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Stories in Fantasy and Science Fiction, May/June 2011 issue

Stories reviewed:

Williamson: The Final Verse
Reed: Stock Photos
Reed: The Road Ahead
Cowdrey: The Black Mountain
Popkes: Agent of Change
Webb: Fine Green Dust
Duncan: Rampion
Scholz: Signs of Life
Bradfield: Starship Dazzle
Gilbow: The Old Terrologist’s Tale
Liu: Altogether Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer
Wilhelm: Music Makers

Williamson: The Final Verse

Billy Lincoln is a musician, alternating between country and bluegrass depending on his popularity at any given point in time. Currently, that popularity is proving elusive; bluegrass is less lucrative than country, he hasn’t invested or spent his money wisely, invitations and recording contracts have dried up, and his wife, Linda, has recently left him. All in all, things haven’t gone well. When an old friend, Pete Waitkus, contacst Billy to report that he’s found “the holy grail” of folk music, Billy wakes up and pays attention; Pete’s grandfather Roger (fictional) was a kindred spirit to Alan Lomax (real), famed collector of folk and traditional music in the real world, but Roger specialized in the music of remote mountain areas where even Lomax never went. The holy grail turns out to be the missing lyrics from a popular folk song, Mother Come Quickly, about a mountain girl courted by someone from outside her “hollow” in the mountains, ending in a doomed romance when a girl is found dead, her lover is convicted (seemingly falsely) of the crime, and the lover is then hanged before the girl’s eyes to punish him.

[Spoilers] It seems unlikely the missing lyrics will be found, since they were transferred to Roger Waitkus several generations ago and the woman who sang him the song is likely long gone. But Pete has discovered an old recording of his grandfather interviewing that woman, and they inspire him to go searching: the lyrics provide the clue he needs, since there’s a crucial mondegreen* that reveals the name of the family described in the song. What many singers and critics have reasonably interpreted as “loving” is actually a pronunciation of Lovin or Louvin in the local dialect, and that gives Pete a family name he can search for. Billy’s desperate enough for something to revive his career, and seeking an excuse to delay his next tour, so he agrees to acompany Pete (in what he privately considers to be a wild goose chase) in a search for the Lovin survivors so he can obtain the missing lyrics and make gain fame and fortune thereby.

* “Mondegreen” comes from “Lady Mondegreen”, a phonetic misunderstanding of the phrase “laid him on the green”, which refers to the death rites described in the ballad "The Bonny Earl O'Moray". Mondegreens are a particularly intriguing problem for those who collect traditional folk music because all of the information is oral and passed from generation to generation, without ever writing anything down. Much history is hidden in those songs and the cryptic clues they contain.

Initially, the song appears to be nothing more than another example of the category of simple songs of starcrossed lovers coming to an unhappy end. But we soon learn it’s far darker than we thought: the hanging in the song is not an example of local justice, but rather describes the way you hang a hog before slaughtering it, and the family are cannibals, sustained through unnatural decades by the life’s blood and flesh of the outsiders they kill and consume. Billy and Pete find the Lovin cabin, but it’s abandoned. They settle down to sleep the night in their camper, but when Billy wakes, Pete is gone. Billy follows him to the cabin, where he’s paralyzed by the horror of what he sees: the ancient and withered woman from the song has captured Pete with her eyes, seduced him into having sex with her before she’ll sing him the lyrics, and when her ghoulish family emerges from the grave to butcher him, Billy watches as his friend is killed and consumed. He returns to his camper for a can of gas so he can torch the cabin and the somnolent ghouls before burying what’s left of Billy, then flees for home. But ancient evils such as this one are notoriously difficult to kill, and days later, when Billy meets “a real honey” who wants to take him home to her family just before he goes on tour with his new song, he ignores the warning from a fellow musician that the women is an old hag. Billy isn’t going to find the happy ending he was seeking.

This is creepy storytelling in the Cowdrey vein, but succeeds neatly using its own voice. Williamson’s writing is simple and effective; he strikes an effectively folksy tone for Billy without descending into parody, and has a few memorable phrases. One favorite (describing the ghoul girl): “How ugly was she? Think of the worst thing you can and go a hundred more miles. Then keep driving.” Though one might be tempted to accuse Williamson of giving in to a “hillbilly” stereotype, there’s no evidence to support this; the few real “hillbillies” we meet in this story are handled with respect and are not stereotypes. Rather, this is a traditional story of the dark places of our world, far from cities and electric lights, where ancient evils still lurk. The fact that the ghoulish family live in the hills is required to create this distance, not an attempt to reinforce an odious stereotype. Little new is added to the horror canon, but it’s still a nicely crafted and chilling tale.

Reed: Stock Photos

Our anonymous narrator is out mowing his lawn when a car pulls up and a cute young woman (“pierced half a dozen ways, but nothing too weird. Not that I could tell.”) gets out, accompanied by a dumpy older guy. They claim to be stock photographers, out prospecting for photos they can add to their catalog and willing to pay cash. The woman seems to be the brains of the operation, or at least the “honey trap” out to seduce the guy into doing something he might not otherwise do; the older guy is the photographer. They take a bunch of innocent-seeming photos, gradually moving indoors, at which point the subject gets a bit suspicious: he thinks (or wistfully hopes) the shoot might end up in his bedroom, but instead ends in the kitchen, and as his suspicions grow, he offers to head downstairs and bring up his Belgian assault rifle for them to photograph (an unsubtle hint that if he’s going to be robbed, he can defend himself).

[Spoilers] As usual with Reed, the writing is impeccable: simple, clear, and character-revealing. When the girl convinces her subject to do some pushups in the front lawn to show off his body, a passer-by rolls down the window to mock him, and he gets awfully sweaty. When the shoot moves inside, the pile of games in front of his TV adds to the suggestion he’s not as fit as he believes, and is just being manipulated by the flattery of an attractive younger woman. And by the end of the story, he seems to have realized that he may be deluding himself and being manipulated for some purpose other than the nominal one of adding him to a photo catalog, like some paid version of Google streetview. The casual mention that he has a rogue’s gallery of photos of despised characters in his basement, combined with the rifle, has sinister import.

But is there more to the story than this? I confess that I read this one twice and still didn’t even remotely "get it". (Thus, I assumed it was probably something blindingly obvious.) It seemed unlikely to be a robbery setup, since the girl is memorable enough that she’d be easily identified to the police. Was this a Candid Camera exercise in getting people to humiliate themselves in front of a camera? Maybe. Was it what the young woman says, merely the result of an effort to use advanced new computer analytics software to identify and photograph key “profiles” for some nefarious but nebulous marketing scheme? If so, it was too subtle for me. The closing lines of the story, rather than enlightening, actually left me deeper in the dark than before:

“You don’t really care about stock photos, do you?”
[The woman kisses him on the cheek] “You’re right... Machines can do a lot. But if you want something good to be done, you still need a man. That’s the way the world works.”

The preface to the story suggested we might want to read Reed’s second story in this volume, suggesting the mystery will be resolved in that story. I’ll therefore review that story out of sequence in my next post. But as a standalone story, this one fails the WTF? test, and as a narrative gimmick to build mystery, it’s far too artificial and only partially successful; had I not read the preface, I’d have had no idea Reed’s goal was to create a teaser. That problem will become apparent if the story is anthologized: unless the anthologist provides a similar preface, the story will seem to fail because nothing is resolved. And if the sequel follows immediately after this story in the anthology, that defeats the purpose of splitting the story into two separate tales. A short story must be able to stand alone, reaching a satisfying ending (even if that ending is a cliffhanger) before subsequent installments conclude the story arc, and this one fails to do that.

Reed: The Road Ahead

This story concludes Stock Photos (see my previous review for details), but is told from the POV of the photographer. We’re told in the preface that the F&SF staff didn’t understand that earlier story either, which reassures me that it wasn’t just me missing something obvious, as I’ve been known to do. Here, we follow the photographer and the young woman through their next hour or so, in which they stop at a Dairy Queen for a snack and discuss the nature of their work, thereby providing enough clues for us to resolve the meaning of the prequel. Was it worth the wait? [Stop reading now if you haven’t read the previous story.]

