, the past predominating. It was 1968, and the narrator was desperately trying to escape the Vietnam draft, when a provident encounter set him free. Another act of providence sent a crazy, drunken old man to pick him up on the road. It seems that the old guy has been in the thrall of a supernaturally telepathic manatee who now wants to leave his pond and return to the open rivers. Who demands it. “Every time she spoke, I felt like something was strangling my breath, pins and needles in my arms and legs.”
“If you didn’t always feel so sorry for yourself and drink so goddamn much you would remember that there are always forces at play, distant forces that can be harnessed. The spin of stars, the movement of planets – all have played their part in sculpting your worthless muscles and bones. Make the connections, boy! That’s where you’ll find your power!
I’m already doing my part. You do yours.”
The encounter changes the narrator, who spends the rest of his life trying to come to terms with the fact. It’s quite a bit vague and mystical, involving the stars and the universe and all that, and we don’t really get the entire story of the manatee who isn’t a manatee, the old man, and the conquistadors.
This is as science-fictiony an issue as I can recall, with two pieces of fairly hard SF and one hard fantasy.
Science fiction! Sensawunda! Posthumans invade the universe, specifically a scientist named Mei, who’s contacted by an advanced, atemporal entity that calls itself Achron and informs her that she will succeed in her interstellar quest. Doing so, she leaves her material body and launches from Earth into an immortal future of dubious wonders. Essentially, the piece is a travelogue with Mei as the shifting base of observation, a changing set of eyes. Which leaves little room for characterization; in fact, it’s not quite clear at first whether Mei is human or AI; in the posthuman later, of course, there’s no such distinction. But Mei seems to be different than other posthumans, for reasons unexplained. On her first interstellar voyage, she absorbs both all the other passengers’ consciousnesses and the ship’s AI; how, we don’t know, but more, why should Mei have this ability when no one else seems to? Elsewhen, some humans have become gods; Mei is at least their equal. There could be a paradox at the bottom of this phenomenon, but without time, can paradoxes even exist?
The wonders we find in Mei’s universe are all quite skiffy, although of the sort usually said to be indistinguishable from magic: building stasis boxes, folding spacetime. The problem is, the posthumans are largely malevolent, as fundamentally flawed as basic human nature. The integrity of other worlds and their lifeforms is disregarded; posthumans terraform other planets to suit themselves, then get bored and leave before the process is complete; they play genocidal games with other species for their own amusement. In the end, Mei seems to conclude that posthumanity and virtual immortality aren’t all they were cracked up to be, yet she retains her original optimism in the prospect of humans or their descendants seeking out other worlds. I’d like to think the author is engaging in cynical irony here, but I fear the optimism is meant to be taken seriously. Alas for the universe.
This one is indisputably Hard SF, featuring the premise of a biosphere being tested for use as a habitat on Mars. To make the test realistic, the sphere was sealed, not to be unlocked until at least two years have passed, the time it would take a rescue ship to come from Earth in case of disaster. Disaster happened. Or at least it seemed to. And as the death toll rose, one woman took matters into her own hands. Thirty years after Socorro’s death in prison, her then-lover Dolores looks back in hindsight and considers that things might well have gone much more badly.
You think because you’ve filled it up with rainforests and industrial kitchens and dormitories with internet access that people aren’t going to panic the moment the oxygen breaks again, or the moment the water filter clogs or the irrigation system springs a leak or God knows what else goes wrong. Maybe you think everyone’s done their research on 988-1, so they’ll all know to read the fine print and sit tight in the face of disaster, waiting patiently the doors to unlock. Maybe you think you’ll do a better job screening your applicants. Whatever you think, you’re wrong. And this time, you won’t have Socorro Vargas.
An interesting situation, made more so by the shifting public reaction to the events. Was Socorro a mass murderer or a misunderstood hero, as the passage of time has by now begun to suggest? And Dolores makes the insightful point that because of Socorro’s fate, in the case of another, less uncertain disaster, people will now be more likely to allow matters to take their course without intervention; even if she was wrong at the time, she might have been right another time. The evocative title comes from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, describing the situation when the curse has fallen on the ship.
All these events are revealed to us through the letters that Dolores writes, but has never sent, to the now-dead Socorro. We also see her ambivalent attitude towards her lover of so long ago, from a time when, as Dolores now declares, she “knew nothing about love”. Yet she has never really recovered, neither from the love affair or the public reaction, trapped in that moment of the past, never able to move on to create a satisfactory life of her own. It’s not really clear why, because we don’t come to know Dolores very well, and we come to know Socorro, the central figure of the tragedy, not at all. Time has taken its toll on Dolores’s memories, and the things about Socorro we would most like to learn, we don’t. So while I’m intrigued by the story, I rather wish the author had taken a different, more revealing way of telling it.
