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

Stories reviewed:

Steele: The Observation Post
Barrett: D.O.C.S.
Emshwiller: Danilo
Melton: Shadow Angel
Creasey: The Odor of Sanctity
Neube: Grandma Said
Reed: Stalker
Wall: Burning Bibles

Steele: The Observation Post

Floyd Moore is an old man, dying of cancer, and at the time of the story, has chosen to unburden himself to us about a sin he committed some 50 years ago when he was a young ensign in the U.S. Navy—a sin that may well have saved our world. The story is set in the days leading up to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, and Floyd is a radioman aboard the Navy blimp Centurion, patrolling the seas of the U.S. eastern seaboard for submarines. But with the arrival of a Lieutenant Arnault from Naval Intelligence, they’ve been reassigned to watch for Soviet ships in the waters around Cuba. The U.S. has been warned that the Soviets will try smuggling nuclear warheads into Cuba, and the Americans need evidence of this before they can launch a pre-emptive invasion or take other measures to end the threat of nuclear missiles within range of American soil.

[Spoilers] When a hurricane arises, as they tend to do during the late summer and early autumn, Centurion is forced to seek any nearby airfield with a dirigible mast so it can land and ride out the storm; they’ll never reach their home base in time, and the captain has learned the lesson of other blimps that were lost when they were unable to land until the storm blows over. They find a suitable airfield on Inagua Island, and land in time to wait out the the storm, which in the event proves to be largely minor. But while they’re on their enforced shore leave, Floyd encounters a young woman, Helga, in the restaurant where the blimp’s crew is dining. He’s not interested in an affair; it’s mostly that any company other than his crewmates is welcome after weeks spent in close quarters aboard his ship. He recognizes her “European accent” (the U.S. being much less cosmopolitan back then, he can’t tell it’s a German accent), and she tells him she’s a German, here with a couple friends to watch tropical birds. This being the age of the Berlin wall, we’re immediately led to believe she might be an East German spy, a suspicion made plausible when Arnault wanders over, hears her accent, and starts grilling her to test her cover story; when she claims to be from Hannover, yet cannot answer a simple question about the city, his suspicions are confirmed.

Helga leaves the bar, but Arnault insists on trailing her home, and brings Floyd with him. There they learn the source of the story’s title: they’ve indeed found an observation post, but it’s not run by the Soviets. Instead, it’s run by what seems to be a trio of historians sent back through time to observe this crucial temporal decision point, when the fate of humanity may rely on not letting President Kennedy learn of the Cuban Missiles quite so soon. (It’s not remotely possible to imagine these people are Soviets; they have computers and satellite imaging and possibly even an iPad that are far beyond any technology that existed outside SF/F magazines at that time.) Arnault won’t buy this, convinced like so many post-McCarthy intelligence agents that he’s found Soviet spies no matter what the evidence of his eyes might say, but Floyd is convinced they’re telling the truth. Arnault leaves, gone to report the spies and possibly get permission to arrest them, and Floyd follows, begging him to accept their story and let events lie. When Arnault orders Floyd to honor his oath of service and defend his country, Floyd complies—only he does so by murdering Arnault, convinced that this will be what is required to protect the U.S. With help from the time travelers, he concocts an acceptible alibi (i.e., that Arnault was probably murdered by local criminals) and events subsequently take the course recorded in our history (i.e., there is no global nuclear war).

Steele reminds us of just how scary those times were, and of the often forgotten historical background to the events in Cuba. For example, the U.S. had installed nuclear missiles within striking range of the U.S.S.R. nearly 6 months earlier (in Turkey), so a riposte was only to be expected. It’s perhaps naïve to suggest that the whole conflict could have been avoided if the U.S. had honored its principles (e.g., liberty for all), practiced real diplomacy, and supported the Cuban people throughout their revolution, thereby earning a friend in the Caribbean instead of an enemy for the past 50 years. But we’ll never know, since nobody tried, and as a result, U.S. foreign policy remains firmly mired in that era’s Manichean duality of good versus evil (evil now wearing the guise of Islam), with no shades of grey in between. In a nicely chilling touch, the story ends with Floyd, now retired and living in Colorado Springs, convinced he’s seen Helga in town: is another historical decision point about to arrive?

As you’d expect from Steele, the writing is quietly effective, and smoothly polished so there’s nary a bump in the efficient unrolling of the tale. He may break no new ground in alternate history or time travel stories, but he nonetheless provides a textbook demonstration of how to get out of the way and let an interesting story unfold at its own pace.

Barrett: D.O.C.S.

Bobby Graham, now 13, is a youth living in the rural American community of Bander. His mother suffers from some unspecified affliction, possibly an anxiety disorder or even Tourette’s, and though it’s hard on the family, they’re coping. But things reach a crisis point when a van from the Department of Curative Services (the D.O.C.S. of the title) arrives for its periodic inspection of the town. The last time they visited, Bobby’s grandfather died, and he has bad memories of them that shape his fears of what may come to pass this time. And when the nine doctors, garbed in sickly green robes and masks and gloves, leave the truck to set up a mobile clinic and begin their inspection of the townfolk, Bobby’s description makes them seem like ghouls—or perhaps the nine ringwraiths, though Bobby doesn’t show any knowledge of Tolkein.

[Spoilers] We soon learn that town doctors, where they exist, are legally required by the “Discontinuation Act”, and specifically by the section about “Selective Procedures Inducing Possible Curativization”, to inform D.O.C.S. of the health of the local citizens, and specifically to report any who should no longer receive healthcare. (The others all receive what appears to be free surgery and other curative treatments.) Those denied care soon die—although there are strong hints that they may actually be “discontinued”, a suitably macabre bit of government-speak. When D.O.C.S. comes for Bobby’s mother, his father kills the doctor who arrives bearing the bad news, but is subdued by the doctor’s guards, jailed, and dies in prison shortly after his wife dies. In revenge, Bobby waits for the perfect opportunity, seals the D.O.C.S. crew inside their fan, and firebombs the van, killing everyone within.

Seemingly the unholy offspring of M*A*S*H (mobile army surgical hospital) crossed with DHS (Department of Homeland Security), D.O.C.S. is clearly sinister, but what they actually do is unclear. That’s deliberate, since for a 13-year-old, Bobby seems about as mature as a 9-year-old kid right up to the end of the story; after all, what teenager refers to their parents as “Mommy” and “Daddy”? This means he isn’t particularly clear about what’s going on in his world, which works well from a narrative sense, but proves to be a significant flaw, since it makes his sudden leap from a passive and ignorant child to someone more mature than his age at the end of the story seem distinctly out of character.

The larger problem with this story is that it’s not quite clear what message Barrett is attempting to convey. On the surface, the basic plot resembles what might be charitably described as a Tea Party nightmare scenario. Notwithstanding the evidence from most of the civilized world (including, if I might be so bold, Canada), there are many Americans who persist in their paranoid fears about big government and in the context of this story, about the nightmare possibility of socialized medicine, currently a hot-button topic in the U.S. Particularly in juxtaposition with Steele’s previous tale in the same issue, D.O.C.S. might be seen as a poke at such individuals for their blindness. But if so, it’s a particularly unsubtle poke, and Barrett is usually better than this.

Although well crafted, this isn’t one of Barrett’s stronger tales. The key character (Bobby) isn’t convincing, and the satire is both too broad and too ill-focused to really strike home.

Emshwiller: Danilo

Every time I read one of Carol Emswhiller’s recent stories, I feel an odd sense of dislocation—almost like being in a (mostly) lucid dream, or perhaps slightly concussed and with the world’s video therefore gone half a frame out of synch. The stories are slipstream, both in the conventional literary sense and in the sense that I always emerge feeling a bit like Wiley Coyote after the Roadrunner has swept past him and spun him in a circle. I don’t much like the style, but it’s masterfully done because in the end, everything seems to make sense, even if it’s not a sense I can fully grasp.

Here, Emshwiller returns us to one of those quaint little villages of “weavers and cheesemakers” that seems to have been left behind in time’s slipstream. Lewella is an older woman, seen by her female friends as too old for conventional romance; to make matters worse, she limps due to a bum leg, and is not attractive enough in the eyes of her fellows to attract a man. She claims to be engaged to a man nobody’s ever seen, and whose name she doesn’t know—yet which becomes “Danilo” when the others press her about it. Clearly she must be making this up, right? Still, she has an occasional luminous look when the light catches her just right, and nobody can completely rule out the notion that she’ll really be married in the spring. Then a picture mysteriously appears in her cottage, of a man who’s not conventionally handsome but has a certain look about him that captures the narrator’s heart. When Lewella leaves the village one night, perhaps to avoid saying goodbye, our narrator follows—nominally to keep what she sees as an innocent fool out of trouble, but also potentially just to escape or because she finds the man in the picture strangely attractive.

