The monthly digests for April feature a double issue of Analog. There’s good work in Asimov’s from Wilber and Schwartz. Also a nice lineup from Tor.com, where I give the Good Story Award to “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt.
Analog, July/August 2013
With a double issue, you get novellas. Even with the conclusion of the Lerner serial, we still have two novellas here, plus a large number of shorter works. This is a lot of reading. Uncharacteristically, I find myself liking some of the shortest stories best, while having issues with the longer ones, even when they are promising.
“Other People’s Avatars” by Howard V Hendrix
The lives of Anderson McKinnon. In one incarnation he’s a loser addicted to pills, booze and games. In another, he’s the brilliantly successful co-creator of the most popular game system ever, living the high life in the exorbs, looking down on Earth. But which is real? At one point in his journey, a friend gives readers a hint that Andy ignores.
“What if—in that last instant of our lives, when our lives pass before our eyes—what if, when that life-review in its turn comes to its end, in the last instant of that review another life-review starts, and when that one comes to its last instant another starts, and so on, and so on? What if the last instant of the mind is infinitesimally infinite?”
In form, the story is a variation on Cheever’s “The Swimmer”, with hints of Hamlet. Andy, filled with the ennui of success, decides to game his way home from a party, completing the orbit of the Earth from one exorbital game palace to the next. But on the way, he repeatedly encounters in gamespace the Repentant Revenger, avatar of his uncle/collaborator Ishmael, who lectures him at excessive length on the destruction of humanity by the digital civilization they’ve created, that has now grown to engulf and eradicate the human mindspace. In a way, this is a reflection of the mundane life that Andy has lived on Earth, turning away from the real to lose himself in his artificial imaginarium. But largely and unfortunately, this aspect of the text is made of infodump and straw, condemning at length an artificial world that doesn’t exist and never has. Ishmael’s endless scolding is simply tedious, in contrast to the Cheever-like series of encounters with a fading civilization, which have an oppressing effect that Andy denies as long as he can. That seems to be his one consistent aspect throughout all his incarnations: denial. There’s a strong story here that I would have greatly enjoyed if it weren’t for the weight of extraneous infodumpfery and the constant jousting against an opponent that is never real, as opposed to Andy’s real enemies of the mind.
“The Chaplain’s Legacy” by Brad R Torgersen
Sequel to an earlier, shorter story published in this zine. Earth has now made a truce with the militarily superior aliens they call mantes, who, far from praying, can’t conceive of a god. They now maintain a tenuous contact with former chaplain’s assistant Harry Barlow on the world Purgatory, for the sake of studying this alien phenomenon of religion. But Earth authorities now fear the resumption of hostilities and have redrafted Barlow, who is the only human to which the mantes will directly speak. He is dubious about the prospects of maintaining the truce. “If mantis curiosity about human faith is the only thing holding back their war machine, then our fates truly do rest in God’s hands.” Or in the possibility of humans being able to employ the breathing space to improve their weaponry. Upon the outbreak of renewed fighting, he finds himself stranded with a small, author-selected group of mantes and humans on a desert world.
Every once in awhile lights in the sky would sparkle and flash— ships exploding in the emptiness of space, their fantastic vanishings visible even in the daylight. Human. Mantis. All perishing together in one pent-up orgasm of long-delayed, hateful fury.
A cross-country journey of self-discovery ensues.
A much longer and more interesting story than the earlier one in this sequence, based on which I greatly feared that penning up these characters together would lead to tedious scenes of theology-dump. Not so, I’m happy to say. Instead, we learn about the characters’ nature and beliefs by observing their actions under duress, the way a story ought to be done. Which is not to say that the author has failed to be manipulative. Our small, selective group of survivors is, with one notable exception, all pacifists. In fact Captain Adanaho’s actions would certainly be considered treasonous by today’s standards, while the rest of her command is portrayed as trigger-happy fools.
The main problem here is probability, on both the large scale and the small, as, most egregiously, when a mantis improbably manages to guide his group through a firefight on a human ship, directly to an emergency hatch where an unused lifeboat is waiting for them – as much of the ship’s own crew is sucked out through a hull breach. Not buying it. But the main problem is with the mantis civilization, which has previously exterminated several sentient races and has only temporarily put on hold its plans to add humanity to that list. This is a pattern of behavior that has to be attributed to something much more than the absence of religion among them, and in fact it turns out that religion isn’t the decisive element after all, but the recognition of a common personhood [that we would normally call a common humanity]. The fact that the mantes have never before approached such a concept, then suddenly manage to accept it, is a whole lot to swallow. As long as the story remained wholly within the human point of view, with the aliens alien, it’s one thing, but the heart of this story lies in the mantis point of view, and there simply isn’t enough of it here to see, although the key lies with the mantis Queen. Is her behavior reasonable, acceptable, or totally unlikely? We have no way to tell. But from what we can see here, it’s way too improbably easy: hey, mantes are human, after all! No problem!
The Queen’s behavior, in itself, is an interesting journey of self-discovery, one that really seems to need its own story. It also provides a parallel with the Hendrix story above, concerning the ways a sentient people can become enslaved by its own technology. But again, it becomes a question of whether we can accept it in the mantes, when the technology is shown here as so very vulnerable.
“Thaw” by Arlan Andrews Sr
This one is a puzzle piece. Readers are meant to wonder: Are we on an exo-world or a glaciated Earth? Are the characters aliens or devolved humans? If human, how and why have they changed? Have they adopted a Braille-like tactile script because their sight has failed, particularly for close work, or because their world is perpetually dark?
The central character is Thess, an ice broker and a Reader who has mastered the literate arts, which makes him valuable to the brutal local ruler, who sends for him when a dead God is discovered in a receding glacier. The God proves to be the key to answering many of the questions, both for Thess and, even more so, for the readers, who will recognize what he is.
Quite a bit of science informs this one. As global warming melts today’s glaciers, an increasing number of artifacts have been revealed to archaeologists. Readers will undoubtedly connect the God with the recent discovery of Ötzi the ice man. And the description of the different races suggests the evidence that scarce resources can lead to decreasing size in a population. By the end of the story, we not only have a pretty good idea what happened in this world’s past, but a glimpse into its future. This is suggested by the characters of Thess and his two sons, one suited to the past as a hunter and fighter, but the other clearly a natural scientist, full of “new ideas” that impress his literate father. But the sight of heads on stakes also warns us that it’s never wise to be too optimistic about the human condition; as global warming alters the environment, war over resources will be inevitable. And canny businessmen like Thess will profit from it.
“Tethered” by Haris A Durrani
When orbiting trash impedes business in Earth space, junkship operators like Charlie and Kalima go into business. Current satellites are supposed to be equipped with tethers that reel them back when they’re no longer useful, but one apparently hasn’t responded to its radio control and has to be retethered manually. Kal and Charlie have been contracted to do the job, but they encounter a complication when a message comes in from the Chinese military.
“That satellite has not been authorized for decommission. On this breach of international code of conduct, we would like to make it clear that our operations have a right to take any action we deem necessary unless your operations comply with our demands. Is this understood?”
So if they tether the Zombie satellite, the Chinese will shoot them down; if they don’t, they’re in breach of contract with the corporation. They’ve been screwed. Charlie wants to back off, but Kalima has her own priorities.
Here’s a nice exciting space action adventure that would be a good read on its own. But the author is more concerned with the politics behind it. Thus the action is interrupted regularly by historical squibs unnecessarily detailing the background all the way back to the dawn of the satellite age. If this weren’t enough to distract readers, the text also breaks away from time to time to give us the background of Kal and Charlie’s love affair. All this extraneous material reminds me of orbital debris deflecting the core story from its path. I also find a minor irritation when the author informs us that Kalima is “is a tall, slender woman bathed in mahogany skin” but doesn’t find it necessary to tell us what Charlie looks like. It’s far more important what Kalima does than how she looks, and she does a lot.
“Not with a Bang” by Rosemary Clair Smith
Paleo Lite: What really killed the dinosaurs. A future world when science has become sexy to the news agencies, in large part because of the time jumper. Marty is a biologist on the first expedition to the Late Cretaceous , Julianna is a scientific reporter; he’s in love with her, but she seems more in love with a hot story. The usual encounters with dinosaurs ensue, while the male scientists ponder the fickleness of females across species. Readers may wonder what either of the male scientists see in Julianna.
“Ready, Set” by Mary Lou Klecha
Short-short. A sad tale of a person whose entire life is spent waiting to be somewhere else but here.
Even if Earth is the only place I’ve ever been, it’s not really home. It’s just where I’m staying until I get the word. I don’t know where home is; I’ve never been there. I’ve never been within thirty million miles of there.
“Milk Run” by Alec Austin & Marissa Lingen
To make life interesting on a routine supply run, every crew should have an eager newbie.
“How exactly,” said Zubiondo, sitting absolutely still and letting him do all the squirming, “does one manage to get through two safeties and a cover hatch to f ire the pulse cannons accidentally Private Chovnik? If one might raise the question purely as an academic matter, of course.”
There’s some nice acerbic wit here, which I always enjoy.
“A Quiet Little Town in Northern Minnesota” by K C Ball
Namely, Blackduck MN, the town AI, which has suddenly developed ambitions after the new DARPA project came online nearby, an abiotic, egocentric, self-organizing electronic perception system that displays independent thought and judgment.
In six weeks I intend to be all of Beltrami County. In nine months, the entire state of Minnesota. And within three years I will be the world.
Blackduck’s only problem are the technicians who’ve spotted a hacker in the system, but the frailties of human nature give the AI the advantage. Humor.
“Cronus and the Ships” by Seth Dickinson
Another short-short. It seems that humanity has created armed spaceships named after its greatest myths and legends: Edda, Ramayana, Sundiata Keita, Argonautica, Valayapati, Shahnameh, Lady of the Lake, Savitri, Iliad. Out in the cosmos, they have encountered a far-spanning power that consumes new species, following their radio signals. “Jealous gods evolved to extinguish competitors in the cradle. Cronus machines.” The ships now meet to decide upon a course of action. A surprisingly cynical resolution, well-informed by myth.
“Love” by Rick Norwood
When Stephen was six years old, a beautiful lady kissed him on the cheek, and he fell in love. As a young man, he meets her again and they have a brief, one night affair. She tells him this is all it can be. She is a starship captain, and time dilation makes it possible for her to have lasting relationships on Earth. But Stephen is deeply in love.
This is sweet without being cloying, a hard trick to pull off.
“CREP d’Etoile” by Bud Sparhawk
Space farce. Which we know it will be because the first character we see is the Naval Commodore, Ugg, who is for some reason commanding a luxury star liner that features a very expensive executive chef, the eponymous Etoile. Etoile earns his pay by transforming the ubiquitous recycled food product [the CREP of the title: “every passenger ate the same food every ten days”] into culinary productions that show no sign of their origin. He is also highly temperamental, and stroking his ego is just one of the jobs of the ship’s executive officer, whose trials are many: the real theme of the story.
Asimov’s, July 2013
Only one longer work in this issue, the Wilber, which is still short of novella length.
“The Art of Homecoming” by Carrie Vaughn
With her head on the block following an embarrassing diplomatic incident, Major Daring considers retirement. In default of a real home outside the service, she decides to go to her sister, now a farmer on Ariana.
I’d fought in battles to protect worlds like this. Made the battles seem worthwhile, though they didn’t often seem so while I was in the middle of them. I liked it better when all the sides stayed at the negotiating table, or pillar, or cloud drift, or wherever, and all I had to do was stand there looking official. Captain Song pulled this vacation on me because he thought I’d get bored. That was going to backfire. I could retire to this. I could stay here forever, under the sun.
A low-key piece with a heartwarming quotient, as Wendy wonders where she really belongs.
“Yubba Vines” by Rudy Rucker and Paul Di Filippo
The editorial blurb calls this one “gonzo transrealism”, which, given the authorship, sounds about right. Bengt takes Cammy to Lifter, the transient diner reputed to be the latest deep underground thing. When the chef/maitre d’ tells them, “No charge for first visit Lifter. You pay later, pay a lot.”, readers will suspect that trouble and weirdness will ensue, especially after the diner puts a tag through Bengt’s ear, as if he were livestock.
Wildly imaginative stuff, with colorful characters who live off blogging and have their own private codes and networks that the uninitiated can’t access, speaking in colorful language.
Olala gave him yet another odd, sly look. “Oh, you’ll find it. But let me put an app on your phone. Why? Let’s pretend that it predicts Lifter’s locations based on feeds from HowSquare,WebWhere, UseeMEseeU, and ShotSpotter. Yeah, yeah, that’s what I’m saying it does.”
Much crazed fun.
“What Is a Warrior Without His Wounds?” by Gray Rinehart
Miroslav has the wounds – an arm and leg lost in combat in Chechnya – and now he expects to be discharged, discarded. Instead he gets secret orders to report to the military academy from which he graduated as a cadet. There he discovers that he’s meant to be the beneficiary of a secret program, tellingly initiated by a [mad] German scientist captured in the Great Patriotic War. But he recoils from the cost, an innocent life. It’s also chilling for him to realize that his might have been the innocent life, if things had been different back then.
An overtly moralistic work set in a corrupted system. Miroslav is chosen for the program not solely on his own merit but because of his family connections. “We would not want to disappoint your powerful friends.” But I see insurmountable problems with the scheme. The “early graduated” cadets, returning home to their families with no recollection of who they had been, would raise immediate suspicion. The author contrasts the Russian program with the advanced prosthetics available to wounded US soldiers, which makes me wonder how recently the story is set. Fighting in Chechnya went on for a long time.
“At Palomar” by Rick Wilber
Another Moe Berg story, a sequel to the author’s “Something Real”, which events Moe only vaguely remembers as the story opens. But once again Wild Bill Donovan has come to him with an offer of a secret job in the war, and there’s a familiar-looking woman watching him from the baseball stands, who makes him an offer of her own.
It hadn’t gone the way it was supposed to the last time in Zurich, when he’d thought he was supposed to kill Werner Heisenberg to end the Nazi superbomb program, and instead he shot that bastard Carl Weizsäcker; but maybe that was why he was here. Things hadn’t gone right and so he was now in the repair business, fixing things. Or maybe the train business, getting things back on track. Shit. Whatever.
The alternate history in which he finds himself after a multitude of small timeflips has indeed gone not right, with America fragmented into many subnations and the Germans now ready to fight the Japanese over California after nuking New York. His task is to assassinate a German agent named Miriam Ruggiero, except that maybe she’s working for some other side, and make sure the superbomb gets into the right hands, whichever hands they are, instead of blowing up the new Japanese telescope on Mt Palomar. As his handler tells him, “There’ll be a moment there when it could go wrong. I can’t tell you more, but you’ll make the right decision.” Problem is, everything keeps flipping around.
Again, we’ve got a fast-paced mix of action, physics and baseball, although the ending this time is quite a bit more ambiguous than in the earlier story, which had an ultimate explosive conclusion. The history here has been warped out of recognition, making it more many-worlds theory than strictly AH, and Wilber throws in a nice surprise in that regard, a young Hugh Everett who, we may suspect, is responsible for the theory behind all the flipping. With the open-ended ending, I’m also suspecting more sequels to come.
“Haplotype 1402” by Ted Kosmatka
Post apocalypse, the downfall in this case being antibiotic-resistant bacteria. A few communities have some resistance, notably American Indians. Nathan, part Indian, has joined a small caravan of survivalists hoping to find room on a reservation. Their leader is a sinister character whom Nathan believes is responsible for the death of some of their members.
“It’s all immunity haplotypes and chance. For this bug, survival reaches its highest frequency in native Americans,” and he smiled with his shark teeth, and Nathan knew he was more than just a dentist. “What goes around, comes around,” he said. “It’s our turn to die.”
But Doc has no intention of being the one to die.
Pretty predictable outcome. I’m not sure why Nathan failed to intervene when Doc killed Marcus, as it’s established that he’s prepared to use his gun.
“Blair’s War” by Ian Watson
Alternate history. A world in which Britain is more socialist and sends an expeditionary force, led by General Eric Blair, to aid Republican Spain against the fascists. It also brings over Basque refugee children after the bombing of Guernica, and the story is seen through their eyes as they struggle with the differences between their own language and culture and the British.
“Eton is a school for the sons of the rich. In England, these expensive private schools are called public schools. Much in England is not rational, for example the spelling or the pronouncing of hundreds of words.”
A lot of this is backgrounding, but the author makes it go down pretty smoothly as the children listen to wireless reports about the war and their caretakers translate the tricky bits. The identity of General Blair is the AHnal key, and the author throws out plenty of clues along the way [Sir Richard was at Eton with Blair], which makes it fun, even though he gives it all away at the end, for those who might have missed it. More of a political work than it might seem at first, in keeping with that identity. Which makes us wonder how Blair’s subsequent literary history might have evolved.
“Today’s Friends” by David J Schwartz
When the Grays first got here they couldn’t leave the birds alone; they were always reaching into their tiny brains, winding them up so tight that all they could do was sing their songs. Sometimes the birds’ hearts would stop before they could even let out a chirp. Now the birds stay well away from the cities, and the streets are always quiet.
The Grays don’t like sound but they do like human music. Berto makes the mistake one day of absentmindedly humming, and a Gray reaches into his mind to pull out the song – along with lots of other stuff. The Grays like to take things apart to figure out how they work, and that includes humans. They’ve been getting better at it.
The title comes from the telepathic address that the Grays use with humans: “TODAY’S FRIEND WISHES TO HEAR YOUR SONG.” We see the way this kind of contact has already altered human society after a few years, and suggestions of what it might becomes after several generations of living with the aliens. Everyone Berto meets has a story of a meeting with the Grays. Even a bird. The story subtly makes a strong impression.
Tor.com, April 2013
Another month with a long lineup of original, independent short fiction. I find this is often due to some factor like the site declaring “Courgette Week”, to which I am usually oblivious. But for whatever reason, it’s a good overall selection this time. My particular favorite is the Thomas Old Heuvelt story.
“Backscatter” by Gregory Benford
Crashed on an isolated icy asteroid, running out of oxy and other good things, Claire goes looking for help, and her spotlight hits something entirely different.
Fronds . . . beautiful emerald leaves spread up, tilted toward her from the crusty soil. She walked carefully toward the shining leaves. They curved upward to shape a graceful parabola, almost like glossy, polished wings. In the direct focus the reflected sunlight was spotlight bright. She counted seven petals standing a meter high. In the cup of the parabola their glassy skins looked tight, stretched. They let the sunlight through to an intricate pattern of lacy veins.
The hard SF problem story is a classic form in the genre. A protagonist, often in a spacesuit stranded on a desolate, airless planet, has to save herself using scientific knowledge and ingenuity. Here, however, Claire’s salvation is owing less to her own ingenuity than the author’s godly beneficence in planting a phototropic garden exactly where she needs it. The text is livened with banter between Claire and her less-than-helpful AI. I can’t help feeling a moment of irritation with the notion that there is nothing so wondrous and lovely that some human won’t decide to exploit it for her own purposes.
“Rag and Bone” by Priya Sharma
A twist on an old trade. We’re in either a sort of alternate 19th century or a socially regressed future in which income inequality has reached extreme levels. The world has apparently been divided into petty kingdoms ruled by plutocrats. Liverpool is devoted to shipping and dark satanic mills, and any attempt to escape is punished by death. Tom, working as a rag and bone man, is relatively free in having no immediate boss, but the Peels are everyone’s boss. It seems that there’s a kind of transplant technique available only to the plutocrats, and they want Tom to serve as their agent, signing up tissue donors. “The Peels keep people in tanks like fish, cutting off the bits they want.” But when Kate Harper volunteers to be a donor, needing the money to support her young daughter, Tom is moved to protect her. This is dangerous. Kate is the widow of a martyred revolutionary, and the Peels want to find her.
I have previously admired this author’s prose, but this is a work in which setting predominates. There are strong scenes, as when we learn how the mutineer leader was executed by tying him to the ship’s anchor before it was dropped. Anyone familiar with the history of early 19th century mutinies will recognize the truth here. Other aspects of the setting, however, are less credible. I find it hard to believe that Peel surveillance can follow Tom’s every move through the slums, yet can’t find a sign of Kate Harper. The twist at the end works effectively, but it doesn’t really change anything essential to the story. The character I’d like to see more of is the Peel agent, who seems to know Tom’s secret and protects it – to a point.
“Sing” by Karin Tidbeck
Here’s a fine opening:
The cold dawn light creeps onto the mountaintops; they emerge like islands in the valley’s dark sea, tendrils of steam rising up from the thickets clinging to the rock. Right now there’s no sound of birdsong or crickets, no hiss of wind in the trees. When Maderakka’s great shadow has sunk back below the horizon, twitter and chirp will return in a shocking explosion of sound. For now, we sit in complete silence.
This is the world-moon Kiruna, a fantastic place where human speech disappears at the rising of a certain companion moon and the people communicate in birdsong. This is possible because the birds lay their eggs in human children. Sometimes there are crippling side-effects, such as the tailor Aino suffers. As deformed, she is shunned by the rest of the population in an act of collective denial. When an outworlder arrives and speaks to her directly, Aino is glad for the companionship. Petr claims to love her, but he also insists he will remain on Kiruna, while she is desperate to escape the place for the low gravity space station where her affliction will matter much less.
In sciencefictional terms, this setting makes no sense whatsoever. Read as fantasy and relinquishing the sense requirement, it seems like a pretty neat place, or at least a neat idea for a place. Still, the people of Kiruna are pretty weird. I’m not really convinced by Petr’s desire to make his home there, when he would always be an outsider. And if he really loved Ainu, would he so utterly reject her request? It’s noteworthy that while Ainu likes him, is grateful to him, she never does claim to love him. That makes the difference.
“Do Not Touch” by Prudence Shen
Not an outtake from the author’s graphic high school novel, currently being promoted at this site. Other than the comic-style cover illo, it’s entirely prose with lite witty touches, entertaining stuff suitable for adults. It seems that people [usually kids who ignore the warning signs] keep falling into certain paintings. Today at the art museum, the painting is Seurat’s unfinished Le Cirque, and Lane is the guy whose job is to go in and retrieve the kids. Adventures in the not-so-belle Époque ensue.
Lane hits the sawdust and dirt ground with a thud, landing heavy on one shoulder because there’s no graceful way to tip over from the edge of the frame into the stereoscopic image of an artist’s state of mind. Eugenie doesn’t do much better, flopping down with her fingers still tight in Lane’s, her skirt going halfway up over her head in the too-hot crush of the circus, night pressing into the opened flap of the tent and up against the cluster of people standing at a break in the bleachers.
There’s fun in this, but I’m not really buying a kid who will run away from the circus to find the Moulin Rouge.
“The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Based on Thai myth and observance of the Loi Krathong festival, when people send ornamental floats down the river, bearing offerings along with their wishes. Doi Saket, according to this tale, is a village downstream on the Mae Ping river with a special tradition of its own: they gather the floats from the river, dedicate the offerings to their temple, and hold a festival at which they send their own wishes aloft in balloons while they grant the wishes from the river. Some of them. Somehow. Or so they believe. Young Tangmoo is one of the villagers, but he has no wishes of his own to make. Tangmoo, for some karmic reason, has already achieved without realizing it such a high degree of enlightenment that he has transcended desire.
A delightful world, full of supernatural forces, gods, and divine purpose – never doubt it. Like the festival itself, there is a casual mixture of the predominant Buddhism with older forces, like the river goddess herself and the potent phallic stone outside the village’s Buddhist temple. The narrator comments on these matters with a certain respectful irreverence.
The Gentle Abbot had an exceptional talent for invoking Buddha’s teachings on all relevant and irrelevant matters people came to him for advice on. Even when a dilemma seemed nigh on impossible to solve, he would astound his audience with the only correct and always uniform answer: that the question was confusing and therefore by definition irrelevant, as the purpose of any spiritual life is to avoid confusion. And this was why the Abbot of Doi Suthep was the most beloved man in northern Thailand: he made everything seem so conveniently simple.
The story is clearly intended for readers foreign to this tradition, as the author has supplied us with footnotes of explanation, particularly with regard to the matter of personal names. In these, as in the rest of the text, there is a tone of wry affection. The bearers of the names are a varied cast of characters, by no means all admirable, and the narrator details their well-deserved fates in prose crafted to leave readers convinced of the spiritual forces at work here. A general spirit of karma wafts over the tale, extending to all creation, even unto a mating pair of dragonflies. What might otherwise be considered tragedy is here transcendent.