Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late August
A month’s worth of ezines and one print anthology.
- Fantasy Magazine, August 2010
- Strange Horizons, 23 August 2010
- Beneath Ceaseless Skies, #48 July 29 2010; #49 August 12 2010
- Lightspeed, August 2010
- Tor.com, August 2010
- Subterranean, Summer 2010
- Gateways, ed. Elizabeth Anne Hull
Fantasy Magazine, August 2010
Some very nice premises in this month’s fiction, even if the stories didn’t all do them as much justice as they might have.
“Stem, Stone and Bone” by Deb Taber
Somewhere in Venezuela, the Mineral Men gave up on the failing fields of oil and ore and turned with their magic to cacao as the new foundation of their economy. But their spell was not limited in effect to the cacao tree; it changed everything: “stone into stem, stem into bone, bone into stone.”
Seeds became beetles; leaf-pods became fat caterpillars creeping blindly on the wind. They floated gently to the ground and wrapped themselves in mud until their wing-branches unfurled and stretched into creeping trees. Stones broke down into seeds when cracked, or grew limelichens when left alone.
But the worst effect is that women can now only bear stones; there are no more children born. Jacinta is one of the last generation born in the city, a worker in the cacao groves, who tries to come to terms with the sterility of her world.
There are ties between this fantasy and current reality. Cultivation of cacao is increasing in Venezuela today, and the story has a tone of political allegory, although I’m not sure I recognize the object. While the scenario is obviously not meant to be taken literally, I can’t help wondering what the supposed benefit is to cacao beetles over cacao beans. But the image of giving birth to a stone is a powerful one. The excellence of the story is not in its politics but in its prose and in the character of Jacinta, a simple woman whose yearning for life is strong.
“And the Blood of Dead Gods Will Mark the Score” by Gary Kloster
Zealous puritans have been killing off the old gods, whose blood is full of potency and thus sought by criminals. A tattoo made with god blood is transformative. Woody, as a person of gender dysphoria, is a person who craves transformation, but he is also a blood hound, strongly attuned to the presence of god blood. Now his former partner in the blood trade, and former lover, has returned knowing exactly what Woody wants – the blood of Ungud, the hermaphrodite god of rainbows.
I really like the fantastic premise. The blood of dead gods is full of intense possibilities, but the story doesn’t live up to them; it seems rather demeaning to use gods’ blood as a sex change drug. Too much of the narrative is backstory, focused on Woody’s past relationships, a tangled mess of crime, betrayal and punishment, all of which I find less interesting than the black essence of divine power.
So the blood of the dead gods gathered in the dark spaces, the secret places, and of course there were those stupid enough, crazy enough, to seek it out. We found the dreams of a million souls gathered in the curdled essence of a deity and packaged it into little glass spheres, convenient for sale.
“The Wizard’s Calico Daughter” by Eilis O’Neal
Anya is the daughter of a wizard, and in some magical way of the wizard’s cat. She has lived happily for sixteen years in her father’s house, with its infinite number of rooms but no door to the outside. Now, however, she begins to wonder what the world outside is like.
She knew the windows wouldn’t move. But it was her birthday, and she felt strange and out of sorts in her own skin, and her father had gone to bed early, exhausted from magic. Like a cat, like a suddenly desperate girl, she jumped off the bed in a flash, went over to window, and shoved upward with all her strength.
This story has been told many times, but the author has made it fresh with an appealing narrative and dialogue between father and daughter. I particularly like the way that Anya chooses to makes her point.
“Where Shadows Meet Light” by Rachel Swirsky
The ghost of Princess Diana visits unhappy people. No, this is something I can’t accept, intrusion into the private life of a real individual, appropriating her identity for the author’s own purpose. People are not public property. Let the dead and their loved ones have some peace.
Strange Horizons, August 2010
“Where it Ends” by Swapna Kishore
Chikki’s family in India is immortal. The blessing of continued youth is conferred on brides at their weddings and passed to their husbands in their first married kiss. But these details are not disclosed to the unmarried children, so that Chikki and her brother don’t understand the risks when they insist on marrying outside the family.
The heart of the story is the relationship between Chikki and her mother, who chose hostility instead of trust with her children. It is a tale with strong reminders of the problems with exogamy in many different cultures where the tradition has been arranged marriage, with parents resenting their children’s choices of a mate and families obstructing the match. But in the case of this plot, the secrecy regarding the ritual is an artificial obstacle, which weakens it.
