Paul Di Filippo Reviews Forkpoints by Sheila Finch

Forkpoints, Sheila Finch (Aqueduct Press 978-1-61976-218-3, trade paperback, 336pp, $19.00) June 2022.

Before we turn our attention to the sterling new collection from Sheila Finch, I beg the reader’s indulgence. Please visit the page at Isfdb for Finch’s publisher, Aqueduct Press, which was founded in 2004. There you will see the titles of over 150 books, each of them assembled with care and craft and curatorial canniness, under the leadership of L. Timmel Duchamp, herself a well-regarded author. Keeping any enterprise going for almost twenty years—least of all a small press, the kind of venture known for its precariousness and generally short lifetime—is a monumental accomplishment, perhaps too-little appreciated. Why not show your support of this glorious venture in some substantial way, starting with the acquisition of the volume under discussion today?

Finch is a writer possessed of a long and well-regarded career, with her Xenolinguist Guild tales perhaps carrying the most prominence these days. At the age of eighty-six, she has attained the well-deserved status of an elder statesperson while remaining commendably active (the selections in this volume appeared between 1989 and 2021, with a majority from the twenty-first century). Her fiction exhibits the core narrative strategies, tone, and concerns of classic mid-century science fiction while remaining utterly au courant. In other words, you could host her or her tales comfortably in the same room with Poul Anderson and Harry Harrison—or in the same room with Sarah Pinsker and Sam Miller.

Let’s take a stroll through these tales.

“The Old Man and C” is a counterfactual account of the life of one Albert Einstein, elderly music teacher. While Finch gives us some juicy geopolitical changes from our continuum, the main thrust of the tale is Einstein’s uneasiness at some dim vision of his life’s work gone unfulfilled. Very melancholic.

Finch proves she can handle a grim’n’gritty scenario in “Field Studies” as she tracks the gutter-bound lives of some homeless people, one of whom receives a life-saving intervention from a mysterious being easy enough to mistake for the Angel of Death.

In a USA on the verge of climate-change collapse, an engineer named Matt struggles to make his way to a last redoubt where possibly his skills might be of use in turning things around. But as we learn in “Persistence of Butterflies”, it’s the people met along the way that justify the larger struggle. “Funny, he thought, life doesn’t make any guarantees, but when you think you’ve run out of options, it gives you butterfly wings and babies. And somehow, that was enough to keep going.”

“Madonna of the Chromosomes,” original to this volume, is a Zelaznyesque tale of a rich woman seeking a clone of a child for all the wrong reasons.

The title story falls into that sub-genre concerning the speculative future of an artform, in this case a choose-your-own-adventure style of theater. Cass Romano is an actress used to this kind of “forkpoint” storytelling on stage. But even she balks at the newest advances involving implants, and making the wrong choice could foreclose certain paths.

Jeff Brandeis is a champ in his field of wheelchair races for the handicapped. But age and doubt begin to quibble with ambition, and Jeff faces some difficult decisions. “Miles to Go” strengthens its impact by giving us some good stream-of-consciousness sections from Jeff’s POV.

In a hospice environment, the bond between Maddie, a scornful and cynical teenager, and Sam, a dying ex-astronaut, exfoliates in unpredictable but fated ways, leaving both of the participants more attuned to “a symphony of star voices.” Thus flows “Where Two or Three”.

In “Reach”, dancer Cole Thayer awakens from suspended animation in a nearly perfect, almost posthuman world. But if life is so great, why is his art suffering? There prove to be certain eternal factors that material abundance can’t modify.

Set in the past, “A Very Small Dispensation” reads like a C. S. Lewis or Anthony Boucher story as we accompany the infamous Donner Party and the unrecorded supernatural entity named Antonio who was also along for the gruesome ride.

In a lab devoted to studying the intelligence of marine creatures, our scientist heroine Lena is making little progress until some music—”Czerny at Midnight”—and a child’s unprejudiced mind enter the picture.

My favorite tale is “Sequoia Dreams,” a First Contact story in which the aliens arriving on Earth show little interest in humans, but revere our large trees. The non-human affect of the Xt’la is superbly conveyed, as is the uncertainty about humanity’s ultimate fate. The story’s cliffhanger ending for our protagonists is a killer.

Finally, we reach “Not This Tide”, a tale of time travel involving the years 1944 and 2035 in which both eras are depicted with vivid details and interlocking harmonies. A kind of Connie Willis vibe obtains.

The stated theme of Finch’s book—”choices that change lives forever”—is almost a formula for any and all fiction, and need not be given too much heft. No point in trying to cram these varied, distinctive, and memorable tales into a thematic cubbyhole. Just revel in their brio and craft, and hope that Finch continues writing for many years ahead.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over 30 years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

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