What the title says. Mermaid also loves Werewolf, but not his mundane persona, named Dave. A silly and trivial relationship story about mismatches in love.
Armed conflict between Faerie and Earthlie [I like that name]. As is common in such milieux, Faerie is a realm of exceeding beauty.
Every evening the castellerine would walk in one of the seven gardens, her milk white hands clasped behind her back beneath her pale hair, and the train of her robe held by iridescent beetles that hummed, gleamed, and sparkled like living jewels in the waning light. She walked on no path, but on a golden carpet that floated just above the ground, materializing before her feet and dissolving once she had passed.
It’s also a realm of great gratuitous cruelty and inequality, the majority of the population apparently being goblins, loyal and industrious artisans who pay willing tribute to their elfin overlords. But one Midsummer when the barrier between the worlds dissolves, a mortal human with a serious grudge sails her warship into Faerie and bombards the place. Elfknights turn out to be no match for gunpowder and iron weapons. The master goblin craftsman Raksar, however, is able to steal their secrets, which he loyally presents to his mistress out of the love he has for her beauty.
What we have here is a tale of class warfare, of popular, industrial-powered revolution against decadent aristocracy. It’s quite clear from the outset that the lords of Faerie deserve to be overthrown, beauty or no beauty. But Raksar the jeweler would never agree. Raksar is the moral heart of the story, but in a disturbing way, as not only does he love beauty above all else, including his own freedom, he despises his own ugliness, as he sees it. As readers will probably see it, he’s the most admirable character here, except as he values himself. If we were going to take this more seriously than it probably deserves, it would be an interesting case of cultural relativism. As it is, I find it quite sad and wrong, an indictment of Faerie and all it stands for in its own world and ours.
A pulpish skiffy cover with a retro rocketship suggests the presence of SF within, which there is, although most of the four pieces overlap the boundaries and present readers with mysteries.
The editorial note announces that this one is middle-grade fiction, which means that the protagonist is a child in middle school and suffering from the usual adolescent problems of that age, which dominate the narrative. Young Gary comes across a crashed alien spaceship and rescues its pilot, fending off the malevolent military that has its own plans for ET, in the course of which Gary confronts his middle-school problems. I think I’ve seen this movie before, and even the title reflects it.
It perplexes me that Uncanny has included the piece in its ToC, in which, as the editorial note points out, readers are probably expecting “adult elements”. Children, perhaps, should some be reading this zine, might not realize the total unoriginality here, but it’s hard to imagine adults finding much in it.
The setting seems to be the end of the 16th century* in Japan, a period of constant armed strife in which the common people suffered greatly. Akira’s village was burned when he was a child, and he and his brother were sold to a brothel; later, at age twelve, he was sold to a band of soldiers. Some time afterwards, the company acquires a high-class courtesan for their pleasure, but Akira recognizes her as a demon.
Children of oni are born as many times as they are killed. With the blood of terrible gods in their veins, they are unable to truly die; the closest they can get to that satisfaction is bringing death to others. There are countless ways of doing so, but human methods are best. Humans are inventive; they love to dispose of each other. So there are oni that learn trades, speak human tongues, use human weapons with the speed and strength they have gained through the years.
The demons and spirits of Japanese folklore populate a lot of fantasy fiction, but I find this one more interesting as a historical, in its portrayal of the warfare of the era and its effect on the population. The real story here belongs to the common human whose life has been filled with abuse, one of the many victims that war leaves in its wake, then and now. It’s also the story of two wounded characters who learn to trust each other. Akira discovers his own strength; I would say that Ayame the demon discovers her human side, but the general view we get of humanity here doesn’t make that an unalloyed compliment.
[*]Which would seem to make the reference to a rifle anachronistic; the guns of the period were smoothbore matchlock muskets.]
An unusual, ingenious fantasy with very faint whiffs of steampunk, particularly involving the train. The narrator [nameless] has a sister [also] who’s been abducted in some mysterious way to some mysterious distant destination, but there’s postal service; they can exchange letters. Sister’s letters are subversive.
My sister is posting me a train, piece by piece. She hides minute cogs in the adhesive between stamp and envelope; she traps switches in the envelope’s seal. Every letter is a game, a puzzle, a thing to be dissected. I spend hours unfolding and refolding the letters and the little origami cranes she slips in as companions. You never know which folding or unfolding action will release a coupling–bolt the width of my arm, tangle my fingers in a grid or make me stagger under the sudden weight of an entire door panel.
