Baen’s Universe, #3

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“Protection Money” by Wen Spencer

“The Old Woman in the Young Woman” by Gene Wolfe

“Great Minds” Edward M. Lerner

“A Time to Kill” by S. Andrew Swann

“A Hire Power” by J. Simon

“Gnome Improvement” by Rebecca Lickiss

“Songbird” by Jeremiah Sturgill

“All the Things You Are” by Mike Resnick

“The Man Who Wasn’t There” by Gregory Benford

“Baby Girl” by Jon Skovron

“Devil May Care” by Jason Kahn

“Every Hole is Outlined” by John Barnes

“Little Sips” by Barbara J. Ferrenz

“The Men in the Mirror” by Steven Ray

“The Power of Illusion” by Christopher Anvil

“Femme Fatale” by Jason Wittman

Jim Baen left this Earth about five months ago, leaving his co-editor, Toni Wiesskopf, and Eric Flint to move forward with Baen’s Universe, keeping his dream alive. I commend them for their efforts and wish them the best.

“Protection Money” by Wen Spencer commingles tangible reality and fantasy. Set in modern day Pittsburgh, a race of beings is held in captivity. One in particular harbors resentment and vows to get even.

Ms. Spencer constructs her tale of suspense and action with unnecessary narrative where she steps in front of her characters and explains the plot to her readers. Though there’s some beautiful imagery and well thought out characters, this apologue bounces around in plot and storyline until it becomes a chore to read.  At the finale, the author makes up for it a little with a satisfying ending, but one that left me saying “too soon!”

In “The Old Woman in the Young Woman” by Gene Wolfe, Long Tom is a wanderer. He goes from place to place, looking for lost treasure. He finds it in an unlikely place, Emmy’s small, unassuming hands, and his life is forever changed in one afternoon’s events when he finds himself on the run.

Wolfe conjures the charm of the Old West complete with country dialect in this potboiler of morbid fascination. The author uses an unconventional loop-to-loop format that folds back on itself, yet doesn’t becoming confusing.

“Great Minds” by Edward M. Lerner has a James Bond flare. In two short pages, the author weaves the events of an afternoon into a drama with technical jargon sophisticated enough to impress, but common enough to be understood by the layman. The nameless main character twists a simple nicety into the core of the story, leading the reader right into his trap of intrigue. The author has poured a wealth of passion and knowledge into this subterfuge.

Have you ever blown a big bubble with gum only to have it explode in your face?  The more you try to clean it up before anybody notices, the messier it gets. That’s what happens to Lt. David Abrams in “A Time to Kill” by S. Andrew Swann. Except the gum is the sweetened resin of history splattered over his face and stuck between his fingers. No matter what he does, he cannot undo what he’s done in his time traveling adventures. The events are torn from newspaper headlines, giving “A Time to Kill” a scary feel, fiction that gives "true-to-life" meaning.  Mr. Swann uses several well planned scene breaks that give the action first and the explanation second. His historical accuracy provides names, places, and dates that spill out and intertwine in this sticky situation.

In J. Simon’s “A Hire Power,” we get to see the inner workings of a well-meaning human—I mean inhuman—resource officer. She had her hands full enough before the office know-it-all gives her little hints on how to handle her job…three seconds too late! By the end, I realized my job wasn’t so bad, at least compared to this poor sap’s.  The author uses humor and the occult to spoof a typical Monday morning, the kind I hope I never have.

“Gnome Improvement” by Rebecca Lickiss brings to mind one word: cute! It is an adorable tale about those ceramic lawn ornaments that some people seem to know something about and the rest of us don’t. The author uses a fairy tale style, with the main characters being rewarded for their good deeds and the antagonist getting his just desserts. Ms. Lickiss’s work is a delight, professional and polished I’ll be on the lookout for more of her work.

Although “Songbird” by Jeremiah Sturgill is embedded with sentence fragments and meandering phrases, it all comes together to make a delightful tale. It reads like an Asian myth brought to life, seen from the character’s viewpoint from the inside.  The main character is called only “Master” and “Singer,” but he appears to be a man who has been raised above his station by his talent for song. He feels guilty because of his good fortune, and his guilt is embodied by an old man and young boy who camp on his doorstep. One he embraces, the other he shuns.

Sarcasm and clever philosophical observations string Mr. Sturgill’s words together to make an involving narrative. The fragments of lyrics included are beautiful and poetic.  At the end, he uses them to teach a boy what he thinks is the most important life lesson, creating a beautiful finish that will leave readers fulfilled and sad at the same time.

“All the Things You Are” by Mike Resnick comes at you full blast. It takes place in the far future in an apocalyptic atmosphere where space travel is commonplace. Three men, three lives, three deaths, all suicidal heroics. One speaks of a lady before he dies, but why have they done what they have? Ordinary men leading ordinary lives with a common link. When young Gregory Donovan decides to look into it, he finds himself in the same predicament.  Or is it?

Mr. Resnick utilizes proficient wordplay to lure the reader into his world. A skilled and refined piece that is definitely worth the time.

Gregory Benford’s “The Man Who Wasn’t There” it is an intriguing tryst of blood, revenge, and high technology.  The plot involved a futuristic assassination of high-ranking Middle Eastern officials, and Jean, the assassin. Though Jean doesn’t resolve any inner conflict or the outward fracas, he exacts his revenge and moves on. An interesting twist on the “what-ifs” surrounding the crisis in the Middle East.

“Baby Girl” by Jon Skovron starts out as just another normal day for an occult medium. He is visited by a ghost that needs help finding his wife, who has been stolen by the Devil. Run of the mill, right? The adventure turns out to be almost more than this voodoo man can handle. The ghost’s wife is the victim of a family squabble, the kind that could end humankind as we know it.

Mr. Skovron use several profane phrases that tended to drown out his intriguing tale, but that could just be me. I feel such language is a cop out, and the author shortchanged this story by using it. Such shock value isn’t needed, as "Baby Girl" held my interest all the way through. If he had come up with his own profanity to match the plot of the shibboleth, it would have made for a more enjoyable read.

In “Devil May Care” by Jason Kahn, Cornelius checks the assignments for his busy workday and discovers he’s to be a Reaper.  But there must be some mistake; he’s a Tormentor, one of the best in Hell. He calls his supervisor and discovers that no, there’s no mistake. Subsequently, his field duty goes along until he hits a snag. And the snag’s name is Sandra. How can this angelic creature belong in Hell? She seems to know something about Cornelius, and that makes him nervous.  The author uses a tone edged with humor, presenting tongue-in-cheek suppositions about Hell and the Devil. I found “Devil May Care” entertaining and educational.

“Every Hole is Outlined” by John Barnes has extensive sentences, some as long as fifty-plus words. While properly formatted and structured, it made this story, a saga about space travel and the travails the crew faces, difficult to follow. There are also some aspects that just didn’t fit, such as when the crew brings aboard a female, Xhrina, and the second question asked in her lengthy interview was (paraphrasing): “do you have a problem having random sex with anyone who asks, especially the old geezer you’ll be rooming with?”  And she giggles. Sex is brought up repeatedly in this story. It may be my prudishness, but the focus on coition did not further the plot, nor did it tell us anything of importance about the characters.

The rest of the saga follows Xhrina and her partner throughout their lives and deaths and beyond. The narrative has a cyclical feel, that the ship has been around forever and so have some of the shipmates.  That it starts all over again is an appealing idea.

“Little Sips” by Barbara J. Ferrenz draws the reader right in with a pandemic among the homeless in Big City, USA. The doctors are baffled, the police are suspicious, and the common link between the victims looks like something ripped right out of the Enquirer. Eventually, a doctor and a policewoman team up to solve the crime. It turns out to be something the duo aren’t prepared to deal with. Or perhaps the thing they’re searching for isn’t prepared for them.

Ms. Ferrenz seems well acquainted with the medical field and douses medical common sense with a splash of the impossible. The technical jargon is difficult to slog through, and sometimes unnecessary, neither furthering the plot nor impressing this reader.

In the time travel story “The Men in the Mirror” by Steven Ray, Charles Robbins is a writer. He figures his interview with Mr. Welken will be pretty routine, but as it turns out, it’s altogether different. They talk of aliens, abductions, and the word boom appears. What or who will Charles Robbins find waiting for him in the future? Would the collateral damage of history surfing be worth it? Most people are afraid of the unknown; Mr. Robbins is fearful of his postexistence because he knows what will happen.

Mr. Ray is a proficient word wrangler. His dialogue moves the plot and fleshes out the characters. All in all a nice little sci-fi piece with magic realism seeping around the edge.

“Just another alien uprising,” thought Colonel Sanders when called upon to deal with a rogue king and a powerful ring in “The Power of Illusion” by Christopher Anvil.  His superior is against the idea of him interfering, but he suspects something else is going on than just a normal barbarian civil war on the planet marked as “alien.” But nothing prepares his calculating mind for what he finds there. 

With a tangle of fantasy and sci-fi, the author keeps the dialogue at maximum power level. But there’s so much of it that it becomes tiresome, and it’s often difficult telling who’s talking. The characters use each others’ names, but there’s no change in diction or catch phrases or voice.   However, I did enjoy the snippets of song the author included. If you like a genre potluck, you may enjoy this.

“Femme Fatale” by Jason D. Wittman is a period piece set sometime post-WWII. A young man is seduced by a dance hall girl with quite a reputation. Wittman establishes a film noir feel, building suspense and drama.  Throw in a mob hit, a supper club, and jazz music, and the stage is set for a sad, but nicely done ending.