OSC InterGalactic Medicine Show #18, Aug./Sept. 2010

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Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show
August/September 2010 (Issue 18)

“Trinity County, CA” by Peter S. Beagle
“The Mystery of Miranda” by David A. Simons
“Forcing Coin” by William T. Vandemark
“The Quanta of Art” by Adam Colston
“How about it, Roomie?” by Chase Guymon

Reviewed by Maria Lin

“Trinity County, CA” by Peter S. Beagle

Peter S. Beagle has a knack for creating a seamless connection between our modern world and the fantastic, and “Trinity County, CA” is more evidence of this universe-sewing skill. Beagle takes a problem with which we are all familiar, invasive species posing a danger to natural habitats, and makes the invasive species dragons, or “Ds” as the characters prefer to call them. Ds are illegal, and when something is illegal there is usually a government agency out there in charge of dealing with it. Our heroes, Gruber and Connie, belong to that agency, and Gruber is taking Connie out on her first day in the field, when they run into a particularly dangerous case.

When one thinks of dragons, one is inclined to think “fantasy,” but “Trinity County” fits much more neatly into the science fiction genre, if it needs to fit anywhere at all. There is no suggestion of magic anywhere, and the agency that finds and reports cases of illegal dragon breeding is staffed by people with a down to earth, scientific approach to their charge. Gruber drills Connie on Biology and Ecology, and the weapons available to them are tranqs and fire-proof trucks with no magical swords in sight. The plot is classic science fiction, too. An interesting what-if is explored with some scientific exposition, and the challenge of the story, an angry nest of meth heads and a huge black dragon, are dealt with by a woman who pulls an ingenius solution out of her cool head.

For these reasons, I’d suggest “Trinity County” to science fiction fans first and to fantasy fans second simply because it’s a good story no matter the genre. There’s humor, action, and the two main characters play off of each other perfectly. This is a nice short with a classic SF feel.

“The Mystery of Miranda”  by David A. Simons

The drive to explore is another classic science fiction trope–“To go where no man has gone before.” Who has not heard those iconic words? Star Trek, and similar science fiction, glorifies the adventurous spirit of mankind and the power of our society to break new boundaries in the realm of human exploration, but there is another, more private sort of exploration; the personal achievement of being the first and the only that David A. Simons‘ “The Mystery of Miranda” is all about.

Lance is an explorer. Since he first fell into an underground cavern as a child he has been searching for the as yet unseen, pushing himself to discover caverns first before they are  “inevitably mapped and defiled.” To this explorer, it isn’t the idea of accumulating firsts that drives him, but the lust of seeing something that has never been seen before with human eyes.  In this future, with exploratory drones and advanced radar, unmapped, undiscovered places are becoming fewer and farther between, and so Lance must go out farther and farther to find them. Eventually an e-mail from an ex shows up, tipping him off to a chasm on Miranda, the deepest in the solar system.

Lance sets out to descend into this chasm, followed by his ex and two first-chasing rivals. While his ex is more concerned with uncovering the cause of Miranda’s singular geological structure, the mystery of the title, Lance just wants to explore and discover.

The psychology of the explorer feels perfectly rendered in “The Mystery of Miranda,” and the contrast in motivations of those making the descent is neatly executed. It reminds me a great deal of an old short I read about a man who takes his son to a “secret lake” he discovered as a child only to find the lake covered by beach-goers. As in that story, “The Mystery of Miranda” reaffirms the truth that no matter how far and how thoroughly we may explore, there is always something out there left waiting to be discovered.

“Forcing Coin” by William T. Vandemark

After two straightforward bits of fiction, we come to “Forcing Coin,” by William T. Vandemark  and find ourselves in the realm of atmospheric fantasy. Lenny, a man cursed with a gift, makes his way to an empty diner in search for a seat and perhaps some human contact. Within he finds a sympathetic waitress, but his physical ticks and strange utterings are not the sort to make any sane individual comfortable.

“Forcing Coin” is short and doesn’t seek to put anything down in concrete terms. The who, what, when, and whys are only filled in as much as is needed to frame the character of Lenny, who has a jester’s sensibility and a poet’s way with words. Some time ago, maybe a few years, maybe a few centuries, he procured a coin from a “dead” man, and this coin has the apparent ability to heal any wound inflicted upon him. The toll appears to have come in the form of voices, nervous ticks, and epileptic seizures.  

Vandemark’s colorful description, filtered through the eyes of someone who is on the edge of sanity, is what makes this story. Its brevity makes me feel as if Lenny leaves before he is ever properly introduced, but it is always a good sign when my biggest gripe about a story is that there wasn’t more.

“The Quanta of Art” by Adam Colston

“The Quanta of Art,” by Adam Colston, flings us into the far future, where transportation, biology, and cybernetics have made the jumps that some of us have been awaiting for years, to tell us a story about a gallery owner forced to do a favor for “businessman” Hei Long. The gallery owner, Mr. Whistler, is told that his son has accrued gambling debts to the sum of eleven-and-a-half-thousand sys-dollars, and if Mr.  Whistler doesn’t do Hei Long a favor, his son is a dead man.

The service involves a painter who owes a great deal more money to Hei Long than Whistler does. In order for this artist to repay his debt, he must become famous, and as the proprietor of a well respected art gallery, Mr. Whistler is expected to make that happen. When Whistler visits the painter to view his work, he finds himself face to face with a man who has altered himself so completely with forbidden technology that he is hardly human. Besides his physical abnormalities, the painter Violix has acquired the ability to, as he puts it, “paint beyond the quantum-level, beyond quantum string end-points. I can spin through specific energies from other dimensions and unfold realities so accurately that echoes from the multi-verse permeate through, infusing my brushstrokes with the images, emotions, and senses that I wish to convey.” The result is that anyone who views his paintings becomes sucked into whatever time and space that Violix has painted, and experiences events as vividly as if they were living them that very moment.

And the subject of Violix’s paintings? Valentina, his love, his wife, and the woman he lost years ago to kidnappers. It soon becomes clear that Violix’s intent is to memorialize Valentina by having anyone who looks at his paintings remember her just as he did. Mr. Whistler, who is himself dealing with a case of criminal pressure in the form of Hei Long, sees a lesson in Violix’s failure to protect his love, and decides to work towards a different outcome for his own predicament.

Mr. Colston takes the figure of speech “sucked into a painting” and runs with it, to excellent effect. The futuristic city, scientifically modified characters, and impossible paintings all come together into a very complete setting, and the criminal element gives it all a dystopian flavor. While “The Quanta of Art” is very much an exploration of a concept, the concrete predicament that Mr. Whistler finds himself in keeps everything grounded and pushing forward narratively. I’d recommend this to any science siction fan looking for a fresh new idea well executed.

“How about it, Roomie” by Chase Guymon

The “Orson’s Pick” of this issue, “How about it, Roomie” by Chase Guymon, is a brief story told in first person by a man who is explaining himself to his new “Roomie.” It quickly becomes apparent that the narrator is not in his right mind, and his idea of “Roomie” is somewhat different from that of ordinary folk.

“Roomie” was the only short in this issue with which I was not impressed. The narrator uses a casual, conversational tone as he describes the circumstances surrounding his arrival, which is a good contrast to just how gruesome those circumstances apparently are, but besides this and the revelation that the narrator is a murdering psychopath, there is not much to the story. In order to keep from explicitly stating the truth behind the narrator’s nonchalant conversation, details are obscured, or stated in a contorted fashion.  To make matters worse, the narrator is obviously unreliable, so when he says his mother didn’t see him, it’s hard to figure out if she actually didn’t see him, or he was hiding, or what. In a speculative fiction magazine, he might be a ghost for all the reader knows, but there are no concrete details anywhere. As a result, there’s no way of figuring out anything beyond the fact that this narrator is crazy and has most probably murdered a number of people. The rest feels like an eternal non sequitor.

I read through “Roomie” a few times to see if there was something important I had missed, but try as I might I could not get a handle on anything hidden in the narrator’s story. As far as I can tell, this is just about a madman conversing with his hostage with nothing else to recommend it.