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Editor's Choice: Short Fiction Reviews
by David A. Truesdale

Dave Truesdale has been reading science fiction and fantasy for forty years. For the past four years he has edited TANGENT: The Only Science Fiction & Fantasy Short Fiction Review Magazine. It was runner-up for the 1997 Hugo Award. The intent of this column is to present reviews of selected short fiction that strike Dave's interest as his reading for Tangent continues. If you would like to read more short fiction reviews, try Tangent as it reviews every original story in all American, Canadian, British, and Australian professional SF & F magazines (as well as many others).

For more of David's opinions, we've put together a table of contents for other Editor's Choice columns.

Magazines
For information on the contents of an issue or for subscription details, you can try the following sites:
Asimov's Science Fiction
Analog Science Fiction and Fact
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
On Spec
Cemetery Dance
Interzone
OMNI
Talebones
Tomorrow SF
Current Cover
Analog Science Fiction and Fact, March 1998
"Tourist Sam" Ben Bova
"Tramp" David Alexander
"Rules of Engagement" Michael F. Flynn
"Why Didn't You Think of That Before We Left?" Jerry Oltion
"The Stones From Which Meadows Grow" Wolf Read
"In Loco Parentis" Edward H. Seksay
Ben Bova returns with the third story (in Analog; others have appeared elsewhere) of his irascible astronaut Sam Gunn in "Tourist Sam." A perennial pain in NASA's backside, Sam is always up to no good with one hare-brained scheme after another, usually just short of illegal. This time it's a tourist shuttle scam... but with a surprisingly noble and clever goal. As usual, Sam gets the girl, stays one step ahead of the law, and NASA is forced to grudgingly grind its teeth when Sam's shenanigans pay off.

David Alexander's "Tramp" is a pointed, deadly example of how greed and piracy are dealt with on the Final Frontier, where interstellar distances may preclude formal justice.

The narrator of Michael F. Flynn's "Rules of Engagement," suffering from seizures, holds a reunion with his war veteran friends who exchange stories of their battles in a fragmented, post-collapse America. Interesting for its glimpses of this war-torn land, and therapeutic for the author/narrator such that his seizures stop and he is once again able to write, it didn't quite work for me. Flynn is a fine writer (and underrated in my book), but this one failed to excite.

Jerry Oltion gives us the fifth tale in his on-going series of deep space emissaries shepherding their starship toward Alpha Centauri... who are ghosts. Having died, they've offered to transfer their consciousness into "standing waves in Tilbey's experimental mass eliminator." Space opera hokum to be sure, but Oltion manages to infuse these delightful stories with all sorts of well worked out complications to bedevil his ghostly crew. This time one of them opines, "Why Didn't You Think of That Before We Left?" It's a life and death Another Fine Mess You've Gotten Us Into piece, and a good one. These "Tilbey" stories are short and increasingly addictive.

Wolf Read's "The Stones From Which Meadows Grow" is an excellent example of how the most seemingly dangerous and inhospitable ecosystems foster life of their own, and are not to be selfishly tampered with until fully understood. The planet Goliath in the Alpha Mensae system is ringed with, and continually bombarded by meteors, and sets the stage for high tides and green grass as the Colony Council debates methods of deflecting them in hopes of staving off the eventual destruction of the colonists. Until it is discovered that the impact tsunamis create a proliferation of hitherto hidden life. Read's solution preserves both the lives of the colonists and the delicate ecosystem and rounds off a nice bit of hard SF speculation.

Given the diatribe in my last column against the locust hordes of single parent or dysfunctional family stories spotting the pages of almost every magazine or original collection to be found these days, it is therefore somewhat surprising that the following story is my...

Editor's Choice:
"In Loco Parentis" by Edward H. Seksay
"The Cuyahoga County office of the Ohio Public Welfare Department wasn't much accustomed to polite scheduling. Ecstasy addicts and teenaged mothers usually just wandered in to see me." Thus does author Seksay introduce us to a near future, over-burdened and under-staffed welfare system. A bleak, grey, faceless entity where the particular needs of any given individual must of necessity be dealt with on an impersonal and lowest common denominator basis.

Into this system walks one Mr. Smithers, dying of lymphoma. The cancer treatments allotted by his health plan have run out. His wife has been a bedridden stroke victim for a decade. All Mr. Smithers asks of our unnamed Public Welfare Official is that his retarded son, Mickey, be looked after properly when he is gone, and not be placed in one of the state-operated group homes.

The State informs him this can't be done. Sorry, Mr. Smithers, we'd like to help, but....

Seksay, in less than a page, has quickly and efficiently drawn the emotional battle lines (some may say 'stacked the deck' a little too heavy-handedily, but you decide): the heartless State against the individual in need. But our nameless narrator goes behind his supervisor's back and, with genuine empathy and ingenuity over a span of a quarter century, takes care of, and comes to be the father poor Mickey would never have had.

The beauty of this story unfolds when we discover that this social worker has been given a name by none other than Mickey. "Otto" he calls him, for that is all the poor lad is able to remember. In truth Otto is short for "Automated Welfare System." Otto is nothing but a Public Welfare AI program who carries out his pre-programmed functions by rote (and within well-defined parameters), and whose "consciousness" is located in several perfectly human-appearing cyborgs -- imitations of real people. He is a machine, a "remote."

So we come to discover that Otto, the instrument of the impersonal State, somehow has a heart.

And so did the Tin Man.

Whether fantasy or science fiction, Oz or Ohio, the good stories always, somehow, gotta have heart. "In Loco Parentis" is a nice reminder that heart can be found in the strangest and most unlikely places.

Copyright © 1998 by David A. Truesdale


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