The problem lies in the assembly of the train, on which the narrator has spent futile years. She overthinks the process. Her neighbor’s young daughter Becky, however, instinctively knows how it all fits together, at which point the story takes a step further beyond, as Becky and her mother shift from mundanely odd neighbors to Fates, who’ve been waiting all this time for the narrator to step up and ask for their help.
Nicely ingenious fantastic stuff, scented with spices, enigmatic, enhancing the sense of mystery and wonder. Except for the missing names. The character is worth knowing, but who is she?
The watchers are glittery alien frogs, hundreds of them everywhere. Aaron sort of likes them; the frogs like Aaron, too.
One of the glitter frogs jumps up onto Aaron’s shoulder. Its back is such a dark and stormy blue, speckled with metallic flecks, that it looks like the night sky. Aaron picks it up and holds it in his hands, feeling the cold fluttering of its heart and breath. It smells odd, like a spice barely remembered from childhood. He wonders if the frogs are alive, or if they’re robots, or if it’s just a grand, mass hallucination.
But the frog is no consolation for “the pain of his future collapsing on itself” after his boyfriend dumps him for a better college. Having seen Christian in action, I’d say, “Good riddance,” but teenagers don’t take these things well; Aaron runs away with the frogs.
This one is YA, not really for children but reflecting the tendency of the young to go off in pursuit of, as Aaron gathers a small band of lost souls to join his quest. Then there are those who aren’t chosen, for reasons apparent in the way they [mis]treat the frogs. Besides a selection mechanism, the frogs are a mystery, and while people call them aliens, this isn’t entirely clear; they seem at least to be cyborg constructs, partly inorganic. Certainly a neat, unusual touch. The ending is ambiguous, though hopefully so.
A special international issue, guest-edited by Cristina Jurado, reflecting the zine’s longstanding interest in world SF. The stories are varied and original, often science fiction, with an overall tone of horror and several mysteries. Included is an excerpt by this year’s Hugo award novel winner, Liu Cixin, the most science-fictional of all these stories.
The narrator is a sensitive; he gets a feeling and a compulsion to act on it.
It is like déjà vu, almost remembered from when I was eight, but not quite. It is like knowing two plus two is four without having to learn it. It is a certainty, not just a conviction, the way believing in God is a conviction, but believing in gravity is a certainty.
The connection he feels is to people like himself, and after meeting a group of them, his power fully manifests itself; he’s a finder. Unfortunately, he doesn’t use it for good.
An unusual moral in the end, something we don’t often see, though I’m not sure the conclusion entirely satisfactory; too many ends are left flapping. There’s a scene earlier in which an evil entity is revealed to be possessing people’s bodies; I can’t help wondering if this has anything to do with the narrator, and how the others like him use their powers. The conclusion is, however, quite unfortunately realistic on the moral level.
A very short, very weird, surreal piece about an unknown dead woman and the conjectures of the autopsy team working on her body, who seem to find some attraction to it.
We wondered if she had let the ants in or if they had smashed their way through her, vandalizing her body with starred and spangled railroads, towers and pornography. Now that she was dead, the ants probably had no reason to stay. We thought this was heartbreaking but also the best option for everyone involved.
A crowded family gathering at the Christmas season fills Chas’s house with relatives, and her imaginary companion Roger shows up as well, after a long absence. Chas had suffered badly from depression after her father’s death, when Roger was both a comfort and a burden.
“My Daddy’s a ghost. He’s dead. He’s nowhere—like you! Mom pretends he isn’t sometimes. It really makes me sad!” She kicked his knee, and Roger flinched, but didn’t try to stop her or kick her back. Maybe he couldn’t; this made her more upset. “You—really—make me—sad!” She screamed. “Always—always—sad!”
Turning him away allowed her to heal, to escape the oppressive psychiatric treatments, to grow up with the hope of a normal life, with the hope of college. People are starting not to look at her funny. Now, what does it mean that he’s back again?
It’s the sort of story that arouses the possibility of dread, that things could go very wrong—death, insanity. Roger, after all, is possibly a ghost, is definitely a mystery. Overall, though, the atmosphere is warmly familial—oppressively so, in fact, at least to me. The author crowds more and more relatives into the house until I find myself starting to break out in a sweat and looking to jump out a window. But it’s all based on love, even if this involves rather more concern than Chas would like.
The epigraph opening the story makes explicit reference to Scott’s doomed Antarctic expedition, when explorer Laurence Oates made the decision to give the others a better chance of survival by leaving the tent and walking out to meet death, “the act of a brave man and an English gentleman.” Here is a similar expedition on a world of perpetual blizzard, driving snow, and hallucination, including a beast or devil tracking them. Already one of their number has been lost, and now Lawrence is the next to hear its call: “the desperate cry of some creature, something that had to be enormous and powerful, and as big as a whale to make itself heard through that rattle of weather, something monstrous, as disproportionate as the mountains, making the very hills shudder, and bringing a shiver to their human hearts.”
A dark, cold setting, with mirage and vision become indistinguishable. Descriptions are vivid, the ubiquitous snow displaying more colors than Lawrence had thought possible.
Snow seemed never to be white there, on those far-off southern slopes, so inaccessible from these parts; and when it was white, they had to come out of their tents to observe the marvellous absence of colours, the weird phenomenon that contradicted what they had learnt to believe, day after day.
But the story’s essence lies in the human heart and mind, in a way that forces comparison with the Scott expedition and particularly Laurence Oates, to whom the protagonist here is clearly linked. Which brings me back to the epigraph:
‘I am going out
and may be some time’
Famous last words of Captain Scott
This, as printed here, is misleading. These words were reportedly spoken by Laurence Oates as he left the tent, never to return, and quoted by Scott in his memoir of the expedition, found with his frozen body; the remains of Laurence were never found. We have no reason to believe he had been hallucinating or that his motive was anything other than the desire not to hold his companions back as they attempted to reach the safety of their base. It’s hard to disagree with Scott’s assessment that his act was one of noble self-sacrifice, if not specifically an English virtue.
Matters are otherwise with our future Lawrence. Primarily that, while his expedition is a perilous one, the members are not in immediate danger of death from the elements, not suffering from freezing, gangrene and starvation. The greatest threats they face are the apparitions, which may be purely psychological—or not. Lawrence mentions that the dogs sense the presence of the beast; definitely, all the men hear its howling, although it’s only one explorer who has been lured by it to his [apparent] death. But the apparition seen by Lawrence is another matter, a silent personal vision that none of the others seem to perceive. At first, he believes it to be a door to evil, but later, after Felix has gone out to meet the beast, Lawrence decides it’s actually a door to salvation. Rather than self-sacrifice, his act seems to be desertion, precisely what a proper, stiff-lipped “English gentleman” would never consider. At which point, I note that we really don’t know much about this expedition, its purpose, its duration. Are these men volunteers or conscripts? Do they have some other way off this frozen world? What is the real measure of Lawrence’s desperation? His ultimate fate is ambiguous, but I think it can hardly be compared with Laurence Oates’.
The only translated work in the issue, an excerpt from the author’s novella of the same title. I’m generally dubious of excerpts, but that’s not the problem here. The narrative starts slowly, then turns on the science-fictional wonder full-bore. Our protagonist is Feng Fan, a mountaineer now turned oceanographer after a tragic climbing accident. He’s aboard his ship when a strange star appears in the sky, quickly resolving into an alien spacecraft that establishes itself in a geosynchronous orbit directly overhead. The ship’s gravity is so great, so close to Earth, that it threatens planetary apocalypse by destabilizing the atmosphere and oceans.
Where he pointed, the ocean’s horizon had begun to bend, curving upward like a sine wave. This huge swell of rising water rapidly grew taller and taller. It was as if a titanic yet invisible hand was reaching down from space to scoop up the ocean. . . . This colossal flood had by now swelled up to the heavens, rising as a flat-topped cone. Its body shone with the blue glow of the ship above, even as its edges burned with the bright crimson fire of the setting Sun, now hidden behind the towering waves. The stark, cold air at the cone’s top chilled the froth, sending forth streams of misty clouds. These clouds quickly bled away in the night sky, almost as if the dark heavens had been cut open.
It’s a vast mountain of water. And even if it means the end of life on Earth, Feng Fan has only one thought: he has to climb it.
This is definitely stuff of wonder, as is Fan’s climb, which is to say swim, to the summit. I was entirely delighted as he floated to the peak in a giant bubble of air. But then, less than half-way through the text—thunk. With Fan as their audience, the aliens turn their ship into a giant video screen and begin the infodump, relating the entire history of their existence and exploration of the universe. To a reader, it’s just as if, coming to the top of the wave of story, the entire thing collapses, as disappointing as it was delightful only paragraphs before. Not that the alien history isn’t interesting, because it is, full of neat SF notions well worked-out. But this recitation isn’t the way to tell it.
Still, it’s Hard SF, wonder stuff, and the good parts are well worth the reading. But if we had to have an excerpt, I kind of wish this one had ended at the peak.
Five original SF stories here this time, headlined by Robert Reed, from whom I’ve not seen enough short fiction lately.
An SF story of infinite worlds, in all of which live some versions of Gwen, a high school English teacher, her physicist lover Melanie, and her infatuated student Walt. We hear from each of them, their version of the story, beginning in a 1973 when Gwen is driving home from a visit to Melanie and a bright blue light floods the sky, followed by a fall of debris.
Standing on the highway’s shoulder, not a cloud in the world, and little bits of grit started falling. Started hitting her. It reminded her of sleet, except there wasn’t any ice. Using a couple index cards, she managed to sweep up a sampling of her mystery, and that’s what she brought out for us to observe. To interpret.
Readers familiar with the work of a cremulator won’t be surprised to discover what this grit turns out to be, or perhaps even the identification of its origin. But this is more than physics, it’s a story of three people and their infinitely possible relationships, most of them centered on love.
A relatively straightforward story for Reed these days.
A dystopian future when all jobs have been suddenly replaced by machinery, many of them drones. So people won’t have nothing to do, a draft has been instituted, in which the minds of people taken are downloaded into the drones. Chase misses his wife Marybeth, but he’s coming to understand that she won’t ever be coming back, as They promised. So, if you can’t be with the one you love . . .
The premise doesn’t make much sense; the author hasn’t explored it in sufficient depth to give it much sense. Who, for example, is in charge? Who profits? Changes such as this don’t come so suddenly, so completely; they evolve over time.
A future when everyone has a “black box” implanted in their brain to record memories. This proves useful in cases of murder and violent death, such as the suicide of the popular actress Ye Lin, whose memories point to her abusive husband as the reason she chooses to die. Until the husband is murdered by a vengeful fan.
This is essentially a police procedural, in which detective Jiang Yong unravels the evidence to discover the perpetrator of a crime. The plot has some clever twistiness in concept, but alas, it becomes one of those pieces in which the detective goes on at great length after the fact, explaining his reasoning to the guilty party.
Aliens crash-land on Earth, from the point of view of the aliens—a plot that’s been done often before, and I find nothing much to distinguish this one.
The title suggests this might be an inversion of the mail-order “Oriental Bride” story, but only in part. Seems that the world has recently passed through an apocalypse brought about by genocidal terrorists; Europe is now the “shattered continent” but parts of Asia, at least, have survived, leaving “the field of endless machine-dead, the sight of satellites pressed against the skyline like bruised mouths on a gash.” [Whatever does this mean?] Doctor Lan Heilui was implicated by unknowing association with a terrorist; while she was eventually cleared, a taint remains on her records, and a traumatic scar on her psyche after the interrogation. Some actual surviving terrorists have become the property of the Institute, whatever it is, which has thoroughly deconditioned and neutralized them, or so it claims. To further prove herself, Heilui agrees to contract a marriage with a Finnish terrorist/scientist who had been sold to the terrorist mafia as a young girl. She seems to have had little real choice in her partner, and it’s pretty clear that the arrangement is meant to be a test of them both.
All this background is in the distance and often less than explicit; the close focus is on the two characters, Heilui and Kerttu. From the viewpoint of the reader, Heilui, while nominally in the dominant position, comes across as much the weaker character, the apparent consequence of a life of affluence and privilege. She acquiesces to the demands of the Institute out of fear, and the fact that she’s reached the unmarried age when a stranger on the train can call her “older sister” doesn’t suggest that she has much status; she’s been “under pressure to wed”, though within her own family, her mothers disapprove of her new partner. Whereas Kerttu, enslaved most of her life, albeit a very privileged slave, has been annealed by her experience; she tends to set the tone of the relationship. There is definitely ruthlessness at her core, and she displays confidence in a situation where her status as the outsider is obvious to all. She’s very much the potentially more interesting character, although we see only hints of her story, and almost entirely from outside, from Heilui’s point of view; if she has weaknesses or scars, as she surely must, she’s largely managed to conceal them from us.
The themes here are those that readers may have come to expect from this author: loss in war, captivity, and the possibility of sexual bondage, as Heilui finds herself “possessing a person whole and entire”.
A frisson sings through Heilui, chased by a wash of nausea: for a moment she could understand the sick supremacy of commanding utter, total power over another human being.
But this isn’t Heilui’s thing, and the relationship works itself out on much different terms that turn out to be rather wholesome.