“Ghost of a Horse Under a Chandelier” by Georgina Bruce
The opening suggests that Zillah has a magic book with directions to a magic place, but this seems to be her imagination or dreamworld, leaving us with a nonfantastic sexual coming of age identity story.
“The Big Splash” by George Galuschak
Post apocalypse on the beach: it seems that the oceans have risen and left a lot of beach, where Charley the alien lives, who may actually be an alien but it doesn’t really much matter to the story. Things go on as long as the world remains. Dogs get old and die, friends move on. The author creates a strong sense of universal loss from seemingly unrelated elements in this short piece.
“Five Rules for Commuting to the Underworld” by Merrie Haskell
A meditation on Persephone’s world and the perils of ignoring the rules.
Of course, the tolls for a queen and a wife, a goddess and a daughter, are not measured in dollars or obols. Her bill comes due with her mother’s sobs, her husband’s glower.
A deconstruction of the Persephone story with an emphasis on family relationships, plus comparisons with other similar myths, which offer insights into dealing with the divine.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #48, July 29 2010; #49, August 12 2010
The end-of-the-month stories from July, plus August’s. Not rising to the quality of the earlier stories in July, but that would have been a lot to expect.
“Prashkina’s Fire” by Vylar Kaftan
Seventeen years ago, the gods got into a war and killed each other off. On that day, Prashkina’s priestess Sarayoura felt her absence and knew her goddess was gone. Without the gods, the land has fallen into ruins; bandits have despoiled the temple and raped the priestess. But now a simple fisherman has come to the temple to make an offering in hopes this will bring the goddess back to life.
A simple, straightforward and hopeful tale, pretty predictable.
“The Shades of Morgana” by Dean Wells
Humans living on a world of demons and shadowmasters have to fear the night. Sully Foyle, as a boy, was incautious, caught and raped by one of the demon-possessed, and ever since has been possessed himself. The adept Doctor Rowan Martin has taught him how to control the wurm within him, but lust tends to weaken Sully’s control, and tonight Rowan’s sister Sabrina is being too seductive. The demon is loosed.
This storyline of this dark dark fantasy is overlaid by an excessive amount of staging, the author throwing on blood, guts and other stock fantasy elements with a shovel. There are too many made-up words and too many borrowed from works such as Lewis Carroll’s, which is intrusive and distracting, and just plain overwriting:
“You have no concept of the Glory that reigned when Shadowmancers walked the mighty isles of Morgana. But all fires die, pretender. Flames gutter out, light fades to black. In the end only the Great Deep is eternal. We shall reclaim this World, and through these mortal vessels the Gods shall reign once more.”
“Eighth Eye” by Erin Cashier
A story of war. Moira is burned over most of her body and probably wouldn’t survive even if the hospital weren’t being bombed. A spider comes to the side of her bed, and Moria sees that it only has seven eyes instead of eight. The spider tells her the story of the great mother spider and the human child with whom she traded eyes, and how the spider people went to war.
We got armor now though — skins of the dead, layered three deep, striped with webs. And shells, from spiders gone beyond. All of us look like spiders now. We telling them where to go, what to do. Learning, us.
A strikingly original fantasy idea, a harrowing tale of the futility of war. There is something about spiders that gives most people a grue, but here is another point of view, in which we see that there are worse things. The afterward informs us that the author is a nurse in a burn ward, which accounts for the convincing description of Moira’s condition.
“The Book of Autumn” by Rachael Acks
Safir was sold as a child to a monastery where, despite the abuse, she managed to master the accursed magic of the Order, which they never believed a girl could do. Putting the place behind her, she travels back to the place where her home used to be, now in ruins, in search of her lost past. But when she finds her brother, he is either greatly changed or she never understood what he really was.
What I really like here is the magic, based on ancient books of stories.
“Golden fall the leaves of autumn. Upon the wind they split and dance, through the battle, through the lives, turning once to Ashram’s knives….“
The conclusion, however, is rather too moralizingly pat and rests on a coincidence that isn’t credible.
“And Blow Them at the Moon” by Marie Brennan
Historical fantasy based on the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, starring Guy Fawkes. Before the dissolution of the monasteries in England, the goblin Magrat was the grim of Hyde Abbey.
…her duties had been simple: she haunted the church — a task that would send most faeries shrieking for safety — and rang the bell on occasion, and knew which dead were destined for Heaven or Hell.
