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Stories in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction, April/May 2011 issue

Stories reviewed:

Jablokov: The Day the Wires Came Down
Swanwick: An Empty House With Many Doors
Resnick: The Homecoming
Mamatas: North Shore Friday
Preston: Clockworks
Rucker: The Fnoor Hen
Barzak: Smoke City
Purdom: A Response From EST17
Friesner: The One That Got Away
Skillingstead: The Flow and Dream
Rusch: Becalmed

Jablokov: The Day the Wires Came Down

Andrew and Arabella are 16-year-old fraternal twins, living in an unnamed steampunk city, complete with cable cars, dusty windows and corridors, pervasive brass, geological layers of cheap paint at a soon-to-be abandoned transport station, eccentric fathers who actually study mysterious artefacts in their study, a municipal Clepsydra (water clock) tower, and newspapers with illustrations produced using engravings rather than photolithography. Coal-powered steam engines are everywhere. It’s an enjoyable setting for a story, but the tale of the twins seeking a birthday gift for their father is never concealed by its steampunk trappings.

The wires of the title refer to the antequated “telpher” system, a name that derives from the French word (télépherique) for cable cars, and are strung from rooftop to rooftop across the city—both a clever and differently interesting story environment, and a potentially practical alternative to urban gridlock if the economics worked out. For unspecified reasons (probably costs), the city has decided to shut down the system, and the twins head off on their quest on the last day the system will be running. Arabella, the practical one, wants a task light for her father’s gloomy study; Andrew, the romantic, wants something that will look good even when it’s not being used. Thus begins their (not quite epic) quest. Their first stop is at a store that’s in the process of relocating, where no lights are to be found, but a clerk who clearly knows Andrew from previous visits hands him a mysterious black arclight electrode rather than packing it.

The description of the city is initially a bit sparse, but gradually comes into focus—and it’s very much in the vein of Tim Burton’s Batman, complete with cyclopean statues of a mammoth and a sabertooth from the city’s coat of arms gracing a ballroom with a ceiling high enough to permit indoor ballooning. Although there’s a minor infodump about how the telphers work, it emerges unintrusively and with reasonable logic from the characters’ POV. Jablokov builds in many nice details, such as the frenzied hustle of the stores that are shutting down and relocating because they’ll no longer be accessible once the telpher stops running, and the caryatids (support columns in the shape of women) built into the walls of buildings high above the street, where they will be forgotten by pedestrians once the telpher is gone. I’m reminded of a fascinating book by Stephen King and “f-stop” Fitzgerald, Nightmares in the Sky, that captures the gargoyles, grotesques, and other ornamentation on older buildings that most of us never see because our gaze is resolutely fixed on the sidewalk. Since I first read it, I’ve made a point of gazing upwards at the upper levels of buildings, often discovering treasures thereby.

[Spoilers] The mystery at the heart of the story involves a night 17 years earlier when the Carcery telpher station (so-named because it was affixed to a prison = a place of inCARCERation) was brought down by sabotage. The early days of the telpher business seem to have been even more cut-throat than the early days of the American railway industry, with more dramatic sabotage as the rival telpher outfits did their best to attain a monopoly over the business by bringing down their rivals’ infrastructure at every opportunity. The criminal activities seem unlikely to have lasted much longer, but the dramatic collapse of the Carcery station (the title’s “day the wires came down”, which also echoes the final day of the telpher system) finally motivated the government to step in and “nationalize” the telpher business. Andrew reveals much of this history when Arabella notices that the newspaper wrapping the arc electrode contains a dramatic engraving of the key moments in the story of the Carcery sabotage, and she asks her brother to tell her what he knows of the story.

Despite her practical nature, she’s lured into the mystery by certain problems with Andrew’s descriptions, which leads them to the “Balloon Market” beside Carcery station, scene of the ballroom in the newspaper engraving. Originally one of the city’s most prestigious ballrooms, it’s now become a flea market full of vendors of airship equipment and their customers (complete with desert gear, heavy leather gauntlets, and the trademark steampunk goggles), and they’re cold and unwelcoming towards outsiders. (If you had any doubt this was a steampunk tale, this scene should banish that doubt. It also offers a subtle poke at steampunk fans, since for the airship professionals, this is their work and their life, not a fashion statement by outsiders.) Nonetheless, Arabella persuades a vendor to let her rise up in a small tethered airship to try out some lights they’re considering buying for their father, while in reality using this as an excuse to survey the scene of the crime. But when she descends again, the mood in the Market has turned cold towards them, and the vendor won’t sell her the lights she was nominally inspecting.

As the twins explore the nature of the engraving while continuing their pursuit of the elusive birthday gift, the telpherman who’s been driving their cable car, pursuing frequent side errands along the way as the twins chat, eventually brings them to the end of the telpher line, a remote hill station where he assures them they’ll be able to find a mining lamp that will please their father. There, he has a girlfriend (one of many along the way) who breeds pigeons and who he’s courting with gifts of pigeon eggs from the city. Along the way, the telpherman has alerted one of the original saboteurs from the glory days of the cut-throat struggle for control of the telpher industry. Pardo, who was sweet on the daughter (Dulcia) of one of the rival owners, managed to wangle an opportunity to drive a telpher car, but was tricked by one of the owner’s enemies, Gibbon, into crashing the car into the Clepsydra tower. Pardo was jailed for this crime, but escaped under mysterious circumstances. He tells the twins that he’s been searching for the parts of an arclight Dulcia invented (she proves to have been an inventor, very much in the Ada Babbage mold) and offers to trade the twins a memorable light for their father’s birthday present if they surrender the electrode.

But they insist on hearing the true story of the sabotage. Pardo complies. Though he was sweet on Dulcia, she was interested in him solely for his skill with numbers, a skill he’d been abusing up to that point to embezzle money from her father. Dulcia persuaded Gibbon to rescue Pardo, while she watched from the nearby ballroom to ensure that everything proceeded as planned, but Gibbon secretly planned to use the opportunity to sabotage the Carcery station. When Pardo discovers Gibbon’s plot, he snags the bar cutters Gibbon carried (ostensibly to free him but really to fool Dulcia), frees himself, and pursues the saboteur to the telpher tower, where the two battle atop the city, as Dulcia watches from below. In the end, the tower falls, but not before Pardo claims to have acquitted himself well in the struggle. But Andrew is not convinced this is the full story, and presses Pardo until the older man admits that there really was no epic struggle atop the tower; instead, he snuck up behind Gibbon and coshed him. In exchange for helping Dulcia with some calculations, she lionizes him in the engraving, and helps him find an engineering job where he can pursue his true love, making sure the telpher lines will keep running. The twins trade the electrode for the cool light, and in a sly nod to the Wizard of Oz, Pardo departs the city in a balloon, off in search of a new career keeping the desert airship lines running. The twins glide home amidst a glorious sunset as darkness falls both upon the city and upon the story of the telpher lines.

Andrew is large and blond to Arabella’s small and wiry darkness, and although Andrew’s not a pushover, she’s clearly the dominant twin. When the two leave on their quest for a birthday present, their mother is appropriately concerned; she’s learned that the two of them tend to be safer apart, presumably because their sibling rivalry tends to lead them into “adventures”. The twins have distinct and interesting personalities: Arabella makes the decisions, and if Andrew wants to get his way, he needs to manipulate her into thinking she’s doing what she wanted to do in the first place. Like her mother, who we only meet through a throwaway line that tells us she’s away on an errand to obtain a mechanical device for removing roots from their drain, she’s the practical one. Like his father, who putters mysteriously in his study with unknown and probably useless objects, Andrew is the one intrigued by romantic and useless details. Though the gimmick that gets events rolling (finding an arc electrode that happens to be wrapped in an intact 17-year-old newspaper page and a 17-year-old mystery) seems unlikely, it’s exactly the kind of thing that would drag the twins into a mystery, and we already know their mother fears exactly this outcome of leaving them alone together. That makes the story a charming nod to the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew tradition, with plucky young protagonists falling into unlikely adventures.

Though Jablokov’s language is mostly restrained and backgrounded in service of the story and characters, there are occasional flourishes (including a running gag about “Gibbon” working for the “Spider Monkeys” gang, even though the pedants in the story know the two kinds of primate come from entirely different parts of the world). One favorite line, in reference to a heroic display celebrating the martyrdom of St. Hippolytus: “Arabella didn’t know who to admire more: the martyrs for their devotion, or their murderers for the endless inventiveness that earned the gratitude of generations of artists.” Another is the joke about Dulcia being nicknamed “Decorum”, which derives from Horace’s “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”. There’s also an uncommon recognition that solving a problem by science is never enough: “you haven’t truly solved a problem unless you know how much the solution costs”. Sometimes a solution is technically feasible, but economically impractical, and this may be Jablokov’s subtle poke at the economics of steampunk, possibly in dialogue with Charles Stross’ deconstruction of the (de)merits of airships (which I missed; permalink welcomed!). Then there are neat little bits that show a profound understanding of the story’s underpinnings. For example, in discussing airships, Arabella suddently realizes that “when lufters flew, they saw everything but the sky.” There are several loving descriptions of the beauty of the telpher system that made me wish it were real.

The ploy that drives the plot seems at best unlikely, but it’s consistent with the conceit of the Drew/Hardy mythos. We already know the twins tend to get into trouble, and in the present case (and presumably in the others), it seems likely they do so because they pay attention to details such as the newspaper engraving that others miss. Most people pass through a city, blissfully unaware of the rooftop gargoyles they’re missing, and it’s worthwhile musing about how many adventures each of us misses simply because we’re not paying attention to life’s myriad mysteries. Jablokov’s “tale told from above” reminded me of one of my own pleasures, namely spying on daily life from high above it; whether walking the town walls of York or the more impressive walls of Xi’an, I’ve learned that you can see much without anyone noticing you’re watching, and gain some interesting insights into how people really live because they’re not putting on an act. (Just to be clear, this isn’t pure voyeurism; I don’t peek into windows, unlike an astronomer friend in university who warned me to be sure to close my hotel room drapes before promenading around naked. There are more interested eyes in *ahem* the naked city than one might think, and not all are gargoyles.)

Recently, ecological economists have been doing some fascinating work modeling cities as if they were biological organisms, complete with metabolic flows, “organ” systems, and inputs from and outputs to their environment. Transportation systems are one crucial part of that metabolism (like the blood vessels or alimentary canals of an animal), and thus something fascinating and worthy of study for their own sake. The preface to the story suggests that Jablokov is interested in pursuing such issues, and I hope he’ll follow up on that interest in an equally entertaining SFnal context.

Swanwick: An Empty House With Many Doors

Johnny has  recently lost his wife Katherine, and like many survivors, he suspects it may be his fault somehow: "if only I'd kept you home that day". He's doing anything he can to forget, obsessively cleaning the house, throwing out any furnishings that remind him of his wife, and trying to drink himself to death. Although it's important for him to deal with his loss, heal, and move on, all he can manage is forgetting, and he feels the tragedy so many of us feel at the loss of a loved one: the sense that the only thing he's truly forgetting is her face.

[spoilers] Then one evening, he feels compelled to leave his house and wander. As he does, he comes across a man hanging suspended in midair, seemingly strangling, a cubist sort of image suspended on a "chrome" frame of what must be energy. Johnny's not so far gone to be unable to recognize what he describes as a drowning man, and reaches out to help. But the energies of whatever has trapped the man are released, shocking Johnny as if he'd been "hit with a two by four". When he regains consciousness, he finds himself lying on the sidewalk beside the man's corpse. The man is wearing a jumpsuit with a badge composed of arrows radiating outwards from a single point. To an Asimov's reader, this is clearly a traveller in time or dimensions, and so it proves to be; Johnny finds himself in a parallel universe where both he and his wife are still alive.

They take him in, and as he's wondering where this will go—will he kill his other self to gain the opportunity to live with his wife again?—the colleagues of the dead man arrive to set things right. Despite his pleas, they return him home. But something has changed. Where a religious person might seek solace in the notion of an afterlife, Johnny finds comfort in the knowledge that somewhere out there in the multiverse, his wife still lives. It reassures him enough to begin his healing, and the notion that a simple act of kindness (attempting to save someone) permits this healing is a nice note of grace.

At first, the story felt incomplete, almost more vignette than story. So much more could have happened that I felt almost cheated. Yet expanding the story purely to provide that "so much more" would have made it something purely ordinary, the predictable kind of story that doesn’t quite satisfy. The notion that each of us seeks solace for our grief in different ways, whether in the cold equations of multiverse theory or in religion, is a strong point on which to hang a story (and raises interesting questions about whether the SFnal option is necessarily superior). Swanwick hangs this one very well indeed, with heartfelt emotion and commendable authorial restraint.

Resnick: The Homecoming

This is one of the most painful types of story, the type in which a family has fallen apart through no fault of its own. Jordan and Julia are an elderly couple, still in love after some 50 years together, but now Julia is failing with some kind of untreatable dementia. After 11 years, their son Philip has returned to visit, wanting to see his mother again before she dies. But Philip is not what he once was: he's been re-engineered into a silver being with insect eyes so he can survive on a distant planet, and Jordan treats his son with something resembling hatred for his seeming betrayal of his family and his humanity.

[Spoilers] The house, like Jordan, has grown increasingly old and decrepit, with things wearing out and not being replaced. But some things have not changed: the old burn mark on the counter and the missing knob on a drawer, both caused by Philip, have been preserved, and Julia's sickroom is a shrine to their son. Ostensibly, this arises from Jordan’s focus on caring for his wife, but there's more to it than that. It's also memory and preservation of the family’s past. Jordan has been with Julia so long he can't bear to send her to a home, even though it's clear she probably wouldn't notice. So instead he does all the little things you do for someone you've known that long: he leaves her sugar pills so she can feel like she's caring for herself by taking her own medication, and leaving a spoon in her hot chocolate because he knows she likes to stir even when it's unnecessary. It's the kind of loving attention to the kinds of spousal details that grow on you over the years.

Philip tells us of his new life, on a world with intelligent crystalline flowers that spend their lives thinking of mathematics and philosophy, and the assorted SFnal wonders of his new world, enchanting Julia and making her seem more focused and in the moment than she's been for a long time. But it's also a story of just how much Philip has sacrificed, and a reminder that the SFnal wonders we dream of may have costs few of us are willing to pay. She asks Philip for a bedtime fairy tale, and he tells her his own story, full of wonder, the pain of transformation, and his love for what he's doing. In one of those heartbreaking moments for caregivers, Julia "returns" like many patients with dementia do, just long enough to recognize her son and to tell her husband to reconcile with him. They do, and when Philip returns to his new life, the wound in the family has been healed.

Jordan seems alone in his ordeal, since there's no mention of friends and he even uses the word "deserted" to describe his view of his son's departure. Where another man, or the same man in less trying circumstances, might be proud of his son's accomplishments, Jordan initially can't bring himself to understand or forgive his son. It seems clear that like many of us, he's turning his unbearable stress outwards on a convenient target for lack of any other coping strategy, and it's a very human tragedy. Being capable of empathizing with someone in such a situation is why I feel no need to read horror stories; the real ones strike me far more deeply than anything fictional could do. Here, Resnick deals with a difficult and horrific situation with sensitivity, a keen eye for the human details, and lasting impact.

Mamatas: North Shore Friday

This one’s unusual from the get-go, something you notice as soon as you see the “thought balloons” littering the pages. It gets more unusual from there. Narration switches between first-person POV (Georgi, a Greek engineer working in parapsychological research related to government monitoring of people’s thoughts) and third-person POV (Paraskevi, Georgi’s cousin and a waitress who moonlights as a “coyote” smuggling Greek immigrants into New York so they can be married off and made “legal”).

[Spoilers] Georgi has what he admits is an inappropriate interest in his beautiful cousin, and thus, one night when he should be monitoring thoughts in general, he’s instead homed in on Paraskevi’s thoughts in particular. She’s in the middle of a run, bringing several immigrants from the docks to a place of safety where they can be integrated into society. Unfortunately, on this night, Immigration catches her trail and two INS agents tasked with stopping this smuggling pursue her into the woods. One of the two fires his gun and kills a young girl. Georgi has been watching closely enough to for his name to be at the surface of Paraskevi’s mind, and this leads to her mentally shouting his name; the combination forges a connection between them, and the considerable power being drawn by the psychic monitoring system jumps that gap, provides power that briefly animates the dead girl’s ghost, and lets Georgi record her essence, simultaneously causing a blackout in New York due to the huge power draw. (Amusingly, that blackout was a real historical event, making this story an alternate history even if you don’t believe that the government thought monitoring program makes it such. *g*)

Mamatas does some lovely things with the two parallel voices. He has a gift for memorable phrases, my favorite being how “Immigration wore their suits like they were mobile homes” (i.e., like they slept in their suits, which were not remarkable feats of architecture to begin with). To evade presumed government monitoring of thoughts, Paraskevi has learned from her grandmother to speak to herself in Greek when she fears such monitoring. There’s much to admire in how Paraskevi, who learned her Greek from her cant-ish communist-ish grandmother, speaks as a result; she speaks in terms that translate into elegantly bizarre English, such as the following: “Can thou y’all comrades dig this crazy-struggle for liberty? Forsooth, thine art copacetic, no?” Mamatas adds a nicely ethnic touch to the story, with a smattering of Greek and words chosen to emphasize and clarify how an immigrant community bands together against the “xeni” (“others” or “strangers”). The thought balloons read almost like beat poetry, skipping from the thinker’s current focus to near-random thoughts, which are often inappropriate and generally only tangentially related to the focus—an eminently convincing description given how my own thoughts skip around. It’s reminiscent in many ways of Mamatas’ brilliant and sadly unappreciated novel Move Underground, which merges the Cthulhu mythos with Jack Kerouac in a way that has to be read to be fully appreciated.

Powerful work, and reminds me to look for more of Mamatas’s writing.

Preston: Clockworks

This story is a prequel to Helping Them Take the Old Man Down (March 2010), and it’s written in the same smooth, comfortable style as the previous installment—like sitting in a favorite old armchair as the story unfolds. We enter the story through the eyes of Simon Lukic, “Doctor Blacklight”, a former supervillain who has been captured by the giant, bronzed, genius polymath hero of the previous tale. Since this is the same type of hommage to the golden age hero Doc Savage, let’s call the superhero “Doc” for short, though everyone else refers to him simply as “the Big Man”.

As his consciousness returns, Lukic’s last memories are of 1962 Chicago. Now, he’s in Doc’s Arctic sanctuary, recovering from neurosurgery, and grappling with the horrors of his past life, in which he performed surgery and other experiments on a great many victims in the name of Nazi and later Stalinist science, like Mengele’s equally evil twin. Lukic learns that Doc has become expert in performing neurosurgery capable of removing the obstacles (brain defects) that force people into certain paths, and that he’s now given Lukic a choice: to continue along the path he’d been forced to take by the brain anomaly Doc has just corrected, or to choose a different, better path. This early in the tale, Preston begins a literary dialogue (a debate, perhaps) with the past of SF/F: In the black and white world of the old pulps, there’s a certain sense that fate is fate, that there’s no changing who or what you are, and that evil is a conscious choice; in the more recent history of our genre, these issues become far more polychrome, and nothing is quite so certain.

[Spoilers] The story’s title alludes to an old debate about whether we humans are nothing more than clockwork mechanisms, doomed to follow the dictates of our biology, whether we truly have free will, or whether we can exercise some amount of free will to liberate ourselves from the obstacles imposed by our biology. To some extent, and probably to a different extent for each of us, the answer is likely to be a complex mixture of all three, and in this story, we follow as Lukic works through the consequences of his personal mixture.

Doc is accompanied by his trademark companions: David Birdwell (“Birdy”, a psychiatrist), Allan Randall (“Randy”, a Black electrical engineer), and Serge Hartoonian (“Tug”, a short musclebound chemist). Like their prototypes in the old pulps, they’re less three-dimensional than they might be, though never caricatures. Randy and Tug bicker constantly in a not-always-friendly way, but it’s clear that any of the three would sacrifice himself in an instant if doing so would save their friends. That, combined with Doc’s Superman-like perfection, creates a powerful, compelling sense of a world you wished you live in, where heroes are real and always defeat the villains in cleanly delineated victories with no moral shadings. Though I don’t regret our more nuanced modern worldview, I do sometimes mourn its overly cynical nature. Interestingly, Preston has allowed a Black character into what was formerly a purely whitebread story universe, and there’s even a throwaway line suggesting that a female character might someday join the team of heroes.

In opposing the divinely imposed fate or destiny that was formerly seen as the villain’s lot, is Doc arrogating to himself the powers of that universe’s God? And when Doc gives a choice to someone who formerly lacked options, is this a moral and purely selfless decision, or is it an absolute imposition of his will on another person (a sin by modern standards, even if the goals are noble)? Does this make Doc any better than Lukic, or just differently evil? (Indeed, Lukic asks where Doc gained his neurosurgery skills, fearing briefly that Doc may have followed much the same path as he did. That turns out not to be the case. Though there’s always the possibility of Doc being an unreliable narrator, there’s no evidence in this case to support that hypothesis; his archetypal role is as moral paragon, and to the extent we can trust anyone, we can trust him.)

The surface plot driving the story is the quest to find the presumed doomsday device Lukic was building before Doc captured and saved him, and eventually the good guys find the device. In a tip of the hat to the re-emerging fascination with Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, the infernal machine turns out to be a massive clockwork device (a hint back at the title) powered by captive and tormented human minds, enslaved by the older Lukic to operate a machine that will be used to open a rift between universes, allowing tentacular horrors to pass through and conquer our world. As the heroes find it, it begins operation, seemingly triggered by the presence of Lukic or more likely, by Doc’s presence. As the heroes battle the tentacles, Lukic is left alone to make his final choice: to allow events to proceed as originally planned, or to intervene and save everyone. He chooses intervention, though the cost is high: he thrusts his leg into the clockwork mechanism driving the machine, knowing that he’ll lose the leg stopping the machine. But he willingly makes the sacrifice.

Lukic is a fascinating, deeply sympathetic character, and his suffering as he comes to understand the evils he has perpetrated is poignant and heartfelt, never tipping over the edge from pathos into bathos. His suffering also questions the commonly expressed revenge fantasy in which villains should suffer by understanding what they’ve done; to the extent that their deeds may not fully reflect a conscious choice, such punishment may not be nearly so just as we might hope. As the surface plot (defeating the alien menace) is resolved, we also learn that Lukic may not have been truly insane or a psychopath after all, but merely someone whose own biological “clockworks” made him more susceptible than most to the whisperings of those alien voices, turning him into their helpless tool for creating the rift. I initially hesitated over whether this point should have been left implicit, but in the end I think Preston struck precisely the right note, both acknowledging the pulp tradition of providing full closure to the surface plot while giving us yet another reason to empathize with Lukic. Though Lukic considers himself a weak man, and even concludes the story by dwelling on that weakness, there’s a final grace note in his recognition that though he’s clearly not as overtly strong as Doc and his companions, his impairments (both metaphysically, in his susceptibility to evil, and physically, in the guise of his mechanical leg) are “not more than I can bear”.

There are many lovely touches in Preston’s wording, from the way he notes that one’s eyes seem to recede when looking at the stranger in the mirror (one’s own image) to elegant little similes like this one: “my breath hung before me like a ghost reluctant to move on”. The chapter titles bear the names of the parts of a clock, matching the superficial story structure to the more important story of Lukic, and there are other echoes of clockwork throughout, including Lukic’s final musing upon his mechanical leg. The tentacles of the aliens are echoed in the carbon fiber neural implants snaking through the brains of Lukic’s victims, the way Lukic’s vision narrows in to reveal the veins of his eyelids as shock from pain and the loss of his leg causes him to lose consciousness, and the sinuous complexity of the ethical issues raised by this story.

Clockworks is a brilliantly done piece of work, despite echoes of the older and more simplistic tales of Doc Savage that may undermine its worth in some minds. It both entertains in the same way as those old stories and challenges us to think deeply about just what it is that makes us human, and how we deal with our inevitable imperfections. The classical image of the “perfect” superhero, though somewhat fallen into desuetude these postmodern days, is fascinating because it gives us a role model to emulate, and Lukic does indeed seek to emulate that impossible-to-achieve model. Yet as is the case for Sam in The Lord of the Rings, the true hero of the story turns out to be Lukic—a man who lacks any of the perfection of the nominal hero, yet who achieves his own greater heroism through his struggle to triumph over his own limitations and through faithfulness to the higher ideals he seeks to emulate. Nicely done.

[Footnote: There’s a scene late in the story in which Doc is playing with the children of Birdy; they’re sitting at his feet, clinging to his calves, and he lifts his feet to raise them from the ground. I’m sure I’ve seen an iconic image that this may have been based on, but it’s not coming clear. Suggestions welcome!]

Rucker: The Fnoor Hen

Vicky and Bix are a young San Francisco couple, she a yoga instructor, he a freelance programmer. They have a 2-year-old son named Stoke, whose name “had been a last-minute inspiration”. Like so many Rucker characters, the family and their story environment are gleefully, exuberantly skewed at some imaginary angle from the norm (here, in the sense of imaginary numbers, which are kissing cousins to the real numbers but not things you’re going to meet in your everyday three-dimensional life). The story’s plot commences when Bix, who was working to develop software for a local Filippino couple (Cardo and Maricel), accidentally initiates a contract contretemps with the couple: he’s done some additional work using their equipment and wants to be paid for it, but because they didn’t ask for the work and because it was done on their computer, they want him to hand over his work for free.

[Spoilers] When neither side of the dispute is willing to budge, Maricel takes matters into her own hands. She knows that Vicky and Bix have recently begun raising chickens to produce eggs, so she slips them some custom chicken feed designed by her husband’s mad Aunt Perla, who modifies the protein code in the feed so that it will take over the chicken reproductive system, creating a “swarm computing” biogadget device—let’s call it “Chickenzilla”—that will capture Bix and hold him hostage until he delivers the work that’s at the root of the contract dispute. When her little surprise hatches, it “swallows” Bix, and swallows Vicky shortly thereafter when she goes to rescue her husband. The two escape when Bix hands over the disputed information to Chickenzilla, but along the way, Bix has learned enough about the mysteries of this bizarre form of computer code that he can control Chickenzilla. He quickly turns it against its creators, who are hoist on their own biogadget, and flies them home to their family in Manila, pausing only long enough to magically enlarge Vicky and Bix’s tiny house, something they’ve been dreaming of doing for some time.

The computer at the heart of the dispute is a “squidskin”, basically neural tissue from a cephalopod that functions as an advanced neural-network computational device with programs encoded in the form of tailored proteins. (Before you ask: Yes, that’s real technology, sort of.) The code itself involves the processing of “morphons”, data encapsulated and visualized in the form of a graphic that seemingly also encodes programmatic instructions, kind of like an object-oriented program in some vaguely handwavey way that Rucker doesn’t really explain. And it’s all associated with the concept of “fnoor”, something that Rucker recently defined in his blog as “some odd aspect of a person’s world that leads a person to suspect that there is more to this world that he or she had imagined.”

Rucker does many things well, including deftly sketching his characters with tiny “tells”, such as how Vicky and Bix choose their son’s name without much thought and how “if anything, two-year-olds were closer to Bix’s wavelength than were most grown-ups”—a brilliant description of certain Aspergers-ish geeks whom I’ve known. He creates a sense of bizarreness that somehow remains internally consistent better than anyone else who is currently writing SF, and after a time, you just give up trying to fit all this muddle to normal reality and you just go with the flow. Rucker takes Clarke’s “sufficiently advanced technology”, mixes in a little LSD, and turns it into a weirdly compelling magic, blithely ignoring any inconvenient details that would interfere with the evolution of the ideas.

But although the sheer exuberance of the ideas drive the story at delirious speed, the nearly vestigial plot that serves as the delivery mechanism for those ideas and the handwaving that banishes inconvenient details is what tends to alienate me from Rucker’s work and leave me esthetically unsatisfied. (If you’re only interested in the ride, you’ll vehemently disagree—and I have to admit, it’s always a fun ride packed with transformative notions.) The notion of “fnoor” is a specific example of the kind of thing that leaves me feeling vaguely annoyed by Rucker’s recent work. It’s one of those words that shows a seeming-absence of thought devoted to its creation—as if it were created by randomly striking keys on the keyboard in a self-conscious effort to create a word that has no etymological connection to existing words, rather than spending the time required to think the concept through and choose a name clear enough to communicate on its own merits. (This is why, having worked with hundreds of scientists and engineers for nearly 25 years, I’m on record as stating that they should not be allowed to name cool new things without adult supervision.)

If you like what Rucker does, you’ll like this story a lot. But if you want more than cool ideas packaged in just enough plot to hold them together in a seething and somewhat inchoate mess, you may (like me) be disappointed.

Barzak: Smoke City

The preface to this story tells us that Barzak had been reading about the history of Pittsburgh and musing thereon, and that this inspired his tale. A quick trip to the Wikipedia to refresh my memory of some salient details about the city provided the following description of the city by James Parton during its “glory” [sic] days as a coal-burning steel producer: “hell with the lid off". It’s an apropos note on which to begin reading the story, as it neatly captures the essence of the city at that time.

The story begins with our unnamed female narrator, in bed in modern Pittsburgh with her husband, her two children sleeping peacefully nearby, literally falling into a dream that returns her to the Pittsburgh of the black coal smog and early industrial revolution steel mills. There, a different husband and children await her. The smoke is appalling, the filth and poverty worse, and it soon becomes apparent that the Parton quote is no exaggeration. It’s as hellish a description of the industrial revolution as any I’ve read.

[Spoilers] As the dream progresses, we learn that the women of this early Pittsburgh exist solely to spawn children, as rapidly as possible, to feed the mills with new workers. In a particularly trenchant choice by Barzak, the mills themselves have names (e.g., Eliza), but none of the humans (save the narrator’s first children) are named. The children mature rapidly, seemingly within days in the timeless way that dreams progress, and are soon delivered to the mills where they will labor 16-hour shifts, age rapidly, and eventually die, as her husband soon does. No sooner is he dead than the suitors begin lining up in droves outside her door so they can help her resume her duty of churning out more workers. (It’s a subtle and therefore doubly nasty reminder about how many women would have died in childbirth in those days, and the resulting shortage of women.)

When she refuses their advances, “captains of industry” every bit as stereotypical as Snidely Whiplash, complete with tophats, waxed mustaches, and gold pocket watches, arrive to remind her of her duty. When she refuses, they push her into her home and serially rape her, thereby producing their own young replacement captains of industry. But there is an implicit sense of revenge here, as the young captains escape the control of their fathers and begin changing their world—not necessarily for the better, as the mechanization they initiate with the gears from their watches, which “ground time to chaff and splinters” and which echo the passing of Pittsburgh’s history, leaves many of the men unemployed. In time, this will eventually lead to the “renaissance” that cleaned up Pittsburgh and its air before the more recent collapse of the steel industry. But even in the dream, that time will not come soon.

The story ends with our narrator returning to her surface (waking) world, rising out of the pit as another woman descends, despairing, to take her place, thereby bringing the story full circle. The writing is smooth and poetically evocative, with a deeply melancholy, dreamlike feel to it. Favorite lines include “I had the words in my mouth again, like a bit”, the fact that the years are long “even though they are finished within the passing of one night”, and how history “always exacts a price from those who have climbed out to live in the world above”, the latter cutting directly to the heart of the tale. Possibly the most pungent quote comes from the mouth of one of the iconic captains of industry: “We do not take, you see, without giving back.” That giving back involves razing the houses of the narrator’s neighbors and displacing their occupants to build a three-story library, as if that makes everything right. It’s a chilling reminder of the callousness of early industrial barons like Andrew Carnegie, whose descendants have gone on to do much good, built though that good is on the crushed lives of the myriad steelworkers who made them rich.

The story sometimes feels a bit over the top in the vividness of its images, with the women caricatured as industrial factories churning out children and the captains of industry seeming almost clumsy portrayals when contrasted with the many, far subtler critiques—but that sense disappears when you realize that Barzak’s portrayal probably doesn’t exagerrate as much as we might wish. The overall gestalt of the story provides a potent and chilling reminder of how far we’ve come from the bad old days, and of the need for us to remember and learn from our history, even when some of that history is acutely painful.

Purdom: A Response From EST17

EST17 is an “extrasolar terrestrial planet”, and it serves as the stage for a four-way battle of wits between some unusual protagonists. On the human side, we have the Betzino-Resdell Exploration Community (BREC), a consortium of 18 AI programs that are “alters” (alter egos) of the humans they’re based on, and although they’re self-governed, they’re not fully self-conscious. They arrive at EST17 after a journey of more than two centuries (there’s no FTL here) only to find that the Transcultural Institute for Multi-disciplinary and Extra-disciplinary Interstellar Exploration and Study (TC) has scooped them and is already there; the two set up in opposition to each other, beginning what Purdom describes as a microwar and (in case the group names hadn’t tipped you to this) what becomes something of a comedy of manners.

On the alien side, we have a collective of highly advanced and effectively immortal humanoids with feathers instead of fur. Varosa and her husband Budsiti provide our first contact with the aliens. Varosa, a contact specialist and one of the “Serenes” faction, whose goal is to keep things eternally placid and stable, is appointed to replace Mansita, the former chargé d’affaires, because despite his greater expertise, the conflict between the two visitors from Earth seems to require a different approach, specifically one that will account for the primary opposition. Revutev is the representative of that opposition, and he’s done something unconventional and illegal: he’s made contact with the humans without waiting for Varosa and her allies to decide how best to handle the situation. He’s one of the minority who belongs to the “Adventurer” faction of the aliens and—not to mince words here—he’s a shit disturber of the first degree, having been punished many times for actions that disrupted the status quo. In the alien society, punishment is executed by extending the criminal’s periods of “dormancy”, which the aliens engage in between wakings.

[Spoilers] As BREC and TC begin sparring for position, initially secure in the belief that they’re present on the planet unobserved, we learn that this is hardly the first time the aliens have had visitors and that these visitors aren’t nearly as sophisticated as they think. Indeed, visitations have been a reasonably frequent event. The humans, still newcomers to interplanetary exploration, are mystified by what they consider an anomaly, namely the great unlikelihood that any civilization they meet would have a technology level comparable to their own—let alone superior. Their surprise is based on an unchallenged assumption, namely that civilizations should arise at random in the galaxy and should therefore span a wide range of technology levels at any given point in time. The competing hypothesis, exemplified by the present tale, is that advanced civilizations probably take roughly the same amount of time to reach a given technology level, barring unfortunate incidents such as nuclear winter or an asteroid impact, and probably arise at more or less the same time because planets in a given part of the galaxy probably become capable of supporting life at the same time. In practice, I suspect we’ll find a mixture of the two principles working simultaneously. (Should I prove to be wrong, be sure to let me know. I’ll wait.)

As the story progresses, with Revutev striking up an association with the BREC group and Varosa associating with TC, Purdom’s sly wit gradually emerges. Two favorites: the notion that BREC includes subgroups with specialized interests, such as the North Pacific Center for the Analysis of Multi-Gender Sexuality, who are frankly disappointed that the aliens had developed “the same unimaginative two-sex pattern life had evolved on Earth”, followed by a witty dialogue as they try to sound out Revutev on the prurient details of his species’ sexuality. Better still is the notion of “The Message”, the single most nastily passive-aggressive fictional invention ever used to prevent interstellar warfare or colonialism: The Message contains the accumulated wisdom of all the technological species thus far encountered, including cures for death and all diseases along with other miraculous technological insights. The problem: once The Message is received, the society that receives it promptly collapses under the disruptive nature of the ensuing changes, and the chaos is so bad they lose all further interest in interstellar exploration. It’s a playful and pungent literalization of the notion of a “disruptive technology”, and a nicely evil take on the underappreciated power of a meme to do more than just change someone’s mind.

Indeed, Varosa begins to wonder whether this approach is truly ethical, and whether it might be better for a wiser society (such as hers) to nurture a younger society and help bring it along with less disruption. But she must walk a fine line between honoring her commitment to the Serenes without alienating the Adventurers. To create a way for her stop Revutev from following his baser instincts, without making it look like the Serenes have stepped in to repress the Adventurers and thereby creating conflict with that faction, she gently leads him down the garden path until he commits a crime (revealing the perils of The Message to BREC) and can be arrested; having betrayed and endangered his society by revealing the perils of The Message, he’s placed into an unusually long dormancy (more than a century) in punishment. Along the way to this denouement, the two human visitors gradually escalate their conflict from cold war to actual physical hostilities, leading eventually to the destruction of their presence on the planet, though their offworld bases remain.

A minor blemish and a larger one: When we first meet the aliens, we don’t really know enough of the human AIs to immediately perceive the shift to another POV, and it took me several moments to realize Purdom had changed direction; a simple transitional phrase such as “Elsewhere on the planet” or “Meanwhile” would have solved the problem. The problem recurs towards the end, when Revutev is woken from dormancy. (Apart from these two instances, the shifts between the POVs are generally smooth and obvious.) The larger blemish is the hoary and egregious SFnal notion that two alien races could exchange “language programs” as part of their first contact; that’s about as likely as trying to run Mac OS programs on a Windows computer. I’ve no doubt whatsoever that first-contact linguistics will be massively facilitated by sophisticated linguistics software, but our software won’t run on their hardware and vice versa. Given that the context for the story is immortal intelligences who think nothing of spending a decade on some simple task, this could have been glossed in a single paragraph describing how it took a year or a decade to translate human programming specs into terms the alien linguistics software can understand, or vice versa.

Given the space constraints of a short story, Purdom’s choice is acceptable. But it leads me to wonder what could have been accomplished with this story at novel length. There’s a great number of interesting notions to explore, and though a novelized version of the story would accomplish very different things from this short story version, there’s enough meat here to support such an expansion.

Nitpicking aside, the rest of the story is done very well indeed: The very non-human notion that the immortal aliens and the computer intelligences won’t be in any hurry to get things done, and can devote years to achieving simple goals, is a keen insight and a consistent element throughout the story. The writing is restrained, and generally subtle, but there are occasional delightful touches. One favorite occurs when Budsiti reflects upon his relationship with Varosa: “They had been married for eighty-two complete cycles—2400 years of full consciousness. He knew when to speak and when to mutely remind her he was there.” Despite its name, a “comedy” of manners needn’t inspire ROTFL; mostly, it must end without overt tragedy, having brought the protagonists through a willing or unwilling re-examination of some of their cherished but unexamined notions along the way. Indeed, by the end, Varosa has come over to Revutev’s viewpoint that the cycle of transmission of The Message, followed by collapse and permanent isolation of the civilization that receives it if it survives the ensuing turmoil, must be stopped, and she finds a way to work with her erstwhile enemy Revutev to do so.

Along the way, Purdom does a nice job of leaving things unsaid, such as the elephant in the room: Who created the original “Message”, and did they perhaps have a secret agenda in doing so? The Integrators, powerful artificial intelligences who run the alien society on behalf of their organic masters with the goal of keeping society stable but not static, are a particularly interesting part of this central mystery. When they choose Overseers to manage key issues, such as the contact with the humans that is overseen by Varosa, are they choosing someone who will act in the best interests of the society they nominally protect, or someone who will advance their own agenda? We’re told they have never disobeyed the command of an Overseer, but given that they’re the ones who choose the Overseers, that might be only what one would expect from an alien chosen based on his or her complaisance. Have they chosen Varosa to protect the status quo, or to overturn it? Might they be the original source of The Message? Wisely, these questions are left unanswered.

The arrival of BREC and TC at EST17 in tiny containers stocked with software is very Strossian, as in the Accelerando family of tales, but is different enough to be an interesting alternative to Stross’ take on the subject. It’s a logical endpoint of the current debate between those who believe manned space flight is inefficient and ridiculously wasteful of resources and those who believe that humans must be the ones who explore the galaxy. (Logically, I grok the former viewpoint; emotionally, I fall firmly into the latter camp.) In particular, Purdom’s portrayal of how the AIs incorporate many of our unacknowledged human failings rather than eliminating them through judicious programming plays to my prejudice about how badly engineers design most products. I also enjoyed Purdom’s tip of the hat to the venerable notion (popularized in the SF/F community, if by no means invented, by Larry Niven) that a society must include both unadventurous Serenes to keep the society stable, and rogue Adventurers who keep society flexible and able to respond to surprises. Purdom also neatly dismisses the hoary notion that in the absence of essentially free FTL travel, interstellar warfare is impossible because of the cost and the impossibly extended supply lines: if you have nanotech assemblers (what Stross refers to as “fabs”, short for “fabricators”), you can send a tiny nanofactory to your enemy, colonize their asteroid system over a period of decades or centuries, and wipe them out by dropping smart rocks on their collective head. Or you can simply kill them with kindness by delivering The Message.

The best SFnal stories entertain, ask us to re-examine some cherished notions, and sow the seeds of a great many future stories that will build on, adapt, and dialogue with the author’s insights, thereby creating a fascinating and ever-growing genre. Using Purdom’s own teminology, we need stories that merge aspects of the Serenes and the Adventurers and thereby keep us moving forward, without necessarily sacrificing the comforts of home. A Response accomplishes all three goals skillfully and with tongue firmly in cheek.

Friesner: The One That Got Away

Timothea Smoot (a pseudonym, but the only name we’re given), is a young Black woman in Roosevelt-era New York—and she’s a “hooker”, the only possible professional sobriquet given the story’s title and context. On the night when the story begins, she’s in a bar, trolling for the sailors who are her usual clients; after all, a girl’s got to eat. Young though she is, she’s already well versed in her professional environment and thus, suitably jaded. But what starts out as a familiar archetype (not to say “cliché) soon transforms into something very different. She’s approached by a young sailor, Hezekiah, who is handsome, well-mannered, charming, and lily White as can be, who claims that she reminds him of his mother. Not a line she’s heard before, so intrigued, she strikes up a conversation. And over the course of the conversation, something of a bond begins to form.

[Spoilers] This is one of the most elegantly handled conversations I’ve seen in which both parties proceed in the firm belief that they’re communicating clearly with the other party, when in fact neither is even remotely on the same wavelength. Timothea thinks this is just another cynical “business” transaction, albeit with a nicer than usual client; Hezekiah has been seriously smitten, and wants nothing more than to take her home as his wife. Unfortunately, what she takes to be a callow youth out recruiting an evening’s entertainment for his captain proves to have far more sinister implications, as we readers figure out long before she does. (Over the course of a couple pages of confusion filled with cryptic hints that I wasn’t able to put together until later in the story, Friesner dangled enough clues that I went straight to Lovecraft’s Shadow Over Innsmouth.)

Timotea, it turns out, is a refugee from Skull Island, one of the endless stream of virgins who have historically been sacrificed to Kong by terrified villagers—but she’s the first one smart enough to palm a knife so she can cut herself loose and flee the scene of the sacrifice. (In so doing, her flight, combined with the timely arrival of White sailor-explorers come to explore the island, precipitates the events that lead to Ann Darrow’s capture by the villagers and eventually Kong’s capture. The meaning of the previous allusions suddenly become clear.) As Friesner notes in a suitably acerbic tone, simultaneously poking the racism implicit in the portrayal of the natives of Skull Island, it’s not as if they’re not tool users; even if they can’t kill Kong with slings and arrows, they could certainly torch the island and return to “the world’s biggest barbeque”.

Timothea returns to New York with the sailors, where she takes up her profession of amorous facilitation and eventually meets Hezekiah. Hezekiah’s captain, Malachi Whately, is charged with the mission of recruiting young women and bringing them back to his community to serve as brood mares, and he arrives in time to slip Timothea a Micky Finn. She wakes in Innsmouth, bound to an altar, where she will be sacrificed to Cthulhu (in a departure from Dagon in the version of this village in the Lovecraft canon); this is how the village gets new children. Her only comment upon seeing her impregnator-to-be: “Eh. I’d seen worse.” She probably has, and because this sacrifice will end in a quiet, safe life as a cherished and valued member of the community, possibly with Hezekiah as her loving husband, she sees this as a fate to be embraced.

The One isn’t *ahem* one of the “deep ones”, but it’s charmingly executed, has a ton of fun skewering several genre and non-genre stereotypes, and gives us a female protagonist smart enough to challenge the cultural assumptions that have bound her (nominally) older and wiser elders. Fun in the best of the Friesner tradition.

Skillingstead: The Flow and Dream

Bale is a Monitor, crewmember on a terraforming expedition. His role is to monitor things and care for the ship and its Sleepers (the future colonists) while they wait for the planet to become habitable. But an alien virus struck the ship, brought in when a Monitor went outside to look around; the virus killed everyone except Bale, including his wife and daughter. Devastated by his loss, Bale withdraws into “the flow and dream” of the title, namely the datastream and dreams provided by the ship to keep the Monitors engaged with their mission and psychologically healthy while they wait for the time when they can release the colonists.

[Spoilers] When something goes wrong with the ship’s systems, Bale is forcibly withdrawn from his living dream—though he’s still living in a waking dream, imprisoned both by his memories of his lost loved ones and by an addiction to the freedom from memory offered by his “meld” with the ship’s flow and dream. He no longer cares about himself or his mission, and is set to slip back into his dreams or quietly await his death of natural causes—until one of the Sleepers intrudes. Almeta, a 12-year-old girl, has been awoken by the ship’s AI, which has melded with her permanently so it can accomplish its mission. Its transfer out of the computers is the “something wrong” that forced Bale to wake. The Almeta–ship hybrid remembers its mission, even if Bale no longer does, and insists that he accompany her to the exit hatch that will let him out onto the surface of the now-habitable planet, thereby accomplishing their mission. But the AI doesn’t really understand how to maintain flesh, and burns out the girl’s body by driving it too hard and neglecting its needs; Almeta dies shortly after Bale cracks the hatch and discovers that the planet is indeed habitable.

The story felt incomplete, and the science shaky. It’s not clear why the ship AI would leave the computer system; a simple download of a copy would work better, since it would leave the AI in place to monitor things if the transfer didn’t work. Even with high tech and a compliant planet, terraforming will take centuries, not the human lifespan it initially seems to take. In hindsight, I can infer that the ship arrived only after the terraforming was nearly complete, but making this explicit would have clarified the context. Because the time scale is unclear, the batlike bird that flies in the hatch when it opens seems an unconvincing “dove returns to ark after the great flood recedes” image. I assume this is an alien species that existed on the planet before the terraforming began, and that evolved fast enough to survive the radical changes, since there’s no evidence this creature was “seeded” (it doesn’t resemble typical Earth animals).

But these are nitpicks, since this story isn’t Robinson describing the terraforming of Mars at trilogy-length; the story’s heart and purpose is to show Bale’s journey through grief to survival and then to living. That raises the more serious problem: the combination of a living creature and the girl’s death seems insufficient to restore Bale; on the contrary, what little we learn of him suggests that Almeta’s death would only plunge him deeper into depression and hopelessness, as it’s not cathartic in any positive way. Why wake the Sleepers if they’re only going to die? The writing is skillful and atmospheric, with several nice turns of phrase and a well-handled sketch of the AI’s incomprehension of the needs of a fleshly body, but the SFnal backdrop seemed perfunctory, almost a matte painting stapled to the stage rather than fully motivating and shaping the story. In the end, the human aspects of Bale’s journey failed to convince. The story would have benefited from greater length to explore his recovery and the choice of a more compelling event that would turn him around and start him living again.

Rusch: Becalmed

The mystery at the heart of this story is just what the heck happened to the (for most of the story) anonymous narrator, a key cast member in Rusch’s series about “the Fleet”. For those who are unfamiliar with the series: the story of the Fleet resembles a cross between the good bits of Star Trek (interstellar do-gooders) and Battlestar Galactica (a homeless fleet with many enemies, wandering the stars in search of a home). In previous installments that have appeared in Asimov’s, I’ve criticized Rusch’s work, largely because I felt there was too much underused potential and a lack of consideration of or follow-through on the premises. I’m pleased to say that this time, she got it right on all levels.

Our narrator is a linguist, severely traumatized by a disastrous mission to make contact with and study the Quurzod; at the time, these people were unfriendly to the Fleet but not yet at war with them. The Quurzod have been accused of genocide by the Xenth, a friendlier group of aliens, and in the best do-gooder tradition, the Fleet ship Ivoire goes to investigate. After the first-contact team negotiates an opportunity for further study, Ivoire sends their best linguist (our narrator) to learn the language, but something goes disastrously wrong: only three of the original 27 team members escape alive, and the narrator is recovered, half dead after wandering through a desert, covered in the blood of others. The two other survivors blame her for events, without saying anything of their own roles in the debacle. Traumatized to the point of amnesia, the narrator is placed under house arrest and cuts herself off from everyone, including family and friends, until a medical and psychological evaluation team arrives to help her—but also to gather evidence for a court martial, since they clearly see her as a scapegoat. She retains an advocate, Leona Shearing, to ensure that she’ll get a fair trial, as the downside potential is high: banishment from the Fleet, which has been her home and family for her whole life, and possibly even execution. But the worst outcome may be remembering and facing what happened to her.

[Spoilers] Many clues are dangled, in a logical and inevitable sequence that slowly pulls the narrator out of her numb withdrawal. When she muses over the importance of linguistic subtleties, and how a direct word for word translation in ignorance of those subtleties can lead to the opposite of the intended meaning, the implication is that she may have mistranslated something so badly that it led to her team’s death and a war between the Fleet and the Quurzod. When her memories of the Quurzod return, she describes them as cruel, sociopathic, and unbelievably violent, but more than a plot device, this hints at something important about their language and cultural modes of communication; one-dimensional evil seems unlikely. And we learn the ship is “becalmed”, stranded in the foldspace that is this universe’s version of hyperspace because Captain Cooper’s delay to rescue her gave the Quurzod time to attack and damage the ship’s drive system. The risk of being stranded forever starts her on her way to recovery and restores some of her former dynamism; as a linguist, communication systems are her stock in trade, and if she can recover, perhaps she can help the crew contact a Fleet base, thereby letting them find a way back from foldspace. But with her increased agency comes a flood of memories, most significantly the knowledge that she survived by climbing over and through the corpses of her shipmates to escape a charnel pit and begin her long journey to safety.

For Ivoire and its crew to survive, the narrator must recover her memories of what really happened and must be forgiven by the ship’s crew—no matter how horrible the process of recovering those memories may be and how horrible the truth they reveal. Ignoring the advice of her advocate, who fears the medical staff will accidentally or otherwise implant false memories during the treatment process, she insists on treatment. Her advocate Leona provides no clues at all about what happened, knowing that anything she says may affect the narrator. (A creepy recent finding about the use of hypnotism and other techniques to “recover suppressed memories” is how easily a therapist can inadvertently lead the patient to invent false memories.) Initially, the narrator cannot force herself to enter the treatment room; she knows it will mould itself to her, and after her experience with the dead bodies, she’s claustrophobic. She breaks down and weeps cathartically, and that brings her farther on her return to life (to the point that she begins learning a new language), but her journey isn’t yet over. In the end, it is Cooper, her ex-husband and the person who knows her better than anyone (perhaps better than she knows herself), who talks her into returning for treatment. And when she does, all her memories return.

We learn that the Xenth, who asked for the Fleet’s aid, have intermittently been at war with the Quurzod for centuries. The most recent war began when the Quurzod killed every Xenth within 100 miles of a disputed border, and the Xenth retaliated in kind—while the two nations were negotiating a peace treaty to end the war. When the narrator brought her team into the Quurzod lands to study their culture and learn their language, there seemed to be hope of a peaceful resolution. But in recognizing a kindred spirit in Klaaynch, a young girl who reminded her of her own passion for language and willingness to violate unwritten laws to learn, the narrator misses a crucial clue: the fact that the Quurzod language is divided into four forms, with the diplomatic form that is the only form they’re willing to teach to outsiders deliberately designed to conceal key aspects of Quurzod culture from anyone who may become a potential enemy. This, combined with the Quurzod’s unwillingness to teach more intimate flavors of their language to strangers and strict restrictions on their relationships with others (e.g., the humans are allowed to work with host families to learn the diplomatic language, but cannot stay in their homes or dine with them), provides an important hint that she misses. When her relationship with Klaaynch pushes too far past these restrictions, things go rapidly to hell, and both the Quurzod girl and most members of the human team are killed.

How they’re killed is also revealing: central to the Quurzod identity is something the narrator translates as “violence pools”, training arenas where they teach their young how to fight. The pools resemble survivalist “fight clubs” and the more secretive Chinese martial arts schools we sometimes see in Hong Kong movies. The pools are secretive, open only to insiders of a group, and if they’re discovered by outsiders, they fold their tents and vanish into the night. Klaaynch is one of the most promising young warriors, enough so that when she is judged to have betrayed her people by revealing too much of their language to the human outsiders, she’s brought to the arena and given a chance to fight for her survival—and the survival of her immediate circle of friends and the humans who have contaminated them. Apart from two team members who sense that something is wrong, the humans don’t initially understand that they’re facing judgment; most believe they’ve finally earned enough trust to be shown a secret ritual. Klaaynch is good enough that she lasts almost 4 hours, just 2 tragic hours too short to spare her circle and the humans. When she dies in the arena, the Quurzod kill everyone else and throw them in a pit. Somehow the narrator survives, clawing her way out past the corpses of her friends.

In the closing moments of the story, we learn the narrator’s name (Mae) as she fully regains her identity, having come to terms with her trauma sufficiently well that she can move on. Though she’s certain she’s the one who betrayed her team and led the Fleet into war with the Quurzod through her failure to understand how seriously they took their privacy, Cooper reveals the truth: the Fleet first-contact team failed her and the Fleet by accepting the Xenth story at face value. The Xenth, with centuries of experience dealing with the Quurzod, deliberately withheld crucial information, hoping the technologically superior Fleet would offend the Quurzod and start a war the Quurzod could not win, leaving the Xenth to inherit whatever remains. It’s an elegant bit of manipulation and one that Cooper is desperate to undo; he’s confident they can repair the ship's anacapa drive, and that in the meantime, Mae’s communication expertise will let her find some way to get a message out that will stop the war.

Although the Quurzid language is harsh and gutteral, it has a certain music and beauty that Mae feels—a strong hint that the culture who created it may have equal depths, and a hint reinforced by the intriguing notion that this language (unlike all others I’m familiar with) uses a seven-syllable word to mean “no”; a rejection therefore cannot simply slip out, as it can in English, since it requires considerable oral discipline just to pronounce the rejection. In contrast, the Xenth language is sibilant and vaguely creepy, another clue (albeit a less subtle one) that not all is as it seems. (I’m not fond of their physical depiction, which seems a shade too Islamic for my comfort given the modern Islamophobia, though I won’t go so far as to attribute base motives to Rusch.)

Rusch raises the interesting question of whether language shapes culture or culture shapes language. I’m not a linguist, but I’ve worked with enough scientists in the past 25 years to recognize spurious dualistic worldviews that cannot accept “maybe both” as an answer. It’s trivial to come up with examples of why this is a false dualism: language shapes culture, as in the pejorative names we use to dehumanize “the Other”, and culture shapes language, as in how an outward-focused colonial culture like the British empire led to the adoption of words from myriad other Earth languages. [An afterthought: You can also examine how synthetic languages such as programming languages are shaped by the culture that developed them; compare the cultures that produced structured vs. unstructured programming, for instance. And consider how these languages shape how the culture behaves—a programming language defines how you think of a problem and constrains your possibilities for solving it. For a few more thoughts on this subject, see my article "Languages do shape how we think".] In this story, the debate manifests in the unstated but fully implied history of the Quurzod: facing an implacable enemy in the Xenth, they’ve had no choice but to adopt a Spartan approach if they are to survive, and they’ve learned to linguistically conceal anything of their culture that might give the Xenth an advantage. This by no means makes them “nice”, but it does explain much of how they’ve become who they are.

There are many nice touches: Mae is never named, not even by the people who interact with her, until right at the end, though everyone else is named; she is not only excommunicate by choice, but also by their mistrust. The dearth of information until late in the story is not just a dramatic technique to build suspense; it’s deeply true to the narrator’s POV, since she’s cut herself off from the rest of the crew so thoroughly that we receive no more information than she does. Rusch dangles just enough clues and makes us wait just long enough for the next one to emerge that there’s a continuous tension driving the story onward and pulling us through it. It helps that Mae is so sympathetic, portrayed with both deep empathy for her suffering and occasional flashes of humor, such as the following line: “I’m the intellectual... the one who thinks before she acts—who thinks in many languages before she acts.” Her courageous quest to regain her memory, despite clear knowledge that it will be horrific, is heroic in the true sense of the word (i.e., reaching to the depths of your being to find strength to attempt a daunting task when failure has terrible consequences, death possibly being the least of them). The ship’s withdrawal from the universe and presumably eventual return neatly parallel the narrator’s journey; both are becalmed, and risk death if they cannot return to their respective worlds. Because this emerges organically from the story, the symbolism never feels contrived.

What failed to work for me in the two previous installments in this series has been elegantly corrected here. The people at the heart of the story are all fully realized, and even the secondary characters felt like people I understood and wanted to get to know better. Because the heart of the story is Mae’s journey back to health rather than the SFnal technology that frames the story, Rusch handles it very well indeed. But the mystery that surrounds Mae’s recovery is fully considered, carefully thought through, and presented just fast enough to keep us turning pages. Becalmed finally realizes the potential of the previous stories. I hope this means Rusch is back in her groove, and that future Fleet stories will be equally well executed.

©2004–2018 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved