"Mid-Death" by Alan Dean Foster
"Walking Star" by Allen Steele
"JQ211F, And Holding" by Nancy Kress
"Rococo" by Robert Reed
"Kaminsky at War" by Jack McDevitt
"No Place Like Home" by Julie E. Czerneda
Forbidden Planets, edited by Marvin Kaye, is a collection of novellas exploring worlds beyond the boundaries of law, of safety, and sometimes of reason. The characters in these stories cross the boundaries for various reasons—pride, duty, avarice, curiosity, altruism—often to face something quite unexpected on the other side.
In "Mid-Death" by Alan Dean Foster, a team of hardened mercenary trackers sets out into the wilderness of Midworld to bring in a missing xenobotanist, scoffing at the seeming timidity of the station staff who don't dare to set foot outside their safe zone. However, the team's experiences on many hostile planets have not prepared them for the astonishing, cunning, and deadly beauty of the local flora and fauna, nor for what lies at the end of the search.
"Mid-Death" is an exciting adventure story, filled with the suspense of wondering what the intrepid team might encounter next. The characters are more types than individual people, but this is as it should be in a story where the action carries the reader along, and there is little time (or inclination) to explore deeper motivations or feelings. I could well imagine "Mid-Death" being filmed for a highly entertaining Hollywood movie.
Allen Steele's "Walking Star" is a sci-fi riff on a frontier theme. Sawyer Lee, a hard-boiled adventure guide, makes his living taking rich folk from Earth on hunting safaris in the wilds of Coyote. His notions on the independence and privacy of thought are challenged when he accepts a commission to travel to one of Coyote's most remote regions to find Joseph Walking Star, a man whose spiritual/chemical experiment could change human society.
Steel's first-person narrative evokes a time and place not unlike the late 19th century American West, when the lawless frontier was making way for order, settlement, and commerce. Sawyer drifts through his time and watches as those old buffalo guides must have done, although the change he sees on the horizon is momentous indeed.
In "JQ211F, and Holding," Nancy Kress introduces us to Dr. Paul Cho, a biologist on the brink of the culmination of his life's work as he enjoys the attentions of the beautiful lead biologist, Dr. Serena Wambugu. He is part of an expedition to planet JQ211F, which by his calculations may be the source of all life. He is troubled, however, by the failure of the sample spores from the planet to germinate, and his unease is heightened by the strange, melancholy, and evasive mood of the team's physicist, Carin Dziwaski. The promise of discovery on JQ211F seems threatened by destruction and loss.
I found "JQ211F, and Holding" deeply satisfying. I was able to feel Paul's great (and sometimes competing) desires for the success of his work and for connection with Serena. Although the story was told from Paul's point of view, I was also able to empathize with Carin's isolation among the other scientists, and with her desolation at the loss of her great hope. In addition to Kress's ability to make me care for and understand her characters, I also appreciated her refreshingly empathetic and humane approach to the tension between religion and science; she treated the subject without taking sides, without preaching, without scolding.
Robert Reed's "Rococo" is the convoluted story of Aasleen, a brilliant engineer aboard the Great Ship, and her brother, Rococo, a thousand years her junior and an exobiologist of some repute. Humans have promised the uniquely alien Scypha a ride on the Great Ship in exchange for some empty planets in the Scypha system. But Rococo has his own ideas about the Scypha and their motives, so he steals a shuttle and makes for their quarantined planet of origin, in violation of all agreements between humans and Scypha. Aasleen is sent to stop him, and in the process learns unexpected lessons about individuals, families and species.
At once a story about internal family rivalries and sub-species level struggles for survival, "Rococo" was the most challenging story for me in this anthology. At times, I admit, the science was a bit beyond me. At others, the story seemed to meander, and I was distracted by such questions as: Why did humans leave Earth in the first place? How do they manage now to live so long? And why does Aasleen make so many comparisons to Earthly conditions, when it seems she has never been on Earth?
Still, the story is well written, with interesting, evocative descriptions and unexpected turns of phrase. And the larger themes provide food for much thought. In reading "Rococo," I was by turns fascinated, confused, and tired. This may be just the sort of piece that deserves a second reading—my brain could use the exercise.
In "Kaminsky at War" by Jack McDevitt, an anthropologist begins to realize the folly of his society's long-standing position of non-interference. Arthur Kaminsky has studied the Noks on their war-torn home world for years, walking among them unseen. But when, for the first time, he witnesses firsthand a deadly attack on a wedding party, he decides to take matters into his own hands. Risking his career, his freedom, and his life, he begins acting as a one-man guerilla force against the Nok militaries and their leaders.
I found "Kaminsky at War" enjoyable. The story is exciting, with a quick pace. Arthur is immediately sympathetic—an academic mind and a gentle soul, forced by conviction into actions he surely would have considered beyond him days, or even hours, before he took them. I couldn't help rooting for Arthur, even when I was sure his cause was lost.
In Julie E. Czerneda's "No Place Like Home," the Umlari, or the People, as they call themselves, live on space stations, sending out ships to search for the world of their origins, the only planet that can sustain them. Using avatars grown in elaborate onboard laboratories, specially trained "walkers" vicariously experience each potential home to determine whether it is the one. Drewe, a young walker struggling with budding sexuality, sets her (avatar) foot on the world that may be "home," and discovers an old secret and a new knowledge that together place all of the People in jeopardy.
This story, with its sensitive, poignant treatment of relationships, love, sensuality, and sacrifice, reminded me of the writings of Ursula K. LeGuin. It is beautiful, touching, and moving, and I would love to read more of the Umlari.
Publisher: Science Fiction Bookclub/Bookspan (May 2006)
Hard Cover: 336 pages
Item Number: 464450
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