Birthday Reviews: Taylor

This is a strange week, as I’m in the unusual position of finding only one story to discuss (and one that is unusually recent yet, ironically, also an old review).

Drew Hayden Taylor (1962-07-01)

“Take Us To Your Chief” (Take Us to Your Chief and Other Stories, 2016)

Lightly revised from 2017-01-30.

I’ll quote the opening of this story to demonstrate how quickly it got to the, um, point that it hooked me.

The men sitting on the couches in the middle of Old Man’s Point didn’t need the screeching of the cicadas to tell them how hot it was. The sweat on their foreheads and on the beer bottles gave them ample evidence. The sweat was cyclical: the more sweat on their foreheads, the more need for cold beer, which in turn became sweat in the humidity of the summer woods.

Old Man’s Point was located near the eastern shore of Otter Lake, named for an old man who used to stand on the bank and point at all the boats going by.

There follows a story very centered in place (though Otter Lake doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the Ojibway regions around the Great Lakes so I’m not sure where that place is) which yet goes pretty far afield when the alien spaceship lands. This is a first contact tale like (and unlike) many, many others but was crafted very well, paced superbly (and sedately), with an uncommonly fine (and quiet) set of protagonists, and full of the sort of quirky details which often make a story work for me.

Birthday Reviews: Harrison, Murphy, Reynolds

Harry Harrison (1925-03-12–2012-08-15)

“Not Me, Not Amos Cabot!” (Science Fantasy #68, 1964)

Harry Harrison is probably best known for his justly beloved comic “Stainless Steel Rat” tales (or his “Bill the Galactic Hero” series, though I’m much more fond of his space opera parody, Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers). Or perhaps his serious “Deathworld,” “Planet of the Damned,” or “Eden” books. Or Make Room! Make Room! (which inspired the movie Soylent Green). Or numerous other longer works. Or his numerous short stories. Here is a strange one in that it isn’t science fiction or fantasy though it feels like it almost must be one or the other. Either way, it’s an amusing, dark, efficient tale.

Amos Cabot is eighty-two years old. One day, he receives a magazine in the mail which is all about death. Furious that someone’s counting on him to die, he storms down to the magazine’s headquarters to find out what’s going on. From the circulation director, he learns that it is underwritten by its advertisers and is sent out based on actuarial tables from insurance companies.

“I ain’t going to die in two years, not me! Not Amos Cabot!”

“That is entirely up to you, sir. My position here is just a routine one. Your subscription has been entered and will be canceled only when a copy is returned with the imprint ADDRESSEE DECEASED.”

“I’m not going to die!”

“That might possibly happen, though I can’t recall any cases offhand. But since it is a two-year subscription I imagine it will expire automatically at the end of the second year. If it is not canceled beforehand. Yes, that’s what would happen.

After discarding the notion of marking it with “deceased” himself because he doesn’t want them to think they were right, Cabot devotes everything to outlasting the prognostication and matters move quickly to their ironic conclusion.

Pat Murphy (1955-03-09) & Paul Doherty

“Cold Comfort” (Bridging Infinity, 2016)

Pat Murphy is probably best known for her fantasy novel, The Falling Woman, as well as her excellent stories, many of which are science fiction, even hard SF like this one. (This is revised from a review I did on another website.)

A rogue scientist bounces around in the Great White (but Greening) North with a notion to create “methane sequestering mats” out of carbon tubes filled with bacteria capable of metabolizing methane. Since that is an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, and great quantities of it are released when the so-called permafrost thaws, this could be very useful. However, no one listens to the scientist’s proposal until she engages in some relatively mild, discreet ecoterrorism by blowing up a remote frozen lake to make people realize the seriousness of the permafrost and methane situation. With key people not knowing she’s responsible, things begin to break her way and she sets about trying to save the world via crowdfunding, muskoxen, robots, and less likely things. Another problem arises when the political climate of the U. S. changes and has disastrous effects on the ecological climate (not that that could ever happen here). Her research station is shut down and she’s slated to be arrested for working with foreigners to try to save the world. Ever resourceful, she hides out until its safe again. The story picks up 30 years later and provides our cold comfort.

There have been too many recent examples of cli-fi but this is a good one. While the story lacks dramatic tension regarding the skillful protagonist, it has plenty of tension regarding the world’s situation; while it is bitter and cynical in part, it isn’t simply misanthropic; and while I don’t quite like the ending, I’m not supposed to. The bulk of the tale is packed with nifty ideas, details, ramifications and interrelations, and has an actual problem-solving bent.

Alastair Reynolds (1966-03-13)

“Merlin’s Gun” (Asimov’s, May 2000)

Alastair Reynolds tends to write doorstops of novels only marginally smaller than Peter F. Hamilton’s bugcrushers and many of them and his excellent stories are set in the “Revelation Space” universe. Here’s something a little different.

Sora is a member of the Cohort, which has been at war for 23,000 years. (We’re told that the Cohort has been fighting the Huskers “ever since those ruthless alien cyborgs had emerged from ancient Dyson spheres near the Galactic Core.”) For her poor marksmanship, she’s on punishment detail, which saves her life when the rest of her ship is destroyed, killing everyone she knows. Her ship had recently done a slingshot around a neutron star but some of the Huskers survived their attempt to duplicate the maneuver and caught her ship in a lonely region of space. Due to her “familiar” (an assertively helpful symbiotic AI), she doesn’t commit suicide in grief but is put into suspension in her escape pod. She wakes to see cosmic ray abrasions clouding the port and finds it’s 3,000 years later. Her familiar has awakened her because a ship has entered the system. It turns out to be a Cohort ship from 7,000 years before Sora’s time. Since the Cohort has actually been degenerating in many ways over the course of the war, this is actually a more advanced ship than hers. When she allows herself to be rescued, she finds that it is piloted by Merlin, a figure of her mythology. The myth says that he’s on a “quest” to find a “gun” which will help the Cohort end the war. This is mostly true, but turns out to be much more complicated. She joins his quest, which takes them to an especially interesting solar system where they encounter automated defenses, Huskers lying in wait under the frozen surface of a moon, and much more. As violent and large-scale as things had been, it all turns out to be minor prologue to the grand finale. (Just as a hint, Merlin’s gun fires black hole bullets and that’s not even the most amazing thing about it.)

Without spoiling the plot, I’ll say that, later in the story, even the Cohort-Husker war shrinks, as we learn that the gun comes from a war 40-45,000 years before, shortly after the Waymakers (those who had created the interstellar network of altered regions which allow for faster-than-light travel) disappeared and that this, itself, is merely the middle part of galactic history. (These time scales aren’t as staggering as they sound since social evolution has slowed as many people spend centuries or millennia racing through space and not living second after second through normal time, but it’s still pretty wild.) And for those who want human stories, Sora is a real person who has suffered and has decisions to make and even Merlin turns out to be much more man than myth, however much he’s gone through (which is more than it seems at first). It’s stories like this that are why I love both science fiction and short fiction: big ideas on a vast canvas of time and space, told efficiently with zest and zip (all this is done in a 34-page novelette) [1]. “Goshwowsensawunda!”

[1] This is actually part of a series of stories and is even the third one of four in internal chronology, but it was the first-written, is self-sufficient, and, if memory serves, is my favorite of the three I’ve read.