You are here: Home (fiction) --> Book
and short story reviews --> Asimov's October–November 2010
Vous êtes ici : Accueil (fiction) --> Book and short story reviews --> Asimov's October–November 2010
Rusch: Becoming one with the ghosts
Johnson: Names for water
Resnick: The incarceration of Captain Nebula
Lee: Torhec the sculptor
d'Ammassa: No distance too great
Shoulders: The termite queen of Tallulah County
Neube: Dummy tricks
McIntosh: Frankenstein, Frankenstein
Wilhelm: Changing the world
Steinmetz: Under the thumb of the brain patrol
Wilber: Several items of interest
This is the story of Johnathan "Coop" Cooper, captain of the Ivoire, a battleship cum family habitat straight out of Star Trek, complete with a 5-year mission. Ivoire's Fleet even roams this section of the galaxy benevolently meddling in local affairs. As the story begins, Ivoire returns to its base for repairs after sustaining severe damage. Using the ship's "anacap" drive, return is instantaneous. But after the ship "teleports" back into its base's repair bay, it's clear something has gone badly wrong: nobody's there to welcome them home. This was clearly foreshadowed: their previous jump landed them in the right star system, but the star was dimmer than expected and the planet had fewer moons than expected. Such are the perils of FTL via dimensional folding: sometimes you end up in the wrong dimension. Here, the problem is with time, not dimensions per se: the crew find themselves at least 200 years in the future, and possibly more than 500.
Despite Rusch's wink at Star Trek, this is no Trek pastiche. Coop is both a closet romantic and a pragmatist who has learned not to expect reality to live up to his dreams. He's the anti-Kirk: a responsible and cautious man with a firm grasp of his responsibilities, who bows to his crew's superior expertise when appropriate and stays on the bridge to manage the situation while they do the fieldwork. Possibly he's too cautious: when a handful of the base's residents arrive to investigate the ship's arrival, they clearly aren't his former colleagues, and he won't talk to them until he understands the situation. As in Rusch's previous work, character is the whole point of the story. Coop's an interesting character, and although his colleagues get scant attention, they seem like they'd become complex and interesting supporting characters in a longer story.
There are several nice touches. For example, the characters don't initially grasp the magnitude of their problem. The U.S. (home to most Asimov's readers) is just over 200 years old, and we all recognize the dramatic changes that occurred during this relatively brief time. Imagine how much more dramatic are the changes faced by the Ivoire's crew! Does their Fleet still exist? Will anyone they knew still be alive? By severing them from anything they once knew, and only gradually letting the characters understand their situation, Rusch creates a rich ambience for her story. Coop's immediate goal is to repair the ship, then predict the Fleet's current location so he can rejoin old friends—which he considers a difficult but not impossible challenge.
Another nice touch is how the passage of times leads to significant linguistic changes, even when (as with modern English) a language has been codified in dictionaries and computers, two forces that might slow the language's evolution. Here, the language has evolved sufficiently that when Coop finally decides to speak with the base's residents, his translator (a linguist competent in dozens of languages) still takes weeks, even with computer assistance, to bridge the language gap. No magic Star Trek translators here! That makes for an interesting variant on the traditional first-contact story: the base residents aren't aliens, other than in the sense that our distant ancestors will probably seem alien to us.
[Spoilers] Coop is horrified to learn that at least 5000 years have passed. Their Fleet is largely forgotten, other than as legends and occasional wrecked ships. The base's "residents" turn out to be archeologists exploring the ruins, where malfunctioning anacapa technology is releasing energy bursts that destroyed the city above the base, leading to its relocation. [A look back: Distinct echoes of the famous Trek episode City on the Edge of Forever.] Civilization seems to have fallen on hard times and climbed back up again—a possibility many authors forget when they invoke the passage of long timespans. Ghosts is set in Rusch's Wreck Diver story world, but it's the story of a relic of the world's distant past surging into the present. The woman who leads the team exploring the base is none other than "Boss", the protagonist of Diving into the Wreck and associated stories. The title's "ghosts" refer to the spirits from previous stories who are trapped in time bubbles created by the malfunctioning anacapa drive. Researching "anacapa" revealed that the word comes from the Chumash word "eneepah", a mirage. Nice touch!
Unfortunately, Rusch devotes too little attention to the consequences of her setup. Would Coop really believe he can predict the Fleet's location after 200 years? Unlikely. Societies change within decades, even in the absence of surprises (e.g., aliens, interplanetary warfare); after more than two centuries, such surprises would change society (not to mention the Fleet's plans) beyond recognition. Moreover, most people the crew knew would be dead after 200 years (we have no evidence of life-prolongation tech). No warship would keep its bridge crew working more than 24 hours at a stretch once the immediate crisis was past; there'd be at least two "watches" (more probably three) to prevent key personnel from growing so fatigued they'd make fatal mistakes. When the archaelogists approach Ivoire, Coop sends his linguist for a rest instead of having her immediately establish contact. This makes little sense; the residents pose no risk to the ship or crew, and anything that damaged the repair bay's walls, built using the same nanotech used to create the ship's hull, will also damage the ship. Coop needs to figure this out ASAP.
Rusch tells us there's a haze of particles in the repair bay, and that the particles are shed by the walls. Would these nanoparticles be harmless to the crew? Nope. If they're as large as dust, they'll at least irritate the lungs, and if they're smaller, it's already known that nanoscale particles enter cells in ways that larger particles can’t, creating potentially severe health hazards. Describing access crawlways used to repair equipment as too tight for anyone but a small engineer to enter is nonsensical: if you need to access damaged parts (a crucial task on a warship), the crawlways must be large enough for most crew and for the removal and replacement of large damaged parts. It's also not clear how Coop monitors the communications of three separate teams as they explore the repair bay, then subsequently can't monitor the conversation between his translator and the archaeologists.
