Jim Baen’s Universe, #1

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“Chilling” by Alan Dean Foster
“Bow Shock” by Gregory Benford
“Pimpf” by Charles Stross
“What Would Sam Spade Do?” by Jo Walton
“Brieanna’s Constant” by Eric M. Witchey
“Bob’s Yeti Problem” by Lawrence Person
“Slanted Jack” by Mark L. Van Name
“Candy-Blossom” by Dave Freer
“The Darkness” by David Drake
“The Cold Blacksmith” by Elizabeth Bear
“Poga” by John Barnes
“Build-A-Bear” by Gene Wolfe
“The Opposite of Pomegranates” by Marissa K. Lingen
“’Ware the Sleeper” by Julie Czerneda
“The Thief of Stones” by Sarah Zettel
“Fancy Farmer” by Pam Uphoff
“The Puzzle of the Peregrinating Coach” by George Phillies
“Astromonkeys!” by Tony Frazier
“Giving it 14 Percent” by Ani Fox
“Local Boy Makes Good” by Ray Tabler

Jim Baen’s Universe
is an online magazine featuring stories ranging from light comedy to hard sci-fi. Unfettered by space constraints, the editors don’t need to cut down stories because of length.  Judging from issue #1, this has resulted in rambling tales that fail to gather much steam.

Several established authors contributed to this issue, but it’s really the new writers like Pam Uphoff, Tony Frazier, and Ray Tabler that turned in the best pieces. It seems likely that the more established writers are writing one-offs for their series and are focusing more on widening their fan base than producing the best short story.

In “Chilling” by Allen Dean Foster, a newlywed couple is stranded on a remote ice planet. After finding a cave, a series of improbable events happen around and to them, and they watch helplessly as events play out while never making a decision or undertaking an action. Essentially, “Chilling” is the story of two spoiled, rich kids who don’t ever have to do anything to help themselves and end up surviving despite that.

There is a lot of science and a little fiction in Gregory Benford’s “Bow Shock.” Benford tells a procedural sci-fi story that goes inside academic astronomy. Ralph, an astronomer at UC Irvine (where Bedford actually teaches), struggles to find what he wants romantically and professionally while striving to hold onto “His” mysterious discovery. While not high on suspense, “Bow Shock” has a strong sense of integrity and originality. Despite being highly technical, Benford addresses humanity’s need to identify and categorize everything we encounter.  It transcends the somewhat narrow subject matter and speaks to the whole of human existence.

The first rule of the secret British department that keeps demons from infecting online game worlds is to not talk about the secret British department that keeps demons from infecting online game worlds. The second rule… With online gaming worlds becoming more and more realistic, would it be possible for a well researched dungeon master to accidentally summon an actual demon? Charles Stross explores that possibility in “Pimpf,” a satire of online gaming and office bureaucracy where a government gamer has to save his intern from his own stupidity.  The narrator is a bit egotistical and bogs the story down with hackerese, kinda like being dressed down by your company’s computer guy, but it’s still funny and believable. I have no idea where the title comes from, maybe a blend of Office Space and Order of the Stick, but both the gaming world and the government bureaucracy are believable and identifiable. An enjoyable read.

In “What would Sam Spade Do?” Jo Walton decided Sam Spade would make a bad joke and run it into the ground. In a future world, scientists have figured out how to clone people, including Jesus. When a Jesus clone kills another Jesus clone wacky hijinx ensue. What little plot exists is just setup for the jokes, and the murder is resolved in a few paragraphs. Its one of those stories you’re either going to find hilarious or not.

Eric M. Witchey tracks the progress of a coffee-selling granola girl in “Brieanna’s Constant.” Opening with a lot of backstory, the author details who Brieanna is, how she found her coffee truck, and why she decorated it the way she did. Next, two scientists are purportedly measuring how personal expectations influence a chaotic system. Since Brieanna always shows up on time, the scientists decide to throw roadblocks in her path to see if that affects the outcome.

I never really got into “Brieanna’s Constant” because the stakes were so low. Do I, as a reader, care that Brieanna doesn’t get the best spot in front of an office building?  Not really. Instead of being cute, it was just pedestrian.  Additionally, the characters felt like shallow stereotypes: the driven scientist, the oblivious hippy chick, and the unhappy wife—we’ve seen all of them before, and they could have been better developed. 

“Bob’s Yeti Problem” by Lawrence Person is a humorous tale about a series of Yeti falling from the sky in front of a cabin rented by a Hollywood scriptwriter. Person never explains the how or why of these plummeting Yeti and instead satirizes Hollywood.  The result is that the story reads like a joke setup. Yes, it is funny, but the author doesn’t say anything that hasn’t been said before or can’t be found in an issue of Creative Screenwriting. Still, I enjoyed it, up to a point.

Mark L. Van Name is a Baen author with two other short stories published in one of their anthologies and an upcoming novel, all starring the same characters as “Slanted Jack.” While this story is well written, if somewhat long, and Van Name’s style is easy to read, and he’s clearly built a detailed world, it seemed like the purpose of “Slanted Jack” was to create interest in his novel.  This struck me as a prose-delivered infomercial, where the author was more concerned about making his characters seem cool than telling a great story. The story itself was reminiscent of a television show where the status quo is established at the beginning, bad things happen, and things return to the status quo for a happy ending. And the last scene felt like a laugh line setup right before a freeze-frame at the end of a 1980s sitcom.

Language and the meaning of words are at the core of “Candy Blossom” by Dave Freer. A man and an alien meet, neither quite understands the other, but both help each other.  What makes this story intriguing is its use of dialect on the human side. There isn’t a specific setting given until later in the story, so initially, it’s uncertain who’s the alien. I found the use of Afrikaan culture and wording unique, intelligent, and well incorporated into a smart story.  I would have appreciated it if the appendix of Afrikaan words had been placed higher up, but it’s nice to see some positive, upbeat, sci-fi stories. Freer puts a new face on the idea of “first contact." It’s plausible and has a serious tone that belies its somewhat comical ending.

David Drake, one of Baen’s bigger stars, puts out another short story set in the Hammer’s Slammers world in “The Darkness.” Drake displays the same style and content that made him the master of this genre, but doesn’t really offer up anything new in this by-the-numbers war story.

Like many of Drake’s books, it seems to be the Vietnam War set in space. He details his world with troops griping about the equipment, explaining the tactical situation and the war they’re fighting with expert precision.  Drake executes this story with the skill he’s shown throughout his career. It’s believable, easy to follow, and well written, but it’s just not that gripping. I couldn’t get over the generic nature of it. Battle-hardened space mercenaries fighting in a war between two factions, it’s both an over hashed storyline and one that Drake has written before.

“The Cold Blacksmith” by Elizabeth Bear is a fairy tale-like story of a blacksmith asked to fix the heart of a young woman. The woman gives the blacksmith a pile of broken glass and asks him to make the heart beat again.

Bear clearly spent time detailing the world her characters inhabit, and the beginning feels much like a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. The concept is intriguing, and it reads like a fair tale should, but she goes wrong detailing minor characters doing minor things.  A good amount of space is spent describing the life and milking of a goat, which didn’t really add anything to the story, and I was left wondering why she put it in. This space could have been better used developing the main plot.

Nevertheless, Bear penned one of the best lines I’ve read in a long time: “If glass will cut and shatter, perhaps a heart should be made of tougher stuff.” It’s a line that speaks to the story and the metaphor at the same time—brilliant and one of several strong images in this piece. 

I’ve read “Poga” by John Barnes twice, and it still makes no sense. Barnes is obviously trying for cute and witty, and in the process, every tangent encountered is explained unto death.  It adds unnecessary length and slows an already sluggish story to an almost incomprehensible, tedious crawl. Short stories are, ideally, to the point, but Barnes takes seven paragraphs to talk about a type of chalk, bogging down the pace without adding anything to meaning or setting.

Barnes’s contemporary fantasy world clearly borrows from Tolkien, who he references several times. It’s a world that feels as generic as the clothing his character buys from Wal-Mart. Furthermore, his main character didn’t grab me at all. She’s boring, badly dressed, and hangs out with people who don’t really care about her. The author seems to want us to care about her journey of self-discovery, but I couldn’t find a reason to root for her in the first five pages, and by then, I’d stopped caring about the story.

In Gene Wolfe‘s humorous “Build-a-Bear,” a single woman on a cruise, Viola, finds that while you can’t always find the perfect man, you can build the perfect bear. It’s a fun, fanciful story where Wolfe perfectly details the onboard cheesiness of the cruise ship world. The story is pregnant with the sort of awkward sense of failure I’ve certainly encountered at singles events.

This is a departure from the previous works of his I’ve read. I enjoyed watching him work in a current Earth setting and offer up a piece of light humor. I’ve never really understood why Wolfe’s books don’t sell better, and this is another strong offering from an author many praise as one of the best living writers in any genre.

“Opposite of Pomegranates” by Marissa K. Lingen is the fanciful tale of a human child raised underground in a magical world. The setting has a stock fantasy feel: talking yetis, sprites, changelings—all concepts that have been around for years (talking yeti appear elsewhere in this issue), and combining them doesn’t necessarily produce originality. There is clearly a larger world than Lingen explores here, and it suffers from too much setting and not enough plot.

While the idea of a kidnapped human child living in a strange world is an interesting concept, “Opposite of Pomegranates” reads like a vignette or backstory that sets up a larger work. Clearly, the main character wants to see the outside world she comes from, but getting there isn’t that challenging, and once there, she doesn’t really explore or feel it fully. The story is resolved by her breaking one of the rules of her world; however, as the rule was never properly set up, it didn’t resonate or carry any emotional weight. 

“’Ware the Sleeper” by Julie E. Czerneda is half existential puzzle, half Magic the Gathering on the ocean.  The story alternates between a ship sailing out to war and a person questioning whether a sleeping God created the world. The magic work a lot like a collectible card game: “I play my "Blood Reef," knocking your fleet inactive for two turns.” It also makes summoning gods out to be something you can do at home from your couch.

Czerneda also breaks her own rule. She states at one point that the main character can’t control the god, but later she comes to find she can. A story about a god you summoned accidentally destroying your home would be cool and dramatic. A story where you manage to subdue the god before any real damage is done makes this seem like a bad episode of Sea Quest. Furthermore, the “Is reality a dream” angle felt tacked on. I think “’Ware the Sleeper” would have been stronger if it had been told only from the god’s perspective, trying to figure out whether it created the world.

“Thief of Stones” by Sarah Zettel reads like a prologue to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s iconic Mists of Avalon, or perhaps a support story for Zettel’s own Camelot series. I pulled my copy of Mists off the shelf to skim, and while I understand Zettel is working in the same semi-historical genre, there are a lot of similarities.

“Thief of Stones” is a highly detailed examination of the life of Merlin from the moment he steps foot in England to when he vows to protect Arthur. The narrative device of someone telling the reader a story is overused but was effective here.  Many of the names are similar, if not identical, and her style is reminiscent of MZB’s. So if you liked Zettel’s books or Mists of Avalon, you’ll probably like “Thief of Stones.”

“Fancy Farmer” By Pam Uphoff is a fun piece of flash fiction that satirizes cooking shows and commercialism. Part Martha Stewart meets The Ghost in the Machine, it touches on a number of concepts in a way that leaves the reader wanting more.  The story is funny, to the point, and makes a statement about current culture, something lacking in many stories of this type.

It would’ve been nice to have seen this story fleshed out more. It’s one of the more intellectual pieces in the issue, but most of the questions raised are cutoff mid-stream, much like Fancy herself.

George Phillies uses a lot of big words to little effect in “The Puzzle of the Peregrinating Coach.” Told in first person by an English fop/sidekick who thrills us with details such as what he had for breakfast that morning, it’s a cozy mystery set in an alternate history and a take on Sherlock Holmes with a different dynamic than many stories of a similar nature. 

While it’s interesting to have the sidekick’s point of view, there’s an overwritten feel to this tale, almost like authorial boasting of "I have a bigger vocabulary than you; look how talented, smart and well researched I am.” Also, much detail is provided that does little to establish the world or the characters. It would be one thing if the characters’ food choices told us something about them, but they’re so stereotypical it’s really a useless piece of business.  The author returns to food descriptions throughout the piece as if he’s trying to account for every minute from the beginning to the end. I also found the mystery part of this mystery to be lacking. There were very few actual clues, and most of the ones given were red herrings. Nevertheless, I figured out the mystery about a page before the characters did. However, despite the language and superfluous details, "The Puzzle of the Peregrinating Coach” is not without entertaining elements.

“Astromonkeys!” by Tony Frazier is the strongest piece in this issue. It’s a lighthearted superhero story that manages to be entertaining, funny, and touching in a short span. While reading, I was reminded of the cornball villains of the 1960s Batman television series or some of the golden age comic books.  But the story itself is much stronger than the material it gives loving homage to. While the narrative device is the overused “Telling a story to another character,” it moves along quickly with a somewhat satirical look at superheroes and superhero teams.

What makes “Astromonkeys!” special is the wit and twists Frazier employs. What seems like a funny little story appears to reach a satisfying conclusion, only to turn again and leave the reader with a strong and touching image.

Ani Fox spins an interesting blend of sci-fi and fantasy in “Giving it 14 Percent.” Fox combines science and mythology in a story of space exploration. When test pilots report seeing mythical creatures when they reach 14 percent of the speed of light, they call in the only two Irish people who work for the company. Why Irish? Because they see leprechauns, and leprechauns are cool, damn it. Fox explains all this logically and builds the story to a logical conclusion, but it’s hard to review “Giving it 14 percent” without spoiling the plot because there’s not much to it. Also, if Einstein was correct, as one approaches the speed of light, time slows.  But the characters never experienced this effect.  Overall, “Giving it 14 Percent” is a simplistic story, and after reading it, my thought was: “Really? That’s it? You took that much time to say that?”

Ray Tabler turned is one of my favorite stories in this issue with “Local Boy Makes Good.” It’s a fast-moving, military sci-fi story about a group of genetically-engineered soldiers raiding an alien base. Like many stories in this sub-genre, it has a World War II-in-space feel.  But Tabler manages to transcend the trappings of the sub-genre, producing a story about what it means to be human. It’s an interesting take on the genetically-engineered soldiers concept, and he deftly injects the nature verses nurture debate into a combat story.

Tabler’s writing is fast and clean, and he dumps a good amount of backstory into the narrative once it’s moving and keeps zipping along. He also provides a strong ending that is probably the best image in the whole issue.