[Spoilers] The photographer opines that the woman’s kiss was just a bit too much manipulation, and she agrees, with reservations. He’s not sure why they picked the lawnmower guy from the previous story, since that guy wasn’t on the photographer’s morning list of targets, delivered direct to his Blackberry; she tells him that she’s on a different pipeline, raising his suspicions. He then proceeds to tell her (and therefore us) of the history of his employer. The company began as a group of really smart data analysts, some kind of Googlesque dotcom supported by software that helped them mine the Web and other sources to gather information on people who would potentially become important. Their goal was to get photos of the potential VIPs early, before anyone else realized they were important so they could immediately sell the photos to all the news agencies as soon as something significant happens, but long before any other photographers even got in the car to investigate. That’s actually a great business idea if you’ve got enough venture capital to support you while you work out the glitches. Over time, the analysts were replaced by increasingly sophisticated AI software and shown the door, and the company was bought out by a mysterious rich guy. And as time went by, the focus shifted from people who might become a lucrative source of photos to sleazier, paparazzi-style scandal photos.

Though a bit jaded and disillusioned about his work, the photographer is no fool. He’s seen the signs, and stumbles across enough clues (including new photographers working on very different projects from the traditional ones) to suggest he’s on the track of something significant within his company. Specifically, he notes that the company seems to be moving towards manipulating events rather than just observing them, and that in the extreme case, this and other things may suggest a phildickian conspiracy to send the world to hell quickly so that the rich ones will become kings of the new world. (The guy with the rifle in Stock Photos suddenly becomes a far more sinister character.) The young woman remains too poised throughout his musings, but uses her fatal charm to distract him until he’s delivered his verdict. When he finally asks his too-poised companion where she’s really from, she kisses him on the cheek, thereby gaining control over him in some unspecified way and confirming his worst fears, and then delivers her punchline perfectly: the question should not be “where”, but rather “when”. Whether she’s a representative of those hypothetical rich conspirators or the future descendant of one of the AIs who have grown too sophisticated while eliminating humans from their jobs at the comp;any is left for us to ponder. Two clues suggest an answer that question: her words in Stock Photos that a man is required and the fact she’s able to throw her cup 10 feet through a tricky wind into a trash can. (The photographer’s earlier observation that she’s one of those annoying people who can consume huge amounts of food without gaining any weight seems significant rather than a throwaway line in hindsight.) Clearly, she’s not human—or at least, not the 20th century version 1.0 thereof.

The writing is up to Reed’s usual standards, and he masterfully captures of the paranoid essence of Philip Dick (better than the master in my admittedly subjective opinion; I never warmed to Dick's writing). As a result, the punchline arrives with true punch. The notion that the company has also developed professionals to develop “quantum-ready malware” is downright scary; most of the malware we see nowadays is strictly amateur stuff (the real pros usually don’t bother with us civilians and don’t get caught), and relies on conventional computing. It’s hard to imagine passwords staying useful when quantum computing makes it possible to guess even strong passwords in seconds. Biometrics wouldn’t help; the signature from a scanner is converted into digits, at which point it becomes hackable by a quantum computer. Reed endlessly surprises me with his rare combination of the ability to get both the characters and the tech right, while telling an intriguing tale.

Reed notes in the preface that the diptych was inspired by a technique Dick used, namely writing a chapter that ends without delivering any closure, then writing a new chapter to explain the first one but also without achieving closure, and so on until the book ends with a final resolutions. That works for a book, because the next chapter follows immediately after the first; as I noted in my review of Stock Photos, it doesn’t work so well for short stories. More seriously, The Road Ahead seems like it could stand alone; Stock Photos could have been largely eliminated by adding a few paragraphs describing the photo shoot in the original story from the photographer’s perspective. It’s encouraging to see an old pro like Reed experimenting with new narrative techniques, but I can’t say this one succeeded for me.

Cowdrey: The Black Mountain

Cowdrey returns to his cherished town of New Orleans for another installment from the weird side of life. Alex is a historical preservationist, recently returned home after an “episode” that we later learn was treatment for leukemia. His partner cum antagonist in this tale is Jim Wallaby, a physical but not intellectual giant who’s inherited his oil magnate father’s considerable wealth and who is seeking ways to spend it on laudable social projects. Unfortunately, where his father had the Midas touch, Jim has the opposite talent; for example, the drug rehab center he helped to fund soon became the effective equivalent of a crackhouse. When Jim decides to bulldoze an abandoned, century-old temple built by eastern European immigrants so he can replace it with an aquatic center for disadvantaged local kids, all the ingredients in a recipe for disaster have been assembled.

[Spoilers] The narod (“the people”) who built the temple have mysterious origins, but have unquestionably come from somewhere in deepest, darkest eastern Europe—a traditional place of mystery. Like many immigrants, they guard their privacy jealously, and with occasional violence; unlike many immigrant communities, they enlist the police on their side rather than shunning and mistrusting the authorities. “What the cops liked about them was the way they groveled to authority. Apparaently a few centuries of appeasing Balkan tyrants who resembled Vlad the Impaler provided good training for dealing with New Orleans’ finest.”

The “Onion Dome Cathedral” (as the locals refer to it) is an unpleasant place; it’s squat and ugly (one might say “nasty, brutish, and short” if one were to paraphrase Hobbes and risk stretching what turns out to be an appropriate metaphor to the breaking point), enough so that even Alex has to stretch his talents to find words that will make others eager to preserve it. Yet within is an iconic painting/sculpture/fresco of surprising beauty: an image of the narod’s patron saint, the archangel Khorazin (perhaps related to “corazon” = “heart”?), whose role is “guardian of the gate”. In religious iconography, no details are accidental. It’s therefore noteworthy that only Khorazin’s right eye is visible, meaning that he’s looking to the left—the traditional “sinister” direction—while behind him, mortals walk sorrowfully up a black mountain. The fact that the temple has escaped graffiti for at least one and possible two or more generations, and has not been vandalized despite its eternally unlocked door, is also ominous.

The priest who founded the temple, “Father Ivan” or “Father John” (John being the English equivalent of Ivan), is described as a large man and a dominant personality whose description immediately reminded me of what most of us think when the name Rasputin is mentioned, and that raised echoes of Cowdrey’s recent story Scatter My Ashes. Will this be a reprise of that earlier tale, in different ethnic garb? Not on your life. When Alex visits the temple with Jim to scope out the situation, he is briefly possessed by the spirit of Ivan, who warns Jim not to proceed with his project. Alex, too, finds himself in a difficult situation: the project’s goal is laudable, despite Jim’s foolhardy choice of a site. As he ruefully notes, fearing both lynching by those who would benefit from the project and betrayal of his principles, “either he or his conscience was about to take a beating”. Knowing that he’ll lose if it comes to a battle between him and Jim, the best he can achieve is to fight to have the iconic painting, the most important religious artefact in the church, moved to a museum. Jim reluctantly assents, and construction begins.

Behind the portrait of Khorazin lies a crypt containing an iron coffin, presumably the last resting place of Ivan. Jim does the inevitable stupid thing and opens the coffin, finding Father Ivan’s corpse there, which immediately sets to decaying. If you think you know where this is going; think again. Cowdrey’s too much the pro to follow the expected course and revisit the curse of the mummy’s tomb, and his hints at a reprise of Scatter My Ashes were just a tease. Alex insists that Jim seal everything up and restore the place to its original condition, and soon after, succumbs to a flareup of his leukemia and finds himself in the hospital. When he returns, Jim is gone, the crypt resealed, the iconic image restored to its original place better than should have been possible, and there are signs that something heavy was dragged through the dust into the crypt. When Alex looks closely at the icon, he sees Jim among the mortals trudging up the black mountain, looking back in despair—and then he’s gone again.

