Trying to catch up here after losing some time to an emergency. This column features a Hard SF anthology.
Reach for Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan
Another in the editor’s fine “Infinity” series of Hard SF anthologies on the subject of human expansion into space. This one, according to the introduction, focuses on the human striving for space, although I don’t really see this as a predominant theme in the stories here. Indeed, if there is a repeated theme, it would rather be yearning for homes left behind rather than striving to leave them.
Anthologies like this one are essential for our field, which gets so little these days of the pure science fiction without admixture of the fantastic. There are fourteen pieces from a good assortment of authors, with an Australian tilt, which we often get from editor Strahan. Most take place in our own solar system, hewing pretty closely to known scientific knowledge. I particularly like the McDonald and the Schroeder.
“Break My Fall” by Greg Egan
Migration to Mars, via a series of hops between orbit-tethered asteroids.
The Baza had performed a U-turn around the Stone, but with respect to the Earth, rather than reversing its motion it had just gained an extra hundred metres a second. Over the next hour the Stone would give a similar boost to every ship in the convoy – and then it would be free to spend a couple of years harvesting sunlight, replenishing its spin and tweaking its orbit until it was back in position to reprise its role for another group of travellers. It had taken three decades to nudge this rock and its companions out of the Amor group and into their tailored orbits, but the foresight of the pioneers who’d begun the process had paid off for the generation that followed. The Baza was not so much a spacecraft in its own right as a life support capsule being tossed from Stone to Stone, but this choreographed relay race would deliver it to Mars in just four and a half months.
The passenger ships are small, carrying fewer than a dozen colonists, and they travel in convoys, all following the same route. For Heng, the Baza‘s captain and sole crewmember, it’s normally a routine job, but this time a solar flare erupts, forcing the convoy to shelter at the nearest Stone – greatly prolonging their journey. The docking, too, should be routine, although a less usual one, until one of the ships ahead of him breaks its hold on the mooring spoke, dropping away into space and perturbing the Stone’s rotation. Heng decides to move on to the fallback position of the next stone, but their emergency docking is anything but routine.
In some respects, an excellent example of what Hard SF should be, centered on a Neat Idea, its engineering strongly displaying the physics behind it. Unfortunately, it also displays all the signs of being an excerpt from a longer work; the ending, in particular, is entirely inconclusive. Nor am I convinced, despite the text’s claim, that the cost of setting the Stones in their orbits could in fact have been paid off by this slow, incremental process of migration, droplet by droplet of colonists. The actual story involves the interaction between Heng, to whom it is all just a job, and a bright child colonist who has clearly learned her physics lessons to propose a plan to rescue the adrift ship. But the characters are flat, and the situation fails to raise the readerly pulse – which is just as well, given that the author never lets us know if their efforts succeed. Not the most auspicious opening to the book.
“The Dust Queen” by Aliette de Bodard
Inevitably, as the oceans of Earth rose, its coasts were submerged, making refugees of the inhabitants, including those of the Mekong Delta. Perhaps as a solution to their plight [the text is not clear on this point] the longterm project of terraforming Mars has begun, but the refugees are not allowed to set foot there until the process is complete; they dwell instead on the orbital platform called Fire Watch, looking down on their untouchable promised land. As a diversion from their [despair, frustration?], the authorities have allowed the presentation of shows on the Martian surface, dancing clouds of dust animated by bots controlled remotely from orbit. The master of these bots is Bao Lan, known and revered as the Dust Queen.
Back on Earth, however, people have begun to restore the drowned territories and recreate the landscape that was washed away. Many refugees have left Fire Watch to volunteer for this work, now largely complete. Bao Lan, growing old, wants to return to her childhood home, but there is a problem: long ago, she had her mind rewired to expunge all emotional attachment to her childhood memories. She doesn’t want to go home in that condition; she wants to reverse her rewiring. For this, she has summoned Quyhn Ha, a young woman whose reverence for the Dust Queen is profound. Reluctantly, she agrees to attempt the process.
“Rewiring is… like deadening. You can’t completely suppress the emotions involved, or the person will go mad. There’ll be one, or several cracks somewhere; tiny remnants of the original emotions. All I have to do is find one and amplify it – I can’t give you the original back, but it will be something much like it.”
This scenario raises a number of questions. Bao Lan says she has chosen Quyhn Ha for two reasons: that she is the best rewirer on Fire Watch, which doesn’t go in for the practice a lot, and that she is a fellow Viet, who can understand her. But is there a difference? Is the entire population of Fire Watch refugees from drowned Vietnam? Is the entire prospective population of Mars? There is much in the text to suggest that this might be so. Bao Lan is the Dust Queen, and her shows are apparently based entirely on Viet folklore, presented on a major Viet festival. There is no suggestion of, say, Bangladeshi festivals celebrated in this way, although refugees from the Ganges would certainly far outnumber those from the Mekong. There are other humans in space, among the asteroids, but we see only one orbital habitat, Fire Watch. And more, we have only one Mars; it seems strange to terraform the planet for the sole benefit of one refugee ethnic group, yet nothing in the text suggests otherwise.
The rewiring premise, as detailed here, is rather over contrived, which has the effect, ironically, of robbing the story of its emotional impact. The heart of it should be Quyhn Ha’s emotional reactions to the dust shows, particularly those of her childhood, but although the author describes the shows and the folklore they are drawn from, the viewer’s presence isn’t strong. We are supposed to feel that she has given up something precious to her, but the feeling doesn’t come through. Bao Lan, at the end, is clearly not who she had been, but Quyhn Ha seems much the same. I can’t help thinking the story took the wrong point of view.
“The Fifth Dragon” by Ian McDonald
Adriana and Achi meet in transit to the moon, become friends because zero-gee sex is highly overrated. The work is good, friendship is good. Then Achi gets the word that her latest bone scan gives her only four more weeks.
All this I did, the endless hours riding the train like a moon-hobo, the hypothermia and being sling-shotted in a can of my own barf, because I knew that if Achi had four weeks, I could not be far behind.
Once your bones erode past that point, you can’t safely go back to Earth. You either have to leave before it’s too late or remain on the moon for life. Now Adriana and Achi, finally lovers as well as friends, have to decide. Achi wants to go back. But for Adriana, the moon is the place where a woman can put on wings and fly. It’s the place where the right idea, properly leveraged, can build her a dynasty, the fifth big corporation, one of the dragons.
Here, now, is story. A compelling central character, a fascinating world, an entertaining narrative. It’s Hard SF, for sure, with its depiction of a ruthlessly capitalistic lunar socioeconomy, where the charge for a breath can change from inhale to exhale, where the marginally useful are culled and the visionaries can find opportunity. Adriana loves Achi, but she loves that moon more.
“Kheldyu” by Karl Schroeder
Entrepreneur Achille Marceau had a bright idea: build solar updraft towers that will generate electricity while taking the CO2 out of the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the market for carbon crashed, and he had to shut down. Also unfortunately, the environmental consequences for the area surrounding the prototype tower were dire, as Gennady the troubleshooter discovers when he reaches the site.
The trees were draped in what looked like the fake cobwebs kids hung over everything for American Halloween. Great swathes of the stuff cocooned whole trunks and stretched between them like long, sickening flags. He glanced back and saw that an ominous white cloud was beginning to curl around the truck – billions of spores kicked up by his wheels.
While Gennady gets the tower’s turbine running again, he has a surprising encounter: Achille’s sister Nadine, a fellow UN arms inspector who seems to regard the installation as if it were a rogue nuke instead of a device with the potential to reverse global warming, as Achille has touted it.
This is part of the author’s series featuring arms inspector Gennady Malianov, who has had a previous appearance in this anthology series. This one is full of action, thwarting a truly dastardly plot [How To Profit From The Coming Mass Extinction] at an acrophobia-inducing height that makes me cringe to contemplate. As added interest, we have the Permian extinction and a remarkable physical setting in the Siberian “valley of death” alluded to by the story’s title.
“Report Concerning the Presence of Seahorses on Mars” by Pat Cadigan
Cognitive dissonance between the residents of Mars and some officious authorities back on Earth. Rose has been assigned to meet with remote robotic units hosting a US Special Envoy who claims “unauthorized and even criminal activity” by Mars residents.
I wasn’t sure what boggled me more – an outsider telling me how to pronounce Feenixity or the fact that an authority powerful enough to force an underground visit by mobi didn’t seem to know better than to speak before getting a response to their previous communication. It was the equivalent of talking over someone while they were trying to answer you in a normal conversation – not a felony but something a child would do.
There’s a lot about the society on Mars that Earth doesn’t understand, and a lot that Mars doesn’t want Earth to understand, like there being no actual official Governor’s office for them to go to, only a virtual construct. They do, however, want to keep receiving Earth subsidies, which have, up to now, been conditioned on population restriction, prohibiting natural [or semi-natural] reproduction. But people on Mars want kids. As Rose says, “A society without children isn’t the real thing – it’s weird, it’s unnatural, and it’s unhealthy.” So it didn’t take them long to decide that if the women were prohibited by law from becoming pregnant, the men would do it.
