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Phetteplace: The Cult of Whale Worship
Chapman: This Petty Pace
Reed: The Outside Event
Mirabelli: The Pastry Chef
Skillingstead: Free Dog
Arnason: My Husband Steinn
Künsken: To Live and Die in Gibbontown
Kress: A Hundred Hundred Daisies
Johnson: The Man Who Bridged the Mist
We meet Rosealma in mid-crisis, as seems to be the status quo these days for most people in Rusch’s Diving the Wreck universe. The research station she’s on has been damaged in some unspecified way, and the thousand-some scientists aboard the station are rushing, panicked, towards their designated evacuation ships as Rose supervises. She’s calm, urging others along, and remains right to the end to ensure that everyone in her section will make it safely off-station. As she waits and watches, she muses about the many stupid things she’s done in the past, and how this time she wants to do it right. The mystery of what those stupid things were and why they’re so important to her lies at the heart of the story, told as a series of flashbacks between the present and events ca. 20 years earlier.
[Spoilers] In one of the flashbacks, we learn that Rose was an apprentice wreck diver with a much younger Boss, one of the recurring characters in the Diving series. Rose earned her nickname (“Squishy”) 19 years earlier when a tourist on one of Boss’s dives pulled a knife on her, then fell and nicked his eyeball when the third crewmember, Turtle (so-nicknamed because of her disproportionally small head), jarred the ship’s gravitational controls to disrupt the knife attack. Rose, trained as a doctor, efficiently patches up the wounded eyeball, and when Turtle asks whether it feels squishy, Boss mistakes the query as Rose’s nickname, and the nickname sticks.
As the flashbacks slowly merge to create a picture of what has happened, we learn that Rose was once a promising physicist, working on the mysterious and poorly understood anacapa drive that powered many of the old empire’s ships, a technology now lost to the current empire. The military is keenly interested in this technology because it’s could provide impenetrable “stealth” technology for its ships: a stealth-equipped ship can disappear in the blink of an eye, missiles and beam weapons passing right through it. The ship can then move and re-emerge into space, unseen and untraceable by its enemies, giving it an unbeatable combat advantage. Unfortunately, the technology involves a kind of warping of time and space that is nearly impossible to control, and sometimes the ships don’t come back at all, or come back in the wrong place and wrong time, as we’ve seen in previous installments in this series. Rose has been working on the technology for years, but increasingly comes to understand its dangers, emphasized by the growing losses of personnel who “disappear” when the technology periodically escapes control. Thus far, there have been no incidents in which the technology damages space-time so badly that no ship can pass anywhere close thereafter, but Rose feels it’s only a matter of time. And like the scientists who worked on the first atom bombs and feared they might ignite the atmosphere, the military feels the risks are acceptable given the potential gains.
Rose left the military long ago when an accident on a research station she was managing claimed many lives, and her superiors insisted she continue because the losses were acceptable. To soothe her wounded conscience, she studies medicine instead. Years later, her ex-husband Edward Quintano (Quint) lures her back into the service; he knows her better than she knows herself, enough to know she won’t be able to resist the temptation to return to her old research. But his continuing love for her, even after so much time has passed, and the problem that tore them apart years earlier, blinds him to what’s really going on: like many men do, he felt that his role was to believe in her, unquestioning, and by sharing that belief, support her through whatever crises of faith she was enduring. Unfortunately, his own needs (to see the technology solved and deployed) blinded him to her real desperation, which was to stop the research that was killing so many people. This kind of blindness to each other is one of those lesser human tragedies that sabotage so many relationships. Obsessed, Rose sabotages the station, desperate to destroy all research on the subject in the hope this will prevent further deaths or worse disasters.
Rose is the kind of person who sweats the details. Though she insists on being in control of her own fate, and prepares her own evacuation ship well in advance (including computer overrides to the station’s lockdown protocols so she can get there in a hurry), she’s also ensured that her designated evacuation ship was properly maintained and stocked with supplies. Plan B securely in place! But no plan is ever perfect, and a technician spots Rose’s sabotage and dies trying to undo the damage, killed by the explosion that starts the station evacuation. Rose is shaken by the knowledge that her best intentions (saving lives) have led her terribly astray, and the problem is exacerbated when she finds that Quint has stolen aboard her escape ship and he reveals that as a member of imperial intelligence, he’s known most of what she was up to all along. But he’d hoped, possibly despite evidence to the contrary, that by being there to support her again, he could bring her back into the fold to begin her research again. When she can no longer face herself, and when it’s clear Quint’s presence can only force her to examine unpleasant things she’d rather avoid facing, she drugs him while treating his wounds, drags him into an escape pod, and gets rid of him, unable to face his painful knowledge of her and the painful self-knowledge it evokes.
Rusch gets a great many subtle details right, particularly the human dimension: We fool ourselves in many ways, and the more important the issue, the greater the pressure to adjust reality to fit our need for self-justification. We often understand others far better than we understand ourself, yet this can also blind us to key areas where we don’t really hear what the other person is trying to say. For example, in the climactic conversation that first ended Rose’s marriage to Quint, the conversation that changed her life and set her onto her new career in science, “had just been a moment to him”. During the evacuation scene, Rush also reminds us (and hopefully, any message designers who are reading) of just how annoying automated messages can be, and how instead of inspiring calm, they often inspire frustration and anger. She also has a strong grasp of what scientists are like. One scientist, fleeing the doomed station, carries a jar containing “his life’s work” with him; I know many scientists who would do just that, evacuation drills and instructions notwithstanding. You have to be a scientist yourself, or to have known one well, to grasp just how painful it would be having to leave that work behind, particularly when (as Rusch notes, remembering a detail most non-scientists would forget) there’s serious doubt over whether your off-site backups remain safe. Even today, many scientists have never learned the need for off-site backups, witness those who lost years of research during the recent Japanese earthquake/tsunami disaster; Rose is smart enough to take out the backups too as part of her mission to stop stealth research.
The scientific details are well done too. During the Hollywood money shot when Rose’s ship leaves the station's ship bay, with the massive bay doors slamming open to let her out, Hollywood would give us the vibration and clang of those doors hitting their stops even though sound and vibration don’t carry in a vacuum. Rusch is wise enough to let us (and Rose) imagine that shock, making the effect that much more powerful. Also, the station doesn’t blow into a million pyrotechnic fragments, as it would in Star Wars; instead, it implodes, a logical consequence of the anacapa technology. She also understands how scientists who grow too comfortable with their research subject tend to grow overconfident and careless, leading to inevitable accidents such as the one that destroyed the first research station. Last but not least, she neatly captures the moment of satori when you suddenly realize you’re passionate about a subject, or when you suddenly understands something holistically, in a way that defies explanations by mathematics alone. Then there’s the deep irony of science that arises from this reality, and that motivates Rose’s career change: “She wanted precision and certainty and rigor, things that the study of history could never have.” Science offers precision and rigor, but the deeper you delve into many subjects, the less certainty you find. That’s particularly true for pure theoreticians: “And sometimes, Rosealma believed, it didn’t matter how much someone understood an intellectual concept: that was no substitute for hands-on experience.”
Stealth is a powerful tale on human and dramatic levels, with keen insights into human character. When Rose muses on why she’s broken up with a female lover, she expresses a key insight: “Only when she got older, and her relationship with Turtle decayed, did she realize that each person experienced the relationship differently.” (Also, hurray for having a sympathetic bisexual character in a story!) Although the clear message is that research, and particularly military research, has ethical consequences and human costs, Rusch mostly resists the temptation to preach. The one lapse comes late in the story, when Rose reminds us: “Any time a government believes that it can sacrifice people for the greater good, then there’s something wrong with that government.” This is saved from being an authorial intrusion by how logically it evolves from Rose’s history and character, and how Quint’s misunderstanding of this key belief drives the two of them apart.
Rusch’s current series of stories reminds me strongly of early C.J. Cherryh, with the same raw emotional intensity yet without Cherryh’s almost frantic sense of crushing pressure. The results are equally powerful, but you don’t feel like you need a strong drink just to calm your racing heart afterwards. When Rusch gets all the details right, as she does in Stealth, you’re in for an emotionally powerful ride and some important insights into human nature.
Tetsuo is a graduate student in Japan, working on “superbugs” that have neurological side-effects. Specifically, his lab is investigating Toxoplasmosa gondii (a common misspelling of the correct genus name, “Toxoplasma”), which causes a variety of odd psychological effects when it infects the brain; specifically, when it infects a rat, the rat seems to become almost worshipful of cats, a suicidal impulse that perpetuates the disease cycle because it provides the divine cat with a handy source of rats, thereby infecting the cat, which then passes along the infection to new generations of rats through its feces. (Toxoplasma has been proposed as a semi-plausible cause that can be invoked to explain the SFnal zombie apocalypse because of its odd effects on the brain. It’s a sufficiently serious threat to pregnant women that they’re usually warned to avoid cleaning the litterbox of cats that spend their days outdoors.) The nominal goal of the research is to develop an animal model for human psychiatric illnesses, particularly suicide, but Tetsuo is using it for a different purpose: to help his friend Aoi and her brother Kaito infect whales so that anyone who eats their flesh becomes worshipful towards whales and therefore unable to kill or eat them. (As Japanese characters, perhaps the conspirators aren’t aware of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and the resulting potential downfall of their plan.)
[Spoilers] Along his way to successfully harvesting the desired pheromones and breeding a new and potentially safe strain of the pathogen, Tetsuo hallucinates that he sees an orca in a shallow, concrete-lined urban river. Later, he jumps into the water, possibly to commit suicide although nominally (from his POV) to wait for the whale to return so he can commune with it. It’s clear from context that he’s been infected by his own home-grown pathogens (a “safe” infectious disease lab not being the kind of thing you can bootstrap easily in a tiny Japanese apartment) and equally clear that it achieves the desired effect (making him suicidally attracted to the whales he’s trying to save). However, given his personality, it’s possible he’s simply fooling himself and that this is really organic depression masquerading as the result of his experiments. The story ends prematurely, with him dumping his pathogens into whale meat at a market but without showing us the consequences, so we have no way of knowing which hypothesis is true.
Tetsuo is an interesting (if not particularly likeable) character, withdrawn to the point that he divides his life entirely between the lab and his apartment, where he’s running his private experiments. Like many scientists who work with animals, he’s very good at rationalizing what he does: he wants to save whales at any cost, but doesn’t quibble over “euthanizing” a series of cats in his home experiments so he can perpetuate the disease cycle in his lab rats and produce cat pheromones he can harvest and use in his bioterrorism. For too many scientists, the goal outweighs the means, and it's convenient to not look too closely at those means.
Though the concept is intriguing, and possibly even a feasible method of bioterrorism, three problems ruined the story for me. First, in a lab studying depression, there’s no way Tetsuo’s supervisor would send him home for “mental health leave” after his seeming suicide attempt without first confirming whether he’d been infected by the pathogen. Even if the boss is as callous as he’s portrayed as being, the legal liability and the potential for a more widespread outbreak would force him to have Tetsuo hospitalized and tested. Second, the story doesn’t really end in any meaningful way: though the plot resolves with Tetsuo’s act of bioterrorism, the character arc remains suspended, with Tetsuo a kind of Schrodinger’s cat—neither dead nor alive, but clearly headed in the former direction unless someone intervenes. Finally, Tetsuo’s choice of a cyanide poison pill to end his life once he’s captured is hard to imagine; cyanide is a famously nasty way to die, and someone who routinely euthanizes lab animals would have much better and more effective options available to him.
Kyle Preston is a theoretical physics graduate student in New York, living the pauper’s life of grad students everywhere, but basically happy. He’s on his way to meet his girlfriend Anna for lunch, when suddenly, a projected image appears amidst his apartment: Gadwin Smith, a time traveler from the future has arrived (as photons, the only things science currenty believes can travel backwards in time, and even then, with many footnotes and disclaimers) to warn him “not to go to Paris”. Then the image is gone, Kyle rushes off to meet Anna, who has something important to tell him—and they find themselves at the Paris Café.
[Spoilers] Spooked by Gadwin’s warning, Kyle insists they go elsewhere, and in one of those crappy accidents that just happens sometimes, the Paris Café’s gas line blows. Had they been there, both would have died, but instead, only Anna dies, killed by a hunk of flying brick. Kyle learns of his double loss from her mother: Anna was pregnant with their child, and that was the big news. He’s on the brink of descending into alcoholism to escape his woes, the way his father did before him, but Kyle is made of sterner stuff, and because he's learned from his father’s lesson (and the scars its left in him), he forces himself to move on instead. Ten years later, with a new girlfriend, Catherine Evans (whose first name he only belatedly learns is also Anna), he makes a new life for himself, marries, and begins a family. As the story progresses, Gadwin returns periodically, bearing mixed messages; the future is a time of dystopia and warfare, but all this can be stopped if only Kyle makes the right choices to change the future by changing his present. Unfortunately, the historical records aren’t clear, so Gadwin’s messages provide Kyle with no clear choices.
Eventually, it becomes clear that Gadwin and his evil brother are Kyle’s descendants, and that Kyle must find a way to prevent either of them from being born, thereby cutting the timeline that leads to Gadwin’s terrible future. Things become tangled when, some 30 years later, towards the end of a long and happy life, Kyle learns that his grandson’s unborn child will be named Gadwin because of her family’s tradition. He's on the verge of killing her to prevent the child’s birth, thereby severing the dystopian timeline at its roots, when he has a better idea: he’ll send a message to the future Gadwin, explaining everything that has happened so that when future Gadwin returns to warn him, he will have a full and correct understanding of the past. And indeed, time loops, we find ourselves back in Kyle’s grad student apartment, and Gadwin provides a sufficiently detailed warning that Kyle can take Anna somewhere far from the restaurant explosion so the two can live together and start a new timeline. It’s a happy ending, marred only by his lost timeline with Anna Catherine.
Chapman does many things well. First, and always most difficult with a time travel story, he rigorously manages his chains of cause and effect to ensure that the story holds together, and that the different timeline options support each other to create a consistent picture of what has happened and what potentially will happen. Second, he keeps a good grip on Kyle’s physicist POV. Referring to the chaos of a crowd as Brownian, like the jostling motion of molecules in water or a gas, is a particularly good choice; it’s both a clever metaphor and one a physicist might choose. Third, he manages to capture the way children inherit more than their genes from their parents; though Kyle’s father was a neglectful alcoholic, he somehow managed to find it in himself to buy Kyle a watch (albeit a crappy one) and inscribe it with his sorrow that he “couldn’t do more” for his son; Kyle carries it with him for years because it’s the only positive tie he ever had with his father. But Kyle is a thinker and a strong enough man that in the end, he can discard this legacy and make his own course through the world, thereby achieving both closure and a happy ending—while also "doing more".
The title alludes to Macbeth’s famous soliloquy in response to the death of his wife, and the “to-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow” of Macbeth’s lament is a perfect choice for a time travel story. For a thematically similar take on the notion of life and loss and time travel, have a look at my own story, Time’s Arrow.
Cynthia Lamott is one of 20 writers selected to participate in the famous Strickfield writer’s retreat/competition, winning out over her boyfriend Davy, who nonetheless rallies to support her and even drives her to the country estate, hidden in a deep and spooky forest. The story is told as the modern equivalent of a traditional epistolary tale, only with Cynthia’s video “confessions” (which may or may not be broadcast or shared with her loved ones) taking the place of letters. And that’s an important clue to what Reed is doing here: throwing together a remarkable mashup of the Austen/Bronte “strange rich folks with secrets living in the countryside” type of story, the crass reality TV genre typified by the Survivor franchise and Big Brother, and a wickedly acerbic deconstruction of writers and the workshopping process. For bonus points, it’s also an old-fashioned story of horror and obsession. Cynthia begins the story by asking the rhetorical question: “Three months, all expenses paid, what could go wrong?” Even the most callow aspiring writer should recognize that line as a warning, and indeed, it proves prophetic.
[Spoilers] Cynthia is welcomed by Aline Armantout, a cold and carnivorous former winner of the competition, and Miss Nedobity, a woman who reminded me strongly of Cloris Leachman’s hilarious role as Frau Blücher in Young Frankenstein—a comparison that is neither accidental nor neglected. There are many clues that all is not as it seems, and that being invited to the workshop may not be the reward the participants think it to be: the country estate’s security and isolation are described in terms that make a federal penitentiary seem inviting, crossed with the kind of spooky summer camp many children dread, and the writers are circumscribed by ironclad rules (e.g., “black tie” attire at dinner) and the threat of expulsion for even the slightest violation. The writers will be cut off from the outside world for 3 months, apart from their periodic video confessions, and must carry a rules sheet with them for review lest they inadvertently stray from the straight and narrow. And they must stay away from the attic (from whence moans and other eerie noises emerge periodically) and the lake, not even to swim, at all costs.
As events proceed, various members of the cast of writers disappear for overt and covert violations of the rules or as a result of a failure to play by unwritten rules that remain maddeningly vague. But there are hints that perhaps they’re not just being escorted to the nearest train station for a quick and ignominious trip home; one woman leaves so precipitously she leaves her clothing behind, and Cynthia promptly steals it for her own use. The horrifying truth is revealed when Cynthia finds Miss Nedobity sobbing before the portrait of Ralph Strickler, a scion of the family who died horribly in a way nobody will talk about—until Cynthia comforts the sobbing woman and reveals the mystery. It’s no accident this scene is reminiscent of Frau Blücher before the portrait of Dr. Frankenstein, since Nedobity was Ralph’s lover, and the cause of his death: while making love in the elevator one day, the door opened, and panicked that his mother might see them, Nedobity pressed the button to close the door, and beheaded her lover. But she made a deal with the proverbial dark powers to save her lover, and now he haunts the mansion and its residents, while Nedobity ensures that “he has enough”. The implications should be disturbing, but Cynthia doesn’t care: she’s found her inspiration in a ruthless and funny evisceration of one of the other writers (young Alvin), and so long as she’s the last writer standing, she’s not concerned with the consequences of Nedobity’s actions.
Cynthia is a bubbly, breathless go-grrl, who can’t quite mask a deep and abiding insecurity, which only deepens as she meets the other writers and begins viciously deconstructing them. Indeed, her early writing is a series of parodic descriptions that parallel events at the workshop. Several descriptions of her fellow authors seemed half-familiar, but the only one that rang the bell loudly for me was Alvin, who stands in for Christopher Paolini, the youthful writer who rose to fame for his lackluster book Eragon, and who comes in for a nastily pointed skewering here. The workshop process in which writers are isolated and brought together to endure the harsh and sometimes jealous criticism of their peers is skillfully and mercilessly satirized, complete with the insecurities and anxieties, alliances, feuding camps, sexual liaisons, pretensions, and other human foibles that emerge in the close quarters of a writer’s group or workshop. Neither is the solipsism of the writer spared.
Reed gives Cynthia a delightfully cynical outlook and barbed tongue. Two favorite lines are her descriptions of her colleagues (“every single one of them is dressed to kill or maim”), and one writer in particular, who has “nice clothes and the sparkle of a hermit crab”. Amidst the clever wordplay, there are also a few insights when Reed steps back from the ruthless satire to reveal home truths. Two favorites:
Apart from these many strong points and the pleasures of the genre mashup Reed creates, there’s a fascinating blurring of the boundaries between what is real and what Cynthia only imagines to be real as she literaturizes events in the novel she's writing. Her closing narration suggests that Davy has come to rescue her, but is caught in the razor wire that wards off the outside world and is attacked by the estate’s guard dogs. Transformed into Billy, the boyfriend of her novel’s fictional protagonist, his entry into her created world becomes the "outside event" of the title. She can go to save him, but if she does so she will lose the competition, and after all, isn’t her novel more important? One of Cynthia’s previous observations seems apropos at this point: “Writers try to tell the truth, but some things are too terrible to tell. Fiction expresses what we know, but are reluctant to admit. Sooner or later, the things too terrible to talk about, things we’re ashamed of and all the things that frighten us transform themsleves, and surface in our work.” It’s no coincidence that Cynthia’s petty, vain, scheming protagonist in her novel seems awfully like the shadow of her inner Mary Sue.
Sly, viciously funny, and deeply insightful, The Outside Event mixes humor with the kind of razor-sharp satire that makes you take a step back and ask yourself just how close to home Reed’s description of writers and writing might cut.
Full title: The Pastry Chef, the Nanotechnologist, the Aerobics Instructor, and the Plumber
Samantha and Cy have recently moved in together in the MIT area of Boston. She’s a pastry chef and free spirit; she talks to plants, sews her own (lopsided) clothing, and seems to live for the moment. Cy’s a nanotechnologist, and pretty much her diametric opposite; he’s doing research in which sweating (and controlling!) the details is essential, with the goal of desalinating water to provide potable water to those who lack access to it. Each sees something in the other they lack, but mostly they’re both lonely. Characteristically, Sam is lonely in a kind of vague, unfocused, undemanding way, whereas Cy is clear that having left his too-organized, too-logical, too-controlling forensic accountant girlfriend, he wants someone very different, and you couldn’t get much more different than Sam. On the surface, they don’t have much in common, but hey: opposites attract, right?
[Spoilers] There are early signs that this relationship won’t endure in the long term. Cy is bemused and increasingly frustrated at Sam’s lack of direction, lack of drive, and lack of organization. (About the one significant miscue in the story is how disorderly her kitchen is; in my experience, chefs tend to be meticulous about their “mise”.) Also, he feels she should lose about 10 pounds and (without asking her opinion) signs her up for an aerobics class. The mess he can kind of deal with, but the penultimate straw comes when Sam begins to hear what sounds like Italian coming from within the running water of the kitchen sink; Cy can’t hear even the hint of it. Rather than accepting this as some charming quirk of his new girlfriend, he sets out to fix the “problem” by seeking a plumber, but plumbers aren’t easy to come by when it’s not an emergency. While he searches, Sam polls her network for advice until she finds a linguist, Zeno, who comes to confirm that the sink is indeed speaking Italian, and specifically that it's singing the lyrics from a romantic comedy. The final straw for Cy comes when Sam notes that the toilet has begun speaking angrily; Zeno confirms that it’s speaking Turkish, and that the toilet is “tired of eating all this crap”. (Its unresolved rage eventually leads the toilet to explode, long after the story has reached its resolution.)
The fantastic elements of the tale are just icing on the cake, and the tasty cake is the characters and how they do their dance. Kate, Sam’s aerobics instructor becomes a friend, possibly with hopes of more than that (as Kate has recently been dumped by her girlfriend). Zeno and Sam strike sparks and begin growing rapidly closer as Cy and Sam grow more distant. And when Cy finally finds an unlicensed gypsy plumber, it turns out to be Jens, who broke Kate’s heart a while back when they played in a band together and he hooked up with a groupie instead of her; once they get over the initial awkwardness, they soon remember their mutual attraction and desire to play music again. As for Cy, we learn he’s never really cut his ties with his old girlfriend, that he's misled her about his situation by hinting that he’s moved in with a male roommate named “Sam”, and that he really wants her back. In the end, everyone ends up with the correct partner: Sam and Zeno, Kate and Jens, and Cy and his even-more-anal-retentive-than-he-is accountant. A nice irony is how Cy, though his expertise is water and fluid flow, can only see an engineering problem in the kitchen plumbing, whereas Sam, who knows nothing of the science, can’t see the problem with an Italian-speaking faucet. Though it’s kind of a shame that they couldn’t learn from each other and thereby enrich their respective worldviews, that’s often the way it works out.
Though Pastry Chef isn’t explicitly patterned on Much Ado About Nothing, there’s a very similar shared sense of gentle humor about how the characters orbit each other until certain orbits finally intersect and stabilize. It reminded me nostalgically of the kinds of experimentation, blindness, and sudden illumination my circle of friends and I went through as we tried out different options for romantic partners. If I might borrow a line from another of the Bard’s plays: “Lord, what fools [we] mortals be.”
Travis is recently divorced from Kristine, and since he was the one who loved the family dog, Cory, he kept the dog in the divorce settlement. There’s only one twist: Cory was “informationized” before the divorce, Kristine wanted a copy, and there were no legal grounds for blocking this. She has shared her copy of Cory with a friend, who uploaded the dog to the Internet (as “Corky”), free for the downloading, and because of all the cute tricks Travis taught his dog, Corky has become a big hit—indeed, he's the latest fad. This pisses off Travis, who wants to stop her from doing this and asks his lawyer to look into the possibilities.
[Spoilers] Travis asks his wife for an in-person meeting to discuss this problem, and she’s too busy, so she instead sends her personal assistant. Vina arrives, clad in his ex-wife’s face, using the central SFnal gimmick of the story: “nanoswarm” technology, which can create a virtual dog that you can take with you, or that can project your face onto an assistant’s body. Travis doesn’t achieve any resolution from the meeting, but once Vina banishes the face and ex-wife act, he discovers he rather likes her—and that the feeling’s mutual. They have a pleasant lunch, start seeing more of each other, and eventually become lovers, but issues remain: Vina’s a bit overweight and out of shape, and feels the insecurity many new partners of a divorcee feel, namely that she’s still competing with Kristine for Travis’ heart. So she starts hitting the gym hard in an effort to achieve the same great body Kristine has, and one day he comes home to find her wearing Kristine’s face again. As the story progresses, Travis learns that his real issue is not with having to share Cory with the world, but instead relates to lingering resentments from his divorce and an unwillingness to detach completely from the good things he remembers about his ex and attach fully to Vina. When his lawyer finds a way to hurt Kristine and possibly even extract a settlement from her for violation of his intellectual property (specifically, the tricks he taught to Dog v1.0 to create Dog v2.0, aka Cory), he finally realizes this is no longer important and asks his lawyer to desist.
The heart of the story is Travis and his struggle to get over his ex, someone he never really connected with on a deep level, and to accept how much better he relates to Vina. And he does this, with the kind of reluctant wisdom many of us experience when we finally realize how stupid we’ve been about something trivial. There’s a nice parallel between virtual Cory and the kinds of superficial shells we build in some of our weaker relationships, when we can’t bring ourselves to move beyond presence, which “wasn’t always enough. Eventually you had to be there all the way, and you had to let somebody else be there all the way too.” And as for Cory? The real Cory isn’t doing well (he’s an older dog with potentially fatal health issues), but Travis no longer cares that millions of virtual Cory pets are out there in the world. He has Vina and the real Cory, so why not let others have the pleasure of some virtual companionship? After all, he has the real thing. The closing metaphor, with Travis musing on the way the world turns “around and around and around”, exactly the same way he taught Cory to do (the trick that made him an overnight Internet star), is perhaps too slight to bear the weight being placed on it as the story’s closing line, but it’s nonetheless true to how Travis’ understanding has evolved and how he’s matured.
Free Dog doesn’t have a particularly dramatic dramatic arc, but it’s nonetheless a deep one and resolves Travis’ story arc neatly and in a heartfelt manner.
Signy is a journalist and wannabe novelist living in Reykjavik, who spends her weekends and some weeks at a remote countryhouse on the eastern coast of Iceland. It’s a bleakly beautiful place, and speaks to something in her soul so that she doesn’t mind the solitude, and it gives her the privacy she needs to write. All is going well in her life, though she’s grappling with the difficulty of finding the heart of her novel so she can write it, when her world suddenly changes: she finds a dead swan on her porch, its neck broken. Is it a gift or a warning? The local policeman, Hravn, comes to investigate, but turns up nothing. Later, a huge cod is left on her porch, and again Hravn comes to investigate. When wildflowers are subsequently left, it’s clear these are intended as gifts rather than warnings, and we soon learn that a male troll has been smitten by Signy and wants to make her his wife—or at least his mistress. Appropriately intimidated by the anatomical risks of such intimacy and worried that the troll won’t take no for an answer, Signy heads back to Reykjavik, stocks up on full-spectrum lightbulbs, and installs them on her porch; when the troll returns, she turns them all on, beginning the process of turning him to stone and immobilizing him just long enough that the sun can rise and complete the job.
[Spoilers] And that should be the end of it, only it isn’t; all actions have consequences, and this one is no exception. The troll, it turns out, was Steinn (ironically named, since it means “stone”), and was the husband of the troll-wife Hrauna and father of her children. And with him dead, who will feed and protect his children? Hrauna comes to Signy’s home to bemoan the fate of her husband, and when Signy explains what happened, the two form a bond of sympathy, as “women ought to stick together”. And from this point, the story deepens as Arnason creates a compelling portrait of the trollish people: though clearly as sentient as humans (they even enjoy the beauty of the moonlit land), they are trapped in an evolutionary dead-end as non-tool-makers and non-farmers or herders, and thus eke out a living by hunting, fishing, and stealing small necessary things from the humans.
Their poverty touches Signy, and their empathy for their land rekindles a like feeling in her. When she reveals to Hrauna that a large hydroelectric project is being established near their homes, Hrauna goes to warn her queen. (In a nicely wry touch, Hrauna notes that having a queen is an import from Norway, which once ruled Iceland, and that a republic would be more appropriate. Given that Iceland arguably has the world’s oldest continuous parliament, and one that has always welcomed women, that’s very apropos.) The Queen summons Signy to her court to explain what is happening, then hosts her for the night while the trolls deliberate how to respond. In the end, they decide that this human work is too great for them to sabotage, and that they must leave for somewhere even more remote, where humans will not intrude. (Fortunately, Iceland has no shortage of such places.) They invite Signy to witness their departure, knowing that she is a writer and will document this emigration for posterity; “everything dies except fame”, as the queen notes. But Hravn has followed Signy, having grown intrigued both by her and by the mysterious gifts she reported, and is equally strongly affected by the trolls and their departure. Bound by their shared secret and their love for this part of Iceland, a romantic bond has formed between them, unbeknownst to either, and may lead to something in the future.
Arnason creates a compelling sense of place. I haven’t been to Iceland yet, but it’s on my bucket list, and the research I’ve done greatly enriched my sense of “being there”. Signy is the kind of imperturbable, plucky, self-reliant character you expect from a people who have lived for more than a thousand years in one of the most hostile and unpredictable environments on Earth—but with some character quirks that struck me as subtly and uniquely Icelandic. (The closest I can come to pinning it down is that it reminded me pleasantly of some of the enchanting mannerisms of the Norski folk I’ve known over the years.) Particularly nice touches: there’s no problem communicating with the trolls because they share the ancient Icelandic language with the humans; the queen speaks initially in the resonant tones of the Icelandic sagas, yet must drop into common speech soon enough (“I will speak plainly and in prose. The old human heroes could make up poems ... in the middle of battle and even while being cut down by their enemies. I am not them.”); the eternal male fear of inadequate penis size shared between the trolls and humans; and the fact that the trolls are the traditional gaunt and long-nosed variety, rather than the giant sumos portrayed in the Lord of the Rings movies. But most of all, there is this: the trolls are portrayed with sympathy as more like us than they are different, and they have survived the same harsh conditions that their human countrymen have survived, thereby developing the same stoic endurance.
On the surface, the parallels between Signy and Arnason are clear, and if one were to take this story as an installment in the magical realism genre, one might almost assume that Arnason had experienced the events of the story and transformed it into an enduring fiction, as Signy does. (“Fiction or not, it said something that was important, something that was true, whether or not people realized it was true.”) But on a deeper level, the story seems to be Arnason’s way of grappling with the past of her own people, and the dramatic changes that are facing modern Iceland: the country has always had a hardscrabble, precarious economy, and measures such as the hydroelectric project intended to bring the country into the 21st century and give its people economic options beyond fishing and agriculture are important. Yet as the new ways are embraced, there is the risk of old ways being displaced, losing traditions that have endured for millennia. And a small narrative diversion proves more important than it at first seems. Hrauna tells Signy an unrecorded (so far as I know, not being a Icelandic scholar) tale of Loki sabotaging the apple trees that kept the Norse gods eternally young; he volunteers to remove the apple cores and bitter seeds that offended one of the goddesses but that kept the trees vigorous and able to sustain the gods, and as is always the case when Loki gets involved, the consequences are dire. This is both an ecological lesson and a reminder that ancient roots need to be nourished by tending to their traditions.
Steinn is both an effective tale in the magical realism (or perhaps peri-urban fantasy) genre, and a powerful musing on our connections with our history and the place that sustains it.
Live and Die is a skewed take on the noir detective genre, set in a “planet of the apes” world with no humans in evidence. The human nations have been replaced by various monkey and ape national groups, but without losing any of our human foibles, prejudices, and murderous competitiveness, including recurring wars between the Gibbons and the Bonobos in recent memory that have led to long-simmering resentments.
Reggie, our protagonist, is a Macaque, smaller and lighter-boned than most of the other major races. A refugee from his own country, an (ahem) banana republic that features more-frequent-than-annual revolutions, he’s now living in the nation of the Gibbons, and only precariously. He’s a clever guy, and surprisingly proficient at navigating the shadowy areas of the law, so he’s managed to bribe his way into owning paperwork that will let him stay, but it’s a precarious perch at best; he has only 90 days to find himself a good job before his visa expires and he’s deported. Fortunately for him, this is a society in which euthanasia of the old (not necessarily voluntary) is considered ethical behavior, and the Gibbons and Bonobos find it distasteful to murder their own. They have no compunctions about hiring others to do their dirty work, and gorillas handle the gentle form of medical euthanasia. Reggie’s inspired niche will be euthanasia for those who want to go out with a bang: he sets himself up as an assassin for hire. He’s literally licensed to kill, so long as he has a legally binding contract, and as a foreign national, he can legitimately bill himself as an “international” assassin, adding to his allure.
[Spoilers] Reggie obtains a sniper’s rifle, advertises his new line of work, and soon finds his first client: Alexandra, mother of the Bonobo ambassador and a famous harridan—or perhaps a harpy, since she’s racist, offensive, and incontinent. When she visits Reggie’s office, she immediately makes the job personal: after less than 5 minutes with her, he’d cheerfully kill her for free, but can’t do that because he needs to earn his commission so he can stay in the country. Unfortunately, there’s one catch: in her youth, Alexandra was in special ops, and may just be smarter than Reggie even if she’s no longer as tough as she used to be. He bungles his first attempt when his clumsy brother-in-law and assistant, Murray, a Chimp, drops Reggie’s toolkit, alerting Alexandra. As her security guards rush to save her, the duo flees. His second attempt seems more promising, when a bribed street vendor working near the Bonobo embassy learns that Alexandra will be visiting a local handicrafts market. Reggie immediately plots to kill her there—but at the last moment, notices a slew of Gibbon immigration officers roaming the market and checking papers. Alexandra has set him up neatly, knowing that his papers won’t withstand close inspection, and recognizing this, he flees with Murray and narrowly escapes.
Reggie thinks the situation through, and finds a subtler way to get Alexandra: he bribes an associate in the immigration department to change the expiration date on her visa so that she’ll have to leave the embassy to get it renewed, and he'll shoot her then. But that plan falls through because she’s powerful enough to get the immigration people to come to her instead. Fortunately, Reggie’s bribed associate in the immigration department offers him an alternative: she can smuggle Reggie and Murray into the embassy as manual laborers accompanying the higher-level officials who will resolve the diplomatic problem. Unfortunately, the Gibbons are playing Reggie for a chump: when the packages he and Murray are carrying get searched by embassy security, the Gibbons remove his concealed handgun from the packages and turn it on the ambassador, hoping to kill him and leave the smoking gun in Reggie’s dead hands, thereby resolving years of resentment of the bonobos without creating an international incident. Thinking fast, Reggie throws Murray at the assassin, knocking the Gibbon down and giving the bodyguards time to intervene and kill the would-be killer. Murray’s armor saves him from the bodyguards' bullets, and he earns a lucrative reward for saving the ambassador—which he graciously shares with Reggie. Alexandra mocks Reggie for failing yet again, but as she passes in front of him to rub his nose in his failure, he suddenly reaches out and snaps her neck, thereby fulfilling his contract.
The story is delightfully off the wall, with both protagonists sporting high-tech enhancements (enhanced hearing and strength, carbon-fiber armor under their skin) and a technological world in which personal force fields good enough to stop a metal bullet coexist with ancient manual-transmission cars. If you’ve got a good visual imagination, you’ll relish the images of our furry brethren walking through the familiar human roles, and it all works because Künsken has a light touch and plays it perfectly straight, providing only the minimum details required to remind us it’s not Us we’re watching. He gives Reggie an amusingly cynical and skewed sense of humor. Reggie’s car, a Renault, is “the finest car produced in its price range... As for as I know, there are no other cars in its price range.” Then there’s the racist joke about the Bonobos: “What’s the difference between Bonobo porn and real life? Nothing.” (Bonobos in our world are famously promiscuous.) Like most of his fictional ancestors in the genre, Reggie’s clever and resourceful, but not nearly so clever as he likes to think; for instance, the best he could do to get his brother-in-law Murray into the country was to buy forged papers that claim “Mister Tenure Track” is a visiting physics professor. Given that Murray is basically hired muscle, that identity won’t stand up to even the most casual inspection, even if his papers pass the test.
The notion of a culture in which legalized hunting of sentients doesn’t raise the slightest qualm among its inhabitants isn’t profound, but it does neatly skewer the discomfort most of us have with the decline of elderly parents by wondering how this might play out in a slightly exagerrated version of U.S. gun culture. (As a fellow Canadian, it was clear to me what Künsken was getting at.) Live and Die offers a beautifully executed take on a well-worn genre, giving it new life and providing us with a worthy successor to Sam Spade and his many descendants.
Kress tells us the near-future story of domestic water wars in the Great Lakes Basin as climate change creates a modern dustbowl and the collateral damage begins to mount up. Here, that damage is most severe for the farmers of the basin, who find themselves facing a modern dust bowl. So impoverished have they become (now that they can no longer farm) that they’re forced to sell family heirlooms (including silver picture frames) at pawn shops just to make ends meet and stave off the banker. Things come to a head when an entrepreneur, the Allen corporation, gets approval to build a pipeline from Lake Michigan to the U.S. southwest so that people in Tucson (among other egregious places) can mine the water from the lakes that the local farmers so desperately need, but are not allowed to touch.
[Spoilers] The story is told from the perspective of Danny, 17 years old, last of a long line of farmers, and old enough to remember when water was abundant and the fields around his home filled with spring daisies. His father and other men, outraged beyond their ability to endure by the situation, take matters into their own hands and go to destroy the local stretch of pipeline. Danny wants to be one of them, and to be treated as an adult, so he beats them to the punch by riding his bike to the construction site so he can join in when they arrive. But a security guard has been posted at the site, something the older men may not have been aware of. Danny takes it on himself to take out the guard; by pretending to be drunk, he staggers close enough to overpower the guard, something he can do because he’s a member of the school wrestling team and knows infighting. But the guard is older and stronger than he is, and will soon escape if Danny doesn’t do something. His solution is to bash the guard over the head with a rock, but the falling guard bring him down and he bashes his own head, ending up with a concussion.
The men arrive, wreck the pipeline, and take Danny home, inventing the story that he’d had a fight with his father over bad marks at school (true, and therefore plausible), and fell off his bike while riding away from home in a rage. Danny wasn’t smart enough to wear a mask, so the security guard could conceivably identify him, but when the guard describes Danny to the police as older and much larger (presumably to avoid admitting that a kid beat him up), Danny’s story is enough to convince the authorities. But not long afterwards, the men attack another stretch of pipeline and this time, kill one of the guards. Danny is arrested, and since there’s no evidence he was involved and considerable evidence that he wasn’t, this seems to be a transparent ploy by the police to outrage the saboteurs into revealing themselves. From context, Danny’s father was clearly involved in the second raid, and may even have been the one who killed the guard. Left unresolved is the question of whether he will confess to the crime to spare his son a kangaroo court that might actually convict the boy.
The situation has grown so dire that the family, long in danger of losing a home that’s been in their family for generations, suffers the humiliation of foreclosure, ending any hope they’ll be able to wait it out until times grow better. Speaking of better times, one thing Danny has been doing for his much younger sister is to tell her stories about the meaning of old photos that she steals from the family album when her parents aren’t looking. One, in particular, captures her fancy: a field aglow with the light of thousands of daisies. Finding scraps of paper and hoarded crayons, Ruthie begins drawing her own field of daisies. Sensing the end is near, Danny cuts out the daisies and plants them in the field one night, then illuminates it with his father’s emergency lights to share that beautiful, long-gone past with his sister.
The scientific details are plausible, since fluctuations in the El Niño–Southern Oscillation that Kress alludes to have been shown to cause cycles of drought and unusually heavy rain, and a serious perturbation of the linked current (El Niño) and atmospheric circulation pattern (the Southern Oscillation) could indeed cause the kind of sudden climate change that Kress describes. In addition to the regional tragedy, she provides key details of what we’ll see on a human scale, such as lilac trees clinging to life but no longer flowering and mosquitoes disappearing because there’s no free water in which they can breed. Whether the water levels in the Great Lakes will drop as severely as her scenario suggests seems less likely; the western droughts we're currently experiencing have typically been accompanied by increased rainfall in eastern North America, so it’s likely this would offset any enhanced depletion of water that would result from draining the lakes. Nonetheless, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility, and therefore makes for a plausible disaster scenario.
Daisies is in the same subgenre as Ian McDonald’s River of Gods and related stories, with a nation beginning to tear itself apart as things its citizens formerly took for granted (water in both cases) can no longer be relied upon, and some states (here, Oregon and Washington) have closed their borders to refugees using armed guards. If I might be permitted to preach, as Kress does not do, this dystopian future is increasingly realistic. Some of the research papers I’ve edited have shown clear signs of long-term (100-year) increases in the frequency and severity of drought in western North America, and it’s not at all implausible that this will cause the kind of water shortages Kress describes. Worse, the same kind of contempt for basic ecological principles that led to the creation of cities like Las Vegas and most cities in Arizona, not to mention the proverbial “golf course in a desert” that show a profound disregard for common sense, is likely to create precisely the scenario Kress describes: those who have no moral or practical right to the water, but who have money and political influence, will claim the water, and to hell with those who really need it. It’s a bleak scenario, but one we may well face within our lifetimes.
Kit Meinem is an engineer–architect who has come to the cities of Nearside and Farside to build a bridge. The two cities are located on opposite sides of a river of “mist” that splits the Empire in two, and that greatly impedes travel between the two halves. This isn’t your grandmother’s mist: it’s vaguely ethereal or possibly transdimensional, and rapidly corrodes most things organic, with only iron, stone, and the “fish” that live in it immune to its effects. It’s kept within its banks by laboriously constructed levees at least 80 feet high. Ferryman can cross the mist by coating their boats with the skins of fish harvested from the mist, which protect the wood from corrosion, and crossing is more like whitewater rafting or surfing than it is like conventional boating. Few have the talent and patience and intuitive understanding of the mist to make it across, and even the best of them eventually meet a sticky fate when they guess wrong and the mist—or the leviathan-sized Big Ones—decide that the ferryman’s time has come. If Kit can successfully build a bridge that spans the quarter-mile-wide river, trade between the two halves of the empire will increase enormously. But there are obstacles to overcome, and not all are (meta)physical.
[Spoilers] Kit’s many problems include the legacy of the well-liked former engineer who recently died and whose shoes he must fill, and the resentment of Jenner Ellar, a younger engineer who feels he should have been the one chosen to take over the project. But Kit has many more years of experience and a long track record of large projects successfully completed, not to mention connections in the capital, so he’s a better choice. The engineering challenge is formidable enough, given that no structure this big or complex has been built before, but the human challenge is bigger still. Yet a much younger Kit learned from a school girlfriend how people see the world through a series of metaphors framed by their experience or education, and finds that for him, applying his engineer’s approach lets him manage the people who surround and infuse his projects; in his personal metaphor, he sees each as a kind of shaped stone, with its own particular strengths and weaknesses and its own particular place within the overall structure. Within that context, he succeeds masterfully at rallying local support for the project, overcoming Jenner’s resentment, and eliminating bureaucratic and other obstacles. He succeeds well enough that when the inevitable first death of a worker occurs, people feel more sympathy for him than anger.
But on a personal level, he has a harder time establishing connections, which is perhaps why he’s mostly been a loner into his middle age. This changes when he encounters Rasali Ferry, a tall, strong, pale, outgoing, spontaneous woman who runs a ferry across the mist and who is seemingly the antithesis to his short, dark, unathletic, introverted, overly controlled personality. He also meets her nephew, Valo Ferry, who initially resents Kit’s presence out of fear that the bridge Kit is building will rob him of his ferryman’s profession and the reputation for death-defying courage that goes with it. Yet he forms a strong friendship with Rasali and even, eventually, with Valo, who shows promise as a potential engineer and whom Kit takes under his wing. It is Rasali and Valo who teach Kit that the mist is not something easily mastered by science or engineering, and they form a real and comfortable friendship that extends beyond the bounds of his engineering project. When they eventually become occasional lovers, it’s a natural and sweet resolution of the relationship they’ve built over the years they spend together while the bridge is built.
But there are further mysteries to learn. When Kit brings in an explosives expert to remove some particularly hard rock from where the footings of the bridge must go, her precisely controlled explosions almost bring disaster upon the project by summoning one of the Big Ones to the surface, where it nearly swamps the riverside towns in mist. Later, when Kit and Rasali cross the mist due to his urgent need to receive a confidential message (which turns out to be trivial) bearing the imperial seal, he persuades her to cross against her better judgment, and the two are nearly killed by one of the Big Ones, which surfaces beside their small ship. This narrow escape turns Rasali somewhat fey, and she begins crossing the river with increasing frequency, often somewhat rashly. Possibly she feels somewhat charmed, but more powerfully, she senses the end of her beloved profession drawing near as the bridge construction nears completion. Ferrying the first cables across the mist that will be used to draw the larger, heavier cables across and establish a framework for subsequent work will be one of her last jobs as ferryman. The crossing is eventually successful, but the image of the ferry tethered at the end of the cables like a fisherman’s lure, builds a high level of tension: it’s not at all clear whether she and Kit will make it safely across. Indeed, Valo dies later during a crossing, a tragically unnecessary death given the imminent completion of the bridge and how the younger man was recently accepted to learn engineering at Kit’s old school. Both mourn his loss in their own ways.
The writing is generally simple and straightforward, comfortable and fluid but with occasional flashes of beauty, particularly in the descriptions of the night and mist. The construction of the bridge is equally fascinating, albeit in a technogeeky kind of way. The culture is neatly established as something roughly pre-Victorian in technology level, with most work done by manual labor or by using simple machines like winches and cranes, with no steam or internal combustion to power the machines. And everything except the bridge is on a much smaller scale than we’re used to. As Kit observes, the capital was where “buildings towered seven and eight stories tall, a city so large that even a vigorous walker could not cross it in half a day.” On that scale, the bridge is an engineering marvel.
The plot centers on Kit’s quest to build the bridge, on time and under budget, without killing too many of the workers, and in this he succeeds. But like the mighty chains that support the bridge and the equally mighty stone pillars from which the chains depend, that simple technological plot is only the support structure; what carries the weight of the story is the people, and particularly the interactions between Kit, with his quiet, ethical, tightly focused personality, and Rasali, with her more joyous yet pragmatic nature. My only significant quibble from a plot perspective is why the Empire remains intact when it would be logistically almost impossible to mount an invasion across the river should the people of Farside choose to secede, and easy to stop any invasion simply by using explosives to summon the Big Ones.
Bridged reminds me strongly of more recent LeGuin—in a very good way, not in any kind of derivative sense. People, even in the remote areas, seem open to new ideas and welcoming to strangers. Yet they’re still old-fashioned compared with the big city; most still use their profession as their family name, and don’t quite get why the big-city folk have names like “Meinem” that don’t mean anything. (In fact, “Meinem” is the German dative form of “mine”, so by implication, “my family name”?) The battle of the sexes has ended with an enthusiastically embraced peace treaty, with weak and strong members of both sexes fully coequal and seemingly sexually open and liberated. There are no guns or knives, no policemen or soldiers, and only occasional fistfights after there’s been too much drinking—though there seem to be no town drunks. Everyone just seems to get along, and though the people of the story are fully realized humans, with occasional pettiness and suchlike human flaws, it’s about as close to a working social utopia as I’ve seen in recent memory.
Johnson blends the technical and human aspects together to form a strong matrix that supports a very strong story indeed.
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