Jim Baen’s Universe #4, December 2006

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"Incident on a small Colony" by Kristine Smith

"Tesseract" by Tom Brennan

"Alone" by Joe R. Lansdale and Melissa Mia Hall

"Olaf and the Merchandisers" by Barry N. Malzberg and Bill Pronzini

"Murphy’s Law" by Douglas Smith

"The Big Ice" by Jay Lake and Ruth Nestvold

"The Nature of Things" by Maya Kaathryn Bohnoff

"Singing Them Back" by Marissa Lingen

"Servants to the Dead" by Steven Piziks

"Caught Forever Between" by Adrian Nikolaus Phoenix

"The Girl with the Killer Eyes" by B. B. Kristopher

"Pastry Run" by Nancy Fulda

"Fishing" by Thea Hutchenson
While reading these stories I formed the impression that the editors at Baen’s Universe were trying to find the widest possible spectrum of SF (and F) appeal, from sixties-style genre tropes to contemporary.  A quick chat with Eric Flint at ConDor confirmed my impression.   Those who like an echo of the Galaxy and Astounding Stories days should enjoy some of these offerings.  Not all have that retro feel.  There are a couple with the nervy, intense focus of today—and tomorrow. 
"Incident on a Small Colony" by Kristine Smith is science fiction story set in the universe of the author’s ongoing SF series.  The protagonist is a secretly augmented runaway soldier named Jani Kilian.  Smith skillfully fills us in on just enough of her background to add depth and high stakes to the story, which promises complexity and even the zing of mysterious aliens. 

Jani has taken a job at a disintegrating colony for a shipping company whose employees sell portions of the cargo—because they are seldom paid.  The workers don’t know whether to trust her or regard her as an enemy, even when she offers some tips on avoiding the notice of the authorities.  What tips the balance is her discovery of a girl of 11 who seems to be abandoned—and who is behaving oddly.  Up against Jani (or are they?) are three men: Royson, Delmer, and the shadowy John Shroud, each of whom might be a friend, but then again might not.  The tech stuff is neat, the atmosphere tense, with vivid description and convincing detail, the action pretty much non-stop, and the emotional tension builds inexorably.  Three whammies before the end, all different: the thing that makes memorable stories is not just nifty skiffy, great pacing, but the electricity between human beings.   One of my favorites.

"Tesseract" by Tom Brennan is a solid human-against-nature story, with the added interest of nature being alien.  Anna, who takes all the reckless or rough jobs after the death of her sweetie, Mark, crash-lands en route to investigating a survey station gone silent on the moon Stheno. She has to navigate past geysers of nitrogen, tall carbon trees that seek and drain any thing, alive or machine, that gives off EM.  Swarm of tiny, glittering black tesserae are attracted to EM and lock together to cover emitting bodies.  As Anna negotiates the hazards, and considers the past in a very spare, unsentimental subthread, her power steadily drops.  It’s a race against time, danger, and her own will to survive: a good, tight story, engrossing from the first to the last line.

"Alone" by Joe R. Lansdale and Melissa Mia Hall goes to prove that a very old sfnal idea in the hands of a couple of inventive writers can become fresh and interesting yet again.  I won’t name the story type; here’s some background.  This takes place after one of those apocalyptic Revolutions doomsayers predict.  Life has dwindled to scratch-survival, though humans do still try to make semblances of families.  A boy—abandoned, alone, wary—discovers a rocket outside a devastated town, and settles in. On one of his trips to the ruined town to scrounge for food and trade goods, he meets a girl more or less his own age, and their first reaction is to kill one another in (mostly) disinterested self-defense.  But they are teens, and, being young with the young’s typical interests and resilience, they postpone annihilation as they exchange a few words.  Then a few more.  I thoroughly enjoyed this visually deft, evocative story, even after close to forty years of reading SF.

In a bravura tumble of images, "Olaf and the Merchandisers" by Barry N. Malzberg and Bill Pronzini, gives us three characters: two retired old pharts—Olaf and Lou—sitting on Olaf’s couch, swilling Olaf’s beer, and watching the third character, which is commercial television, with an emphasis on the commercial. Like the TV, the human company is more convenience than entertainment. Though where does the dividing line between entertainment and reality begin? Maybe when Olaf finally talks back to the TV? 

"Murphy’s Law" by Douglas Smith is one of those stories with a sixties feel—it’s the old Guy in a Bar beginning, this bar being in a scruffy, run-down space port.  Any story in which we meet Murphy himself tends to follow a certain pattern, like Deal with the Devil stories.  I happen to like both, especially when everything going wrong somehow comes full circle.

In "The Big Ice" by Jay Lake and Ruth Nestvold, Vega is a planetologist, stationed with her friend, colleague, and sometimes lover, Mox, far from the center of government, as they try to unravel the mystery of the Big Ice.  This is the far future, on an ever-changing world whose geological threat is matched only by the danger from the bioengineered humans who struggle for political power.  Vega has (she thought) escaped from one of the ruling houses, but like ruling houses of Earth’s past history, no one ever loses track of cadets.   When young, members of her house finish their education by killing one another off.  Her brother, Henri, who is about to pull off a governmental coup, needs to take care of family business, and comes after Vega.

One of the best things about science fiction is the use of current tech to postulate futures, design aliens—and redesign humans.  Lake and Nestvold give us the very best of sfnal extrapolation here, plus a crackling good chase yarn, hinting at ancient mysteries and exploring the question "What is human?"

Here’s a bit where character, tension, science all come together in as good a bit of sensawunder as I’ve read in a long time:
Flight is the ultimate high. The wind slid across my skin with lover’s hands, and the muscles in my chest stretched as my back pulled taut. I could see the crosscurrents, the play of gravity and lift and pressure combining in the endless sea of air to make the sky road. A hurricane bound solid and slow in crackling ice, but no less deadly, or frightening, than its cloud-borne cousins over the open sea.

Below me, the lidless, frosty eye of the world beckoned.

I spilled air, leaning into a broad, circling descent that gave me a good view of the blizzard’s topography. Even by the light of the early evening, the core of the storm was foggy, a cataract in the eye, but the winds there would be very low. The lightning on the spiraling arms of the storm bespoke the violence of the night.

Though the ending felt more like the close of Part One of an incredibly powerful novel (so many questions set up without resolution), it’s a smashing good read.  Another favorite.

"The Nature of Things" by Maya Kaathryn Bohnoff is about the "Things" in a house, specifically the things that hide under beds and move things around behind your back.  The protagonist, Henry, has just moved with his family into a new house, and everything seems to be topsy-turvy despite their efforts to organize, which doesn’t help him as he’s in the middle of a tense case with a missing murder weapon.  If he doesn’t find the weapon, a criminal will walk.  The story, I think, would have worked better at half its length, as the explanation takes a long time and telegraphs its ending  (despite Henry not clueing in to the obvious until way late), but it was a fun read.

In "Singing Them Back" by Marissa Lingen, female deities from Norwegian myths, called disir, protect some immigrant families even generations after their arrival in North America.   In Karin’s case, the disir came along with her ancestor—and brought their old traditions.  Now that Karin’s grandmother is gone, she has become the family singer, a role she isn’t sure she can fulfill. Karin is a mathematician, and though she’s always seen the disir and loved them, is not certain she’s up to the responsibility.

The story works fine without the math, which we are told Karin loves, but we never really see it, nor does it enter the story except as a convenient goal.  She could have been an oceanographer or a cook and it would have worked as well—in fact, in the last case, perhaps better, given what we discover.  That aside, it’s a warm-hearted story about family, love, and a touch of magic.

In "Servants to the Dead" by Steven Piziks, Jen’s beloved dad, afflicted with Alzheimer’s, has become a nightmare to care for.  Her career is tanking, and her spouse has been working double shifts at the hospital partly to make up for the financial burden, but is he also glad to get away, even at the cost of brutal sixteen hour shifts?  Jen is thinking, after she catches herself almost wishing her dad would die, "No, she told herself firmly.  No point in that.  Like Dad used to say, you can wish in one hand and spit in the other.  See which one gets filled first."

Someone mysteriously mails her an ushepti, which she knows—being an Egyptologist—is a funerary ornament, put in the tombs of beloveds to buy off their work time in the afterlife.  She suddenly finds her home labors easier, and even a grant written.  Then, despite a couple of dire warnings in reference to ancient Egyptian artifacts, her dad wakes up miraculously one day, just long enough to beg her to kill him before he descends into being worse than ever.  Will she?

I had some trouble with this story, as I do with any story when magic falls out of the sky to whisk away the agonizing suffering of miseries such as Alzheimer’s or cancer or natural disasters that kill thousands.  Wish fulfillment stories in which Cinderella gets the prince via fairy godmother being on the ball are as pleasant, and as ephemeral, as a daydream.  Subjects as painful and almost overpowering as the descent into the misery of Alzheimer’s evoke horror, and magic wands just don’t work in horror.

"Caught Forever Between" by Adrian Nikolaus Phoenix features ardent wish-fulfillment, but the trope is handled quite differently.  Cassie steps into her lover and fellow-artist’s tattoo parlor to discover that he has been brutally murdered, and she calls for justice. She’s a seer—she knows who has done it.  Or does she? The woman who answers her call possesses stronger powers than she has, and says that she can arrange the justice that Cassie demands, but warns Cassie that the cost for what she asks may be too high.

This is a moody, vivid, powerful story set in a magical New Orleans that has werewolves as well as seers.  As Cassie struggles to find the balance between what she sees and the justice she demands, the reader feels viscerally that wish-fulfillment can be extremely dangerous.  I liked this story a lot and hope to see more set in this world.

"The Girl with the Killer Eyes" by B. B. Kristopher opens with the first day on the job for a rookie superhero Special Agent in the Federal Bureau of Superhuman Investigation. Another nod to the Good Old Days, this story about a rookie dealing not just with a runaway case and first day nerves and her own powers also does a nice job with character interaction.  I enjoyed it very much.

In "Pastry Run" by Nancy Fulda, the protagonists are delivery boys—in the future.  They have to get picky, rich, demanding Madame Rousseau her daily French pastries exactly on time, or she won’t pay.  The problem is, this is not a bicycle trip across Paris, but a lick-and-a-promise rattletrap spaceship that has to get to the Sea of Tranquility—in three hours flat.

There isn’t much character here, or rather, the trip is the entire story, as the pilots veer between the hard rules of science and the harder rules of economic reality.  It’s science fiction with an emphasis on the sprockets, but engagingly enough written that anyone who likes speculative tech will enjoy bucketing along for the ride.

"Fishing" by Thea Hutchenson gives us a short, strange, delightful tale that rounds out the issue most satisfyingly with an unlikely combining of alien mating rituals and what really happens to your socks in the Laundromat.