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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Fantasy & Science Fiction, February 2007

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Cover by Cory and Catska Ench


“Brain Raid” by Alexander Jablokov
“Fool” by John Morressy
“Stone and the Librarian” by William Browning Spencer
“Red Card” by S. L. Gilbow

“Brain Raid” by Alexander Jablokov takes us into the not-so-distant future, where computer-run devices—probably aided and abetted by law-breaking humans—occasionally cross the line to become sentient thinking machines: artificial intelligence.  Despite a growing movement to have such devices declared equal with humans, they currently fall under governmental restrictions.  An industry of legally sanctioned bounty hunters has grown up to pursue non-regulation, rogue AIs.  It’s a cutthroat business, with too many rival companies competing for a diminishing number of jobs. 

Taibo, Max, and Petra take on what looks like a routine retrieval of a low-level AI, but the task turns out to be a bit more complicated.  This particular AI uses aicons—portable communicating devices that allow its human companions to interface directly with the system.  It’s a much higher level AI than they were prepared for.  Also, there’s a spy from a rival company on the premises and at least one human determined to protect her electronic friend with religious zeal.  Too late, Taibo realizes the tip he got from his "friend" Chet was a set-up.  The little company is in over their heads and beyond their licensing, with Chet’s bigger company poised to step in and take over, mopping up the profits.  But maybe not.
 
Jablokov weaves a detailed background tapestry, presenting future technology in a totally believable way, and offers some good insights into human nature as well.  With clues to be unraveled, plenty of action, and some quick thinking on the part of the intrepid AI hunters, it’s an entertaining read.

“Fool” by John Morressy is the autobiography of Niccolo, a jester in medieval Italy.  Born deformed, he is allowed to survive only because he is so twisted and ugly that he is expected to have some entertainment value.  Even so, his parents choose not to raise him and sell him at the earliest opportunity.  His first master specializes in cruelty and beatings, but Niccolo’s luck changes when he is sold to a bishop, a godly man who treats all his household of social rejects with Christian kindness.

In the bishop’s palace, Niccolo learns reading, writing, and religion.  “The palace was a far more desirable place to live than the barnyard, and I strove to be a model pupil. The good bishop also taught me the tenets of the faith and instructed me in morals. In those areas, though I was careful to give the required responses and display the expected piety in his presence, my progress was somewhat limited.”  Unknown to the pious but ingenuous bishop, Niccolo also learns from the supposedly-reformed thieves, prostitutes, and murderers who make up much of the household staff.  From one of the thieves he learns of a hidden repository of books—“books so steeped in evil that they were beyond the power of man to destroy.”  From this cache, Niccolo steals a single manuscript, which teaches him a terrible curse that can be used against his enemies, but it can only be used three times. Although he eventually makes use of this terrible knowledge, Niccolo has become so skilled at intrigue and murder that he doesn’t often require supernatural help.
 
Despite his self-acknowledged deficiencies in the conscience department, Niccolo is loyal to his employers and capable of returning kindness.  He has no great ambitions, being content to live comfortably.  His wry comments and self-deprecating humor add to the charm of this behind-the-scenes glimpse of life in a noble household.
 
“Stone and the Librarian” by William Browning Spencer may leave you confused, or at least pondering the nature of reality.  Is Stone, AKA Edward, really a captive of futuristic librarians who kidnapped him and killed his mother, or is he a bibliophobic, possibly schizophrenic student in a more-or-less ordinary boarding school?  Did he escape to Africa and lead an adventurous life before returning to assassinate the Librarian, or did he run away from a field-trip to the museum, as the Librarian or headmaster suggests? My money’s on delusional schoolboy Edward, but I must admit his alter ego, Stone, leads an interesting life when he’s off his medication.
 
Taking a rather risky position for a writer, Spencer has a lot to say about the tediousness of literature in general, the horror of being entrapped by words, and the futility of study.  Hawthorne and Melville, Tolstoy and Thackeray, Henry James and James Joyce, Faulkner and Salinger are equally castigated.  Only Hemingway receives a grudging nod of approval, not for his writing as such, but for his willingness to put it down and go out and live.  And let’s not even mention the excruciating painfulness of poetry!! 

I couldn’t pin down Stone/Edward’s age, nor the time span of the story, since we’re tied in to his somewhat muddled point of view.  Sometimes he seems quite young, other times he seems to be a young adult at a university.  Taken as a whole, the story is jumbled.  However, the individual episodes work very well indeed.  
 
“Red Card” by S. L. Gilbow postulates a society in which randomly selected citizens receive a one-time license to kill.  With the card comes a detailed manual, outlining the proper protocols for an "enforcement," as the procedure is called, along with a gun and ammunition.  The cards are supposed to be secret, but secrets have a way of slipping out.

What effect might it have on human relationships, knowing your neighbor, your spouse, or any stranger you encounter, might have a red card?  Would the fear of lethal retaliation make people treat each other more civilly?  Would crime be reduced?  What would it take to make someone commit a legally sanctioned murder—a major provocation, or some minor annoyance at the wrong moment?  
 
Mild-mannered librarian Linda Jackson has held her card for four years, far longer than most, before she finally shoots her verbally abusive spouse.  Like so many ill-treated wives, she kept hoping things would get better, but finally snapped under the cumulative effect.  Her husband knew she had a card and taunted her repeatedly, apparently not believing she would ever use it.  The story explores her reactions and those of her neighbors to the killing, and also raises another question: would a person who was reluctant to pull the trigger the first time find it easier the second time around, given the opportunity?