After a rather indirect opening, the author uses a pretty clever device to make the level of infodumpfery more palatable to readers: the narrative is framed as a report from Rose to people on Earth, “edited and annotated” with an occasional query, “How much do I have to explain to Earth people?” I like the colonial society and its unique way of operating. I particularly like the cultural differences between the two worlds. What I find questionable is the part of the premise whereby governments on Earth, despite financial straits, have set up the colonies on Mars as a sort of reality show, beaming the accounts of Martian fun and games down to entertain the homeworld. As the envoys states, “We didn’t send them there to lead normal lives.” The colonies weren’t expected to survive. But does that make sense, for a world so short on financial resources to expend them to set up a colony doomed to failure, just for the entertainment value? In the event of colony failure, would they have been willing to stand the very considerable expense of evacuating the entire population of Mars, if necessary, or just sit back and watch everyone slowly die? I don’t really think so.
“Hiraeth: A Tragedy in Four Acts” by Karen Lord
Hireath can be thought of as a human illness caused by loss or distance from home; in the case of pace, the greater the distance from the homeworld, the stronger the malady when it strikes. As a child on the Moon, Janik had a freak accident, falling and injuring his eyes, which his doctor, a fanatic on the subject, replaced with cyborg models. Later, working in the asteroid belt where he suffered from the most extreme version of hiraeth, Janik is convinced by the same doctor that the more augmentations, the greater the resistance to the illness, and he allows the installation of a prototype brain implant. The augmentation is successful, but it leads to a split within humanity. As unmodified Earthborn abandon space and return to the homeworld, the spaceborn and augmented move outward. But Janik retains a small seed of hiraeth, closed off so it can no longer affect him; its presence reminds him of his humanity as he lives, more and more, among the cyborgs.
The hiraeth is an interesting premise, raising the issue whether a psychological attachment to the human homeworld might cause any drive towards space colonization to abort. Oddly, though, the hiraeth seems to be unfelt in the story. Janik’s story is poignant and we strongly feel his suffering, but it seems to be caused, not for a longing for a world where he wasn’t born, but from simple loneliness. A unique prototype among the cyborgs, he clings more and more to the lost remnant of his humanity.
The storyline also seems incomplete when it comes to the pilot Lee, an unaugmented human entirely without hiraeth. The implications of this are tantalizing; we can’t be sure whether she’s an anomaly or represents a trend that will result in the posthumans we see at the story’s end. The question of her fate, left hanging, is quite frustrating.
“Amicae Aeternum” by Ellen Klages
Which is to translate: BFF. A young girl named Corry is saying goodbye to her friend Anna and to Earth. Her parents are taking her off to space on a generation ship, never to return, and these will be her last vision of the places she loves.
Golden light pierced the spaces between the trunks of the trees, casting long thin shadows across the grass. They leaned against each other and watched as the sky brightened to its familiar blue, and color returned: green leaves, pink bicycles, yellow shorts. Behind them lights began to come on in houses and a dog barked.
The strength of this piece is in the description of such quotidian moments, cherished by Corry as her last. Which would be just about as emotion-laden if she actually wanted to go. Rather sentimentally so, however.
“Trademark Bugs: A Legal history” by Adam Roberts
I have to wonder why the title isn’t trademarked bugs, as the other wording evokes the notion of glitches that invalidate trademarks. Regardless, this is a neat faux legal document [complete with footnotes and bibliography] concerning the history and status of proprietary pathogens, concerning which there has been an extensive set of lawsuits and rulings. As one advocate argued:
People are getting sick with genetically tagged flu viruses for which the only cure is manufactured by these same corporations! People are being forced into the position where they have to purchase medication, manufactured by the same corporations that made them sick, in order to bring them back to the baseline position of health. This practice is profoundly inhumane, unethical, and monopolistic. This practice is wicked.
So it would seem! But the lawyers for the Pharma corporations had much deeper pockets to draw from. Indeed, it wasn’t long until they were waging war on each other in fact, rather than just in the courts, although that continued as well.
‘Killing and maiming is one thing,’ said Bayer vice-chairman Hester Lu. ‘Wars have entailed that for thousands of years. But violating commercial copyrights and trademarks is quite another, and such behaviour will not be tolerated, in peace or in war’.
An exception in this volume, being concerned with something other than space colonization. But this brand of satire is well in the SFnal mainstream – a clear case of If This Goes On. When one of the paper’s authors states, “Democracy has, broadly, shifted from a flat-rate one-person-one-vote model to a corporate, buy-as-many-votes-as-you-like model”, we know we’re not looking at the future, but a well-established fact of our present. And the proposition that the bugs have made the world a better place is audacious irony. I think the late Fred Pohl would have appreciated this one.
“Attitude” by Linda Nagata
On the orbiting Stage One, with the motto “Our Only Export is Entertainment”, Juliet Alo is a semi-pro Attitude player in a zero-G spectator sport that rewards her intuitive grasp of trajectories. In one championship game, just as she is about to score, something inexplicable happens:
Her momentum reversed so quickly it was as if a digital record skipped in time. All my calculations were thrown off by at least three-tenths of a second as she darted to intercept me, and before I could twist to protect the ball it was gone from my hands. She passed the ball on the fly, hurling it to a teammate waiting halfway to blue. Our backfield was left playing catch-up as Team August relayed the ball past fins and static drums. Then they blocked our lone defender before a player took the ball through the goal ring for an easy score.
Juliet knows what happened; the opposition player was enhanced beyond the limit allowed by regulations, thus threatening the integrity of the game, on which the orbital’s entire economy is based, the income going to habitat construction. The League decides to cover it up, which is never a good idea, as countless politicians have learned. But there’s more going on than simple cheating.
This sort of sports story has been done often enough that it needs something beyond the ordinary; here we don’t have it, just some action and a bit of predictability.
“Invisible Planets” by Hannu Rajaniemi
Subtitled “with apologies to Italo Calvino”, a reference to the masterpiece Invisible Cities – an audacious choice for a model. It serves to inform us that this is not just any kind of galactic travelogue. In place of the vastness of Central Asia, we have the galaxy-studded universe, through which the darkship has long been journeying.
During the millennia of its journey, the darkship’s mind has expanded, until it has become something that has to be explored and mapped. The treasures it contains can only be described in metaphors, fragile and misleading and elegant, like Japanese street numbers. And so, more and more, amongst all the agents in its sprawling society of mind, the darkship finds itself listening to the voice of a tiny sub-mind, so insignificant that she is barely more than a wanderer lost in a desert, coming from reaches of the ship’s mind so distant that she might as well be a traveller from another country that has stumbled upon an ancient and exotic kingdom on the other side of the world, and now finds herself serving a quizzical, omnipotent emperor.
As in the original, the planets are sorted by theme [Death, Money, Gravity, Eyes, Words], although there is only one example of each; the work’s length ensures this will only be a miniature, simplified version. As in the original, we suspect that these planets are all imaginary, reflecting a single reality, despite knowing that the traveler has indeed visited many wondrous and exotic locations, for each planet exemplifies only a single aspect of existence, each one a monoculture.
Nirgal itself has become a graveyard. It is populated only by travellers who visit from other worlds, arriving in ephemeral ships, visible only as transparent shapes in swirling red dust. Wearing exoskeletons to support their fragile bodies, the visitors explore the endless caves that glitter with the living technology of the Oyans, and explore the crisscrossing tracery of rover tracks and footsteps in Nirgal’s sands, careful to instruct their utility fog cloaks to replace each iron oxide particle exactly where it was, to preserve each imprint of an Oyan foot forever.
While the conclusion seems to echo Calvino’s original, there is, as there ought to be, one significant difference. For while the Khan and Polo are two distinct individuals with quite dissimilar personal histories, the sub-mind narrating here is and has always been part of the whole to whom she is reciting, and thus must be seen as a function of memory as well as insight, not relating what is new but casting what is already known in a different light.
The piece is another exception to the anthology’s general rule, as this is not Hard SF, nor concerned with colonizing the Sol system.
“Wilder Still, the Stars” by Kathleen Anne Goonan
As children, May and her friend Irene dreamed of building starships. They form a company, develop an innovate ship, lose funding, separate. Fast-forward a century, and May runs into an Artificial Person in a lunchroom; she feels guilty because her research in neuroscience might have contributed to their development:
blank adult humanoids – fully functioning but comatose humans – are infused with virus-borne agents that initiate and accelerate neural development a millionfold. The pre-AP is stimulated with the language of choice, and certain parts of individual brains are more
intensely oxygenated, depending on the use to which the AP is committed. Content organizes the brain. Sessions of intensive, finely targeted fine and large motor control exercises give them a developmental kick.
This is an expensive process, yet for some reason APs are doing scutwork and hanging out on the streets, their abilities unutilized. May takes a few home and realizes their superhuman potential, but zombie-hating hordes gather and menace. Re-enter Irene, with a present for May.
A long life can lead to a long story, which thus runs the risk of being somewhat dull. This one is disjointed, with only the beginning and end. The connection between the space-striving story and the AP story is tenuous. What bothers me most is the APs, about whom we know too little to be able to tell if they really make sense. Like, where do these “blank adult humanoids come from, in the first place? Why, if so expensive to produce, are they not being utilized according to their abilities? Why, if useful, do their users not defend them from prejudice or at least protect them? And why has this prejudice developed, so quickly, so strongly?
The story tends to the sentimental. With the exception of the mob-sorts, all the characters glow with goodwill; the APs are all savants and geniuses, all tributes to their type, leading me to wonder again why these sterling qualities seem a surprise to everyone but May. What no one seems to address is whether they’re fertile or could breed true, but since, in May’s small community, there is only one AP female, the possibility seems essentially moot. On the other hand, they may be effectively immortal – another question the story doesn’t raise.
“The Entire Immense Superstructure: An Installation” by Ken MacLeod
While working on an artistic grant in Antarctica, Verrall’s mind cracked, if it hadn’t before, and after he left the rehab clinic, he entered the ubiquitous halls of the WikiThing and ends up in Equatorial Guinea, where he grows his installation. A space habitat, or satellite, doesn’t quite seem like an art project, but definitions are plastic whoever gave him his grant seems to have gotten their money’s worth.
An absurd work without an obvious point.
“In Babelsburg” by Alastair Reynolds
Vincent is a robot and a space probe, going out where humans cannot. As such, he’s a sort of celebrity, and his public appearances are popular. But the thing that captures the human imagination at the moment are the dead colonists that Vincent recently found on Titan, killed after their lander had failed. It’s a good story, but to Vincent’s surprise, another robotic explorer claims to have a different version of those events, an account not to Vincent’s credit. From a celebrity, Vincent has suddenly become an embarrassment.
I may not be provably culpable, but I am certainly perceived to have been the instrument of a wrongdoing. My agency, I think, would be best pleased if I were to simply disappear. They could make that happen, certainly, but then they would open themselves to difficult questions concerning the destruction of incriminating evidence.
A lot of questions raised here, more than the story answers. Vincent is established as a being of human-equivalent intelligence, a sentient individual capable of appreciating art, and apparently of some free will. He deprecates the sentience of another robotic probe as inferior to his own. He is definitely a being to whom motive can be ascribed. Yet whatever the motive for his actions and inactions near Titan, the text makes no conjecture. In this account, which is as close as we get to a confession, he evades the issue – as if on the advice of legal counsel. What he feels now is regret, not for anything he has done, but for losing the stars.
A well-done quasi-mystery. I only wish the talk show hosts hadn’t been conceived as such grotesques. It detracts from the genuine potential pathos of the situation.
“Hotshot” by Peter Watts
Another story of free will. Yet Again, humanity has messed up its own world and now plans to establish a backup on some innocent planet far away, instantaneously through a wormhole that has to first be established on the other side. Sunday has been born . . . built . . . bred for this mission, for a life spent in coldsleep as the backup to an automated system, but the authorities keep insisting she’s free to say no, to back out, instead. Still, they don’t really expect it. Sunday is rebellious. She wants to go, but she resents being made to want to go. Still, she doesn’t say no, doesn’t walk away, no matter how often they give the speech. She does, however, say, “I’ll get back to you” when she needs to meet with the only person she can really talk to, the person at the receiving end of all her rebellion while she was growing up.
I’m scared, Kai, is what I want to say. I’m scared by the thought of a life lived in such thin slices, each one lightyears further from home, each one centuries closer to heat death. I do want it, I want it as much as you do but it frightens me, and what frightens me even more is that I can feel this way at all. Didn’t they build me better than this? Aren’t I supposed to be immune to doubt?
The psychological heart of the story, the tension in Sunday between freedom and destiny, is quite clear and effective. Less clear, however, is a trip to the sun, in which Sunday experiences not only true freedom but also preternatural vision in a manner that feels a whole lot like magic. This may well be the sufficiently advanced technology, but I’m not seeing the point of it, the reason the pioneers [not just Sunday] undergo this experience, what results it’s supposed to have – particularly when the insights are only temporary. Nice imagery, though.
Not just a sea: an endless seething expanse, the incandescent floor of all creation. Plasma fractals iterate everywhere I look, endlessly replenished by upwells from way down in the convection zone. Glowing tapestries, bigger than worlds, morph into laughing demon faces with blazing mouths and eyes. Coronal hoops, endless arcades of plasma waver and leapfrog across that roiling surface to an unimaginably distant horizon.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #149-150, June 2014
The publisher celebrates the 150 milestone with a double issue. These are becoming pretty frequent as this ezine continues its success. #149 gives us horrific tarry nastiness and evil father-figures; #150, far the better issue, is full of immortal powers.
“Ink of My Bones, Blood of My Hands” by Vylar Kaftan
The narrator is the son and unwilling apprentice of the evil necromancer Ghraik, serving him, complicit in his crimes, to protect his mother, whom Ghraik holds hostage under a spell of immortality.
All of this I did because he trusted me, and I dared not cause him to question that. For I was the only soul that could free the island of Surthenon from his brutal grip, suffered these two hundred years. Only I, so close to his blackened heart, could find and exploit his weakness.
A day finally comes when his master is perturbed by a threat and subjects him to a rite of immersion in the tar pit that is the source of his power. The pit, with its awful secrets, claims him.
How to regard a work with lines like, “Vile fiend!”? The initial readerly impulse in these days, in a venue like this one that claims to be literary, and with such a title, is to suspect irony, some subversion of the traditional tropes of dark Sword and Sorcery. But no, this is traditional dark Sword and Sorcery; the author is playing the tropes straight, and piling them high, with a tar pit full of tortured and dismembered children to let us know just how dark and satanic this sorcerer is. The plot, such as it is, centers around the narrator’s quest to learn the nature of the bond among him, the necromancer, and the tar pit, so that he can seize his master’s power and destroy him. It’s a dated and unoriginal conceit, and the author brings nothing fresh or new to it.
“Silver and Seaweed” by Greg Linklater
The father-monster here has suffered accidents that turned him into a tentacled part-shark and forces him to remain underwater, where he is raising a girl he calls his daughter and transmuting her into something like himself, or what he used to be, in order to gather treasure from the deep seafloor that he can no longer reach.
She swallowed the contents in one gulp. It slid thickly down her windpipe and she gagged. He massaged her back gently, taking care around the budding fins and tender patches of scale. The essence grabbed her from the inside, pulled open her veins and raced to her brain. She could feel the transmutation always now, a dull ache in her bones, as the essence turned her on a wheel away from what she had been toward what he wanted her to become.
The contrast between these two stories is interesting. Although the girl protagonist in the Linklater story is not the narrator, we come to know her far more intimately than we do the narrator in the Kaftan story, we can sympathize with her situation, admire her determination, and appreciate her plan to free herself. There is a real, twisted relationship between the two characters here, and at its heart is the protagonist’s uncertainty about his true feelings for her, his real intentions. There is also originality in the premise.
“The Manor of Lost Time” by Richard Parks
The demon, summoned, tells the tale of Driana to his interlocutor. It begins when he was trapped in the workroom of a sorcerer named Ledanthos, who noticed one day that a witch had infiltrated his sanctuary. He bound and summoned her there, where she saw the demon in his true form, not the statue into which he had been bound – not by Ledanthos, who wasn’t up to such tricks and didn’t possess such sight. The two made a bargain for their mutual freedom, and Driana entered his prison to open the door that was closed to him.
Humans and demonkin alike generate a nearly infinite cache of lost possibility for every path not taken. This is the place where all the ‘might have beens’ reside. That is what you’re experiencing now. The potential was there, but it was thwarted, for better or worse. What you’re seeing and feeling now, and knowing now, did not happen. You’re right—it’s not an illusion, but it’s also not real, and never can be real.
Nicely done fantasy with a light, ironic tone, but also brief. By which I mean not so much short as sketched, the condensed form of a potentially much larger, more colorful tale, involving the history of two legendary beings without the legends. It hints of so much more.
“The Black Waters of Lethe” by Oliver Buckram
Life, or something like it, on the riverbank, where starlings fall from the sky and people sometimes wash up. So far, we have the greybeard, obsessed with reaching the other side of the river, the prince [who probably isn’t] and the warrior. Now a boat with a new castaway has washed up.
Lying inside is a dead man wearing a blue robe. Perhaps his heart forgot to beat. The river sometimes kills men this way. For others, drinking the black water, or breathing its vapors, leaves body unscathed but mind empty. When the prince first arrived, he drooled and babbled for days before regaining the power of speech.
Brevity here, too, and a great deal left unexplained. It isn’t at all clear where we are, except that this is the river of forgetting in the Underworld, or whether these characters are alive or dead or in some intermediate state. It would seem that some are more dead than others, however, and they are capable of becoming more dead than they presently are. While these lacunae are intriguing, they are not compelling as in the Parks piece; the state of readerly unknowing feels acceptable, and there is no real urgency to know who these people were, how they came to the riverbank, and what will happen to them next. It is what it is, and probably will remain so, but the details are for forgetting.
“The Inked Many” by Adam Callaway
Another in the author’s uncommon series set in the paper city Lacuna, where the Inked Man finds that his city is dying, his words impotent. The Lacunans had long since pulped every tree on the continent, even digging up the dead roots, and now the place is being overtaken by sand. In his long lifetime, the Inked Man has seen it all come and go.
Over the centuries, he had learned dozens of languages—real and fake, futuristic and historic, ancient, extinct, imagined, fabricated—the Inked Man collected languages in the same way some used to collect rare coins.
At the same time, on a mundane level, poverty has driven Chernyl to take a job in the mine, joining the exploited, who promptly name him Inky Britches.
This one links the past and future of the paper city through its archetypical founder. I don’t believe that any reader not already familiar with this setting will appreciate the nuanced appeal. The Lacuna that fascinates in those earlier pieces is no longer here, only its desiccated bones; it’s a dying city like any other, and like many others, a victim of its own past excess – that we no longer see. But Lacuna-that-was was a dystopia, charming perhaps in a few ways, but mainly for what we see as its oddness; living there was more a form of industrial slavery to the monstrous demands of paper. This being the case, the Inked Man’s quest to bring the place back, to recreate it, must likewise be seen as monstrous; what could have seemed a good idea in the first place has been revealed as a path to perdition.
What this piece also does is to rationalize the paper city, to explain it in more-or-less naturalistic terms. And this is a dreadful mistake. The attraction of the paper city in earlier tales was precisely in its inexplicable uniqueness. Stripping away the fantastic wrapping to expose the pathogen behind it robs the place of its wonder.
Readers previously unfamiliar with this wonder are unlikely to care much, and will be taking the present story on its own merits. In which the story of Chernyl gives us a strong protagonist, knowingly trapped in a sort of postindustrial hell. If he knows about his city’s wondrous past, he doesn’t seem to care much; his concern is with his own future, to which he optimistically clings as it erodes beneath his feet. To this, the parallel tale of the Inked Man on his quest for that past seems oddly detached and pointless, when it ought to evoke wonder. But the time for that wonder is gone.
“The Unborn God” by Stephen Case
A new god is coming into being and power, and it promises to be a tyrannical one. A boy comes to the wizard for refuge from its cruel priests, and the wizard trains him in his craft, explaining that the god’s growing power has begun to warp time and causality. Every time the boy recalls his father’s fate, what he remembers is more brutal
“Because the god is growing,” he answered. “Because it is growing toward omniscience, perhaps omnipotence, and its influence is reaching backward and forward in time. When you came here the priests were bands of clerics who had succeeded in bringing the god to root in the city but were still flailing in their newfound power.”
Now, as the god’s forces seek to destroy them and the alterations to the past continue to grow with the god’s growing potency, the wizard and his new apprentice race to confront it in its seat of influence.
While the general template here is an old one, it’s well-done and fitted with fantastic stuff, particularly the treatment of time, which makes it more original, but also the magical teaching scrolls, the wizard’s flying house, the scenery, and the jealous embodied wind who serves the wizard, hoping to earn his love.
Strange Horizons, June 2014
A theme of friendship for this issue.
“Tomorrow We’ll Go Yak Herding” by Michelle Ann King
Despite the plague of unexplained displacements that turn bungalows into shopping malls and hotels into petting zoos into tea shops, Jessica is on her way to Edinburgh, to Sera’s house. Hoping it will still be there when she arrives.
“‘It doesn’t matter,” Jessica says. “Because you’re right. We’ll learn how to make cider, or surf, or whatever else it is we need to do. And if we get yaks, Siberian or otherwise, we’ll herd them.”
Except that it actually does matter, because time is becoming displaced as well, and while the slippage doesn’t seem to be so bad wherever Sera is, on the road, things are different.
A short piece that starts out as lite absurdity but grows darker towards the end, when the purpose of their daily phone calls changes. [I wonder where Jessica is charging her phone.] At its heart, a story of comfort between friends.
“Rib” by Yukimi Ogawa
The narrator is a skeleton woman, a sort of succubus who likes to stroll outside at twilight when humans are less likely to notice what she is. A small boy named Kiichi, however, mistakes her for his mother – not so unreasonable as she is wearing his dead mother’s kimono, which creates a bond between them. It turns out that foul play was involved in the mother’s death, and the narrator decides to help him. “This is a boat I’ve put one foot onto; I’ll row to the end.”
A good deed and a grateful recipient, more than friendship. This is nice use of the folklore, but I’m afraid I find the faint hints of incest a bit disturbing.
“Storytelling for the Night Clerk” by JY Yang
An interesting narrative structure here. Our protagonist is a sort of cyborg, who works as the night watchman for the National Archives of selected downloaded individuals, jacked in as an extension of the building’s sensory network, and as such, a composite individual, part building-think, part human. It’s her human judgment that matters over the network’s logging of consistencies. As a composite, she is “you” in this narrative, who notices the anomaly of an old man haunting the vicinity of the archive’s second floor control room. “Machine sees no issue with this; there has been no breach. Your human mind sees the dots and sees premeditation.” The old man turns out to be a blacklisted individual who wants recognition for his late son, attainted by the father’s deeds. He has developed a scheme to have the young man illicitly archived; intercepted by Night Clerk, he begs her to enter him into the database. Night Clerk makes the official response: “If we archived people just based on the fact that they were loved, this building would cover the surface of the Earth.” But when she removes her exoskeleton and jacks out of the network, she is Wei En, a fully-human woman with a sick partner whom she deeply loves.
In that moment Wei En could have listened to her speak of a lifetime of banalities, a never-ending parade of gritty details that could be picked at over and over in memory until they slipped away like fish in a tide. She wanted to live in a world without time, without money, without death, so she could stop grasping at the sound of her lover’s tongue and just listen to it curling around the hard realities of life, on and on and ever after.