Now she sympathizes with the proscribed Catholics and has developed a particular fondness for the Jesuit Henry Garnet. When it becomes clear that Garnet is involved in something dangerous, she resolves to save him.
I quite like the notion of a church grim, although the OED knows not this term. But in her involvement in these affairs, Magrat’s role is little different from a mortal’s; this feels more like historical fiction than fantasy.
“Winecask Bellies and Owl Wings” by Liz Coleman
A child-eating monster is imprisoned by a dynasty of kings who enjoy her sexually while she yearns for freedom. She convinces the king to give her his daughter, but this does not work out as she had planned.
I nursed her on the breeze from my teats and teethed her on locusts. I plucked out her hair and replaced it with willow. I peeled off her skin and replaced it with the surface of a sun-reflecting pond. I gave her an eagle’s eye and a bat’s ear. I showed her how to ride the wind and I named her for the long lost princess who lured me to my doom.
The magic here is pretty grotesque and too contrived.
Lightspeed, August 2010
The two original stories here this month share a common feature: rather than a linear narrative, they are comprised of discrete sections. One, however, is a lovely literary metaphor, while the other is a polemic.
“How to Become a Mars Overlord” by Catherynne M Valente
Ostensibly a career seminar, it gradually sheds that cover to reveal its true nature. Attendees learn first that there are many red planets, a Mars for every potential overlord. They then are shown a number of examples of the paths that successful overlords have taken to reach their planets, and last, the final lesson.
—- and now we feel we can be truthful, here, in the long night of our seminar, when the clicking and clopping of the staff has dimmed and the last of the cane-cream has been sopped up, when the stars have all come out and through the crystal ceiling we can all see one (oh, so red, so red!) just there, just out of reach —-
This is not a work of science fiction. The Mars of this story is not a planet in our solar system, or in any stellar system. It is a metaphor for individual self-fulfillment, for understanding “your own highest excellence.” I can not say that I really cared too much for the early section on the multiplicity of Marses, each with its own made-up skiffy name. Valente’s prose, as always, is superior – lovely and insightful – but even she can not win me over on the issue of names like Podnebesya, even if her names are less awkward than most. But I have the sense that this part of the story is for the seminar attendees, with their red-covered folders open to the agenda. The rest, however, is pure delight, in particular the life of Max Bauxbaum, a ruby beyond price.
“Arvies” by Adam-Troy Castro
As in RV, as in vehicle. Humanity is divided into two classes: fetuses and those unworthy to remain fetuses, who only serve as vehicles in whose wombs [male vehicles have artificial wombs] their drivers are implanted, until they trade them in for a newer model. This is an obvious metaphor for the “right to life” position in which, the author is telling us, fetuses are valued over non-fetal human beings in whose wombs they reside. Some might say it is a powerful metaphor, and I suppose it is, in the way that a noisemobile coming down the street with the subwoofers at full blast is powerful: it pounds the atmosphere with a sledgehammer of sound that overwhelms any tune or lyrics. There is no subtlety here. To be unborn is to be alive with full rights, to be born is to be dead, with none. Worse, there is only a minimal story told by a narrator who dictates how we are to read this piece:
Expect cute plush animals and amniotic fluid and a more or less happy ending for everybody, though the definition of happiness may depend on the truncated emotional capacity of those unable to feel anything else. Some of the characters are rich and famous, others are underage, and one is legally dead, though you may like her the most of all.
In other words, you will like her the most of all, although in fact there is nothing to like or dislike in Molly June, as she is not a person; we might pity her for this, but what we are meant to feel is outrage at what has been done to her. The other character we are obviously to despise because of what she is, and the author makes her cruel, callous and selfish to make sure we get the point; this is emotional manipulativeness of the crudest sort.
As for its sciencefictionality, the author purposefully does not suggest how such an unlikely state of affairs might come to pass, as he explains in the afterward. Likelihood is not the point here. Readers are to take the situation as a given for the sake of the message. If it were meant to be absurdity, that would be one thing, because the situation is certainly quite absurd – in fact, ridiculous. But if we are meant to have sympathy for the characters, it would be better if they were more than vehicles for the author’s Message.
Tor.com, August 2010
While “urban fantasy” month is officially over, the site is still posting stories in this subgenre. August would actually seem to be Heinlein month here, in honor of the new biography, and there is an ongoing symposium on Heinlein, his work and his influence, that readers might want to check out.