Outside Trek, a warship that carries the crew's families makes no sense; in a fight, the crew will be worrying about their family's safety, distracting them from the battle. Moreover, such ships can never be as efficient as purpose-built warships or family ships in either role: design compromises are too severe, such as wasting energy on life support for noncombatants and on moving extra mass (family quarters) a warship can't afford to drag around in a fight. Such hybrid vehicles barely make sense in the Trek universe, where you rarely have to worry about combat. Even there, you'd get far more bang for your buck building dedicated warships to escort exploration vessels. In Rusch's world, where effectively instantaneous interstellar teleportation is available, such ships make even less sense: you can return to your family for shore leave whenever you want, with no delay.
On the plus side, the characters are sympathetic and interesting, and their story situation is a compelling way to create empathy. Ghosts reminded me of the wistfully melancholic Yes album Fragile, which I interpret (to the extent that Jon Anderson's work can be successfully interpreted) as the tale of astronauts transported years into the future (possibly decades or centuries) by a calculation error. On the negative side, the inconsistent and often illogical background details often threw me right out of the story. This will be less problematic if you're reading purely for entertainment rather than examining the details as a learning exercise or in a critical review. As I noted in my review of Rusch's The Tower (March 2010 issue), this story would benefit from a rigorously thought-out overhaul at novel length to better integrate the SFnal details with the emotional core of the story.
Hala is a third-year engineering student rushing for a class she dreads because she can't quite wrap her mind around the subject (complex variables). As she hurries, her phone rings, and when no name appears on the caller display, she uncharacteristically answers rather than dismissing the call—possibly because she's trying to avoid her class or possibly there's something more to that impulse. But there's nobody on the line, just the hiss of background noise that Hala likens to the whisper of the air molecules between her and her caller. This time, she feels a difference: the sound rises and falls, like waves on a beach, and she's certain the noise is water. Unlike someone more literal-minded, she has a notion something is there, and that if only she can name it, it will speak to her. So she runs through the names of every body of water she knows (the names alluded to in the title) without success. Eventually, frustrated, she hangs up.
[Spoilers] Having missed the start of her class, and knowing there's no way she'll catch up with the professor's explanation, she has a sudden urge to return the phone call and dials the previous caller's number. This time, when her call is answered, she names the caller: "Your name is Hala", she says on a hunch, and the caller repeats the name in confirmation. Hala has indeed contacted something unimaginably distant—possibly an ocean on a distant planet that researchers will only learn has liquid water years later after Hala changes careers, becoming an astrophysicist, and her research team discovers the planet—or possibly her own connection with the future. Nearly a century and a half later, explorers visiting the planet name the ocean after her, its discoverer and the person who gave them cause to visit in the first place, for where there's water, there's life.
This short piece, just over two pages long, is like a prose poem or possibly a dream. The sensory details (rain, splashing puddles, waves beating on a shore, lavender bath salts) are visceral and consistent with the overall water metaphor. The mundane but equally important details are neatly handled, such as Hala's recognition that after missing the first 10 minutes of her math class, she might as well not attend; missing a class and having to spend the rest of the year catching up was one of my recurring university nightmares. (Yet she changes her mind, returns to class, and eventually passes the course.) Even the technical details are right; for example, phyllosilicates form through interactions between rocks and liquid water, so telling us Hala's research group has detected them on a planet previously ignored by researchers because the star was the "wrong type" is a nice touch; some of the greatest breakthroughs come when someone follows their gut instinct (in Hala's case, listens to an inner voice), ignores conventional wisdom, and looks for something nobody else would have thought to seek.
The background hiss on the cell phone has both a mundane explanation, as the background radiation emitted by all things and that permeates the universe, and a more mystical sense of the connection among all things that the non-engineer part of her brain picks up on for the first time. (That same sense of connections is evident in the continuity between the past in which Hala discovers the planet has water and the future when explorers commemorate her discovery by naming the ocean after her.) Stretching a bit here, but it's fun to speculate that Hala is a feminized version of Hailey, an early discoverer of extraterrestrial water in the form of the comet named after him.
Names for Water is a confection that combines science with powerful emotion, which would have been a jarring clash of textures in less skilled hands; here, it produces a short, sweet mouthful that leaves a warm and hopeful feeling in its wake.
Captain Nebula, intergalactic hero in the grand old (space) opry tradition of Doc Smith's lensmen, has come to Earth to save us from Drago, an evil galactic overlord in the Ming the Merciless tradition. But he's fallen somehow into the hands of Dr. Weaver, and is delivered unconscious to the doctor's asylum. Weaver, a psychiatrist, is convinced this seemingly normal human is suffering from a terrible delusion; indeed, all the symptoms fit, and the first few lines of the story (Nebula's own narration) strongly suggest a kind of benevolent megalomania. But this is Asimov's, after all: Is Captain Nebula really delusional, or is the relentless consistency of his story a clue that he's telling the truth as best he knows it, and we're all in terrible danger?
There are many things to love about this story. Resnick's writing is, as always, impeccable, and he manages to create two distinct and distinctly likeable personalities (Nebula and Weaver) seemingly without effort. (In all the best writing, the sweating occurs offstage where we can't see it.) It's completely natural that Weaver comes to deeply respect Nebula and long for the kind of heroic world he portrays, and for Nebula in turn to respect Weaver's basic decency and concern for his patient, thereby justifying his desire to save the people of Earth; not only is it the right thing for a hero to do, the people honestly deserve their savior.
[Spoilers] In a poignant, strikingly sad ending, Nebula's archenemy Tzandor the Deathbringer infiltrates the asylum and coldly kills Nebula, manipulating records to make the electroshock therapy that electrocutes our hero seem accidental. The ending, in which Tzandor asks for Drago's instructions (whether to destroy Earth or merely enslave it) is true to the space opera tradition, but it's chilling when held up against a tale of such emotional honesty. Within the story's deeply self-consistent world, it is completely true, and gives Nebula's death tragic resonance few deaths manage to attain in fiction.
In addition to the mystery of whether Nebula is real, we are gently prodded to re-examine some of our contemptuous attitudes towards golden-age heroes and their stories. We've all been brought up in the belief that space tyrants make no sense, and that we should politely smirk when exposed to their scheming—yet as Nebula observes, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane were more interested in conquest for its own sake than in what would happen once nothing was left to conquer. We've also been taught by decades of flawed pomo heroes and even outright antiheroes to scoff at heroes who care nothing for their own life and exist only to save the innocent, at whatever personal cost—yet tales of Arthur and his knights are more popular than ever. In hindsight, why would we mock such selfless courage and devotion rather than striving with all our hearts to emulate it?
But we're not done yet with layered meaning: Captain Nebula simply knows too much of Earth (e.g., historical conquerors) and speaks English far too flawlessly for his story to be taken at face value, adding a delicious additional ambiguity to the story: Is it possible Nebula really was deluded, and somehow managed to glimpse the true peril facing us? The one place Nebula falters in his story about his past life is when he tells of the death of his wife and children at Drago's hands—precisely the kind of trauma that could cause a basically decent man, upset at the countless tragedies we humans daily inflict upon ourselves, to retreat into the soothing delusion that any of us could become so much more heroic.
More than just a compelling portrait of two characters, Incarceration challenges us to re-examine our beliefs about the nature of fictional heroes, their virtuous self-delusions, and why those delusions make us so uncomfortable. A brilliant piece of work.
An appropriate quote arrived by e-mail shortly after I published this: "Oh, how small a portion of earth will hold us when we are dead, who ambitiously seek after the whole world while we are living!"—Philip of Macedon, king, father of Alexander the Great (382-336 BCE)
Lee begins by quoting the fictitious Sarusande ("beauty must die") as a springboard into a meditation on the impermanence of all things. The story dialogues with the notion of ars longa, vita brevis: art endures, but it is longa (for a long time), not eterna (forever). This impermanence is made manifest through the medium of sculpture as performance art—not, as one might expect, watching as figure emerges from ground, but rather as the sculptor (Torhec) deliberately destroys the beauty he's created while audiences watch in mingled delight and horror. No piece larger than a crumb escapes the destruction; not even photos are preserved. Lee explicitly invokes Savonarola's "bonfire of the vanities" as the destruction's historical precedent, but implicitly references Tom Wolfe's novel cum social critique of the same name.
Aamon the millionaire wants to own a piece of Torhec's art that will be preserved—clearly impossible given the artist's attitude. Although "Aamon" is a demon's name in the Ars Goetia (part of the Key of Solomon), a compendium of demons and angels, I suspect it's a more ancient reference to the Egyptian god Amon-ra, one of whose aspects is the creator god, which provides an interesting thematic tension with Torhec, who destroys what is divinely inspired. This is no mere coincidence of names, as Aaamon makes clear: "I respect your wish to reprimand a destructive God by copying him. I want the role of a god who cherishes." I found no obvious cognates for the name Torhec, though the logical counterpart in this context would be Set, whose divine portfolio includes chaos and destruction. Though Torhec has no named lovers, Set has many wives in legend and Aamon has many mistresses. This mingling of the two myths seems deliberate, showing (as in many mythologies) two faces of the same coin. [A look back: After posting the original review, my subconscious, always looking for puns, prompted me to wonder whether the sculptor's name was a deliberate invocation of the concept of a rhe-Torhec-al device. Could be!]
Aamon's desire to preserve one of Torhec's sculptures is so great he overcomes Torhec's resistance by offering an insanely large sum for any sculpture the sculptor is willing to create. Aamon is even willing to lock it in a vault and never see it, and to destroy it upon his death. He even swears to tell no one of his treasure, and given his unimpeachable reputation for probity, Torhec accepts. For years, the crate containing the sculpture rests safely in a vault below Aamon's home, and he keeps to his word. But as the years pass, and he begins feeling his age, he repents of his oath, musing about Pandora's box (an obvious parallel Lee is skillful enough to make overt, through Aamon's musings, rather than leaving clumsily implicit) and revealing the sculpture's existence to his mistress.
[Spoiler] When he can no longer resist the crate's lure, he opens it—only to find that Torhec has anticipated him and destroyed the contents in advance. Had Aamon never looked, he would have died content, knowing that his vault held a unique masterpiece that had not been destroyed and that would never be further damaged by time. (The implicit metaphor for Schrodinger's cat may not have been intentional, but it adds interesting depth to the concept.) Like Pandora, Aamon looked. He finds the cheque that Torhec demanded as payment in place of a more modern electronic funds transfer, torn into tiny shreds. Unlike in Pandora's case, what emerges from this box is a painful insight rather than all the world's ills. The joke on Aamon is perfect, and he understands his lesson. The last thing in this box is not even approximately hope, but rather the harsh wisdom that there are things money cannot buy.
This story is Lee in her trademark lush–decadent mode of writing. Though never ornate, her prose conveys a sense of being "made for comfort, not speed" (in the words of an old joke about the difference between a Rubenesque odalisque and the modern anorexic notion of beauty). Wealth and age creep upon Aamon like panthers, "the first golden and gleaming, limber and imperious, the second gray, deadly, sad." Torhec seems modeled on Michelangelo's David, witness the loving attention Lee devotes to describing his hands and feet. He has the arrogance of an antique creator god, and shares the same contempt for his worshippers. The vault that holds the sculpture is lit by an "awful Everlasting light", a poisonous relic from previous centuries and a name chosen for its contrast with art's ephemeral nature in that harsh light. I'm reminded of William Gibson's (failed?) 1992 experiment with Agrippa (a Book of the Dead)—which I never read, but which was intended to evoke the same sense of impermanence long before others were thinking of such issues.
The story's message is not new, but is skillfully and cleverly conveyed. Perhaps less flamboyant than some of Lee's earlier works, this story is no less a handcrafted bit of excellence that, like Torhec's sculptures, will last only so long as our memories of it endure.
[Responding to my review, "Thinfea" noted that: "What was destroyed in the end, what was demonstrated was even Aamon's image of himself, his "word" that he ALWAYS kept, could not last. Nothing last including our own ideas of who we are." Way cool! Yeah, that also fits.]
Jason Tallant is traveling through hyperspace to the inauspiciously named planet of Dropout, where he hopes to leave the ashes of his cremated wife, Kathy. Kathy always dreamed of interstellar travel, and studied the subject intensively (which lets Jason explain how this travel works as he recalls his wife), but died before she could leave Earth. Now Jason will help her achieve her wish posthumously, after which he plans to end his own life.
Inevitably, there are complications. D'Ammassa's concept of hyperspace is one I've never encountered before, and is fascinatingly original: it seems to be a consensus reality that resembles a mostly flat plain, and ships roll over it on wheels like the Conestoga wagons that settled the American west. That's a potent metaphor for how humans are colonizing the galaxy without fully understanding the implications. A ship's course differs every time, passing through a changing landscape, but pilots can home in on beacons established by human outposts. There are hills, valleys, and odd features ("broccoli trees", "crystal towers") that nobody understands. In fact, about the only thing humans understand is that the consensus reality is highly amenable to strong emotion, which can affect the landscape in ways such as increasing a journey's distance beyond a ship's air capacity. The copilot's comment that she expects another boring trip, combined with Jason's suicidal thoughts, should be clear warning we're in for trouble.
[Spoilers from here on] Sure enough, the hyperspace landscape changes, with increasingly rough terrain and denser broccoli forests. The power of Jason's grief, and his lack of any desire to complete his voyage and move past his grief by ending his old life (whether literally or symbolically) form powerful psychic obstacles to completing the trip. Indeed, the "forests of the mind" physically prevent the ship from moving, and things are beginning to look dire; air will soon run out, and rescue ships that are sent out mysteriously can't locate the stranded ship. The human mind's power over this dreamy landscape reminded me of Zelazny's He Who Shapes (aka The Dream Master), but more strongly of the noosphere in Matthew Hughes' The Commons. Eventually, Jason's thoughts of his beloved Kathy cause her to take on (meta)physical form, and she leads him away from the ship. We are left to imagine whether this will be "happily ever after", with lovers united after death, or whether Jason will just die when his suit's air runs out. Both are possible, making it a satisfying (if a bit too pat) ending.
Despite the concept's strengths, there are key weaknesses. Jason's emotional distance from the external world, including from the passengers around him, is consistent with his previous life; d'Ammassa tells us Jason was always more comfortable distancing himself from the "external world". But we're *told* of his pain rather than shown it, thereby deadening the affect and the effect; the emotional range is monochromatic and shallow, without building a strong sense of Jason's emotional journey from despair to joy at finding Kathy again. That may be true to life, since a loved one's death has a way of numbing us and cutting us off from our external world, but the lack of an emotional climax makes for unsatisfying fiction. In addition, the tight focus on Jason eliminates any strong picture of him or the ship, or of the other passengers. Journeys typically take a day or so, suggesting there aren't advanced sanitary facilities onboard. After 3 days of increasing emotional stress, trapped on a tiny ship without access to showers, the air is going to get awfully funky. Even Jason should notice, though he does briefly note the air seems a little "stale".
Distance is a competently written tale, but the lack of variation in emotional tone and of background details undermines its potential power.
What could be more technology-proof than insect extermination? You walk in, nuke the bugs, open the windows to save the humans and their pets until the air is clear again, get paid, and move on. But like all professions we take for granted, there's expertise and technology and thought involved in termite extermination. Queen is the story of Lacey Tidwell, third generation in a family of exterminators. Though most tricks of her trade would be familiar to her grandfather, "temporal intervention" adds an SFnal twist. With this technology, you can travel back in time to eliminate the source of any problems that will be impossible to easily repair in the present.
Shoulders' prose is simple, effective, and wry, with clever ironies such as the family home being "the house that termites built". There are amusing observations, such as when the grandmother who's lived all her life in a house tried to find somewhere to put a tray "and failed to find anywhere thinly enough knick-knacked". And there's Elly the artificial intelligence (AI) assistant, who's initially as annoying and intrusive as Microsoft's infamous Clippy the Paperclip. But Elly really is helpful (she writes up tedious reports and invoices dictated by Lacey), and seems genuinely sad about not becoming a full companion, leading to increasingly plaintive efforts to earn some respect from Lacey. These characters are skillfully, albeit simply, drawn, but Elly interested me most because of what Shoulders says and leaves unsaid.
Details are handled well. For example, the time probe Lacey uses vanishes with a "snapping sound"—presumably air rushing in to fill the formerly occupied space, but saying so would have been an authorial intrusion. Lacey notices that the air beneath a house she's time-traveled to fix isn't moldy, precisely the kind of detail she should notice; we've already seen that she likes to work meticulously. The debris that builders left beneath the house are logical and match what I saw when I prowled work sites as a kid after the "workies" left. The description of Lacey's father, both as his youthful and vigorous self and the seemingly mindless husk he's become due to an unspecified accident is effective without being morbid. When Lacey is distressed, we're shown the magnitude of her distress rather than told: she leaves her driveway "too fast", rests her head on the steering wheel, and wrings her hands on the wheel as she talks to Elly.
[Spoilers] The problem with time travel? Sometimes you learn things you might not want to know, even if the revelation isn't as dramatic as in Moorcock's Behold the Man. When Lacey finds a Fiddle Faddle container beneath the house of 50 years ago, we're elegantly reminded of the one time we've previously seen this detail: through a childhood flashback, in which Lacey fondly remembers her father snacking on the stuff. Sure enough, Dad's been traveling back in time to sow the seeds of destruction and ensure plenty of damage for him to repair in the future. When she confronts her grandfather, he admits the truth: her father's brain damage resulted from too many trips into the past to sabotage houses and create future work for himself. When Lacey time-travels to stop her father, belatedly accepting Elly as her ally, she persuades her father to abandon his strategy, thereby preventing him from killing his mind through overuse of the tech.
Quibbles: I doubt time travel would be permitted as a tool for termite exterminators. There are protections in place in this story, but they're weak and (as happened in the story) such protections would be quickly circumvented. In a world of terrorists and others who won't tolerate dissenting worldviews, such tech would quickly become a potent weapon for exterminating more than termites. Shoulders also acknowledges but doesn't really deal with the consequences of radically altering the timeline (saving her father), which may disappoint fans of time paradox tales. But if you're willing to suspend disbelief, Queen is a nicely told tale of family and responsibility.
Hal Koenigson, former thief, is forced to seek legitimate employment by a series of drug overdoses that damaged his mind, lamed him, and led to a form of drug-induced Parkinson's that kicks in whenever he's stressed. Now he's a colonist on New Tahiti, ironically named given that the Plateau he's living on is metres deep in snow and hellishly cold. He's been taken in by the Freemont "corporate family", who are contemptuous of his handicaps and barely appreciate his ability to bring in income, even though he can stay on the Plateau during the 2 weeks each year when an electromagnetic phenomenon ("the Strumming") forces most others off the Plateau until the radiation subsides.
As the story begins, he's harvesting "slime lichens" called "ice cobras", a lucrative crop that grows on the Plateau. When he wakes one morning and digs himself out from under the snow where he's been sleeping, he sees a hovercraft operated by "pirates". (Given the echoes of the dreadful movie Ice Pirates and the lack of piratical behavior, "thieves" or "looters" would have been a better name.) Unfortunately, pirates are desperate characters; they don't know where the cobras bloom, have limited time to find them before the Strumming kills them, and will stop at nothing to escape with their loot. Having forgotten his rifle, Hal treks back to his hovercraft and returns to kill the intruders. By the time he returns, they're gone. He pursues, and when he can't shoot down the pirate ship, he rams them, rendering their ship inoperable.
[Spoilers] Though Hal's mildly apalled, thinking he killed the ship's crew in the crash, he has no qualms about putting a bullet into each of them when he discovers they're alive, as a more "humane" way to kill—until he discovers they're a family group with children. He then tries to save the ones he can, but when some try to shoot him, he coolly and efficiently kills them in self-defence. It's clearly a dog-eat-dog world, where murder for hire is described as "honest work" and the pirate family had to "sell" their twins just to survive. The feudal colonial social structure isn't particularly new, but it's an interesting backdrop. Hal decides to save the surviving crew by bringing them to a homestead where they may find a better life. They quickly move from desperately trying to kill him to acceptance of his good intent; his repeated efforts to save them might explain this, but it seems too "pat" for a family that formerly earned its living through murder.
The writing is jerky, with little flow—in some places, it almost reads like bullet points assembled into paragraphs. Neube's writing was much smoother in previous stories, suggesting this was a deliberate stylistic choice intended to illustrate Hal's mental and physical handicaps. But with a limited-omniscient POV or narrow third-person POV focusing on Hal, this has an unfortunate distancing effect that robs the story of any emotional power: Hal never truly seems to feel anything. There are also significant scientific errors. Stating that carbon monoxide rains out of the air suggests a temperature below -300°F—very cold indeed, and such anatmosphere might be insufficiently dense to support a hovercraft. Yet Neube says the Plateau has an "Everest-thin atmosphere"; hovercraft wouldn't work well, if at all, under those conditions. Carbon dioxide freezes at higher temperature (closer to -100°F) so possibly this was just a naming error. But at either temperature, it's unclear why Hal would be camping out in a sleeping bag under the snow (the first scene of the story) instead of in his ship.
The lack of emotional affect, combined with choppy writing and an abrupt and unsatisfying ending, undermine this story. Revising it to clearly communicate Hal's disabilities while making him a more sympathetic character would be tricky, and there are consistency flaws (e.g., the nature of the atmosphere) that need to be reconsidered and patched over for this story to succeed as intended.
The story begins promisingly, with our protagonist waiting to emerge from his coffin, and McIntosh quickly spins that start into a fascinatingly creepy tale: a counterfactual about Phineas Gage, a real-life character who had a 7-foot tamping rod (not the still-present railway spike of McIntosh's story) blown right through his brain by an explosion. Gage may even have spent some time as part of P.T. Barnum's "freakshow" after he healed and may have done some touring; in McIntosh's tale, he travels with his partner (brother?) Darby, impersonating Frankenstein's monster to con a living out of locals willing to pay to see his gruesome injury. In reality, Gage exhibited radical and unpleasant personality changes; in McIntosh's story, he remains a deeply human and likeable character.
In an interesting twist, Gage and Darby encounter Yorkie Gunn, a midget running a similar scam with a giant, Graves Anderson, who was horribly scarred by his wife's brothers after he betrayed her in some unspecified way. (Given Anderson's Tom of Finland description as beautiful specimen of manhood, I hypothesize a homosexual encounter, but that's neither here nor there.) The two con men and their companions rather like each other, and set up a joint show in which the two "monsters" do battle to prove who's the real deal, thereby conning even more money out of the marks. They travel to the Chicago World Columbian Expo (pinning the date at 1893, roughly 30 years after the real Gage died) to see whether they can earn even more money from the large crowds.
[Spoilers] Though happy and stable thus far, things go catastrophically off the rails. Early in the story, Gage and Darby met a scientist (Wilson) obsessed with the Frankenstein myth. Not realizing it's only a story, Wilson interviews Gage, seeking insights into Frankenstein's methods. Gage invents spurious details on the spot, and in a cruel irony, Wilson uses these hints to create a real Frankenstein's monster. But this is version 0.9 of the procedure: it's a monstrous feat of scientific hubris, creating a living but damned soul in horrible agony and terrified by incomprehension of its situation—one of the most horrific bits of description I've ever read, both for its own sake and because of the empathy I'd developed for Gage. Gage is horrified that he contributed to this act of evil, and with Anderson's help, kills the suffering creature as an act of desperately needed mercy. But Wilson catches them in the act, and armed with a torch (a wink at the classic Frankenstein tale) pursues them. As they flee, Gage catches the spike in his head against an obstacle, loosening it and forcing Anderson to remove it (another horrific description if you let yourself dwell upon it). In a deliberate irony, Anderson strikes Wilson with the spike that ostensibly created a monster (possibly killing him) to stop the pursuit. The two supposed monsters escape into the countryside, to a desperately uncertain future.
The story is clearly a meditation on what makes a monster, as in the original Frankenstein story, and strongly echoes Lennie's story in Of Mice and Men. Gage and Anderson are decent men, cast in unfortunate roles by fate and karma (respectively). The writing is so smooth and carefully crafted it simply slips aside and eases you straight into Gage's and Anderson's minds. Many details are wonderfully evocative, such as when Gage emerges from his coffin, growing ever taller as he rises. Years ago, I took my kids to the local firehall's Hallowe'en haunted house, and one of the firemen (well over 6 feet and supplemented with riser boots), played Frankenstein's monster. When he rose from his chair, he scared a handful of kids and their parents into screaming flight. I stayed—since I had two kids clinging to my arms—but the memory remains. *G*
On a deeper level, Frankenstein, Frankenstein is about the morality of science and (as in the original) about the hubris that makes a monster. Chicago's buildings, initially utopian and foretelling a bright future lit by Tesla's newfangled electricity now "... loomed rather than towered, their glowing presence shouting 'we are the future. It will be cold and wondrous.' " The monstrous potential of science is hardly a new message, but a symbol that could turn clumsily overt is handled so well it never intrudes. When Anderson breaks down the door confining the poor revivified soul, he observes: "It looks like solid oak, but it's nothing but cheap, hollow pine. I'll bet this whole building is like that." It's a nice turn of phrase that makes literal the metaphor of the "edifice" (i.e., human creation) of science: substituting a surface reality for something deeper and more powerful. The inversion that makes Anderson and Gage monsters on the surface but rich and human personalities underneath, also makes Wilson, outwardly normal, the true monster. Frankenstein, Frankenstein is a chillingly effective story in its own right, but one with a moral.
Melvin Toomy is happily and serenely married to Ruth, and his lovely daughter Penny is still in her marriage's honeymoon phase to Ryan, who seems a decent enough guy. At the age of 60, Mel's recently lost his managerial job and much of his purpose in life, and has not yet found a way to transition into some kind of meaningful work or to find a fulfilling hobby. Various factors conspire to help Mel find his motivation, most obviously a looney-tunes conspiracy theorist talk show host with a growing following, and Ryan's reactionary parents: in the category of the Devil finding work for idle hands, Mel resolves to find a way to educate these people and their spiritual kin about the folly of their ways by perpetrating a hoax upon them, specifically that aliens who closely resemble humans have been visiting Earth since 1940 to become fifth columnists, awaiting their chance to do something unspecified but undoubtedly horrible. When the hoax is revealed, Mel believes, people will have the wool pulled from their eyes and start seeing and thinking rationally again.
[Spoilers] This whole notion is clearly doomed right from the start, and doomed in the way of all hubristic efforts in which the action's initiator has no understanding of history or of those he's trying to change. (Perhaps a hard poke at current U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and Asia?) Mel's hoax succeeds far too well, both because he's intelligent enough to do the job well and because he jumps onto the swing at exactly the right time to dramatically pump up its motion. Within weeks, a full-blown conspiracy theory has escaped its genii bottle and nothing is going to put it back. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt spread, with fears of bioterrorism and a secret coup that will overthrow the government capturing the public imagination. Soon, DNA testing begins for anyone born after 1940 (the nominal date of the aliens' arrival) in the hope this will reveal the aliens so they can be captured and interrogated. It's clear to any student of history that genetic differences will be found even if they have to be invented, whether in the form of genes unique to people from Muslim countries (since Islam is our modern bugbear) or some other unfortunate group, giving the witch-hunters a palatable modern scientific basis for their crusade.
Moreover, Mel himself is in jeopardy, since the government has also bought into this plot and is sparing no effort to find out who leaked the top-secret information. Ryan's brother, Jack, who works for the State Department, passes along the information that the government now believes "the gist of [the leaks] is correct". (Jack's name and that of his brother Ryan are a minor narrative misstep: "Jack Ryan" is Tom Clancy's famous government spook, and juxtaposing the two names evokes connotations that don't really fit the rest of the story.) Has Mel inadvertently revealed a true conspiracy? In the context of the story, it doesn't really matter, and Wilhelm wisely leaves the question unanswered: the larger point is that those who try to change the world and make it a better place had best do their homework and never believe that good intentions alone will spare them from the law of unintended consequences.
Although Changing doesn't argue for inaction or for passively watching the world go to hell, it provides a strong cautionary tale: intervention is never simple, and ill-considered good deeds can have radically non-good consequences. DNA testing would put a scientific veneer on the anti-communist paranoia of the McCarthy era, something Wilhelm lived through, and the spectre of such a paranoia-driven response reawakening clearly disturbs her. Given the pervasive modern fear of Islam and desire for genetic testing, it's easy to see how a simple but well-crafted conspiracy theory (many of which are out there) could have dire consequences, and that's a wake-up call for all of us. Changing is a powerfully crafted tale, and delivers a strong punch despite its short length.