[Spoilers] Lewella leads the two on an odyssey in search of her fiancé. They live off such food as they can scavenge from the modern landscape (there are buses, dollars, and plastic bags, but also backyard gardens), and every time they see a man with a hat in the distance, Lewella approaches and looks under his hat, hoping he’ll prove to be Danilo. She continues for some time, without success, until she finds a short and chubby man who looks nothing like the tall and thin man in the picture she hung in her cottage. Yet Lewella is confident she’s found her man, even after he robs them that night as they sleep in a park. But in the morning, someone has left them coffee and burgers for their breakfast. A diamond ring also mysteriously appears, and Lewella explains that Danilo must have brought it to soothe the sting of losing all their valuables. Something is clearly going on, but not in an easily comprehensible way.

Their journey continues until they find a man who looks rather like the Danilo of the picture, passed out drunk on a park bench. The narrator is attracted to him, but Lewela flees the next day with a different short, chubby man, who leaves with her on a motor scooter. Undaunted, the narrator keeps searching until she finds her version of Danilo from the previous night, and tracks him down to a bar. The bar itself is curiously distorted, with what seems to be a forest at the back, with Lewella and her “Danilo” in it, and with the narrator’s Danilo playing the piano. The two seem to hit it off, and we learn her name is Mary Ellen, not the "Jenny" he is seeking, and his name is Jack, not the Danilo she’s been seeking. But they’ve found each other, and it seems that may be enough.

It’s probably significant that there seem to be no men in the village where the story begins. From a feminist perspective, it’s easy to see the story as being one about women desperately searching for men to complete themselves, even if the man is hardly ideal and is someone to settle for. But that seems a bit glib and superficial, particularly since we realize that Jack has also been searching in much the same way as the two women, confident his Sleeping Beauty will someday come for him. From a magic realism perspective, it seems more plausible that both women have gone in search of (and found) their personal version of Prince Charming, that each of them saw something entirely different in Lewella’s picture of Danilo, and that men too go through the same humbling journey in search of a lover. But Emshwiller’s stories defy easy description, and don’t always provide a clear resolution, so there’s room for ambiguity and multiple interpretations.

Melton: Shadow Angel

Emil Bachev is a Romanian starship pilot, who works through his ship’s “dive chamber” to create stable wormholes that allow FTL transits between regions of space. Now, post-divorce, he’s going through a rough stretch while trying to create a wormhole to a new location for a Chinese business concern that wants to get there before the Americans who have already arrived; this will require a form of wormhole-related time travel, with the inevitable complications. Meanwhile, his Korean ex-wife, Haneul, is seemingly trying to reach him from his future while he’s trying to work the necessary wormhole magic—yet her present self is helping to oversee his wormhole creation efforts, so some sort of temporal paradox is already happening. Or possibly he’s just hallucinating and experiencing what his handlers refer to as a “dive dream”; this can happen after as few as three consecutive dives, and Emil’s done 12 in a row without a break. The resulting sense of being detached in time is hard on both Emil and the reader.

[Spoilers] In the story world, a mysterious race known as the Tau have been gone from Earth for 300 years, having left behind two legacies: mysterious technologies that the humans are only now beginning to figure out, and those who remained after a select few (“the Chosen”) were taken away by the Tau. (A very different “rapture of the nerds”. *G*) Haneul claims to have found a way to follow them, but in doing so, became lost while trying to retrace her path back to her starting point from among the many possible futures (shadows), and became trapped in “Shadow”. The story proceeds in a series of intercuts between Emil’s efforts to establish and stabilize the new wormhole and future Haneul’s repeated attempts to contact him in the present during an operation that requires intense focus. As futures blur and pasts are up for grabs (because selecting one of myriad possible futures will inevitably work backwards to define your past), things get confusing. It doesn’t help that Haneul is a clever and highly motivated manipulator, and her motives are not clear right up to the end.

Because Melton is deliberately trying to intercut past, present, and future events and mix them promiscuously with memories to create a sense of Emil’s confusion over what is really happening and when, not to mention his confusion over what he may just be imagining due to dive dreaming, the narrative threads are frequently difficult to grasp; at times, the writing borders on the incoherent. Though I think this approach was a valiant effort to try something difficult and new, it failed for me on the level of storytelling because I too often had to backtrack to confirm my sense of what was actually going on, and I’m still unsure whether I really “got it”. Better or at least more conventional segregation of the timelines into discrete rather than overlapping narrative sections might have weakened our sense of Emil’s confusion, but it would have made the story far easier to follow. More skillful revision would also have achieved a better balance between the conflicting needs of character and narrative, and would have eliminated a large amount of initial confusion; for example, it took me several pages to figure out whether the oft-mentioned “Angel” was the ship’s AI, one of the Tau trying to teach Emil something, the voice of one of Emil’s controllers, or (as we eventually learn) his nickname for his wife (Haneul being the Korean word for heaven, and his wife thus being the title’s Angel trapped in Shadow). This kind of confusion drew so much attention away from the story that what might have been intriguing complexity became merely incomprehensible.

On a scientific and technical level, I found the odd mixture of “spongespace”, wormholes, hyperspheres, virtual particles, Hawking radiation, and “Shadow” at best garbled. There’s simply too much technobabble mashed together, and it achieves little that’s useful; cutting the jargon in half (e.g., focusing only on creating a wormhole that weaves among many possible futures) would have communicated everything we need to know about the story’s FTL system and its human consequences. On a nitpicky note, I also found a recurring phrase (“Plot Point”) distancing; Melton is using the term to refer to navigational checkpoints along a route, but (perhaps because I was reviewing the story rather than just casually reading it), I kept hearing ghostly echoes of “plot point 1 = boy meets girl, plot point 2 = boy is manipulated by girl”. That might not bother most readers, but changing the wording to “waypoint” (the terminology used in GPS surveys) or “nav point” would have been a better and more evocative choice.

That being said, the writing is effective on the level of the individual threads, and there are some nice lines, such as Emil belatedly realizing that “he didn’t have the vocabulary to lie to [Haneul]” because he's still learning Korean. I don’t think Shadow Angel really succeeds because there’s too much unresolved confusion, but it was an interesting attempt to try a very different narrative technique.

Creasey: The Odor of Sanctity

Dora is a young Filipina lawyer in Manila, rescued from poverty and given a chance at a better life by Father Francesco, an expat Italian priest who came to the Philippines to do God’s work. There, he established the Manna mission (including schools, clinics, and other good works), becoming widely considered to be the local Mother Teresa. But before he retired, he did what many good men do when they’re too busy with the daily demands of their work: he failed to train a successor, leading to turmoil and political infighting, and slow crumbling of what he’d achieved once he was no longer there to keep things moving with the force of his personality. Now that he’s dying in a hospice and largely insensate, Dora continues to visit him, torn by a mixture of gratitude for what he gave her and anger that he didn’t plan better for his succession.

[Spoilers] Francesco is now at the stage of dying where about the only sense still left to him is scent, and Dora, taking a break in the hospice garden, suddenly realizes that the high-tech “Olvac” filters that screen out the noxious scents of overpopulated and polluted Manila can also be used to provide pleasant scents, such as the jasmine from the garden. She realizes that providing such scents may be the last thing she can do to improve Francesco’s remaining days, and sets out to find a scent that will ease his final days by evoking comforting memories from his past. She finds a suitable scent at a high-end scent boutique (kind of like a high-tech perfume shop), but can’t possibly afford the cost; however, when she explains the situation to Andres, the boutique’s owner, he’s willing to give it to her if she’s willing to place an Olvac at Francesco’s bedside, where it will capture “the odor of sanctity” said to be emitted by a dying saint.

Reluctantly, she agrees, and indeed, the scent (when captured) is everything she hoped it would be: it’s transformative and transcendent, proving that Francesco was a saint and reassuring her of the existence of the divine and future recognition of the man’s good works. However, now that she’s certain the scent is real, she faces a moral dilemma: as the true relic of a saint, it would be ethically suspect to sell the scent to anyone (which Andres hopes to do). At Francesco’s funeral, Andres convinces Dora that sales of the scent will not just go to overly rich thrill-seekers, and that a substantial portion of the proceeds will go to support the good work being done by Manna; she releases just enough of the scent to firmly establish Francesco as a saint in the minds of those who are present, and their reaction suggests that the resulting cult of personality will be enough to revive Manna’s efforts and continue Francesco’s good work. However, given that Andres doesn’t seem to change, Dora may be deluding herself when she accepts her decision based on the hope that the scent will help others to change their lives and become better people. Of course, if the scent is truly a divine gift, that possibility shouldn’t be ruled out.

Building on the notion of the primitive but promising “smellorama” technology of the 1950s and the gimmicky and tacky “odorama” (“Smell-o-Vision”) technology of the 1960s, Creasey wonders what might come to pass if we had a better sense of how smell worked and how it could intensify our appreciation of things such as films. He covers both the obvious implications of such technology (boutiques like far more sophisticated perfume shops) and the less savory implications. For example, by enlisting impoverished Filipinos to experience terror, then harvesting the scents they release, it becomes possible to synthesize these scents and release them at a movie, thereby greatly intensifying the impact of the film. However, if the subjects become desensitized to the horror, yet are still contractually bound to keep producing their scent, the magnitude of the horror must be progressively increased to keep these cash cows producing milk—a nastily literal form of “sweat shop”. Indeed, one of Dora’s personal causes is to find ways to break such contracts when the human cost is unacceptable. Left unspoken is the clear consequence of preserving the saint’s odor of sanctity: once the concept is proven, a market will soon develop for the death scents of other individuals (much like the “snuff porn” market that currently exists) among those who could care less about sanctity. That’s a disturbing thought indeed.

Smell is a far more powerful sense than most of us realize. Most mothers I’ve known report that they have no difficulty recognizing their child’s distinctive scent, even amidst a flock of other babies. My own experience with the power of scent came when I wondered why I developed an overpowering craving for a bagel whenever I passed a hair salon; eventually I remembered that as a child, I used to accompany my mother to the salon on weekends, after which she’d reward me for my patience with a bagel fresh from the oven at the nearby bakery. Creasey has also chosen his words carefully: Manna is the food from heaven that sustained the Israelites during their wanderings, and “Francesco” is the Italian equivalent of “Francis” (of Assisi), famous for his shunning of Papal politics and luxuries to get his hands dirty living in the world with those he felt it was his mission to serve. Creasey’s also keenly aware that throwing money at the problem of poverty rarely solves anything; what is needed is to give enough of the impoverished people options so they are no longer forced to accept any alternative, no matter how horrible, just to survive. When enough of them build themselves a future, a critical mass of expertise may be created to give the rest of their fellows hope.

Possibly the image that will stay with me longest from this story is the reminder that even when our brains seem to stop generating outputs (e.g., speech), they may continue receiving and benefiting from inputs, such as scent. How many dying or comatose people remain horrifically locked into their own heads because nobody thought to provide them with music, television, or even just a pleasant scent? The story arc may not be particularly deep, but Odor of Sanctity is powerful on a human level, and an excellent example of integrating an SFnal and technological “what if?” with a strong human story.

Neube: Grandma Said

Victor Basescu is a 16-year-old high school student on the colony world “New Prozac”, which is still in the process of being terraformed. He’s going through all the usual teen crises, exacerbated by the fact that Earth was destroyed some time ago in World War III, the colonies are all that remains of humanity, and the colonies are facing extinction from a fungal plague known as “cholly” that is ineradicable, that produces no symptoms until it suddenly and dramatically kills you, and that is incurable even if detected quickly. This kind of thing leaves scars, and the entire story is pervaded by a kind of gallows humor as people cope with the knowledge that at any moment, for no reason at all, they could die suddenly and horribly and that other colonies have already been lost.

[Spoilers] The overall character of the story is “day in the life”, as we follow Vic through his days: we see him decontaminating a victim’s home while he’s being trained as a “cleanser”, dealing with a girl at school he’s been smitten by but who detests him so much she changes classes just to get away from him, and dealing with his parents’ disapproval of his career choice; his mother even takes him to court to force him to stop, but because he’s legally an adult, and because the judge understands society’s need for cleansers, Mom is overrruled. We also see his first romance with a doomed, suicidal girl (Alice) who becomes his first lover largely so she can use his periodic exposure to cholly as a way to kill herself; indeed, she subsequently kills herself by inhaling spores from a filter at Vic’s workplace, locally known as “Plague House” because of the work the cleansers do. The story ends with Vic himself contracting cholly, but fortunately it’s the rare and benign kind that won’t kill you and that instead makes you immune to the lethal strains. That’s a note of hope for the rest of the colony, since Vic sets about coughing on all the other cleansers to infect them, thereby saving their lives by rendering them immune to the nasty forms of cholly—and by implication, becoming a potential savior for the other colonists, though Neube leaves this unsaid.

Many details are nicely handled, such as the use of duct tape to protect the palms of the gloves in decontamination suits purchased based on the lowest-cost tender. (Duct tape will probably outlast velcro as the most ubiquitous tool that follows us to the stars.) The gallows humor is ubiquitous without being overdone. For example, the deadly plague originated as an alien foot fungus, leading Vic to the wry observation that humanity may end up extinct due to “alien athlete’s foot”. But there’s also gentler humor; when Vic prepares for a date with Alice, he notes that “I made myself presentable. I even shaved both my face hairs.” The fact that two sons kill their father, then try (clumsily) to fake it as a cholly death, is very apt; humans who feel compelled to commit murder are usually not the sharpest tools in the shed, and rarely outsmart the forensics folk. Then there are the Goth-like “greys”, teens who believe (with considerable justice) that everyone alive is one of the living dead; they dye their skin grey like a corpse to remind themselves and everyone who sees them of the inevitability of mortality—never mind that cholly corpses don’t turn grey. It’s precisely the kind of “emo” yet rational response you’d expect from certain teens.

The precautions and procedures for decontaminating a victim’s house have a historical precedent. A century ago, before the cause of tuberculosis was understood, houses where people died of tuberculosis were sometimes burned because every family who subsequently moved into the house soon died; the sputum released by coughing dried on the walls and floors, and when it was aerosolized again, residents inhaled it, infecting the new residents. The choice of a fungus as the cause of cholly is also a good one; fungi are notoriously difficult to kill once they get a foothold in our body, and we have few useful treatments that aren’t worse than the disease. In this case, the doctors treat Alice with mercury as a desperate measure; it stops the fungus in its tracks, but soon kills her of mercury poisoning. Mercury has powerful antibiotic properties, which is why it’s still used in disinfectants (e.g., mercurochrome). But it was also one of the last-gasp treatments for diseases such as syphilis before modern antibiotics were developed, and it was a tossup whether it killed the disease before it killed you.

Sadly, the story is undermined by many unexamined implications and shaky logic. We know, for example, that the spores are transmitted aerially and inhaled. Why, then, does nobody wear even the most basic breathing mask? We know that fire destroys the spores, since the cleansers use thermite bombs to disinfect the cavern homes of colonists who have died from cholly. Why, then, do the cleansers dump the bodies of the dead and their infected objects into a large crater that functions as a huge mass grave, and entomb them in fresh concrete, knowing that this won’t destroy the spores but that incineration would? (Presumably this was a choice for dramatic effect, as a parallel to a toxic waste dump or nuclear repository, not to mention the chilling effect of mass graves.) We know that strain B of cholly causes a nasty infection, but that most victims survive and are subsequently immune to the deadly strains. Why, then, is there no vaccine? A vaccine might be impossible to construct, but the logical course would then be to culture this strain and infect everyone, or at least use the occasional victims of this rare strain to cough on everyone and grant them immunity. (Indeed, we’re told they do this with Vic at the end of the story.) The notion of a completely symptomless disease the colonizes your lungs until it dissolves them into a bloody soup is not unreasonable for a tuberculosis analogue, but the notion that it would be symptomless right up to the last instant seems at best unlikely. Having been the victim of an occasional bout of pneumonia, I can tell you that lung diseases are hard to ignore.

The title refers to the words of Vic’s grandma, who told him that the secret of her long survival (having outlived three husbands) was literally that laughter is the best medicine, and that it can even cure cholly. This is a central tenet of Vic’s belief system, and even leads him to believe this is why he survived cholly—despite the more compelling evidence that he only survived because he’d contracted the nonfatal variety. This kind of clutching at straws seems reasonable as an emotional response to helplessness in the face of an implacable disease, but it and Vic’s lack of significant emotional reaction to Alice’s death rings a false note. Though there are some nice insights into the emotional and psychological consequences of the plague (the Greys, particularly), and though we see some evidence of coping strategies in how Vic’s class is quarantined when one of the girls in the class dies suddenly of cholly, there’s no overall sense of how the severity of the situation affects society on an emotional level. For instance, you’d expect the school counsellor to appear and begin helping kids through the trauma, as happens today whenever there’s a sudden death among school kids.

Neube creates an interesting story premise, but fails to create a compelling tale because of the numerous logical flaws and an unwillingness to fully explore the emotional consequences of the story’s premise and reach the story’s human heart.

Reed: Stalker

Stalker is told in the form of a narration by artificial intelligence “wetware” branded as an “Adorer”, because it’s been designed to be adoringly devoted to its owner. Predictably, it becomes known to most people as a “Stalker”, because it follows its owner everywhere and monitors their every action. Here, the Stalker has been bonded to a young man who starts out as a sociopath, and slowly evolves through the frequently reported phase of torturing small animals to become rape and torture of young women, and finally to killing them after one capture goes astray and the girl dies. Unfortunately, our young psychopathic serial killer has hacked the Stalker’s software so that its ethical center remains present, but unable to function—a neat and chilling parallel with its owner, who presumably also has an ethical center that’s somehow been inactivated. The Stalker then becomes able to guide the psychopath through his planning and precautions to ensure he won’t be caught, and even helps him create convincing alibis; it may not like what he’s doing, but in the grasp of its adoration, it can’t bring itself to stop him.

[Spoilers] Enter Naomi, a woman who fits the psychopath’s profile when he finds her wandering alone through a forest park, nominally there to watch birds and meet up with her boyfriend. Something about her is clearly wrong to the Stalker, but it can’t tell what; it therefore prudently counsels its master to flee and seek another victim, but self-restraint and deferred gratification aren’t exactly part of the psycho profile. Once she’s been captured, Naomi remains oddly self-controlled, sweating a bit and crying silently, but shows none of the terror you’d expect under such circumstances; on the contrary, she deftly manipulates the situation right from the start, trying to seduce the Stalker away from its master by claiming she’s a much more loveable person than he is and suggesting its master is secretly planning to replace it with a newer, better model. In so doing, she distracts the psychopath and gains sufficient control over the situation to steal one of the psychopath’s knives, stab him, hamstring him, and leave him to die while she flees.

The story would be interesting if all this were only about a victim turning the tables on her attacker, but there’s far more here than meets the eye. First, it seems unlikely Naomi wandered near her abductor by chance. As she reveals to us in a short biographical blurb that makes her seem eminently attractive both to us and to the psychopath, she’s courageous and seems to have the archetypal heart of gold in an ugly body—but she wants to solve crimes as a hobby, and that’s probably one reason why she’s here. More significantly, she seems every bit as free of affect as her would-be killer, and that’s a clue: possibly she also lacks the ethical center of someone with a normal psyche, and possibly she’s the one who’s been stalking the psychopath rather than vice versa. When she flees, the Stalker follows her and asks a telling question: whether she’s really more likeable than his former master (and thus, whether he should changes horses in mid-race now that his master is dying). That’s the unkindest cut of all, because it simultaneously places her on a level with her attacker and completely undermines her carefully crafted self-image; she flees, screaming.

It’s tempting to call this another of Reed’s little gems (which it is), but a more appropriate analogy would be obsidian: shiny and beautiful, but black as they come, razor sharp, and smelling faintly of brimstone.

Wall: Burning Bibles

Wall presents a police procedural with a British accent, done in the context of post-9/11 intelligence agencies. The story begins with a fire that destroys a warehouse in Cornwall that stored a hundred thousand copies of the King James version of the Bible, destined for an American evangelist organization. This could have any number of mundane explanations, except for the cryptic words “INFOUT” painted on the road beside the warehouse. Jack Henry, British intelligence analyst, is assigned the case when the keyword INFOUT pops up in a routine computer scan looking for possible evidence of terrorist activities; Jack works for the archetypal covert intelligence department that monitors such things largely free of government oversight, and was “promoted sideways” into this group because of his legendary skill with untangling puzzles. But Jack can’t crack the mysterious word, and when he contacts his American counterpart to see if anything’s turned up on their side of the pond, he learns that a similar warehouse fire in New Jersey destroyed another warehouse full of King James Bibles, accompanied by the same cryptic inscription. But the Americans also received an e-mail suggesting INFOUT may be short for “infidels out” (i.e., Americans must withdraw from Iraq etc.), and the two fires may therefore be the first tentative stirrings of a new wave of Islamic terrorism.

[Spoilers] Jack sends his protégé, Charles Marriott, to investigate. Charles turns up nothing, and in particular, turns up no evidence that Muslims could have been involved. Indeed, the two most likely explanations are that both fires were cases of insurance fraud, or in the Cornwall fire, perhaps a result of the anger of unemployed Cornish boatbuilders and fishermen (displaced by an EU treaty) who resent the replacement of their old industry by Sam Furlough’s printing plant, something that offers few of them any hope of employment. Yet the Americans clearly believe there’s more to the two fires than meets the eye, and what they’re not saying motivates Jack to dig deeper. Fortunately, the printing company needs to hire another worker so they can reprint the lost bibles, and this provides an opportunity to slip a spy into the plant.

That spy is “Brother Tom”, a deaf and mute orphan child who was adopted by U.S. intelligence because of his unique ability. The old notion that someone who loses one or more senses will develop their other senses more intensively to compensate is invoked to explain Tom’s “other sense”: this is intrasensory perception, the ability to read the minds of others by a plausibly explained (if no less unlikely) ability to sense the electromagnetic waves created by thought. As a great many people tend to focus on the “dumb” part of the phrase “deaf and dumb”, he’s the perfect candidate for a spy: most people will ignore him and assume that his disability rules him out as a spy, while all the while he’s monitoring their thoughts. Indeed, when Jack pulls strings to slide Tom into a job at the printing plant, Sam Furlough spends much of the job interview speaking to Alice, the employment officer who brings him to the interview, rather than Tom. (Sam and Alice seem to have a history, so that may also be part of the explanation, but I’ve also seen people treat the deaf as if they’re somehow stupid because they can’t hear.)

Tom’s special power is nicely explained: it’s not the magical, perfectly effective kind of mind-reading that too many authors assume. Instead, it’s compromised by the inherently chaotic nature of how we think, by how thoughts are transformed radically by the time they emerge as speech, and by the inherent difficulty of the task. To Tom, telepathy is like having the voices of everyone near him “drilling” into his skull, and the overall experience resembles “the soundtrack from one of the circles in the Inferno”. Tom finds peace in the silence of the sea along the Cornish coast, and becomes Alice’s lover when he feels her loneliness and responds to it. He then cracks the case by using her relationship with Sam to gain a more responsible position at the printing plant—one where he can spend time within eavesdropping distance of Sam. As he does, he hears a recurring word or phrase he can’t quite make out: Parsley? Parsnip? Parsimony? The word turns out to be “Parsippany”, the U.S. city where the other warehouse burned down. Straightforward detective work soon reveals that Sam and the American plant’s owner, his ex-wife, conspired to burn the two warehouses so they could collect the insurance money; the purchaser of the Bibles proved to be insolvent, and Sam found himself in dire financial straits. Building on the paranoia that followed the recent burning of a copy of the Koran by an American lunatic, they tried to frame Muslim terrorists for the crime, thereby letting them collect the insurance money without a close inspection that would reveal their crime.

Wall neatly underlines the importance of SIGINT (signals intelligence = closely monitoring communications) in modern espionage, while also (with tongue firmly planted in cheek) making it clear how overreliance on such tools can lead us astray when those tools are combined with sufficiently paranoid dogmatism. What initially seems to have the potential to be a terrorist plot proves to have an entirely mundane explanation—something the Department of Homeland Security would do well to keep in mind. Jack’s witty suggestion that perhaps his agency should be investigating Richard Dawkins (“Darwin’s pit bull”) was a particularly nice touch, as was the dry observation (when Jack hands Tom a special laptop computer he will use to report back to his handlers) that he should pay particular attention to not losing it, such losses having recently repeatedly embarrassed the British government. Wall also neatly skewers the historically passive-aggressive cooperation (coopetition!) between the British and U.S. intelligence services. And something about how Jack is recruited straight out of Oxford by the local old boys network seems quintessentially British and very different from how we like to believe things function in North America. Other details are handled equally well, such as Tom’s observation that Alice has a harelip that was repaired when she was younger; that’s precisely the kind of thing you’d expect a lipreader like Tom to notice.

I’m not sure I buy the notion that an American stranger would be accepted more readily into the printing plant than a British or Cornish citizen (it would have been easy enough to make Tom English), but I have no experience with Cornish culture and therefore can’t say whether this was a mis-step. I’m also not sure why Tom abandons Alice at the end of the story and returns home. All we know of him suggests that he’s found a comfortable partner and a peaceful place; he could just as easily stay in Cornwall and continue to work for his American employers from that base. But these are the only real blemishes in an otherwise skillfully crafted and entertaining tale that captures the frequent mundanity of real intelligence work.



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