The March 2011 issue explores possibilities in the interaction between humans and robots, humans and aliens, and humans and our own social taboos, and the stories included feature time travel, nanotechnology, genetic mutation, and even the evolution of timeshares, which are no longer just condos on the beach.
“Rule Book” by Paul Carlson, the first of two novelettes to appear in this issue, gives us a glimpse of the life of a trucker in the future and how he is affected by interactions with robots. It’s an unusually ordinary lens through which to view our speculative future, and the Everyman voice of the narrator, Claude, makes it feel like the whole story is being told to you over a beer and a brat at a neighborhood barbecue: “Saturday morning dawned clear and warm. Don’t know much about the world’s climate, but for the moment, warm felt fine to me.” Carlson’s imagined future is a charming example of “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Global warming has had a tangible effect on the climate, but kids are still frightened by stories of razorblades hidden in Halloween candy. A new line of cars burn glucose by flexing cloned muscle tissue, but people still go to the county fair.
The main focus of the story, however, is the interaction between humans and robots, on both a personal and political level. The pacing lags at times, most notably when spending more page time on a children’s game than its plot significance requires, occasionally making the story feel a little drawn out. Claude’s status as an “archetype” in the collective robot unconscious is never fully explained, and the plot’s shift from the personal to the political in the last third makes it feel like an extra story is being shoe-horned in at the last minute. Despite this, “Rule Book” is a plausible look at the future with an engaging voice and a world built with a wink.
Instead of human-robot relations, “Firebrand” by Sarah Frost is about a first meeting between humans and aliens. A three-person survey team finds a new planet, and their linguist, Youngha, connects with the native aliens, a kangaroo-like race, who seem to have something specific they want her to know. The survey is searching for a seed ship, which uses nanotechnology to create a human colony—eventually taking over the planet on which it has landed. This isn’t a big deal if the ship lands on a dead piece of rock, but this planet is alive, with plants and animals and water—and a race of peaceful aliens. As Youngha interacts with the aliens, her emotional turmoil and crisis of conscience builds. Youngha is an accessible, sympathetic character through which to view this strange new world and its inhabitants, and though the story is not as deep or thought-provoking as others in this issue, it is still enjoyable and engaging.
Probably the weakest story in this issue, “Hiding from Nobel” by Brad Aiken suffers from its structure and length. It’s the story of four teenage boys, their friendship, a tragedy, and their lives afterward. Most of the story is written in flashbacks—which switch often from the past to the present, making for awkward scenes in the present in which the narrator does little more than think about the flashback we just had and move us into another—and a video the main characters watch. What does happen in the present is simply set-up for a plot we never see, action that all takes place once the story is over. The plot simply needed a little more room to breathe, to develop, to give characters a chance to question and deny the extraordinary truth of that tragedy so long ago, instead of accepting it within seconds.
“Julie is Three” by Craig DeLancey takes a look at psychology and genetics and suggests a possible next step in human evolution. When a little girl claims to be three people in one—Julie, Julianna, and Juny—an overworked, burnt-out psychiatrist has to search for the truth of her condition. The story’s concept is an interesting one—that humanity’s social characteristics will dictate how we adapt and evolve—and through the strength of the voice and storytelling, very plausible. DeLancey has a nice way of explaining evolution: “All progress in evolution is to take what’s useful that’s outside, and bring it inside and bring it under control. Bring the sea inside, control its contents and temperature, so you can bathe your cells even while you walk on land. That’s circulation.” The impact Julie and her aunt have on the weary psychiatrist is encompassed by the question that echoes through the story—aren’t you lonely?—reflecting both the psychiatrist’s life and the future of humanity.
“Timeshare” by Robert H. Prestridge is “flash fiction,” a humorous piece about the future of timeshares, which have grown from simple shared real estate to comprehensive emotional experiences. It’s also about how even perfect happiness isn’t enough for human nature. We always want more. The story almost reads like a joke—the timeshare salesman’s name is even Snark—setting up a laugh-worthy punch line, and makes for a fun breather midway through the issue.
The most unconventional story in this issue is “Astronomic Distance, Geologic Time” by Bud Sparhawk. Its tagline is “Just to put things into perspective…” Which is exactly what the story does—stepping light-years back to look at our universe from the perspective of time and space. A tiny, immortal spaceship travels from the center of the universe to the edge—or tries to, at any rate. As it travels, worlds bloom and fall, including our little, insignificant planet, Earth. An entire planet’s existence is just a blink of an eye to the eternal, ever-expanding, never-ending universe. The story starts small—with a boy and his dog—but quickly spirals into the history and future of our entire civilization, and the history of countless other worlds we will never know. The sheer scope of the story, however, makes it impossible for the reader to invest emotionally in its journey, especially after Jerry, our initial connection with the story, is relegated to the insignificance of the vastness of the universe. It’s a purely intellectual exercise.
Thanks to medical advances, in “Taboo” by Jerry Oltion, people are more or less immortal, but medicine hasn’t been able to keep memories from fading. A person’s memory only lasts for about fifty years, which means Edward, who is almost two hundred years old, can’t remember much about the first one hundred and fifty years of his life—just flashes here and there, events, information rather than experience. This becomes a problem when he meets McKenna. They connect in a way Edward hasn’t connected with another person in decades and soon find themselves face-to-face with one of the strongest taboos in human society. A taboo so strong that readers will find it hard to sympathize with Edward and McKenna or understand their conflicted thoughts and emotions.
Oltion’s future is one in which cars fly, holographic ads follow you wherever you go, and robots can kick you out of museums for public displays of affection. Effectively immortal, people work more because they’re bored or want to be productive than because they have to. The most interesting concept—along with whether some of our current social taboos still apply in the world in which Edward and McKenna live—is the inevitable fading of memory, the loss of one’s life and experience to the inexorable passing of time.
The final story is also probably the strongest. “Betty Knox and Dictionary Jones in the Mystery of the Missing Teenage Anachronisms” by John G. Hemry is a page-turner. Two people from 2040 are sent back to their teenage bodies in 1964 to try to stop humanity from poisoning itself with its dependence on chemicals and synthetic materials, and learn that the other members of their team have all disappeared. Combining time travel, nostalgia (though Hemry doesn’t downplay the rampant misogyny of the era), the logic-twisting implications of changing history, and a dash of sexual tension, “Betty Knox” is an engaging, well-plotted adventure. Occasional slips into didactic warnings about plastics or processed food are easily forgiven. As one can guess from its whimsical title, the story isn’t afraid to leaven its serious science fiction concept with a bit of fun, such as when Betty uses a story published in Analog magazine to help her and Jim on their mission. A great way to close out the issue.