Featuring the final issue of Subterranean Online magazine, a great loss to readers looking for good fiction, particularly at the novella length. Subterranean Press will undoubtedly continue to publish single-volume novellas, which alas I see all too infrequently for review. I also read the regular first-of-the-month zines.
Subterranean, Summer 2014
It would otherwise be cause for rejoicing to see the Summer issue of this high-quality online publication coming in at twice the usual length. Instead, it’s cause for lamentation, as the editors seem to be clearing out their inventory into this final issue, after which it will be no more. I consider this a major loss to readers in our field. Few other venues offer fiction at the lengths we can find here; this ultimate issue has four novellas, one more at nearly that length. Here are superior authors that we rarely see from other short fiction publishers. The world of speculative fiction will be a poorer place for its absence.
“Pushing the Sky Away (Death of a Blasphemer)” by Caitlín R Kiernan
When the australopithecine progenitors of Homo sapiens still struggled to master the most simple tools, the Djinn and the Ghūl waged a terrible war in the wastes of what geographers would one day name Arabia. The latter were defeated and were cast down into the Underworld at the very threshold of Dream. But not before they’d sacked temples and reliquaries, and so they departed this world with many objects holy to their foes.
But the Djinn, before this, had stolen from the demons the Key of Shackles, which they have always wished for the return. So it is a demon who waits with Elisheba, along with the ghouls, who keep their distance, for her coming death. Because Elisheba has not only come to the tombs to steal the key, she has turned it in the lock of her soul, releasing the actinic energy that she will not survive.
Very short piece evoking the deepness of time and the inevitability of death, whether or not we are ready for it. I like the bit that tells Elisheba none of the Hells will accept her, nor will Heaven.
“The Last Log of the Lachrimosa” by Alastair Reynolds
SF horror, set in the author’s Revelation Space universe; it can be read as an entirely independent work. The Lachrimosa is almost as derelict as the wrecks it seeks to salvage. Captain Rasht and his two crewmembers have found a piece of junk in orbit around a volcanic planet, and a lander crashed on the surface. In the lander, they find clear evidence that one crewmember, named Teterev, has survived and gone to explore a nearby cave, from which she never returned. Fired with greed, Rasht leads his crew [with his pet monkey] into the cave in hopes of finding some kind of valuable relics.
Why did we all go down to the surface? The truth was, that was Rasht’s way. If one or more of us stayed in orbit while he was down here, there was a chance of the ship leaving without him. If he sent one or more of us down here, while he stayed in orbit, he could not rely on our trustworthiness. We might find something and lie about it, keeping its secret to ourselves.
Where they see things they should not have seen, grotesque images of beings in torment, wrought in some kind of silvery nanomaterial. The place exudes dread, which they recognize as a psychological weapon, a deliberate attempt to repel intruders. At this point, Lenka and Nidra, and especially the monkey, want to take the warning and turn back, but Rasht insists on going deeper, impelled by greed.
We know from the beginning that things did not go well, as the piece opens with Nidra informing Rasht what his imminent and unpleasant fate is going to be, and the reason for it. In the course of this explanation, we learn just what she discovered there, the nature of the peril, and her plan to avert it, while saving both herself and Lenka. Even the monkey, despite the fact that she hates it. Now I wouldn’t call Nidra an unreliable narrator, but she is definitely a prejudiced one. So while she makes her case that Rasht’s fate is deserved, I’m not sure we can entirely believe her. Nor can we be sure whether it will be effective in its intended purpose, which is another question altogether, an issue of ends and means. It does seem that she’s going rather too far than would be strictly necessary, which is one thing that makes the piece horror—the other being the uncertainty, the suspicion that one day or aeon in the future another Rasht will come along and be even more undeterred, someone who may release what is within the cave into the universe.
I’m never sure that this narrative strategy, revealing the conclusion at the story’s opening, is an optimal one, but the author manages, despite it, to generate a level of tension and an atmosphere of adventure as well as dread.
“The Very Fabric” by Kat Howard
Dark fantasy. The sky tears open and kills Viola’s brother.
Viola looked up. “Oh my God, the sky.” It was obscene—the tear, the absence in the midst of the stars.
Then someone comes to her with the opportunity to mend it.
Nice realization of the image. The vows are a bit sententious and repetitive, however.
“The Things We Do for Love” by K J Parker
Set in the author’s Invincible Sun universe and featuring another con man and rogue, who calls himself Buto, here.
Let me explain. I was born a nobleman’s son, but that must’ve been a mistake. Really, I’m a thief. A nobleman’s son, caught red-handed committing a crime, treats the whole thing as a joke and pays the price for his fun with his father’s money. A thief, caught by the ankle in a dark shop, kills someone. I must have known that, or I wouldn’t have taken the knife with me in the first place.
Things go well for him in his chosen way of life until he meets a young woman who calls herself Onofria, a witch. An awfully accomplished witch. After a while, he realizes he can’t escape her—can’t leave her, can’t kill her, and can’t even kill himself.
After she brought me back to life on the battlefield, I confess, I loved her; more, I have to say, than I’d have thought possible. To owe someone your life; to know that you left her, and she followed you, and she was there when you needed her most, because she loves you—I realised just how wrong I’d been, running away from the most wonderful thing life could possibly give me. To think, I told her, to think I could’ve died, and never realised. There, she said, it’s all right now. It’s going to be all right for ever.
A dark fantasy on the theme of having too much of a good thing, whether love, wealth or immortality. As is usual with this author, the narrative voice carries the tale briskly along in an entertaining manner, but there are also philosophical asides that make it even more interesting.
“West to East” by Jay Lake
Short piece of SF—a stranded on inimical planet story. This one’s problem is the incessant winds, that sometimes exceed 900 knots. The two-person landing craft has been disabled and can’t get back to the mothership in orbit, or even get off a message to it, telling what has happened. Then, watching the local lifeforms that they call ribbon-eels, our narrator gets an idea.
Her comment about spiders made me think of airborne hatchlings on Earth, each floating on their little length of thread. “I wonder if we could use some of those damned things as sails. If we could get the boat off the ground and pointed into the wind, we might be able to climb high enough on deadstick to at least get off a message to Prospero.”
It’s a neat idea in a neat setting. Some readers may consider it fragmentary, and it exhibits the ending narrative problem in which we’re not clear what condition the narrator is in or how he is telling the story. But it’s pretty clear that this ambiguity is intentional on the author’s part; the intent is to leave us suspended in an exhilarating manner that may recall the conclusion to a very famous film. Unfortunately, the narrator’s sidekick reminds me think of Marcie from the Peanuts comic strip, which isn’t a Good Thing.
“What There Was to See” by Maria Dahvana Headley
Ghosts. In the mid-19th century, Beate became almost entirely blind at age five, in consequence of a fever. In place of the world of light, she began to see the world of the dead, populated by centuries of ghosts. While Beate found this shadow world a place of interest, she caused her parents great embarrassment.
Together, the Abendroth’s [sic] bore the burden of their daughter. In public they were gracious sufferers of their misfortune, but at night, they’d silently lie awake, and blame each other. Their daughter was seventeen, but her mind was younger. She was pursued by imagined friends and enemies, never silent, always gabbling. Her parents dreaded her.
When she is seventeen, they learn of a doctor who claims to have developed a technique to replace her damaged corneas with those of rabbits. The surgery itself goes well, but other aspects of Dr Von Hippel’s estate prove unsettling. At first, Beate was dismayed to discover that his grounds seem to be entirely free of ghosts, a circumstance she has never before encountered. But afterwards, through her rabbit’s cornea, she perceives that the place is haunted by the ghosts of tortured rabbits, as well as an apparition from which all the other ghosts have long since fled in fear.
A fine piece of horror. Except for making it clear that the bear-ghost is not merely a bear, the author leaves much about this ghost as a mystery—how, for example, it is able to reach into the physical realm, and why it targeted Beate’s father. This deepens the ominous aura of the story, as we can never be sure what the unpredictable apparition might do next. The conclusion is also unusual. While most of the story is told primarily from the several points of view of the characters, near the end it turns remote and flat, reflecting the style of an academic report. We already know that for Dr Von Hipple, Beate’s original attraction was as an experimental subject; he exhibited her to medical conferences as well as in his report, under the anonymizing label B A. What we see at the end is that in the story the author has rescued her from this anonymity, as well as all the others, and rendered them as living individuals.
“Grand Jeté (The Great Leap)” by Rachel Swirsky
The title clearly signifies the ballet, and there is the strong influence of the work Coppélia, in which a mad scientist produces a life-sized animated doll. But the leap being taken by Mara is in fact the long, dark fall into death from osteosarcoma. Her mother had been a principal ballerina and danced in the Coppélia ballet, but she never wanted Mara to follow her there. Unfortunately, she died of a fall when Mara was quite young, and all her daughter has of her now are the video recordings stored by her home studio’s AI. For her father Yakub, his wife’s death would have been unbearable except for Mara, who became the center of his life. Now, with chemotherapy failing, the prospect of losing her is unendurable. He diverts his research into creating artificial soldiers and produces a replica of Mara, into which he wants to download her mind.
The story is divided into three acts, each with its own point of view. We begin with Mara trying to cope not only with her own impending death but her father’s obsessive, smothering grief. When her father shows her the doll, explaining it as a gift to her, Mara reacts with anger, knowing he has made it to replace her in the form of the healthy girl she used to be.
Guilt shot through her, at his confusion, at his fear. What should she do, let him destroy this thing he’d made? What should she do, let the hammer blow strike, watch herself be shattered?
Because of her love for him, she allows him to take the copy of her mind and download it into the doll that will be there for him when she is gone.
It is in Mara’s story, through her eyes, that we most clearly see Yakub’s ongoing grief. His own act [Tour en l’air] focuses more on his childhood and his marriage, the love for his wife, becoming finally his resolution to go on in his own way with the copy of his daughter. The final act [Échappé] belongs to Ruth, the name that Yakub gives her when he realizes there can’t be two Maras in the house. This is hard at first for her to accept, as her memories are all Mara’s, her identity Mara. But that Mara is already gone, and Ruth comes slowly to realize that she will have to form her own identity now, diverging from her original’s just as the biological Mara diverges from the person she had been, slowly becoming her death. Realistically, the two never really reconcile, never entirely escape their mutual resentment.
But no, her experiences were diverging. Mara wanted the false daughter to vanish. Mara thought Ruth was the false daughter, but Ruth knew she wasn’t false at all. She was Mara. Or had been.
This is a strongly moving story of grief and loss that transcends its comic origins. The science-fictional aspect is secondary, albeit essential. Most of the story is entirely and profoundly human.
While the setting is clearly in a near future, the story and characters have a strongly old-world feel to them. Yakub’s grandparents, who raised him in Poland despite his birth in the US, were Holocaust survivors; his first language still seems to be Yiddish, which Mara has learned as well. While he is clearly a skilled engineer working with artificial intelligence, on secret military projects, we see him here as a tinkerer in a basement workshop, not a modern laboratory. When he suspects that a rabbi friend might consider Ruth to be a golem, the concept seems to fit the story more than the thing Ruth is supposed to be, a near-future AI.
The text of this piece is marred by an unacceptable number of errors, which makes it hard to know if there’s a reason that Mara calls Yakub “abba” without capitalizing the Hebrew word for father.
“The Black Sun” by Lewis Shiner
In the issue’s longest piece, Shiner visits an alternate Germany of the 1930s, where master magician Ernst Adler assembles a group of colleagues in the Art to take down Adolph Hitler while he is still vulnerable. The story is all AH with no fantastic element, but there is a persistent hint of the possibility, since Adler’s plot rests on the known susceptibility of both Hitler and Himmler to the mystical occult, centering on the Lance of Longinus, supposed to have pierced the side of Jesus on the cross, imbuing it with great powers. The plot, as such things always go, is complex, as is the storyline, accordingly. This provides a great deal of the interest, along with the ensuing action. The complexity leads to tension, as the possibilities for failure accumulate. Shiner knows well that the best-laid plans can end up in the rubble, and he allows his characters to fail at some points so that events aren’t entirely predictable.
There is less interest in the characters; despite the author’s efforts in that direction, they didn’t really come to life. The plot tension results more in concern for Adler’s scheme failing to go off as planned than the fate of the people involved in it. They are a diverse group, each with unique skills, such as slight-of-hand, hypnotism, escape artistry, and impersonation, and the plot seems particularly tailored to their abilities. Which makes me wonder: Adler had no real idea which of his fellow magicians would respond to his call, yet the main elements of the plan seem to have been established beforehand. It seems a bit contrived. Of course, all stories of this sort have to be extremely contrived, but it’s not good when readers notice it, rather like the tricks of a stage magician.
“He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes” by Harlan Ellison®
A slight piece, a series of incidents meant to exhibit the principle that some force of cosmic justice prevails in human affairs. Some of the incidents display a strain of sadism. The interest would seem to lie in sorting out the allusions and discovering where they point.
Clarkesworld, August 2014
A bonus this month, with four stories posted.
“The Rose Witch” by James Patrick Kelly
In a fantastic version of Eastern Europe, the rose witch has died, leaving her mostly untrained apprentice to tend the garden, where the plants are slowly beginning to die. Julianja was chosen because of her blood; a drop of it drawn by a thorn will mix with the odor of the selected bloom to cause visions. One day a young man comes seeking a vision from the dog rose; his family has been afflicted with an ancestral curse that is also a treasure and seeks to end it. In his vision, he sees Julianja, so he invites her to come with him to his castle where he will try to end the curse.
A neat fantastic premise here, with the wagon filled with the “uncles’” bones. In many respects, it resembles a fairy tale, but it’s more original. In particular, we have a narrator who steps to the front of the stage and addresses the readers directly.
You have very little understanding of the life of a girl at that time and in that place. You do not wake at the first hint of dawn or take to your bed at dusk because it is too dark to do anything else. You have never tried to eke a day’s nourishment from an onion and some rotting parsnips or squatted over a cesspit. Julianja’s life with Tzigana had presented her with precious few choices and all of those were predictable and circumscribed. She’d not even had the power to decide which chore to do first, whether to spend a dreary day sweeping dirt floors or scavenging firewood. Never had she had power over another—and a man, at that.
Julianja is a strong, well-drawn character who takes advantage of the change in her circumstances.
“Bonfires in Anacostia” by Joseph Tomaras
Sex and politics in the surveillance state. The center of the story is a middle-aged couple, Darius and Brandon, of whom the salient fact is neither that they are a racially mixed nor a gay couple, but that Darius works for a particularly secret division of the NSA. A dozen years in our future, control over the news media has been effectively achieved, so that most people in the country aren’t aware that the residents of DC’s Anacostia district are burning down their own neighborhood. The real secret, however, is the reason, which stems from the program to disguise the squalor of the place with projected holograms, to which the residents have taken offense. As Darius unadvisedly explains to the guests at their dinner party,
And someone—no one knows who, and I would know if anyone knew—tried to set one of the mansions on fire. And that was when they learned what it took government scientists a year and a million dollars to figure out: That fires disrupt the holoprojections. A well-aimed laser would do the same, anything that directs enough energy and light in the right place, but fires are more affordable. More democratic, if you will.
Cynically clever, subtly dark vision of If This Goes On, in which we see the continuing increase in the security state and the inequality of wealth and power. The author has a welcome deft touch.
“The Saint of the Sidewalks” by Kat Howard
Miracles. There has been a proliferation of saints. In desperation, Joan asks for a miracle, making an offering to the Saint of the Sidewalk, a homeless woman whose belongings were consumed by a fire but whose body was never found.
She set her cardboard on the sidewalk, prayer-side up. Then lit the required cigarette—stolen out of the pack of some guy who had been hitting on her at a bar—with the almost empty lighter she had fished out of the trash. You couldn’t use anything new, anything you had previously owned, in your prayer. That was the way the devotion worked: found objects. Discards. Detritus made holy by the power of the saint.
Unfortunately for Joan, after the lightning struck her offering, she is all-too-easy for her devotees to find: the Saint of the Lightning. People send her emails asking for miracles, and there seems to be no way to escape them. Or the lightning.
Amusing short piece. This is the kind of stuff I’d like to see under the label Urban Fantasy, instead of the sparkling and kick-assing that unfortunately has prevailed for some time.
“Five Stages of Grief after the Alien Invasion” by Caroline M Yoachim
A list story of sorts. The Eridani have come to Earth, strangely unaware that the planet was inhabited, and spread the spores meant to develop into their staple food crops, while eliminating weeds, such as the native inhabitants. Large numbers of Earth species die out, and there is great mortality among the oldest and youngest humans. When they realize the consequences of their action, the aliens attempt to make amends, but they’re still not planning to leave.
This background is revealed in a series of linked vignettes, in which different humans react in their own ways to their loss from the spores. The best of these is “Denial”, in which Elli carries around a wad of old blankets that she identifies with her dead child.
“Did you paint the windows?” she asked. Their apartment was on the third floor, and it had a lovely view of the treetops. “Lexi will want to see the birds.”
Not all of these work so well, particularly the “Anger” section, so that I think the story is as much hampered as it is enhanced by the list format.
The Dark, August 2014
At one point, I wondered whether this new zine would fall into the horror or the dark fantasy side of the genre map. By now, it’s quite clear that the answer is fantasy, even when it includes dark SF.
“When Swords Had Names” by Stephen Graham Jones
The narrator is a former soldier, a deserter who was starving when he encountered a small group of men around a fire and begged to share their meal.
I sat, and the leader removed the meat from the fire, carved it into portions, and for the first time in my life I understood what it was not to just eat, but to be consumed myself, by the food I chewed. . . .
Each bite of anything else I ate, I would have to close my eyes to swallow it down.
From that moment, his only thought was to obtain more of that meat, by any means possible. Even when he came to realize what meat it was.
A tale of the willing embrace of evil, in a way worse than cannibalism. Yet a familiarity with addiction, with the effect of some drugs on the brain, makes this one disturbingly credible.
“Tommy Flowers and the Glass Bells of Bletchley” by Octavia Cade
Tommy is more than a born engineer, he has a particular affinity for glass. It talks to him, it gives him ideas. Which becomes more important at the onset of WWII.
Turing wants a relay-based machine to help with decoding. Something to supplement the Bombe he already has, something to turn disembowelled alphabet into language. And there is the Heath Robinson, an infernal contraption too slow for Flowers, a cartoon effort he thinks. But when he looks at it he sees switchboards, and glass, and he goes to Turing, then, and tells him he can make something better.
This is a story of betrayal, and readers who know the way the British government betrayed Turing after the war will recognize this. Tommy can say it wasn’t his fault, he can say he was just obeying orders, he can say he was just trying to do the right thing, but the glass knows the truth. A strong indictment, a metaphor for a national shame.
“Not the Grand Duke’s Dancer” by Emily B Cataneo
Marina was a born dancer.
I didn’t always dance for the Grand Duke. Ballet was once my own, the burning light in my chest when I was a girl living among the smokestacks and tenements on the northern edge of Petrograd. In those years, I danced through dirty snow, pirouetting over pigeon-bones and practicing first through fifth position. I imagined I was twirling on the stage of Marinsky Theatre, that pastel-green puff of a building on the bank of a canal only a few miles away, but in another, glittering world.
At first, it was fine to have a patron, fine to be the Grand Duke’s dancer, but he becomes so possessive that he refuses to let her go, not even after her death.
A tragic piece, as we sympathize with Marina’s reasonable desire to be her own dancer, neither the Grand Duke’s nor the devil’s. She has determination and strength of will, but it isn’t ever quite enough. It doesn’t seem fair, but that’s death.
“A Fairy Tale Life” by Daja Malcolm Clark
A fairy tale nightmare. Daniel is the lead developer on this interactive Goldilocks module, which he had intended to give to his son even before its official release. Instead, as he tests the program, he finds himself trapped in it.
This isn’t exactly a new scenario. Readers will be looking for the element that makes it original, unique, but instead there is a muddle of several, that don’t really make sense as a whole. It can’t seem to decide whether this is a science-fictional nightmare or a psychological one. One the one hand, it seems that the AIs are taking over the human world, and Daniel’s fate is their doing. On another, we find him reliving his nightmarish childhood, with Goldilocks morphed into the wicked Aunt Mary who raised him.
“Good boys don’t let down their parents so bad they go away. So—into the closet—where it’s too dark for your storybooks,” she says, and with the claw propels him past the front door to a narrower one in the hall. She opens the door and thrusts him into the coats and sweaters hanging there, and they swing on hangers against his back like the memories he’s tried to keep at bay. She shuts the door, and as the darkness of the closet envelops him, he’s ten years old again.
And on yet another hand, the scenario involves Daniel’s failure as a husband and father. These latter two would make more sense if the failure were a strictly psychological one, without the mediation of AIs—as indeed, we can’t be sure that it’s not. We have only Daniel’s own word for what’s going on, and his perception is clearly warped. But by what, we’ll never know.
Apex Magazine, August 2014
The editor introduces this issue by claiming it’s “incredibly good”. Such claims always cause the contrarian in me to rise up and ask, “Oh, really?” For one thing, a publication’s editor isn’t the best objective judge of such matters. And for another, an “incredibly good” publication isn’t something we see very often. I’d love to find more incredibly good issues of any magazine, but the fact is, I rarely do. Of course the proof of any claim is in the reading, but I’d say the editor ought to keep working on “good” before trying for “incredibly”.
“Ten Days Grace” by Foz Meadows
A very familiar dystopian setting where society has been taken over by an unoriginal religious police state, with things like the Spousal Laws and Bureau of Family Affairs. Julia has a black mark on her record ever since she became pregnant during an affair with a married man. The Bureau gave her the choice between losing the child or taking a husband of convenience. Now that man has died, finding his own side of the bargain unfulfilling, and Julia has ten days to find another.
Like homosexuality and abortion, single parenthood had been illegal ever since the National Family Party came to power nearly three decades ago. As soon as the cause of Julia’s sudden nausea was correctly diagnosed, she’d been brought before the Bureau and called to account for the genesis of her not–allowed–to–be–illegitimate offspring.
The conclusion comes with a nice twist, but in general the unoriginality of the scenario and infodumpfery are hard to overcome. While readers are clearly expected to sympathize with Julia, I find myself turning to one of the two real innocents here: the dead Robert, whose bad bargain forever denied him the role of progenitor and drove him, pretty clearly, to drink and death. We’ll never know what impelled him to make the decision to take Julia to wife, or what kind of prenup they signed, but I can’t help thinking he probably expected more and even may have deserved it.
“Sister of Mercy” by Amanda Forrest
A plague of hallucinations has filled the hospitals, patients driven insane by the visions it brings. The doctors, Lisette among them, can’t keep up with the inflow, and there is no known cure. Lisette has started to perform euthanasia on some of the worst cases, whose suffering is unbearable. Then her sister Rose is brought in, and she takes an even more desperate step.
When I slipped the spoon into the ocular cavity and extracted my sister’s sight, my stomach heaved because I couldn’t help but imagine the pain. My own sister. Do not vomit inside an airtight suit. I ran to the isolation airlock and managed to get my helmet off just as I pushed through the door and vomited. After returning, three hard swallows to strengthen my courage, and I accepted the scalpel from the nurse. Gentle pressure to sever the optic nerves.
Lisette escapes the hospital just ahead of a vengeful mob calling for her head, but she takes Rose with her, and now in the wilderness she devotes her efforts to curing her sister by implanting golemish eyes made of a special clay.
This one does a good job of challenging readers’ assumptions through the narrator. The odd ritualistic cure, the eyes of clay—it all seems perfectly reasonable if we believe Lisette. And why shouldn’t we believe Lisette? Until we listen to Rose. Even then, it’s hard to know just what to believe, except that narrators can be unreliable. I’d call this one SF horror, though it takes a while for the horror to seep in.
“The Sandbirds of Mirelle” by John Moran
The narrator, a teenage novice assassin, has come to this world that seems to have a single wonder:
Then a bird broke free. It was long and green and rose from far underground before skimming the crust in a wide arc. At least that’s how it seems now, after so many years. I saw the trailing filaments of its wings and its corkscrewed path through the sand — but instead of falling, the ground twisted and broke into a thousand channels and lattices. There were curls under and over, crystals mixing with the surface in swirls of red, green, yellow, and blue, all freezing into nets of light.
While the other two tourists and their guide ooh and ah over the spectacle, the narrator murders them in turn, even though his assignment is only for a particular one. He’s essentially practicing on them, an exercise in on-the-job-training.
For readers, this is an exercise in making no sense. The setting makes no sense—that an assassin would travel so far for such a task; for the people who die, their deaths make no sense to them, as one’s own death rarely does, particularly in circumstances such as this. For the assassin, the sense is in the payout he expects and the experience; he now knows what his profession will be. He doesn’t come to any profound epiphany as the result of his acts; indeed, he’s a kind of emotional blank, despite his penchant for discussing death with his potential victims. For readers, this isn’t enough sense to make. Death can be senseless. Violence can mess up a place. We may sift through the bloodstained sand for more significance, but it’s not there.
“Juniper and Gentian” by Erik Amundsen
We know from the opening paragraph, from the title, that this one will have a poetic conceit expressed in the prose. Gentian is that sort of name.
Gen walked on the endless, oscillating sea of liquid metal hydrogen and tried, tried to keep her consciousness together. The knight who followed her into the atmosphere, swam through the outer sea of hydrogen with her, he was here too. His armor defied the pressure, his banner defied the heat, and his hands, deep within the boiling, rolling mass of Jupiter. He stood beside a tree that constantly remade itself as it burned and crumpled.
So what’s actually going on behind this dreamlike imagery? It seems that Gentian, with nothing better to do, was recruited by a project meant to spread humanity across the stars like milkweed seeds from a pod, like invasive weeds. To do this requires the sort of advanced technology indistinguishable from magic, which is to say an effort of the will in which Gentian, in the form of the starship, makes and remakes herself a near-infinity of times until she makes herself where she was meant to be. [Or fails to, which seems to be a definite possibility here, as Gen is not the most apt pupil in the program.] Jupiter is a trial run, a nice place to visit but not her destination.
Mostly, this is what I call pretty writing, pleasant to the read, although some readers may become impatient with it and start to demand what it’s supposed to be about, what’s actually happening in the real timeworld. Once we do realize it, there is no tension here, as we’re pretty sure Gen is going to succeed in her own way and her own time, which doesn’t matter here, as time is one of those magic things as well. And Gen, apparently, even if she fails, will be able to recreate herself to try again. But I do wonder, nonetheless, about the passengers in Gen-the-ship, waiting for her to find her way. Who would take passage in a ship so untried, who doesn’t know her way and might never find it? How real are these passengers in this ship of magic? Are they, too, destroyed and remade, over and over until the moment when Gen finally gets it right? This would suggest either that such a mode of transportation is commonplace in Gen’s future world or that the population is really really desperate, at which the text hints very faintly but doesn’t go into detail.
The piece provides an interesting illustration of the difference between SF and fantasy, or the ways we read them. If it were fantasy and the magic was magical, then the dreamlike knight could be Sir Jupiter, the planet’s avatar, who meets with Gen on the road of her quest and sets her a series of questions to prove her worthiness, after which he magically grants her the power to reach her goal. But if this is SF, then we see the knight figure as a figment of her imagination, a functional device created by her mind, and all that stuff must be taken as metaphor and symbol.