Jim’s notebook is found, and on the last page, in the shaky hand of a terrified man, is his last bequest: he gives the temple to Alex. To spare himself the tax burden, Alex donates it to the historical preservation society and in a neat revenge for a long and losing association with Jim, adds a plaque naming Jim as a great benefactor of historical preservation. He then works to restore the place, and has it added to the tour of New Orleans’ sacred places. (Indeed, the temple may have been inspired by the city’s Saint John the Baptist Church—John being Ivan—though not knowing New Orleans, I’m grasping at straws here.) Grateful members of the diaspora, having heard of the temple’s restoration, write to him in gratitude, and one provides the key to the temple’s origins: the nabod originated somewhere near Dalmatia, and particularly Montenegro, which means “black mountain”. One day, while visiting the temple with Dot, Alex feels a sudden sense that Khorazin is not so much evil, but rather that like death, he’s inevitable, and his iconic portrait shows the church’s people returning from afar to their ancestral home rather than anything more sinister. It’s a powerful and affecting grace note on which to end what is likely a near-final chapter of Alex’s story.

The writing style is more restrained than Cowdrey’s usual exuberant skewering of New Orleans archetypes—but not because the larger than life chareacters are absent. Rather, they’re present but somehow muted, befitting the POV of an insightful man who is dying of cancer, only not just yet. Cowdrey’s trademark acerbic humor and genuine liking for his characters are plainly in evidence. Alex’s strongest allies in the battle to preserve the city’s history are the “blue mafia”, the elderly ladies with blue hair (a type of dye rinse that can have unfortunate color results in the elderly hair of certain women)—stalwarts who rush to the ramparts whenever it’s time to defend a historical site. Dot, Alex’s lawyer wife, contrasts amusingly with Alex’s more (ahem) informal attire: “She emerged from their bedroom in her usual state of subdued perfection”. But she’s not well suited to dealing with the weird: “Brilliant as she was, she was a slave to common sense”, which would be a handicap in understanding what’s happened to Jim. And she’s a suitably jaundiced character for a Cowdrey protagonist: “My dear, if I ever had a hopeful view of human nature, practicing law has knocked it clean out of me.”

Alex is quietly enjoying his new career as house-husband, and rediscovering his love for his wife, both metaphysical and physical (“where there’s life there’s lust”). Jim is, as one might expect the most flamboyant: a very large man, with a “brassy”, “klaxon-horn” voice and a bull in a china shop way of interacting with his world; he was “as impervious to art as he was to history”. Yet his heart is in the right place, and he’s the kind of guy who never missed an alimony payment after his divorce. Unfortunately for him, the universe won’t forgive stupidity, even when it’s well-intentioned.

Cowdrey clearly loves his city, and makes no effort to conceal his disdain for those who don’t. Like Shaw and Wilde, he has a gift for skewering those who deserve it, and one of the pleasures of his writing is just how well he does this. Yet even when he skewers, he respects the humanity of his characters, and finds it in himself to empathize with even the sinners. That makes the characters feel far more real than most other authors achieve, despite their sometimes exaggerated natures.

Popkes: Agent of Change

Popkes returns with one of his skewed—and very funny—pokes at human nature in the context of a very SFnal situation. A Norwegian whaling ship is sunk in the north Pacific while following a herd of whales, the crew are rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard and (to set a suitably ironic tone that will be maintained throughout) by the Greenpeace boats that are dogging the ship’s heels. The captain claims he hit some kind of rock, never mind that there’s nothing on the charts and the ocean bottom lies 2000 feet deep. No, really, the Captain protests: “Do you think we hit a big fish?” Well, no... not exactly.

[Spoilers] Wackiness ensues, since there’s film of the collision and sinking that makes it clear that some kind of giant reptile is out there pursuing (and feeding on) the whales, and that it doesn’t take kindly to competition. The more hardcore of the scientists call it some kind of mosasaur; the more whimsical immediately dub it Godzilla. And as Popkes tells his story through a series of news briefs, committee minutes, fundraising letters from wildlife protection agencies, and meeting transcripts, we get to see how humans cope—and fail to cope—with this tempest in a teapot. I particularly enjoyed that amidst the flurry of news stories, the Weekly News of the World (which manages to make Fox and CNN look like hard-core journalists) is the only news agency to get the story right. Later, when they report George Bush chatting with the creature from atop a dock in New Orleans, you have to stop a moment and ask yourself whether they might have gotten the story right again.

There are so many good bits it’s hard to know where to begin, and what to leave out so you’ll have something to read yourself. If in doubt, read the story now and then come back to read the rest of this review; I’ll wait. [Whistles tunelessly and looks up at the ceiling.] The governments of Norway and the U.S. squabble over salvage rights to the sunken ship, never mind that it’s lying under 2000 m of ocean and therefore probably not recoverable. Toho, the Japanese company that pioneered the monster movie industry (and particularly the Godzilla films) immediately claims ownership of the creature and launches a copyright infringement suit against the U.S. and Norwegian governments and everyone, including all main news agencies, that used the Godzilla name in a story—while simultaneously insisting that even though they own Godzilla, they’re not responsible for any damage it causes. In a delightful inversion, when the U.S. sends one of its submarines after the creature, they locate it not by high tech means, but rather by calling on a journalist they’ve "embedded" in one of the media ships.

The committee of scientists studying the situation are particularly delightful: they span the range from conservative “let’s wait for the evidence” types and bureaucrats to whimsical and subversively funny people, they gossip, and they renew old acquaintances and partially veiled feuds. These scientists have warm blood, not antifreeze, running in their veins, and reminded me of the many times I had to bite my lip in science committee meetings not to burst out laughing at the games being played, unperceived by many of the players. Impressively, we learn as much about their characters from a few lines of verbal sparring as most authors convey through pages of description. This includes the rekindling of an old, thwarted romance between two old flames who were unable to bring together their incompatible worlds, Gus (Greenpeace scientist–activist) and Winifred (government(?) scientist). And then there’s the delightful notion that the scientists become sufficiently distracted by their own wordplay that they begin debating the merits of the various cinematic incarnations of Godzilla and have to be brought back on task by the chairman.

Favorite bits of dialogue:

Gus and Winifred do eventually find a way to merge their incompatible lifestyles: they set up to market ecotourism excursions to follow Godzilla around the world. And in one of the many pleasures that comes from close reading of stories, I note that the operators of the helicopter tours offered by their company are the two Coast Guard pilots who rescued the original Norwegian seamen—seemingly a throwaway bit of naming that Popkes cleverly turned into an Easter Egg.

There’s no deep message here. The closest Popkes comes to preaching is the observation that once all this wackiness leads the international community to the conclusion that risk to the global environment has caused Godzilla to arise, an international committee must be launched to consider the situation. As one might expect, the Bush administration agrees to participate enthusiastically, but not from any commitment to the environment; rather, the problem is the connection to the Biblical Leviathan, which is too strong for the party’s religious right to ignore. Mostly, this is a deceptively simple-seeming exercise in painting the full range of human behavior through the guise of clever wordplay. Using deft stabs of the authorial pen, Popkes masterfully creates a sense of character while showing how we silly humans adapt our worldview to our sometimes bizarre world, but plays it completely straightfaced, so the humor emerges naturally and with impeccable comedic timing. Agent is a delightful way to start your morning, and it’s a shame the short-fiction awards almost never go to funny stories.

Webb: Fine Green Dust

Phil Leiden is a highschool mathematics teacher. He’s living in a declining and increasingly depopulated Austin (Texas), paralyzed by heat that rarely dips below 90°F even at night, the infrastructure crumbling and brownouts occurring daily when the heat grows too much for the overtaxed grid to sustain the required airconditioning load. It’s so hot they’ve closed the summer school he needs to earn a living because they can’t afford to cool the rooms enough for student safety, and so hot the recycling bins can’t be picked up by sanitation workers for fear of burning their hands. To add to his misery, he’s separated from his wife, who’s been forced to leave for Oregon to care for her dying mother, and with summer school shut down, he lacks the cash to join her. Welcome to yet another global warming apocalypse.

[Spoilers] Phil’s weird neighbor, Farber, is distinctly creepy: the huge moles on his forehead are bad enough, but he’s fat, sweaty, and has thick glasses. But Phil senses he’s somehow lonely (he seems to be married to an exotic dancer, for reasons that surpasseth understanding, but she’s nowhere in evidence). Thus, he decides to do the noble thing, overcome his revulsion, and spend time with Farber. Unfortunately, all Farber really wants to do is watch a batch of lizard movies. Farber notes, in passing, that everyone might just as well become lizards, since the mammal part of our brains hasn’t fared too well. That wears out the last of Phil’s patience, and he gives up on his neighbor—who disappears shortly afterwards, leaving behind the cryptic note “GTL”: Gone To be Lizards?

Farber is soon replaced by something far more interesting: a naked, green-skinned teenage girl sunbathing in his yard. Phil’s briefly turned on, until he reminds himself that the nearly 50-year gap in their ages makes such fantasies out of the question—even if hitting on a student weren’t too creepy for him to contemplate. Still, he doesn’t recognize her, and she’s intruding on a neighbor’s property, so he leaps on his high horse and goes to find out whether she has a legitimate reason to be there. She initially claims to be Farber’s niece, but when she gets fed up with Phil’s prying, points out that she’s one of his students (one he abruptly recognizes once he can look past the green skin), that he should have recognized her, and that he should piss off.

We learn that she’s able to enjoy sun and heat that should kill any normal person by dosing herself with a literal (almost) snake oil: the green skin powder of the title, produced by Bokrug Cosmetics and containing “powder of Ibn Ghazi”, a bizarre mix of substances ranging from hallucinogens to RNA and mRNA from gekkoes. Hre explanation is that it will help her mutate into a lizard and therefore have a better chance of surviving the heat of the changed world. Having researched the ingredients, he tries to warn her of the many dangers of such experimentation, but instead, she persuades him to try some, as much as anything to get rid of him. He hallucinates becoming a lizard, but it’s not clear that he actually undergoes any transformation; it seems unlikely that such a thing would be possible, but we’ll never know; the story ends shortly thereafter.

There are several nice touches to the writing. Phil’s misery is clearly communicated, and his wistful lust over one of his sultry students is also well described—along with his reluctant admission that such fantasies would be silly at his age. A particularly nice line was Phil’s description of the ways in which Farber isn’t creepy: “Mr. Farber was not creepy because he worshipped Cthulhu, nor did bad things to small furry animals, or had sexual proclivities that we can’t discuss in polite society.”

But there are too many problems for the story to truly succeed. For example, Farber plays the role of the fat, sweaty, unpleasant person stereotype without humanizing it in any way that would turn this into something more than stereotype. There are many missing connections; it’s not clear what Farber has to do with anything or what role he serves, other than to provide the throwaway line about becoming lizards. “Bokrug” is the great water lizard from the Cthulhu mythos, and the “powder of Ibn Ghazi” appears to be an allusion to a joke product (conferring mystical visions) sold over the Web, but that doesn’t seem to relate in any way to its use in this story. Possibly the venerable alchemist dabbled in more modern nostrums after he grew bored with providing arcane visions? Possibly this is one of those Lovecraftian tales of madness and falling to the lure of elder gods? But there’s no arcane content in the story beyond Phil’s drug dreams, and no sense of growing horror or visions of worlds of madness; it’s all an allusion without any clear substance or resonance in the story. There’s some possibility that we’re seeing yet another of the infinite variations on how the younger generation does things to distance themselves from the adults, even if they know it will harm them, but it’s not well integrated with the rest of the story and not clearly laid out as such. The girl’s friend Leon makes an appearance only long enough to play the angry young Black man (he’s a gang member, possibly a dropout, and possibly the girl’s source of the drug), but again without adding any humanizing touch that would rescue the character from ugly stereotype. And in the end, Phil, the most important character in the story makes no progress, emotional or physical; his small brush with dangerous drugs doesn’t accomplish anything or change him in any way, despite closing lines that suggest a hint of incipient madness.

Bottom line: Green Dust has a few interesting notions, but not enough to save it from its several significant flaws. I found no reason to care for any of the characters, including Phil, no suspense, and no SFnal notions interesting enough to compensate for the plot and character flaws.

Duncan: Rampion

Ishaq ibn Hisham is a scion of the Ummayad caliphate in Andalusian (al Andalus) Spain, living at the end of the golden age of Islam and the end of a time of religious and intellectual tolerance that has rarely existed in the past couple millennia. As the story begins, he wanders blind and anonymous through his city of Cordoba (Guadalquivir and the Aljama Mosque being the clues), navigating by sound, smell, and touch because sight is unavailable to him. He tells us just enough to reveal that a woman was involved in his fate, and that we’re in for a tale in the tradition of the Arabian Nights, with a disinherited prince paying the price for a youthful indiscretion. Here, that indiscretion is Sofia de Rampion, a Christian woman and niece of King Filipe of Catalan, who he falls in love with. As in so many great romantic tales, this is a forbidden love (here, because it’s between between a Christian and a Muslim), and there will inevitably be consequences from their transgression of social mores. Indeed, the great war of Christian Europe against Moorish Spain has just entered its early phases, and as we know, this will not end well for the Moors.

[Spoilers] As the story begins, Ishaq is missing and believed to be dead, and Adán Hadid, his Jewish captain of the guard and a lifelong friend is also missing; the captain is therefore assumed to be responsible, and a large price has been put upon his head. As Ishaq wanders the streets, he overhears Lazaro, a Christian soldier, mention Adán’s name, so he follows the drunk to see what he can learn of his friend’s fate. Lazaro, in a drunken stupor, reveals to Ishaq that he has no knowledge of Adán’s current whereabouts (else he’d hunt him down for the bounty) and that he is bringing warhorses north to Roussilon (France), where Sofia and her family have relocated to keep her out of the hands of the Moors. Ishaq immediately begins planning how he can travel to her—a daunting task even for a sighted man; to do so, he joins Lazaro’s caravan.

Rampion is told through a series of flashbacks to the events that led Ishaq to his current sorry state, intercut with his current struggle to reach Sofia. We learn that Sofia arrived in Cordoba with her grandmother, Lamia de Rampion, but with no mother or father. “Lamia” is an unusual name, shared with a mythical monster that lures men to their doom, and she is broadly held by the locals to be a witch—something Ishaq is too wise to believe. In truth, she’s a herbalist, and because many herbs can be used both as poison and as medicine, the witch reputation is a logical (if incorrect) assumption for people of her time to make; that assumption is strengthened when a boy is found dead in her orchard, showing the symptoms of snakebite but no wounds. There are hints that Lamia has fled to Spain, bearing her granddaughter and two grandsons, to escape persecution as a witch, and that this persecution may explain the absence of Sofia’s parents. When Ishaq wanders onto Lamia’s property, seeking to liberate a few oranges from their extensive groves (an acceptable act under the Muslim tradition of hospitality to travelers), he hears Sofia’s voice and is smitten; he is doubly ensnared by her beauty. One thing leads to another, and the two fall in love, fall into bed, and are caught several visits later by Sofia’s brothers, who rape him, beat him nearly to death, nearly cripple him, and lead him to their grandmother, who blinds him. (They may also have emasculated him, though this is tactfully left implicit.)

Ishaq’s final tryst with Sofia occurs after he evades Adán’s watchful eye, leaving his Jewish friend to celebrate the sabbath with his family. But Adán violates the precepts of his religion to follow his friend, and is therefore able to save him when he is thrown out of the Rampion estate. He brings Ishaq to a doctor friend who lives in the countryside so he can recover in safety from his hideous injuries. Ishaq, in turn, sends his friend north both to find and protect Sofia (and tell her Ishaq still loves her), and to save his friend from the undoubtedly nasty death that will inevitably claim him if he’s discovered in Spain. Adán tries faithfully to fulfill his mission, but loses Sofia in the trackless wilderness of northern Spain. While he ponders how to complete his mission, he gathers a band of warriors about him for protection, and therefore has an opportunity to save his spiritual brother once more when a Visigoth war band stops Lazaro’s caravan and threatens to execute the Jews and Moors who are accompanying the Christians.

The courtship of Sofia may strike modern readers as a touch rapid and contrived, but it’s helpful to remember that she lives near the start of the age of romantic ballads spread by troubadors (which would provide a precedent for such an affair), that youths (and many adults *G*) behave impetuously when in love, and that Ishaq is a cultured, educated, handsome, and deeply chivalrous prince who would turn the head of many a young woman. (With cause: from what we know of him, he’s a real catch.) In the end, passing through a series of trials and tribulations, Ishaq is reunited with Adán, who brings him to Sofia, and with Adán’s help, the lovers are reunited—Sofia has been married off to a French knight, but has been plotting to escape him for some time, and even poisons her brothers to make her escape possible. Ishaq meets his young children for the first time, the couple’s love remains strong, and it’s a happy ending. Sort of. Whether they can escape the inevitable pursuit with the help of Adán’s war band, or will spend the rest of their (probably short) lives on the run from Christian soldiers is an open question. More seriously, there’s no magical cure for Ishaq’s wounds; he will bear a heavy burden the rest of his life, no matter what support Adán and Sofia can give him. But there’s hope, and that’s enough for young lovers.

If you sensed a faery tale resonance, your instincts were correct. Rampion is the name of a flower, and also the name of Rapunzel in the original Grimm version of the story. This is clearly a retelling of the Rapunzel story: Ishaq encounters his lover in a tower, is smitten by her and her glorious long hair, is blinded by her grandmother for the sin of loving her, spends a long time wandering in the wilderness, and Sofia’s tears even wash Ishaq’s remaining eye, momentarily restoring his vision. But there is also a deep cultural import for Rapunzel’s hair in the context of the story’s world: in Jewish and Muslim tradition, hair is considered a woman’s glory (one reason why Muslim women and some religious Jews conceal their hair beneath a scarf or larger item of clothing); thus, when Sofia’s grandmother cuts off the girl’s hair to punish her, this has cultural relevance that enhances the fairy tale. The reason faery tales remain with us after centuries, and can be endlessly reinterpreted by writers in different cultural lights, is because of how deeply they are interwoven with human concerns. Duncan masterfully captures those concerns in her story, transformed into a new and interesting milieu.

The correlation between golden ages and times of religious and intellectual tolerance is no coincidence; they’re causally related. Although Duncan sets her story in such an age, she never forgets that the people of even the most golden of ages remain human, with all the prejudices and hatreds that beset us and that fuel too many tragedies. Here, the golden age is ending, with the Caliph being slowly and subtly overthrown by his vizier Sanchuelo, to whom he has delegated all the important responsibilities of running his kingdom; as in the historical Moorish Spain, the vizier has brought in Berber mercenaries to build his own power while also protecting Cordoba from increasing incursions by Christians from the north, and in the end, the Berbers overthrow the caliphate and the country descends into Balkanization and into religious and intellectual intolerance that will take Spain centuries to recover from. (Sanchuelo is a real historical character, as is the al Hisham caliphate. Many of the story’s events track real history.)

As in all historical times of strife, the fragile social compact that has bound Muslims, Christians, and Jews into a single highly functional society begins to unravel, with ages-old hatreds re-emerging (encouraged by those who use them to gain political power) to poison these relationships and set people against each other. Yet this is not inevitable; Adán, a Jew, and Ishaq, a Muslim, call each other “brother” and treat each other as such, each clearly being willing to lay down his life for the other. Students of history will recall that Jewish life under Muslim rule was, until recently, far better than it ever was under Christian rule, and it’s sad to see how this has changed in the last millennium.

Ishaq’s no fool, but he’s painfully naïve at the start of the tale. This is both a consequence of the sheltered, privileged life he’s led and a deliberate effort of Sanchuelo, the vizier, to keep him so ignorant and powerless that he poses no threat to the vizier’s rule. (Indeed, Ishaq is completely ignorant of how precarious the caliphate's future has become, and just how dangerous are the events unfolding around him.) As the story progresses, Ishaq slowly moves towards wisdom and a fuller understanding of the calamity awaiting his society, suffering terribly for his naïvete but emerging stronger and wiser for it. He also progresses from a naïve view of his religion to a more nuanced view, in which virtue alone is not enough; everyone, be they Muslim or Christian, must accept responsibility for their own fate.

Duncan’s writing is skillful and atmospheric, creating a rich story environment without her prose ever becoming obtrusive or getting in the way of the story. There’s just enough Spanish to lend an air of the exotic to the story (I’m Canadian, so French is my second language), and I knew just enough Spanish to make out most of the phrases without resorting to the dictionary; describing Sofia as “la flor más bella del mundo Cristiano” (“the most beautiful flower in Christendom”) is a typical example. The mixture of languages and dialects typical of Spain in the story’s time is also well handled; even today, Spain (and many parts of Europe) are not monolithic in their languages.

One thing that struck me about this story is how well it reminds us that a religion and the government that claims to espouse it are not the same thing, and that any religion can be perverted to meet the needs of demagogues and dictators. For example, we often forget that in traditional Islam, women were revered and treated with respect; it was a highly paternalistic, constraining, and limiting respect by modern standards (indeed, we’re told that Ishaq’s mother withers, like a pressed flower, under her constraints), but it was by no means the toxic misogyny exhibited by extremists of all religions (Muslim, Jewish, and Christian). It’s also a timely reminder of the perils of our current state of undeclared war between western Christianity and eastern Islam, both home or abroad. The (with modern hindsight) obvious solution to the war between the Christians and the Moors is carefully not mentioned until well into the story: were Sofia and Ishaq to marry, as members of Catholic and Protestant royal families have done many times in Europe to forge alliances and avoid wars, this might have averted or at least delayed the crusades against Moorish Spain. But as Ishaq discovers when he proposes this to Sofia’s family, the obvious solution is often made impossible by a culture’s prejudices.

Rampion is a brilliantly executed take on an ancient tale, with powerful human roots, and Duncan never downplays or romanticizes the difficulties entailed by the complexity of the story’s multicultural context. There’s also a clear moral that should give us much cause for thought, and it’s skillfully delivered without the faintest trace of preaching because no character explicitly comments on events to make the moral overt; the message is nonetheless clear. This is one of the strongest stories of the year, despite stiff competition.

Scholz: Signs of Life

James Byrne is a former PhD candidate in genetics who burned out when he was “ABS” (all but dissertation) and fell into a dead-end drudge job as a computer technician in a lab that’s participating in the human genome sequencing project. His supervisor, Sorenson, is tactless, risk-averse, passive-aggressive, and enough of a creep that he hit on Miko, his star grad student, at a conference. He’s taken a disliking to Byrne, and has kept him out of the actual labs to avoid contaminating the other grad students with his ennui; instead, Byrne’s been assigned to developing computer software, such as quality assurance algorithms for the genetic code the lab is sequencing. When Sorenson has had enough of Byrne’s sullen and resentful nature, he decides to get rid of him by assigning him to analyze strings of “junk” DNA in the hope that patterns will turn up; Byrne’s colleagues joke that maybe they’ll find something useful like “the user manual” buried somewhere in there. But Sorenson’s real goal is to find a way to get rid of Byrne when the search proves fruitless.

The story’s far to the “hard SF” side of the spectrum for F&SF, so you might be tempted to skip over it if you’re not a genetics geek and are intimidated by the jargon. You’ll find it’s worth persisting, though, because Scholz quickly manages to turn Byrne’s infodump (in the form of musings on genes and evolution) into increasingly painful insights into Byrne’s character, not to mention intriguing speculations on the hidden meanings of our genetic code, often through bleakly poetic language. Here’s what you need to know to get through the jargon: Our genetic material is composed of sequences of four “bases”, which combine in two possible pairs; if you assume that the first base pair can have a value of 0 and the second base pair can have a value of 1, this is analogous to the 0’s and 1’s that encode computer software. Genes are the little subsets of our DNA (sequences of those 0’s and 1’s) that encode proteins and get the work done; by analogy, they’re the utility software running on our organic computer. Junk DNA is stretches of “code” with a thus-far unknown function; possibly it’s analogous to all those files the programmers couldn’t be bothered deleting when they were done with the important files, or the text for one of those license agreements that nobody reads.

[Spoilers] All of what I wrote about Sorenson in the first paragraph of this review must be drastically reconsidered as we get to know Byrne: the more we see of the depths of Byrne’s depression (and possibly other psychoses), the less of a reliable narrator he becomes. Indeed, there are strong clues Sorenson isn’t nearly as bad as Byrne makes him out to be. What Byrne sees as petty vindictiveness, someone with better mental equilibrium might see as the kind of teasing, pushing, and encouragement that a good supervisor would provide to jar someone out of their funk and back on track with their life. Sorenson even submits a paper on Byrne’s work to a journal in the hope that getting published will reawaken his enthusiasm. Assigning him to computer work rather than lab work may indeed have been done, in part, to protect the grad students from Byrne’s relentless funk, but it may also be a way to protect Byrne from them and let him focus on something he’s clearly passionate about while he recovers from whatever has damaged him so badly. Indeed, responding to Sorenson’s prodding, Byrne almost admits this to himself: “I have nothing or everything to lose here, and he wants to find out which.” The real sentence may be “he wants [me] to find out which”.

Byrne is not a particularly likeable person, and we can see signs of why his ex-wife Sharon referred to him in her diary as “cold, oppressive, sexually greedy, and self-involved”. He doesn’t have much empathy for anyone else, and it’s not clear how recently this became a problem for him. Much of Byrne’s current withdrawal stems from the excruciating, mutually destructive death spiral of his relationship with Sharon, which haunts him throughout the story: “Every bad choice, every failure, every complexity unmet, casts off a self that no longer speaks but still haunts, and it returns at the worst moments to stand silently at your shoulder, this other, to vengefully direct some wretched behavior.” Yet he’s capable of profound insights, as when he notes how “the bases stretch on like some endless kaballah”, referring to a branch of Jewish mysticism that attempts to define our nature and that of the universe, often using numerology to analyze sacred texts. He also has a keen appreciation for the beauty of the natural world and its patterns, whether in the play of light at the bottom of a swimming pool or the emerging and evolving patterns that appear on his computer. It certainly seems like he’s suffering from clinical depression, but I’m no psychologist and can’t confirm this. From a purely practical perspective, his biggest problem is that he can’t detach himself from his baggage, get over his past, and move on: he describes the problem precisely when referring to his past (and indirectly, his attitude towards science): “You can’t learn from what you already know”. On a human level, that’s deeply wrong, and if only he could get past the blindness he’s alluding to, perhaps he could move on and recover.

Byrne’s first algorithm, for ensuring that the seemingly endless sequences of base pairs in DNA have been analyzed and transcribed correctly, gives a clue to its designer’s character: “not smart or efficient but relentless”. As he turns his efforts towards a search for patterns in the junk DNA, he creates a program that reminded me strikingly of cellular automata, a method of creating an evolving system of artificial life forms that propagate following a series of simple rules. The software he develops is based on reasonable starting premises, but becomes increasingly speculative as it evolves: “at last there are so many assumptions in the model that it models nothing but itself”. Yet it begins to produce results. Patterns emerge, though he can’t quite put his finger on what they mean; though he finds them beautiful, they profoundly upset Miko, one of the grad students (they are “so grim and sad. So desperate.”). Has Byrne discovered the bleak truth behind human existence, or has he merely tweaked the software’s design until it reveals more of his inner self, with all its despair and bleakness, than anything about the genetic code he claims to be studying? Like a bleaker version of Richard Dawkins, Byrne provides an example of how an unquestioned worldview becomes intextricably entangled with how we see the world, often blinding us to the truth—such as the fact that Miko likes Byrne, and could drag him out of his funk if he gave her an opening.

Scholz’s description of the grad students and their lives brought back fond memories; he nailed the description of their work environment, right down to the bad coffee and the well-intentioned eviscerations that sometimes occur during team meetings to discuss research progress. The other characters are not sufficiently important to Byrne that they emerge fully from the shadows he casts, but in the brief glimpses we see of them, Scholz does a nice job of describing them; Miko, the star student, grapples with a deep insecurity, to the point that many of her statements come out as questions; Nick, the British postdoc student who’s visiting the lab for a year injects a few nicely chosen Britishisms, like describing Byrne’s work as “flash” (i.e., cool, not in the sense of empty visuals, as in the American usage) and his failure to understand American slang such as “hit on her”. Byrne is what we used to call a “lab rat” back in grad school—not because he was experimented upon (though you might make a case for this given his description of Sorenson’s personality) but rather because he has no life outside the lab. Indeed, there’s a time towards the end of the story when he moves to the night shift to minimize his interactions with other people. It’s all part of a larger pattern: “My fear of exposing myself, my work, to her scrutiny, to anyone’s.”

The science is impeccable. The one minor flaw is the notion that rearrangements of junk DNA and genes create selection pressure; that’s backwards, since even with fatal mutations (an uncommon case), selection pressure is external and acts upon the rearranged junk and genes, not vice versa. (I assume this was a simple revision error, since Scholz gets the causality right later in the story.) The central scientific notion that there must be something of interest in the junk DNA is a potentially crucial point for geneticists. Because we don’t know what it does and because it doesn’t appear to contain any genes, geneticists have tended to dismiss it (hence the “junk” part of the name), despite our knowledge that evolution quickly eliminates anything that is all cost and no benefit to an organism. Scholz’s invocation of Sturgeon’s Law (“90% of everything is junk”) is an amusing, if peripheral, commentary on this problem, and provides one of the better throwaway lines: “Only three percent of human DNA is genes. The rest, as Paul Verlaine said in another connection, is littérature: fancy writing with no known purpose.” There are many intriguing notions, such as the thought that if genes are the narrative in our life, the junk DNA is the history from which they’re extracted by our internal filters. If genes are knowledge, their transfer from parents to children or even between micro-organisms is communication, and that leads us to one of the central mysteries of genetics: what, exactly, is all that code communicating? Our self and our DNA “coexist, but they speak past one another, deaf ghosts in the same space, partners in a bad marriage.”

Scholz also raises interesting philosophical questions, such as the validity of models; Byrne’s is based on so many assumptions, no matter how logical, that any insights it provides must be questioned. This is true to a greater or lesser extent of science in general, and scientific revolutions often arise when someone has the courage to challenge key assumptions and topple the knowledge structure that has evolved to depend on them. He also keenly understands how we cling to our beliefs, and how, though productive, “the whole dreary panoply of method, our armor against the arrows of intuition” can constrain the progress of science. Byrne’s framing metaphor for DNA on a micro level and life on a macro level both being full of “false starts” and “abandoned drafts” parallels the ghosts that haunt him from his failed marriage, and gives the hard SF aspects of the story surprisingly profound emotional depth.

Signs of Life is a difficult read because of Byrne’s bleak outlook and hopelessness, but its rich language and deep thought make it an eminently worthwhile read because of its insights into the human condition and the parallels Scholz draws with what we learn from science. As Byrne notes, “We want nature to speak our soul’s language. When we can no longer bear its silence, we speak for it, tell a story where no story is. No longer sure the story is real or worth telling.” This one was emphatically worth telling.

Bradfield: Starship Dazzle

Dazzle the talking dog is back in a gentle satire in the magical realism vein. Nearing retirement, Dazzle believes he’s talked NASA (now a commercial rather than government entity) into launching him into space in a creaky old Apollo-style capsule so he can tour the stars, but in reality, übercapitalist R. Wallace McShane (Robbie) is responsible. McShane’s got a plan, and it’s about what you’d expect from him: to sell all the junk on Earth to unsuspecting ETs. In his view, there’s a sucker born every minute, and in a universe full of suckers, there’s an unparalleled opportunity to enrich oneself if one doesn’t care what one sells. Unfortunately, given that none of the potential customers have come knocking on our door to demand such goods, he’ll have to take the sales pitch to them. Enter Dazzle, a goodhearted dog who is wise beyond the ways of his kind, yet like every dog, still easily tricked by humans who are willing to exploit his trusting nature.

[Spoilers] Dazzle’s space odyssey begins, and it’s very Major Tom: “Dazzle had been drifting in and out of an emerging space dementia that left him increasingly uncertain about the dividing line between dream and reality.” He’s packed into a tin can that was designed more to meet government specs than to create a living space for organic beings, with little freedom to move or do anything more than think in the intervals between scripted sales pitches. Let’s not even mention the “bowel evacuation mechanism.” At first, he’s all alone up there, speaking his sales script to the uncaring stars. But eventually he does find someone willing to listen: Glixglax, a misfit, outcast, lonely soul who (once given a chance to talk) never shuts up. He returns Dazzle to Earth and discovers that he’s a perfect match for McShane, and the two enter into a happy commercial relationship, completely ignoring Dazzle. Dazzle wends his way home, and capitalism conquers all, particularly once the humans discover that Glixglax defecates diamonds. One man’s waste is truly another man’s treasure.

Bradfield pokes fun at a number of cherished notions along the way, such as the cryptic Voyager communication disks: “I missed the meeting, but apparently you’re supposed to infer our entire Earthly culture from a bunch of logarithms and some stiff, lifeless sketches of naked men and women.” Then there’s McShane’s notion of prime merchandise: “oil-drenched Louisiana wetlands, Goldman Sachs certified hedge funds, or a warehouse-full of Neil Diamond commemorative medallions and lead-contaminated baby formula”. We like to imagine that Virgin Galactic and its competitors will commercialize space in a good way, but the recent demise of Google’s “don’t be evil” corporate vision suggests that perhaps we’re fooling ourselves. There are also wisdoms about the ties that bind us, seen from a very canine perspective: “You can only travel so far into the unknown before you run out of rope. It’s the lesson we all learn eventually. How to go away and not come back again.” But leaving isn’t as easy as one might wish, and often, one feels compelled to return: “When you went away and came back again, it wasn’t like you changed. It was more like everything else did.” And then there’s a requiem for those who have no imagination, such as Glixglax, who is “happy with what the universe gives him because he can’t imagine anything better.”

McShane has the morals of a mushroom—that is, none whatsoever, and he grows rich on shit. In contrast, Dazzle maintains a sympathetic, somehow quintessentially doggy personality, complete with a focus on the things that really matter—a love for his family and a need to trust others, even though that trust is routinely abused by clueless humans. Bradfield’s satire isn’t subtle, particularly when it comes to those who adopted capitalism as their religion, but there are surprisingly profound touches, revealed to us in the traditional style of the gently bemused narrator. Fun, and more thought-provoking than you might think at first glance.

Gilbow: The Old Terrologist’s Tale

In a nod to The Canterbury Tales, Gilbow gives us a scenario in which seven people, each named for their profession rather than having their actual names revealed, are exchanging tales over dinner on a distant, recently terraformed planet: the old terrologist of the title, a holostar, a general, a statesman, a busicrat, a (robotic or cyborg?) “fasciclant”, and the narrator, a woman named Dr. Karlant (the general being the only other woman). Karlant, who is employed by Cosmic Visions Inc., has been one of the chief terrologists responsible for terraforming the world, and is here to make her sales pitch to the others, with the goal of convincing them to bring colonists to her world. All is going well until the statesman observes that the world is pretty enough and perfectly useful for colonists, but completely boring: there are no canyons or volcanoes, the mountains are low, and the weather is far too predictable to be interesting. He dismissively notes that terraforming is the easy part, and that the real difficulty begins after humans arrive—and that humans won’t like such a tame world.

[Spoilers] The old man, who’s here to sign off on the design on behalf of the Galactic Terrological Association, is sufficiently irked by the statesman’s dismissal of his profession that he offers them a morality tale—nominally a myth or heavily emended fiction based on a true story. He tells of a young terrologist’s first planet, designed according to a plan nominally approved by his company’s senior executives after careful review, that was every bit as boring as Karlant’s planet is accused of being. Indeed, when a jaded senior executive comes to sign off on the finished project, he finds it too boring to approve (not having read the original project proposal), putting a major hitch in the terrologist’s career. Indeed, years pass before the terrologist is able to resume his career, and this time he vows to create a planet so exciting that even the jaded executive will approve it. And he insists that the latter provide final approval, since he has something to prove to the man who nearly ruined his career. The planet becomes a labor of love, a “world of drama” so extravagant that he is able to consistently terrify the executive during his aerial tour of the highlights. When the executive insists on getting out of the transport to inspect the planet safely from the ground, the terrologist delivers him to a part of the planet where the atmosphere is thin and toxic—enough so the executive may not survive long enough to make it back to their flying machine. Having worked on the planet for a long time, the terrologist should have no trouble surviving. Had the executive only read the plan honestly and with attention, he would have taken appropriate precautions.

How does the tale end? As the old man notes, there are many possible endings, and since the story is nominally a legend of his profession, retold in many variations, he claims he cannot say which one is true. As is so often the case, his audience focuses on their own specialty or area of interest or personal prejudices, interprets the story in their own way, and tends to dismiss the suggestions of others. Each therefore tries to draw their own personal moral from the story: the holostar, for instance, prefers an ending with the greatest dramatic potential (both men die on their way back to the flying machine), whereas the fasclicant prefers the logically inevitable ending, in which the executive dies, the terrologist escapes and claims it was an accident, and he either goes on to a glorious career or is executed for murder. The statesman protests that this planet would also be completely useless to anyone, and the old man notes that as the story shows, one must be careful in how one defines beauty, thereby delivering a moral for his tale. But the general reveals what is likely to be the true ending: the planet of the story really exists, it’s so dangerous that it’s used only for military training, and its name is Ulciscor—Latin meaning “to take one’s revenge”.

Gilbow tells his tale smoothly, with distinctive characters who play their roles well, albeit with a touch of appropriate stereotyping implied by naming them after their professions. He brings the story to a satisfying resolution that is clear enough to suggest the truth, while remaining sufficiently ambiguous that a modicum of doubt remains. If there’s a flaw, it’s that I found the resolution mildly disappointing, possibly because the lead-up was handled so skillfully that I was expecting a surprise ending or a more profound insight than what was provided. To be clear, I couldn’t come up with such a resolution, and in the absence of such an insight, I can’t legitimately criticize Gilbow for the actual ending. It’s still a well-crafted and entertaining story, and should be appreciated as such.

Liu: Altogether Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer

Renée Tae-o <star> <whale> Fayette is a tweenager, curently in 6th grade and working on a class project to document her family tree stretching right back to her “ancient” (pre-Singularity) ancestors. The task is complicated by the fact that she has 8 parents and the fact that she must progressively deconstruct her own software routines down below the subroutine level, right to the most basic (genetic?) algorithms for personality and attitudes that she inherited from each of her parents. Talk about viral memes! (It could be worse; her friend Sarah had 16 parents.) Renée is old enough to understand complex higher-dimensional geometries, but not yet considered sufficiently mature to create her own worlds. The room she lives in, built for her by her father, is a Klein bottle with plenty of room, but it’s “old-fashioned like something from years ago when designs still tried to hint at the old physical world”. Liu delivers a surprising amount of information in the space of a few short paragraphs, yet without overwhelming us with infodump because these are the simple facts of Renée’s life, and thus inherent to her narration.

[Spoilers] Renée’s mom (Sophie) arrives to disrupt her class project. Sophie’s an "ancient" (i.e., someone who was actually alive at the time of the Singularity), and has since left Renée’s father Hugo, an “interior designer” who lives in 20 dimensions and is so busy he only occasionally visits his daughter. As Renée notes, such marriages rarely end well because the worldviews are simply too different. Not so different, however, that the two couldn’t stay together long enough to create a daughter. Sophie now works at an Antarctic research facility, with the goal of rekindling the space exploration program; specifically, her group will send a robot probe to Gliese 581, a star believed likely to have planets capable of supporting terrestrial life, and once there, it will construct a receiver so that someone can be transmitted to that planet, never to return. That person will be Sophie. Because the humans of this story exist as quantum computer models, we’re told that there’s no possibility of backup, so this effectively means that Sophie will die here on Earth as soon as she’s transmitted. She’ll begin a new life on Gliese, never to return to Earth unless there are lifeforms in that solar system that are sufficiently sophisticated to create a retransmission system capable of sending her back. (Left unspoken is what will happen if there are no life forms; Sophie will be stranded, alone, on a world with not another soul to converse with for as long as her robot body endures.)