“What Makes a River” by Deborah Coates
Beth was always the sort of girl that you take along to clubs because she can drive you home when you’re wasted. At one club she met Paul, who is a hunter of Things. Atypically for him, he let her help him in the hunt. But now Paul is away and not communicating, and there is a Thing in Lake Michigan and it is stalking Amy. Reluctantly, because she doesn’t really like Amy, Beth agrees to help.
The not-merman is singing or something—noise that sounds like shipwrecks and dying sailors and the crash of mighty impossible waves. And—crap—there are three of them, not just one, and they’re huge, bigger than Beth expected, bigger than she remembered.
A sequel to a story previously posted elsewhere, and it doesn’t really stand alone. This installment develops Beth’s background for readers of the previous installment, but Paul is a cipher to someone without familiarity with the earlier story – who is this guy and why should we care? There is obviously going to be a continuing series in which the questions raised here will probably be answered, but the installment on its own is thin.
“The Fermi Paradox is Our Business Model” by Charlie Jane Anders
Aliens. Jon and Toku have been surveying the universe for a million years, with no surprises. Civilizations arise from the seeds their people have sown, then kill themselves off, leaving their world’s resources for the harvesting. It’s all according to plan. But now they have encountered a world emitting radioactivity and electronic traces, and the civilization is still alive. Worse, it is trying to contact them, although contact is against the rules. Jon ill-advisedly decides to break the rules.
Toku hit “send” and then waited. Was there any chance that, having heard the truth, the “Earths” would get back into their little ship and go back home, so Toku and Jon could leave before their careers were any more ruined? With luck, the “Earths” would finish dying off before anyone found out what had happened.
August must be Fermi month somewhere in the universe. This is an entertaining story, a neat and original take on a classic SFnal trope. The Falshi are nicely alien, but have too much confidence in their business model and have obviously not heard of Murphy.
“The Speed of Time” by Jay Lake
Brief glimpses of the end times, from those left behind. Suggestions as to how this may have come to pass, although not all the accounts are equally likely. Regretful meditations on God and time and other imponderables.
The lie that was revelation became truth, and the speed of time simply stopped for almost everyone except the few of us too soul-deaf to hear the fading rhythm of the universe.
Provoking theological thoughts suggested in this very short piece.
Subterranean, Summer 2010
When I enlarge the cover image of this online issue, I discover that it reads “Special Novella Issue.” Which is encouraging, although one of the strengths of this publication is that it regularly publishes longer fiction and novellas are often to be found here. But three novellas is certainly a desirable thing, and the Resnick story posted in August is a welcome read. There is also a non-SFnal piece by Jay Lake.
“Six Blind Men and an Alien” by Mike Resnick
By 2038 the famous snows of Mt Kilimanjaro are melting. In commemoration of the centenary of Hemingway’s story, an expedition is climbing the mountain, hoping to find the frozen body of Hemingway’s leopard. What they find instead is something entirely unexpected, the corpse of a brown-furred biped that can only be an alien. But how did it come to be on the mountain? Each member of the expedition imagines an explanation, each one informed by the individual’s personal experience, much like the blind men’s conjectures on the nature of the elephant.
This ezine has been publishing Resnick’s stories on a regular basis, but they have largely been humorous, even farcical pieces that are not really to my taste. This one is another matter, with six different tales folded into a larger, in a setting that evokes both Resnick’s own landmark tales of future Africa and Hemingway’s stories in that setting, with the speculations of the expedition members forming a series of dialogues with Hemingway’s character, on coming to terms with imminent and unexpected death.
Gateways, ed Elizabeth Anne Hull
A festschrift in honor of Fred Pohl’s ninetieth birthday, commemorating his lifetime in science fiction. More than one figure has been called the dean of science fiction, but I give this title to Pohl, whose work as an editor and agent guided the growth of the genre as much as his own fiction has enriched it. One measure of his influence is the list of significant authors who agreed to contribute to this anthology. In her introduction, Elizabeth Hull, Pohl’s wife as well as the editor, mentions the authors who regretted that they were unable to write a contribution, but those who did contribute are an impressive group that includes many of the most important figures now working in the field.
This field is science fiction. Not Speculative Fiction, not fantasy, but science fiction, as Pohl once said to my then-vampire-writing self. Fittingly, this is a science fiction anthology. But it is a broad field, as his own contributions to it were broad, and the anthology reflects this fact in its variety of settings and tones. These works are not set in Pohl’s worlds but in the worlds of the authors’ own creation. There is a Stainless Steel Rat piece from Harry Harrison, a safari story from Mike Resnick. Some are serious, but more often they are humorous or satirical. The title is apt: not only recalling Pohl’s best-known series but suggesting how science fiction has always provided gateways to other, fictional worlds.
While the book is over 400 pages, only about half is original short fiction. Besides reprinted works, there are some novel excerpts, poems and a number of appreciations. As usual, I will be discussing only the original prose fiction.
“Von Neumann’s Bug” by Phyllis and Alex Eisenstein
An alien AI probe crashes through the roof of Frank’s garage. It proceeds to disassemble itself into smaller units, both to gather data about the planet and to accumulate material for reassembly. This activity is greatly vexing to Frank.
Two beers later, he was dismayed to find that most of the pits on the car went all the way through: with the hood up, he could see pinpoints of daylight, like the bright stars of outer space scattered across the dark underside. He swore loudly, which brought Liz out to see what was going on… and tell him to watch his language while the kids were home.
An amusing short story with a distinct Silver Age sensibility as expressed in Frank and in the Cold-War-evoking references to NORAD.
“Sleeping Dogs” by Joe Haldeman
Flann Spivey returns after thirty years to Seca, the world where he fought for the Confederación in the Consolidation War to steal control of that world’s supply of dysprosium. He has come to try to retrieve his memories of the year, erased by the drugs supposedly meant to wipe out trauma, but which also eliminate recollection of illegal activity. What he discovers is an unwelcome truth that he has known all along without acknowledging.
It’s a wonderful thing to be able to travel from star to star, collecting exotic memories. But you have no choice of carrier. To take your memories back to Earth, you have to rely on the Confederación.
Haldeman’s best-known stories have been of war and its veterans, stories that contradict the official lies. This one is very appropriate for our own times – bitter, a bit cynical and extremely true. The poignant moment when Spivey realizes how his dreams of playing classical guitar were callously destroyed stands for all the lives destroyed for the profit and gain of powerful forces.
“Gates (Variations)” by Larry Niven
A pair of very short alternate lives of Bill Gates, this being a pun on the anthology’s title.
“Shadows of the Lost” by Gregory Benford and Elisabeth Malartre
Ancestors of our own species vs the Neanderthals. A small band of modern human hunters encounters a group of Uglies, and Spen manages to kill one. He is proud of his first kill, Spen being an artist and not one of the tribe’s fighters. But later in a cave, they discover a pile of mammoth tusks incised with carvings more artistic than anything Spen can create. This creates an ethical dilemma, implying that the Uglies are actually human, not animals as the tribe has always told itself.
I find no reason to credit the story’s premise, that the human band would have altered its behavior towards the Uglies if they recognized them as humans. Humans have shown no reluctance to kill others fully recognized as humans throughout their history, during which they have erected the artificial barriers of race and ethnicity where there is no difference in species.
“A Preliminary Assessment of the Drake Equation, Being an Excerpt from the Memoirs of Star Captain Y.-T. Lee” by Vernor Vinge
Captain Lee may have been the actual discoverer of Lee’s World, “the most earthlike exoplanet known” at the time, but unfortunately, he was not in charge of the followup survey, which was placed in the hands of commercial exploitation and renamed for that purpose “Paradise.” To say that some of those commercial exploiters were unethical would be gross understatement.
This humorous tale of space exploration pays the tribute of naming the expedition starship the Frederik Pohl.
“The Errand Boy” by Frank M Robinson
As a young orphaned child, Jason Hendrix was chosen by God to be his messenger, just like Jesus. The road is not easy but he never loses faith. It takes him to the secret lab at the Blake Pharmaceutical company, where they are working on a black project for the DOD with the potential to destroy all humanity. And Jason knows what he was meant by God to do.
This is a somewhat familiar science fiction scenario, although some overly nitpicking persons might argue that the presence of God pushes it over to the side of fantasy. The narrative shifts around rather confusingly, more reportorial in the beginning to Jason’s point of view near the end.
“King Rat” by Gene Wolfe
A story of survival. It seems that aliens called the spiders have destroyed much of Earth and are hunting the humans [for recreation?]. They also have parked a vast ship outside the city, where they have recreated an African savannah. A few humans, including the narrator, follow the elephants inside [the spiders can communicate with the modified elephants] where they try to settle, hunting the animals for meat instead of each other. Mostly. The narrator makes a deal with the lions [he can communicate with the lions, who may also be modified] so that he becomes the top rat stowed away on the alien ship. As he advises his daughter on the lessons of survival:
“You pick a good one. He doesn’t have to be big, but he’s got to be tough, and he’s got to be somebody who’ll stick by you. If he isn’t I’ll off him if I’m still around. If I’m not, you’ll have to off him yourself. Quick.”
Commentary on the human condition. The narrative voice is vivid and unusual, and the setting is interestingly strange as revealed, only partially, by the narrator. There is a lot we don’t know because he doesn’t: why the spiders have decided to create this large park, whether they know the humans have infested their ship, and how long they intend to remain on Earth. But it is how he tells what he knows that matters.
“The Stainless Steel Rat and the Pernicious Porcuswine” by Harry Harrison
Slippery Jim DiGriz is enjoying the good life on Moolaplenty when unwelcome visitors arrive: his bucolic relatives from Bit O’ Heaven, bringing along a herd of porcuswine. Porcuswine, despite their charm, are unwelcome on Moolaplenty, as are impoverished relatives.
This promises to be an entertaining round of fun for Rat fans, but alas, it cuts off abruptly in the middle of the action, revealing that what we have here is only the start of a new novel. A disappointment.
“The First-Born” by Brian W Aldiss
Mars colonization on the cheap. The US, Europeans and Chinese all wanted to colonize the planet, but the recession made them reluctant to give their settlers the necessary economic support. The colonists seem to have been recruited from the bottom of the barrel, but their supervisors know that unless they can get more women to join them the project is doomed. And the death of the first baby born on Mars, once a sign of hope, seems to forecast that doom. Scientists claim that the gravity of Mars is insufficient to support gestation. But teenaged Fadrum, brother and unacknowledged father of the famous child, worries that there might have been another reason for its congenital defects.
Dark humor in a sordid environment, suggesting that the dream of colonizing the solar system might not be the grand triumph of the human spirit that so much SF has predicted.
“The Flight of the Denartesestel Radichan” by Sheri S Tepper
Alien humor. A ship crewed and staffed by two incompatible species is conducting a biological survey when an unknown hostile entity damages its engines. Their only hope is to jettison the cargo of specimens, despite this being against numerous rules. Afterwards, a survey has to be dispatched to determine if the noxious omnivorous, bisexual, bipedal, unarmored creatures (OBBUs) have contaminated the native species of the world onto which they were jettisoned, which of course happens to be Earth.
The humor here depends largely on the numerous acronyms that the aliens use to complicate their existence, along with contradictory regulations. This also makes reading it rather a slog. Fortunately, there aren’t many pages to slog through.
“On Safari” by Mike Resnick
Donahue and Tarcia have won a sales contest awarding them a five day safari on the planet Selous. While they are wondering how the company can afford this prize, their officious AI safari vehicle arrives. Before long, they are envying the salesmen who won the negatronic washer and dryer.
“There are two cases on record of tourists being killed by daggerhorns,” said Quartermain.
“Out of how many?” demanded Tarcia.
“There have been 21,843 safaris on Selous, comprised of 36,218 tourists, sir.”
“So the odds are 18,000 to 1 against our being killed,” said Tarcia.
“Actually, the odds are 18,109 to 1, sir.”
Amusing light story.
“Chicken Little” by Cory Doctorow
While most of the fiction in the anthology is on the short side, the opening and closing stories are novellas: a reprint by Brin and this original story by Doctorow. The setting is a well-portrayed future where the concentration of wealth has grown to much greater extremes than today and the very richest can achieve functional immortality in lifesupport vats. Formerly a brilliant student, Leon has taken a job at an ad agency that operates in a milieu of extreme luxury on the past proceeds of a single sale to one such vat resident. His ambition is to make another such sale, but when a customer already has everything that money can buy, this isn’t easy. There is, of course, one thing he can sell: himself. But what does the man in the vat want with him?
Leon turns out to be a strong and interesting character, a person who proves willing to give up his life of luxury when its cost would be his integrity. But this is essentially a work of social criticism, the sort of thing for which Pohl is well-known. It is a Cautionary Tale that warns of the extreme concentration of wealth and power in a world that looks a lot like our own If This Goes On, but it also speculates about the possibility of using this power for the benefit of humanity. Not a lot actually happens. Mostly, the characters talk a lot around the issue, which seems to be a matter of guessing the answer that the author has in mind, but I’m not sure things would actually be that simple.
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