Review of Infinity Wars for Tangent

Review of Infinity Wars, edited by Jonathan Strahan

Recommended:

  • “In Everlasting Wisdom” by Aliette de Bodard (SF short story *)
  • “Command and Control” by David D. Levine (SF short story *)
  • “Heavies” by Rich Larson (SF short story)
  • “Weather Girl” by E. J. Swift (SF novelette *)
  • “ZeroS” by Peter Watts (SF novelette)
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Review: The Trouble with You Earth People by Katherine MacLean

The Trouble with You Earth People by Katherine MacLean
Donning (Starblaze Editions), 1980, $4.95 trade paper (237pp) ISBN 0-915442-95-7

“The Trouble with You Earth People” (Amazing, 1968-02, novelette)
“Unhuman Sacrifice” (Astounding, 1958-11, novelette)
“The Gambling Hell and the Sinful Girl” (Analog, 1975-01, short story)
“Syndrome Johnny” (Galaxy, 1951-07, short story)
“Trouble with Treaties” (Star SF #5, 1959-05, novelette, with Tom Condit)
“The Origin of the Species” (Children of Wonder, 1953-03, short story)
“Collision Orbit” (SF Adventures, 1954-05, short story)
“The Fittest” (Worlds Beyond, 1951-01, short story)
“These Truths” (Royal Publications, 1958, short story)
“Contagion” (Galaxy, 1950-10, novelette)
“Brain Wipe” (Frontiers 2, 1973, short story)
“The Missing Man” (Analog, 1971-03, novella)
“The Carnivore” (Galaxy, 1953-10, short story)

The opening and title story, “The Trouble with You Earth People,” is a first contact tale involving aliens who appear somewhat dog-like (possibly illustrated on the back cover). It tackles human taboos which manifest in suppressed language and suppressed thought which, in the story, result in an inability to fully make contact with the aliens or to understand their science (drawing on Whorf). It’s a delightfully oddball tale which simultaneously feels like a classic Silver Age tale of first contact and a thoroughly New Wave “dangerous vision” with its alien expressing its joy of meeting and desire for understanding by taking off its clothes and telling the thoroughly flustered elderly anthropologist, “You are beautiful. I would fertilize you if I could.”

Themes of repression and the use of animal-like aliens to help construct what are almost beast fables abound. There are bear-like aliens (or teddy-bear-like aliens) on Venus in “The Fittest,” which questions what defines the “fittest” to survive and the lion-like aristocats of “These Truths” which demonstrates that all cats might be brothers and shows how they might be encouraged to be more democratic, not to mention a menagerie of various herbivores whose fears of humanity’s aggression result in a tragically high cost in “The Carnivore.” Among the many stories which feature some element of repression, “Brain Wipe” is one of the more direct, dealing with an abusive father and his son who faces the titular punishment. “Origin of the Species” is more of a superman story and considers what it was like for the Promethean monkeys who were more human than their counterparts and what it would be like for a post-human among today’s humans, including the various kinds of repression it would face.

For one reason or another, while none are bad, these aren’t the strongest stories. “These Truths” has an odd tripartite structure which initially feels like it’s going to be time travel or alternate history (something MacLean rarely or never does), “Brain Wipe” lacks any sort of catharsis or conceptual breakthrough, “Carnivore” is somewhat similar in that regard and suffers from problems such as humans not actually being “carnivores,” and so on. Another of the less successful tales is “The Trouble with Treaties” which, perhaps due to being co-written, feels less like MacLean and aims at humor but doesn’t always hit the mark (though mileage may vary). It involves an aggressive multi-species empire running into a ship full of pacifist psionic humans and their goldfish, parakeets, and cat.

On the other hand, one of the strongest, if not the strongest tale is the second, “Unhuman Sacrifice,” which deals with the two crewmen of a small starship, the missionary they’ve had to convey to an alien world, and the natives who have a bizarre coming-of-age ritual which involves tying the youths upside down to trees and is sometimes fatal. From religious motives, the preacher wants to intervene with words and, from compassion, the initially resistant crewmen get involved with action. If you don’t see it coming, the result should be shocking and, even if you do see it coming, the result is well-constructed and still thoroughly effective. A couple of my favorite parts involve the main native’s very strange yet completely plausible perception of what the humans must be and the extremely exciting “fighting the flood” scene that basically forms the climax. In terms of combining dramatic action and thoughtful concepts, this is SF at its best.

(As “Unhuman Sacrifice” is a classic first contact tale, “Contagion” is an example of the classic “lost colony” tale and enjoyable, if less successful. The biology of the drastic effects of the first colonists on the second wave seems far-fetched, to say the least, and there are other issues but it’s a dramatic tale with interesting psychosexual dynamics, replete with irony, and with an interesting Catch-22.)

The third tale, “The Gambling Hell and the Sinful Girl,” is part of MacLean’s four-story “Hills of Space” set. Another example in this collection is “Collision Orbit.” I’m not sure of the precise political philosophy term but both stories depict a sort of anarchist or libertarian frontier society of tin cans (or “barrels”) in the Asteroid Belt in which people are supposed to be quite self-sufficient and non-aggressive but can defend themselves to an extent and depend on their neighbors for even more defense, all done in a sort of ad hoc communal way. The first tale is a very peculiar and funny tale of a Christian mother and her passel of children. When one goes out to make his way in the world and comes back with a sinful girl from a gambling hell as his fiance (fancifully illustrated on the front), relations are strained but, when the thugs from the gambling hell arrive to force her back to work, the family members again band together and demonstrate their resourcefulness. Similarly, when the protagonist of “Collision Orbit” is faced with a gang of robbers on the run who try to take over his establishment, he also shows he’s not to be trifled with.

The fourth tale, “Syndrome Johnny,” anticipates James Tiptree, Jr.’s “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain” with its biological tale of plague and comes right on the heels of de Camp’s Brazil-centered Viagens stories in depicting a Federated States of America which has more of a Spanish than English flavor. (Incidentally, “The Trouble with Treaties” and “Unhuman Sacrifice” and perhaps others feature “brown” characters who may be of South European, African or other ancestry.) This is also partly a superman tale or “next stage” story and can be interpreted as being extremely tough-minded and cynically realist. Like “Contagion,” it may be a little “super science” more than scientifically realistic, but is still quite interesting.

“The Missing Man” is the largest and most significant chunk of her other series of Rescue Squad tales, which were fixed up into the novel Missing Man (1975). I recall enjoying the novel but, very similarly to Silverberg’s Nightwings, the fixup sort of buries the special excellences of the core novella, regardless of its own merits or that of the other pieces. It tells the tale of the empathic George and the logical Ahmed who are searching for the missing man, Carl Hodges. Hodges is a computer and repair man of a futuristic New York in which there are, for example, underwater Brooklyn and Jersey domes. He has wandered into a “teener” gang’s area and been captured. His knowledge of the city’s weak points is being used by the gang’s clever terrorist leader as a method of extortion/political activism, beginning with the destruction of the Brooklyn Dome. With its overpopulated city and its gangs and activism, it is part of its “turn of the Sixties” era and kin to other stories such as Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room!, but when it describes commuters glued to their portable TVs akin to our “phones” and describes people literally living in “kingdoms” of similar people akin to our metaphorical internet bubbles (while “nonconformists who could not choose a suitable conformity” live in “mixed places”), it seems quite contemporary. Either way, her future city is a brilliant conception, the empathic and half-lost George is an interesting protagonist, the initial stages of the story are well-plotted, the action when George is desperately trying to escape the Jersey Dome is exciting, and the philosophical/technical moments of the later stages are provocative, even if the plot starts to decohere a bit at that point. (Since this is the story I first read in Nebula Award Stories Seven which led me to explore MacLean further, I obviously recommend it, even if it didn’t blow me away the way it did on a first reading.)

As mentioned, some of this collection’s recurring motifs are unconventional social structures (“The Trouble with Treaties,” the Hills of Space stories, “The Missing Man”) and aliens (usually of a familiar animal-sort) almost always in first contact scenarios. One thing that’s remarkable is that only one is a “the world watches as the aliens arrive” sort of tale and they’re all different in their ways, showing creativity in ringing the changes on the type. Another recurring motif is psi powers, which feature in several stories in some way or another (“Trouble with Treaties,” “The Fittest,” “The Missing Man”) but rarely in an especially magical or comic book way. Multiple stories are biologically-focused and deal with evolution and/or next-step supermen (again, not in a comic book way) and deal with the question of what is “fit” and how to survive. Some involve crime and punishment, which ranges from assimilation in “Collision Course” to brain wipes in “Brain Wipe,” along with the kindred subjects of taboo and religion. Perhaps the main impression this group of stories leaves the reader with is that of species struggling against limitations and trying to persist in an effort to become something greater.

I don’t know how her first collection, The Diploids (1962), would fare on re-reading, but I recall it being superb. Based on the recollection of that collection, I would say it was the more essential of the two but The Trouble with You Earth People is still recommended as a whole. Individually, I recommend “Unhuman Sacrifice” and “The Missing Man” and also appreciated the title story, the two “Hills of Space” stories, “Syndrome Johnny” and “Contagion,” while the rest are never less than readable.

(A caveat on the physical book: it is “edited and illustrated by Polly and Kelly Freas” but the interior illustrations are sparse, the book is filled with typos, and the prefaces to the stories are confusing and only one is attributed. I don’t know if the rest are by MacLean, the Freases, or Hank Stine (the one attribution). But it’s a nicely constructed book with durable covers and excellent front and back art and, depending on the story, is one of the few ways or the only way to have it in book form.)

Review: Spacehounds of IPC by E. E. “Doc” Smith

Percival “Steve” Stevens is aboard the Inter-Plantetary Vessel Arcturus, as a “computer” who is checking on some navigational problems. These turn out to be the fault of some lazy “astronomers” who haven’t been correcting the position of their stations in the space lanes. That problem solved, he’s tasked with entertaining the daughter of the head of the Inter-Planetary Corporation. This turns out to be, not a little girl as he originally thought, but the young, intelligent lady golfer, Nadia. She and Steve, who is a burly swimmer/diver in addition to being a great scientist/mathematician, are a perfect match. He’s showing her the ship when, suddenly, he feels something amiss and learns that the Arcturus is being sliced apart by rays emanating from an alien ship. They end up in one of the many airtight sections of the ship which forms a little short-range ship of its own, but all are dragged off to Jupiter in the aliens’ tractor beams. Finally, Steve and Nadia make their break when the time is right and end up on a habitable Ganymede where they play Robinson Crusoe together and Steve must rebuild civilization from scratch in order to produce a communications device with which to contact Earth, turning into a Herculean Hephaestus. Meanwhile, Nadia also develops “amazingly in musculature” and becomes the huntress Artemis, bringing home the bacon (or “boiled warple,” anyway) while her man does his work at the base. With part of the necessary fundamentals complete, they go off to a comet for metals and meet the enemy again, but also a new group of aliens (from Saturn’s moon, Titan) who turn out to be human, like ourselves, but much mutated. Working together, the two strains of humanity manage to fight off the enemy and help each other out in other ways. Finally, Steve sends out the signal and can convey to “Tellus” (Earth) the knowledge of what happened, and what the IPV Sirius will face and how to soup it up so that it can deal with the alien challenge. At this point, the view shifts and the milieu recomplicates as more ships and races and angles of combat are introduced, culminating in the overwhelming appearance of the Vorkuls: generally isolationist flying snake-things of South Jupiter with their omnipresent motif of seven-pointed stars and mega-ships. Their planetary and space combat with the intrinsically violent North Jovian hexans (who have been our enemy all along) forms the climax (which humans helped trigger but don’t really participate in), followed by a more human-centered denouement.

This novel is about 86,000 words and first appeared in three 1931 issues of Amazing before being published in book form by Fantasy Press in 1947. As Smith is mostly known for his Skylark and Lensman series, I was hoping it would be an unjustly neglected gem but its secondary status turns out to be fair. Those who are not fans of Smith or 30s SF or space opera would almost certainly have no interest in this while even those who are might not be fully satisfied with it. I enjoyed it, overall, but it has problems, mostly in the POV-shifts and time overlaps of the second half. Its main points deal with the “complementariness” of genders and multiple races of humanity (Martians, “Venerians,” and the people of the Jovian and Saturnian moons) and the idea of omni-competent people being pro-survival, being able to wage “a war of applied physics” (despite earlier saying that earth had united under one government “so that wars could no longer interfere with progress”). A further element in this war is that friendly interaction or isolationism each have their virtues but intrinsic aggression is unacceptable and must be met with greater, albeit momentary, aggression. For an urban American in 1931, some of the details in attitudes were remarkably “advanced” though they certainly wouldn’t pass muster with today’s ideologists. In this, Smith is much like Heinlein and, indeed, this is probably the book where Smith’s influence on Heinlein comes through most clearly. Much of the Steve-and-Nadia portion reminds me irresistibly of Heinlein.

In “Larger Than Life,” a 1979 essay on Smith, written at the request of Smith’s daughter (and the dedicatee of Spacehounds of IPC), Verna, on the occasion of MosCon I which was dedicated to him, Heinlein made the point that Smith was, himself, omni-competent, honest, hospitable, and “the perfect gallant knight” and that all this was “reflected in his stories.” He goes on to mention various attacks on Smith by the critics of that time and proceeds to defend his style (even dialog), love scenes, plots, and social values (Good and Evil, inequality of men (and women)). While the love scenes of IPC are certainly chaste and in keeping with the slang-filled general dialog, they’re actually not all that painful. The rest would certainly give some of today’s audience problems but Heinlein’s defenses are mostly reasonable. Smith actually does write proper English in a consistent and oddly effective way in narrative voice and his dialog may be “all x, no fooling!” but it contributes to a gee-whiz-bang feel blended with the, “Say, Bob…” old-style movie feel in everything from The Thing to even 2001. Heinlein gives Smith too much credit for plotting originality in terms of dynamics (and, in a different sense, the uneven plotting is my major problem with this particular book), but it is true that Smith basically invented the space opera and any critique of what came to be its cliches is, in Smith’s case, historically naive and backwards. As I touched on before, the social values are a curious mix. In 1931, they might have been seen as liberal and/or radical while, today, they would be seen as hopelessly incorrect. The hexans are not so much evil as just bad, like a plague of locusts, and the humans in all their strains are good as groups. Between those good groups, however, the question of whether they’ve diverged so much that they are no longer interfertile isn’t clear but interplanetary romance isn’t seen as acceptable by the hero. (The question as to whether this should be taken literally in science fictional terms or symbolically is also open.) Within these groups, men (and women) are not treated equally. The hero is better than the lazy navigational bums and certainly better than his enemies. While Nadia is smart, athletic, muscled, and hunts for their food and the two form a pair from the start, the hero is more mathematically and scientifically skilled than the heroine and the heroes certainly outnumber the heroines. There is also a question about whether Nadia will turn out to be a “spacehound” (able to handle zero-G and the general environment of space) or a “weight-fiend” (a landlubber), but she does turn out to be as spaceworthy as Steve or anyone else. These things will strongly affect those of any stripe who read SF primarily as social symbolism, although in different ways.

What most affected me were the “complementary intelligences” and “war of applied physics” concepts. For the first, the Tellurians (as Smith calls us), Venerians, and Martians work together to make a whole greater than the sum of the parts (as do men and women) and this motif is played out again when we meet the people of both the Jovian and Saturnian satellites. For the second, curiosity, intelligence, and an engagement with the actual physical world is seen as providing the keys to the kingdom. There is a remarkable blend of far-out super-science and nitty-gritty plausible engineering. There are wonderful perspective shifts such as a reference to the natives of Titan and their relation to Saturn’s rings and, of course, to Tellurians in relation to the various moonfolk. There are amazing set pieces such as the descriptions of the city and race of the Vorkuls and their war with the hexans. For people who respond primarily to such things and fun, super-science epics, Spacehounds of IPC may appeal.

BookPorn!

As they say. I think. I hope…

My public library had its somewhat annual booksale recently. Since it puts all its literature (including poetry!) in General Fiction, its philosophy in General Non-Fiction, and considers books about raising dogs, cats, birds, etc., to be “Science,” I came away a bit deficient in those categories – even more so than usual, for some reason. But I did manage some science. The “Biography & History” is no more granular than its description implies but I did manage some of that and some Reference, too. And there is, at least, an SF/F/H section which is actually SF/F/H. Almost everything I got came from there and, perhaps due to the selection, much more of that was fantasy and horror than usual. I also got some replacements for books I had in poor condition or even gave some books I used to have a second chance, so it wasn’t as cost-effective as it might have been if they’d all been new to me but it was still pretty good.

It was also nice, on a library/social level, to see that the sale was quite busy and that the SF section was among the busiest, even if, on a personal level, it might have resulted in stuff I’d have liked to get disappearing faster.

So: pics, or it didn’t happen! Here are a couple of spine pics followed by five of full frontal bookity.

(Click to embiggen. And sorry about the bad glare and blur and slight truncation – one of these days I may actually learn to use the camera.)

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I got all this in two trips but the sum was 104 volumes with 118 titles for $115 (I got overcharged $8 on one trip). Way too many dollars spent (good thing it only happens about once a year) but a pretty good deal at $1.11 a volume/$0.98 a title.

Review: Analog, January/February 2017

I haven’t reviewed Analog since the December 2014 issue at the old site but I’m getting back on the horse at this new site. It’s a slow horse, but I’m covering January/February in March, hopefully will cover March/April in April, and should be right on top of May/June.

This issue (the first of the much longer bi-monthly issues) is fair overall but has a few pieces of at least some note.

Analog cover image

Analog, January/February 2017

Non-fiction

The non-fiction is quite good. James Gunn (emeritus professor of English at the University of Kansas and science fiction author/editor) provides a guest editorial, “Canons to the Left, Canons to the Right,” which is a capsule history of SF and the attempts to establish its essential works. There’s a computer expression that is applicable here: “The great thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from.” Richard A. Lovett produces another excellent science fact article, “Rendezvous with a Comet: How ESA’s Rosetta Mission Is Decoding Ancient Planetary Mysteries,” which teaches us about comets and what they can tell us about how the solar system formed, as well as discussing their presence in past science fiction and encouraging contemporary writers to get busy. John G. Cramer‘s Alternate View, “The Discovery of Planet Proxima B, has been cast into the shade a bit by the recent announcements regarding TRAPPIST-1 but Proxima b is still our nearest known potentially habitable neighbor and the article talks about its pros and cons as a prospect for an eventual human colony. Don Sakers’ The Reference Library column discusses solar system locations that have been popular or unpopular in science fiction and then reviews half a dozen titles. And there are the usual poems (by Ken Poyner and F. J. Bergmann), monthly author interview (of Tom Greene), Brass Tacks letter column, preview of next month’s issue, and convention listings, and annual AnLab ballot and Index for the previous year.

Science Fiction

“The Proving Ground” by Alec Nevala-Lee (novella)

Haley Kabua is setting up wind towers to provide power to her artificial island in the Marshall chain when she’s attacked by a bird. The bird attacks increase in size and frequency. She and the other colonists struggle to survive. Behind this simple, um, homage to The Birds (which is quoted at the beginning of the story) is a complicated bit of cli-fi and corporate skullduggery. Basically, the nations most affected by climate change are planning to sue for reparations from the nations most responsible for it. However, the nation must actually exist to have legal standing so the Marshall folks are creating a self-sufficient artificial island as a base to sue from when the natural islands disappear. A corporation has given them assistance in return for a cut of the prospective funds but has decided that two possible revenue streams are better than one.

The action foreground is competent and the complicated corporate background seems to mostly make internal sense but neither is especially impressive. This is just another of Nevala-Lee’s “humans screw up and animals attack” stories (“The Boneless Ones,” “Cryptids,” etc. – indeed, if you’ve read “Cryptids” there’s almost no reason beyond the cli-fi element to read this) that seem fundamentally technophobic and more akin to horror than SF. In short, this may appeal to some (who like The Birds, Zoo, etc.) but probably won’t to others.

“Twilight’s Captives” by Christopher L. Bennett (novelette)

Some human colonists have become part of the “Nocturne League,” which is exemplified here by a sort of lizard predator species and two of the many varieties of a weird scavenger species. The lizards and we monkeys have a misunderstanding and the lizards decide that capturing the kids and taking them to be raised by their broodfolk will help the kids and punish the adults at the same time. Naturally, this isn’t done without some resistance and there are casualties on both sides. Madeleine Kamakau, the famous diplomat, and her scavenger buddy are brought in to mediate while a different sort of scavenger helps represent the lizards. The conflict and resolution of two differing worldviews (balance, stability, and loyalty to the League vs. “give us our damn kids!”) forms the crux of the tale.

There were times when I thought this might be using the lizards to mock extreme “it takes a village” views from an individualist angle but that doesn’t seem to be the point. The idea of the new form of fast travel between the stars leading to strife rather than harmony may also parallel the quick collisions of earth cultures via the internet, but that may be reading too much into it. Either way, the aliens and worldviews and dramatic situation were all quite good with the only real problem being an overextended, multi-part, sputtering ending combined with some very awkward speechifying at a climactic point.

“Orbit of Fire, Orbit of Ice” by Andrew Barton (short story)

A couple of astronauts attempt to adjust the orbit of an old space station before it collides with another bit of hardware when their corporation’s plan to maximize profit goes wrong and they must fight (for some values of “fight”) for their lives.

Hard SF is often given a hard time for lack of characterization but I feel this story is more interested in its astronauts (both Japanese women, one lesbian) than in its orbital mechanics. Either way, it’s a generally adequate story.

“Long Haul” by Marie DesJardin (short story)

Jubrin is a lonely spacer so she gets a “pet” alien but encounters a couple of thugs, one of whom is especially vicious. One bad thing leads to another.

The depiction of Jubrin and her alien friend had moments of effective sentiment during its upswing but this story didn’t have much more to it and, while it gained an extra fillip from being science fictionalized, nothing required it to be science fiction.

“Catching Zeus” by Tom Jolly (short story)

Red and Churro are in Canada with their gaussmeters and magnetometers looking for special lightning, magnetic fields, and rocks which may all add up to naturally occurring perfect “room-temperature” superconductors. The Chinese and Russians are doing the same, which produces small bits of isolated conflict and it looks like the protagonists may lose out.

The plot and characterization are very thin and this is an oddly cryptic crypto-geology story. Granted, such a find would be pretty amazing but, if crypto-geology doesn’t rock your world, there’s not much here.

“Drifting Like Leaves, Falling Like Acorns” by Marissa Lingen (short story)

Sgt. Bismuth arrives at a forest fort on the outskirts of an apparently endless war and starts handing out psychoactive frogs to calm the PTSD vets. She’s also puzzled by the Gliders who were engineered from human stock into flying squirrel-monkeys. Then comes word from the worrisome LT that their supply lines may be cut off. Then perhaps some paragraphs go missing (perhaps not the first to do so) and the Sgt. and her Cpl. are suiting up and saluting.

I was forced to read this very short story twice but I give up. The characters meant nothing to me; the plot less. Theme? Nobody knows where they’re going or why? Suffer the consequences of going along for the ride rather than taking responsibility? Whatever the case, why is this in my Analog?

“Throw Me a Bone” by Stanley Schmidt (short story)

I shoulda seen it coming. This “Probability Zero” short-short involves a paleontologist finding a single bone of a Titanosaur. People assume he’s involved in some sort of hoax and his career is ruined. One day, while he’s working at a grocery store, a fellow paleontologist shows up with a job offer and an explanation.

This economical and unpretentious story hit its mark.

“Dall’s Last Message” by Antha Ann Adkins (short story)

Dall is a “seasaucer” living in a “pile” with other seasaucers, dealing with storms and apparently dumb predatory “waterwraiths” and, indeed, is caught by one. Seasaucers seem to communicate in a tactile way with their bodies and, when they die, they harden to become their own tombstones with some last message written on themselves. Dall wants his to be a good one and his experience of being captured by the waterwraith may provide him with material.

The action within the rather vague milieu was hard to follow, the ending was strangely anti-climactic, and I do not share the fascination with weird, fuzzy, very short (non-Probability Zero) stories that Analog has developed but these approximately three pages weren’t completely uninteresting.

“The Last Mayan Aristocrat” by Guy Stewart (short story)

The title character is trying to run her village after her father’s disappearance. Things aren’t going so well, with villagers leaving and conquistadors taking over. Then, one day, a god calls her for an audience. Being a god herself, she’s a bit put out but eventually goes. No points for guessing what the god is. It is cut off from its people and dying but has a plan to help both itself and the Mayan leader attain a sort of immortality.

I don’t know what an “authentic Mayan story” should feel like but this still wasn’t it. One of the few things I know of the Mayans is that the major cities were abandoned and they were precipitously declining centuries before any conquistadors so the date of the tale is an odd choice. Either way, this is just another “let’s explain history mysteries by making up things behind the scenes” story and not a compelling one.

“The Shallowest Waves” by Thoraiya Dyer & Alvaro Zinos-Amaro (novelette)

Charlotte and Jurek are in two different times and two different places but share familial dysfunctions and both look to Europa, knowingly or unknowingly, for forms of solace.

While Charlotte could react to her misfortune any number of ways, given that Europa connected to it the way it did and given that she reacted at all the way she did, her looking to it for anything is psychologically unconvincing. Further, these sorts of character/psychology pieces (especially suicidally depressing ones) in which there’s no real interest in the science – “Hey, we’re swimming around under the ice of Europa with our super high-tech toys! Let’s be depressed and focus on things 19th century Russians wrote about!” – do not generally appeal to me. But they obviously appeal to many folks and, aside from a glitch or two like the main one I mentioned, this is done well enough.

“Necessary Illusions” by Tom Greene (short story)

This is apparently a long short story but feels more like a novelette with a great deal of backstory exposed very well. Basically, humans have spread throughout the galaxy and most worlds have fallen under the dominion of the Pax Capricornus. One world, that is still free as the story opens, is ruled by an elite which manipulates the people (and itself) through the power of myth – crafted narratives, assumed personas, and ritual. How this stands up to the Pax’s habit of conquering worlds, often bloodlessly, with a handful of people is shown in the course of the story.

As I say, this story had a complex milieu but it all came out easily and cleverly, never impeding the story’s flow. The focus was on the fates of worlds and empires as it should be, but the depiction of Ilra, the leader-in-waiting, and her brother, the current leader, gave the story an individual human interest. As another example of that and of one of the several effective scenes, her interview with the long-imprisoned and tortured emissary of the Pax was particularly vivid and memorable. Another thing I particularly liked was the naturalness with which the technology was handled. The concern with myth and ritual gave it a primitive feel but the high-tech was seamlessly integrated and gave it a futuristic feel so that it seemed to project forward and backward in time almost equally. An interesting dramatization of and reflection on truth and power.

“Paradise Regained” by Edward M. Lerner (short story)

Through the eyes of a man with only vestiges of human culture, we learn that humans came to Paradise in a multi-generational starship and realized they would cause the extinction of the native ecosystem without extensively modifying themselves. They produced an airborne retrovirus which changed their biology and sociology to keep their population down and cause them pleasure when the environment was thriving and pain when it was not. When a single-generation ship arrived much later, the crew found a ruined society and became infected themselves. The captain set the shuttle’s AI to work on the virus problem and established a lineage of ship keepers, of which our protagonist is the latest… and perhaps the last, as the ship is running out of its helium-3 fuel.

This is a pretty transparent statement against excess environmental passions, promoting the idea that humanity needs a large population utilizing natural resources. But, ideology aside, the colonists are improbably stupid and foolhardy, the protagonist’s grammar is inexplicably unaffected in comparison to his general knowledge and vocabulary, the timing of the finale is remarkably convenient, and the entrapment of two incommunicado starships is contrived.

“Briz” by Jay Werkheiser (short story)

Aliens, for whom “podless null emitter” is a mortal insult, are choosing which destination to take in their search for boron-11 and/or survival after their starship was damaged and lost most of its supply. They have both personal and pod identities, with their ability to mate with the queen being determined by their success in problem-solving and winning her favor. Briz has a good idea involving a hot star whose planet is emitting what seems to be artificial radiation but the villainous Squeech has its own ideas.

Basically, if the above holds no interest for you, you can safely skip the story but, if it does, you (like me) will probably like it.

“Split Signal” by Joel Richards (short story)

An unscrupulous villain has made a copy of a dead novelist’s mind state and is forcing it to write novels he can pass off as his own. The only slightly more scrupulous dead author sends a couple of lawyers out to deal with him, culminating in a courtroom scene.

This is another “new technology leads to new legal issues” story and another “consciousness upload” story. It was doing pretty well until it stopped plotting and just skipped over some tricky stuff. Further, the courtroom scene had a sort of logic that could almost be construed as clever but, really, seemed quite illogical and unbelievable.

“After the Harvest, Before the Fall” by Scott Edelman (novelette)

A man has developed or adopted a religion of rewards in the afterlife to make his villagers calmly accept being harvested by the rich folks who want the villagers’ bodies for lived-in status symbols that the rich peoples’ brains can be dumped into, supposedly keeping them immortal. One of the villagers doesn’t want to go gently into that good night and those two folks’ conflict (and the threat posed by the rich folks’ soldiers) forms the bulk of the tale.

This was hard to summarize because it had such a contrived milieu and even more contrived climax. This had a potential for religious satire but seemed to do nothing interesting.

“Whending My Way Back Home” by Bill Johnson (novelette)

This is a sort of Changewar tale dealing with a man, who has destroyed his future, being somewhat stuck in 9,000 BCE in the vicinity of Carthage and surrounded by almost as many sightseers from a future in which Carthage defeated Rome as he is natives. Along with his sick AI, a Carthaginian-timeline woman who comes and goes, and an even sicker Roman-timeline woman, he tries to bend history in such a way that his future can be recreated.

I’m not sure how much clearer this would have been if I had read the previous two stories in the sequence but each story should stand alone and the exact nature of this multiverse and the nature of the time traveling society and even the nature of the change to be effected in this story was not particularly clear at first (the first two elements still aren’t crystal). That said, it was nicely written, remarkably interesting given that I didn’t know the parameters of “success” and “failure,” and had a complete foreground plot arc (though the big background picture is, of course, unresolved).

Summary Ratings

Rating “Title” by Author (category)
3 “Necessary Illusions” by Tom Greene (short story)
3 “Throw Me a Bone” by Stanley Schmidt (short story)
2.5 “Twilight’s Captives” by Christopher L. Bennett (novelette)
2.5 “Briz” by Jay Werkheiser (short story)
2.5 “Whending My Way Back Home” by Bill Johnson (novelette)
2 “The Shallowest Waves” by Thoraiya Dyer & Alvaro Zinos-Amaro (novelette)
2 “Orbit of Fire, Orbit of Ice” by Andrew Barton (short story)
2 “The Proving Ground” by Alec Nevala-Lee (novella)
2 “Catching Zeus” by Tom Jolly (short story)
2 “Long Haul” by Marie DesJardin (short story)
1.5 “Paradise Regained” by Edward M. Lerner (short story)
1.5 “Split Signal” by Joel Richards (short story)
1.5 “Dall’s Last Message” by Antha Ann Adkins (short story)
1 “Drifting Like Leaves, Falling Like Acorns” by Marissa Lingen (short story)
1 “After the Harvest, Before the Fall” by Scott Edelman (novelette)
1 “The Last Mayan Aristocrat” by Guy Stewart (short story)