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Stories in Fantasy and Science Fiction, March/April 2011 issue

Stories reviewed:

Cowdrey: Scatter My Ashes
Di Filippo: A Pocketful of Faces
Liu: The Paper Menagerie
Finch: The Evening and the Morning
DeBill et al.: Night Gauntlet
Kelly: Happy Ending 2.0
Soty (and Burton): The Second Kalandar’s Tale
Bunker: Bodyguard
Wallace: Botanical Exercises for Curious Girls
Stoddard: The Ifs of Time

Cowdrey: Scatter My Ashes

Cowdrey’s back with one of his trademark tales of creepy goings-on. Here, our guide to the doings is Harry Angleton, a history writer who’s been brought to San Jose to investigate the tragic history of the Cross family, and who’s fallen into a comfortable relationship with the family’s surviving daughter, Kathryn. He’s also got a friendly relationship with Queen, Kathryn’s elderly and slowly dying grandmother. As Harry goes through the family archives she’s collected, he brings her intriguing bits to explain to him, and one photo is particularly interesting to her—enough so that she keeps it rather than returning it to the archives.

The story begins with about as graceful an infodump as you could hope for, via Harry’s notes on the early history of the family leading up to an infamous “massacre”. Back during the stormy days before World War I, during the Russian revolution and the associated pogroms, Rabbi Aaron Lazarovich Belsky (the harkening of the middle name to Lazarus is no accident) goes from saint to sinner in the most dramatic way possible; formerly a leading light to his people, he’s fallen into bad ways through study of the kabbalah and his burning desire to survive these difficult times. His fall is so dramatic he is excommunicated by his village, and when he flees to the U.S., aided by a treasure he’s found by mystical means, he leaves his dead wife behind him and takes up a new career as a loanshark. He marries off his daughter, Queen, to an odious character named Eugen Kreutz, who (like many immigrants of that era) renames himself Eugene Cross to better fly under the radar in his new country. The marriage is not only loveless, it’s downright toxic—Eugene is so nasty that Belsky, not the world’s most cuddly father, has one of his goons beat Eugene to teach him a little respect for his wife.

As time passes, children are somehow born to the couple, including Kathryn, though the couple soon grow further estranged and move apart without divorcing each other. When the Great Depression occurs, the Cross family moves out west to Cormorant House, perched on the cliffs above the California coast—an atmospheric setting even without Kathryn’s description of the place as having been designed by “Frank Lloyd Wrong”. When her brother Eugene Jr. gets married, Eugene Sr. returns with his blond girlfriend (whom Queen once described as “a sexy, dishy blonde with splendid curves and a soul you could scratch marble with”) to participate in the wedding at Cormorant House, and announces his intention to divorce Queen so he can marry his girlfriend. Something goes disastrously wrong, and both couples end up dead on the rocks below the house. The stage now set, events accelerate like the couples falling off the cliff.

[Spoilers] When Harry describes the photo that Queen kept to herself, and describes the text written on it to Kathryn, it piques her curiosity, and together they sneak into Queen’s room to have a look. The photo proves to contain both Belsky and a servant named Mogel—which is close enough to the “Mogul” who is currently Queen’s bodyguard and servant that it raises the question of whether it could possibly be the same man, more than 90 years later. F&SF readers already know the answer to that question, but the characters will take some time to reach the right conclusion. In bed with Kathryn that night, Harry is doing his traditional crossword puzzle, when he triumphantly solves an anagram, and then must explain the meaning of that word to Kathryn. Together they realize that since kabbalists had an inordinate love of numeromancy and anagrams, it’s possible that “Mogel” is really an anagram for Golem—a mythical clay creature, mostly famously created to defend the Jews of Prague from their many tormentors.

On her deathbed, Queen explains to Kathryn the truth behind the mystery of the four deaths: Queen, enraged by her husband, orders her golem to throw him and his girlfriend off the cliff, but is careless in her wording, leading to both their deaths and the deaths of her son and daughter-in-law. We’ve learned early on that Queen keeps an incunabulum (a book printed before ca. 1500) under a glass display case in her room. We learn that it’s Belsky’s original cabalistic tome, and that naturally inspires Harry’s historian’s curiosity—not to mention ours. When Queen dies and Mogel throws her and himself off the balcony and to the cliffs below, Harry sees his chance and goes to investigate the book. Opening it, he discovers that the text has been carefully cut out and the remaining space filled with Belsky’s cremated remains. He brings the book outdoors to show it to Kathryn, and when he makes the mistake of opening it, a gust of wind sweeps some of the ashes into his face. But the ashes are more than they seem, and in fact are a way for Belsky to return from the dead by possessing Harry. Fortunately, Kathryn’s no slouch, and as soon as Harry speaks to her in Russian, she realizes what’s happened and KOs him with a single blow (we learned earlier that she’s studied karate), and tosses the ashes off the cliff, thereby ending Belsky’s comeback attempt.

As always, Cowdrey has the gift of economically creating distinct, three-dimensional characters and establishing his scene, while managing to seamlessly integrate clever and often playful turns of phrase. One favorite, describing Kathryn’s sensible underwear: “As far as this lady was concerned, Victoria could keep her secret.” He simply gets the details right, like Queen speaking Russian with a thick accent because she learned it from her father even while living in the Bronx, and Kathryn making “little noises of content, like a drowsy dove”, when Harry caresses her as she’s falling asleep. And the piles of books at bedside for both members of the couple are undoubtedly instantly recognizable to most F&SF readers.

Di Filippo: A Pocketful of Faces

Regular readers of these reviews may have noted that I haven’t reviewed any of Di Filippo’s regular Plumage from Pegasus series of shorts. On the one hand, I confess that they’re clever, skillfully written, and often amusing. But on the other, much larger hand, I find them formulaic, facile, and—frankly—a little annoying. YMMV; if they’re the kind of story you enjoy, shallow but full of clever satire, you probably enjoy them a lot. Thus, it’s a pleasure for me to have a chance to see what Di Filippo can do with a serious story for a change. A whole lot, it turns out.

Faces is the story of Isham Smoke, a future cop working for the Aspect Protection Enforcement (APE) agency. “Aspects” are a form of intellectual property based on genetics, and the “faces” of the title are aspects of that person grown from their DNA. If you can obtain someone’s DNA, you can use it to grow parts of them, and in this case, the relevant parts are faces. (It seems likely that it won’t be long before someone figures out how to grow complete clones, but the technology isn’t there yet in the present story.) These faces can be grown legally if you’re willing to pay the licensing fee, but those fees can be steep for celebs and other VIPs, creating a powerful motive to create illegal knockoffs. Often, these faces are grafted onto “twists”, which are essentially generic human clones used for cheap labor and various degrading purposes, most infamously as the host for a grafted face. In so doing, they take on the human’s aspect, though they’re not smart enough to pass for human once you interact with them. As is often the case, new technologies such as this one are first used for porn, and this offshoot of genetics is no different. If you want a porn star for your sex toy, all you need to do is license—or steal—her DNA, grow her face, and graft it to a twist.

Inevitably, some people have much kinkier or downright nastier desires, and don’t want to pay the licensing fee. Unfortunately for us, the cast-off bits of DNA each of us sheds wherever we travel can also be used to grow a face, and a thriving market in human DNA has sprung up. If you’re quiet about it, the owner of the DNA will never know and you’ll never have to pay a licensing fee. But like some mutated version of the RIAA, APE exists to crack down on these crimes. This and other aspects of the story’s science are well done. The technique of stealing someone’s DNA may seem to be a stretch, but it’s not. One of my former clients invented a forensic technique for proving the identity of criminal by isolating their DNA from the sweat and skin oils they left behind at a crime scene; police have even used this to confirm that a specific person stole a car based on DNA recovered from sweat on the steering wheel. With modern PCR amplification techniques, it doesn’t take much to generate enough of a DNA sample to be useful; give the geneticists another couple decades and far more sophisticated tricks will be possible.

The biotech and nanotech and just-plain-ordinary consumer tech all seems like an exotic but plausible extrapolations from what we have now. Best of all, the characters treat it like what it is: just another part of the world they inhabit. They provide enough judicious infodumps to bring us up to speed without ever being overt or intrusive about it. The combination creates a believable, intriguing future environment, and one that seems worth considerably more explanation. There are a great many additional crimes one can imagine (e.g., having a twist impersonate someone and leave their DNA at the scene of a crime; having a twist roaming around with a political opponent’s face to make the person unelectable), and I hope we’ll see these notions explored.

The characters are interesting and likeable and distinct, but with a caveat I’ll discuss later in this review. Both Isham and his new partner, Velzy Roy, are clever, engaging, and work their way diligently and with occasional flashes of real brilliance through a convoluted and challenging police procedural. I won’t spoil the plot for you; as you follow the chain of evidence that the two APEs reveal as they work their way up the chain from street-level pushers to the higher-level brokers who are the true crime lords, a complex and ultimately satisfying resolution to the mystery behind the crime is finally achieved. In the end, they catch the bad guys, but the ending feels abrupt and unsatisfactory, with the criminals confessing their sins and one of them bemoaning the fate that led them to this ending. But once the villain has been caught, there’s no denouement and no chance to see how the protagonists have changed as a result of their adventure. We’re left dangling, and not in the good “tune in next week” way.

The biggest problem with Faces is that Di Filippo can’t seem to decide whether to treat his story as one of his trademark humorous satires or as a serious exploration of the SFnal premise underlying the story. The serious part, he’s covered well. But the humor or satire is insufficiently prominent to satisfy; it fails to create an overall sense that the story was intended to be humorous, making Di Fillippo’s occasional flourishes into a handful of clever and amusing—but seriously out of place—one-liners. For example, I can buy the notion of Isham being a very large man, but calling him an APE isn’t subtle. Calling the APE database of aspects “Facebook” is clever, but comes off as authorial grandstanding. Moving the capital of the U.S. to Bangor (Maine) after climate change renders Washington uninhabitable is an interesting touch, but hosting the Department of Justice in the “Stephen King” building is gratuitous and out of place. Someone should have said “that’s all very clever, Paul, now take it out of the story”.

A secondary problem is that Di Fillipo’s characters all seem a bit too overtly stereotypical. Isham’s interesting because he treats the twists with more respect that one might expect, suggesting both that he has human depths that make him a pleasant literary companion and that there will be some Turing-test scenarios explored in a future story, in which the degree of humanity of these manufactured beings comes into question. Isham’s partner Velzy is an intelligent, likeable black woman with an interesting and problematic past, but she’s too beautiful and too overtly a damsel in distress waiting for Isham to rescue her despite her outward competence. I liked her and see promise for future growth of the character, but found her too much a creature of Plumage from Pegasus and not enough of a character from Faces.

Bottom line: a near miss. If you don’t read too closely and if you don’t share my aversion to Plumage from Pegasus, Faces is a clever and occasionally amusing bit of SFnal extrapolation, not to mention a skillfully written police procedural. I enjoyed reading it and following through the twisty (pun not intended) path of detection until the crime was unraveled. But I found the clever humor as annoying as a tiny pebble in a hiking boot: it kept distracting me from the hike, and there was no way for me to stop to remove it. This undermined what would have been a much stronger story if Di Filippo had stripped it of its plumage from Pegasus and played it straight. The alternative would have been to turn it into the extended-play version of a Plumage story, ramping up the level of satire to 11 on the dial, and that probably would have annoyed me even more.

Liu: The Paper Menagerie

After Liu’s previous harrowing turn in The Literomancer (Sept./Oct. 2010), this story comes as a distinct relief—though not one unaccompanied by a hefty dose of pain. Menagerie (a clear tip of the hat to The Glass Menagerie) is told from the POV of Jack, first as a youngster and later as a teen and young adult. Jack’s father, a white American, “bought” a Chinese bride and brought her home with him to America, some time around the late 1970s. At the time, she spoke no English, and though Jack’s father clearly loved her and treated her well, he never made an effort to learn any Chinese to ease the burden of her entry into American society, and the prejudice against Asians that is so pernicious and omnipresent and (worse, in some ways) so heedless further isolated her. Like any new mother, she doted on her son, trebly so because he was the only one she could speak to in Chinese with all her ai, her heart. (One of the pleasures I find in Liu’s writing is the ability, with my primitive Chinese skills, to pull out occasional bits of nuance from the bits and pieces of Chinese language scattered through his stories.)

Thus, it’s a deep wound for her when Jack distances himself from her. Jack is grappling with all the usual problems a child has of fitting in within a new community, exacerbated by being a halfbreed (a term I chose deliberately to emphasize the venom with which he’s treated when he initially clings to some of the Chinese ways his mother teaches him). This is a classic tale of love and magic gone bad: early on, Jack’s mother makes him toys—living pets, really—out of origami animals crafted from Christmas wrapping paper, with the difference that she knows the magic of breathing life into them with her own breath, and they live for as long as she draws breath. For many years, these animals are cherished toys and friends (particularly the tiger, symbolic of the Year of the Tiger in which Jack was born), until the day one of them damages a friend’s Star Wars toy and the friend nearly destroys it in a rage. (The friend, heedless, sees none of the magic in these animals, spoiled for such things by the far lesser magics of television and Star Wars. In a sense, this is a very Bradbury-esque aspect of Liu’s writing: hidden and wonderful magics that only children or those who have not lost their “childish” sense of wonder can truly appreciate.) It is then that he makes the decision to sever himself from his Chinese heritage and become fully American. He even boxes up his old animal friends and stores them in the attic so he can no longer hear them call to him. The resentment he bears his mother over what she made him (an outcast, at least initially) eventually drives such a distance between them that they rarely speak again, not until the final day of his mother’s life, when she dies of cancer at the young age of 40. He returns to university, seemingly unmoved by her death.

[Spoilers] Two years later, Jack is living with his girlfriend, who has discovered the old toy animals and brought them out as decorations for their apartment. Inspecting the much abused tiger (laohu), he discovers a hidden long letter she wrote to him when it became clear they would never talk again, and that she would die before they were reconciled. So great is the distance from his heritage that Jack has created, he’s forgotten too much Chinese to read it, and must ask someone to read it to him. In the letter, we learn his mother’s story, but never her name (a nice touch): she was orphaned by the atrocities of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, fled to Hong Kong in search of an uncle who was her only surviving relative, and was sold into domestic slavery, only escaping by offering herself as a mail-order bride. Her story is poignant and deeply affecting, and quintessentially Chinese. (I judge this from what I’ve learned over the years about Chinese culture through Chinese friends and colleagues.) But it’s also a story that should resonate with anyone who’s ever distanced themselves from a parent over something that later proves to be trivial (i.e., for most of us).

The letter reminds Jack that each year, on the date of Qingming, the Chinese day of the dead, there is a bond created between him and his deceased mother that will let her spirit animate the toys once more, and thereby let him communicate with her. In the final moments of the story, Jack traces the word ai (love) over and over again on his paper tiger—telling his mother, many years too late, that he still loves her and is sorry for how he treated her.

Liu manages to create emotions so subtly you almost miss how they’re creeping up on you. Thus, when the climax of the story comes, it delivers a surprisingly strong emotional punch. I got all dewy-eyed over the resolution, though I confess to being a major softy. *G* Based on the two Liu stories I’ve read thus far, it seems Liu has the rare gift not only for empathy with his characters, but for us helping us to share that empathy through a simple but powerful telling of how real people overcome their tragedies to find beauty in life, even when life has other plans for them and won’t let them enjoy that beauty for long. There is magic in Liu’s writing, and not just the overt trickery of bringing paper animals to life through zhezhi magic; the real magic lies in the simple, quintessentially beauty of his (often Chinese) characters and how he can make us feel their pain even if we’re not Chinese. This is a second powerful story in a row, moving Liu to the top of the list of writers I plan to keep an eye on.

Finch: The Evening and the Morning

Xiankang Pei (“Crow”) is a retired member of the Guild of Xenolinguists, 200+ years old and having decided not to regenerate and gain another 100 years. (His nickname comes from a failed and awkward attempt to fly as a child.) Like anyone his age, he has regrets, but possibly his biggest one is that he won’t have time to reconstruct long-lost research by a long-ago colleague, Ursin Colm, on the nominally shared origin of all languages in humanity’s arm of galaxy. As the story begins, Crow’s immersed in a VR simulation of a cloud ocean on the planet Venatix, where a long time other-species friend, Tu’ve, has met him. Tu’ve has known Crow long enough to understand his concerns, and finds a way to combine his own species’ concerns with Crow’s: the Venatixi have long sought an elder race, the Sagittans, who were nominally present at the birth of all sentient species, and although the Venatixi are not overtly religious, this quest has taken on the overtones of a religious quest. Tu’ve offers Crow a trip (only possible using their superior technology) to long-lost Earth so he can seek records of Colm’s research, and possibly shed some light on the Saggitan mystery.

Finch writes in a rich, yet restrained style, and includes a great many echoes in the background that she’s too wise to foreground. For instance, Crow sitting in the VR as waves break and roll almost to his feet has a powerful sense of things ending, and particularly his life (his career having ended some time back). Like King Canute, he realizes that there’s little he can do about his situation. The Guild itself is coming to an end, atherosclerotic and afflicted with politics, and their research methods are by now so well-honed that their former passion to gather in new languages has waned, and they mostly turn out translators and interpreters rather than explorers. In many ways, the Guild resembles a secular version of the Jesuits, complete with mantras and rites and a deep love for knowledge. And in a near-final echo, Tu’ve himself has seemingly come to the end; rather than accompanying Crow, he instead offers his daughter as guide. But for the Venatix, the ascension into adulthood requires the sacrifice of one of their parents. (Intriguingly, this suggests that many Venatix families will have only two adult members and a host of old but not legally adult members.) In the final echo, Finch herself has been writing in this story universe for more than 20 years, and may be coming to the end of her own (story) cycle. Wheels within wheels, and resonant ones.

In addition to Crow, the cast of players includes the following: Imhavi is Tu’ve’s daughter and representative of the Venatixi and a bit of a cypher. We never learn much of her other than that she doesn’t support this mission. Lefford Iris is a linguist and representative of Crow’s main political enemy within the Guild. Iris is ambitious, and has a huge chip on her shoulder because she wants to prove herself. Wu Tyr is a medtech sent along to keep the aged Crow (and the others) healthy. He’s indefatigably curious, a musician, and gay. As is increasingly the case, “gay” is simply a part of who he is, not a “look at me!” detail by the author, and that’s always nice to see. Of the four, Crow is clearly the romantic, enchanted by the mere notion of finding himself on humanity’s homeworld; when their ship makes a forced landing under the control of some mysterious external agency, he’s the only one willing to leave the ship while they wait for the agency to return control of the ship to its AI. Shell, the ship’s AI completes the crew, and is an insubordinate being who clearly feels superior to the mortals aboard the ship, and has considerable freedom to ignore their demands when it suits him or her.

[Spoilers] When they arrive at Earth, they find the world in ruins. In the 200 to 300 years since Earth’s last contact with the rest of galactic civilization, something has happened that left only a few ruins to show for millennia of human occupation of Earth, and the Guild’s HQ has been even more thoroughly destroyed. There are no signs of human survivors, but abundant signs of other life. As in the recent book by Allan Weisman about what would happen if mankind vanished, The World Without Us, it appears that Earth will get along just fine, reverting quickly to the prehuman paradise it once was. But there are signs of a deep mystery: how could Earth’s civilization have been destroyed so thoroughly without any message getting out, without the Venatixi or another civilization learning of this, and without a single survivor? Shell lets slip (deliberately?) the revelation that the Venatixi have been monitoring Earth for centuries, and thus must have known of Earth’s destruction. Later, the AI tries to discourage Crow from digging at the site of the Guild HQ in search of clues. The alert reader recalls Finch’s earlier note that the Venatixi language lacks a word for altruism, and the sense of manipulation becomes clearer. Yet Tu’ve must have had a reason to send Crow on this mission, and Imhavi clearly doesn’t support her father’s objectives, and soon gives Crow a deadline of only a few days before she takes the ship and leaves. What is she hiding? It’s telling that Shell slips yet again and reveals to Crow an extensive knowledge of human archival material that he should probably not know.

Three surprises await us as Crow unravels the mystery underlying the abandoned Earth. First, unlike the other human worlds, the humans of Earth created artificially intelligent machines that rebelled against their masters and destroyed human civilization. I’m not sure I buy this explanation, possibly because it struck me as too Terminator-like, but YMMV. Second, in the absence of humans, someone (presumably the Sagittans) has returned to Earth to raise up the next sentient race, which turns out to be the crows and ravens that have inherited Earth from us; the crows are the hoi polloi in this deal, with white ravens as their guardians. Corvids are certainly sufficiently intelligent for this kind of “uplift” (to borrow a word from David Brin), though it seems odd that primates, felines, or canids were not chosen; all three are potentially more intelligent than crows. But the real show-stopper is the revelation that the Venatixi were once humanity’s guardians, something that has been subtly hinted at throughout—and that they were asleep on the job when the machines revolted and exterminated Earth’s human population. They, in turn, eliminated the machines.

Crow is the heart of the story, and he’s an intriguingly mixed character. On the one hand, he’s old and tired and ready to give up and let go of life and his pursuits. On the other hand, he’s still kindled by the wonder of a new world and the mysteries waiting to be solved, and still strongly attracted to younger women like the sexy Iris, though not in a creepy way. (I’m not sure I buy Iris seducing him midway through the story, and I doubt a male writer could have written that scene without at least a mild snort of derision from half the audience, but that’s neither here not there.) On balance, he provides a strong reminder that getting old needn’t banish one’s “sense of wonder”, and that rekindling that wonder doesn’t require SFnal pyrotechnics: it only requires a keen eye for the beauty of the world. Unlike many a fictional protagonist, Crow is also profoundly and fallibly human: despite centuries of training and practice reading both spoken and unspoken signs, he considers his visit to Earth only a favor to an old friend, but when Imhavi describes it as “the quest my father laid on you”, he misses that obvous difference of emphasis. And he doesn’t really try to figure out whether his seduction by Iris is hero worship, as it seems, or manipulation, and doesn’t note that this is an important distinction. In the end, when Imhavi leaves the planet, bearing the rest of the crew with her, Crow is left alone with his namesakes, about to begin a fascinating first-contact situation in which he’ll get to know the newly sentient race with what remains of his time. The preface to the story suggests that Finch has now tied up the whole saga of the lingers, but it’s hard to imagine her resisting the temptation to return to such an interesting situation.

Finch has a deft hand with simple (not poetic) yet affecting phrases. Favorite examples:
“Familiarity breeds wrong conclusions”
“The curse of getting old was you’d read all the books but nobody was interested in your synopsis.”

There are many profound touches, such as Crow’s observation that he was “trained to identify meaning outside of words”; linguistics is about far more than just words, because communication is about far more than words. I don’t get much sense of what the Venatixi look like, other than “humanoid” and “beautiful”, but they do seem to be significantly different from humans in how they think, including an outward lack of emotion but a deep inner emotional life. I don't intend to slight Finch, but the image of Vulcans springs inevitably to mind. The sacrifice of the parents is one dramatic difference from us, but other differences are subtler: they do not name their ships (a seemingly irresistable human reflex), and as Crow notes, their language has no word for “altruism”. The latter is a particularly subtle touch because it tells us, by means of a single word, just how differently these aliens think. There’s been some interesting recent research that suggests humans are gifted at detecting subtle differences from the human norm, and that these differences can make us acutely uncomfortable; it’s why most of us tend to marry within our “race”, why the facial distortions of Down’s syndrome make many of us uncomfortable, and why (so I’m told) the film Polar Express disturbed many people (the animations were just slightly too distorted from the human norm for comfort). As Finch notes, this is what Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori referred to as the “uncanny valley”.

A couple nits to pick: Crow uses a multi-tool for digging, with a laser blade for probing the soil and a sonic tool for moving aside sand. A laser won’t work in that context, because pretty much all forms of light are easily blocked by soil, and although a sonic tool could conceivably move aside dirt, the energy cost would be prohibitive for a handheld device. A folding shovel, a thin probe, and a whisk broom may not be the ultimate technological evolution of the archeologist’s tools, but they’re probably darn close, and it's hard to imagine them needing replacement. The larger nit, and one that’s harder to handwave, is that the translation implant that Iris uses to learn the language of the crows seems too technologically advanced, almost as bad as Star Trek’s infamous “universal translator”. Acceptance of this gimmick is easier if you accept Finch’s premise that all languages in this arm of the galaxy are related on a fundamental level, so that each has the same underlying “source code”. But I don’t buy that premise (see below), and more seriously, if such technology exists, what use is there for human linguists? A sub-nit is that even if the implant cracks the language, the human vocal and auditory systems are too different from those of corvids to let a human easily (if at all) communicate in their own language. Imagine, for instance, humans trying to communicate with elephants using infrasound or with bats using ultrasound (sonar): we lack the biological structures to do this.

The central linguistic puzzle at the heart of the story reflects one of the debates in linguistics about the extent to which language and its deep structures are inborn and consistent among the many branches of humanity. I’m no expert, but I've always approached this debate from a biologist’s perspective: the biology of the brain clearly constrains and shapes the nature of language, yet the language must also reflect (and be shaped by) the external reality the mind interacts with. And the brain, in turn, is endlessly reshaped by external inputs (this is how we learn), and growing up to learn (say) Chinese produces a very different reshaping than growing up to learn (say) French. On Earth, the human neurological wiring seem likely to be highly similar among the branches of humanity at birth, and is subsequently reshaped by experience. But other planets, with different biologies, would produce both different wiring and different reshapings of the wiring. Thus, it seems unlikely that languages from different species would have a shared basis, particularly if the underlying biology is radically different; after all, there’s no shared basis we’ve identified between human languages and the languages of cetaceans despite our shared biology and planet (though a recent discovery suggests that some whales, at least, have names for themselves and for each other). Different wetware and different environments would seem to lead to fundamentally different languages and ways of using them to think, with the common roots existing only in the need to describe common phenomena such as light and dark, heat and cold, and so on. But that’s a trivial phenomenon, not some deeper sharing of structure.

The story’s title invokes the biblical “and the evening and the morning”, clearly indicating the dawning of a new world under the guidance of its creator. I hope we’ll have a chance to learn more about that new world.

DeBill et al.: Night Gauntlet

This one’s an interesting switch from the usual F&SF tale: it’s a round-robin story cowritten by six authors (Walter deBill, Richard Gavin, Robert Price, W.H. Pugmire, Jeffrey Thomas, and Don Webb). One question with such stories is always about how well the different parts of Frankenstein fit together; here, they fit seamlessly.

John Giloh is an English major at the University of Texas (Austin) and a wannabe horror writer, specializing in American Gothic (Lovecraft et al.). He’s dating Susan Derby, a mathematical physicist who’s exploring the more tangled realms of string theory. She’s a beautiful blonde—a phrase that always gives me pause, until I remember to ask myself whether the author means “pinup girl” or something more subjective, beauty always being in the eye of the beholder. Since her eyes are the only physical attribute of Susan that John mentions repeatedly, I’ll give the authors a pass on this one. Susan’s brother Nathan is the editor of a horror fanzine, currently in England working on a mysterious editorial project when the story begins, and John has worked with him in the past, trying (unsuccessfully) to get stories published in his fanzine. Nathan was due to return home 6 months ago, but has disappeared in the interim.

Susan inherited the office of Dr. Emil Heyschius, a fellow mathematical genius but one who’s slipped off the plane containing the rational numbers. Indeed, he’s a conspiracy theorist, and (it turns out) a Cthulhu-mythos fanboy whose office is wallpapered with postcards from key locales in the Cthulhu mythos, all connected with varicolored wires and yarn. One day before the story began, he climbed the local tower with a rifle and killed 19 students and faculty, who he accused of being “nightgaunts”. Did he simply go around the bend, or was he seeing something real?

Susan has left the mementos of the deranged Dr. H in place for a variety of reasons, including both an (entirely non-coincidental) echo of the metaphysical strings she studies and her illicit attraction to the supernatural, something she shares with John and that brings them together. As she notes, “There’s something... exciting about it. The mystery, the layers of significance, always knowing there’s more to be learned, if only you can tease it out.” That’s an eloquent capsule description of what attracts most scientists to science, and also the kind of mindset that leads typical Lovecraftian protagonists to their doom.

[Spoilers] Things get rolling when John spots a 9-foot-tall batwinged nightgaunt flying over the campus one night. Later, watching the Korean horror film Red Dreams with Susan, his tidy world view is overturned: the film begins with a horrific scene of Paul Bunyan (who appeared in some of Dr. H’s postcard collection) being devoured by his giant blue ox, Babe—but the ox, on closer inspection, appears to resemble Shub Niggurath, Lovecraft’s “black goat of the woods”, and it is in turn slain by a spectre that descends from the heavens, flanked by two nightgaunts. It seems likely this is one of those strange intrusions on reality that sometimes occurs in horror fiction rather than a literal recounting of the film. John flees into the night, and when Susan catches up with him, she takes him to her lab, where she reveals her interest in the occult and shows him a parchment (later revealed to be made from the skin of no known animal) that contains mysterious script, a sketch of a nightgaunt, and other typical Lovecraftian horrors. The charged atmosphere (Shub being a fertility god of sorts) raises the lusts of our two protagonists, and they decide to head home to Susan’s creepy family mansion so they can finally consummate their relationship—only to discover that Nathan has finally returned, frustrating their plans.

Susan and Nathan are drawn into the trap of illicit knowledge, and afficionados of the genre know it won’t end well. Sure enough, the siblings complete the network of strings and wires that Heschius began, and bring John along to witness as they activate what proves to be a portal. It opens a window into the past, to a frozen moment in time when Shub (or Koth, another elder god) rules, surrounded by his nightgaunts. We learn that humans may have begun our evolutionary history as nightgaunts, free explorers of the cosmos, before some unspecified original sin (perhaps the sin of knowledge?) doomed us to be stripped of our wings and sentenced to an eternity in human form, sensing but never able to regain our former glory. Is this the literal truth, or the kind of deliberate despair-inducing vision Sauron caused Saruman to see through the corrupted palantir? Susan is drawn through the portal before either companion can stop her, and Nathan tears the portal apart in a rage, preventing rescue. Whether Susan’s fate is benign (the mathematical wonders of the universe finally being opened to her) or not is left to our imagination; the cynic in me doubts her fate will be so nice. Nathan goes mad, and like Heschius, is subsequently killed by police snipers when he climbs the same tower with a rifle. Only John survives, and though he mourns Susan, he also feels a sense of wonder at the thought she may have achieved some form of transcendence. His survival without deep wounds, and the possibility of a good ending for Susan, are rare grace notes in the Lovecraftian mythos, where even such qualified victories are rare.

Night Gauntlet is a satisfying Lovecraft hommage, but told in the modern Charles Stross vein (e.g., high-energy physics and complex reality-defying mathematics seem to attract eldritch horrors). To me, the lure of Lovecraft and the reason his stories have endured for so long is that, like the best horror, they play to our deepest fears. We try to portray our world as a sane, orderly place, yet most of us admit in our inner hearts that we’re fooling ourselves; as John notes, “If this were a story, I could’ve followed some thread of inquiry until some moment of horrible gnosis. But existence never unspools as holistically as a fictive. Life doesn’t have a plot...” There are many horrors in our world, ranging from the mundane daily tragedies (seeing friends or colleagues crushed by their burdens) to the much larger horrors (e.g., ethnic cleansing), suggesting that sanity and order are only a thin veneer over something far nastier. It’s the sudden and irreversible disruption of our certainty that the world is a safe place that reveals the true horror, and it’s the delicious thrill created by that sudden insecurity that gives Lovecraft his punch. At its best, SF/F causes us to see the world in a new way. Horror exists in dramatic tension with SF/F because it shares that ability, only with a far less comforting vision. Kurtz’s whispered “the horror, the horror” in Apocalypse Now (not something I’d ever previously associated with Lovecraft!) is an eloquent reminder that clear vision may have a price we’re unwilling to pay.

Kelly: Happy Ending 2.0

Jill and Jack (who prefers JT, for obvious reasons given his wife’s name) have been a couple for 18 years, and have seemingly made a success of their lives; JT’s a lawyer and Jill’s a psychologist. However, the burden of the years and the cumulative frustrations that arise in any relationship have made them more than a bit snippy with each other, and there are signs their time together may be coming to an end. To rekindle the old flame, they take a road trip back to a remote New Hampshire cabin they first escaped to for a romantic weekend to consummate their budding love while they were in university. All was going well until “Cousin Howard” intruded on their idyll. Now, years later, Howard has inherited the cabin, but gives the couple permission to use it for a weekend.

[Spoilers] When they arrive, it’s night and there’s no sign of Howard to let them in. Fortunately, they remember where the spare key was in the shed. JT stays in the car, using the headlights to illuminate the shed and the house until Jill can get inside and turn on the lights. When JT enters, there’s no sign of her. JT has one of those recurring nightmares of being trapped in someone else’s house, unable to escape, and the nightmare now becomes a waking reality. When he flees the house in panic, he finds himself back in his car, but with a much younger version of Jill; Jill, it turns out, has had the same experience, only with a younger Jack. The happy ending of the title is that, through the mechanisms of fantasy, each has been given a chance to restart their relationship without any baggage from the past—and this time to get it right. Though that seems to be a pleasant conclusion, looks can be deceptive, and magical gifts are rarely what they seem. For a truly happy ending, the couple should have found a way to deal with their issues and rekindle what they had *with each other rather* rather than with a fantasy from their past. Kelly’s enough of a pro to know this, and to hint that in fairy tales, the happy endings are generally murkier than we might hope. Jack’s gone tumbling down a hill, with Jill falling after, and there may not be a happy landing when they hit bottom.

Kelly gets all the little details right, and they merge into an effective whole. Telling us that the couple drives to the cabin in a Volvo and that JT wears a Hermés tie are simple clues that they’re prosperous—probably too much so for happiness. The familiar long-time couple’s dance, with Jill reminding JT too far in advance that the cabin is the next left turn, followed by JT snapping that he’s been there often enough to know and then putting on the left turn signal anyway is one of those sparring matches most couples engage in at some time in their relationship. The description of Howard’s redecoration of the cabin seems superficially logical, but on a deeper level, it clearly misses the point of a cabin in the woods. Describing the bookshelves as filled with old National Geographics and hardcover Reader’s Digests (the horror!) is a clever way to tell book-loving F&SF readers everything we need to know about Howard: he’s probably one of those people who only looks at the pictures in National Geographic, and then mostly in search of the proverbial bare-breasted native women. Another neat touch: describing the screen door shutting behind JT as he flees the house banging shut “like a gavel” is exactly the metaphor you’d expect a lawyer to choose. A final neat touch, in case you missed the dropped hints: when the younger Jill helps JT tighten his tie, she “[pulls] the knot just a little too tight around his throat”. I’m not sure whether the softwareish “2.0” in the title is a deliberate nod to how unsatisfactory the initial release of any program is, but if so, it’s a sly touch.

On one level, the story feels incomplete, because the central tension is unresolved. But on another, it ends with a clear sense of where the story will go in the future. Nicely done.

Soty (and Burton): The Second Kalandar’s Tale

Hassain is the second Kalandar (a Sufi mystic) of the title, and has been captured and bound by three lovely women—I hesitate to say “young” women because even though they are in their late 20s or early 30s, which ain’t old, that’s not how our society connotes the word “young”. He has been without food for 3 days, and is unconscious while the first Kalandar tells his tale. In a pleasant inversion of the Thousand and One Nights, it is the men here who are forced to tell tales to save their lives. The tale is indeed one included by Sir Richard Burton (the astonishingly adventurous and scholarly Victorian explorer, not the actor) in his translation of The Arabian Nights, and Soty is retelling Burton’s translation of the second Kalandar’s tale. He accomplishes this with panache, clear respect for his original source, and a few playful touches of his own.

Hassain tells how he, a King’s son, was forced by circumstances to adopt the life of a humble woodcutter. One day, while exploring the woods, he stumbles across a hidden trapdoor and goes exploring. He finds a cavern in which Salima, a beautiful young woman, has been held captive for 25 years by the Ifrit Jirjaris, as his wife—though she bears him no love. (She also bears him no hatred so far as we can tell; Hassain is the narrator of the story, and at least initially, is not the most reliable of narrators, being focused almost exclusively on his own needs and perceptions.) Hassain is not ignoble, and though the two inevitably fall into bed together in the way of such stories, he does not press himself upon Salima, and to the extent that his account is true, he seems to make a favorable impression on her and her response seems honest.

[Spoilers] Flushed with the naïve courage of youth (and not incidentally, more wine than a good Muslim should consume), Hassain decides to summon Salima’s captor so he can slay the Ifrit and free his lover. Despite her frantic warnings, he disregards her advice—only to discover that Jirjaris is far too fierce for such a callow youth to contemplate defying. Instead, he hides, watching in horror as Jirjaris discovers the axe and sandals Hassain left behind. Enraged at his wife’s infidelity, Jirjaris abuses Salima first verbally and then with torture, insisting that she confess her sins and reveal her lover’s identity. When it’s clear she won’t tell, Hassain flees, abandoning his lover to her fate. (Though he rationalizes this as accepting her sacrifice on his behalf, he’s honest enough to admit and bemoan his lack of courage.) But Jirjaris is not to be denied; he uses the axe and sandals to track down Hassain, who has taken refuge with an acquaintance in a city.

Jirjaris returns Hassain to his cavern. The two lovers protest they have never seen each other, swearing by Allah (a blasphemy) that this is so. Jirjaris, knowing they lie, tests them: he offers each, in turn, the chance to behead the other with the Ifrit’s own sword to prove they have no affection for the other. Each refuses, using the plausible excuse that to murder a stranger would be a sin. (Salima, having spent her 25 years of imprisonment studying and honing her wits, comes up with the idea first; Hassain merely follows suit.) Enraged, Jirjaris kills Salima, but for Hassain, he has a less merciful fate, transforming him into an ape and setting him loose to wander in distant lands. Hassain eventually sees a ship that has come to shore to replenish its water, leaps aboard, and throws himself on the mercy of the captain, who quickly realizes this is no mere beast, and is willing to protect rather than enslave the enchanted human.

Hassain helps the captain with chores aboard the ship, and when the ship docks at its destination, emissaries of the king come aboard in search of a skilled calligrapher, whom Hassain proves to be. We learn his story: that he was a prince who proved too studious, so that his father sent him into the world to learn from a harsher master, and that he was shipwrecked in the lands of an enemy king. There, he went undercover as the woodsman in whose guise we met him at the start of the tale. The emissaries see the marvel of an ape who writes, and ask to bring him to their king; the captain grants their request not for money, but for a promise of safety for Hassain. At his new home, the princess Sitt, a wise student and powerful magician, instantly recognizes him for what he is, and decides to remove his enchantment; she first summons Jirjaris to do this, but he refuses, and the two duel in a familiar but well-handled series of shapechanges into new forms. Eventually, Sitt wins, but is mortally wounded in so doing; she has energy enough to release the enchantment before the last flames from Jirjaris (which also blinded Hassain in one eye) overcome her and she dies. The King honors his word to keep Hassain safe, but banishes the youth because of the ill fortune he has brought with him. Hassain returns to Bagdad, where he can find no employ; starving, he begs at the door of the three women who have imprisoned him, bringing the tale full circle. Appreciating his story, they offer him his freedom, but he chooses to remain and hear the stories of the remaining Kalandars, even though he risks his life in so doing.

As befits the story context, Soty’s authorial voice is rich and exotic and sometimes even sonorous, rhythmic and pleasing without ever overdoing it. It’s a lovely exercise in lucid writing, and drew me smoothly and pleasantly through the story. As in the original tales, the Muslim characters (whether primary or spear carriers) have their own quiet nobility, humility, and courage; one of the strengths of such tales is how they remind us of the humanity of people from a very different culture. Characters are larger than life, and the tale is full of wonders. If you enjoyed the Arabian tales as much as I did, you won’t find much new here; the story has literally been told before in the Burton and subsequent translations. Like me, you should find this a delightful retelling of a very old story cycle. Interestingly, the strongest and often most admirable characters in the tale are the women; Scheherazade, in addition to being a skilled storyteller, also had the gift of hiding a message in plain sight.

Bunker: Bodyguard

Javid is a still-human (though highly bioengineered) 400-year-old man in a world where many (most?) humans have merged with the post-human Conflux, who “contemplate their silicon bellybuttons” while the real world passes them by. He has spent at least the past 100 years of his life laboring hard to save an alien race from extinction; the only contribution from the Conflux is the various advanced technologies that give Javid and his colleagues a hope of saving many of the aliens. A sun about 14 light years from their planet will soon go nova, and along with a steadily dwindling group of humans, Javid is working to the limits of his endurance to help them build space elevators and transport ships to save as many of the aliens as possible. Unlike many of his colleagues, he still clings to aspects of conventional humanity, including the need for sleep, even though such a weakness could be engineered out of him.

The alien race (never named) are interesting in many ways. They are reptilian and female, and unlike Niven’s Kzinti and Puppeteers, it is the males who are nonsentient, almost vestigial apart from their reproductive role. As in Cherryh’s often-brilliant Foreigner series, humans are not quite trusted, and Javid is assigned a series of bodyguards to protect him from those who don’t trust human motives; like Cherryh’s atevi, the aliens are much taller and stronger than humans. This comparison is in no way intended to slight Bunker; this story is clearly in dialogue with Cherryh’s work, not merely derivative or a pastiche, and Bodyguard suggests that he’s a worthy competitor.

[Spoilers] Javid’s current bodyguard is “Ensel”, as close as Javid can come to a phonetic representation of her name. As in Foreigner and its sequels, this story is about the growth of understanding and cooperation between two very different species, and there are very nice touches in how this is handled. When Javid speaks to the aliens through his high-tech translator, he must carefully structure the syntax of his message to ensure that the translator can map it correctly to the alien syntax—a far cry from the near-magical translator of Finch’s translator, and to my mind, a more realistic extrapolation. In the alien culture and the language that is shaped by it, the concept of “joining” is crucial; all actions and the verbs that stem from them involve some form of joining so that eating, for instance, is joining food with one’s body. (Excretion, presumably, is joining one’s wastes with the ecosystem. *G*) So essential is the concept of joining to their thought patterns, Javid tells us that their language lacks a negation form for this verb. That seems unlikely, so I suspect this is a deliberate choice by Bunker to reveal a misunderstanding on Javid’s part. It’s hard to imagine a language that lacks a word or particle for negation, and if such a word exists, it can be joined to any other word, irrespective of the formal rules of grammar, to indicate negation.

Bunker notes, with insight, that the emotions of such aliens cannot be mapped precisely to those of humans. Yet affection and respect and the need to belong to seem likely to be universal. Indeed, Ensel understands Javid’s sense of loss when his lover, Alice, leaves to return to Earth and probably to join the Conflux and forever abandon her humanity and him. Ensel shows Javid how well she understands his feelings of loss by making it clear to him that he is not “un-joined”—a profoundly touching example of deep understanding and empathy for an alien species that nominally lacks a concept for being alone. When a huge rocket blasts off, carrying supplies to orbit, both are awed (as I still am every time I see the Space Shuttle launch), and as the echoes of the motors die away, they find themselves holding hands.

In a kind of inverse Stockholm syndrome, Javid comes to love Ensel and her people. Unlike in Foreigner, the love does not become sexual, but it is no less real. When the supernova happens decades before it was predicted to occur, the story turns tragic, for the human efforts to save the aliens are doomed to failure; as in Jack McDevitt’s recent novel The Devil’s Eye, the situation becomes a desperate attempt to see how many can be saved, with clear knowledge that even superhuman efforts will prove inadequate. As tensions mount, there is a failed attempt to assassinate Javid using grenades, and when the first one only knocks him and Ensel down, he throws himself on top of her to save her from a second grenade, which fortunately fails to detonate. She is outraged by this, since (as his bodyguard) it is her sworn responsibility to die for him, but he explains that for him, “there are worse things than death”—such as being un-joined. She understands him well enough by now to understand this.

Under the growing pressure, Javid begins to break down. His human colleagues notice this, and relieve him of his position before he cracks, planning to send him home to Earth to rest and recuperate, but he cannot bear to accept this solution; so much has he become a part of this alien world that he will not let himself be forcibly un-joined from it and the people he has come to love. In the end, understanding this, Ensel draws the sword she has carried thus far as a purely ceremonial weapon (a sidearm being more practical), and it seems clear that she will kill him—and then, undoubtedly, kill herself—as a mercy to ensure that he can never be un-joined from the culture and the people he has worked so hard to save.

Bodyguard is a melancholic, yet deeply touching and even optimistic story of how radically alien cultures can come to truly understand, appreciate, and even love each other. In that way, it powerfully echoes my own feelings during travel in other countries when I experienced an occasional moment of satori, that flash of insight when I suddenly understood something profound about “the Other”. Lovely work.

Wallace: Botanical Exercises for Curious Girls

Rosalie is a mysterious young girl who has never left her house, though she can see and yearn for a lovely, rich garden outside her window. In the first bit of strangeness (among many!), the full four seasons seem to pass in the garden during the course of each day. Another oddity is the lack of mirrors, so Rosalie doesn’t know what she looks like. She has three loyal attendants (Miss Morning, Miss Day, and Miss Night) who tend to her needs at the appropriate times: Morning gets her out of bed, dresses her, and feeds her tasteless gruel for breakfast; Day teaches her botany all day from a guidebook written by a Mrs. Worth, so that Rosalie knows the Latin names of all plants in the garden; and Night tucks her into bed in the evening. They seem rather bland people, possibly because they’re so strongly limited in what they’re allowed to do (Morning, for instance, isn’t allowed to change what she feeds Rosalie). This is because Professor Lew is the undisputed master of the house, ruling with an iron fist, and every day, he has Rosalie brought to his office for inspection. He treats her with all the affection one might show a laboratory specimen, and that’s not a coincidence.

[Spoilers] One day, Rosalie’s attendants seem more nervous than usual, and Miss Day repeatedly warns Rosalie not to be scared by whatever may happen that day—failing, like many caregivers of children, to understand that this kind of warning is only likely to increase the child's fear. Initially, many possible explanations for the mystery are hinted at: Rosalie might be a robot (she is “wheeled” to breakfast), or there might be some weird time dilation effect going on outside the house. But we have been given many clues to what is really going on: Miss Morning’s joints creak in an alarming way, Miss Day has a prosthetic wooden leg, Miss Night disappears after her fingers become all bent and gnarly, seemingly arthritic but not quite, and in a particularly creepy touch, Lew tells Worth that he has removed Rosalie’s legs for some unspecified act of disobedience. Yet another clue: Lew’s office is full of terrariums that contain odd mutated plants, many of which seem capable of movement, as well as seemingly mechanical clockwork beetles.

When Rosalie arrives in the office, Mrs. Worth is there. The two discuss her as if she’s not present, and Lew repeatedly refers to Rosalie as “it”. In clear deference to Lew, Worth never directly addresses Rosalie, and speaks of her only to Lew. For whatever reason, Lew cannot see that Rosalie is actually thinking and responding to his questions; he sees only mimickry and reflexive responses, and though Worth clearly questions this, and pointedly asks whether he’ll allow “this generation” to keep going, she never openly challenges Lew, who seems a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work. Instead, she gains his permission to take Rosie out into the garden. (The garden turns out to be a large greenhouse, and the seasons are artificially controlled, presumably to accelerate the generation time for the plants so that Lew can breed new generations more quickly.) In the garden, Worth brings Rosalie samples of everything she can find, carefully monitoring Rosalie’s delighted responses to the plants and rocks and soil that she has, until now, only seen through her window or in a book. During the course of the day, she carefully interrogates Rosalie. (This portrayal of the power dynamics that often arise between a professor and what appears to be his graduate student is deftly handled, and a dead accurate description of some academic relationships I’ve observed.) Having reached her own verdict, she lets Rosalie steal her keys, since it’s clear that the girl desperately wants to stay in the garden into the evening (when winter comes) and to see what lies beyond the garden walls.

In the climax of the story, Rosalie and Day enter the garden using the stolen keys, then escape into the outer world through a door in the wall. There, Mrs. Worth awaits them, confident the two would have figured out how to escape and that they are therefore worthy of rescue. It seems likely this has happened before (the removal of Rosalie’s legs may be punishment for a previous generation of her trying to escape), and equally likely that Morning and Day are versions 0.9 and 1.0 of Rosalie. Assembling the many clues sprinkled throughout the text (including Day’s brown, wrinkly skin) suggests that Lew has been creating plant–human hybrids that share many of the physical attributes of plants, but with key aspects of animals (a brain, the kind of metabolism that plants lack and that provides enough energy to move around). Morning, Day, and Night are early experiments, with only enough sentience to go through their daily rituals, though Day seems on the verge of something more; Rosalie is clearly fully sentient, Lew’s denial notwithstanding. Naming the protagonist after a rose suddenly takes on a whole new meaning. I don’t recall the last time I read a story about sentient plants (possibly a Philip Jose Farmer short story from the 1960s? something more recent in Asimov’s?), and it’s a fascinatingly different SFnal story because of this.

A potential inconsistency is the use of accelerated seasons (one year per day of real time) in the greenhouse. I’m possibly reading too much into this, but as a plant physiologist myself, I know just how much genetic tinkering would be required to make this into a feasible tool for accelerating plant breeding. (Plants have evolved astoundingly complex systems for detecting the passage of the seasons, and must accumulate a certain minimum number of hours above a given temperature and at a given light intensity to “experience” the passing of time. The genetics of these mechanisms are VERY complicated.) Given that Lew can create sentient plant–human hybrids, it’s safe to assume he’s mastered these simpler (though by no means simple) aspects of genetics. The bigger inconsistency is that Rosalie, who has apparently mastered botany through her studies, does not recognize that she and her three attendants more closely resemble the plants that she studies than either of the humans she interacts with. Initially at least, this is easily explained by noting that Rosalie is still growing into her sentience, but by the end of the story, her failure to notice how different she is from the humans seems more questionable.

Still, these are minor points in an otherwise entertaining and thought-provoking story about the dawn of sentience and how scientists too often fail to look beyond their prejudices and see the surprises their investigations are revealing. (Worth makes that specific point, ironically enough, since Lew was the one who taught her that insight.) This deliberate blindness is particularly true for the scientists who study animals, as this field has a long and shameful history of raising the bar for sentience whenever necessary to provide a sense that humans are somehow different from animals. Part of the problem is that a willingness to accept that we may not be as special as we like to think would prevent or severely handicap many areas of research. In the context of research on sentience, this human failing is particularly chilling, since it permits inhumane experimentation that no scientist would contemplate if forced to reject their belief that only humans feel pain, fear, and other emotions.

Stoddard: The Ifs of Time

Enoch is a servant of Evenmere, an infinite house that seemingly contains everything, including (most importantly) the mechanisms that keep the universe going. He is the “Windkeep”, the one who winds the house’s many clocks and in so doing, keeps time going for the Master of the house. He’s been alone for a very long time, and has grown a bit eccentric thereby, yet he’s in no way senile; on the contrary, he’s a sharp operator, and strongly in tune with everything that’s going on in his domain. When he notices a light appear in a high tower (the house is large enough that this is a 2-hour walk away!), he goes to investigate, only to find four elderly folk sitting around a table, telling stories: Jason, Mr. Howell, Tremor, and Lady Chandless. They claim to be doing nothing more than telling tales, and urge Enoch to move on, but he invites himself into their gathering. After a short but awkard time while they fervently hope he will leave, they resume telling their tales, as if they have no choice.

[Spoilers] Tremor tells the tale of Edward, a young science student near graduation, madly in love with Janet, who he’s just met yet has agreed to marry—but at the last minute, conscious-stricken at the notion that he’s been neglecting his studies and that he doesn’t really know anything about her, decides that he’d do better to call off the wedding. As he sits pondering, a parade of his future selves arrive, like Scrooge facing his ghosts: the first tells him to follow his heart and stay with Janet, the second tells him that would be a mistake because they’ll just screw things up, and the third tells him his decision does not matter because everything always works out in the end: “What we do during the journey is what’s important.” It’s a cliché, and many readers will dismiss it as such, but such phrases gain their immortality because they convey home truths. We cannot fully shape our future, and should not delude ourselves otherwise, but we can resolve to strive for the best and to enjoy life without worrying too much about what unpleasant surprises may await us. That insight lends the story an initial measure of profundity that is enhanced by Stoddard’s playful dialogue with the equally clichéd “visitor from the future” device.

The profundity deepens as Lady Chandless tells her colleagues the tale of Ahn and Shushana, two nominally immortal lovers who have reached the end of their time together, for their race has come to its “ceasing”, when everyone must end. The two, last of their race still moving, watch with despair as their timers wind down, and struggle heroically to ensure that their last thoughts will be of their undying love for each other, and that will sustain them through whatever new eternity they will embark upon when their current existence ceases. It’s a poignant and melancholic moment, something each of us will someday face, and its beauty is enhanced by rich prose describing the world where they’ve come to rest, by the Cinnamon Sea, surrounded by the “ceased” and motionless remains of their people. Yet in an odd and (deliberately) jarring note, we learn that the ceasing has come because both have run out of memory, like a computer crashing because of insufficient RAM. They are, in some way, post-human mechanisms who are still sufficiently human to feel love and wonder at their universe, and to feel despair at its ending from their perspective, but they're also so profoundly human that they’re unable to wonder whether dumping old memories to make room for new ones might give them a new lease on life. This awakens my cynical notion that should we ever achieve the "rapture of the nerds", we’ll undoubtedly be checkmated by the same failures of imagination that make modern computers and software such an unending frustration. Whether that will eventually lead to the end of our posthuman selves will be something we’ll learn in time, though probably too late for the lesson to do us much good.

Howell tells the tale of Lieutenant (wisely, not “Major”) Tom, a Doc Smith-ish spaceman character who’s been stranded on a distant planet for 30 years, with only his solar-powered book reader for a companion. Alas, it contains nothing but the design manual for his crashed spacecraft, and Tom has spent his exile endlessly rereading it, mastering every last detail, reworking the calculations within, and ignoring the universe as it passes him by. He seems content, but solitude has addled his mind. When a rescuer finally lands, and they get to talking, Tom learns the manual that has been his guide for the past 30 years contains a fundamental error. He returns to his ship, obtains a pistol, and kills his rescuer so that he can return, uninterrupted, to his musings on the book. It’s a sad but also very real commentary on how we often prefer comfortable ritual to disruption of our worldview by an inconvenient truth, and how patterns and rituals often become more important than original thought or the freedom of something new.

In the last of the stories, Jonas tells of Michael and Kristen, recently returned from a visit to his parents, where they learned The Secret: that all the history since the 10th century that they’d been taught in school was wrong, a careful reinvention by a conspiracy of the older and more mature people, designed to create the illusion of continuing technological progress. In fact, humanity has long since struck the Knowledge Barrier, the point at which our inherent limitations prevent any further progress. Like many before them, they rage against the injustice of this situation, yet in the end, they accept it and pass along the myth of progress to their 5-year-old daughter, knowing it will give her hope to carry on. There are lies we tell each other, as in Howell’s tale of Tom, and lies we tell others for reasons good or bad, as in this case. Stoddard also plays with a fundamental SFnal assumption, namely that there must be the hope of continuing progress for life to be worth living, but I’m not convinced he buys that notion any more than I do. For each new life that enters the world, even the same old clichéd events (falling in love, having children, eating chocolate for the first time) is fresh and new, no matter that we jaded oldsters wish that something completely new lay ahead for them to experience. I wrote about this in a different context many years ago, and it’s a concept that deserves more exploration in SF/F. If SF/F is the literature that assumes and depends upon the notion of “progress”, isn’t it time we challenged whether progress is truly essential to our happiness?

Enoch, though perhaps a bit eccentric, is a clever fellow. He quickly figures out what’s been going on: the four storytellers have found a way to keep themselves alive forever, so long as they can tell stories, and he can literally feel them playing with “the ifs of time” and in so doing, slowing it to a crawl so they can continue living. “Our reality is created by the stories we tell”, and the four sit in their high tower (an ivory tower perhaps?) telling their tales of times that don’t change, that endure forever, thereby creating a reality in which they can endure too. But Enoch cannot allow this to happen, for he takes his work seriously and his work is to ensure that time keeps on keeping on. Yet serious though his task may be, he’s not without flashes of understated wit: “Time is important, you know, because everything happens inside it.” Over the objections of the four storytellers, he insists on telling a story of his own, one that moves forward rather than striving to stop time in its tracks, and as he does, time begins to return to its familiar pace. Howell dies as his time, already near the end, runs out. The others admit they have become trapped inside the stories they’ve been weaving, and by some of the laws of dramatic symmetry, it seems likely that Enoch will be trapped too, forced to take Howell’s place. Yet he’s smart enough to find a way out: he encourages them to recall their own stories, as he has done, and by telling their stories rather than those of others, they break out of the tight circle they've been endlessly retracing and are freed to resume their turn on the larger karmic wheel.

Enoch seems likely to be the biblical Jew who “never experienced death” because God took him into eternity. There are no overt religious overtones here, though Stoddard is clearly playing with many resonant archetypes. His writing is rich but restrained, and often playful; even the name of “the house”, Evenmere, is too close to “evermore” for the resemblance to be coincidence. Evenmere is at once a tangible thing, like Ghormenghast crossed with something by China Mieville, and a metaphor for the universe itself. I’ve written at some length on the notion that “houses are people too”, and The Ifs is clearly a worthy addition to my examples. There’s much to ponder here about the nature of time and how we experience it, and Stoddard’s take on these matters, laced with an undercurrent of mirth and delight in the metafictional notions underlying his story, is thought-provoking and deserving of further thought—and further exploration through the medium of storytelling.

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