The third nightmare scenario in a row this issue is played for laughs, but not only laughs. Imagine the familiar adolescent high school battlefield between nerds and jocks, or between the cool and the hopelessly non-cool, far enough in the future that the social warfare is conducted using genetics, robotics, and nanotech. Steinmetz recounts the travails of David, a "Jock" who's been genetically engineered to have a perfect athlete's body but only ordinary brains. David has a crush on Valencia, one of the "Neurals", who have been genetically engineered for advanced intelligence. She scarcely notices David, save as an object of derision, until he saves her from a lab accident caused by her inattention. Will romance blossom? Imagine West Side Story with biological warfare replacing the brass knuckles and lead pipes.
[Spoilers] The story reaches its climax when the Neurals hold a "Darwinian" science fair, in which each tries to outdo the others in evolving monsters they hope to sell to the military. Valencia, seemingly grateful for David's rescue, invites him to this fair, requesting a sample of his DNA so her guards will recognize him; David is so infatuated he doesn't see the warning signs. Sure enough, the invitation's a trap, and the real goal is to drop David into a Dungeons and Dragons scenario in which he'll be forced to defeat a series of monsters, while the Neurals collect data they can use to improve the D&D combat tables. David must rescue Allie, his best friend (until now, ignored in favor of Valencia), before a genetically engineered Lovecraftian horror escapes its bonds and kills her. But the Neurals are hoist on their own collective petard. Instead of killing the monstrous clone Valencia made from David's DNA, David saves him from a trap; the clone then smashes through a secret door, giving David a way out. As when I gamemastered D&D sessions for friends, the best games occur when the players resist our best attempts to lure them into bad behavior, instead remembering their inner virtues and surprising us by taking unexpected paths around our clever obstacles. Simultaneously, Allie escapes the knots used to tie her (Neurals being too smart to tie good knots), just as Valencia's monster escapes its cage and wreaks revenge upon the panicked Neurals.
Like one of Rudy Rucker's over-the-top mishmashes, though with less rigor, Under the Thumb is an exuberant romp. Naming a professor [medulla] "Oblongata" is one of many clues that rigor isn't the author's goal. The notion that technology capable of cloning a human in less than a week would be left in the hands of adolescents, let alone that these young sociopaths would be allowed to unleash genetically tailored viruses on kids they don't like, simply won't wash: apart from the consequences in the uniquely litigious U.S. culture, it's rather unlikely adults would give their children the means to nastily turn the tables on their parents and teachers. The tormenting of the jocks by the technologically superior nerds makes for a fun inversion of the usual pattern, but also doesn't really work; as is the case today, the jocks would beat the snot out of the nerds in an increasingly violent cycle of reprisals until the nerds learned to pick on safer targets.
Once you get past the initial special effects and swallow the twisted logic, the story settles down nicely. Earlier, I suggested West Side Story as a model, but in hindsight, it's more like the Star Trek evil mirror universe version of an Archie comic book, complete with David (Archie) neglecting perfect friend Allie (Betty Cooper) in favor of Valencia (Veronica). The story's by no means subtle, but nonetheless warns of the dangers of improving the human brain's computational power without simultaneously improving its ethics, not to mention the dangers of science unrestrained by respect for the natural world. As David notes when he meets his dungeon-monster clone, "This thing was designed to be used, discarded, and forgotten."
This novella continues an occasional series set after the "S'hudon" have conquered Earth. On the surface, it seems a benevolent imperial conquest, with the S'hudon providing technology and other benefits in exchange for placid compliance with their laws, and on the whole, human lives don't change greatly. But as in many previous "economic conquest by superior aliens" stories, the imperial–colonial relationship is never wholly benevolent. Twoclicks, for instance, the narrator's patron, may also be his collector or owner; he also owns many Earth cultural artefacts that few Earthmen will ever see again. Despite the benefits for Earth, it's clearly an exploitative relationship. For example, although wheat production has increased sixfold, much of it is exported to create alcohol from Earth; it's "all the rage, the tulips of empire" (a deliberate reference to the Dutch tulip hysteria of the early 1600s).
Our narrator is Peter, though because of his outward focus (a natural attitude for a writer and journalist), we don't learn this for nearly 6 pages. He now lives on the S'hudon homeworld, where he uses "Sweep" (a kind of multimedia, multisensory Twitter) to broadcast his experiences to an audience of millions on Earth. Peter has come to S'hudon as part of a bargain: in exchange for becoming a favored protégé and living away from home for at least two years, Twoclicks cures his brother Tommy's cancer. Peter's narration is bathed in a kind of melancholic tristesse; not self-pitying or morose, but nonetheless affectingly sad and pensive. He's full of simple wisdoms, such as the notion that the wiser among us learn to understand what we don't know, a body of knowledge as important as what we do know and far larger. He's also bang on (and honest) when he notes that we writers claim to be satisfied just with the act of writing or being published, yet grudgingly admit that knowing people are reading our words is a source of deeper satisfactions. Wilber's description of Peter's reluctant relinquishing of the things of youth (basketball, in this case) struck a deeply personal note; a couple years ago, I was forced by a non-healing injury to give up the ball hockey games I'd played for many years with my buds.
The S'hudon remain fascinatingly alien: amphibian carnivores, their temperment ranges from benevolently laissez-faire to callously cruel, and their sibling rivalries might best be described as cut-throat cooperation (an often-nasty form of "coopetition"). They're alien enough to be different and interesting, while remaining sufficiently "human" we can empathize with them. In many ways, they're culturally similar to the Chinese, including their desire to avoid direct and open conflict, their delivery of negative messages through hidden rather than overt meanings, and their strong sense of obligations. Yet they have a darker, more alien side that occasionally emerges to surprise us. For example, they engage in interspecies sex (like Niven's rishathra) with Peter and with members of other alien races, seemingly due to a combination of affected decadance and deliberate socialization or entrapment of their protégés. This isn't merely a throwaway cool idea, like rishathra; it's a point that achieves increasing importance for Peter as the story gradually comes into focus. The S'hudon are some of the best aliens I've encountered because of this balance between the familiar and the inscrutable.
There are close parallels in the stories of Twoclicks and Peter that explain the closeness of their relationship—a closeness that goes beyond the fact that Peter saved Twoclicks' life in a previous adventure. Both have brothers (Whistle and Tommy, respectively) who they compete with, and both have tried hard to please their fathers, though Peter's father is now long dead. But the similarities are not overplayed for effect; they resonate, rather than sticking like gum on the seat of a chair. When Tommy and his group of rebels begin sabotaging the crops on which Twoclicks' thriving alcohol trade depends (and on which he depends to keep Whistle from dominating him), the situation grows dire: Twoclicks knows where Tommy is, and can easily kill him and end the problem, but instead offers Peter a chance to solve the problem peacefully because of their bond. But he warns that if the problem isn't solved quickly, Twoclicks will have to kill Tommy to prevent Whistle from taking over key areas of Earth that are currently administered by Twoclicks. That would be a Very Bad Thing because Whistle doesn't share his brother's fondness for Earth and its people.
[Spoilers] Peter is that rare fictional male narrator who seems able to appreciate the beauty of a woman (Heather) who is "short and stocky" and who waddles—because, as it turns out, she's really S'hudon and specially modified so she can morph into human form when she visits Earth, allowing her to move unnoticed among humans. (There's a hint that she and others may have been doing this for decades, learning enough about Earth to facilitate the S'hudon conquest.) Despite her alien nature, Peter clearly loves her for her inner beauty: "The more I saw of her as the days went by, the better she looked to me. I had to work to remember that I'd found her plain at first." This is undermined somewhat when her human shape is described in a way more closely resembling the standard gorgeous girlfriend from central casting. I'm not sure whether this is a literal change, or a change in how Peter sees her; given Wilber's care in crafting this story, this isn't an accidental inconsistency. Wilber's later descriptions suggest Heather may be changing herself to appear more attractive to Peter, possibly as a way to manipulate him—though she clearly also likes him a lot. Quibbles notwithstanding, it's nice to see a protagonist who demonstrates that a man can love a women who doesn't always resemble an underwear model.
By the end of the story, we learn that Tommy's rebellion may be part of Twoclicks' plot to take over more of Earth from Whistle: Tommy has somehow come into possession of a pre-S'hudon device that can "suppress" S'hudon technology (a bit of handwaving required here), and uses it to let him destroy the "Futures of Man" ( the only clumsily and overtly symbolic word choice in the story), a cluster of six power-generating and transmission towers, thereby precipitating a war that eventually undermines Whistle's control over this part of Earth and increases Twoclicks' control. Peter, Heather, and Twoclicks' child Treble "watch as Everything Changed" and the towers fall. The evocation of 9/11 is unmistakable, yet somehow not clumsy, and it's an interesting irony that Tommy is dying of cancer despite having been saved by S'hudon technology; it seems likely that his use of the suppressor turned off the S'hudon nanobots that were keeping his cancer in check. There's also a strong suggestion that Twoclicks manipulated Tommy into using the suppressor, which raises strong and disturbing echoes of some of the conspiracy theories about who was really responsible for the fall of New York's Two Towers. Tommy, despite clearly being a terrorist in the textbook definition, basically seems to be a virtuous man, witness the fact that he's described early in the story as saving a turtle species that is nearly extinct. What makes these touches effective is that they are echoes, not Wilber thumping a drum.
En route to the final resolution of the Tommy problem, Wilber makes an interesting narrative choice. In a typical story of this nature, there's a long, straightforward buildup to the hero's final confrontation with the villain, and that confrontation plays out in a single straightforward scene. But that approach is sufficiently formulaic that it grows predictable over time. To avoid that, Wilber invokes a clever narrative and technological device: the "kelly", basically an interstellar teleporter device that seemingly stores backup copies of the traveler, so that if anything happens to them at their destination, they can be recreated at the point of departure. Peter uses this device to travel instantly with Heather to his brother's general location, but the first two times, he and Heather are both killed by Tommy and his colleagues. (The third time, traveling with a S'hudon, he is allowed to live.) This initially seemed to be narrative padding, but upon reflection, it achieved considerable power: it not only neatly subverts the formulaic plot structure, but also provides a clear example of how Twoclicks treats Peter as a disposable, if valuable, tool. If the backups are identical to the originals, this also demonstrates that the S'hudon don't see souls the same way we humans do.
The story is told in a series of short descriptions, interspersed with flashbacks. Wilber does this exceptionally well, but because we have to assemble the meaning ourselves, it requires more work than a more conventionally linear narrative structure. I found the effort more than worthwhile, as the writing is clear, direct, atmospheric, and effective at both conveying character and gradually advancing the plot. Wilber raises fascinating issues that deserve more debate, most importantly the notion of "prostitution", which is Wilber's word for Peter's life among the S'hudon, even though he accepted that role to save his brother's life. In Golden Age SF, there's a strong New Hampshire "live free or die" meme, most infamously expressed in Heinlein's offensive novel Farnham's Freehold. Here, that issue is foregrounded: Is it really so wrong for humans to accept the S'hudon's leash and collar if it brings them an age of plenty, health, and peace, and the faint hope of someday taking their place at the side of their masters, as equals? I suspect that it is wrong, and that we'll see this played out in future stories. Twoclicks and Heather clearly like Peter (Treble, a youngster, likes him even more), but despite that affection, this is still a master–favored pet relationship, and Twoclicks shows no remorse whatsoever about manipulating Peter and other humans to one-up his rival siblings. This story sequence reminds me favorably of Cherryh's atevi series, but with no signs of any true equality between the species. One of the greatest strengths of this story is that Wilber doesn't pose easy questions or answer the difficult ones, making for thought-provoking literature.
©2004–2018 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved