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Stories in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction, August 2011 issue

Stories reviewed:

Silverberg: The End of the Line
Tem: Corn Teeth
Brewer: Watch Bees
Swanwick: For I Have Lain Me Down...
Ludwigsen: We Were Wonder Scouts
Jernigan: Pairs
Goldstein: Paradise is a Walled Garden

Silverberg: The End of the Line

Silverberg returns us to the lushly exotic world of Majipoor, an exuberant and detailed and endlessly fascinating mashup between colonial India and the Holy Roman Empire. In this installment, loyal court functionary Stiamot has come to Domgrave, a remote outpost at the title’s end of the line. Strelkimar, the current Coronal (emperor, and counterweight to the Pontifex, the empire’s other ruler), is making a grand processional, a traditional show of face and show of power throughout his widespread holdings; in contrast with the usual practice, he’s chosen to visit the remote regions and small rural towns rather than the biggest and most powerful cities in his empire. Stiamot has come to prepare Domgrave for the visit, secure it against any threats to the Coronal, and not incidentally, learn more of the Metamorphs (shapeshifters) who were Majipoor’s original inhabitants before humans arrived.

As in the American expansion into West and the ensuing “Indian wars”, there are inevitable conflicts with the Metamorphs: the humans, needless to say, can’t be bothered asking which sites are sacred to the Metamorphs, and simply expand their cities and plantations wherever convenient, leading to increasingly frequent bloodshed on both sides. There are signs things are coming to a head, and Stiamot, who is fascinated by the Metamorphs, is one of the rare peacemakers who hopes to find a way for the two species to coexist; he faces stiff opposition from those who want to eradicate the natives and those who want to relocate them to another continent, thereby only delaying the inevitable problem. Stiamot faces a third barrier: like the British in India, most of the rural plantation owners feel nothing but contempt for the Metamorphs, and would rather see them dead and gone than pacified.

[Spoilers] As Stiamot goes about his preparations for the Coronal’s arrival, he learns of a local man, Mundiveen, who has lived among the Metamorphs. Mundiveen proves to be a bitter and angry old man, banished from the imperial capital nearly a decade ago for (initially) unspecified reasons, crippled by some old injury and gnomish in size and appearance, but Stiamot nonetheless manages to get past the exile's bitterness and establish a friendship of sorts. He learns that the Metamorphs refer to themselves as the Piurivar, and that their Coronal-equivalent is the Danipiur; at some point back in their ancient history, they committed some form of original sin, leading to the downfall of their empire and a curse that (by implication) includes the arrival of the humans. Stiamot hopes he will learn enough to gain insights into some way of seeking common ground with the Piurivar. Instead, he learns that Mundiveen is as bitter towards them as he is towards his fellow humans, considering them to be every bit as flawed and nasty as we are; indeed, he spends much of his time doctoring them due to injuries they inflict upon each other. (Whether this is the historical way an oppressed people turns upon itself when they cannot safely turn upon their oppressor, or is something inherent to their nature is an unanswered question. Mundiveen’s suggestion that peace with the Piurivar is impossible suggests the latter, but he’s not necessarily a reliable witness.)

As the story progresses, the imperial intrigues and machinations that led to the current situation are revealed. Strelkimar is depressed and haunted by something, and we learn this is because he deposed the previous Coronal, his cousin Thrykeld. Thrykeld was originally a kind, gentle man, well-loved by his people, until he fell under the influence of an advisor from the Ghayrog (a reptilian race with full equality to the humans), leading to increasing megalomania and eventually dismissal of his council and appointment of the Ghayrog as his High Counsellor. Given Silverberg’s fascination with history in general and Roman history in specific, there are undoubted echoes of Caligula and his beloved horse, but these are only echoes; Thrykeld is far less sinister and is inspired by, rather than based on, Caligula. In the end, as Thrykeld becomes increasingly absolutist, Strelkimar is forced to depose him.

We learn that Mundiveen was a court functionary at the time, and that when he tried to come between Thrykeld and Strelkimar and find a middle ground, he ended by alienating both. Indeed, when he proclaimed his loyalty to the Coronal and threatened to oppose Strelkimar, he was taken away by thugs, beaten nearly to death, and left to die. Instead, he survived and fled to the provinces. The reward for his years of duty and loyalty was ruin, hence his bitterness, and the lesson is not lost on Stiamot. Silverberg neatly leads us to the sudden suspicion that Mundiveen may actually be the deposed Coronal—and then deftly yanks the rug out from under that thought.

The climax of the story arrives when the Piurivar attack the Coronal at his banquet with the local notables. Stiamot persuades Mundiveen to go out into the conflict and beg the aliens to stop so that a peace can be negotiated. But Mundiveen fails and is killed, and the Coronal’s superior forces defeat the attackers. Shortly afterwards, a message arrives, telling of the death of the Pontifex, which means that Strelkimar will become the new Pontifex. Desperate to leave the position he gained with bloody hands, he appoints Stiamot his successor. Stiamot, having learned Mundiveen’s harsh lesson, sees no likely reward in continuing to strive for peace with the Piurivar, and instead launches a war with them that will end (as we learn in the closing sentences) 30 years later with victory. It’s the kind of tragic ending that has recurred throughout history when good intentions could not come to fruition.

There are two significant flaws in the story. The first is the obvious but unanswered question of why Stiamot never makes an effort to actually speak to the Metamorphs, restricting himself to the second-hand knowledge provided by Mundiveen. The second is the abrupt ending, in which the man who wanted to be a peacemaker abandons his dreams of many years overnight and declares war upon the natives. Both can be potentially attributed to the limitations of a short story, since working out both issues in detail would have expanded the tale to novella or novel length. Neither flaw detracts greatly from an otherwise involving, intriguing tale, told with the smooth and seemingly effortless skill of a seasoned pro.

Tem: Corn Teeth

Sonya’s a young human (probably around 6 years old) who’s been taken in and is being fostered by a triad of aliens (Alayayxans), along with her brother Todd. Her parents have disappeared, and it’s not clear why; kids this young don’t have a great grasp of detail, so we never learn why. There’s considerable resistance to the notion of cross-species adoptions, particularly since Earth’s resources have been stretched to the breaking point and most people aren’t too happy about sharing what’s left with a bunch of icky aliens. (Things have presumably grown bad enough that it’s difficult to find humans willing to serve as foster parents, but Tem doesn’t go into detail over this aspect of the story, since her viewpoint character couldn’t possibly know these details.) Worse, the specter of prejudice inevitably rears its ugly head. With formal legal adoption only a month away, and the counter ticking down, things grow complicated.

[Spoilers] The Alayayxans are interestingly different from us: they’re hairless squid-like beings, and they have teeth like straws, very different from the “corn teeth” of the title, which is a neat description of the teeth of young human children. They have handlike things (many more than two) rather than true hands. And they have three sexes (male, female, and chchch) that together form the family bond. But in all the ways that are important, they’re more like us than they’re different: they love and revere children, and the three would-be parents go out of their way to learn about human children and make Sonya and Todd feel loved and welcomed. Enough so that Sonya quickly begins to do what all kids do: she tries desperately to be more like her adoptive parents, including pulling out some of her hair in the hope she’ll resemble them more.

Indeed, the hair-pulling and related behaviors lie at the heart of the story: Like all children, Sonya is desperate to belong to a secure family (particularly since her first family disintegrated), and mitigates her insecurity by trying to be just like her parents in the hope this will make them like her more. Unfortunately, when your parents aren’t human, this isn’t so easy, and the difficulty’s compounded by a tragic misunderstanding. Like all children, Sonya fervently believes that she’ll grow up to resemble her new parents. And when they try to reassure her that she won’t, and that they love the fact that she will grow up human, they base this response on the logical but completely incorrect assumption that she’s scared of the change in her life situation that will occur after this mysterious event called “adoption”. The real problem is that Sonya desperately wants to be more like her parents, not less, and has assumed (not understanding the adult world at all) that “adoption day” will mark the start of her transformation into an Alayayxan. What should be reassurance is therefore misinterpreted as her parents not liking her enough to want this change. Like any other child, she reacts badly, throwing tantrums, refusing to eat, defecating in her bed, and doing all the other things a powerless child can do to assert herself.

Sadly, this sabotages the family relationship, and when Sonya finally works through her fear and the anger it inspires, it’s too late: she and her brother will be taken away from the aliens and sent to a human family. It’s a tragic ending because things could have worked out so much better—if only the aliens had a better grasp of the psychology of human children. In fact, that raises my one objection about the story: the social worker who interviews Sonya near the end to see how she’s adapting to her new family comes right out and asks her whether what her foster parents have said (i.e., that Sonya expects to change into an alien) is true, and when she denies this, it’s painfully clear from Tem’s description of Sonya's response that the statement is true. I’d expect a skilled social worker to pick up on this as easily as we do, or at least pry a little more to confirm what is really going on. Possibly this is just the hallmark of an overworked and overstressed social worker (like many are), possibly it’s a racist or xenophobe looking for an excuse to prevent the adoption, or possibly it’s just one of the logical, inevitable, and potentially dire misunderstandings we’ll face when we meet our first alien race and we both begin tripping all over our assumptions. And possibly this is just me being petulant that there was no happy ending because such tragedies are all too common in the real world and I don't need fiction to bring me yet another.

Tem gets the painful details of an adopted child’s world right, ranging from the incomprehension over many things we adults take for granted to the lack of understanding of why she’s so different from her parents. On a purely literary level, Sonya serves as a powerful metaphor for how alien we are to our young children, how incomprehensible our world is to them, and how desperate they are to bridge that gap and belong. Moreover, the childhood desire to transform ourselves into something more like our parents is fascinatingly different from how we begin to dread that transformation and all the changes occurring to our body as we become adolescents. On a narrative level, the metaphor works because it’s a powerful force in shaping Sonya’s interaction with her world, and completely integrated with her character and the plot rather than being grafted on to one or the other purely to show how clever the author is. The contradictions entailed by these factors lead to Sonya’s simultaneous desire to be more like her parents and the reflex to lash out and hurt them when they scare her through unintended actions, even something as innocent as feeling homesick for the Alayayxan planet (which Sonya sees as their desire to be somewhere else rather than with her). Speaking as a parent, I can confirm how scary it is living with the knowledge that we often badly misunderstand our kids.

Corn Teeth is a powerful, skillfully told tale, though one with a sad ending. It’s a reminder to us that we shouldn’t assume we truly understand another person, whether alien or human, and should strive to dump our assumptions and really listen. That won’t eliminate misunderstandings, but will at least give us hope of spotting the inevitable problems in time to do something about them.

Brewer: Watch Bees

David has just graduated from an unnamed Illinois university (possibly in Chicago?) where he’s been studying agriculture. The purpose of his education was to learn enough that when he returns home to his family farm in Michigan, he’ll be better able to help them manage. But things are not going well in the U.S.: the infrastructure is crumbling and social conditions have deteriorated to the point that gangs of bandits and raiders roam the rural areas, robbing or killing travellers and inhabitants. It’s bad enough that David has lost relatives to raiders, that some farmers employ genetically engineered “watch bees” to chase off raiders, and that he’s amazed by the fact he can simply and safely walk from the city to the farm that will host him during this story.

[Spoilers] David tells us he’s been searching for a particular type of farm, and his inspection of the bees buzzing in the flowers of the field until he finds the orange-and-black watch bees of the title is a clue that he may have an ulterior motive beyond working for room and board and enough cash to repair a bicycle that will let him pedal home. That motive is to find a way to steal watch bees, which his own people cannot afford, and bring them home to protect his family and their neighbors against the raiders that infest Michigan. We learn that the current trend towards genetically engineered suicide seeds (i.e., seeds that produce crops whose seeds are sterile and therefore can’t be used to grow next year’s crops) has continued, with the practice extended towards bees, and that David’s Michigan family can’t afford to buy new bees every year or two to pollinate their orchard.

The farm he finds is operated by Ezekiel Ware and his family. He ingratiates himself with the family by working hard and providing the benefits of his university education, but all the while he’s also cleverly pumping them for information about the bees. They’re no fools, and have a strong suspicion of what he’s doing, and warn him of how many others have tried to steal such bees and failed: the bees are genetically keyed to recognize their farmers and attack strangers if the strangers grow hostile in any way, making it exceedingly difficult to steal them; typically, they turn on and kill their thieves. For that matter, marriages between families with different bees require considerable planning because it takes a few insect generations before the bees can be reprogrammed to accept the new family members.

The climax comes when a man on a motorcycle, accompanied by his wife and baby, approach the farm to ask for some spare fuel—a precious commodity, since such things must be produced on each farm because market prices make them prohibitively expensive. When Ezekiel refuses them, the man pulls pistols and tries to take the fuel by force—but he and his family are quickly swarmed and killed by the farm’s tiny guardians. David discovers the final clue he needs to understand the defensive system: that the bees are mostly a magician’s sleight of hand that distracts a malefactor while the real killers, genetically altered wasps, do the killing work. Having spent long enough with the Wares to put all the pieces together, he’s able to steal a nest of their wasps and some of their bees, flees on his bike, and makes it safely to a train that will bring him home, past the raiders and bandits.

David’s seduction by the farmer’s daughter seems pro forma and too much of a cliché to really merit its inclusion in the story, and the climax (the death of the motorcyclist’s family) seems forced (i.e., a way to show off the bees rather than something that arises organically), but these are minor points. Brewer does most other things well, such as dropping enough hints early in the story that David isn’t telling us everything and thereby clearly foreshadowing his betrayal of his hosts. The seemingly throwaway line in which Ezekiel includes U.S. troops on the “Persian front” (i.e., Iran) in his dinner prayer, gone in the space of a few words and never repeated, is a nastily pointed poke at modern U.S. foreign policy: a couple generations into the future, the government apparently still believes it’s more important to engage in useless and expensive foreign adventures than to fix more important crises at home. And the rural religious family, which could be easily portrayed as uneducated hicks, are portrayed with sympathy as intelligent, educated people whose religion doesn’t stop them from thinking; rather, it serves as the kind of moral anchor that succors them in trying times.

Though the prose is restrained, I particularly liked the description of an old woman who David meets in a bar, with multiple piercings despite being so old that her wrinkles hide most of her tattoos. (Reminded me of my own story, At the Body Shop.) An effective and well-crafted tale, undermined slightly by some forced bits.

Swanwick: For I Have Lain Me Down...

(Full title: For I Have Lain Me Down on the Stone of Loneliness and I’ll not be Back Again)

The year is around 2100, and Earth has been benevolently conquered by a federation of aliens who have brought many good things to Earth—though only after a war in which they forced the nations of Earth to surrender their independence. Our unnamed narrator is an eighth-generation Irish American, come to Ireland for one final look at his roots (though he’d deny it) before he ships out on an alien starship, never to see Earth again. As his tour winds down, he meets Mary Reilly (“Mare na Rhagallach” in Gaelic), an Irish singer who enchants him and steals his heart—in a very literal way, not just the traditional way we snare each other, since it involves a vision that reveals things about him she would have difficulty learning any other way, and establishes a bond between them that goes far beyond the merely erotic. And though she takes him for her lover and shows him her land and its long, tragic history, she has ulterior motives.

[Spoilers] Mary sees instantly that our protagonist has been subjected to what she describes as prenatal Outsider meddling, which improved him in unspecified ways. The Outsiders are a federation of aliens, and the Irish were one of the last groups who fought them right up to the end, until the alien weapons turned Galway to glass (i.e., presumably using high-energy weapons that melted everything). Though they gave Galway’s residents enough warning the citizens could flee their doomed city, many starved in the countryside before normalcy could be restored. It’s a chilling reminder of historically recent harsh treatment by the British, and an example of how, despite the many benefits they’ve brought to Earth, the aliens clearly hold the whip hand. A fascinating inherent contradiction lies within the scenario: to the narrator and most humans, the Outsider are benevolent, but to Mary and others who fought them and hope to continue doing so, the best that can be said of them is that they’re throwing scraps of bread to their slaves. The Irish have a long memory, and at times, it emerges to color whatever they do.

Mary shows the narrator all of Ireland, but her perspective may be as alien to him as those of the various alien races: “she told me all and showed me everything and I, in turn, learned nothing”. (Some of that Irish feyness has already begun to seep into him by this point in the story.) Mary takes him to a holy well in the Burren (a place that is bleakly and spectacularly Irish, a remarkable contrast with the lushness of the rest of the land, a symbol in many ways of Irish resilience, and a must-see if you love nature steeped in human history), and to the “stone of loneliness”, a magical place said to cure homesickness in those who will be leaving Ireland forever. (So far as I can tell, the stone is Swanwick’s invention.) For the narrator, it communicates every sorrow felt by those who have lain on it in all the centuries. Some of this is may just be Mary’s ability to convey her unrelenting bitterness at Ireland’s long history of oppression by outsiders (traditionally, the English), but some is also the ineffable magic of Ireland seeping into his bones.

Throughout the story, Mary’s seduction of the narrator is cold and calculated, despite the passion with which she performs it: her long-term goal is to enlist him in the cause of striking back against the aliens in the kind of doomed rebellion that has dogged Irish history, up to and including “The Troubles” of the late 20th century. For an example of her ruthlessness, consider how she treats an innocent alien visitor who is doing nothing more than painting the landscape: in short order, Mary convinces her that there are still Irish terrorists who would think nothing of slipping into a hotel room, abducting an alien, and murdering it; needless to say, the tourism officials wouldn’t mention this to aliens. It’s a masterful way of playing on the conqueror’s inevitable fears that the conquered will turn on them, and her story is just plausible enough that it may not be entirely idle sadism to scare away a tourist.

Indeed, as the story draws towards its climax, Mary brings the narrator to a bar (a place men go to get drunk, rather than a pub, which is a place for socializing). There, she introduces him to some hard cases who will undoubtedly kill him if he tries to leave the bar without joining their cause. He learns they’ve recruited him to carry what seems to be an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) bomb to the starport on his way off Earth; they reassure him that it will only destroy the port infrastructure rather than people, and as they note, they have other people (perhaps Mary?) who can play the suicide bomber role. Sensing the manipulation that has led him to this point, but not its goal, he has played along, helplessly oscillating between mad passion for Mary and rage at her often cold and contemptuous treatment of him and her bitter nature. In the end, he agrees to carry the bomb so that he can escape the bar, knowing he’ll never see Mary again, but he destroys it at the first opportunity—a wise choice, because soon after, he’s arrested and searched, suggesting the Irish rebels may have a traitor in their midst. With no evidence against him, the authorities free him, and the story ends on a poignant note that echoes the deep and abiding sadness of the Irish diaspora: “it seemed to me that we were each and every one of us ships without a harbor, sailors lost on land.

In even the darkest Swanwick tale, there’s usually a brief leavening of his trademark humor: here, the narrator uses a pendant that gives him an Irish accent, so he can pretend to be Irish in the hope they won’t ask him the inevitable question of whether he’s here seeking his roots—and yet they instantly know he’s not local (word choice and conversational rhythms and how you act being stronger clues to your origin than your accent) and ask him whether he’s seeking his roots. What initially seems another bit of humor, Mary playing “air guitar”, turns into something nicely SFnal—here, rings on her fingers sense their position and movement speed (like with a Wii handset) and therefore convey how she’s fingering the strings. Despite this technological departure from Ireland’s beloved “trad”, the music remains strong and true to its Irish roots. That’s not a trivial point, but rather a segue into another description of history endlessly repeating itself: after Mary was orphaned (presumably during the Outsider invasion), she was sent to a school deliberately designed to destroy her Irishness. (The British once did this, and it was done again repeatedly throughout the Irish diaspora.) She’s saved by the music that comes to her, and she uses it the same way Black slaves in the United States used their music: as an act of rebellion, resistance, and remembering. We often forget that the Irish, the French, and many other immigrant minorities also survived attempts by the majority to destroy their ethnicity.

Swanwick’s writing is a trove of rich and memorable images and lines, and this story is no exception. The narrator’s dying grandfather has “hair forming a halo around him as white as a dandelion waiting for the wind to purse its lips and blow”. The long and sorrowful history of the Irish is encapsulated in a single telling phrase: “We lose and we lose and we lose, but because we never accept it, every defeat and humiliation only leads us closer to victory.” This series of defeats adds “to a sense that you’ve lost before you’ve even begun, that it doesn’t matter what you do or who you become, because you’ll never achieve or amount to shit.” This and its continuance (“The thing that sits like a demon in the dark pit of your soul.”) capture the dark and fey nature of many Irish better than anything I’ve read in recent memory. (I’m only a quarter Irish, yet my grandmother lived Mary’s early life, minus the terrorist violence, and Swanwick’s portrayal fits many of the Irish I’ve known and what I’ve inferred from much reading of Irish history. Yet readers must remember that this is not true of all Irish; Swanwick has not descended into stereotyping here.)

Definitely one of Swanwick’s best and darkest works.

Ludwigsen: We Were Wonder Scouts

This is a tale of the “Wonder Scouts”, an organization founded in the late 1920s by the mysterious Mr. Fort. Like the Boy Scouts, they gather to learn new skills and socialize; unlike the Boy Scouts, their explorations focus on the abnormal parts of the world, and specifically on areas where Mr. Fort believes that “reality leaks”. Our unnamed 13-year-old narrator joins the scouts because his first-generation immigration parents (Norwegian) are “needlessly grim and unimaginative”, with no time or patience for his youthful flights of fantasy. (Looking back from a lifetime later, he concedes that they were wiser than he was willing to believe at the time.) Indeed, when his father discovers the make-believe world of Thuria that his son has built in the crawlspace beneath their house, it is immediately destroyed: “We didn’t come all the way to America just for you to imagine somewhere else... He got the broom and, with the same caprice as the sea washing over Atlantis, he swept Thuria into history.” This is also why he’s not allowed to read “scientifiction”, since his father has no patience for such a waste of time and won’t even carry the magazines at his New York news-stand.

[Spoilers] Mr. Fort’s an interesting character, having created an organization intended to teach the boys “independence in body, in intellect, and in spirit”. He emphasizes skepticism (thus, freedom of thought), yet it’s a curious form of skepticism, informed by equal parts spirit of inquiry (questioning conventional wisdom) and conspiracy-theorist paranoia. He’s convinced that the world is nothing more than consensus reality, and a pale shadow of a higher world of knowledge and enlightenment; indeed, he doesn’t believe in ghosts because he can’t imagine why they’d return from such a world to visit us, not because of the skeptic’s usual reasons. (The notion that ghosts might do this out of love, and the desire to share that world with us, escapes him.) He’s perfectly sincere about this, having had his own encounter with mystery many years back, but in many ways he’s really training a generation of kids (albeit a very small group at the start of the story) to become future star reporters for bastions of journalism such as the National Enquirer.

The story gets rolling when Fort borrows a schoolbus and takes his kids for a sleepover in the forest—the kind of white lie the narrator tells his parents, who would not tolerate Fort’s more radical notions, but are eager for their son to stop dreaming and become more practical (“strong and American”) by learning to work in the woods. But rather than the traditional sleepover, Fort’s real plans are to investigate a series of disappearances in the woods near Lake Moreau, in the Adirondacks. There, they’ll learn to create dowsing rods and to search for “ley lines”, on the principle that the disappearances must have occurred where such lines cross and the higher reality intrudes on our mundane world. When the narrator observes that all those who disappeared were young girls, Fort speculates that this may be because women are more sensitive to magic (thus, more likely to find these leaks in reality) or more in demand by those who live on the mystical other side of the barrier that separates us from the higher reality (thus, more likely to be invited to experience it).

Of course, the modern reader will have darker suspicions about what’s really going on. When the narrator briefly escapes from the other kids, recognizing that magic won’t happen amidst a noisy crowd, he wanders into mystery and horror: when he pauses to recreate his cherished world of Thuria in a hollow log, his world suddenly changes, becoming fuzzy, and a stranger approaches him, offering to take him to see “the little people”. He follows, and is shown to a jury-rigged shelter in which a young girl of about his age lies slumbering with “strange, purple-blue nails”, dressed in white and bedecked with flowers like some faery princess in a woodland bower—only she’s clearly dead. The narrator doesn’t at first understand this, but when the stranger tries to grab him, he flees back to his companions. When he tells of what he’s seen, Mr. Fort leads the charge back to the site, hoping to see something mystical, but the Scouts only find the abandoned ruin of the shelter, old bloodstains, and the remains of the young girl; reality has stopped leaking, and they see only the present. The police are called in and find the other missing girls, revealing that a serial killer has been at work.

Ludwigsen’s writing is simple and effective, presented as advice from an older, wiser man towards the end of his life, who is now initiating a new generation of kids into the mystery he experienced. Though part of what he saw in the woods of Lake Moreau was clearly real, there was an undoubted moment when his perception of the world changed, and like Fort before him, he’s sought to recapture that numinous moment ever since. Along the way, he shows us both the wonders that can be seen by those willing to let their imagination roam and the perils of self-deception when we see only what we want to see, and choose to interpret our world exclusively from the standpoint of a particular dogma or -ism rather than taking it on its own merits. There are no literary or plot or character pyrotechnics here, just a simple and quietly effective tale of imagination and its perils.

Jernigan: Pairs

Arihant is a disembodied soul, one of the last two humans from Earth who still has a physical form—though since he seems to be a tenuous, vapor-thin collection of molecules held together primarily by force of will, that description may be a bit generous. Along with Louca, his female companion, he travels between the stars, selling the souls of their fellow humans to alien collectors. Louca is bonded to their starship and manifests primarily in the form of physical avatars into which she can download her consciousness. They’ve been rescued from the storage cubes that contained their souls to manage the ship for their employer (“slavemaster”, really, though neither wants to use the term), since none of his race can be bothered with such a menial task. Earth has been destroyed—“ground up for fuel”, presumably to power the devices that sucked up every soul on Earth and uploaded them into storage cubes.

[Spoilers] With that plot description out of the way, it’s hard to imagine what remains to spoil. *G* But since we learn all of this early in the story, it doesn’t really count as spoilers. What remains are the characters at the heart of the story. Louca is on her way to crazy, believing herself to be a hawk and behaving accordingly, but she remains sane enough to be functional in her role of starship/pilot. Arihant is still sane, but far gone in despair. Yet he still retains the very human urge to live, to experience, and to record his story for posterity, even though he believes there will be no human posterity. He’s constantly being denigrated by their master, Slaf’Salakem, member of a predatory reptilian species that lives to kill (calling it “hunting” would be too kind), and constantly being reminded of how inferior his race was and how little spirit he has. Even Louca makes this point, although in a kinder way, merely suggesting that he lacks her predator’s spirit. But he does have enough spirit to dream of killing his master, and practices honing what remains of his substance into a blade that will let him kill his oppressor when an opportunity presents itself.

Arihant and Louca have not been forced to see any of the souls they’ve been selling, so it’s been possible for them to do this with little remorse and to subsequently escape into exquisitely detailed virtual realities to while away the years between the stars. But during one shore leave, Arihant sees a human woman whose soul was sold, and who is now being used as a solitary dancer to entertain her owner’s customers, and her reality and her fear over her situation touch him so deeply that VR can no longer give him solace. That gives him the final motivation he needs to kill Slaf’Salakem, which he does with Louca’s help, under circumstances that could plausibly make it seem like a hunting accident. Slaf’Salakem is soon replaced by a new owner, but one who seems less cruel and easier to manipulate. It’s a small victory for Arihant, but not one that leads to a happy ending; the slave trade will continue, with no hope of rescue or a favorable resolution for the remaining humans.

It’s not at all clear why Earth had to be ground up for fuel, other than as a way to show us how callous the aliens are, since there’s no shortage of mass in the universe and even substances such as oxygen are more easily had in comets and other low-gravity objects scattered around the solar system. It’s also not clear why Arihant cannot take physical form, when Louca can do so at will; possibly this is a deliberate (but unspecified) cruelty on the part of his master to prevent him from achieving any physical contact with Louca. But these are secondary issues; the heart of the story is the dire and hopeless situation the two humans find themselves in. Although they remain invested in survival, their prognosis is bleak. Pairs is not a pleasant tale by any means, but a well-crafted one that effectively establishes a consistent mood, with two distinct protagonists who are trying to survive, even in the absence of hope.

Goldstein: Paradise is a Walled Garden

Tip is a 14-year-old orphan girl in Elizabethan England—but it’s a very different, steampunkish England in which manufactories are staffed with gleaming copper and brass homunculi (robots, basically) that stamp out miscellaneous products from molten iron, served by “scrap boys” who scamper around refilling spent fluids and carting away the baskets of manufactured products. The machines are exported from Al Andalus, the Moorish caliphate that, in our world, collapsed something like a century before Elizabeth’s time under the strain of internal divisions and external pressure from Christian Spain. Having evaded that collapse in Goldstein’s story world, they continued to explore science and technology, making great strides. Tip’s adventure begins when she sees the monitoring gauge on one homunculus run amok, oscillating back and forth in a way she’s never seen before; gifted with an inherent sense of how machines work, she senses something is wrong, and pulls its plug, but too late to stop the other machines from malfunctioning, forcing a shutdown of the entire factory. But she’s been spotted by the foreman, and he captures her when she flees. (She’s trying to escape his attention so she can continue to hide her sex, since women aren’t allowed to work in these factories.)

[Spoilers] The foreman, Henry Lawton, is called before the Queen to explain the factory’s shutdown, and brings Tip along as his scapegoat. But Tip reveals surprising insights into what happened, and Elizabeth spots this instantly. (The Queen is historically reputed to have been an uncommonly intelligent ruler.) She summons the Al Andalus ambassador to demand an explanation, and when he cannot explain, she threatens to reveal the robot rebellion to other European powers, important customers for Al Andalus’ products; in so doing, she blackmails his Caliph into granting permission for her representatives to visit Al Andalus and learn enough about the homunculi that Englishmen can maintain and debug them. The Caliph agrees to accept three men, and Elizabeth includes Lawton in the delegation, but also insists Tip accompany him as his “servant”; the Queen is canny enough to recognize that a child will never be suspected of spying on the caliphate, and that Tip is a mechanical prodigy who is ideally suited to spy on the Moors. She also quickly recognizes Tip as a girl, and seizes the opportunity to help a fellow woman get ahead. (In our real history, a man in Elizabeth’s secret service was suspected of being a woman in disguise, but I couldn’t turn up the name. Not the Chevalier d’Eon—s/he lived centuries later. Suggestions welcome!)

Tip and her adult companions have enough time for a crash course in Al Andalus customs and geopolitik (both eye-openers to Tip) before they are flown to Spain aboard an efficient and (to Tip) awe-inspiring airship. Cordoba is clean (no open sewers in the streets), and even has a steam-powered public transit system. The English group is welcomed with traditional Muslim hospitality, then brought to the workshop of Akil ibn Suleiman, a key roboticist responsible for the homunculi, and Tip quickly reveals her instinctive understanding of their mechanisms, forming a bond of shared interest with Akil. Together they reach the conclusion that the factory homunculi (individually too limited but collectively having enough gears to build a powerful computer) may have somehow developed a collective consciousness, even though they are programmed (literally hardwired) with wheels that whir in their skulls like the springs and escapements and other bits that program a watch to tell the time. For them to have rebelled, someone must have altered that programming by physically modifying the gears. As the plot progresses, we learn that Lawton is spying for Léon, the last remnants of Spain that survive in the north after the Moorish conquest of the south. In this alternate history, the Spanish have also discovered the new world despite their reduced condition and, flush with its gold, have been gathering mercenaries and stealing Muslim technology so they can take back their lost lands. Real history may repeat itself if the Moors cannot muster enough technology and soldiers to defend themselves.

Goldstein’s writing is simple and restrained, but creates a strong sense of place. In particular, she does a nice job of humanizing the Muslim culture of Al Andalus, which was far more open to rational inquiry than Christian Europe and far more tolerant of other cultures (and particularly of the Jews, who were hated and persecuted everywhere in Christian Europe). Their level of technological progress may seem implausible, particularly given the decline that had begun a century earlier in our history, but the overall notion that they would have made remarkable progress if their culture hadn’t been destroyed is eminently plausible. Their culture was also cleaner; unlike Europeans of the time, Muslims bathed regularly and understood much about hygiene and medicine that only reached the Christian  world years later through looted books. (Related to this, a small but significant omission is Tip’s lack of surprise at how much better the air and people would smell in Al Andalus, the Elizabethans being infamous for their poor personal hygiene and the air of a European industrial town likely being thick enough to smother all but the hardiest lungs.) In a neat historical parallel, Lawton was once a shoemaker, and like the legendary Ned Ludd, was eager to sabotage (literally, the act of throwing a wooden shoe called a “sabot”) the gears of progress. Goldstein gives us an amusing sight gag (so to speak) when Tip comes across the Queen playing Pong on her computer and instantly experiences the teenager’s eternal lust for video games, and another one when she teaches Lawton how to use a flush toilet.

On the down side, Muslim culture of the time was at best paternalistic towards women, and Goldstein makes it clear that it was no paradise for women. When Tip reveals that she’s a young woman, Akil notes, in something of a preachy intrusion, that a culture cannot prosper if it ignores the strengths of half of its members. Goldstein’s preaching to the choir, but the delivery felt awkward because it came from Akil rather than Tip. Unfortunately, there are significant problems that go beyond Tip’s unlikely precocity, mostly related to inconsistencies with how much she could know about her world. For example, though we can accept her ability to instantly figure out mechanical devices as part of the long tradition of such characters in SF/F, Goldstein loses track of the limits of Tip’s background on her ability to think things through. For example, Tip initially doesn’t even know England is an island, and this lack of geographic knowledge would make it impossible for her to know how far Al Andalus is from England; thus, there’s no way for her to infer that the rapid communication between England and the caliphate (presumably by radio?) is unusual. Goldstein’s affection for Tip and Akil also leads her to neglect other key characters. Once in Cordoba, the English adults simply fade into the background and disappear, accomplishing and observing nothing and stepping aside to let Tip carry the delegation’s entire mission. Implausible at best, though in the case of Lawton, there’s at least a good reason why he disappears from the stage.

The technology doesn’t convince, even allowing for the steampunk genre conventions. Reprogramming the homunculi would require a remarkably sophisticated understanding of how their mechanical brains work, but we’ve been told that the Al Andalus models can’t be dissected without destroying them beyond the possibility of reassembly. Moreover, the notion of a suddenly evolving consciousness won’t work because the gears are not modifiable from within: for such a system to evolve a complexity beyond what is hardwired into it would require far more flexible brains than preprogrammed factory automatons would possess. Moreover, if the English don’t understand how the machines work and how to debug them when necessary, the Queen would be foolish to use homunculi as her personal guards (and she has no human guards when we meet her); they could be easily have been programmed by Al Andalus to kill her at a moment’s notice if this became necessary. A similar fear exists today about computer chips manufactured in countries like China that are potentially hostile to the West. A few security experts have expressed concern over whether “back doors” could be built into these chips, though as yet, I’ve seen no good evidence that this has occurred.

The title refers to an important aspect of Al Andalus culture, namely the reverence of a formerly desert people for water, and their joy at the extravagance of being able to squander it in their new land to produce luxuries such as walled gardens, like some perfect oasis from Paradise—but it also refers to the fact that the walls Al Andalus has built to protect its culture may be crumbling, and that this Paradise may soon be lost. Tip is the proverbial plucky young protagonist, smart enough to survive in a Dickensian version of Elizabethan London (like her soundalike, “Pip”) and smart enough to learn Arabic numerals simply by watching an Al Andalus mechanic install and tune an engine equipped with gauges marked in Arabic numerals. Like John Scalzi’s Zoë, she’s too good to be true, but if you’re willing to accept this and other steampunk conventions, you’ll find her a pleasant companion throughout the adventure. Paradise is an exotic, entertaining tale and a clever take on alternate history, despite being undermined by the abovementioned flaws.

©2004–2018 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved