Birthday Reviews: Emshwiller, Kelly, McDevitt, Sterling

This week brings an overload of birthdays and an overload of great stories with a singing bug, morally challenging alien dinosaurs, a universe created in a lab, and a society exploiting Time with the help of Mongol hordes on Harleys. And, unlike last week’s, none are in series and all are brand-spankin’ new (well, okay, not older than thirty-five years).

Carol Emshwiller (1921-04-12–2019-02-02)

“Moon Songs” (The Start of the End of It All, 1990)

Whenever I rave about Carol Emshwiller, her story “Pelt” usually leads the parade but this time I thought I’d focus on a different story. She has dozens of brilliant tales but the one I’m going to talk about now is “Moon Songs,” in which the narrator looks back on the interrelations between the person he was at the time, his sister, the world, and art and beauty. Oh, and the ugly, crippled bug they found which sang the middle of what seemed like a beautiful song when it was pricked. The narrator, at the time of the main story, was a physically unimpressive and weak-willed young boy in the thrall of his older and beautiful, but awkward and unpopular, sister. She wanted to be popular or famous or something remarkable and the boy got increasingly disturbed as she became increasingly infatuated with the mite and used and abused it to pretend its abilities were her own. The climax is powerful and the denouement disorienting.

As with essentially all Emshwiller stories I’ve read, the characters are complex and compelling, especially internally. The prose seems natural but is carefully controlled, avoiding plainness or the faux arts. The observations are profound and connect with me despite not being anything I’d observe on my own. I think that’s what I like best about Emshwiller: she’s an unpretentious artist who quietly communicates her visions in a way that even one who’s ordinarily interested in other things can’t fail to notice.

James Patrick Kelly (1951-04-11)

“Think Like a Dinosaur” (Asimov’s, June 1995)

By 2069, the alien Hanen (nicknamed “dinosaurs”) have arrived and allow humans access to the technology they operate which gives us the stars: matter transmission and wormhole beams, basically. However, we’re on a sort of probation and need to behave according to the dinos’ sense of ethics which involves balancing the equations: no creating armies of yourself with the scanners to take over the universe or anything. This would seem like a simple task but it’s not, even under ordinary circumstances. Michael Burr assists the dinos by helping humans make the transition and is guiding Kamala Shastri through the process which will take her to Gend where she can learn to grow artificial eyes for the blind. When something goes wrong, he finds that it’s even more complex and difficult than he’d ever imagined.

This tale references Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” but knowing that one isn’t required to get the vast majority of the powerful effect of this and, if you’re a fan of that era of SF, it might even be helpful if you don’t compare them too much. Taken by itself, this tale is perfectly structured, with a brief frame in the present surrounding the bulk of the story set at Kamala’s departure. Both human characters are given the foreground and made deftly, economically real but the three aliens are also sharply sketched individuals. The science and fiction is perfectly blended to satisfy wiring diagram and literary readers alike. The narrative is initially interesting and ratchets up rapidly and convincingly into something jaw-droppingly, pulse-poundingly bizarre and emotionally and intellectually engaging.

Jack McDevitt (1935-04-14)

“Act of God” (Microcosms, 2004)

I couldn’t let Jack McDevitt’s birthday go by without wishing him happy birthday because I’ve enjoyed so many of his novels so much (including The Hercules Text, Eternity Road, and the Alex Benedict novels) but didn’t have a whole lot of stories to choose from because I’ve never been able to get one of his collections (they aren’t exactly available in affordable mass market paperbacks). Fortunately, it doesn’t take a lot to choose from to find good ones.

In this tale, the reader hears one half of a dialog between a distraught scientist and a skeptical friend as the former tells the latter about how he came to be involved in a scientific experiment to create a Little Bang which produced a universe in another dimension. He then relates all the (bad) things that happened to his coworkers and what he thinks is the reason. This is an economical (and somewhat funny) story which is a fine addition to the “scientist/god bottle-universe” subgenre.

Bruce Sterling (1954-04-14) & Lewis Shiner

“Mozart in Mirrorshades” (Omni, September 1985)

I wonder if there is, ironically, an alternate history where, instead of a boring old The Difference Engine with William Gibson and its ensuing dull steampunk, we got an expanded version of this and, I dunno, “powderpunk” or something took over instead. Because, this, ladies and social justice warriors, is how you make your critiques of imperialism! You do it with humor, verve, excitement, and sneaky nuance within your strong satire!

In “Realtime,” people have figured out how to go back in time and drain resources from the past, forking them up so that the wrecked world goes spinning off on its own alternate timeline and Realtime gets all the benefits. So Rice is in charge of the 18th century job where we see Mozart and Thomas Jefferson being exploited. But this story doesn’t forget to have a self-sufficient plot as Rice gets lost in an extended debauch with Marie Antoinette, a soft-hearted co-worker starts a local insurrection which threatens the project, Mozart schemes to get a Green Card (taken to Realtime) where he wants to be a pop star, and all hell breaks loose. This brings on the Gray Card Army (alternate crossovers) such as one of Genghis Khan’s generals riding a Harley, who does things like jamming a machine pistol into Mozart’s nose and saying, “I put my gun on rock and roll, there nothing left of you but ears, man.” Not to mention stray notes thrown off like sparks from a dragging muffler such as “a six year old Napoleon munching Dubble Bubble in Corsica.” But, while a secondary character in a lot of ways, Mozart in his mirrorshades is an indelible, brilliant image and he also provides some of the nuance to the tale. Great stuff.

Birthday Reviews: Schenck, Shirley, Szilard

There seems to be something serendipitously similar to these selections.

Hilbert Schenck (1926-02-12–2013-12-02)

“The Morphology of the Kirkham Wreck” (F&SF, September 1978)

On the dark and stormy night of January 19, 1892, the schooner H.P. Kirkham runs aground on a shoal and will shortly break up, taking the lives of the sailors aboard her if Keeper Walter Chase can’t lead his crew in their surfboat to the rescue and a safe return, defying the storm and massive waves and… entities from another “time-using” continuum which Chase enters as his will leads him to break the shackles of his “energy-using” continuum and cause modifications to all of existence in his efforts to save the crews. The beings are conservative sorts and Chase is having the effect of creating radical change.

The mainstream parts of this tale are very exciting and effective. The “speculative” (fantasy) parts, which move in and out of foreground focus like someone turning the knobs on binoculars, have a sort of conceptual appeal but also teeter at the abyss of pretentiousness. Still, it’s a lively and thought-provoking tale.

John Shirley (1953-02-10)

“The Incorporated” (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, July 1985)

Jim Kessler is wandering around, feeling like something is missing. It turns out that he had an idea that would be dangerous to his wife’s corporation, so she turned him in and they erased it from his mind. This is set after a terrorist attack which destroyed the economy and most people view the corporations in which they live, move, and have their being as their family and even their god. Kessler talks to a lawyer about getting his memory or at least his idea back but the lawyer is also tampered with. Later, when he realizes she’s contacted the corporation again and it’s going to happen to him again, he leaves her. When he goes to a “techniki” (hacker) friend and the wife tracks (or is led to) him there, the story ends with a bang.

I’ve read this story several times over several years and it (alas) always rings true. It may speak of Japanese business models and of “cassettes and compact discs” but the terrorist attacks, the corporate control and the media manipulation (which Kessler had invented a way to circumvent) all speak to today. It’s very effective at depicting a mixture of the ordinary (people just trying to get by) and of things that shouldn’t be ordinary (tyranny and mind control). This is far more effective than most more monochrome dystopias and it’s not just frighteningly plausible but actually frighteningly accurate. It’s less science fiction and more a rendering of reality which strips away the comforting “Hey, at least the trains are running on time” normalization of authoritarianism. The ending (which is sort of a double-jointed bit of action and a suspended denouement) is perhaps not as effective as the establishment of the milieu and the characters’ conflicts, but it’s sufficient. [1] Among the many arresting lines (for either stylistic or conceptual reasons or both) there are dark lines such as “She said lose my job the way Kessler would have said, lose my life” and those wonderful cognitive dissonance lines such as after the lawyer has explained how Kessler’s memory was edited and how that toothpaste isn’t going back in the tube when Kessler says, “Okay, so maybe it can’t be put back in by direct feed-in to the memory. But it could be relearned through ordinary induction. Reading.” So I strongly recommend you ordinarily induct this story.

Leo Szilard (1898-02-11–1964-05-30)

“The Mark Gable Foundation” (The Voice of the Dolphins and Other Stories, 1961)

[Reprinted from my review of The Expert Dreamers.]

This opens with the narrator perfecting his suspended animation technique and committing to travel 300 years into the future. He says, “I thought my views and sentiments were sufficiently advanced, and that I had no reason to fear I should be too much behind the times in a world that advanced a few hundred years beyond the present.” He changes his tune when he is awakened a mere 90 years into his journey to find a world in which having teeth is no longer socially acceptable but making a living as a sperm donor is. This 1961 story turns out to be a satire largely pointed at the moves in the late 1940s to establish a National Science Foundation. Its thesis is that making scientists become grant-chasing bureaucrats will lead to the stultification of science through safe and fashionable pursuits (and, as much as I support coherent public commitments to science, I have to admit the validity of his critiques). That aside, this would also make a timely read for today’s sufficiently advanced and morally perfect humans.


[1] It is also, fittingly enough, “incorporated” into Shirley’s superb Eclipse (volume one of the Eclipse/A Song Called Youth trilogy) which makes its ending more of a middle.