The thirteen stories collected here visit the past and both near and far futures, encompassing science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Climate change, music, New Orleans, and genetics all figure prominently.
“Plumage From Pegasus” by Paul Di Filippo is a tale of writerly neuroses that still manages to be funny. In a world in which anyone can write and publish anything, it’s readers that are in short supply. How to cope with a reader shortage? Automate it! I found this story extremely creepy in its implications. The resulting robot personifies the worst parts of Internet culture, where you only ever have to talk to people who agree with you. I also wondered about the Uncanny Valley while reading this: wouldn’t the humanoid robot be physically disturbing as well?
Robert Reed provided a two-story set for this issue. “Stock Photos” must be read first. “The Road Ahead” happens just after, or possibly just before. Regardless, start with “Stock Photos” and see if you can puzzle it out. (You may even want to skip the rest of this paragraph.) These stories describe a system to predict which people will be important in the future, whether for good or evil. What would you do with that knowledge? Support scientific discovery? Stop wars? Or maybe take photos of them, so when they make the news in a month or a year you’ll be poised to make lots of money for your images, tabloid journalism at its most exploitative. But is that all that’s going on? These stories leave many things unanswered, and you’ll be thinking about them for a while.
“Agent of Change” by Steven Popkes and “Fine Green Dust” by Don Webb both consider the effects of climate change. Anthropogenic warming is drastically altering Arctic ecosystems. Popkes describes what might happen if a giant whale-eating reptile is driven from its hiding places in remote Arctic waters through a series of excerpts from military logs, CNN, web sites, and of course the Weekly World News (spotted with Bat Boy!). Several subplots wind through (and under) the techno-epistolary format, but it all comes down to making money in the end.
Webb takes an entirely different angle with his story of life in his home city of Austin after the temperature rises. Nobody is happy there except the ubiquitous green geckos. Maybe it’s time for the reptiles to rule the world again. The most interesting part takes place between the closing and the beginning paragraphs: the first-person narration allows for some playing with time and order. Did the protagonist decline the offer to leave his current life behind by escaping into the heat, or did he try and fail, too old or too inert?
Another pair of stories, by Chet Williamson and Kate Wilhelm, are bound together by music. In “The Final Verse,” a horror tale by Chet Williamson, the fantastic assumes a larger role, and the music has a sinister aspect. The hunt for the never-recorded final verse of an Appalachian murder ballad takes the protagonist deep into the hills. It is written in a folksy uneducated language that fits the narrator, but may still drag on the reader. This story reminded me of Manly Wade Wellman’s work, though the protagonist lacks both Silver John’s honor and his cunning.
Like most of Kate Wilhelm’s work, “Music Makers” is primarily about the people and their interrelationships. The fantastic element is necessary to the plot, driving the interactions, but understated. Wilhelm quietly explores predestination: if you are pushed into a role by forces beyond your control, might it still be exactly the right place? I won’t say this story couldn’t happen anywhere but New Orleans, but if it were set elsewhere it would be a far different tale. The lush garden setting reinforces the lush music and pushes the relationships between musicians live and dead into a satisfying form.
Albert E. Cowdrey’s story “The Black Mountain” is also set in New Orleans, but instead of gardens and Southern cooking, it mines the city for corruption and abandoned buildings. The protagonist fights to save the Onion Dome Cathedral (not a real building, but possibly patterned on one), built a century ago by an obscure Eastern European sect (also fictional: called Narodniks, but unrelated to the Russian revolutionaries). In this account of historical preservation gone awry, we find the same kind of consequences to disturbing the dead that I’m used to seeing in Egyptological horror stories of mummies. There are no walking corpses here, but the actual encounter is sufficiently chilling. And then: once you’ve saved the supernaturally dangerous cathedral, what do you do with it?
The post-Singularity story by Ken Liu, “Altogether Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer,” is about a girl with a Klein bottle bedroom and a twenty-dimensional father but a mother who remained stubbornly in a three-dimensional body much like the original. The Singularity won’t take away what makes us human, and that includes the trials and traumas of childhood: school friends, homework, woefully-out-of-date parents. But even veritable dinosaurs may have something to offer. Liu has thought about what family relationships might be like, about how people might interact within a virtual environment, and outside it. Small touches, like redesigning a child’s bedroom, add depth and feeling.
S.L Gilbow uses “The Old Terrologist’s Tale” to make a point about art and perfection and beauty, using planetary engineering as the medium. This story bothered me in a way that most readers may not care about. I’m an ecologist, and familiar with planetary geology, plate tectonics, global climate patterns, biomes, and so on. The advanced engineering in the story could perhaps produce the kind of static world described, where weather and seismic activity and everything else can be completely controlled at the cost of a great deal of energy, but these would be more like paintings than planets. I’m fairly tolerant of scientific inaccuracies in service to story, but just couldn’t get past the worldbuilding here.
“Signs of Life”, by Carter Scholz, revisits a favored SF topic: introns, those seemingly useless chunks of DNA that we all carry around. I put this kind of story in the same mental class as the “We only use 10% of our brains” stories: potentially interesting, but usually not good science. Scholz, though, has done some homework and has some new ideas. He offers up a setting that will be intimately familiar to anyone who has worked in a biology lab: the class structure, the competition, the pressure to publish. The protagonist, a database technician in a genetics lab, has either made a huge discovery or had his second nervous breakdown, or both.
I haven’t read any of Scott Bradfield’s Dazzle stories prior to “Starship Dazzle,” which may have affected my perception of this one, but I was unimpressed. Dazzle doesn’t seem to fill any role, have any purpose. The story opens with Dazzle talking NASA into sending him into space. Why? No idea. Dogs in space have a long and unhappy history, and if I were a talking dog that’s something I would try to avoid. Without understanding why Dazzle wanted to go into space in the first place, his later longing for home doesn’t have much impact.
Then Dazzle gets involved in advertising, makes First Contact, and learns that aliens can be even more pathetic than people. He comes home, and then everything is forgotten. This exercise in cosmic consumerism has fabulous descriptive language — “Strapped into the poorly padded bucket seat, he rattled amongst the steel-framed dashboard components like a set of false teeth in a broken doll” — but the story didn’t appeal to me. I appreciated many of the individual components, but not the aggregate.
In “Rampion,” Alexandra Duncan uses strong sensory details to bring to mind the setting, southern Spain during the Umayyad caliphate, before the Reconquista: “I navigate by the jutting stones, the smells of marzipan, meat — fresh lamb at the halal butchers, jamón serrano at the Christian shops — and the waft of dark water steaming from the sewers. The fishmongers, newly fetched up from the Guadalquivir, shout over each other. Their voices mix with the clang of steel, the rush and tang of the forge-fire consuming the air, and above all, the distant cry of the muezzin calling us to prayer.” The rampion is sometimes known as the rapunzel, and figures in the folk tale of that name. Here, the folkloric inspiration is spun into a lovely tale of political intrigue, murder, and romance.
While two of the stories didn’t work for me, that lack was more than made up for by “Music Makers” and “Rampion,” and the fun of pondering Robert Reed’s tales. There should be something to please everyone here.