by Dave Truesdale
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Off On A Tangent: Short Fiction Reviews columns.]
The first half of 2008 has come and gone, and so with it the once-fresh memories of some of its earlier stories. Beginning with this installment -- as a mid-season memory enhancer -- we'll be taking a look at 2008's short fiction, beginning with January and working our way up to year's end. This time we'll take a look at the January through March issues of F&SF, as well as the Jan./Feb. Special Double Issue of Analog.
The January F&SF sports three novelettes and an equal number of short stories. While none jump at the reader with that immediate award-quality impact, and all stories are well-told and of interest, three drew our special attention. John Kessel's novelette "Pride and Prometheus" is an alternate history where Herr Frankenstein and his monster meet Guess Who from Pride and Prejudice. Thoughtfully and skillfully rendered (yet with the requisite violence such a tale requires), the emotionally involving reinterpretation left this reader with a satisfied feeling. The author's treatment of the monster is especially well done.
Alex Irvine's novelette "Mystery Hill" is an entertaining romp of the sort one might have seen in the 50s by several authors, but somehow Henry Kuttner in humorous mode comes to mind. In this one, the setting is an off-the-highway tourist trap. Before long we're involved with a good-old-boy drug dealer who is cooking the bodies of interdimensional aliens (who have met their fate in our world as roadkill or have been murdered) to make hallucinogens for the local teenagers. Enter a pretty physicist who has come to investigate, said teenagers pogo dancing on the 17th green of the mini golf course of the tourist trap while high on distilled reptile juice, along with an eventual exchange of two humans with the reptilian race who now exhibit the pair of exchangees in their own reptilian tourist trap. And there's plenty of rubber science to make it all work, including string theory and gravity fluctuations. Great fun.
James Powell's short story, "The Quest for Creeping Charlie" is another charming, clever, humorous piece about a man out to find the smartest creature on Earth -- smart, he believes, because they have never been found: the megamensalopes. His detailed delusions, time-consuming, fruitless searches, and the method of his death, combined with the twist ending the attending doctor discovers while googling the meaning of the dying man's last words of "Creeping Charlie" make this one a quiet winner, a lot of fun, and perhaps a gentle satirical poke at the more paranoid of the cryptozoological persuasion.
The February F&SF gives us a pair of novelettes and five short stories. Again, nothing of immediate award-quality impact here, but some very fine stories nevertheless.
For lovers of old books, dusty bookshops, pipe smoke, wine, and intelligent conversation among fellow bibliophiles, Ann Miller's novelette "Retrospect" is a wistful time travel tale wherein a man must eventually choose between two disparate lifestyles: the contemporary setting of the tale, or a lifestyle from its past. Cozy atmosphere and personal choices mark this warm, thoughtful tale.
The always dependable Richard Bowes chimes in with "If Angels Fight," a disturbing novelette where angels are real (ethereal beings) and inhabit certain people in the Eternal Battle of Good vs. Evil. The kicker is that there are good and bad angels, and they war with one another on the human plane. Thus, Bowes' asks us to consider the possibility that this is why some people are good, and some bad. He also offers that when a bad angel loses a fight with a good angel (and is cast out of its human host), this might be the explanation for mean, hurtful individuals now changing their ways... and by extension, vice versa. As usual, the author is quite at ease when depicting human emotion, character, and motivation in realistic detail, as well as capturing in like manner the environs in which his morality plays take place. Embedded in this tale, however, lies the serious question of whether people are responsible for their own behavior, or the blame somehow lies elsewhere and is out of their control. An engaging, thought-provoking story, and a fine effort.
On the short story front we have "Balancing Accounts" by James L. Cambias, a nifty little 50s/60s Analog-type story about hauling freight (legal and otherwise) through the solar system, but told from the viewpoint of the AIs who run the ships, robots, and everything else in this story. The Maguffin, a human (a child, in stasis), is at the center of a tug of war between competing factions. Our POV AI/ship Orphan Annie is caught in the middle and must make actual ethical choices. Cambias humanizes his AIs effectively, but legitimately, and in the process asks us (by implication) to ponder where biological intelligence (and that part making us human) might differ from truly advanced machine intelligence, if at all -- and whither the difference at the level portrayed here. A nice addition to the canon of stories dealing with the sometimes difficult relationship we must continually reassess in regard to our ever-advancing technologies.
Ahh, that witty curmudgeon Ron Goulart is at it again, this time with a delightful short story wherein a ghost writer is commissioned to help write the "Memoirs of the Witch Queen." Turns out she's for real (all 350 lbs. of her), has fallen in love with our hero, and also wants him to join her coven. She actually does have powers, gets rid of the ghost writer's surly editor, enlists a 200 year-old vampire to be his new ("nicer") editor, and sends another vampire to seduce our poor writer, a sweet young thing who, after admitting to him that she too is a vampire, tells our hero: "You're upset, darling.... But, really, I am fond of you. And, so I've been told more than once, there's very little difference between sleeping with one of the undead and with a contemporary female. Really." Goulart always has a sly twinkle in his eye, and it shows in this funny piece. Bravo.
"Petri Parousia" by Matthew Hughes is a short, ingenious bit of extrapolation where a scientist invents a machine that can perform retrogressive DNA sequencing. We can now recreate DNA from any time in the past by following back its threads from the present day flora and fauna. A secret society backs the project with an ulterior motive: that of discovering the DNA of Jesus in order to precipitate the Second Coming. The thing is, when they find that half of the DNA is Mary Magdalene's, there are only two possibilities left for Jesus's father: a mortal, which would deny his divinity -- or God himself, which would indeed presage the Second Coming (which we learn is what "Parousia" means in Greek). A very clever little think-piece, well thought out and executed. A crackerjack piece of speculation that despite its length, offers some serious religious and philosophical question marks, much as Arthur C. Clarke's classic short story "The Star" evoked. Hughes has conceived (conception is ofttimes the most difficult part of any story) and then written a deceptively innocent (yet sly) gem with this one.
For March, F&SF treats us to one novella and novelette, and four short stories. Albert Cowdrey's remarkable novella, "The Overseer," is a powerhouse, and overshadows just about everything else F&SF has given us to this point in the year.
The story begins decades before the Civil War and we follow it well after its end. An almost psychopathic, cruel slave overseer is murdered, then returns to haunt the son of the man who hired him. The story is told by the son, who is now crippled and old and is writing his memoirs (confessions) about his sordid life of murder, war profiteering, conniving, and subterfuge. There are stories within stories, hidden truths and more lies, issues of racial equality, politics, and hatred. The dark, ominous subject matter is treated with a brutal honesty, from the pen of the man who has lived his life most cruelly (he was once best friends with the negro boy who shot and killed the overseer, as per a pact between them involving the young white boy's girlfriend), betraying even his closest friends. This painful, ego stripped-bare exposé is at once poignant, stirring, and emotionally gut-wrenching. It is dark fantasy cum horror story in the truest sense, and is sure to be one of the year's most talked about, and deservedly so.
Of the short stories, "The Second Descent" by Richard Paul Russo merits examination. A nightmarish tale of the highest order, a team of seven attempt to climb a mountain somewhere in Asia. Three have died, and now there are four. The story is told through the eyes of Rafael, who repeatedly speaks to another remaining member of the team, Yusuf. However, the other pair of members, Iliana and the priest, Father Dominic, remind him that Yusuf is among the dead. It seems the team is trapped in a nightmare scenario where they must continually climb and descend the glacier, either reaching the top (or not), and then never quite reaching the ground (or maybe they do). At times, it evokes a Lost Horizon scenario, where time has stopped in this small, high altitude island of rarefied (and unearthly) existence, for at one point on their way down (the first time? the second?) the special ropes they had left for purposes of their descent have now rotted away, as if decades of time have passed since their journey up the mountain. Have the rigors of their climb, the exhaustion and lack of oxygen played tricks on them? Or have they entered a strange, unexplored area where things do not respond to the physical laws governing the rest of the world, and were never meant to? At one point, as they attempt to reach the city of Kuma-Shan for refuge, they find that every time they lose direct sight of the city it is then even farther away than before. Kuma-Shan, the seemingly Moving City, can never be reached.
These lost souls find themselves in the land of nightmare, but brought about by what? Exhaustion and oxygen deprivation, or have they stumbled into a lost corner of the world not meant for Man to enter? Told with psychological insight into the confused minds of the climbers, with just the right voice and atmosphere of foreboding, that sense of being lost in a dream from which one can never awaken, and which gradually seeps into the consciousness of the reader as well, this is definitely one of the stronger short stories of the year.
The first three months of 2008 show F&SF maintaining a uniformly high level of quality and variety, with
the more serious-minded stories balanced equably with the satiric, clever, or wittily humorous variety. The standouts for
this reader are:
Analog begins the year with its Jan./Feb. 2008 Special Double Issue. Along with the hefty first installment (of three) of Joe Haldeman's new novel Marsbound, we are given five each of novelettes and short stories.
J. Timothy Bagwell's novelette, "Tangible Light," concerns a young aristocrat bequeathed by his dying father the chance to travel to the giant world of Polity, capital world of the conglomerate unity of "human" worlds known as the Reticulum. The Reticulum is far-advanced technologically, and has strict guidelines on what it considers to be "human" worlds. Only those worlds the Reticulum classifies as human are considered for admission to the conglomerate. And therein lies the rub. They go by definitions for being human other than mere DNA or phenotypes, assigning the status of "humanity" on a governmental/behavioral set of defining characteristics.
Earth is deemed not to be human unless it can switch to a world government in the paltry time span of five years, or it will be annexed as a protectorate to one of the Reticulum worlds known as the Handful of Dust Empery. The heady issues Bagwell discusses are philosophical, long-term ones eventually leading to self-determination and our own species sovereignty, or perhaps slavery under the thumb of the Empery. All is anchored with the far-future, high-tech concept of the title's "tangible light," which is a nifty concept. There is also a human story of love and ultimate sacrifice, giving the tale a well-rounded sense of completeness. Well done.
"The Man in the Mirror" by Geoffrey A. Landis is prototypical hard SF problem-solving at its best, the sort of bread and butter story Analog has been publishing since… forever. This novelette involves a mining ship headed for Sedna, a frozen iceball and "one of the largest of the objects in the trans-Neptunian belt." The discovery of an immense, perfectly smooth and frictionless (as frictionless as physics allows, at any rate) reflecting mirror is cause for celebration, for it is of extraterrestrial origin. The crew has strict orders to avoid it until the proper authorities have first crack at it. Of course, one member of the team disobeys orders and visits it alone. He falls into this kilometers-wide mirror and cannot escape. No radio, jet packs, or other means of thrust, etc. Facing certain death, he must use his wits to save his life as he slides from one side of the mirror to the other -- each time losing momentum. How he escapes is rather ingenious, and makes for a tension-filled read.
"Conversations with My Knees" by Ron Goulart is another of his serio-slapstick stories (this time a short novelette). An aging man goes in for knee replacements, only to discover shortly thereafter, while convalescing, that his knees can talk, and have given him amazing recuperative powers (along with other surprises). Seems his surgeon has been working on small nano devices coupled with AIs, and his wondrous marvel has been turned down by the Powers That Be. So said surgeon has decided to do a little experimenting on his own with our aging protagonist. But the bad guys have found out, have traced the implants to our reluctant hero, and very quickly he is involved with a spy vs. spy scenario. His life is in definite danger, he can trust no one except his talking, enhanced knees (pointed in the proper direction, they can disable anyone with a numbing ray!), and not even his cheating wife, who is in cahoots with the bad guys for a $20,000 payoff for setting her husband up. Humor is so difficult to pull off, but Goulart makes this spy spoof work.
Of the short stories, Wil McCarthy's "How the Bald Apes Saved Mass Crossing" is perhaps the most relevant to our current times. It is an obvious satire on how political ideologies differ, and what form of government works best… depending on one's point of view. Not to mention how far we might go in abrogating responsibility for making our own decisions, in allowing others to form our opinions for us. In this case, it is the Salamander People of Antares IV who have trouble making up their minds. The following passages pretty much say it all (though I shan't reveal any final decision here). The story opens with this line: "When the Salamander People of Antares IV fed their encyclopedia to a Synthetic Brain of Prodigious Intellect, they believed they were solving all their problems."
But some believed this not good enough, so a Second Brain was made. Still not good enough, as each Brain gave different answers to problems. Which then led to:
"On the rare occasions when the First and Second Brains' recommendations overlapped, the salamanders readily moved forward with sound, confident policies. Life improved; costs were amortized and repaid. But most of the time there was bickering and uncertainty, and eventually outright schism. A third of the population sided with the First Brain, finding reassurance in its cautiously nuanced judgments and opinions. Another third sided with the Second Brain, feeling that it had a better weighting of foofy subtleties vs. the hard, cold realities of life on Antares IV. Dithering and sentimentality were liabilities, they reasoned, and the First Brain's tendency toward these, being slightly greater than that of the Second Brain, could hardly be to its credit.A wry, pointed satire, with a lesson to be learned from the Salamander People of Antares IV.
"The Engulfed Cathedral" by Carl Frederick is a short piece involving genetically enhanced dolphins, moral questions of how far to go with genetic engineering, and fanatic religious groups -- all set in a fairly near-future Earth when rising oceans have engulfed a cathedral, where, oddly enough, part of it has been high-tech retro-fitted to support life (an enclosed bubble serving as pulpit), and how an underwater religious terrorist attack is thwarted. It gets a little stranger when the super-dolphins begin to worship as well, communicating in their own language. Do they now have souls? Can genetic engineering lift creatures to the level of humans, and would God (if there is one) acknowledge such uplifted souls?
The underwater setting overall was unusual, as was the sunken cathedral being made partially operable again, but something didn't quite click in this one. Everything seemed to happen too quickly, without the depth the subject matter required to make this story really sing. Expanded, "The Engulfed Cathedral" could really aspire to something special.
Don D'Ammassa's "The Natural World" is set in the 1870s and is told in the manner of the quaint Lost World story. It involves strange little (extraterrestrial?) jewel-colored beetles and their most peculiar architectural abilities, and how, once handled or mistakenly ingested, they impart a religious fanaticism upon their host. How one young woman of manners eventually uses one of them on her sister ends the tale with a nice surprise.
Two of the remaining short stories, Mia Molvray's "Low Life," and "A Deadly Intent" by Richard A. Lovett & Mark Niemann-Ross, are of the problem-solving variety (What is causing an outbreak of e coli. aboard a virtually sterilized space station; and even the most sophisticated and regulated types of nano-machines can result in deadly consequences when something is overlooked -- respectively). Jerry Oltion's "A New Generation" shows what can happen if other-worldly explorers take for granted the intelligence of any species, regardless of age or appearance. Sometimes intelligence is genetic, and not only of the learned kind.
So, aside from the not-discussed Haldeman serialization, while an interesting double issue, nothing really jumped out and
grabbed me by the collar. I did find most of the stories enjoyable, and for entirely different reasons enjoyed these the most:
Dave Truesdale has edited Tangent and now Tangent Online since 1993. It has been nominated for the Hugo Award four times, and the World Fantasy Award once. A former editor of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he also served as a World Fantasy Award judge in 1998, and currently writes an original online column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
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