A science-fictiony column this time. In a recent review, Tom Shippey says of the latest Nebula Awards anthology: “you might think that sci-fi was on its last legs: It is almost all fantasy, and such sci-fi as it contains is, again, dystopian.” Certainly no one could entertain such a thought after reading the works reviewed below.
Solaris Rising , edited by Ian Whates
A revival of the Solaris anthology series from this UK publisher. The editor states that it is meant to display the diversity of science fiction and declares firmly that readers will look in vain for a theme. [A challenge, there! I’d say that I discern a certain thematic interest in Time and Human Events.] Certainly what we have here is sciencey SF almost entirely without the taint of fantasy, pretty hard stuff overall, and a lot of it centered on physics, the hardest of the sciences.
It’s a substantial volume in the 450 page range, with stories from nineteen authors— if you count collaborations as one author. Unsurprisingly, these are largely British writers, from whom, also unsurprisingly, we get many of the strongest stories; the SFnal cutting edge has been well-honed over the last decade on that side of the pond. Overall, with only a few exceptions, it’s a strong showcase of the genre.
“A Smart, Well-Mannered Uprising of the Dead” by Ian McDonald
The grievances of the recently-deceased, linked online by a network called the “Facebook of the dead”, apparently somewhere in West Africa.
Graft and corruption! See, I’m not afraid to accuse. We are the dead, you cannot touch us and there are many many of us, in our comfortable little houses, on our stools and chairs and at out our tables with the things we loved at our feet. We are many many voices. Yes yes yes.
When the Development Minister’s own grandmother accuses him of corruption, how can the government stand? Of course, there are those who claim the network has been hacked by troublemakers, but who are you going to believe if it isn’t your own dead grandfather?
A cleverly entertaining surface exposes the reality beneath, the kind of corruption that poses a serious threat for the developing world in the coming century.
“The Incredible Exploding Man” by Dave Hutchison
Twenty-five years ago there was an Accident at the new Sioux Crossing Collider. The consequences persist.
[The cloud] rose five thousand feet or more, a perfect vertical helix turning slowly in the sky above Point Zero. Winds high in the atmosphere smeared its very top into ribbons, but no matter how hard the winds blew at lower levels the main body kept its shape. A year ago, a tornado had tracked northwest across this part of Iowa and not disturbed the cloud at all.
The site has certain transmogrifying properties. By some chance, journalist Alex Dolan ended up with a lot of superpowers, which naturally attract the interest of the military.
Again, the narrative is light in tone at many points, but there is serious stuff going on, where governments eagerly sacrifice innocent individuals to cover up the facts that might interfere with their plans.
“Sweet Spots” by Paul Di Filippo
Motivated by lust, teenager Arpad Stroll discovers his ability to manipulate events towards unlikely serendipitous outcomes, much like the classic chains of events immortalized by Rube Goldberg. He discusses the phenomenon with his best friend, who comes up with ideas for testing and exploiting it.
“‘Sensitive dependence on initial conditions,’ jerkface!” Jason pondered where the discussion was leading. “And you’re saying you can suddenly see just what the butterfly has to do for something specific to happen?”
This is also a superpower story, although despite the science talk in the dialog, not really SFnal. It’s overtly humor – particularly the descriptions of the Rube Goldberg events. Fun stuff.
“The Best Science Fiction of the Year Three” by Ken MacLeod
Things have Gone Wrong in the US after some sort of revolution, and Paris is full of American expats, including most of the SF writers. The narrator, a British SF writer, is confronted one day by an acquaintance claiming to be editing an anthology, who wants to contact the American writers for submissions. The narrator is suspicious of his intentions, but they agree to meet at the park where the ascent of an antigravity device has been scheduled – about which the narrator is suspicious.
A very political piece, but a subtle one, not so easy to grasp every point and allusion the author is making. The Parisian atmosphere is very rich, strongly reminiscent of the expat scene in the mid-20th century, and there also is direct reference to the Montgolfier balloon ascent, as well as the world of science fiction.
. . . my response to the Memorial to the Deportation has always been shaped by a prior
description, the one in Iain M. Banks’s novella The State of the Art. My eyes, as always, pricked at the thought; the hairs of my chin and neck, as always, prickled. Seeing the memorial, for a moment, through the eyes of an imaginary alien communist: why should that move me so much?
“The One That Got Away” by Tricia Sullivan
A very weird scenario that might be considered fantasy. Or maybe not. It seems that for some time, the bodies of dead gods have been washing ashore onto the beach, where scavengers search them for a numinous byproduct they call “core”. The beach stinks of putrefaction and so do its denizens, one of the oldest of whom is Bucky’s grandmother, who has never discovered a scrap of core in all her life of searching.
Her armpits permanently stained by the entrail-slime of dead gods, my grandmother displays no followers at all. In seventy-two years of cleaning she has processed and removed tons of dead godflesh from this beach. She has bent her back and ruined her knees and her eyes. Her voice is lost and some say so is her mind. But every day she’s here, rags, bucket, spade. Hope.
Bucky is torn between wanting to take her away from the beach and respect for what she considers her duty to the gods.
A lot here that’s not quite clear but has a general cyberfuture flavor. The beach is a tourist attraction, by remote, and clouds of pickups follow the more charismatic of the ragpickers, or any chance of discovering core, which apparently powers the Meta where most of the population lives, in whatever state that implies. But the real story is Gran, who is revealed as something of a saint, a jewel in her decaying world, and Bucky’s growing appreciation of her value.
“Rock Day” by Stephen Baxter
Eleven-year-old Matt wakes to the realization that something is wrong. His room is turned off. Nothing is working anywhere. Worst of all, most of the people are gone. His Dad is gone. Only his dog Prince is there. And the news panel in the kitchen is stuck on a notice about Rock Day, when an asteroid was set up to strike the Earth, unless it was redirected – the idiotic notion of a couple of nutjobs.
“Why deflect the rock at Earth? Singles believes there are aliens all around us, but they are hiding. ‘They will come out to save us. They won’t allow the rock to strike. It’s the ultimate SETI experiment!’ he claims.”
A mixed verdict. Matt’s situation, his growing realization that he is almost alone in the world, is real and moving. The Rock Day thing is quite ridiculous.
“Eluna” by Stephen Palmer
A far, far, marginally posthuman future. Humans and aliens are living on Luna, and a seemingly-immortal ruling group called the Artisans lives in Eluna, where commoners are not allowed. A young apprentice Artisan named Freosanrai is trying to succeed and placate her disapproving elders.
“Don’t fail on this one like you have before. The xmech are unable to forget a mistake. Zebenunai will lose respect if the mining ship is not delivered to the Ruby Faction – he has known them for three centuries or more.”
When things do go wrong, she breaks the rules and discovers information meant to be hidden from her.
While it’s ostensibly Freosanrai’s story, we know too little about her, about her circumstances, her past. Why does she keep her alien companion when she knows it is forbidden? Is it possible that her disagreeable elders are right, and she is incompetent? The story doesn’t really tell us. There are plots going on, conspiracies that are being kept from her, yet as readers we understand them even less than she does. This, I believe, is the point. We are seeing a world so far in our future that it’s alien to us. We can’t really sympathize with Freosanrai; we don’t comprehend her.
“Shall I Tell You the Problem with Time Travel?” by Adam Roberts
Or perhaps the problem lies with Professor Bradley, who generated the theory.
“You need to stop thinking of it as travel,”says Bradley. “It’s not like wandering around a landscape. When you put an object from our time into another time frame, it’s like bringing matter and anti-matter together.”
The problem, then, is learning how to put the probes into phase with the target time. The solution, Bradley decides, is to target events in the past when large explosions had already taken place, such as the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Bradley declares he is making progress, he insists that he only needs one more test, and rails against the underlings he believes are sabotaging his project. But Bradley’s calculations are in error.
Dark humor here, in the tone of farce. The author frames his narrative as a count, first forward, then backwards in time from the moment when the professor aims his probe at the asteroid strike on Tunguska, Siberia. It’s the sort of scenario that would be truly horrifying if we were to take it seriously, and the absurd Bradley serves as a distancing foil between us and the events, as well as the dryly humorous narrative voice. Should we laugh or cry?
“The Lives and Deaths of Che Guevara” by Lavie Tidhar
When Che Guevara was killed and his body taken away for secret burial, his followers managed to retrieve his amputated hands, from which they persuaded a former associate of Klaus Barbie to clone over two hundred copies. Multiple Ches grow up to fight for revolutions all over the world, from one decade to the next, fulfilling literally the words of Fidel:
“Why did they think that by killing him, he would cease to exist as a fighter?… Today he is in every place, wherever there is a just cause to defend.”
A lot of thoughts provoked by this, perhaps first that there is never a shortage of revolutions. Che’s last words were, “You are killing a man”, but in cloning him, his followers are creating a legend, and legends are immortal; death is not necessarily failure. Che’s legend lives on, independent of actual life and deeds of the man, while Fidel, living into an infirm old age, has seen his own legend erode. The clones, rather than men, seem oddly robotic at times, unaltered by events, wedded to the same Marxist rhetoric that, in our timeline, now seems quaint. “The world changes. We won’t.” Mostly this is a story about history and how we can never really know how our actions alter it. It’s not a heavy story, despite all this. The author’s tone is light, perhaps too light for the events it covers.
“Steel Lake” by Jack Skillingstead
Brian is a drunk, his son David is an addict, and Brian knows this is largely his fault. When he takes by mistake an experimental drug that David illicitly acquired, he finds himself in the midst of hallucinations drawn from the painful moments of his past, but also the few good moments, when they played catch at Steel Lake Park.
He would never have this chance again – this chance to dream awake. Dream of the good time and see it before his eyes as if it were real. He clapped his hand to his mouth and chased the pills down with water.
See his son again, his little boy.
Primarily a story of relationships and their failure. The drug is only the catalyst for this.
“Mooncakes” by Mike Resnick and Laurie Tom
Rachel is about to leave on a lifelong voyage into space as the captain of a colony ship. Unlike some others, she is going alone, without a family, and she’s concerned about how much she will retain of her Chinese heritage, such as the mooncakes traditionally eaten with family at the moon festival. In deep space, there will be no moon.
Another piece about family relationships, this one more slight and sentimental.
“At Play in the Fields” by Steve Rasnic Tem
Tom awakes unexpectedly from suspended animation in a far future where plant-like aliens seem to be in charge on Earth. As a former history teacher, he is considered a valuable assistant in their archeological excavations into the world’s past. This is a story of loss but also understanding, about attempting to understand the Other. The aliens are trying to understand the past of Earth. Tom does what he can to make them understand the part of the past he knows. But he can’t understand the perhaps-devolved human natives of this time or the other revived humans from different times in the past, or the alien he calls “the companion”. Despite the gulf of incomprehension between them, the alien is indeed the closest thing to a companion he has in this existence.
“You look out at the world, the sky, and you think that you see yourselves,” the companion replied. “You do not. Cannot translate. You witness our silences, our – soft – pauses between the efforts to communicate with you, and you think that they are about you. Cannot translate. They are not.”
“How We Came Back from Mars (A Story that Cannot Be Told)” by Ian Watson
The narrator and his astronaut companions were stranded on Mars by a malfunctioning ascent engine and had just radioed their final messages to Earth when a flying saucer landed to pick them up. And delivered them to a movie set in Spain where they attracted the attention of the crew, who is reluctant to credit their story. Conspiracy theories proliferate.
“You seen that conspiracy movie about how the Apollo 11 Moon landing was simulated? The White House was worried there mightn’t be live TV from Apollo 11 on account of technical problems, so to be on the safe side they got Stanley Kubrick to simulate the video secretly on the set of 2001.
A dizzying bit of craziness. A fun read.
“You Never Know” by Pat Cadigan
Time paradox. Dov works at a curio shop in New York, at some time when there are still record stores. A regular customer named Kitty comes by to look at prints and often buys images of New York. She talks sometimes about wave functions collapsing and waves that haven’t collapsed, but Dov doesn’t quite grasp the point. One day the owner has a security system installed [that the business done by this shop certainly can’t afford], and Dov discovers that the different cameras seem to be out of synch.
Dov started toward the stool behind the counter but some impulse made him turn around and go back to look at the monitor. Two of the cameras had a view of the table; the one in the far corner showed no one standing there. The one over the office door, however, said there was.
Here is a puzzle and a mystery, but I expect that readers will readily figure out what’s going to happen. The real question is the identity of Kitty and of whoever is installing the security cameras. A vertiginous tale – leaves your head spinning.
“Yestermorrow” by Richard Salter
Time, again. Time Slipped one day and everyone has been living their days out of order ever since. Some fool has figured out how to calculate the time when everyone will die, and the Anti-Paradox Police are now tasked with making sure it happens on schedule, “to save the universe.” All future events are logged; according to the Chief Librarian,
Without me, without this Archive, how would people know for sure when they are going to die? How will they know when to conceive their children or quit a job or break their leg? How can we be sure that history will run according to plan?
But Craig, an APP cop, wants to catch the murderer who’s been killing people at their death time, instead of letting them die according to plan. Craig doesn’t think much of the plan; it’s ruined his marriage, knowing his wife will have another husband after he’s gone.
This is reductio ad absurdum. It’s a society with no faith in the determined course of events, no confidence that things will work out as they should, without constant intervention. Everyone is so determined to fulfill the sequence of events laid down in the pamphlet they all carry that it’s illegal for a person to try to save his life, and the cops push the suicides off the ledge if they don’t take the jump on their own. While the slogan is: Stop the Paradox, Save the Universe, there is no attention given to the peril in which the universe theoretically stands. No one seems to ask: what will happen if I fail to make it to my death on time? What will happen if a paradox slips through – what would the consequences be? It is this, not the time-slipping itself, that makes the scenario so absurd. Despite this, here is a story about a person facing his own imminent death and trying to accomplish one real thing while he has the chance. Good for Craig. But the story has one of those last lines that a first-person narrator could never write.
“Dreaming Towers, Silent Mansions” by Jaine Fenn
They’ve made a portal into another world, and the inventor has already gone through and not returned. There are many volunteers to follow him, but the portal rejects all but five, one of whom is Charli, the inventor’s wife. While there is no return, there seems to be transmission to the other side of the portal. The volunteers find themselves in what seems to be a city, but it is obviously not a real place where people have lived. As Charli transmits back to Control,
Part of us lives here. Part of all of us. All humans. And I think it manifests, possibly in response to our physical presence, possibly spontaneously. It’s about archetypes, you see. The five of us who came through were each the epitome of a given archetype.
This, I have to say, is a really dumb story, and not in the least science fiction, if by this term we mean having something to do with actual science. Instead, it’s mystical speculation in which there is no reason to believe.
“Eternity’s Children” by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown
A drug extracted from vegetation on the planet Karenia has granted humanity a vastly extended lifetime, except for the Karenian colonists, who can’t take it because [handwavium]. The Karenians are perfectly content with the situation. Now Loftus has returned to the planet bearing bad tidings that spell doom for the idyllic Karenian colony. He feels guilty about it – we know this, because the narrator tells us so, over and over, while teasing us about the actual nature of this news.
A contrived scenario manufactured to let the authors yank on readers’ emotional chains, plus mystical aliens.
“For the Ages” by Alastair Reynolds
Back to physics. Vashka is a cosmologist with a grand vision of leaving a message to humanity’s far-distant successors.
“We happen to exist inside a window, a brief moment in the universe’s history, in which intelligent creatures have the means to determine that the universe was born, that it has a finite age, that it is expanding. To not know these things is to not know the universe at all. And yet the downstreamers will be unable to determine these absolute fundamentals! That is why it is our duty, our moral imperative, to send a message from our epoch to theirs.”
Her plan is an expedition to a faraway neutron star, where they will laser-etch the equations onto the diamond surface. But cosmologists back on the homeworld keep sending out new versions of the theory, forcing them to start over again—now for the tenth time. At this point, Nysa, the engineer, expresses misgivings about their ship’s engines. She wants to cut the mission off and return, while they are still able. But Vashka refuses to leave an imperfect legacy behind.
It is Nysa who narrates this account, and it’s very hard to sympathize with her. Moreover, it doesn’t seem that the author is making a case that we should. Yet I find that I can’t really judge Nysa properly, because I don’t understand her motives. It was fear, she claims, yet fear isn’t apparent from her account of her actions. But then, I’m equally unconvinced of the value of Vashka’s mission, an act of cosmic hubris. I can’t help thinking that the far, far distant discoverers of this monument will be less impressed than its makers intend.
“The Return of the Mutant Worms” by Peter F Hamilton
Not a science fiction story but a science fiction writer story, which is not the same thing. A successful author, a celebrity with a new literary book coming out, talk of the Booker Prize, penthouses and all the other appurtenances of the good life, receives an unexpected letter: a contract from a pulp magazine to publish “The Mutant Worms of Kranakin”, a piece of sci-fi he wrote and submitted at the age of eighteen. Normally, I’m not fond of writer stories, but this one has a wicked edge.
Technology Review: Science Fiction, edited by Stephen Cass
The editors of MIT’s Technology Review have decided to put out an annual all-SF volume; this is the first. It’s a slick publication with full-color art; the table of contents follows the magazine’s usual format in placing the stories under headings such as “Communications” “Energy” “Computing” etc. According to the editor, these are all hard SF based on current technological breakthroughs, “to say something interesting about how the future might work.” There are twelve original stories, most from authors of renown in the field.
It’s interesting to compare the subject matter with the Solaris volume reviewed above. Instead of themes such as time and the cosmos, here the prevailing focus is on information, reflecting the emphasis on technology rather than science itself. I find that some of these pieces, particularly the shorter ones, tend to be thin on the storyness, being more concerned with the idea being presented.
“The Brave Little Toaster” by Cory Doctorow
Communications. A satirical updating of the Disch classic. Someone handed Mister Toussaint a free pouch of energy drink on the metro platform, and it threatens the tranquility of his existence by lying to his appliances. His refrigerator refuses to hold any other food as long as it’s inside. His recycler insists it’s toxic waste. The public trash can insists it’s a hazmat material and calls in the police. Only the brave but stupid little toaster can save him.
A Cautionary Tale, short and punchy.
“Indra’s Web” by Vandana Singh
Energy. Mahua is a pioneer in urban planning based on natural patterns; her Suryanet is a smart energy grid modeled on the fungal myconet in the forest. Everything is good in her life except for her grandmother in the hospital on life support after a stroke. When one of the suntowers goes offline, she is sure the network has its own reasons.
This idyllic setting is way too optimistic to be credible. The story follows the formula whereby solving the SFnal problem results in an epiphany that solves the character’s personal problem, but it’s a problem that someone like Mahua shouldn’t have had in the first place, and I’m sure the readers will have reached this conclusion long before she does.
“Real Artists” by Ken Liu
Computing. Semaphore films are wildly successful because they’re computer generated to produce the optimum emotional response.
“During the span of two hours, it must lead the audience by the nose on an emotional roller coaster: moments of laughter are contrasted with occasions for pity, exhilarating highs followed by terrifying and precipitous drops. The emotional curve of a film is its most abstract representation as well as the most primal.”
Sophia has worked all her life towards her dream of working at Semaphore, but when she realizes the truth, her dream suddenly dies.
A dystopian vision in which “art” is produced by formula and human “artists” are only used to provide feedback, in which any intellectual content has been leached away and only limbic reaction remains. Semaphore’s methods seem to contradict the phenomenon that I believe many actual artists have observed: the more you know of how the strings are pulled, the less they affect you. From the descriptions given, they are suitable only for children and other naive viewers. This is a strong negative message, yet at the end, Liu introduces a note of ambiguity that seems to undercut the point. I hope he didn’t mean it.
“Complete Sentence” by Joe Haldeman
Computing. Virtual sentencing, when a hundred years subjectively passes in the course of a day. Charlie Draper has convinced his lawyer of his innocence, and she has appealed, but the sentence has begun regardless.
This doesn’t make much sense. The appeal process makes no sense if the sentence is completed before it begins, and there’s no reason that the lawyer’s presence is necessary for the sentence to be initiated or ended. The story is cursory and the characters aren’t given the time and space to develop more than a single dimension.
“The Mark Twain Robots” by Ma Boyong
Robotics. A stale piece in which roboticists attempt to make robots that can tell jokes and yet not violate the three Asimovian laws. This is hardly the future either of technology or science fiction.
“Cody” by Pat Cadigan
Biomedicine. Cody is a courier, which is a well-compensated job but hazardous. Evildoers tend to abduct couriers to steal the information they are carrying. Cody is abducted in Kansas City, where they strap him to a gurney and try in vain to filter the information out of his blood. He’s not really worried. Too much. This is business.
People didn’t go around killing couriers. Nobody wanted that kind of trouble, the couriers union was too well-connected and too powerful.
This is the first story here that I found seriously interesting. It says a lot about the value of information in a society and the value of individuals. Cody accepts the risks of his job, but readers can see the cost it exacts in the erosion of his self, his memories, even perhaps his identity. He insists, “My name’s really Cody”, but how could he know for sure?
“The Surface of Last Scattering” by Ken MacLeod
Materials. Conal was too young to remember his father when Keith was imprisoned for the act of sabotage that was universally considered terrorism, that irrevocably changed the world. Conal has always been frustrated by his father’s refusal to accept his help, and now, with his release from prison, they are going to meet for the first time he can recall. The story is about their relationship, or rather the void where it isn’t.
What’s odd here is that the world seems so very little altered, both to Keith, coming out of prison, and to readers. After fifteen years, would they have the same mobile phones, with a newly-released prisoner so adept in their use? And this is not even considering the changes that Keith’s sabotage would have made. Yet I have to think that the impact would have been far more profound before the digitization of information and its routine storage on electronic media. Keith’s weapon was made for an earlier century.
“Specter-Bombing the Beer Goggles” by Paul Di Filippo
Web. Another humorous piece, in which Firpo Manzello tries to get laid. His youthful overindulgence in the Elfquest MMORPG has resulted in a condition called Sympathetic Avatar dysmorphia – which is to see, he can only get turned on by girls who look like Leeta of the Wolfriders. The solution he discovers is Beer Goggles, an app for his smart contacts that projects a desired image over the real one, if the user is sufficiently drunk. This technological fix seems to work. Initially.
Not to be taken too seriously, so it seems unfair to point out that the Beer aspect of the goggles is only asking for trouble. The Cautionary Tale about shutting off reality is well taken, however.
“Lonely Islands” by Tobias Buckell
Energy. A love affair doomed in advance by irreconcilable differences. The narrator’s selection software links him up with Sarah.
I love people on fire: the ones who’re so imbued by a passion that they glow when they talk. The ones that veer into near transcendence.
A very short yet passionate piece about people with conflicting passions.
“The Flame is Roses, the Smoke is Briars” by Gwyneth Jones
Communications. Which seems in this case to be technology-assisted telepathy and, like much classical telepathy, more the function of the individual mind than the tech.
But the worm itself was nothing – a cell phone you insert into your eye-socket, a “gadget” that creeps through bone to pick up phonemes from a center in the brain, instead of capturing them from the air.
Em is apparently involved in the project because of her high-powered mother; she is not one of those with the talent. She is currently working with Tom, who is, sending him visual images, not just voice. But Tom is discouraged and Em fears he might quit the project.
There’s a lot more going on here, not an easy read and too much unexplained theory to make this a totally satisfactory read in itself. Yet the heart of the story is easy to discern, and the climactic moment a breathtaking surprise, beautifully written.
“Private Space” by Geoffrey A Landis
Spaceflight. Kayla, Zak and Saladin meet up at MIT, where they bond over a student hack. Zak is the really obsessive one, and among his other plans is a laser-launched rocket. Years later, he gets them together again, having acquired funding to actually build the thing. Not enough funding, as it turns out, but MIT is a school of ingenuity as well as physics.
“You don’t notice I’m driving in on the scooter? I sold the Mercedes to pay salaries a month ago.”
“We’re . . .” he hesitated. “Leveraged. Highly leveraged.”
A neat little story of people with vision, drive, determination, and a large deficit of prudence. Perfectly realistic.
“Gods of the Forge” by Elizabeth Bear
Biomedicine. Brigid works for a corporation that promotes rightminding, repairing trauma and optimizing positive aspects of behavior. Or so the PR claims. While Brigid says she believes in the process, she addresses her own traumas the old-fashioned way, by confronting them on a rock face. One day she accesses in error a research paper from a different department and learns that some people in the company are working on a proposal to make it impossible for soldiers to disobey orders, no matter how illegal. She would like to oppose this, but she knows she could already be in trouble just from having seen the paper. Confronting her fear of confronting the corporation is much the same as confronting a difficult climb.
The real heading here should be Bioethics. Brigid is a strong proponent of ethical rightminding but at the same time skeptical of her own optimism and aware of the slippery slope from ethical to unethical uses. The author contrasts this with the mendacious pronouncements of the company PR flak.
“If by mind control, you mean instituting clarity and rationality of thought, and brining people peace and well-being. Accident or injury – or just genetics – can have a profound negative effect on the structure of the brain. We’re here to repair that. Nothing else.”
Tor.com, October 2011
Not a lot of original prose fiction here this month.
“Grace Immaculate” by Gregory Benford
Religious SF, the sort of sketchy fiction, not unknown in SF, in which an omniscient narrator describes events – in this case, alien contact, made by radio signals between Earth and beings that humans call Hydrans. The species have different conceptions of God [on Earth, the Pope controls the transmitter], and each is jealous of the other. I expect many [older?] readers will be reminded of Clarke’s “The Star”, although the narrator of that piece was a least a character in the story. There is a provocative idea here, but not fleshed out.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #80, October 2011
And finally some fantasy, two pieces with long poetical titles.
“Held Close in Syllables of Light” by Rose Lemberg
In a society in which magic is held in names, Vendelin needs to prove herself as her mother’s heir by making a trading voyage to a southern land where women aren’t allowed to hold power. Her journey is complicated when one of her father’s retainers stows away on the ship; her hosts and allies will not allow a strange male inside their house but she refuses to abandon him. Thus Vendelin is left to face the local Shah alone and unprotected, having not realized that he bears a strong grudge against her father, as her parents, inexplicably, failed to give her sufficient warning.
There’s too much stuff packed into this story, all kinds of details and backgrounding that quickly makes it clear this is a novel outtake. The complexity proper and suitable to a novel, which has room to hold it, can be extraneous and distracting in a shorter piece. I also have a trouble with some of the invented words; particularly for a work in which names play such a major role, I have to wonder why the author gave Vendelin a house name that sounds like a bread store. And it’s impossible to take seriously a religion that relies on the Book of Birdseed. Any credibility this piece had gained up to that point collapsed like a burst balloon.
“To the Gods of Time and Engines, a Gift” by Dean Wells
Cecily liked to hurt things.
She didn’t know why. . . .
It seems that there has been a revolution, with gods of mechanical perfection ousting the old gods of flesh and spirit; they demand sacrifices of her, they whisper in her mind, they make promises. But Cecily never understands why.
This is real horror in the tone of the grotesque [like the work of a darker Tim Burton] and the trappings of steampunk, but concealed behind it all is damnation, when, eventually, Cecily understands why.