Baen’s Universe, Issue 6

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"Crawlspace" by Dave Freer and Eric Flint
"Newts" by Kevin J. Anderson
"Chance of Storms" by Edward M. Lerner
"Dinosaur Egg $6" by Chet Gottfried
"The Ten Thousand Things" by Mark L. Van Name
"Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz Go to War Again" by Garth Nix
"Midnight at the Quantum Café" by K.D. Wentworth
"Redemption of Nepheli" by E. Sedia
"Common Ground" by Mackey Chandler

"New Moon" by Mike Barretta
"Crawlspace" by Dave Freer and Eric Flint takes place on a mining asteroid under siege by aliens. Prostitutes from the Last Chance bar have been found dead in tunnels, and Captain Rebecca Wuollet finds herself in charge of the investigation. It’s an explosive one: the locals are convinced that the Marines are responsible for the deaths, and there could be ugly riots if Rebecca cannot defuse the situation.

I have a fondness for murder investigations, and "Crawlspace" did not disappoint me. The world drawn by Freer and Flint is replete with nice touches such as the intelligent rats and bats whose language-banks contain mostly Shakespeare—which results in archaic speech that manages to be hilarious; the "short and rotund" alien, Cookie, who can only speak a language in which there is no word for freedom; the small wheelbarrows used by rats to loot the dead in the mining tunnels—not to mention the Marine called Holmes, who studies the criminal mind by "knock[ing] it out of their ears and then look[ing] at it." The plot is tightly paced and kept me on my toes until the end. Very funny, and definitely recommended.

"Newts" by Kevin J. Anderson takes place on a ring colony founded by Ardet Hollings and his group of followers. The ring is currently under siege by the Earth military forces, and most fighting men have died in the first skirmishes. Rex Hollings, the son of Ardet Hollings, finds himself enrolled in the fighting—although he isn’t an obvious choice. For Rex, like all third children of the colony, has been neuteured: his emotions are continuously monitored so that he is kept happy and disconnected from events—the perfect man, as Ardet Hollings saw it.
It’s a challenge to deal with such a character—whose emotions run very, very far from the normal gamut of humanity. But Anderson manages it beautifully, and Rex is a thoroughly believable and engaging character caught in a war he was never made for. The ending makes perfect sense and is entirely fulfilling.

"Chance of Storms" by Edward M. Lerner is a very short piece in which a journalist comes to the isolated house where the narrator is staying. He claims that the narrator has psychic powers, which would explain his frequent moves into smaller and smaller communities—often following devastating catastrophes.

"Chance of Storms" is a humorous piece which I found, unfortunately, too slight to work for me. The preceding narrative is not particularly humorous, which means that the whole point of the story lies in the punch—a punch that I found not particularly funny either. Of course, humor being a very different notion for people, there’s a chance it might work for other readers. Give it a try; it’s short enough for you to easily make up your own mind.

"Dinosaur Egg $6" by Chet Gottfried tells the story of Ted Allbright, who finds a Navajo Indian in the desert with a dinosaur egg. The Indian offers to bet him on the time at which the egg hatches.  If he wins, Ted can take the dinosaur home.

The story was well-written and well-paced, and I waited eagerly to find out what would happen when the egg hatched. But I felt let down by the ending—which struck me as not very plausible. Without spoiling it, let’s just say the Indian’s plan seemed an awfully complicated and slow way to reach his goal—not to mention that I’m still not clear on how exactly this plan would work out.

In "The Ten Thousand Things" by Mark. L. Van Name, Yukio’s father has just died. Yukio, who desperately needs his father’s knowledge in order to run the family firm, Fujiura Corp, wants to recover the old man’s memories through an experimental process. Yukio’s mother disagrees. As the story progresses, Van Name draws us deeper into the intricacies of the relationship between Yukio and his father.

Though none of the characters are particularly original (the reluctant son, the successful businessman so overwhelmed by his work that he has no time for his family), I liked the Japanese setting of the story and came to empathize with Yukio’s problems. The ending is predictable, but doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of what’s first and foremost a character-driven story. My only gripe with this is the "ten thousand things," the significance of which is explained way, way too late into the story (about three paragraphs before the end), which makes the title feel over-contrived. 

"Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz Go To War Again" by Garth Nix is set in a universe where every city is protected by the "godlet," the godlike entity at its heart. The main character, the knight Sir Hereward, plans to hire his services to the rich and powerful city of Shûme—ostensibly because he’s a mercenary, but in reality because he and his companion, Mister Fitz, are on a quest to kill the godlet of Shûme who is sucking other cities and other dimensions dry.

Much of "Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz Go To War Again" reads like classic sword and sorcery, but what makes it stand apart is the character of Mister Fitz, a magical puppet with deadly fighting skills and a hilarious sense of repartee. These paragraphs in particular I found priceless:

"Self-motivated puppets were not great objects of fear in most quarters of the world. They had once been numerous, and some few score still walked the earth, almost all of them entertainers, some of them long remembered in song and story.

"Mister Fitz was not one of those entertainers."
Sir Hereward is rather endearingly naïve, and I found myself rooting for this mismatched duo until the very end.

The only thing that bothered me was the withholding of key information about Mister Fitz and Hereward’s past—whereas it was clear that the information had been known all along to Hereward, the point-of-view character. I would very much have liked to have known that information earlier, instead of having all of it imparted to me near the end of the story—at a point where it only serves as a justification of events that couldn’t possibly have happened otherwise.

"Midnight at the Quantum Café" by K.D. Wentworth is about a café that straddles alternate worlds, and where the various incarnations of the same person can drop in—though, of course, not at the same time, or it will spell disaster for one of them. The narrator, Rafe, goes into the Quantum Café looking for his girlfriend, Marissa (or one incarnation of her), but meets Alont, a tough woman who doesn’t pause at throwing knives into people’s eyes.

Wentworth takes us on a surreal tour of other universes, and keeps a tight grip on what could have been a very confusing narrative in the hands of a lesser writer. I particularly enjoyed the ending, with is not only thought provoking, but very much in keeping with quantum physics.

In "Redemption of Nepheli" by E. Sedia, Shai is the Mayor of a town under siege. He has but one hope: that Nepheli, the infamous warlock, will consent to come to their help. There is, however, a slight problem: Shai was the one who imprisoned and mutilated Nepheli years ago (for leading Shai’s sister astray, an act that later caused Shai’s sister to leave), so the warlock is understandably not very keen to help.

I liked the story and the way Sedia managed to neatly overturn the cliché of the evil sorcerer who does blood-magic, but couldn’t help empathizing more with Nepheli than Shai (who struck me as a blinkered, intolerant, and overly-jealous character), which meant that the ending for me was not as satisfying as it could have been. But Sedia depicts a very convincing magic, one for which the price is heavy—and yet that holds wonders worthy of that price.

"Common Ground" by Mackey Chandler features an alien named George, who picks up human speech and human habits disturbingly quickly. He meets President Rice and subsequently stays with Jed, one of the men who originally made first contact.

I found it hard to get my attention engaged by the story, which mainly features George poking fun at the modern way of living and dropping hints on how aliens in the universe have worked out problems (like aging or his ship’s stardrive). Unfortunately, I didn’t find much of that particularly funny, and the plot rambled just a tad too much for me to cling on to something else.

In "New Moon" by Mike Barretta, the first manned mission to the moon has ended in failure—the Lunar Module was somehow unable to lift off from the surface of the moon, leaving Aldrin and Armstrong stranded on the moon without any means of lifting off, and Collins making his way back to Earth. The question is: What went wrong?

Barretta neatly explores the consequences such an event would have had, from the doomed astronauts to President Nixon to a family in small-town America. While I loved that part of the story, I was less convinced with the latter part, which dealt with why the Lunar Module did not lift off. For starters, it took me a few rereads to understand what had happened, and when I did understand the explanation, it did not ring true to me. It seemed, again, an overly complicated plan based on rules that were not made quite clear, and that seemed to stem more from the author’s somewhat arbitrary decision than from the natural flow of the story. A pity, because Barretta’s extrapolation on America’s reaction was masterful.

Overall, the stories in this issue of Baen’s Universe are well plotted and easily readable, with strong characters you can easily root for. I’m not convinced by their purely humorous pieces, but that likely stems from personal taste. A strong issue overall, with two standouts: "Crawlspace" and "Newts."