That is a moving and beautiful description of love, the simple joy that Wei En has in her lover’s presence, and the author happily refrains from drawing an explicit lesson, comparing her love to that of the old man for his son, delivering a didactic epiphany or a consequent change of heart, as would be the case in many such stories. It is left for the readers to make of the situation what we will.
Tor.com, June 2014
The site is short on the original, independent fiction this month, but that’s OK when it includes an excellent story by Yoon Ha Lee, worth several lesser works.
“Chapter Six” by Stephen Graham Jones
Zombies. Really. Shambling and rotting and devouring in hordes. While civilization falls apart, Crain and his dissertation advisor in anthropology, Dr Ormon, natter on matters abstract and theoretical.
“Herd mentality,” Dr. Ormon said, handing the binoculars back. “Herd suggests a lack of intelligence, of conscious thought, while horde brings with it aggressiveness. Or, at the very least, a danger to the society naming those invaders.”
Ormon has decided that all their research is going to prove relevant in the coming days of tooth and claw, after all – specifically Crain’s dissertation on evolution. Thus they are now out in the field, following the horde, cracking discarded bones for their marrow, and debating points of evolutionary theory, specifically whether humans evolved as scavengers or hunters.
Pretty silly dark comedy with a fairly high grue factor. Essentially it’s a parody of actual field research and mockery of the academic mentality.
“Combustion Hour” by Yoon Ha Lee
“The eschatology of shadow puppets.” That’s what it says, and readers will immediately be wondering what it might mean. The easy part: the end of the universe, when the last stars go out, not to be reignited, leaving all in the darkness and cold. Here there are shadow people in a shadow world of two dimensions, an artificial construct illuminated from the three-dimensional universe of dying stars, here called “lanterns”. This is a world of metaphor, where reality is masked by evasive names – reality, which the people here most assiduously avoid seeing. Yet it is explicitly said: “people are shadows, and shadows are souls.” In some way, or more likely in many ways, they have fled the dying universe into a two-dimensional shadow world, a population of shadows, of apparently disembodied souls, all of them puppets whose strings are held by the queen.
The queen with her scepter is one exception. Not only does she touch people with it, she also commands them. It is not entirely accurate to call it a scepter. Rather, it is a rod of puppet-strings, condensed to hungry facets. You have never seen your string, but you can feel it like a flickering ember even when you are far from the queen’s presence. Doubtless her other subjects experience something similar.
The protagonist is the queen’s knight, the queen’s hand, but rather than manipulating the puppets, it is a puppet itself, its string controlled like all the rest by the queen’s scepter. But the knight has a unique weapon that gives it the power to sever its own string; from the beginning it’s clear that the knight freely chooses to carry out her commands for the good of all, or at least it’s supposed to be. Ultimately, this is a story of autonomy, of responsibility. Whether there is a point at which the knight will say “no” and take on itself the responsibility for the consequences, which are ultimate indeed, as is everything at this ultimate point in the universe.
The two-dimensionality of the shadows tempts us to think that they are less real than the [former] people of the three-dimensional world from which they originally came, that their suffering may count for less. Certainly this is the attitude of the queen, who turns worlds to ash to extend or preserve her realm. The knight and a defeated king calmly discuss the king’s impending death in a manner that would lead us to assume it doesn’t much matter, even to him. But perhaps this assumption is incorrect, for the point of the knight’s moral rebellion rests on the belief that there is some level of suffering [and I have to think here of the eternal suffering of the souls of the damned, burning in hell, although we also have to assume these particular souls are innocent] that is too much to accept, even if it means losing the universe itself.
The shadows are not only puppets but paper puppets, ie combustible. Which is clearly metaphorical, a metaphor of fragility and vulnerability: paper, so easy to tear, to disintegrate in wet, to set on fire. And paper, burning, emits light. The knight itself was cut by the queen from the paper of a dying star, or so we are told, and its weapon is combustion, the force not only of destruction but of reignition. And combustion is impossible without fuel.
This author is known for combining elegant prose with topics in math and physics, and several asides in the text speak with literal clarity of the processes of star-death. But there is no way to place mathematical weight on a soul or measure its light upon combustion [although apparently some theorists are trying], and when the queen says the souls will burn forever, the question has shifted from the cosmological into the theological. We have to realize that the souls here may well not be human. Yet I can’t help imagining, with the help of hints in the text, of the current sciencefictional conceit of translating personas into electronic form, usually for downloading into some digital storage. Of course, if this is what’s going on here at the universe’s end, we’re way past digital storage in some material medium; we seem to be past matter itself, as the stars run out of fuel. At least, this is one way to think of the two-dimensionality of the world inhabited by souls, as immateriality. If we think of these souls as something like electronic shadows of once-material persons, this can be a way of understanding what it means for them to be combustible, transmutable into light.