Birthday Reviews: Vinge

Vernor Vinge (1944-10-02)

There is only one journey this week but with an interstellar journey of extreme importance as well-written as this, you only need one.

“Long Shot” (Analog, August 1972)

Via third-person limited narration, we accompany an AI named Ilse through her experiences as she goes through a sort of school in orbit around Earth, gets equipped with a new and much larger body, takes a thrilling jump down to the Sun before dispensing with that body and hurtling outward from the Solar System with the gravity-assist to begin her 10,000 year journey to Alpha Centauri. Along the way, something epochal occurs in an offhand line (fortunately, Ilse is a bit naive but, unfortunately, the reader is not) and Ilse struggles with the ills that circuits are heir to, threatening her mission with several angles of failure.

This is very nearly a perfect story. Maybe it’s a little too slow in parts before the stakes are raised, but they are raised. Maybe a word or two could have been different but it does have an understated, evocative style. Maybe the journey is too clear and straightforward but it’s a tremendous journey and complications do occur before its effective completion. Essentially, it’s a superb realization of what an interstellar journey would be like and is a fascinatingly humanist story despite being diamond-hard SF [1] with an AI for its only character. Again, a truly superb and strongly-recommended story.


[1] Hard SF for 1972, though exoplanet hunting technology has progressed by leaps and bounds beyond where Vinge has it in this story.

Birthday Reviews: Lee, Martin, Shiras, Wells

This is another busy week in which we experience a strange incursion into a relic of empire, get involved in an alien cult, meet a superboy, and suffer a cosmic cataclysm.

Tanith Lee (1947-09-19–2015-05-24)

“Into Gold” (IAsfm, March 1986)

Somewhere in the western portions of what had been the Empire, after a freshly fallen Rome, a princeling and his devoted companion are partly estranged when an Eastern caravan arrives, carrying a woman with strange powers. The companion narrates how the princeling developed an immediate lust for the woman and how everyone around him thought well of her as she became his wife and bore him a son, except the companion, himself. When the sorceress goes off with only her child and a single guard, ostensibly to cure a village suffering from disease, he recollects tales of child disfigurement and sacrifice by Easterners and sneaks off to try to prevent any evil she may be up to. Things, naturally, do not turn out as intended by anyone.

This is a richly-told tale full of imaginative sensory descriptions and details. I particularly like its tragic nature. It’s a case of hamartia rather than the characters being black-hatted villains. Their virtues are their flaws. The stoic taciturn surface of people barely keeping lids on bubbling passions is also appealing and well-done. It might have been better told in third-person, though. All tales are inherently artificial and the third-person, often omniscient, narrative approach may be the most artificial of them all but it’s precisely that which allows it to recede into the background, because artifice is most natural within artifice. You can simply say, “Okay, so some omniscient being is telling me this story,” and forget about the mechanics of it. With this tale, you have to constantly wonder how such a man as the narrator could have such wide-ranging information, be so sensuous in his perceptions, and have such a prodigious memory even when, for example, he tells you things about a parchment which depicts many things, including “three figures, judges of the dead from Aegyptus, I would have thought, if I had thought about them…” It’s not that you can’t do a story in first person, obviously – compare the brilliantly done appropriate subjectivity of Charlie in “Flowers for Algernon” – but it’s actually a trickier thing to do and even the best authors sometimes unnecessarily strain credibility with it. Still, it’s a powerful and generally effective story with many appealing elements.

George R. R. Martin (1948-09-20)

“A Song for Lya” (Analog, June 1974)

When I started doing these birthday reviews, I was actually looking forward to this long novella from Martin’s science fiction days coming up and re-reading it, but I just don’t feel like I have the time now. Suffice to say, this tale of a loving couple’s experiences with an alien religious cult tackles many powerful themes, including most of those touched on by Silverberg’s “Born with the Dead” (“death, love, marriage, boredom, obsession” – just not the boredom) and even more effectively. I recall it being a great story the first time through to my last re-read a few years ago (I guess) and vigorously recommend it.

Wilmar H. Shiras (1908-09-23–1990-12-23)

“In Hiding” (Astounding, November 1948)

When a worried teacher tells a psychiatrist that one of her students seems generally fine but has something a little off about him, the psychiatrist begins a slow process of earning the boy’s trust and finding out what he’s hiding. Since it’s the core of the story and revealed fairly early (and is clear even before officially revealed), it’s no spoiler to say that he’s a tremendously intelligent superboy who has to hide how far ahead he is of everyone else his age, though Shiras holds back a little related material for the end (though it’s given away in the story’s appearance in book form).

In terms of science fiction, this is another John W. Campbell discovery, as this was Shiras’ first sale but her story has a nearly fatal flaw in that there’s little story. You’d think a tale about a boy hiding something would be full of drama but there is only the essential existential conflict without any instances of foreground conflict or any reversals. This, in a way, is a similar treatment of what’s handled by van Vogt in Slan and other such stories and it’s arguably more sophisticated but, while the desire for plotting, conflict, and excitement may be unsophisticated, it’s a desire I won’t hide and this story would have benefited from more of all that. Still, the characterization of the boy, his guardian/grandmother, and the psychiatrist is very well done and the realization of the “super” motif and what it would be like for a person to live among “puppies” is excellent. Because it’s all on a relative scale, it also works in a literal way. When the boy complains that most adults don’t want to learn or understand anything about the world but only preserve their rote attitudes and behavior, it touches on much of what really governs our world.

H. G. Wells (1866-09-21–1946-08-13)

“The Star” (The Graphic, Christmas Number 1897)

In what must have been a very odd Christmas issue, Wells here tells Fritz Leiber’s big novel, The Wanderer (1964), in just a few pages as a rogue planet smashes into Neptune, creating a fiery mass which is called a “star” more in the etymological than astronomical sense. This is all very interesting, at least to some humans (and others) but becomes much more urgent when a mathematician calculates that the star will pass disastrously close to us or perhaps hit us directly in its fall toward the sun. This is all very excitingly told with much imagination and careful selection put into both the astronomical and human elements of the disaster. Some may find the ending turns the story into a sort of bad joke or may find it transforms it in an interesting way (or maybe even a bit of both) but the whole thing certainly makes an impression.

Asimov’s Centennial: Earth Is Room Enough

Earth Is Room Enough by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.95, 192pp, 1957

After receiving comments indicating that he wrote too many space stories [1], Isaac Asimov responded by making his second collection of all-1950s stories also be a collection of all-Earth-based stories. It is a very well-constructed volume which contains seventeen items, with substantial pieces placed at the ends, within which other substantial works alternate with less substantial ones (including one poem after the first story and one before the last). The strongest tales are the ones at the ends and the one in the middle (which is the collection’s sole Robot story). [2] It also contains an unusual number of fantasies and, on the other hand, stories which are about or mention Multivac, the “ten-mile-long” computer which structures society as orderly and rationally as this collection is structured.

The first and longest item in the book (filling a quarter of it) is just such a story. In “The Dead Past,” Arnold Potterly is a professor of history with a mania regarding Carthage, which leads him to petition the government for use of the chronoscope (which is manipulated through interactions with Multivac), through which he can see Carthaginian history and absolve them of the things history has blamed them for. When his request is refused, he commits “intellectual anarchy,” defying this society’s strictures on directed research and suborns a physicist into attempting to create their own chronoscope. That physicist suborns his uncle, a science writer, into more illicit deeds. At that point, the story morphs a couple of times to reach its conclusion.

This is a significant story and ultimately successful, albeit imperfect. While the physicist and his uncle come to life, they are structurally as much conveniences as characters, a part that is not yet the climax feels like it possibly could have been a better climax (and the actual ending seems a little sidewise from what has gone before), and the story is sometimes too “on message” and has a strange message, besides, playing devil’s advocate for the notion that perhaps unfettered scientific research might be bad and government intrusion could be benevolent though it may not be painting certain things as either good or bad but simply inevitable. The human-interest angle with the professor and his wife dealing in their own ways with the loss of their daughter, the complex nature of the chronoscope, the depiction of how grants can be used to control avenues of scientific research for good or ill, is all effective and makes for a compelling and thought-provoking tale.

At the other end, “Dreaming Is a Private Thing” focuses on a day in the life of the head of Dreams, Inc. (which deals in “dreamies,” or a sort of virtual reality). He first deals with the parents of a boy who may have the potential to become a “dreamer,” then a government official who wants to know more about the illicit pornographic dreamies made by others and threatens all dreamie makers, including Dreams, Inc., with censorship, then an employee who is panicked about their competitors, Luster-Think, moving into low-quality mass-market dreams and, finally, with the company’s star dreamer who wants to quit because the creation of his art has taken over his life. Through these angles, we can contemplate aspects of art and artists. While perhaps a bit too directly translated from non-fiction (about fiction) to fiction, it’s a well-done story with good observations and details which really does imagine its new art form in believable detail (with the “overtones,” multiple layers, clouds visualized with synaesthetic associations of touch and smell, and so on).

In between, with “Satisfaction Guaranteed,” Susan Calvin returns briefly to bestow TN-3 on a woman whose husband will be going out of town for awhile. “Tony” is a sort of butler, maid, gardener, interior decorator, and much more, including a component of an experiment. The transformations the two go through are effectively drawn and anticipate some women’s reactions to Spock and the like; though various people of today may find things to dislike for various reasons, it’s a well-done story.

Of the other substantial tales, “Franchise” and “Jokester” are not so substantial that they fully require their length and are hard to accept literally but “Franchise” is a Multivac story about elections being decided by Multivac interviewing a single citizen as a sort of satirical “if this goes on” of polling and does stress the importance of voting in its way. “Jokester” is another Multivac tale in which Multivac provides an astonishing answer to some questions given it about jokes. I don’t buy all the details of the analysis of humor and the ending isn’t strong, but it does include some demonstration jokes which, as conventional as they are, were worth a chuckle. “Someday” is another tale which at least cites Multivac, but is more about people in the future having become dependent on machines and having forgotten how to read or write since all media are audiovisual, as dramatized through two kids who despise one kid’s low-quality story-telling machine and who learn about writing from an oddly antiquarian teacher and resolve to learn it… so they can use it to send secret messages in a club. It ends on a rather un-Asimovian note.

One of the more interesting tales is “Living Space,” which is an “Earths Is Room Enough” parallel-worlds story in which each family gets a world of their own (except for the poor saps who have to stay on “Earth proper” to make the base work), using alternate Earths where life didn’t develop. The first complication to this is excellent (presenting us with the viewpoint of lebensraum, which is handled with remarkable equanimity) and the second makes an even bigger jump but I feel like Asimov didn’t realize quite what he had here, as this could have been a great story but ends quickly and simply as merely a good one.

There are also two substantial fantasies in the Unknown style long after Unknown‘s demise. One is a bizarre tale in which insects are elves (or vice versa) and is one of a few (such as “Dreaming”) which deal with writing or similar things, as Jan Prentiss is writing a story for Horace W. Browne’s Farfetched Fantasy Fiction [3] which he insists is most definitely not “Kid Stuff” when he is confronted with the appearance of a malicious imperial bug. The other is “The Last Trump,” which initially reads as a brilliant parody of “Resurrection Day” which simply renders it as literally and rationally as possible but which gets distracted by its angel’s efforts at encouraging the Chief to indulge in some sophistry at the end.

Of the less substantial pieces that fill the gaps, “The Foundation of S.F. Success” and “The Author’s Ordeal” both apologize to W. S. Gilbert and presumably take his lyrics and replace the words while preserving the meter/tune. The latter probably took more effort and creates an effective headlong effect while satirizing how SF stories are generally written but the former is an even funnier and more clever self-satire of Asimov’s Foundation stories.

There are also two more fantasies. “Gimmicks Three” (originally published as “The Brazen Locked Room”) is a fantasy with a science fictional twist (only partially realized) on the “deal with the devil” motif. “Hell-Fire” is another science fantasy about the hellish power of the atomic bomb which relies on its moral more than its structure.

The remainder of the slighter pieces are SF. “The Watery Place” is one of several of Asimov’s groaner pun short-shorts involving a sheriff’s comical failure to realize he’s making first contact. While not exactly a pun, “The Message” is a time-travel piece going back to WWII which may be even more groan-worthy. “The Fun They Had” seems to be a sentimental piece about schoolchildren of the future looking back on schools of the past. The best of these is “The Immortal Bard,” in which a drunken physicist at a party reveals his ability to transport people from the past and tells the English professor something shocking. Like many of these (the SF parody poems, “Dreaming,” “Kid Stuff,” etc.) this has a strongly personal element as Asimov had a running struggle with critics telling him what his stories really meant.

While this collection only has the three really great pieces (plus the excellent minor piece of “The Bard”), there are several near-great or extremely interesting pieces and all the rest can be casually enjoyed, so this is a very good collection overall.


[1] I think it may have been James Blish who said in a review, “Come home Isaac, all is forgiven!” but I can’t find the quote now. If anyone knows it, please drop me a line. I’m certainly not going to complain, as Earth is not room enough for me, but it’s true that his Foundation novels, Empire novels, half the Robot novels and stories, and The End of Eternity, in a sense, are all mostly off-Earth.

[2] Contents:

  • “The Dead Past” (Astounding, April 1956)
  • “The Foundation of S.F. Success” (F&SF, October 1954)
  • “Franchise” (If, August 1955)
  • “Gimmicks Three” (F&SF, November 1956)
  • “Kid Stuff” (Beyond Fantasy Fiction, September 1953)
  • “The Watery Place” (Satellite, October 1956)
  • “Living Space” (The Original Science Fiction Stories, May 1956)
  • “The Message” (F&SF, February 1956)
  • “Satisfaction Guaranteed” (Amazing, April 1951)
  • “Hell-Fire” (Fantastic Universe, May 1956)
  • “The Last Trump” (Fantastic Universe, June 1955)
  • “The Fun They Had” (Boys and Girls Page, December 1951)
  • “Jokester” (Infinity, December 1956)
  • “The Immortal Bard” (Universe Science Fiction, May 1954)
  • “Someday” (Infinity, August 1956)
  • “The Author’s Ordeal” (Science Fiction Quarterly, May 1957)
  • “Dreaming Is a Private Thing” (F&SF, December 1955)

[3] Asimov is presumably conflating editors Horace Gold, John W. Campbell (or perhaps Robert W. Lowndes), and Howard Browne and keying on the magazine which published this story, Gold’s Beyond Fantasy Fiction.

Birthday Reviews: Spinrad, Waldrop

This week’s stories would seem to be opposites, combining to tell us a tale of two regions as we travel to New York looking for a beautiful thing and to Mississippi looking for ugly things but, as with humanity, there’s a deeper bond beneath their surface differences.

Norman Spinrad (1940-09-15)

“A Thing of Beauty” (Analog, January 1973)

thing-of-beauty

Mr. Harris sells the antiquities (which he calls the “old junk”) of a post-Insurrection United States which has fallen from power and Mr. Ito is looking to buy. He needs something for his “garden” that is just so – his wife and her folks don’t think he has any taste and he must prove them wrong to restore harmony to his home. So Harris takes Ito around New York in a Mach-whatever jumper, showing him the ruins and pointing out potential buys. Ito regretfully does not want the Statue of Liberty, would love to buy Yankee Stadium but can’t because his maniacal infatuation with American baseball would be seen as further lack of taste, and is exceedingly offended that he could possibly want the UN buildings. What he finally sees that sends him into fits of rapture is quite a comical twist and things twist again after that.

This is probably one of the first “Japan, the economic powerhouse, takes over the world” stories which took over much SF by the 1980s. It stereotypes a bit though much of that can be attributed to the antihero, Harris, who is not a nice man (though Ito isn’t either, really). He’s not so repugnant that the late humorous element doesn’t work but is unsympathetic enough that the complex ending also works on all levels.

This is one of Spinrad’s many not-so Star-Spangled Futures that were collected in a book of that name (along with some in Other Americas) and I wouldn’t steer anyone away from those but most of the stories in the first (and one of those in the second) can be found in his first two collections, The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde and No Direction Home, which I heartily recommend, along with the novella Riding the Torch and the novels Bug Jack Barron, The Iron Dream, and The Void Captain’s Tale. I wouldn’t stop there, but I’d recommend starting there.

Howard Waldrop (1946-09-15)

“Ugly Chickens” (Universe 10, 1980)

ugly-chickens

The Turkey City Writers’ Workshop has a Lexicon and in that Lexicon is the notion that, “I’ve suffered for my art; now it’s your turn.” This is applied when “the author inflicts upon the reader hard-won, but irrelevant bits of data acquired while researching the story.” Well, in this story, Howard Waldrop (a founding member of that workshop) probably suffered for this art, but now it’s your turn to enjoy this masterpiece of a perfectly prepared story which inverts the critique by fusing seemingly irrelevant data into the plot and theme while contributing to a brilliant mood and voice. It starts when “a graduate student in ornithology at the University of Texas” is riding the city bus and looking at a book of extinct birds when a lady says to him, “I haven’t seen any of those ugly chickens in a long time.” What he’s looking at in that moment is a picture of dodos and so begins his trans-world journey from Texas through the South to Mauritius as he floods us with amusingly conveyed fascinating information about the dodos and the Gudger family. As an example of the flavor, an early part of the journey is described thus:

Behind the Krait house were a hen house and pig sty where hogs lay after their morning slop like islands in a muddy bay, or some Zen pork sculpture. Next we passed broken farm machinery gone to rust, though there was nothing but uncultivated land as far as the eye could see. How the family made a living, I don’t know. I’m told you can find places just like this throughout the South.

And, like a good story of the South, while it’s informative, amusing, and captivating, there’s also an angry edge to the humor which comes from the underlying pain of deprivation and loss. There are recommended stories and then there are recommended stories and this is the latter.

SFTV Re-Views: Deep Space Nine 1.7-1.10

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DS9 1.7: “Q-Less”

Having just spun off from Star Trek: TNG and having a few episodes under its belt, DS9 decides to reconnect a bit with the parent program by bringing Vash and Q back. (Vash being the Indiana Jones-like archaeologist/profiteer and Q being the omnipotent alien.) Q had taken Vash to the Gamma Quadrant two years ago but they had a falling out in which each claims s/he left the other. Regardless, Q wants Vash back but she only wants to sell some artifacts she’s acquired in the Gamma Quadrant, getting Quark’s help to do so. While this goes on, the power drains on the shuttle that Dax brought Vash back on (and which nearly killed them both) have spread to the station and, later, the station mysteriously starts moving towards the wormhole where it will be destroyed. Q is initially the prime suspect but he denies it and Sisko doesn’t think it’s him, either. With a neutron star’s worth of technobabble, Sisko, Kira, Dax, and O’Brien all work to try to save the day and show how the storylines are connected.

The plot of this episode is pretty weak and the ending is a bit silly and somewhat like a particular TNG episode but it is very entertaining as almost any episode with Q has to be. Q’s not a nice guy, as his tormenting of Vash shows but, for an omnipotent being, he’s actually pretty easy-going. For instance, he doesn’t even take revenge when, after magicking a boxing match between them, Sisko punches him, only exclaiming that Picard never punched him, to which Sisko tellingly replies, “I’m not Picard.” That said, DS9 never really found the alternate chemistry with Q and Sisko that Q and John Luck Pickard had and he didn’t make many appearances. Favorite line, on complaining about how dull Earth is: “Don’t get me wrong. A thousand years ago it had character – Crusades, Spanish Inquisition, Watergate.” Another good moment was when Odo was mystified about some beings’ pursuit of material goods and Quark trying to tempt him, getting him to think for a long moment about the appeal of a “platinum-plated bucket” to regenerate in.

Once again, the episode ends with a “return to normal” going even further to repeat that they were able to “return the station to its original position” but it was a fun ride while it lasted.

DS9 1.8: “Dax”

When this episode opens, we’re informed via Sisko’s voiceover that this will be a No’Brien episode as he’s back on Earth with Keiko. What it is, is a Dax episode, and a good one, too. Dax is innocently fending off Julian’s advances while some shady characters are observing her. When she departs, they follow her and attempt to kidnap her. Bashir has come along to try again, sees this, punches the ringleader, but then hesitates when the hood comes off another antagonist and it’s revealed to be a woman. So she smacks him and knocks him out. Meanwhile, Dax is far from the Klingon warrior-woman she will become in later seasons, and is briefly knocked unconscious. (It would have been better if she’d stayed unconscious and been carried instead of recovering, asking dumb questions, and stumbling along semi-voluntarily.) Meanwhile, Bashir recovers, contacts Ops, and they start trying to lock down the station and find the kidnappers. It’s looking pretty bad when they actually escape in their ship but the look of satisfaction on Kira’s face when Sisko fixes the disabled tractor beam and reels in the fleeing ship is priceless.

It turns out that these aren’t your garden variety thugs but people from a Kardassian-associated world with extradition papers. (How the Federation has a “unilateral” extradition treaty with such a world is another of this episode’s small problems.) Dax is being charged with treason and murder and doesn’t look too innocent about it. But, again, the scene in which Sisko lets Kira take over because there is no such treaty between the world and Bajor (and DS9 is Bajoran territory) is also priceless. So a (brilliantly cast and performed) Bajoran arbiter arrives to preside over the extradition hearing. (In another great scene, Odo had strongarmed Quark into giving up his bar for awhile so that they could hold the hearing there.) There follows a gripping “trial” scene which alternates with scenes during various recesses in the hearing in which the nature of Trills and Jadzia/Dax is examined in a really science fictional way. In addition to spotlighting Dax, it also gives Sisko a chance to demonstrate more of his character and past with Dax. (There is also a moment recalling Bashir’s hesitation when Dax is stonewalling Sisko and, in frustration, he smacks his fist in his palm and wishes she were still a man.) Finally, the ending is simple, but it also makes sense and works.

My only serious problem with the episode is that, even if Trills think they take responsibility for their previous symbiont/hosts actions, it’s an invalid deal because the idea of executing a 20-something woman for something a dead man may or may not have done in a previous life, whether there’s a symbiont connecting them or not, is manifestly unjust. Still, that is the situation that is presented, nobody ever promised anyone justice, and it makes for good practical drama. I’d put this one behind “Captive Pursuit” but would group it with that one as a cut above the rest.

DS9 1.9 “The Passenger”

Kira and Bashir are returning on the runabout from a medical call in which Bashir’s conceit is once again emphasized. A second emergency causes them to go aboard a burning ship and rescue one person while the other seizes Bashir by the throat, orders him to “make me live” and then dies. Turns out he was a criminal and the woman they rescued was a sort of detective gone far beyond the level of Javert or Gerard as she’s convinced he’s still alive and continuing his criminal ways, turning the episode into a sort of horror movie. The rest of the episode involves the progress of people accepting her thesis and trying to drag it back into science fiction by hypothesizing how it might be physically possible (mind transference into the “unused” portions of humanoid brains) and then trying to figure out who he could be inhabiting and how to deal with him.

Much of this episode is actually quite good and enjoyable and I was wondering why I had such a negative impression of it but then Bashir’s ludicrously bad acting (and/or Paul Lynch’s impotent directing) ruined the episode and reminded me why I didn’t like it. Other bad things include stuff not worthy of the phrase “technobabble” but more just “gobbledegook,” especially involving computers, a scene in which a stage whisper doesn’t remotely hide the identity of the whisperer, and a scene in which the impression is given (as we go to break so the impression can set) that the detective somehow fell off a balcony before she explains in sick bay that she was pushed, a bad action scene in which several people are slowly shot, and Dax emulating McCoy in whipping up a special EMP in moments and sending it down a tractor beam (which is apparently the one thing you can do through someone’s shields).

On the other hand, much of the character interaction is good, including the usual lusting over Jadzia by Quark and Odo’s failure to comprehend (or his denial of his comprehension) but also with a less common element I wish they’d have played with more involving Odo and a new Starfleet security guy [1] butting heads with Kira wondering if Sisko is freezing Odo out. This notion of jurisdiction (as included in “Dax,” above) and conflicts of loyalty between Starfleet and Bajor is dramatic and interesting.

Another good element of this episode is the humor. When the detective thinks Odo is being too cavalier and asks “what kind of fool are you?” he replies in inimitable Odo-fashion. “My own special variety.” And when Dax is following up on a theory she’s explaining to Sisko, she says, “I’ve been asking myself, ‘Why would anyone induct a bioelectrical charge into a glial cell?'” and Sisko agrees: “A question I have always wondered about.” The scene is made even funnier as she stands there, in intellectual detachment, holding hands with the corpse of a murderer.

DS9 1.10 “Move Along Home”

In this episode, which takes the prize for worst one so far, members of a species who enjoy nothing more than games arrive on the station and are cheated by Quark, so they force him to play a game which he comes to realize may be deadly and uses Sisko, Kira, Dax, and Bashir as pieces.

This forces all the characters to do ridiculous things (somewhat as the TOS episode “Plato’s Stepchildren”) with lots of dumb laughing and coughing and nursery rhymes (with Sisko for some reason adopting falsetto) and the tiresome refrain of “move along home.” Fortunately, there’s nothing key in here that would prevent skipping this episode. The only good parts to this are Quark’s internal war of compassion and avarice and the contrast between Starfleet officers and Kira and Odo.


[1] This guy may have been a trial balloon for a recurring character but I think he just appeared in this and the next and then disappeared.

Asimov’s Centennial: Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter

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Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter by Paul French (Isaac Asimov)
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.75, 192pp, 1957

Lucky Starr and his sidekick Bigman Jones continue their tour of the Solar System, this time taking us as far as Jupiter where they have their most direct confrontation with the Sirian menace yet. Earth is secretly developing the first Agrav starship but the Earth’s power-seeking former colony is somehow pulling off an impossible job of espionage and finding out all about it. If Sirius gets the complete plans if and when the ship is successfully completed, it will mean war. Initially, Lucky is worried about telepathy and a V-frog (of a species introduced a couple of books back [1]) makes another appearance because Lucky’s thinking to set a telepath to catch a telepath. So the two men and their Venusian critter set out to Jupiter Nine to save the Agrav project. It quickly turns out that it’s not telepathy, but could be the Invasion of the Robot Body Snatchers. Fortunately, the V-frog will be useful for the task of identifying any robot spies, as well, since they lack emotion. Unfortunately, the V-frog is quickly killed. Fortunately, the pool of possible spies is reduced when the Agrav ship, the Jovian Moon, sets out on its maiden voyage with a limited crew, one of whom must be the spy. Unfortunately yet again, it turns out the ship is sabotaged and what had been a wondrous journey to see amazing Jupiter and its retinue of moons turns into a struggle against imminent destruction. Fortunately, yet again, the sabotage reveals the Sirians’ hand to Lucky, if only he can survive to use the knowledge.

In this Asimov completely takes off the Paul French gloves. Sirius is shown to be essentially a Spacer world. The notion of robots is central to this tale and, beyond that, the Three Laws are actually quoted in full in this one. Beyond that total-milieu similarity (or identity), there is also a bit of specific sameness to some of this in both good and bad ways. The good is that taking the reader to the worlds of the Solar System maintains its joy. The bad is that things like Lucky having to endure unfair hazing at the hands of larger, more skilled opponents (who lose anyway) lose their interest, as Lucky’s fight in the Agrav corridor with Armand is just like his pushgun fight in Pirates of the Asteroids. Lucky also behaves non-optimally more than once, such as when he provokes the Commander of the project due to a frankly silly supposed need to “field-test” the V-frog’s perception of emotions, which produces a continued struggle for dominance between the two throughout the book. The “puppy dog” aspect of Bigman’s relationship to Lucky continues, with Bigman getting excitedly playful and nearly dying when things go wrong, though he is given a moment to be clever in the way he evens the playing field (not too much, not too little) for Lucky in the corridor fight. Still, it’s another proficient Lucky Starr adventure (perhaps better than average though not the best) and will probably hit the reader however they’ve been hit by the other tales.


[1] All the previous books in this series are referenced in footnotes in the first ten pages of this one.

Birthday Reviews: Cadigan

After an August overflowing with birthdays, where I covered most of the ones I wanted to at four a week, this month looks to be much sparser and starts with just one. But what a one, and I’ll take the opportunity to talk about two of her stories of outsiders from one of the best collections of all-time.

Pat Cadigan (1953-09-10)

“Pretty Boy Crossover” (IAsfm, January 1986)

The Pretty Boy of this story has lost his boyfriend and fellow Pretty Boy, Bobby, to the digital world as the Corporations That Be have convinced Bobby to upload his consciousness, which makes him a sort of product of theirs. Pretty Boy is trying to be famous and popular and “in” while also missing Bobby and trying to decide if he wants to join him, should he be Pretty enough to be able to. Is Bobby really real anymore? Will he be? Eventually, Pretty Boy realizes a way in which he can claim a stake to self-hood and hold on to some power of his own.

This story takes the colorful energy of some 80s club scenes and turns it up to 11 with some science fictionalization that is beyond what we’ve got even now so that it would seem to be blatantly foregrounded, yet it’s mixed in to such an inherently tech milieu while the story is focused on people and their egos and confusion that it actually seems subtly part of the background. Either way, the protagonist’s effort to find some sort of place to stand is effectively portrayed.

“Angel” (IAsfm, May 1987)

“Angel” features another anonymous and lost narrator who has a friend but this one is present. It also features sexual matters that weren’t mainstream in the 80s (and at least one element that isn’t now). It’s also a strange sensory blend but, in this case, it’s a surreal fantasy feeling with the friend being “Angel” except that Angel is also one of the most distinctive aliens you’ll ever meet. He’s been exiled for an alien crime which is revealed before the end and is ironically tied to the protagonist. Angel can look human but isn’t and can speak but prefers telepathy. He doesn’t eat but can benefit when his friend does but really powers up on intense events of any kind because the universe doesn’t care about good or bad – only less or more. The two go through a city of dreadful night doing strange things with strange people while running from the malicious woman who had previously been bound with Angel. When Angel tries to work his overextended charms on a bartender and it fails, he and the narrator are beaten up for “faggots” and this causes them to fall into the clutches of the mystery woman. Matters reach quite a climax from there.

This is an extremely vivid, mesmerizing story full of Cadigan’s singular black humor, fresh imagery, and tough compassion which takes us through pain and death to find that sentience and love can be transcendent.

Review: The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett
Hardcover: Doubleday, 2.95, 222pp, 1955

The oldest people, such as fourteen-year-old Len Colter’s grandmother, can remember the time before the Destruction when God destroyed man’s cities in a rain of fire (an atomic war) and, much chastened, men have become religious extremists and amended the Constitution to never allow cities again, while building a general orthodoxy which includes a deadly intolerance for almost any form of machinery or technology beyond nineteenth-century levels. As a New Mennonite living in Piper’s Run (Ohio?), Len and his fifteen-year-old cousin, Esau, chafe against the restrictions. Esau is innately a perverse hellraiser while Len is ambivalent about most things but frustrated with his current life and enchanted by the little he can learn from his grandmother about how things used to be. They also hear rumors of a possibly mythical place called Bartorstown [1] where men still have technology and it becomes a sort of El Dorado to them. They suspect Hostetter, a trader who frequently travels back and forth through Piper’s Run, is actually a man of Bartorstown. One night, Hostetter has heated words with a fellow trader, Soames, who ignores what Hostetter was telling him and falls victim to a stoning by religious fanatics who are convinced that Soames is a Bartorstown man. When Hostetter gets the man’s effects and takes off with the traumatized boys who witnessed the murder, it turns out that Esau is not too traumatized to have a peek into the belongings, be irresistibly drawn to one of the items, and steal it. It’s a radio and the boys become consumed with trying to make it work, even stealing some of their teacher’s books in a fruitless effort to help. Even so, partly by clever thought and partly by luck, they eventually succeed, hearing remote voices in the night. More inspired than ever, Esau unwisely decides to contact Hostetter to get taken to Bartorstown but Hostetter instead turns him in to the town’s authorities as a good non-Bartorstown man would do. This gets Len caught as well and both boys are whipped by their fathers (who do so with differing degrees of eagerness). Where Esau had been aggressive, he is broken after the whipping and often-timid Len is suddenly more certain than ever. He decides to run away and invites Esau to come with him, restoring some measure of spirit to the other boy. The fact that it’s later decided that they’ll undergo a public flogging in addition to their private whippings makes leaving that much easier.

In the second part of the three-part book, the boys are young men who have stopped at Refuge, a bustling metropolis pushing the mandated limit of “one thousand people or two hundred buildings to the square mile” along their blind and winding way to El Dorado where the dominant religion is the ever-so-slightly more relaxed Church of the Holy Thankfulness. They’ve been taken in by Judge Taylor who tolerates Esau but likes Len. Still, he’s aware of their troublesome ways and advises Len that he might have a good life here if he’ll find some of the same contentment Len’s father also once advised him to find. One of the things standing in the way of that contentment is the judge’s daughter, Amity, because both the young men like her and she doesn’t discourage either of them. Eventually it comes to blows between the boys and Len decides to leave, with the Judge throwing out Esau for good measure and warning him to have nothing to do with his daughter, which Esau obeys as much as he does anything else. Meanwhile, they’d been working for Dulinsky, a businessman who is working on building another, and illegal, warehouse. The neighboring town, Shadwell, has effortlessly been growing from Refuge’s overflow and is not pleased at the notion that Refuge may grow and deprive them of their own easy wealth. This comes to a head in more violence and death in which Len is beaten up more than once and nearly lynched before being saved by a finally-revealed Hostetter. Esau and the pregnant Amity have already been rounded up and they are finally off to Bartorstown, which requires an arduous journey through the great West. In the third part, they will learn that it both is (a little) and is not (a lot) like what they’d imagined, will learn that Bartorstown is terrified of being destroyed and will not let them ever leave, and will suffer great culture shock and paths of adjustment to it. This is a road far, far harder for Len than Esau (complicated by his meeting Joan, a sharp, flashing-eyed woman who has an agenda of her own) and Len will finally have to do something he’s never done before.

Despite, or because of, being a fan of Leigh Brackett’s planetary romance and space opera, I put off reading this for a long time [2]. Novels about backwards societies and religious fanatics don’t appeal to me. However, while this was easy to put down because it isn’t my kind of thing, it also had me enthralled as long as I had the book in my hands because it’s so well done, emotionally engaging, and uses the light of its thoughtful author and questing protagonist to shine through the darkness which seems to overwhelm most such books. This is a well-regarded novel but, if Brackett had been a “literary” figure instead of a “pulp” author, like Orwell, Huxley, Shute, Stewart, etc., this would probably be considered a classic of “real” literature alongside them. Through her Hamlet of Len Colter, she explores the difference between dreams and reality and, even more pointedly, between those ruled by fear and a need for stasis which they cloak in holy garb and those who recognize both the dangers and rewards of change and, either way, its inevitability, however quick or long it is in coming.

This isn’t a perfect novel. The most glaring thing is how gentle a holocaust this was, with no craters where cities stood, or mutants roaming irradiated badlands, but with amendments to the Constitution and still a Mexican border. There is either too much or too little Esau: too simply characterized for almost a dual main-character or too prominently featured for a sidekick. There are odd glitches such as having a New Mennonite teacher and town leaders who almost revere relics of books rather than burning them. Also, while she did an excellent job of showing both the brutal, vicious father of Esau and his brother, the basically decent and compassionate father of Len, and more generally showing the rationale and “goodness” of even self-righteous murderers (and even agreeing so overwhelmingly with the side of technological change and free thought as I do), I feel like she could have given the forces of fear and stasis an even fairer hearing. Finally, the book is a “classic SF novel” in most ways but is a little long for that. It pays off in great tangibility and detail for her milieu but does prevent a breakneck pace.

All that is trivial in comparison to the reality of Len, the way the novel can make the reader furious and excited and nervous and happy, and the subjects it handles with such psychological acumen and philosophical depth. Though chapters 27-29 (of the 30) had me very worried she was going to ruin it (and were some of the most emotionally involving at the same time), she pulled it off for what I think is a great success. Again, not my kind of thing, but highly recommended.


[1] It’s eventually explained that it’s named after the former Secretary of Defense, Henry Waltham Bartor, who was a driving force behind getting it built (Bartor’s Town) but it long confused me, seeming like a strange corruption of “Barter Town” or something.

[2] Of all the books she published in her lifetime, this was the only one I hadn’t yet read.

Review: Science Fiction by Scientists, edited by Michael Brotherton

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Science Fiction by Scientists, edited by Michael Brotherton
Tradepaper: Springer, 978-3-319-41101-9, $19.99, 214pp, January 2017 [1]

  • “Down and Out” by Ken Wharton
  • “The Tree of Life” by Jennifer Rohn
  • “Supernova Rhythm” by Andrew Fraknoi
  • “Turing de Force” by Edward M. Lerner
  • “Neural Alchemist” by Tedd Roberts
  • “Hidden Variables” by Jed Brody
  • “Upside the Head” by Marissa Lingen
  • “Betelgeuse” by J. Craig Wheeler
  • “Sticks and Stones” by Stephanie Osborn
  • “One for the Conspiracy Theorists” by Jon Richards
  • “The Schroedinger Brat Paradox” by Carl(ton) Frederick
  • “Fixer Upper” by Eric Choi
  • “Spreading the Seed” by Les Johnson
  • “The Gatherer of Sorrows” by J. M. Sidorova

In Science Fiction by Scientists, Mike Brotherton presents us with fourteen stories focused on science and scientific ideas written by “a new generation of twenty-first century scientist science fiction writers.” Even so, there is a zombie tale and a surrealist meltdown and other things you might not expect, though most do hew to more usual biology and physics and other disciplines and all have some sort of scientific basis underlying even the strangest things. In terms of mood, there are several dour, depressing stories, though fewer than most anthologies contain and there are a few upbeat, expansive tales, but I personally would have liked to see more of the latter. In terms of ideas, there is quite a bit of variety—epigenetics and quantum mechanics appear a couple of times and two stories are set on the International Space Station, but the stories in each pair are quite different from each other and I noticed no similar elements featured more than twice. As someone who loves idea-centered no-foolin’ science fiction, I enjoyed it, though not as much as I’d hoped. It opens and closes with two strong tales and, while nothing in between quite rises to excellence, only a couple struck me as full misses. However, I have to admit that many of the stories are weak on fictional values, mostly in the stereotypical ways that hard SF stories are perceived to be weak and people who aren’t especially hard SF fans are, alas, unlikely to be converted, unless by the two bookend stories. It genuinely is packed with ideas, though, and almost all the non-fiction essays (which are mostly about the science behind the stories) add substantial value themselves.

Down and Out” by Ken Wharton

Ogby lives with her fellow Rygors in a strange universe in which a core of ice is surrounded by an ocean, which is surrounded by a sphere of rock. She has been melting her way below the surface in an effort to learn more about her world. However, the action is above, where more fascinating discoveries are being made as other scientists drill and blast into the rock up there. She has a deathly fear of heights, as she could get swept away by the currents when her bladders don’t provide the weight that normally keeps her safe on the surface. Indeed, this fear is so profound she can’t overcome it—she panics and basically locks up and is carted back down. After a period of depression, she again tackles her own research when she realizes that the other team had been using the new-fangled explosives to blast and that she could apply that to her own work to speed things up. She takes her underwater vehicle to explore the effects and breaks through the ice into an amazing and strange place never imagined but also a place that is uninhabitable. With her ship damaged, she desperately needs to survive and desperately needs to communicate her civilization-changing discoveries. The climax hinges on whether she can do either and there’s yet another discovery (for the reader) in store.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner. I hope the synopsis above is at least a little intriguing—in the immediate post-read excitement, I tried to describe the story verbally and off the cuff to someone and didn’t seem to do a very good job. Indeed, the above is just a plot synopsis. From it, I hope you can see that there’s a genuine character with psychological and world-view issues and a genuine plot, and that this is well-constructed fiction. But this leaves out all the wonderful details of the creatures “chroming” and “soning” their communications, having a time system based on the oddly regular flexing of their world, the “airlabs” of carbon dioxide they build, the methane rains, the creatures’ logically sound arguments leading to false conclusions because of their bases in false premises (a favorite motif in much SF), and the whole process of disorientation and discovery in the story. My only criticism is one of two contradictory parts: I thought I knew what was going on very soon and I suspect most people would figure it out decisively. So it may be too hard to guess with certainty but too easy to suspect accurately, or too hard for some and too easy for others. Indeed, knowing the ending made it difficult to write the synopsis without feeling like I was spoiling it. Still, the author holds one little tidbit in reserve and, while it doesn’t change anything we’ve learned, it makes it more precise in a wonderful way. I recommend this generally, but if you love the alien perspectives sometimes found in Hal Clement’s work or the weird underwater milieus and aliens sometimes found in Robert L. Forward’s or James Cambias’ work, or the tales of under-equipped young aliens discovering the nature of their worlds as in Greg Egan’s Incandescence, then you should especially enjoy this.

The Tree of Life” by Jennifer Rohn

A virologist is working on a project for NASA to create insta-terraforming bugs (sort of) as an escape from her dull job of making super apples when the aliens come to erase all terrestrial life and take all our stuff. One alien takes a liking to her and keeps her alive for awhile to talk genetics. Meanwhile, she works feverishly to combine her two projects to try to do an evolutionary end-run around the aliens. Will she succeed? And do we care? This does a good job on the science side in terms of making it interesting and has some decent descriptions of lab work but really doesn’t work as fiction as it is so unlikely and contrived and there is almost zero emotional authenticity to this traumatic apocalypse. (Our protagonist is extremely resilient.) And, succeed or fail, could her efforts possibly make up for what has happened? And how can she possibly see her alien as “a friend of sorts”? Some nice ideas, though—a shame a better story couldn’t have been woven around them.

Supernova Rhythm” by Andrew Fraknoi

Eve is a graduate student astronomer who discovers an odd frequency and pattern to the supernovae in NGC 6946 and comes to an even odder conclusion which she shares with her supervisor.

It would be apt if this were a piece of “flash” fiction but it is (barely) longer than most of those. It contains a couple of infelicities. First, given an anthology of this type, I was really hoping to not read any present tense stories. Even if I liked present tense stories (which I don’t, as such), they are usually used to convey a sort of fairy tale effect or a pseudo-immediacy or perhaps any number of other things but, here, it has the effect of someone selling product on commercial television: “The graphs display instantly. It fits!” (And slices and dices! Act now!) Second, one could probably forgive avoiding an “as you know, Bob” with an infodump but to combine them is a bit much. The following is the student speaking to the supervisor and the narrator breaking in a clause too late:

“I have a galaxy whose supernova rate has been, well…unbelievably high. And, surprisingly, they are almost all Type Ia supernovae, which are only supposed to be a fifth of the total.”

Of the main kinds of exploding stars, Type Ia’s tend to be more rare….

(I do like the way she avoids saying the rate is “astronomical,” though.) Finally, the central idea is a humdinger but it seems our characters (or at least the supervisor) should probably assume a different cause—it’s difficult to specify why without spoiling, but, basically—because of general scientific principles and examples like ocean waves having a (relatively simple) rhythm and similar phenomena. Finally, there’s not much story here, flash or no. Still, while only the most “science over fiction” SF fan would likely enjoy this, I sort of did.

Turing de Force” by Edward M. Lerner

A couple of AIs (who have no recollection of their origins) arrive in the solar system, drawn here by its “modulated electromagnetic energy,” as part of their search for intelligence and proceed to apply their Turing test on the denizens of the internet.

This story examines human intelligence (or lack thereof) and examines the Turing test from the perspective of AIs. There are minor problems (and lesser ones not worth detailing): given the aliens’ bias toward assuming intelligence can’t reside in protoplasm, the looser AI sure does leap to the possibility of human intelligence and the stiffer one grasps his implication too easily. More importantly, this sort of thing has been done a lot and just isn’t interesting (there are no real traumatic stakes to the story and four of its eleven pages are devoted to eight conversations between the AI and “intelligence candidates” on the internet) and the afterword, while not exactly scintillating itself, is much more interesting, raising issues regarding Winograd schemas and volition, that aren’t even addressed in this story whose point is simply “the Turing test is non-optimal.”

Neural Alchemist” by Tedd Roberts

Professor John Wissen has been playing around with a special strain of stem cell derivates when he dies in a car crash. Then he returns to life and tries to figure out what happened. Thus the scientific zombie apocalypse begins.

This is an odd story: points for following Jack Williamson’s lycanthropes but deductions for doing it here and in this way. The afterword talks about SF being a means for scientists to “inspire our successors” but I sure hope no one is inspired to try to make zombies. This is more a There Are Things Man Was Not Meant to Know story which is the antithesis of the scientific attitude. Still, fictionally, it ends with a kind of inadvertently comical bit of melodrama which oddly repeats the opening and some people who aren’t into the details of university science may not always be on the edge of their seats, and the fact that this was a “challenge” story often shows, but it’s at least ingenious and pretty fair fare.

Hidden Variables” by Jed Brody

A couple of twins get together for their 33rd birthday and one has had a poem materialize under a teapot and has previously found the “hidden local variables” which makes her omniscient after a fashion. They do a dual QM infodump. Then they transmogrify and fight and then the universe goes all swirly for one of them.

Yep. A quantum physics “story” (which is to say, actually, a fable of pions). The day QM builds me a faster-than-light spaceship, I’ll be interested. Until then, I’ll stick to more sensible physics. But, on the fiction, I suppose if a surreal QM dialog floats your boat, this may be entertaining; if not, then definitely not.

Upside the Head” by Marissa Lingen

Via her journal, we meet Catherine Huang and learn that she is a doctor working on a trial of “ARF” (amygdala regrowth factor) which involves a bunch of hockey players with head trauma. A hockey team is funding her for the PR, which leads to the need for diplomacy, which is not Huang’s strong suit. More importantly, this drug may cause side effects.

This story suffers from a Yoda opening—backwards the introduced elements are—so that it’s confusing and off-putting for the first few paragraphs, but it quickly sorts itself out and becomes quite interesting in a low-key way. Perhaps because it feels like a “Flowers for Algernon” setting and has some of its material, I felt rather underwhelmed after I’d finished it, though. But I think that would be the case even without comparisons. Still, a decent read.

Betelgeuse” by J. Craig Wheeler

Two AIs happen to meet near Betelgeuse and hang out, having conversations. One is to study Betelgeuse’s evolution and its approaching supernova. The other has wandered around various places looking for life. As they converse, they get to be quite companionable and make some discoveries but all good things…

This dialog (basically) could definitely use more action and some of its coolest stuff is just a bit of background tossed off in a phrase. If you, like me, are fascinated by all things astronomical and stellar evolutionary this may just hold your interest, but only barely and, otherwise, probably won’t at all.

Sticks and Stones” by Stephanie Osborn

One fine day on the ISS, a crew member gets sick. Steps are taken to get her home, both for her own sake and for the safety of the crew at risk from contamination. However, another crew member also gets sick, in an even more dangerous way. Part of the problem is that she can’t get home (as the experiment to resist or reverse bone loss doesn’t work at all according to plan) and another part is that no one realizes quite how sick she is.

Although it doesn’t apply in a space station, the line “In space, no one can hear you scream,” kept coming to mind. The author describes this as an SF mystery but it’s actually closer to a horror story. The author is also at pains to point out that this story is not an indictment of NASA and that she’s also a very pro-space person. Be that as it may, this is not at all a pro-space story. Leaving aside the ending, while biological processes such as defecation and vomiting are a part of life and can be legitimately dealt with in fiction, especially in a space story, doing so without repelling most readers demands the writer be at the top of her game and I don’t feel like this effort got away with it. More significantly, the structure turns out to be a purposeful arrangement of a couple of timelines indicated by the elaborate section headers but it isn’t immediately apparent in the course of reading: the story doesn’t seem to flow but seems to be just a pile of blocks.

One for the Conspiracy Theorists” by Jon Richards

A scientist at the SETI Institute is searching for signals all by his lonesome and gets very industrious about it and eventually discovers what he thinks could be a signal but isn’t sure and isn’t sure what to do about it.

When the science afterword is fairly bland, undramatic and virtually indistinguishable from the “story,” then there is a problem. This was mildly interesting, as is SETI, but other than being a little more descriptive and describing a fictional dilemma, this is basically an essay followed by an essay.

The Schroedinger Brat Paradox” by Carl(ton) Frederick

A psychiatrist calls in a quantum physicist for help with a patient who doesn’t seem to be a classic schizophrenic or dissociative identity disorder patient. At a loss for explanations, she wonders if the boy’s conversations and voices relate to bleed-through from the other worlds of the “many worlds” interpretation of QM. Despite her far-fetched notions, the scientist gets an idea about testing his own theory. When the test goes a bit askew, it leads to an extremely vivid test of the theory’s correctness or incorrectness and includes an extra final twist.

I’ve already said how I feel about QM so this story didn’t work for me, but it did have interesting ideas portrayed in a dramatically effective (and non-surreal) way with a genuinely creepy segment so may well work for QM-SF fans. And bonus points to the author(s) for the explanation of the byline.

Fixer Upper” by Eric Choi

An American who had previously served on the International Space Station and a Chinese commander (later joined for a time by three more Chinese) work to repair and reactivate an abandoned ISS in the vicinity of 2030. A Chinese corporation run by a weird guy has big plans for it. The commander stays behind while the American takes the last ride back and observes the events.

This story could use more drama through its bulk and it wouldn’t have hurt if its ending was less predictable (but this was telegraphed more than once, so suspense doesn’t appear to have been the objective) but this was an interesting story, realistically described and got in a plug for duct tape (alas, no WD40 appears to have been used in the making of this story). By depicting an active and extroverted (if slightly wacky and derivative) China and a backwards US, this paints an unpleasantly (from a North American POV) plausible picture of the future.

Spreading the Seed” by Les Johnson

Any story that begins with one character saying, “We’re actually going to the stars,” and another character replying, “About damn time,” already has a leg up with me. Akhil and his friend begin talking about why they’re going and what it all means. After that conversation, he also gets together with his wife but they mostly listen to a government spokesperson and we learn that, while we don’t know the precise nature of the distant world we’re going to, we have evidence from a nearer world that a sentient, technical civilization had existed there prior to destroying itself or being destroyed by others. And this is only part of the information.

Unfortunately, from the synopsis, it’s clear that this isn’t a narration of action, but is a lot of talking. I’m not sure that the master, Asimov, wasn’t almost sui generis (at least among non-playwrights) in consistently being able to succeed at wresting high drama from dialog. This does a decent job of painting an interesting scenario but it needs action. On minor aspects, it depicts a society with the usual “rejuve” and “contract marriages” and so on. On major aspects, the destroyed civilization (and why it’s in the story) is also fairly commonplace. But the exoplanet search (ongoing) and the depiction of a nifty method of interstellar travel (maybe someday?) are fresher and fun. There is also a pointed moral, indicated by the title. How you feel about that may depend on how much you agree with it. So, again, partly well-suited for me and perhaps others but probably insufficient for many.

The Gatherer of Sorrows” by J. M. Sidorova

In a rather confusing opening, an elderly teacher is hauled off from class to appear before a billionaire. Via their emotionally loaded and mostly dramatically effective conversation and her flashbacks, we gradually learn how she, as a young scientist, was able to secure funding from a pair of billionaire twins to test her disconcertingly Lamarckian-flavored ideas (which apparently have some basis in current biological science?). The basic idea is that, in addition to random mutations over generations, non-coding RNA can “pick up” life experiences and rewrite a person’s own DNA which will directly affect their offspring. Isolating and reproducing “life-is-bad” and “life-is-good” elements is a knowledge win in itself but could also be used to engineer offspring. Which is what it turns out one of the twins may have done with the scientist/teacher’s egg, producing the current billionaire she’s trying to deal with—trying to restrain Caligula, basically.

This is another dialog/reverie story but, as I indicated, the intensity of the dialog works fairly well and the reverie does involve scientific, family, and social conspiracies which can have species-wide implications (with an interesting variation on the “money is speech” theme). Perhaps the only real flaw is that the teacher discovers a critical piece of information which, as far as I can tell, she explains with only “I started to suspect it was earlier than that” and I’m not clear what prompted her suspicion. This (familial biology story) isn’t quite my cup of tea and genuinely doesn’t seem quite as strong as “Down and Out” but is nearly so; this anthology opens and closes well.


[1] This is a reformatted, but otherwise unchanged, reprint of a review which originally appeared at Tangent Online on December 22, 2016. Even though it’s not very good and too long (partly because I had to review every story), I’m reprinting it because it’s one of three “science fiction by scientists” anthologies I’ve reviewed (with one more to go) and I want them all to be available here. (The other two are Great Science Fiction by Scientists, edited by Groff Conklin and The Expert Dreamers, edited by Frederik Pohl.) I should also point out that the ISFDB lists this as having been published November 2016 which is probably actually correct but it was dated January 2017.

Birthday Reviews: Cherryh, Schroeder, Wilcox, Zahn

This week’s birthday authors take us to the clouds of Jupiter, to a world six hundred years’ voyage away, and present us with two variations on Cassandra.

C. J. Cherryh (1942-09-01)

“Cassandra” (F&SF, October 1978)

Cherryh is mostly known for her novels (I’ll be reading at least my thirty-fourth of hers soon, which is now less than half the total), which include some fantasies and many set in realistic future space milieus, but she’s written several stories collected in Sunfall, Visible Light and, ultimately, in the Collected Short Fiction of C. J. Cherryh. One of her earliest, and one which made one of the biggest impacts, was this updated myth of mad Alis, who staggers through life in and out of mental hospitals seeing a double vision of her current reality of people and places and her possible future of ghosts and destruction after the War. It’s a short and seemingly simple tale but Alis’ agony (and ours) is firmly, judiciously depicted, with depth.

Karl Schroeder (1962-09-04)

“The Pools of Air” (Tesseracts 3, 1991)

A filmmaker, her on-air talent, and a tech guy are trying to save their skins after the helium-3 refining ship they are filming on crashes into something while cruising the clouds of Jupiter, destroying its front-end and cutting them off from direct access to their shuttle. The protagonist has baggage, both figurative and literal, which is not helping her or her companions. In a way, that element is the whole story so it’s hard to say it should be minimized but, in ways, a lot of hard SF [1] is damaged by writers who have drunk the kool-aid and overtly bow to what Asimov called “the tin-god of characterization” in an effort to be accepted as literature. There’s a certain kind of SF where that usually works and sometimes hard SF can be fused with it but, generally, it’s a distraction and hard SF works better on a scientific and social level than a personal one. Be that as it may, this is a concise and energetic story that takes the reader to an impressive setting.

Don Wilcox (1905-08-29–2000-03-09)

“The Voyage That Lasted Six Hundred Years” (Amazing, October, 1940)

This is an honorary happy birthday because parts of this story are painful to read but it is the first full treatment of the generation starship (a year before Heinlein) and it’s oddly clever in ways. Akin to how puns are contrived but still work, this is a pile of author fiats but is at least elaborately contrived. The first generation starship takes off from Earth with what turn out to be seventeen couples and one “Keeper of the Traditions” (our narrator) who goes into suspended animation [2] for a century at a time before coming out to see how things are going and to try to set anything wrong to right. However, he takes a couple of steps backward for every one he takes forward. The time lapse view of the society leads to a certain propulsive effect and the variety of this civilization’s discontents maintain some interest.

Timothy Zahn (1951-09-01)

“The Cassandra” (Analog, November 1983)

Going out through the in door, this Cassandra is quite different. Zahn portrays this as a generational mutation (with characteristic physical markers of white hair and green eyes) on a colony which then collapses due to group trances of apocalyptic visions and the ensuing dislocations and stress. Now a few Cassandras are back on Earth, suffering in a more isolated way and we follow the effort of one such highly educated man struggling to get and keep a job as a dishwasher. This is a story in which there is a problem to be solved (whether it is solved or not) and, despite the author’s afterword talking about how atypically tragic it is for him, there is actually a sense in which it is uplifting because it’s not an inexplicable and pointless affliction or a parable of human blindness but is a natural problem with a cause and actually has some gain come from the pain. This is yet another example of how you can give twelve authors one theme and get twelve unique stories back. If you only think of Zahn as a tie-guy or even just a novelist, check this and his other short fiction out.


[1] I call it hard SF because it seems like it generally, despite being insufficiently concerned with Jupiter’s radiation. The trio breathe a sort of liquid air which, among other things, helps them deal with gravity and I suppose it also wouldn’t hurt regarding radiation but, so far as I recall, radiation is never mentioned.

[2] If it was ever explained why there is suspended animation tech and the mission was designed to (a) have such a tiny population and (b) not provide them all with the tech so as to avoid having to endure such a difficult and uncertain voyage, I missed it.