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MacLeod: Recrossing the Styx
Alexander: Advances in modern chemotherapy
Norwood: Brothers of the River
Langan: The revel
Carre: The tale of the nameless chameleon
Cowdrey: Mr. Sweetpants and the living dead
Bowes: Pining to be human
Shehadeh: Epidapheles and the inadequately enraged demon
Altabef: The lost elephants of Kenyisha
Lindsley: Introduction to Joyous Cooking, 200th anniversary edition
McMullen: The precedent
In Styx, MacLeod focuses on the microcosm of a cruise ship for the ultra-rich. Frank Onions, our POV character, is a failed student of history, sunk in ennui to the point where he's providing tours of Mediterranean historical sites (telling what he knows are largely invented tales rather than the true history he once loved), getting by from day to day without much to motivate him other than occasional joyless affairs with female passengers.
Most of his are conquests are "minders", people who mind (take care of) those of the ultrarich who have "recrossed the Styx" after their death, and had their consciousness re-uploaded into their old body. It's not clear why anyone would fear death so much they'd take this step, since MacLeod's description of the revenants makes them seem more like the classical SFnal zombie than anything else—tasteless (both in fashions and in their knowledge of culture and history), drooling, and trapped in the decaying husk of their body, trophy wives nothwithstanding. But MacLeod isn't done with sly satire; in a sinister touch, the revenants entirely deromanticize the modern take on vampires by borrowing life from their minders, whether by draining their blood to sustain their unlife or taking whole organs when their own fail. It's a deeply creepy, distasteful concept, made worse if you think what kind of life someone would be fleeing if they consider being a minder to be an improvement. Sure, living the life of the idle rich is attractive, but at this price?
Frank meets Dottie, the minder of the revenant Warren Hastings, and everything changes: Dottie is beautiful and vivacious, haunting his carnal thoughts, but is also smart enough to make a real connection with him. Savoring that first flush of love, Frank reawakens and starts to question what he's been doing with his life. Dottie seems strangely tender towards her (ahem) ex-husband, minding him with what seems true devotion, but beneath this is a deep sadness—the kind of thing that draws a closet romantic like Frank the way flies are drawn to honey.
MacLeod has a gift for the telling phrase, as in a casual mention of one of the less popular aspects of the cruise, "when the Glorious Nomad dropped anchor by the shores of the old Holy Land for an optional tour in radiation suits". Also a gift for metaphor perfectly suited to the context, as he compares Frank's attempt to save Dottie from Warren to Orpheus rescuing his dead wife Eurydice from Hades. Here, the "hell" she's fallen into resulted from "imprinting", a process in which Warren bound her to him using a small neurological device that created both enduring love and a physical aversion to any other man.
[Spoilers] Frank falls into a classic"honey trap". When he conspires with Dottie to kill Warren (throwing him overboard during a storm, wearing Frank's clothing and ID tag, so the ship's propellers will chew him up beyond recognition and let Frank take his place), we readers face an interesting dilemma: we've seen this tale so many times it's not clear whether MacLeod will play it straight (i.e., young lovers live happily ever after) or twist the tale around (i.e., Dottie proves to be a "black widow"). That familiarity tells us to expect a twist, but knowing that we know this, MacLeod can still surprise us by playing it straight. Trying to guess where we're going is like watching Vizzini trying to out-think Westley in a battle of wits over the cups of poisoned wine in The Princess Bride, and every bit as delightfully arch.
In the end, MacLeod plays the black widow card: we've been told that as a minder, Dottie is fed upon by her rich owner, an expected metaphor for the relationship between the ultrarich and the rest of us, but learn that she's actually turned the tables and is instead feeding on her husband, remaining young and vigorous by vampirically sucking the life out of him. When Frank sees a look "something like relief" on Warren's face as he flings the old man overboard, it's suddenly clear what will happen, and not so surprising when Dottie uses the same device that captured her to imprint Frank and turn him into her own fountain of youth. Looking back, all of this makes perfect sense, yet without ever telegraphing the punch: all those dropped hints had two potential meanings, and MacLeod skillfully led us to the wrong interpretation each time. The title takes on a whole new meaning when we learn that Dottie, not the revenants, is repeatedly recrossing the Styx.
Dottie isn't anything new as a character, and exists more to play her archetypal role. (Though in her defence, she does seem to genuinely love her husbands.) Frank, the doomed lover, also isn't new. But both are portrayed clearly and vividly, and MacLeod's true genius is how skillfully he sets up—and then nastily subverts—our expectations. A bravura performance.
Advances begins with nearly two pages of infodump about "modern chemotherapy" and its consequences for patients—enough to scare away many readers, particularly those who fear of cancer (everyone?), those who have helped a loved one endure a fatal disease, or those who have experienced chemo. But there are strong hints, buried amidst an initially dry cataloguing of drugs and symptoms, that you're in the hands of a skilled writer and an interesting narrator. The first paragraph alone persuaded me to keep reading, with wonderfully evocative turns of phrase such as old-style needles being described as "dull as nails and painful as repentence". Subsequently, there's an abundance of often-wry observations, such as National Geographic being "the official magazine of cancer treatment centers". (Of all hospital waiting rooms, in my experience. Apparently, modern medicine believes that reading 1950s journalism while you await painful and/or humiliating treatments is relaxing or therapeutic.)
The SFnal hook arrives quickly: Larry, the narrator, is undergoing chemo with an experimental drug, and during one treatment, closes his eyes for a nap—and hears the voice of Mary, another patient, in his head. Is this real, or a form of schizophrenia (one of the new drug's side-effects)? With a first-person narrator, it's not always easy to tell (the "unreliable narrator" technique is a powerful tool for making us pay attention), but here the telepathy (headtalking, because "telepathy sounds... so fifties") seems to be the literal truth. Moreover, as Larry's condition worsens, his new ability strengthens and he becomes able to discuss this change with other cancer patients around the world and even transmit suggestions into the heads of the hospital staff. Other patients may be foreseeing the future. (All of this begs the question of whether these abilities are latent in everyone, since each of us is dying from the moment we're born, and the abilities may be enhanced rather than created de novo as we approach death.)
[Spoiler] Towards the end, it becomes an open question whether the dying folk are seeing *the* future or *a* future; if the latter, there's hope they can change things, if only they can find a way to choose which of many future paths they will follow. But to do so, they'll need to understand what is happening to them, and as one of his final acts, Larry organizes the many dying patients who have formed a larger community of headtalkers into an ad hoc research group that offers the hope of someday understanding their new powers. There are strong hints that consciousness persists in some form after death, separate from and yet able to interact with time, but Alexander (wisely) ends his story without providing any definitive answers. That makes the story far stronger than it would be in less capable hands: it ends on a note of hope, but without making any mystical promises.
The story is skillfully written, with clear characters, a clear sense of empathy for them as humans and for their suffering, and an emotional punch at the end that surprised me when it hit. Alexander also provides a useful answer to the writer's challenge of how to tell the story of someone's death using the first-person POV, without invoking any hoary genre chestnuts ("and then I woke up as this ghost, see..."): tell the story while the person is dying, in present tense, and end the story before or as the narrator reaches their end. Advances is filled with many meaningful, insightful phrases that eloquently show off the characters. For example, Larry starts pampering himself by indulging in his favorite foods, including "... meat loaf, Mom's recipe. I just really happen to love her meat loaf. No apologies there." (A wry poke in the ribs if you were getting all meta-Freudian.) And his metaphor for dealing with the positives and negatives of acquiring his new abilities at the price of enduring chemo perfectly captures what Larry must be feeling: "It was as if Superman needed to cover himself with kryptonite so he could fly a mile once or twice."
The only problem with this story, and it's all about me, not Alexander, is the subject matter. When you reach a certain age, you start losing loved ones and your own loved ones start losing their loved ones, and you suffer through both processes. You may even have embarked irrevocably upon your own final slide. I don't read SF/F to hear how others deal with these things; I deal with plenty of them in my own life, with more on the way, and everyone's journey is both the same and deeply individual. I read SF/F to escape such things for a time, or to find stories that help me believe we'll live in better times than the present. Advances fails that escapism test for me, despite how well it's written. It simply worked a little too well to remind me of things I'd rather not be reminded of. That kind of deep immersion in the less pleasant aspects of the human condition is one role of the best fiction, but it doesn't make for comfortable reading.
This is the story of Tiger and Shallow, two brothers in the mythical demigod mode. Though twins, they're as unalike as night and day: Tiger is dark, massively muscled, and quick to anger, but steadfast and with a powerful desire to help those who need it, whereas Shallow is fair, slim, flashier, more worldly, and more cunning, though still willing to help those less fortunate then himself. From the moment of their birth, the two become rivals, but on the whole, their rivalry seems friendly; they may choose to trick each other, but never maliciously or in a way that would harm their brother. The story begins shortly after both budding heroes have sought different paths to knowledge and power (here, represented by "old magic"). Tiger obtains his knowledge by capturing a wise old fish from the sea (a familiar mythological element from ancient times right up to the Irish salmon of wisdom); Shallow obtains his magic by sitting patiently near the Phoenix until it notices him and shares its eternal wisdom.
The two brothers are simply but cleanly drawn, each a distinctive personality in his own right, and neither is as simple as the good/evil dichotomy of (say) Abel and Cain; each is flawed, though in a different way. Though each retains the simplicity that is required of a mythological hero, neither is a crude caricature. That's a difficult balance to achieve, though the story's short duration (only eight pages) makes this easier by providing less room for elaboration. In keeping with that simple and straightforward style, Brothers is an elegantly told tale of the ages of myth before the great flood. Because this is F&SF, it's not instantly clear whether this will be a different world that only borrows from our own history, or one of our own myths retold. We don't learn until nearly the end of the story that this is set in the age of Babylon, but there are clues this is the case before that revelation. For example, I was pleased to figure out the story's setting when Norwood mentioned Tiger defeating a winged lion that is terrorizing a local village. (This is the legacy of a mis-spent youth playing Dungeons and Dragons. As a GM, I both memorized the Monster Manual and read more widely in the real-world literature of mythology. I instantly recognized this beast as a cognate for a Shedu or Lammasu. However, in traditional Babylonian and Sumerian mythology, such creatures are guardian spirits, not predators. A small mis-step, but worth noting.)
As in other stories in this genre of myth, the brothers compete in many ways, and the competition that drives the present story is their race to distant mountains to see who will become the first to taste snow. There are challenges to be met along the way (tavern brawls, interference by evil gods), but in the end, each brother triumphs by using his native talents and by remaining true to his virtuous self. It's an interesting difference from many later myths, because none of the people they interact with along the way meets with a particularly nasty fate, though Tiger leaves some townsfolk sorer and wiser about the wisdom of fighting with a burly stranger who blows into town.
In the end, the brothers, having exhausted each other during their race and in the struggle to overcome all the obstacles along the way, choose to return home in the simplest possible manner: as rivers, flowing downhill from the mountains where they find the snow and becoming the Tigris and Euphrates rivers of the ancient fertile crescent (alluded to in the title). It's an appropriate metaphor given how both contributed, each in their own distinct way, to enriching the peoples they encountered throughout the course of their lives. The name Tigris does indeed mean "tiger", but Euphrates is believed to mean fertile or bountiful (Greek), or possibly something that bears (carries) these virtues (Greek, but possibly from an older Persian word); the meanings of the original Sumerian and Babylonion names of the rivers are obscure. Although both interpretations are logical extrapolations from "shallow", I'm not sure that was the best name for this brother. Possibly "Bountiful"?
There is nothing deep here: just a skillfully told and entertaining myth, with all the resonance of the old tales but told more cleanly and elegantly due to its modern sensibility.
Langan begins this story with an elaborate, detailed, and bang-on deconstruction of the essential elements involved in writing or filming the traditional horror scene of a werewolf chasing down and killing its victim (here, a hunter). What makes this initial section such a brilliant piece of work is that it's scarier and more affecting than any werewolf story I've read or any film I've seen, with the possible exception of parts of American Werewolf in London. It works because Langan does such a masterful job of sketching, in a few short pages, a fully three-dimensional human character most authors would be happy to use as a primary protagonist—and whom Langan immediately discards as werewolf fodder. If that casual destruction of a fully realized human life doesn't horrify you, I can't imagine what would.
Langan continues his approach with superbly cinematic descriptions of events that struck me as akin to the storyboards used to plan and block out a shooting script; it's intensely visual, and includes clever touches that immerse us in the feeling of literally being present in the story. For example, in a wickedly sly reference to the fleeing hunter in the initial narration, Langan walks us through the process of imagining what it must be like to walk a final mile in that hunter's shoes, starting with a reminder to "be sure to put your [car] keys someplace safe" (in his terror, the hunter forgot where he put his keys, and dies messily because he can't reach safety inside his truck). In an equally sly riff on Robert Frost's "woods so lovely, dark, and deep", Langan's walk through the woods, with us in the starring role, concludes by asking (with a sardonic wink) whether we still consider the woods so lovely. It's an eloquent reminder of why the best horror hits so viscerally: it strikes when we're most vulnerable (e.g., isolated from our sources of support) and undermines all the mundane certainties of our world.
The Revel is also a textbook example of how all those writing nostrums you learn by reading books of advice to writers should be taken with a grain (nay, a shaker) of salt: Langan demonstrates how the advice to "show, don't tell" can be blithely ignored by a real pro. This story is all tell, though examples such as the one with the car keys certainly show why you should pay attention to what he has to say. The writing style draws you remorselessly through the story, and the archetypes Langan invokes (Police Chief, unnamed and capitalized) are so powerful he need only bring them to our attention—and then press the emotional buttons that make us fill in the details. This highly visually evocative style is the textual equivalent of minimalist illustration: knowing exactly what key details to provide, and leaving all else to our imagination. It's not a coincidence the results resemble a storyboard, as we learn when Langan tips his hat to master comic (an ironic choice of word given the context) artist Berni Wrightson.
The story isn't perfect. To pick a nit, and prove I was paying attention: "they could do no worse than show these drawings to men and women on the street" should have the "no" removed when this story is anthologized. [Spoilers] Although the final six "storyboard" frames that reveal the climax are a wonderful touch, the fifth scene, which shows the Police Chief tearing off the werewolf's arm, took me three tries to parse so I could create the correct image. (When I mentally recomposed the scene as a panel from one of Wrightson's comics, the description achieved the desired iconic comic-book effect.) That's unfortunate because it was so unlike the evocative descriptions throughout the rest of the story, which required no effort at all to understand and display on my mind's movie screen.
The final image, of the ever-symbolic evil apple of temptation reflecting the reader's (viewer's?) face didn’t quite work for me. The suggestion that we are all somehow tempted in this manner certainly followed logically from the rest of the story, and was clearly foreshadowed by repeatedly inviting us to serve as one of the characters and as an active participant in creating meaning from the story. But it didn't strike me as the main point of a story that works so hard, and so effectively, to make us empathize with "stock" characters who we tend to treat as nothing more than the delivery boys and girls for the "money shots". Changing the focus to us therefore didn't seem an appropriate concluding image. In Langan's defence, this is not an error, but rather the eternal recognition that each of us chooses our own path through a story and our own take-home message, no matter how carefully authors try to lead us to their message.
The "revel" part of the title works on at least two levels: in the obvious sense of reveling (wallowing) in the gore and horror of a bog-standard horror story's narrative arc, in the sense of (revel)ation of the inner workings of the story, and possibly (a bit more of a stretch) in the punnish sense of reveille (waking us up to things we've been sleeping through). Throughout, the tone is deliciously and maliciously arch, like the martial arts teacher who leads you gently by the hand—and then abruptly whacks you upside the head when your attention wanders. At times, it borders on contemptuous, as if reminding us we've seen or read so much horror that it no longer resonates and that we must wake up and pay more attention to the human tragedy embedded in such stories rather than focusing on the splashy gore and special effects.
As a rule, I don't like horror fiction (there's far too much horror in the real world for me to need more in my fiction), but I'll keep an eye out for anything else by Langan. The Revel is a masterful piece of craftsmanship, and one that left an abiding impression.
This is the story of a street urchin, a girl only 10 years old at the time of the story, who ends up in hot water through what at first seems to be a momentary lapse of judgment. A street kid since her father, a thief, was killed for trying to slit the vizier's purse, she's come under the protection of Chameleon, a gentle and philosophical older soul. It's not exactly the good life, but she seems to be making a go of it, and barring any unfortunate events, may eventually find her way to a better life.
But one night, sleeping behind a brothel, she watches as five men "disgorged themselves from the the Blue Dragon's nether end" (a nicely pointed metaphor). One is the heir apparent, and when an assassin hiding in the shadows attacks, she intervenes, knocking aside the assassin's blowgun and saving the prince's life. It's not clear why she doesn't mind her own business, like most street kids would have learned to do, but a reason will gradually emerge. In an unlikely and unnecessary coincidence, the prince's companions leap upon what they think is the assassin and instead capture Chameleon, first beating him half to death and then killing him. It's not clear why Chameleon was there in the first place, or how the assassin escaped after (unlikely) an underweight 10-year-old starveling knocks him flat in front of several trained warriors.
The prince's name, "Sham", appears to hold no larger meaning, but it's a poor choice from a fictional perspective: the word's connotation ("a fake") is so strong it overpowers any other meaning, making it ineffective as a metaphor or turning it into a clumsy authorial intrusion if the overt meaning was intended. The city (Hasp) is clearly premised on survival of the most ruthless; the prince, for example, is known even to this young girl to have killed nearly half of his eight brothers (and to be working on the others) to eliminate other competitors for the throne, and is known to discard his lovers by killing them rather than just pushing them out the door or abandoning them to his harem. Thinking quickly, with a wit honed by survival in the street, the youngster turns her mentor's death to her advantage: she portrays herself as a prophet, claims to have read the assassin's mind, and hints that her powers of prophecy may prove useful in detecting the plotters (who, she inventively suggests, are hiding at the Academy of the Twelve Sages, where she dreams of spending herfuture). For a reward, she asks for the chance to study at the Academy while seeking the plotters. Given the prince's reputation, this seems an insanely risky gambit. Simpler and safer by far to ask only to study with the sages as her reward; pretending to psychic powers you lack is asking for a messy end at the hands of someone like Sham if you can't deliver.
Sham sends her to the Academy, and gives her a month to find the plotters. [Spoilers] We learn that her psychic powers are real and growing, and probably led her to prophesy that the plotters could be uncovered at the Academy. Unfortunately, these revelations come far too late; had they been foreshadowed earlier, even through something as simple as a line or two describing her using nascent powers to rob someone or discussing with Chameleon the awkwardness of occasional bursts of unwanted insight into other minds, it would have been easy to accept the events I've described thus far. Taking the name "Nameless" (an awkward choice), she enters the Academy and works as a kitchen drudge under a villainous boss straight from Central Casting. But proximity to the sages fully awakens her power, and one night, she senses that the emperor's favorite concubine will be poisoned later that evening; by alerting the cook, she saves the woman's life and is rewarded by being spared the remainder of the kitchen drudge phase of her apprenticeship to the sages. When she arrives at the student's part of the Academy, she walks through a hall lined with a dozen jade statues of animals (the 12 sages), and one of them ("Sombrero", in the form of a jade tortoise) speaks to her telepathically, tells her to take the name "Chameleon" to honor her former mentor, and tells her she's walking the path of her destiny—but that she must choose her curses (of Sham) judiciously lest they have unintended consequences.
By then, she has only 2 weeks of the original month left to find the malefactor(s) behind the two assassination attempts. Sham, distracted by the hope of killing a rival king to obtain an "immortal sword" (oddly named, since swords rarely die after living a "mortal" life; thus, probably a clumsy translation from the Chinese), has seemingly forgetten Chameleon, but she has not forgotten him or her desire for revenge. She hopes Sham will be killed by the wielder of the mystical sword, but instead, he returns victorious, bearing the sword, which (if it has any power at all) may have attained its power from the wisdom and goodness of its former owner. When she is forced to serve Sham at a banquet, she learns he hasn't forgotten her or her assignment to find his enemies. Thinking fast, she claims that the dead king was responsible, a suggestion he cannot disprove. Having communed with another of the 12 sages the previous night (one who was turned by a curse into a jade crocodile), she learns how to gain her revenge: she tells Sham he hasn't found the true Sword of Ages (a better name than "immortal sword"), but that she can help him do so if he's willing to give her the fake sword and mingle his blood with hers as an oath that he will follow certain heroic steps to find the true sword. When he takes the oath, Sham is stricken by the same curse magic and turns into the Sword of Ages, doomed to remain in that form until he repents his sins. But the curse also rebounds on Chameleon, as Sombrero predicted, and she is transformed into the 13th sage, a jade chameleon.
The story's world is vaguely Arabic, but only in the *Western* tradition of the Thousand and One Nights, complete with viziers and cuss phrases such as "balls of the prophet". (I don't know how Muslims swear when they forget themselves and blaspheme; it's plausible they might swear by religious figures and images, as the French do, but this particular phrase struck me as a potentially offensive cultural stereotype.) Although this environment could have added flavor and resonance, there are too many clashing cultural influences—there are stronger flavors of mythology from China (the brothel; the incarnation of a wise sage as a jade tortoise; Sham as a misspelling of Shan?), and lesser echoes from the Spanish world (naming the jade tortoise "Sombrero"), from Egypt (the crocodile sage), and from India (describing someone as a "rakshasa"). But we have no prior evidence that Hasp is a meeting place for many cultures, something that could have been communicated with a few throw-away words early in the story; instead of creating a rich fusion cuisine, centered on Chinese mythology, the effect instead becomes a dog's breakfast of clashing cultural references. There are other false steps. Carre transforms the catchphrase "if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him" into her story world's language, misinterpreting it to mean that this is how sages are freed to ascend to heaven, but the usual interpretation is that the road is your path to spiritual enlightenment, and killing refers to eliminating your false image of the Buddha and your attachment to that image, freeing you to find your own Buddha nature instead of trying to blindly follow another's path.
Told from the perspective of the older, wiser Chameleon, the narrator's adult voice is plausible, and Carre tells her story in a straightforward manner, with few flourishes and several clever touches. However, there are too many careless gaps where something happened that we learn of only when it is explained to us; the most egregious is her encounter with the crocodile sage, described without any explanation in largely symbolic terms, and only explained later, when it becomes necessary to backfill an explanation of how Chameleon came up with her plot. The story's a simple and generally clearly presented tale of revenge and the consequences of magic, and entertaining reading on that basis if you're prepared to gloss over the details. But the story world has been poorly thought out, and despite many intriguing hints, it comes across as muddled and unintegrated with the story or characters rather than as a rich foundation that organically supports both the characters and the events. The world is interesting enough I'd willingly spend more time exploring it, but only after considerable careful thought to resolve the difficulties I've described, find the culture's true heart, and focus on that heart as the context for characters and events.
What do you get when you cross a standard tale of sexual obsession with the modern craze for all things zombie, and throw in a dash of Cowdrey for seasoning? You get Mr. Sweetpants, of course. Tales of sexual obsession aren't remotely new, witness countless stories of creepy male stalkers pursuing women and more recent exercises in misogyny such as Fatal Attraction and Species. Making the old new again is difficult for such a well-trodden story path, yet Cowdrey manages that by making our hunted protagonist (Ted Dance) gay and by making his stalker a scorned former lover, killed by an overzealous security guard who'd been hired to protect Ted from his stalker. When the lover, Zane Cord, awakens as a zombie, Ted turns to his old high school chum, Manny Riordan, who runs a top-notch security firm, for protection.
"Manny Riordan" reminded me more than a little of Micky Rourke's "Marv" in Sin City—though not such an exaggerated caricature—and blended perfectly into this noir-ish (but not really noir) tale of a tough guy with a good heart, doing what's right for his friend. Indeed, Manny is the kind of mensch who defended Ted against homophobic bullies when the eponymous Mr. Sweetpants came out during high school, and formed a bond with him; in turn, Ted tutored Manny and got him through high school.
Cowdrey's the kind of writer who can toss off a line like the following and make it a character moment rather than a cliché: "the sun rose in a burst of rose and lemon and other colors [his wife] could name but I can't". There are the expected stylistic flourishes, with casually tossed off phrases most of us would sweat to create without inadvertent parody: "an anxious to please look about him, like a really good waiter", "cars are catnip" to thieves, and the slimy rich guy Jonas Whelk (whelk = a sea snail) who has "ball-bearing eyes" and a "handshake like a deceased moray eel". In case you had any lingering thoughts Jonas might have more depth to him than this description, he's described as a hedge fund manager who got rich while letting his clients lose all their money, and who has moved on to charities as his next scam. (William Quirk nicely deconstructs this particular class of amoral parasite in his article Too Bad Not To Fail in the Summer 2010 issue of The American Scholar.)
There are deft touches aplenty, such as alluding to Dance giving titillating lectures to women's clubs about gay fiction. (Possibly Cowdrey winking at and tipping his hat to slash fandom?) And it's hard to imagine a line like Zane making a living as "rough trade plowing the rich soil of the Gold Coast" being anything less than a deliberate effort to make at least one of us spew coffee. The humor touches on the macabre at times, as when Ted remarks that "[Zane] needs his body to carry out his revenge... Thank God for the Florida climate. If we were in Michigan, he might be around for months." Perhaps I'm stretching a bit here, but it's easy to see Cowdrey's choice of the name "Zane" as a deliberate reference to one of Tom of Finland's cowboys, and "Bliss" (the tall blond security guard who falls for Ted's fatal charm) sounded very much like one of the latter's models.
There are two interwoven plots in this story: first, the "love that dare not speak its name"—perhaps because it's from beyond the grave—and second, a charity benefit night to support the odious Whelk's art museum. It's hard to escape the conclusion that Zane has returned as a zombie, but Manny heroically resists until he can't deny it any longer; he's not an F&SF reader, so such things simply aren't part of his default assumptions about how the world works. No spoilers here, since it's clear where the story is headed. The story ends, as one might predict, happily, with poetic justice meted out where appropriate—though with a nice little surprise in the closing sentences that I won't spoil for you.
Mr. Sweetpants had an Elmore Leonard esthetic, with quirky characters and plots that flirt with genre conventions while making themselves something new and interesting. Zane isn't much of a character, and Cowdrey doesn't waste much effort giving Whelk much depth, but everyone else is a pleasant companion during our read. It's nice to see a gay character in a semi-starring role who is treated with respect, like any other character, rather than solely for comic relief or thrown in just to be different. There's nothing deep here, just an amusing notion carried smoothly and entertainingly to a pleasing conclusion.
A recent thread in the F&SF forum started with the question of whether there's "too much Cowdrey" in F&SF, a notion I find hard to empathize with. Cowdrey isn't remotely like Rod Garcia y Robertson, who's clearly a talented writer but who keeps beating on the same tired old (sophomoric) drum, and who could do much better than he does. Cowdrey is diverse (compare Mr. Sweetpants with Fort Clay, Louisiana from earlier this year), always interesting, and his custom does not stale.
Pining is another in Bowes' series of fictionalized autobiographical stories of his life. This particular chapter tells of his young adulthood at university, a time when he is still coming to terms with being gay at a time well before it was socially acceptable outside certain bohemian circles. Set in the mid-60s, when narrator-Bowes is 21, he is attending a small college just outside New York, forced out of the ROTC program by cadets who recognized his uncertainty over his sexual identity and gay-bashed him, and he is having an ambiguous relationship with the drama program he needs to get through if he is to graduate.
The story's title comes from a song in the play Dark of the Moon (a real play by Howard Richardson that has some surprising parallels with the present story), and refers to the play's Witch Boy protagonist, who wants to become human so he can marry a human girl—but two Witch Girls from his supernatural community hope this won't happen. The Witch Girls are a recurring symbol that unites the narrator's past (he first met them at the age of 4 as characters in a performance of the play) with his present, when the Witch Girls in his college's version of the play make the symbolism concrete for him: the unnamed woman playing the "dark" Witch Girl notes that he is always going to be a Witch Boy, but the "fair" one (an actress, Mags McConnell) has the hots for him, and tells him she has a way (clearly sexual) to make him fully human. This seems to be honest attraction, not any notion of wanting to "cure him" of his homosexuality. Given the "witch" connection, I would be amused, but not surprised, if Bowes is also punning on the notion of a "fag hag" (hag = witch) here. The Witch Girls reappear at various points in the story, but as metaphysical rather than human actors.
The story of the play is an obvious metaphor for the conflict between heterosexual "humans" and homosexual "Witch Boys", though the metaphor doesn't extend to the Witch Girls. Nonetheless, like the best metaphors, this one is skillfully used to form the backbone of the story rather than being waved in the reader's face with cries of "look, I'm a symbol!" That's an important lesson for would-be writers: "obvious" does not necessarily mean clumsy or pretentious.
What makes this story work, as it does in Bowes' story in the March/April 2010 issue, is the narrative tone: it's simple and straightforward and completely unaffected, straight from the heart and visceral like an old friend who is revealing his deepest emotions and wounds to you without ever being "emo". On the contrary, there's a sense of almost melancholic anomie that pervades the story. Bowes uses no $10 words—nor even $5 words—where a $1 word will do, and the (occasionally painful) honesty of his tone reaches right past any barriers of skepticism you might have were this pure fiction, touching you in ways that fiction often fails to do. The lack of overtly emotional peaks in the narration creates an interesting ambivalence in the telling, as if the narrator is trying to be as objective as possible about the story and let you be the judge of how strongly events affected him.
Like his March/April story, it's never quite clear how much of the autobiography is literal truth (externally verifiable), remembered truth (i.e., invented based on unreliable memory to plausibly explain half-remembered events), and outright fabrication. If I had to guess (and thereby risk entirely missing the point), I'd say the narrator's 4-year-old and 21-year-old recollections of the Witch Girls are simply too convenient a symbol to represent the full truth. Instead, they seem a seamless amalgan of real events and an imagined presence in his life at various times.
The tension between what is real and what is only recounted is part of what gives this story so much power, but that power couldn't be evoked without the intensely human story at its heart. I won't spoil the ending for you, but it's simultaneously elegiac and profoundly hopeful.
Epidapheles the wizard returns for round two of his saga, once again accompanied by his faithful companion Door, the invisible chair who inadvertently became the wizard's familiar when a miscast gateway spell animated a chair instead of opening a door to another place. For this series of adventures to retain its freshness, Shehadeh faces a thorny challenge: he must retain the engaging but not excessive wackiness of the stories, while retaining their very human heart and avoiding turning the series into formula by having the characters evolve, however slowly. Can he do it? In a word, yes.
Door, at least, is growing, and recognizes that he has begun to put behind him the things of his brief childhood: "Door had fond memories of his years as a simple chair. Everything made sense, then. He'd existed to be sat upon, or not sat upon—a pleasantly binary, and immensely fulfilling, state of being." The adult world is rarely so simple, and Door adapts reluctantly but well. Throughout, he remains true to himself, a deeply considerate and considering character who makes for a knightly champion, perpetually struggling to bring kindness to a cruel universe. You wouldn't think there's much room for characterization of a chair, but Shehadeh pulls it off; as a chair, Door's role in life has always been to serve, without any agency of his own, and that desire to help shapes Door's every action and thought—yet with increasing doses of free will slowly intruding. As a meditation on maturing into adulthood, it works surprisingly well.
Epidapheles, on the other hand, is the butt of the universe's jokes, and like Lou Costello and Stan Laurel, doesn't really need to change much to play his role admirably. Pace Michael Moorcock, Epidapheles seems almost "The Eternal Straightman", Elric et al.'s clueless but equally damned distant relative. Epidapheles remains true to his inner befuddled, self-centered, querulous nature, but there are ever-so-slight signs that give hope his character will evolve into something more nuanced. As he notes, in a rare moment of clarity, "Sometimes... I find the world entirely bewildering." It’s a rare, thus doubly poignant, flash of sweetness in an otherwise unpleasantly curmudgeonly character. Is it possible that much of his troublesome nature results from recognition of his incompetence and incomprehension, which breeds fear, which in turn becomes anger? That's enough of a human pattern I can see it being true.
At the heart of the current plot is Disembowelebub the Eternally Enraged, the demon of the title, who is having an existential crisis in which the rages of his youth have departed, leaving him confused and vaguely sad about how to proceed: "Does Disembowelebub the Bemused and Melancholy strike fear into your heart? No? How about Disembowelebub the Approaching Cheerful?" Habakkuka, the missing wife of the man who brings Epidapheles into the picture to find her, has taken up living with Disembowelebub, and subtly tries to console her companion when his attempts to torment the damned in his private hell increasingly end in dismal failure: "Perhaps this was a strategem, milord. An attempt to render yourself enraged at yourself." She may not, herself, be changing, as she has seemingly reached a stable maturity, but she is certainly set on changing others. (Feminists may now begin the debate over whether she is the stereotypical scheming woman, or something more interesting. I come down heavily on the latter side of the debate, though to clinch my position, Shehadeh will have to come up with some passive, nonmanipulative female characters in future stories to show that he can span the full range of human behavior for women too.)
The characterization, as before, is crisp and—Epidapheles notwithstanding—often subtle, as in the case of Habakkuka. Disembowelebub is somewhere in between: not precisely subtle, but still a skillfully executed interrogation of the notion that Evil is absolute and unchanging. [Spoiler] In particular, the notion that uncontrolled rage, left to fester and feed on itself, can eventually turn one into a demon, is an interesting driving force for the demon's backstory, and the plot turns on whether he can overcome his rage and restore the humanity he once had. [A look back: This is an interestingly different take on the "making our own hells" moral of the McMullen story later in this issue.] Door remains the highly sympathetic faithful sidekick, keeping Epidapheles out of the worst of trouble without ever falling into the trap of resenting his master—a trap, I confess, I would find hard to avoid.
The wordplay remains delightful. Though there are some near-misses ("Disembowelebub"; "magipropisms", the Epidapheles version of malapropisms), there are far more direct hits; I particularly enjoyed the "small, localized grammarstorm [that] bloomed out of the air and crawled along the ceiling, shedding torrents of adjectives that splashed down into the room, modifying everything that they touched. Door suddenly found himself crenelated and deciduous, and just slightly canonical." That's both amusing and slyly self-referential, being archly meta about the problem of overly profuse writing—something Shehadeh skillfully avoids. Shehadeh almost manages to trump the Niven and Pournelle description (in Inferno) of the part of hell reserved for bureaucrats, but I give Niven and Pournelle the win here. (I won't spoil the surprise, but I will note that what Shehadeh does to the Sisyphus myth is both evilly irreverent and hilarious.)
[Spoilers] Habakkuka, like the Queen of the previous installment in this series, is competent, self-assured, and has a long-term plan. She is here to gradually wean the demon of his universe-filling anger, and is well on the way to succeeding when Epidapheles arrives on the scene, and seems likely to ruin everything; within moments of his arrival, he so enrages Disembowelebub that the demon swells to a horizon-spanning rage he's forgotten he could achieve. But when he unleashes that rage upon the clueless wizard, Door knocks his master aside, saving the wizard and leaving the demon so emptied of rage that his original humanity is restored, albeit briefly. As always, Epidapheles has saved the situation through being completely unaware of what he's doing, guided seemingly more by benign Fate than by any conscious intent. I suspect the demon's suicide before his rage returns is a bit too "pat", but it's consistent with what Disembowelebub has become, and it does save the story from becoming an overly simplistic happy ending.
I enjoyed this story as much as the first installment in the series, and will gleefully devour the next installment, but I'd like to propose a brief rest: too much Epidapheles could harm Shehadeh's career by leaving him pigeonholed as a writer of farces. I'd like to see him use his keen verbal and character skills in the service of something more ambitious, such as a "straight" story with the humor scaled back an order of magnitude or two, or attempt a satire with more depth and bite to it and less overt humor (something more Swiftian). There's some serious talent here, and I'd like to see Shehadeh stretch his literary muscles before he becomes so musclebound that he's immobilized by their bulk.
Kenyisha is set in Kenya, near the border with Tanzania, where Merrian Aprilwood is one of (apparently only two) ranger–biologists responsible for protecting the local elephant herd. It's a tricky business, since poaching elephants for ivory and bushmeat is and will probably remain a serious problem. At the time of the story, Merrian and her Kenyan colleagues have forged a tentative truce with the government of Tanzania to prevent cross-border poaching. That truce is jeopardized when a local estate is destroyed by what must have been a rampaging herd of elephants—except that there are no elephant signs (e.g., footprints), Merrian's nearly 20 years of studies make her certain "her" elephants could never have done this, electronic tracking technology reveals no signs of the park elephants in the vicinity, and an African (Parsitau) who witnessed the destruction suggests that ghost elephants must have done the damage.
The other ranger, Ian Hartwick-Corning, enlists the aid of Dr. Nicholas Falconer, an old Oxford friend who specializes in "psychical" research. It's not clear why this seems like a logical solution to the rampaging elephants at this early stage, when there's no reliable evidence that anything supernatural is really happening, suggesting the author felt he lacked time or room to build up to this necessity. Merrian, a pragmatist in the mode of Dian Fossey (who she resembles in many ways) won't initially buy the notion of a ghost herd, but the evidence proves incontrovertible. However, once it's clear we're dealing with a real herd of ghosts (a promising starting point), Altabef runs into technical difficulties. If the ghosts can destroy physical objects such as the estate, it's not clear how Merrian and Falconer survive as the ghost herd charges past them, obliterating surrounding trees. More seriously, Falconer tells us these are "passive ghosts, not active spirits", suggesting that such ghosts are nothing more than "persistent echoes in space-time". Apart from this clumsy Analog-style attempt to explain the supernatural in scientific terms, it raises serious logic problems: if they're not "active" spirits, then there is no clear guiding intelligence the humans can subsequently convince to move on into the afterlife. Possibly Falconer just guessed wrong, but it would have been simpler and more effective to skip the explanation and let readers infer what they will, building a sense of mystery.
The story grows more interesting when seen from a perspective the author touches upon too briefly: the thorny issue of where we set the border between what is intelligent and what isn't. Altabef asks, through Falconer, whether elephants have souls, and Merrian, an athiest, responds that if humans do, than so do elephants. I don't pretend to know the answer, but have a lot of sympathy for her answer. This is a highly relevant and interesting SFnal point because, should we ever be fortunate enough to visit other planets that have their own complex life forms, I hope we'll have long since learned to be less certain about where to place the dividing line between human and animal. Currently, we tend to place that line wherever it's most convenient, whether to support our pre-existing beliefs or to let us find ways to justify whatever unpleasant behavior we feel a need to justify.
[Spoilers] Falconer holds what is effectively a séance, and makes initial contact with the elephant ghosts. It turns out they aren't interested in getting back their stolen ivory or seeking revenge upon the poachers (a potentially interesting difference from human ghosts that is not explored), but are instead angry their race is being driven into extinction, and are lashing out in rage against the dying of their light. Falconer believes that if he can show the elephants they continue to exist in the future, they will go wherever it is that "passive" ghosts go and leave the humans in peace. Unfortunately, though his skills will let him gaze a short distance into the future, he's not powerful enough to help the ghosts see their far future. To accomplish that, he enlists the aid of a local psychic/channeler, M'Bengai. M'Bengai conducts his own version of a séance, successfully contacts the elephants, and convinces them to depart in peace. Despite pressure from the Whites to reveal his vision, M'Bengai cryptically reveals only that he showed the elephants a future in which neither they nor humans exist, and that somehow gives them peace.
The writing and the White characters are serviceable but unremarkable—damning Altabef with faint praise, perhaps, but neither stands out, and neither is a problem, though the story would have been stronger if the elephants had significant personalities of their own that made us wonder whether they might be on our side of the intelligence line. (The only overt flaw was using "incalescence" to describe extreme heat; the word means "warming up", so the author probably meant "incandescence" = white hot.) Instead, I'll focus on two significant flaws with the story. The first flaw: Having invoked ghosts, you have three main options for dealing with them: You can play this as straight fantasy, with no attempt to explain what is happening, or (far more interesting) you can deal with the issue of what science can and cannot explain, and tiptoe through that gray borderland between science and mysticism. Altabef takes neither path. The third option is to invoke a purely scientific explanation, and essentially discard the supernatural, which is Altabef's choice. Unfortunately, doing so robs the story of mystery and its emotional depth. A key character point is Merrian's growing despair that she'll be unable to prevent the inevitable extinction of the elephants. Does she come to accept the ghost elephants' acceptance because of the revelations from M'Bengai? Does that acceptance give her hope that the ghosts (thus, the species) will persist in some way in some afterlife? Or does she surrender to her despair and leave Africa forever? We never learn the answer explicitly, and the story's resolution isn't strong enough to let us infer what happens next.
The more significant flaw is that we see not a single significant African protagonist until the story is nearly over; the story is, for all practical purposes, exclusively about Western protagonists solving African problems, despite what seems to be an otherwise carefully researched African setting. At a minimum, at least one African character should have had a significant supporting role. Parsitau, the only African who is even named until the final few pages, has only one characteristic: he's a drunk. Although it's appropriate to include the full range of human possibilities, good and bad, when we write about non-White characters, it would have been nice to see more of that spectrum or at least more nuance in Parsitau. Why not make him one of the park rangers, and let him guide the Westerners to an African-inspired conclusion instead of hauling in a White guy from Oxford to save the day? Instead, he is a literal spear carrier, minus the spear.
Worse still, M'Bengai tips over the edge into becoming a "race fail" character, since his only personality and only role is as the "magic Negro" (the derogatory term I've seen used repeatedly in discussions of race fail in SF/F). Please note: ***I am not equating this with racism, whether overt or implicit***. It's completely legitimate to avoid writing about "the other" (as I've done in my own early fiction) when you're still trying to master the basics of writing about your own particular flavor of "the other", and that may explain Altabef's choice. But setting a story in Africa makes this difficult to justify. Had Altabef been truly uncomfortable writing about significant African characters in a way that does them justice, and had his goal been more science fiction than fantasy (as seems to be the case), it would have been more appropriate to transplant the story to another planet, using it to comment allegorically upon the current environmental problems in Africa. He could then have created his own "magic aliens" without risk of offense, and possibly even dabbled with the notion of whether the human or alien perspective on the alien elephant stand-ins is more valid.
This combination of flaws seriously undermines the story. It's a quick and mostly interesting read, but it could have been so much more.
This ultrashort tale is a parodic introduction to Irma Rombauer's (in)famous Joy of Cooking, first released in 1931 by the recent widow. The book, which was my first cookbook when I left home at an early age, has survived this long because of its comprehensive nature and eminently practical advice. But as Lindsley notes, thereby motivating the rest of the story, "the history of cooking reflects the history of human culture". In the Joy of Cooking, some of the recipes from an earlier, less cosmopolitan age, clearly reveal the cultural context; for example, a garlic bulb could last you through a year's "Italian" [sic] cooking, and possibly longer if you weren't a daredevil in your use of spices. (In our house, the garlic's lucky to survive a week.)
Contrast this with the inclusion of zong zi, a Chinese sticky rice dish, in the 200th anniversary edition of Leidecker's Joyous Cooking, a nominal contemporary of Rombauer's book. The inclusion of recipes for squirrel (by implication, a hardship food available during the periods of famine that will occasionally occur in the coming century) is a sly wink at an illustration in the Rombauer book that scarred me when I was young, namely pictorial instructions on how to skin and gut a squirrel. Being an SFnal book, there are of necessity alien recipes included in Joyous Cooking, and an even slyer wink in the following reference to the cuisine of the Gak-Glorians, who have come to live among us: "Mouth- and proboscis-watering dishes like Ca'ow, Sha'ep, and Ma'an..." In case you missed that last one, it's a reference to Damon Knight's delightful 1950 story To Serve Man, or possible George Scithers' book-length hommage of the same name.
There are many humorous references packed into such a tiny space. My favorites included the use of teleporter technology in the kitchen, leading to the ability to produce dishes such as "amalgamated nachos" and "pineapple inside-out cake" (a wink at the famous Star Trek teleporter-accident joke: "we don't know what we beamed up, but it was delicious", itself gloriously referenced in Galaxy Quest), and turducken—which, believe it or not, is a real dish, in which you stuff a chicken inside a duck, then stuff the duck inside a turkey before roasting the whole mess. (Suddenly I'm hungry. *G*) Sadly, there appears to be no section on safe replicator cooking for the bachelor, which would have made my first university years so much easier. Perhaps there'll be one in the next edition?
The cookbook also offers useful tips on Gak-Glorian culture, including pointers on the unexpected side-effects of terrestrial cuisine on the aliens, and useful tips on cooking and vacuum-preserving food for residents of space stations. (Interestingly, I remember a useful conversion chart in the Joy of Cooking about how pressure differences at different altitudes affect cooking times in boiling water. Very SFnal!)
There's not much of a plot or message to this one, but it's nonetheless an entertaining romp and an amusing exploration of how future cookbooks may need to evolve to cope with changing times. And for the aspiring writer, there are some interesting points worth keeping in mind when writing "serious" SF, such as the nearly universal assumption that we can go whither we will in the galaxy, and the world will be our (still safely edible) oyster.
Precedent is an interesting variant on the dystopian post-environmental apocalypse tale because it focuses on the human need for retribution rather than on heroic tales of survival accentuated by Hollywood special effects. In the world of 2035, the "laterals" have rebeled against the modern religion of continuous economic growth (and damn the consequences), thereby precipitating a worldwide financial collapse at about the same time as it became clear the environment was collapsing. As vengeful environmental dogmatists seeking a scapegoat, the laterals take over the world through sheer numbers, and begin seeking their revenge against the "tippers" (anyone born before ca. 2001, and therefore individually and collectively responsible for pushing the environment past its "tipping point"). Justice, such as it is, is swift and largely blind, with tippers guilty by default, irrespective of their pre-collapse behavior.
The punishments imposed on the tippers for environmental crime are as hellish as the consequences of being Jewish or gay or Polish or a Gypsy (or anyone not German, really) during the Nazi reign of terror, a comparison McMullen repeatedly makes explicit: Convicts are death-marched through the desert to the site of their trial, towing the stripped hulks of SUVs, and those who die along the way are staked out by the side of the road to desiccate, then later thrown into a mass grave (a deep mine pit) to return their carbon to the Earth. Those who survive the march to the mine are either hung and then thrown into the pit, or held in a concentration camp until they can be retried and punished proportionally to their sins. Surviving each new trial isn't necessarily a mercy, nor is avoiding execution. For example, "Miners first class had no light, their only food was what they could gnaw from the corpses, and they had to drink the artesian water that seeped into the tunnels."
Jason Hall, our protagonist, was a climatologist and was one of the first to warn of the impending carbon crisis and lobby for change, yet is nonetheless sent for trial. His nominal crime? Wasting resources by obtaining a second PhD. McMullen compares such trials with the historical example of the dramatic increase in witchcraft trials during the Little Ice Age that struck Europe around the 15th century. He emphasizes that these trials were conducted mostly by secular authorities at the village level, not by religious authorities. I lack sufficient knowledge of this period to say whether this is accepted history or informed speculation, but it seems highly plausible. The parallels between the future witch hunts that lead to mass executions of those who lived before 2001 and the historical witch hunts (their precedent) are powerful despite how overtly they are referenced, but the presentation is overdone—the "auditors" even wear capes and cowls straight out of the Spanish Inquisition (here, played by the "World Audit").
Jason tiptoes delicately through the minefield of a kangaroo court that could choose to have him executed for the slightest mistake, without any appeal, and survives his initial audit; as a result, he's declared guilty but "borderline", and his life is spared until he can be retried. [Spoilers] Since the agenda of the Retributor who runs the audits is to kill every tipper if humanly possible, Jason is returned repeatedly, for 15 days of new charges, all of which he defeats. Eventually, unlike 99% of the others who have been audited, he is pardoned; the bad news is that his "reward" is to become the precedent of the title, a holier-than-thou example few others can live up to. Instead of exposing the audits for what they are, he is co-opted so serve on the audit board, judging others for what remains of his life and eventually having the blood of thousands on his hands.
Those who are spared death but not yet pardoned await their final judgment in nine circles in the sands surrounding the mines. Ths is an explicit call-out to Danté's nine circles of hell, justified here by its symbolic resonance with the nine-degree temperature rise predicted by 2100. Though a clever and effective parallel, its overt nature makes it a symbol waved too overtly before our eyes. While Jason awaits his final trial, we're shown chilling interludes of a danse macabre. First, those who were spared immediate execution gather to act out (from memory) sitcoms and movies from their youth; choosing Star Trek, Buffy, Seinfeld, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show as the examples Jason watches tells us fairly bluntly about the nature of those (i.e., primarily intelligent folk, and specificallly SF/F fans) McMullen feels would be initially spared but subsequently persecuted by the World Audit. When many of the condemned rebel during a performance of Rocky Horror, they are cut down by guards armed with AK-47s. Equipping the wardens with Chinese-made knockoffs of Russian guns, despite the story's seeming U.S. setting, is a clumsy evocation of American stereotypes to equate the guards with Stalinist goons and modern terrorists. This was already so obvious that no such reminder was necessary. A second round in the danse macabre involves races in wheelchairs (many of which are present, since their owners were executed), with the wheelchairs standing in for race cars. A few fortunate souls die of cardiac arrest, ending their suffering.
Is this a realistic scenario, or merely brutal satire? Speaking as someone who's edited some major journal papers on climate change, I have no doubt we're already past the tipping point, and that things are going to get increasingly and catastrophically worse within our lifetimes; based on the evidence I've seen, it's too late to avert disaster, and rather than focusing on naïvely optimistic techno-masturbations such as carbon capture and sequestration, we really need to be developing survival plans. So I'll buy the scientific background. Given the modern cult of victimhood, and denying responsibility for one's fate, it's easy to imagine a near-future society in which everyone born post-2001 considers themselves a victim. McMullen mostly avoids the sophomorically self-indulgent anti-environmentalist rhetoric of Oath of Fealty and Fallen Angels, two books Pournelle and Niven should be ashamed to have written. Yet whatever McMullen's true opinion of environmentalism, Precedent belabors the point that these environmentalists are lunatics and fanatics. So I'll also buy the social background, at least as a basis for social satire.
Less plausible is McMullen's contention that religion would become less rather than more popular. He notes, with some justice, that the "World Audit promised action and revenge for what had been done to the planet. Unlike religions, it delivered." Unfortunately, this premise leans far too heavily on the fannish dogma of contempt for religion, in which the first item of the "credo" is that people require concrete evidence to sustain their faith and will abandon faith when shown a logical alternative. That's demonstrably incorrect; the history of religion (as McMullen evokes in his witch trials metaphor) is that the more uncertain and terrifying the times, the more people return to the religion of their ancestors, seeking comfort in its unchallenged "leave the driving to us" certainties. We see this now, particularly in the U.S., in the scary growth of fundamentalist sects of many religions. It seems more reasonable that the World Audit would be heavily influenced by (perhaps even directly sponsored by) one or more of these sects. But that's my opinion, and doesn't invalidate McMullen's choice to plot his story based on a different logic.
Throughout the story, Jason is visited (haunted) by a mysterious cloaked figure, someone he accuses of being Death, but who denies that role. Rather, this figure seems more interested in challenging Jason to examine his assumptions and consider whether the accused tippers are truly guilty and whether they deserve their punishment. Jason holds firmly to his belief that most of us tippers were fools, not actively malicious, and that only the most egregious sinners deserve execution or the worse fate that awaits those who must survive subsequent punishment. [Spoiler] Even at the end, it wasn't fully clear to me what role this spectre serves. Eventually, it takes on Jason's face. This, accompanied by repeated hints the spectre is invisible to anyone but him and that he himself is invisible to others when he talks with it, suggests it may be his conscience. But this whole structure seems largely irrelevant, and to my minimalist preferences, the story would have been stronger without this distraction.
Precedent is cleanly and fluidly written, and Jason is a convincingly courageous, likeable narrator. The message that there is no hell save what we create for ourselves is an important reminder that whatever may lie beyond life, we are each of us responsible for our actions in this present world, and particularly for not creating unnecessary hells for ourselves, whether environmental or social. The link between the title and the precedent of previous witch hunts is an effective organizing metaphor for the story, and making it overt rather than "hidden in plain sight" is probably more effective than trying to conceal the metaphor and look clever. In the end, Jason seemingly accepts his responsibility to serve on the audit board and condemn others, while still trying to preserve their stories so they neither have their few good contributions to the world forgotten nor have their stories lost as a lesson to future generations. But this choice also shows how even heroes can fall into the most convenient path and promulgate an evil rather than fighting, however vainly, to end that evil.
Despite these strengths, I found Precedent preachy and too often heavy-handed to fully succeed as fiction. This, combined with its one-dimensional focus on judgment and retribution, robs it of nuance and subtlety that would have produced a stronger and more persuasive message.
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