Rec: “Legale” by Vernor Vinge

Legale” by Vernor Vinge, Nature 2017-08-09, SF short story

Here’s another short-short from Nature. This is a sequel to “BFF’s First Adventure” (which I also recommended at the old site, though reading it isn’t necessary to enjoy this one). In this, Bonnie Colbert is en route from Paris to New York and occupying herself with her very smart phone which she’s trying to turn into her personal lawyer when the plane starts to crash. Fascinating things are done with time and anthropic assumptions and then the vista widens still further, all in 920 words.

(Speaking of time, I believe there is one flaw in this story. One of the entities in it says something catastrophic will happen if they don’t adjourn in “50 milliseconds” but later says, “I just queried your Paris office” and the meeting seems to wrap up in time. But I think Paris and New York are almost two-hundredths of a light-second apart. (Later in the meeting, the same entity says “we don’t have time to wait for Paris” but they didn’t the first time.) But maybe if they just adjourn in five-hundredths of a second the numbers work out and they might still have enough time to do the real-world physics they need to do. But perhaps I’m wrong – either way, I’m not going to let it mess up a good story.)

Rec: “The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata

The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata, Tor.com 2017-07-19, SF short story

The world is ending, not with a bang, but a whimper. Or, as Susannah puts it, time is a torturer, drawing out its painful death. She, herself, has lost one child to a nuclear strike and another to a plague, and a husband to perhaps a broken heart. But she does have one project. It’s possibly futile or quixotic but definitely important to her, as well as to her financial backer. The four Martian colonies have failed, but they’ve purchased the last one and are using its AIs, robot, and supplies to construct a giant obelisk as a long-lasting token of humanity’s former existence. Some people on Earth object to this project and, when activity occurs on an ostensibly dead Mars which may interfere with the project, things kick into a higher gear as she fights to save her project from possible hackers. Then, without ever deviating from her core drives, things nevertheless change radically.

While I understand that, in this universe, we may have jumped straight to Mars without ever returning to the moon and thus would have no infrastructure there, I can’t help thinking how a much better and even longer-lasting obelisk could be built on the moon. But that’s not really the point. (And I, unsurprisingly, don’t care for the possible symbolism of the obelisk in this story.) I also can’t help but thinking the ending sequence shows some strains of contrivance. It’s not preposterously rigged but it also doesn’t seem to flow with natural and necessary inevitability. And I certainly had to fight with an antipathy towards apocalyptic stories as a class because this one seemed to give off signals that it would be different from most of them. (It obviously rewarded that feeling.)

Those (partly irrelevant) quibbles aside, this was an excellent story. It was effectively dramatic (using the “lightspeed lag” to good effect, for example) and thematic (getting its point across in a way that, though it was clearly “getting its point across,” was plot- and character-driven, so aesthetically justified). I suspect I didn’t respond to it as emotionally (at least on certain “pressure points”) as some might but I did find it emotionally effective in terms of humanity in general and others might respond to it all. But it’s a tough story with fairly high idea-content at the same time so it’s thought-provoking and philosophical as well as emotional. As I say, to juggle all this with only a necessarily unappealing start and some strain in the end is quite an accomplishment.

Rec: “The Dead Father Cookbook” by Ashley Blooms

The Dead Father Cookbook” by Ashley Blooms, Strange Horizons 2017-07-17, fantasy short story

This is a damn weird story. A lot of people write a lot of normal stories and they’re good or they’re bad. And a lot of people write stories that try to be weird and aren’t very good. And a few people write stories that just are weird and can be very good. I read this story two or three days ago and have waffled about recommending it ever since. I’ve just re-read it and decided to go ahead. This story almost repels me and it will repel some folks but it’s just got something literally remarkable. So I’m remarking.

Addie and Ben’s mother died a long time ago. Their drunken dad abandoned them awhile after that and Addie has “tried to be everything to Ben, mother and father and sister” (and more). Then Ben moved away. Now their dad has died, too, and lonely doesn’t even begin to describe Addie’s feelings, so she gets Ben to come back for a visit while she implements a strange plan which gives us our story’s title. She’s had seances before (amongst her general, taken-for-granted witcheries) but now she’s going for a seance/golem combo. She’s got some things to say.

This whole center of the plot is ironically perhaps the weakest part of it. Addie gets Ben there without his knowing of her plans and telling him of them risks running him off. So why the plan? But I think (a) it has to do with the duration of Ben’s stay, making it more than a brief visit and (b) passions are not always logical and she needs to do this. There are a couple of lesser issues involving it not being initially clear to me that the fixation with bellies (aside from symbolism) wasn’t just another bizarre quirk but was related to their diet. And the dialog shift from dad to Ben was confusing but I think intentionally so. But, ultimately, I think the story hangs together and makes sense and is well-told. I especially love the perceptions of this story: Ben’s eye action during Addie’s discussion of the impurities of “cremains”; her talisman story; the whole passage on Monopoly but especially the bit about the racecar; the blackbird simile.

Basically, however strange and uncomfortable and disconcerting this story is, its tale of great loss and vast wanting is quite powerful. It kind of crawls up next to you as in a bed or bathtub and does weird things.

Rec: “Thinking Inside the Box” by Michèle Laframboise

Thinking Inside the Box” by Michèle Laframboise, Compelling Science Fiction June/July 2017, SF short story

It’s a familiar setup when we see two human diplomats through the cognitive estrangement of alien perception but angels (so to speak) are in the details just as much as the devil. The aliens’ love of constant, arbitrary change is interesting and they are generally nicely judged, not being “bumpy forehead” aliens nor incomprehensibly bizarre for its own sake but merely comprehensibly strange. When things go haywire and the shapeshifting ability of the alien spaceship is damaged, the psychological and mathematical elements of the tale come even more to the fore and they are quite interesting. In a way, this is a very old-school tale—one might wonder why the alien engineers haven’t foreseen this potential problem and developed some kind of “VR” solution or something—but I like the “beings and ships” sort of flesh-and-steel pre-cyberpunk sensibility. And I’m not sure it’s not a flaw for a part of the ending to be dependent on insider information but at least very few SF fans will fail to get it. I enjoyed this one.

Rec: “Crossing the Threshold” by Pat Murphy

Crossing the Threshold” by Pat Murphy, Lightspeed June 2017, short story

This is billed by Lightspeed as fantasy but it’s only fantasy if you want it to be. It also discusses the scientific concept of entropy but isn’t really SF unless you really want it to be. This is sort of indicated in the story itself when, after meeting an old man stuck on a fence and helping him over, the protagonist/narrator says,

I realized that I could think about that old guy in two different ways.

Here’s option number one. He was an ordinary old man….

Then there’s option number two, an option that might occur to you in the dark of night a couple of months after your father died when you’re drinking red wine and reading an article about the devil.

I’ll grant that this story may not have the tightest structure or the most climactic of climaxes and that I’ve had a weakness for Pat Murphy stories for many moons now. Still, it’s a good, quirky, San Francisco treat and I hope folks will read it and enjoy it as much as I did.