A special issue of BSC with lots of extra fantasy and the final stories of the year from the digests, where I find plenty of science fiction. Also a strong month’s worth of stories from Tor.com.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #183-185, October 2015
A double dose of fantasy from this zine, as a 7th anniversary double issue aligns with a three-Thursday October, including a dark fantasy issue for the solstice. I usually enjoy trying to discern a theme unifying the stories in a given issue. For double issue #183, it seems to be justice. Along with the pieces reviewed here, there is also a reprint Lord Yamada story from Richard Parks. Issue #184 features cruelty, and #185 bloodthirsty monsters.
“Geometries of Belonging” by Rose Lemberg
Set in a milieu previously used by the author in which magical power is linked to deepnames, the more, the more powerful—usually. Here, we find more explanation for this phenomenon.
Beneath the surface of the land, as we have learned so many years ago, embedded in the earth, there is a naming grid. Inert, it shines too softly for most minds to discern. It is unto this grid that the first people spoke their magic. They created deepnames for the land, watched them alight upon the land’s naming grid like fireflies; and it is those ancient deepnames that we see, those of us with enough power to do so . . .
Now there is a government crisis over war on the borderland; the naming grid is ailing, wounded by war, and its protection should be a priority. Parét’s powerful mentor/lover is working to avoid new war. Parét himself is three-named, but his names aren’t strong ones, so that he was expelled from the University. He’s now working as a mind-healer among the poor when he is abducted by Lord Brentann, a political rival of his lord, the leader of the war party, a hateful individual who ostensibly wants him to coerce his grandchild to accept her female identity but in fact has political motivations, aimed against Parét’s lord.
This is a long story, and I’m not sure how much of the backstory derives from previous works; accounts of certain events give that impression—the previous war, the tragedy of Parét’s family. Of most interest to me is the naming magic and the geometries that Parét and Dedéi explore, in which the weaker names turn out to have a subtle power that most adepts fail to understand. Coming up with a unique system of magic is a real accomplishment. Unfortunately, the author’s characterization is too often one-dimensional, particularly in the case of Brentann, in whom intolerance of variant sexual identities turns out to be bursting with every other moral flaw imaginable. This is caricature, not characterization—perfect villainy with black hat and twirling mustachios. The story deserves a more realistic antagonist and a more multidimensional moral compass.
“The Four Schools” by Naim Kabir
The reincarnation of souls drives this tale. Here, it’s an eternally recurring cycle with no end ever in sight, except that certain heinous criminals, such as murderers, will fall away into nothingness at death. Normally, a child, about the time of puberty, will suddenly remember its past lives, take up its true eternal identity. The central character here is the monk Arzey, whose eternal Task is the pursuit of the criminal soul Garza the Provoker. Garza’s invariable habit is to torment his victim until he murders the provoker, who is then reincarnated with an increased share of good fortune, while the killer’s soul suffers annihilation. If Arzey succeeds in finding Garza in childhood, before he remembers who he is, he often attempts to convince the child bearing his soul to commit suicide; people in this world don’t fear death as an absolute evil. If this fails, there are other means. But the task is endless; Garza is always reborn somewhere and Arzey just has to track him down again. At the monastery, the pillar memorializing his lives grows higher and higher.
An intriguing premise driving the story, which covers a multitude of souls, of encounters, and each one ends differently. I find it interesting to note how adults in this world readily accept a child’s word concerning its destiny and respect its authority; from the moment of remembering, the child’s birth identity is shed. But the story is Arzey’s, and Arzey sometimes shows signs of burning out, sometimes manifests desires and ambitions that may not be entirely devoted to his Task. He might even fall in love.
“The Sons of Vincente” by I L Heisler
Medusa had a son. Or she was some similar gorgoform creature with snakes for hair and a gaze that can turn humans to stone, because it was a prince named Vincente who killed her, not Perseus.
She lay in a quiet glade, sprawled between two petrified hounds, one crouched with its gums drawn back, the other halted mid-leap and lying on its side. Her body was unscathed, excepting her head, which was gone. All that remained of it was one snake, cut away by the sword and writhing in the grass. I remember the coolness of its scales as it died and the lingering warmth of my mother’s body when I curled up beside her.
A kindly quarryman found the child clinging to the body of his mother; he cut the snakes from his head and took him home to raise. Young Calvino soon manifested a talent for stone carving.
If the theme here is justice, it’s even moreso revenge. I like the way the author shifts this myth into a new setting and milieu, yet retains its core.
“A Careful Fire” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
There are wingéd women who fly and sing at night. They have blue skin and can be baited with sugar water, like butterflies. Humans envy them and lust after them and mutilate them; they cut off their wings, like butterflies. Then there is Mabella who may be the hybrid offspring of a wingéd and a human male, possibly her master [they seem to have no males of their own species, but how they reproduce without diluting their bloodline isn’t mentioned]; Mabella has no wings of her own. She is seduced, then abandoned by her master, after which she runs away to the wingéd, who taunt her. She then turns to mutilating innocent creatures and cutting off their wings.
It’s a distasteful story, where every character is mean and cruel, where they all envy beauty yet destroy what they can’t possess. There is no artistry to the cruelty, or any point. I add that blueberries, in their natural state, are rather tart and usually require sugar.
“Unearthly Landscape by a Lady” by Rebecca Campbell
Here, on the other hand, is artistry of a most delicate, decadent kind. Mina is a governess who raised a young girl, Flora, and taught her the ladylike art of painting china, of which she developed a mastery. The subject matter of her works was ostensibly conventional, but Mina began to notice a hidden world concealed in it, a disturbing one of cruel and violent beauty that Flora seems to be attracted to.
“At first I did not realize it, but the plants are sentient, and when they are in pain and afraid, they exude a substance from their central stem that is remarkably delicious. Somewhere between a mango and a new vanilla pod. That scent—it’s a perfume, too, they use it to scent the air in the sky-cities—made me think when I first saw them they were on some southern Island, somewhere very far away. So far that I cannot imagine. So far away that the sun is the wrong colour, distant and cold and tinted faintly green.”
This dark fantasy could easily be considered horror, but like Flora’s painted teacups, the delicacy of the images at first obscures the merciless character of the scenes. But this world that Flora, perhaps, has so often visited is corrupting in more ways than morally, leading to a very sad end and a more sinister conclusion. I find it more disturbing than the more sanguinary monsters in the next issue.
“Demons Enough” by Ian McHugh
A fantasy version of an Anglo-Saxon-like culture, filled with monsters. The usual monsters here are the leeches [an ambiguous term that might mean lich or upir—vampire]. The humans have made a treaty with these creatures by which they are given condemned criminals to drain of blood in exchange for leaving the rest of the population in peace. But now there’s a new monster in town who can rip leeches limb from limb—a farkasember [shapechanger], who claims to be hunting the leeches; the human victims she leaves scattered in pieces are only collateral damage.
The nobleman Thorfinn conceives of a plan to turn the two types of monsters against each other, while humans wait to attack the winner. But the Aetheling Hallveig, the prince, becomes obsessed with taking revenge on the shapechanger for the death of her only son, and she charges into the heart of peril to the destruction of Thorfinn’s carefully-laid plans.
The setting is of interest, but it also raises questions. Historically, in such a culture, nobles didn’t directly inherit their titles but were elected by an assembly. They were expected to be war leaders; children or incompetents were disqualified. If Hallveig was Aetheling, she would be expected to lead in battle. So I’m not sure why Thorfinn, below her in rank, was always trying to keep her back from the fray.
I also wonder about the monsters, which are apparently not native to this land. The term used here for the shapechanger, farkasember, is from Eastern Europe, definitely not from the Anglisc tradition, while the very appropriate and well-known Germanic term is deliberately avoided. Likewise the Slavic term upir, translated here as “leech”. The explanation is hinted at by the shapechanger, who tells Thorfinn “that the leeches were driven from their homeland, and driven from her country in turn.” It sounds like a fascinating historical episode, of which I might like to know more.
“Bloodless” by Cory Skerry
Monster set against monster. In this world there are undead monsters called bloodless that prey on human communities, draining their victims of blood. To defend against them, communities create their own bloodless gate guards. Kamalija comes from a family tradition of gate guards and was chosen at a young age to be transformed, a rather dubious honor.
Kamouk had held her hands in his when they pried her teeth out of her jaw; the procedure had to be performed while she was still alive, or the wolf’s teeth wouldn’t take. She had squeezed her brother’s fingers until they were purple, screamed and screamed, but he was the one who got sick down the front of his shirt. He never let go of her hands, even while vomit dried in his beard.
Finally, her own blood is used to form a protective perimeter around the gate that the predatory bloodless can’t pass, nor can she. Now comes a new predator who tries to convince her that the tradition is a lie, that she’s being used, that she should abandon the gate and, of course, let him inside.
The “bloodless” is a novel sort of monster, but I’m not sure about the notion of the wild, predatory bloodless being of the same complicated, artificial creation as the gate guardians, if there is no natural generation of such monsters. Seems to me that this has the chicken/egg sequence backwards.
Asimov’s, December 2015
I certainly can’t complain about a shortage of science fiction in this issue.
“The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred” by Greg Egan
Humans have colonized much of Earth’s solar system, in at least some cases as for-profit enterprises. Vesta was settled for mining, with its various founding syndicates making material contributions—ships, machinery—in exchange for their stake in the enterprise. One group, known as the Sivadiers, contributed know-how and intellectual property. Generations later, however, the descendants of the other Vestan groups have decided to renege on the original contract, convincing themselves that these non-material assets were of no or lesser worth. They start to call the Sivadiers “Freeloaders” and insist on a special tax to repay their “debt”. The Sivadiers protest at first, which soon turns to resistance. Which soon results in reaction and retribution from the other side, sabotage and, as the confrontation escalates, accusations of war crimes. Sivadiers become refugees and fugitives, heading for the safety of Vesta’s nearby trading partner Ceres.
Here is where the science-fictional aspect of the work is most evident. Vesta and Ceres have a regular trade: basalt stone exchanged for ice, with the shipments drifting gravitationally into each other’s orbits for retrieval; the Vestans call it a “river of stone.” Now the fugitives are fastening themselves to the rocks and floating in coldsleep to their destination.
But however gentle the encounter had seemed, the rock she was riding had been struck head-on by an equally massive block of ice, and, like the pieces in a cosmic Newton’s cradle, the two had had no choice but to exchange their states of motion: the ice now took her place in the parking orbit, while she, very slowly, was on her way to Ceres.
The Cererian society is clearly based on very different social principles from Vesta—on a form of utilitarianism in which the prime value is the greater good; it’s notable that this includes the good of the Vestan refugees, measured equally. Thus they eventually face the ethical quandary when the fate of four thousand refugees must be measured against the lives of eight hundred. This crisis takes up half the narrative, from the point of view of the Cererians. And in this, I have to take up the defense of the Cererian administrator on utilitarian grounds. The calculation of the greater good isn’t simply an arithmetical matter of adding up the number of lives on either side of a decision. There’s also the issue of probability, which outcome is more likely. If the consequences of one decision are certain and the other option is indeterminate, it has to make a difference in judging the act. This isn’t the same as the “moral vanity” of “putting a personal sense of doing right above any objective measure of the outcome.” It’s recognizing that there may be more than one way of measuring expected outcomes.
It’s clear that Ceres is being held up here as the superior example of a society, in contrast to Vesta, which is shown falling deeper into a repressive state. But both are human societies, and we have to wonder how long the Cererians will continue to accept the refugee Vestans into their polity, particularly if it comes to even more open conflict with Vesta. How long before the charge of “Freeloader” will be aimed at the Vestans, with more justification than on their homeworld? In this, I find the warning of one Cererian to be particularly wise:
“I think Vestans are exactly like us. They had a life every bit as good as ours—just as safe, just as prosperous—and like us, a lot of bored, aimless people who’d never really found any purpose. But then they realized that they could fill that hole by inventing a grievance, and taking sides, and refusing to be swayed no matter what. Maybe you think we’re immune to that kind of thing, but I don’t.”
The story is definitely true science fiction, as we see mostly clearly in the account of the rock and ice shipments. But the ethical theme is one that we might find in any setting where human beings are involved. It’s a strong and timely warning that a single expression of hate and intolerance can have far-reaching consequences involving ruin for all sides.
“Empty” by Robert Reed
A future in which humanity hasn’t quite succeeded in obliterating itself—not for want of trying. But its creations are determined to finish the job and take over the universe for themselves. It began, of course, with war.
Incompetence is what saved us. Blessed, precious incompetence. Billions died, but two trillion souls were left shivering inside null-bunkers from Mercury to Dione. Which was an astonishing success. Even our mother world endured, though Luna was battered and covered with irradiated rubble. And from those blessings came one more glorious spark: Every survivor was left profoundly if temporarily wise.
Leading to the conclusion: “We had to invent a sanctuary, some worthy and enduring realm safely removed from our genius for slaughter.” Thus the narrator is now onboard a spacecraft with the mission of founding this sanctuary.
At which point, readers may be thinking that when the narrator says “we” he’s talking about human beings. But it gradually becomes clear that this is an entirely posthuman universe. The few organic humans who survived the initial war were extirpated thoroughly in a post-cleansing, down to their DNA and through the ranks of primates, lest the species re-evolve. The narrator and all the other characters we meet are autonomous machine intelligences; the narrator is of the Data tribe, using the human-derived name Lerner Pong. The other Data among the crew is known as the Authority—authority over the ship’s data libraries—and uses only the name Empty. The Authority and the ship’s captain are at odds, the narrator caught between them. The Authority has discovered an inconvenient truth, a truth previously suspected by humans, and the captain rejects it, tries to silence it.
This dismal and depressing narrative is a dense one, that rewards re-reading. It’s a mystery on several levels, and it becomes ever more clear that the central character is the intelligence named Empty, which is one of the clues to her discovery. Our narrator isn’t on her level, always following several steps behind [along with most readers, I suspect]. It’s notable that he calls this account his confession, and also that it’s addressed to someone in particular.
Most interesting to me is the notion that machine intelligences of human origin, even if not directly human-built, will partake of the human “genius for slaughter” or, if you will, our original sin. In seeking a sanctuary where human influence can never reach, they are carrying it along with them. Lerner Pong clearly identifies as human, but I find it still a mystery that he repeatedly uses the term “beast” for himself and the others on the ship. There are plenty of other mysteries here to intrigue readers.
“Of Apricots and Dying” by Amanda Forrest
The setting is a near-future Pakistan, the mountainous northern region where nearby Kashmir has historically been the scene of war among its covetous neighbors. Now there is renewed conflict over rich lithium deposits discovered in the region, but war would end the plans of Asma’s brother Rashid, who has been prospecting since he was a boy, hoping to make a strike. This is a country where social change comes slowly, against resistance, and Asma’s father is a strong force of resistance. But as she grows up, she uncovers the thick web of lies that has ensnared her family even before she was born, with the lives of some sacrificed for the good of others. Asma must decide if she’ll allow herself to be another sacrifice.
The setting, while a plausible future, remains mostly in the background and serves mainly as a device to endanger the family’s son. Readers will probably take this as a feminist work and cheer for Asma to embrace independence and self-empowerment. But for me it’s primarily a tragic tale of family and its ties, and unraveling the lies that this particular family has tangled itself in—in part, out of a desire to do good, as they conceived it at the time—primarily the good of the family’s male members.
“We Jump Down into the Dark” by M Bennardo
Way out in the asteroid belt, a few benevolent optimists built an oversized space station as a habitat for gorillas, a species doomed in the wild on Earth.
A high orbit wagon wheel, a tube two kilometers around and two hundred meters wide at the jungle floor, filled wall to wall with flora and fauna imported from the rain forests of the Congo, then left to spin with its two caretakers and occasional visitors for fifteen long years.
Anders and his now-ex Jessica were part of the project, but she remained there as crew, while Anders works search-and-rescue in the belt. Now comes an emergency call: something is wrong with Eden. As they enter the station, it’s clear that it’s about to break up. Their mission is to get the crew off before it’s too late, but Jessica is out in the jungle trying to find a missing gorilla.
The author doesn’t make the situation clear at first, and the action is pretty sketchy. There’s a lot of Anders arguing with himself about the ability of individuals to make a difference in a universe that doesn’t care. I don’t believe the term “bull” is generally used for a male gorilla.
“Riding the Waves of Leviathan” by Garrett Ashley
Leviathan has shown up on Earth, near Apollo Beach to be specific, ruining the oil drilling and the fishing and the economy of the place in general, and generating really great waves when he breaches. The teenaged narrator’s best friend Tim went out to surf them and got killed in the attempt. Now the narrator thinks he has to ride a Leviathan wave on Tim’s board to get some kind of closure, and because he doesn’t dare actually do it, he develops an obsession with the beast.
I continued to go out and study the heartbeat of Leviathan. A quickened pace meant he was moving swiftly; he often appeared above water when this happened, and he’d zip across and make a hearty wave ten or fifteen feet high. I tried to hone in on the times he’d jump. Rarely, it seemed, but the statistic wasn’t impossible, because when his heartbeat slowed and faded, then you’d know he was about to take flight. He’d go down to the bottom, then shoot himself up, and that’s when the sound of the heartbeat would return and you’d see him fly out of the water like something that wasn’t meant to be there or here on Earth, or like something that should be stuck up in the sky with the Moon.
In fact, the story is really about the narrator’s relationship with his father who has morally deserted him, a fisherman before Leviathan and now a miner who drinks all the time while their home falls apart around him. It’s more about feeling than making sense, as well as being one of those stories that suffers from the absence of the narrator’s name, making him seem almost as unreal as the non-whale.
“Bidding War” by Rich Larson
The sort of absurd story in which the author inflates the absurdities of today to create lives that seem even more meaningless, with faint cyberpunkish overtones. So we have Wyatt, engaged in an online bidding war for a fake Mesoamerican flute that he erroneously supposes will win him back his girlfriend. I’m not amused or much interested, which may actually be the point.
“Come-From-Aways” by Julian Mortimer Smith
The wreckage that washes up near Gull Island is the unearthly sort. The locals tell tourists that the fog brings it, but they don’t agree on the exact reason.
“There’s always been something special about this area,” he says. “We’re close to a portal of some sort. Ley-lines intersecting and whatnot. That’s where the fog comes from. It’s no earthly fog. Nobody who’s been out in it can claim it is. The portal opens, and the fog flows out of it. And our dimension is like a bridge. And sometimes, while a spacecraft is passing from one dimension to the other, a bit gets caught and breaks off.”
Out at night on the foggy ocean in a dory, the narrator comes pretty close to the truth. A local-colored fantasy, strong on place and description.
Analog, December 2015
Featuring a novella by Catherine Wells.
“Builders of Leaf Houses” by Catherine Wells
Alien contact, from dual points of view, although the native is predominant. Motherlove is the matriarch of her band, nearing the end of her lifespan at a critical time, when the Fragile One are encroaching on the territory and the local volcano beginning to stir. Much to be done in limited time.
She must select her successor. She must decide what to do about the Smoking Mountain. And she must make a law about the defective children, children like Neverrest, born without the one trait on which the Thinking Ones depended for survival. Children born without memories.
The mental defect that leaves some individuals without innate memories is recent and spreading rapidly among the entire population; it makes the selection of a successor difficult, the best candidate being one of the memory-impaired, the candidate with complete memories lacking good judgment and charity.
On the human side, we have Marta, guiding the scientific survey of this world they call Dray’s planet; she already suspects the presence of a sapient species. When her partner breaks a leg out in the forest, Neverrest, one of the memory-impaired Drayans, comes to their rescue. Communication and mutual understanding commences, not without complications to make things more interesting—looming largely among these, the imminent volcanic eruption. But the real issue is learning and memory.
This general sort of scenario is familiar, but here it’s well done and characterized. While there’s tension and conflict, there’s minimal hostility; just about everyone is a person of good will. The author takes care to point out that even the single exception also has her strong points. But as a moral story, the virtue promoted most highly here is tolerance, also good judgment and open-mindedness—not likely to be so highly valued in a population that tends to know rather than learn.
I do question the evolutionary assumptions here; the differences seem to be too great and occur too abruptly. I also doubt that the explorers would be without any means of communication with their base.
“A Case of Identity” by Edward M Lerner
No opening signals its genre more strongly than a dame coming into the narrator’s office. The differences here being that the office and the detective are virtual, and the dame has comlinked from the Moon. That’s progress for you. Mary Millikin is the heiress of Interplanetary Foods, and about to be voted onto a full position on the board. Or not. She wants the narrator’s help in locating her missing fiancé. The problem, the fiancé is, like the detective, a qmind, having emerged from one of the company’s quantum computers, which has now gone almost entirely flatline. A marriage between a human and qmind has been unheard-of. Which explains why she wants the narrator, now calling itself Sherlock, to investigate. He sees three possible scenarios.
“If Apple is still inside that server, his presence is being elaborately masked. Or someone or something expended a great deal of effort to hide”—Mary’s stricken look compelled me to shun
more plain-spoken wording—”. . . whatever happened.”
Or he’s gone.
Quite clever. Detective fiction channeling classic detective fiction, complete with clues, false trails and red herrings, melded with quantum AIs. And a love story.
“Footprints in the Snow” by Bud Sparhawk
Alien integration. The Tsuanit ship had crashlanded in the Pacific and its survivors washed up along the American west coast, where an uncharacteristically tolerant US government offered them asylum, much to the disgust of certain citizens, such as Alberto, who resents “a bunch of stinking freeloading aliens eating up his hard-earned tax dollars.” Now, making matters much worse, they’re moving into the vacant house next door to him—for free!
Alberto’s a pretty familiar cliché, and readers will assume the story will follow one of two plotlines: either Alberto will pay a sad price for his intolerance and hate, or he’ll acquire tolerance and befriend the newcomers next door. And so it does.
“The Museum of Modern Warfare” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
A story of the survivors. Decades earlier, during the Dylft Wars, the narrator took part in the pivotal Battle of Craznaust, allied with the natives they called Cranks.
The Cranks weren’t that interested in fighting the Dylft. The Cranks just wanted everyone off their island chain, and we had gotten there first, with a promise of aide, personnel, and equipment.
The alliance prevailed, with great carnage and loss on all sides. Now the narrator has been appointed Ambassador to the Dylft System, a job that usually requires no more strain than the ability to speak the languages and follow prescripted protocol. But now the Cranks have established their museum and invited all veterans from all sides to visit; in fact, only veterans of the war can enter the innermost hall. There have been complaints about the nature of the exhibits: . . . horrifying . . .. . . disgusting . . .. . . insulting . . . The Ambassador has to see it for herself.
This is a strong indictment of war, and secondarily an examination of the nature of memorials to war. It makes the point that the losses most acutely felt are the personal ones, the loss of comrades, not the anonymous body counts, no matter how high. The author is working hard for emotional impact, with a lot of one-sentence paragraphs coming one after the other—punch. . . punch . . . punch . . .
“The Master’s Voice” by Brendan DuBois
Jake Stone celebrates his 7th birthday cleaning up goat turds. Given that this is Mars, he would be thirteen, a common age for adulthood in some traditions. Mostly, this is a hagiology idolizing Heinlein, which readers are likely to see for themselves. Readers, at least, who are old enough to have read the originals.
“Paris, 1835” by Bill Johnson
Dueling timelines. Time travel doesn’t seem to be working out too well. People travel back to observe and record notable events, but sometimes they can’t go home again. Something has changed, and their futures no longer exist. A group of these temporal exiles have established a network of safe houses across the timeline, where they work to bring about the return of their future. Now a new arrival has shown up in Paris, a specialist in altering assassinations. The group needs to stop her version of the assassination attempt on King Louis Philippe, which would keep their own timelines from coming into existence.
“So, Fieschi does not flee to Italy,” Martin said. He sipped his drink, focused on the countess. “There is no French invasion of Savoy. No Italian unification to resist them. No glorious victory over the French army. No Italian Empire.”
This version of the story acknowledges the fact that the right timeline for some may be the wrong one for others. Their enterprise is essentially selfish. They’re not working to create some greater future good or prevent some catastrophic evil in the futures they create; it’s all about who gets to go home and who doesn’t.
A bonus here are the glimpses at some historical events that readers may not be aware of, such as Barnum’s exhibition of Joice Heth, “George Washington’s mammy”, and the infernal engine built by the would-be assassin Fieschi.
Tor.com, October 2015
Plenty of stories for adults this month, and good ones.
“Hold-Time Violations” by John Chu
Imaginative physics. The universe isn’t what it seems, being instead an infinite nested set; the narrator refers to matryoshka dolls. Universes are generated from the outside in, the product of a skunkworks packed with pipes, valves and other cosmogenetic plumbing. From time to time, things go wrong and adjustments are required; sometimes adjustments to prior adjustments.
Fixes have piled on top of so-called improvements have piled on top of emergency repairs forever. Rust covers the gates and reservoirs at the intersection of pipes. Most pipes block each other’s way and have to zigzag around each other. No pipes unscarred from dead welds of stubs where pipes used to join together.
These fixes are part of the job of Ellie’s family. There are probably others involved, as well, but the author isn’t clear on this point; we do know that there are factions, and one faction determined to prevent any adjustments at all, even if a universe fails. Assassinations happen. What we don’t know exactly is what Ellie and her family are, apart from architects and builders of skunkworks, generating universes. On the one hand, they seem to be human—Chinese, in fact—and mortal; Ellie’s mother has terminal cancer. On the other hand, they clearly have abilities that normal humans don’t, some of which may suggest an angelic nature. And on the third hand, Ellie informs us that the skunkworks generating the universe in which she [and presumably the rest of us] lives is pre-human. I’m not sure how much the author wants us to think about this sort of thing and ask this sort of question, but I don’t see how it’s possible not to, to wonder if we can believe in this universe, even while positing that the physical description—pipes and valves—is metaphorical, like the diagnostic egg tarts.
The questions we’re supposed to ask are ethical. The problem Ellie is faced with is an ethical one: can she accept the creation of a special sub-universe for a special purpose, when collateral damage is inevitable. And the reason Ellie is the person given the task is in her mother’s teaching. The text involves a lot of debate on this sort of subject, along with the infodump that really is sort of necessary. But a lot of it has to come down to, or back to, the question of what exactly Ellie and her family are, how they came to have this job, and who put them in charge? It’s a very thought-provoking piece, and while the conclusion comes to a clear answer, the unanswered ones are still hovering in the background.
“Variations on an Apple” by Yoon Ha Lee
Variations on the story of Paris, giving it universal scope and new fruit for speculation. Lee being one of my favorite authors and the Iliad my all-time favorite story, it’d be hard for this one not to be a winner in my list. Here, outside of time, we see a much wiser Paris, not likely to fall for the lure of a mere mortal Helen. Here, he’s the lover of Ilion, and when the goddesses give him the option to present the poisoned apple “to the fairest” he has only one choice of recipient: “Ilion, nine-walled Ilion, spindled Ilion with its robed defenses. Outside and inside, the city-fort shone black, girded with lights of pearling white and whirling gold.” But Paris also loves Ilion as an avatar, a beautiful youth of indeterminate sex. And Ilion accepts the apple, Ilion becomes “the fruit of fruits” that the enemy fleet will come to pluck in infinite variations on the war that always seems to end in some variation of the same way: “Because there’s a siege through the threads of time,” Athena said, “and you are knotted into it.” Nor can he escape it, nor any of them.
Of all the ways I like this, perhaps the strongest is the translation of the story into the terms of space opera, which of course is in itself a translation from the ur-story that always begins with Paris.
“Tear Tracks” by Malka Older
First contact. Flur and Tsongwa are the designated ambassadors to the alien world, although the mission is heavy with supervision, oversight and monumental efforts to avoid anthropocentric error. The aliens are surprisingly sort of humanoid, but the relevant aspects of their difference turn out to be social custom and history, not physical traits. You can’t prepare for everything.
It’s a slow, low-key narrative, but I really do think the human envoys should have been able to catch the point they missed, at least as presented here.
“Some Gods of El Paso” by Maria Dahvana Headley
Back in Prohibition times, Lorna and Vix were healers in Texas; “they changed people’s hearts and fixed people’s minds”, expunging their negative emotions in a manner related to sex— the narrator calls it, the oldest profession. Putting the two of them together, they “were something to reckon with.” Then they figured that there was a market in the discarded emotions they’d cleansed from their clients, and took them on the road. Complications ensued.
Sheriff Hank Yarley’s own wife had gone on the run, driving her mother’s car clean across Louisiana to see if she could get her gaze on Vix Beller, and when she came back, she was no longer in love with the sheriff. Yarley wanted to repossess her love and fury (in her, they were one thing) and feed it back into her mouth by the spoonful, but it was with all the rest of the stolen emotions, in the trunk of one of Vix and Lorna’s stolen cars. He aimed to get it back.
A tall tale of outlaw gods with strong echoes of Bonnie and Clyde—the legend. Very effective narrative voice, just right for the subject.