Jim Baen’s Universe, #2

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"Treasure in the Sand" by Kevin Anderson and Brian Herbert

"Dog Soldier" by Garth Nix

"When SysAdmins Ruled the Earth" by Cory Doctorow

"The Ruby Dice" by Catherine Asaro

"Sister of Sarronym; Sisters of Westwind" by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

"As Black as Hell" by John Lambshead

"For Blue Sky" by Wen Spencer

"What Sleeps in the Shallows Belongs to the Depths" by Julie Czerneda

"Benny Comes Home" by Esther Freisner

"Decaf and Spaceship, To Go" by Katherine Sanger

"Technical Exchange" by Kevin Haw

"Medic" by William Ledbetter

"The Best Plaid Lans" by Loren K. Jones

"Supercargo" by M. T. Reiten

The second issue of Jim Baen’s Universe contains more fiction than any two print ‘zines combined. It’s almost too much. Of note, this review encompasses only the new fiction and not the classics or serials.

"Treasure in the Sand" is, of course, a  Dune tale by Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert. Lokar is a devout priest assigned as a guide to treasure hunters coming to the dead planet of Dune to plunder its treasure. After arrival, the drop ship leaves them for a month to weather the elements on their own. I must admit that I’m not a fan of the original Dune novel. I found it heavy-handed, seriously lacking in irony, and peopled with wooden characters that never appealed to me. I realize I’m undoubtedly in the minority here, but Dune fans will likely find this an unimportant addition to the canon. Still, it does read quickly enough.

"Dog Soldier" by Garth Nix is a military SF piece set in deep space. Assault Sergeant Gillies receives a strange package from the Sol system containing a Combat Candroid DOG 01A prototype—an artificial life-form resembling a dog. Despite the unit having no operating instructions, Gillies is ordered to take it on an exercise. I found the beginning slow and tedious, heavy on infodump and technobabble, but the action does pick up as the story develops. Much of the opening could have been cut or compressed. Despite the relatively simple prose, I found this difficult to read; the narrative lacked spark.

Cory Doctorow serves up an end-of-the-world tale in "When SysAdmins Ruled the Earth." To the loving nags of his wife, Felix is called into work in the middle of the night where he’s a type one systems administrator. After a few hours, he gets a phone call from his wife informing him that their baby is dead, and she’s sick and dying. A biological weapon has been released, and the remainder of the story is how civilization is rebuild over the Internet. Felix is elected the first Prime Minister of Cyberspace.

This story is much better than the previous two, however it’s not without serious flaws. The cartoonish illustrations give this a very light feel, and the story begins on the same note. The opening scene between Felix and his wife is lighthearted and quite humorous as she tell him the baby has "dumped core all over her bathrobe." Such light banter continues when Felix gets to the data center, but when he gets the cryptic phone call from his wife, it all seems inappropriate. Humor is difficult to write, and mixing it with drama is even tougher. Throughout, the two are imperfectly fused. And when realization of the tragedy finally hits Felix, hours after his wife and child are surely dead, he "…wrapped his arms around his knees and wept like a baby." This could have been a gripping moment, but the simile "wept like a baby" is so hackneyed I couldn’t believe the author hadn’t at least tried for something fresh.

Catherine’s Asaro’s "Ruby Dice" is a long novella set in her Skolian universe. After the death of his wife, Jeejon, Imperator Kelric faces many difficult problems within his government, much of it on a personal level, on the distant planet of Coba. There, Kelric has a history, as he was kept as a slave for ten years before escaping, but now finds he must confront that past as it’s crucial to his dynasty and his own destiny. This is a complex story, and despite all the backstory and infodumping, quite fascinating. While I probably would’ve preferred to wait to read the entire novel at once, this novella is a good taste of the novel that Asaro will eventually release.  As always, Asaro’s fine style and great starfaring invention set her apart from the pack.

"Sister of Sarronnyn: Sister of Westwind" by L. E. Modesitt, Jr., is set in the founding days of Recluse from his eponymous series. Guard Captain Shierra leaves Westwind, sailing to Recluse to come to the aid of Creslin, the ruler’s son, and his wife, Megaera. There, she is asked to share her combat skills and learns a bit of magic. There is much talk of magic and warfare, but very little of it until the end. I got the gist of most of this, but I think this story was intended for faithful readers of the Recluse novels. This is mostly a story of character, but the characters never came alive for me, so I found my attention wandering. Modesitt does create an interesting society where woman dominate as warriors; I just found it lacking in drama and wonder.

"As Black as Hell" by John Lambshead is a modern-day fantasy told with a military slant. British Major Jameson is magically bound to age-old vampire Karla so she can be used as a weapon to hunt her own kind. He discovers she is the Dark Lady whom Shakespeare wrote about in his sonnets. The first half of the story concerns her capture and indoctrination to the human side, while the second is a thriller. I enjoyed "As Black as Hell," finding Karla a fascinating villainess cum heroine, fearsome yet sympathetic, and quite sexy in her leather outfit and elongated canines. For me, vampire tales have always been erotica in horror-drag. However, the beginning does get off to a clumsy start. It starts from the POV of a commando, Gaston, who turns out to be a minor character. And when Jameson is finally introduced, he’s initially a faceless character attached to a name. Eventually, he resolves into quite the clever Englishman, but this would have worked better if his unique personality had been established from the outset. Once the action gets underway, the story moves along nicely.

"For Blue Sky" by Wen Spencer is set in a world of previous stories by the author that I haven’t read, so I’m winging some of this here. Somehow, the entire city of Pittsburgh has been magically transported to Elfhome, where a war is being fought between elves and oni. John Montana owns a gas station there where he lives with his half-human, half-elven younger brother, Blue Sky, whom he looks after. One day, a clan of elven warriors arrives and discovers that Blue Sky is the son of Lightning Strikes Wind, a famous warrior of a fellow clan. Dissatisfied by how the boy is being raised, the elves at the gas station insist that John take Blue to the other clan so he can be raised properly. But Blue doesn’t want to go, and John doesn’t want to take him. Unfortunately, there is little choice.

Though the conclusion is satisfying enough, there seems to be something missing from this tale. It wasn’t so much my lack of familiarity with the world, but more that the emphasis was on the wrong aspects. Things happen, the story is resolved, but it isn’t quite enough. Nevertheless, this one is entertaining.

"What Sleeps in the Shadows Belongs in the Depths" by Julie Czerneda tells of scribe Agnon and his visions from a tapestry depicting "The Legend of the Summoning." While Agnon is an engaging enough character, the interspersed undersea deity viewpoint left me rather cold. I’m gathering this is a sequel to a previous story, as I felt lost in much of this, as though I’d picked up a novel in the middle. The ending was too pat, and I never found myself caught up in the drama. I did enjoy the seafaring descriptions, but that, of course, wasn’t enough.

"What, boychik, you never seen a faigeleh before?" This question is asked of young Oscar in Esther Freisner’s "Benny Comes homes." But comic-book obsessed Oscar knows that his cousin, Benny, hasn’t brought home his gay lover, as first thought, but a vampire from abroad. Freisner really pours on the Yiddishisms in this one to make one clever cultural observation after another. There really isn’t much story here for its novelette length, but the adroitness of the narrative works brilliantly. Freisner can usually be counted on to deliver a laugh, and this is one of her better efforts. Intelligence and hilarity all rolled into one Matzah ball. Oy vey!

The following five stories are in the section introducing new authors. First, Katherine Sanger tells a comic tale of an alien encounter at a Starbucks drive through in "Decaf and Spaceship, To Go." There were a couple of laughs in this one, but even at 1,500 words, it went on a little too long. But it proves that science fictional ideas can pop up just about anywhere.

Kevin N. Haw tells an aerospace tale in "Technical Exchange." Ford Gregory, an engineer and hang gliding enthusiast, is assigned to develop a new type of aircraft skin brought by an alien spacefaring race. Humans and Exiles work closely together; we learn much of their technology and they learn much of our corporate politics and greed. This was a nice story that combined engineering savvy with humorous office banter. The engineering made it science fiction, and the dry wit made it entertaining. Despite the translators, I did find the aliens too human at times, but that turns out to be the story’s point. While nothing earthshaking here, I found it a unique story and a brisk read.

William Ledbetter tells an SF combat tale in "Medic." Dropped from their aircraft into a hostile war zone, things turn hairy for Sam’s platoon right away. Sam, the point-of-view character, is medic Ernie Ochoa’s robotic helper. Of course, there’s a wiseacre in the platoon, Clef, who is put off by Sam being a robot. Even when wounded, Clef doesn’t want Sam aiding him; he wants a human medic. But Ernie is wounded as well, and Sam is the only medic available. In the beginning, Clef, whose real name is Harmon, doesn’t want Sam calling him by his nickname since he’s a machine. I’m sure you can guess what the last line of the story is. Predictable, but Ledbetter handles all the elements well.

"The Best Plaid Lans" by Loren K. Jones was better than I expected, considering the pun title. In true Golden Age fashion, Heather and Professor Campbell are in his lab trying to step back into time to witness the defeat of Bonny Prince Charlie by the British. There’s an explosion and when the smoke clears… Since this is a short flash piece, I’m not at liberty to tell you much more than that, but I will say I got a chuckle out of the kilts.

The last story reviewed here is "Supercargo" by M. T. Reiten. After Doomsday fanatics invade the ship, it’s up to the ship’s supercargo, our nameless first-person narrator, and an enlisted man named Hicks to regain control of the ship. This military tale is fast-paced, and the science, as far as I can tell, is accurate. I liked the way the action began immediately without a lot of preamble. Usually I’m into the backstory of who the characters are, but in this sort of tale, it doesn’t really matter— just the conflict and pace, and that was well handled.