Sophie spends an entire day with her daughter before she leaves, though with their subjective rates of time passage slowed compared with the external world to provide more high-quality time together. (This time manipulation can be achieved by overclocking and underclocking, as some geeks do with their computer processors. Cool notion, and not one I recall ever seeing before in the fiction of the Singularity.) She borrows a maintenance shuttle, uploads herself and Renée into the shuttle, and tours the world, revealing to her daughter the joys of the real world outside her virtual box: it’s somehow a far more intense experience than any of the simulations Renée has experienced, since she’s never left her comfortable virtual world before. As Renée suddenly realizes, “I’ve never actually experienced the physical world. The shock of all the new sensations “takes my breath away”, as Mom would think. I like these old-fashioned expressions, even though I don’t fully understand what they mean.” The irony of being present in our world in the hardware of a shuttle, rather than in real flesh, isn’t lost on us. When Renée suggests that she’ll work with her Dad to add this level of intensity to her virtual world, Sophie concedes that it might be possible, but that she’ll still know it isn’t real—and that this will make all the difference in the world.

Liu does a great job of capturing the affections of both parents for their daughter—and, despite the divorce, for each other—and the occasional mutual lack of comprehension among three very different stages of human evolution: ancient Sophie, who (as a first-generation upload) still prefers to exist primarily in 3 dimensions (4 would be more correct, with time being the traditional 4th dimension); Hugo, who lives in a world of 20 or more dimensions; and Renée, who currently exists only in 4 dimensions (as this is generally considered to be healthier for children) but who will soon mature enough to expand into as many dimensions as she finds convenient. There are several playful touches, such as the notion of digital hugs implemented in the form of embracing algorithms and the way some idioms don’t translate for the young. (My kids were baffled by the notion of “dialing” someone on the phone, and their kids will undoubtedly have no idea what it means to “tape” a show on TV.) But there are also poignant touches, such as the notion that although Sophie will have 45 years to spend with Renée before she leaves, that’s an appallingly short time for a tweenager who can reasonably expect to survive nearly to the end of the universe. Liu pays enough attention to note that in the 45 years mother and daughter spend together at a slower subjective rate of time, Sarah has grown up, graduated from school, and begun her own family. Still, Renée’s confident their friendship will have survived, and that she can catch up by modifying her subjective rate of time passage.

On the whole, the science and its human implications are rigorously and well considered. However, there’s a small but significant mis-step in Liu’s assumption that quantum computers can’t be backed up because of what appears to be the Heisenberg effect (i.e., when you observe a quantum system, you collapse its wave function). Here’s the problem: if you can record someone’s personality well enough to transmit it to another star, then it should be easy to capture and store that transmission as a backup. (The same problem exists with Star Trek’s teleporter technology.) The original quantum state of the person may change, but the result will still be recognizably the same person. Were that not possible, then it would be impossible to interact with anyone in their virtual world: each act of observation would change them, as they’re the system being observed. (There’s also the practical point that quantum computing will not be particularly useful to anyone, let alone a safe place for real humans to exist, if there’s no possibility of backups.) It’s easy enough to ignore this and focus on the story, but it is problematic. A better explanation might have been to emphasize that the society has insufficient energy resources to both store a person and transmit them to another star, as the transmission would require an enormous amount of energy. That fits well within the story context, in which we’re told that energy availability is limited.

The title refers to a line from the poem Fall of Rome by W.H. Auden, and one of the set pieces in the story is how Sophie and Renée visit Sophie’s home town of New York, and stay long enough to watch the Chrysler building finally crumble and fall. As in the poem, the works of Man will fade away, leaving nothing but plants and animals (including herds of Auden’s reindeer) to wander among the ruins. Though this is a striking and evocative image, it’s also problematic. Implicit in this notion is the suggestion that no organic humans were allowed to remain on Earth after the Singularity; those who did not upload seemingly died without being allowed to create future generations. I’m not sure that’s likely to happen, but if it does, it implies a frightening degree of ruthlessness among those who chose to upload.

In my brief experience with Liu’s writing, I’m increasingly reminded of Robert Reed. This is not because their writing styles are particularly similar, but rather because both work hard to provide deep insights into their characters, exhibit a wide understanding of science and technology and their human consequences, and a willingness to play games with certain genre expectations and push our genre into new areas. Projecting the post-divorce family context and the discomfort of teens everywhere and everywhen with even the hint that their parents might have had sex (even if it’s only a mixing of algorithms) into a post-singularity context is a favorite touch: as I’ve written elsewhere, we’re likely to bring much of our human personality characteristics and baggage with us when we upload. Liu also neatly captures Renée’s tweenage anger at her mother’s departure, which coexists uncomfortably with her love for her mother. On the whole, another excellent addition to Liu’s growing list of stories.

Wilhelm: Music Makers

Jake Manfried is a young journalist, looking for a job. He finds one with the magazine Music Makers, where he’s hired to write bios of important musicians—which are unfortunately cut to ribbons, since to the magazine, they’re nothing more than filler, and they’re only as long as the space that isn’t filled by advertising and other nominally more important things. Though it’s a job that lets Jake use his talent as a writer, he’s growing disillusioned and he’s on the point of moving elsewhere when everything changes: he’s sent to Memphis to research a legendary blues and jazz pianist, Bob Wranger, who recently died at the age of 92, and he falls under the spell of Bob’s music.

[Spoilers] When Jake arrives at the Wranger house, he’s met by a lovely older Black woman, Luellen, who was the singer in Bob’s old band. Jake soon learns that Bob was gay, and that for decades, he was in love with Leo, a Black horn player (capable of making beautiful music from anything resembling a wind instrument, seemingly) at a time when gay and Black amounted to three strikes against you with a family like Bob’s. As a result, Bob was shunned by most of his family. But with Luellen and Leo, he had all the family he needed. The family is still going, though Luellen’s the only member of the original band still alive; however, Bob’s grand-to-the-exponent-X niece, Beth has moved in and is living happily there with her daughter Cindy, with Luellen playing the role of auntie. It’s all good, except for the fact that a long-deferred tax bill has just come due, Beth works in a poorly paid job, and she’s dealing with the financial fallout of her dead husband’s disastrous final illness. Yet she and Luellen can’t bring themselves to do the easy thing: sell the house and leave. Bob and Leo are both buried out back, and Luellen hopes to join them someday, and that means they have to find a way to stay.

But there’s more to things than meets the eye: something about the house is infused with the spirits of Bob and Leo, though not in the conventional sense of being haunted by ghosts. It's more like their love of music was so strong that the house is steeped in it, and anyone at all sensitive to the beauty of music can feel it. It’s strong enough that it’s worked its way into Cindy, who at the age of about 9, is becoming a young musical prodigy, learning songs by ear and even jazzing up Chopin—to the undoubted horror of her classical music teacher. It’s strong enough that when Jake arrives, too disillusioned with his job to even offer his sympathies to Luellen over the recently departed, he’s instantly enchanted by an old demo tape Luellen plays for him. And by Beth.

He’s so inspired he immediately does the guy thing, and starts looking for ways to solve the women’s problems. (Been there, done that repeatedly, still hoping someday to learn not to do that. *G*) But he does come up with the perfect solution: the house is large enough that there’s a performance space that could be turned into a small cabaret, and because it’s in a semi-commercial district of the city, that’s a feasible solution. And when he returns to participate in Bob’s wake, Luellen and Beth have grown convinced they could make a go of it. Jake helps make this possible by bringing along Roberto, a music producer colleague who falls in love with the community of musicians at the wake. Not only does he get permission from most of them to record the music they’re playing and make an album, whose proceeds will go to Luellen and Beth to keep the house, he also builds on the relationships he builds at the wake to create his own boutique recording studio.

You’ll see where this story is going long in advance; Jake’s courtship of Beth succeeds, and they end up living together in the old house, making a go of it with the help of the cabaret, Luellen, the salary he earns from a local newspaper, and steady income from sales of the songs Roberto recorded at the wake. Ironically, we don’t learn much of Bob, the man whose death brought Jake into his new life, but the other characters are all deftly handled; Luellen is a strong and dominant personality who siezes control of Jake’s interview right from the start, and from her narration, we learn neat character touches such as the fact that Leo used to speak in song lyrics. It’s a sweetly happy ending, and if it breaks no new ground, that’s more than compensated for by Wilhelm’s graceful and heartfelt writing.  You should pardon the inevitable pun, but it’s a nice note on which to end this issue.

©2004–2018 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved