OSC InterGalactic Medicine Show #24, Aug./Sept. 2011

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Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show #24, Aug./Sept. 2011

“Under the Shield” by Stephen Kotowych
“What Happened At Blessing Creek” by Naomi Kritzer
“Second Chances Made of Glass and Wood” by Michael T. Banker
“Old Flat Foot” by Ross Willard
“The Floating Statue” by David Lubar
“Under the Shield” by Stephen Kotowych
“Whiteface” by Jared Adams (Part I)

Reviewed by Sherry Decker

Jared Adams‘ “Whiteface” is the first half of a novelette, and therefore is not reviewed.

This issue is an entertaining collection of quirky short fiction and includes some fine illustrations.

“Under the Shield” by Stephen Kotowych

The story begins just after the action, in a New York City subway where terrorists have used chlorine gas to kill dozens of people.  The description of the bodies and how the victims suffered is believable and tragic. The protagonist is Peter Trevelyan, an agent with the Bureau of Investigations and Russian Affairs Liaison with the NYPD.  Risking recrimination for his passé faith, Peter prays for the subway victims before a secret Christian altar in his apartment.

I believe this curious genre is called Steampunk – a pure fiction mix of modern, futuristic and early nineteen hundreds.  Peter Terevelyan is chauffeured to various scenes in a Model-T. A Tin Lizzie.  A flivver. J. Edgar Hoover is in office and so is French President Poincare, so we can assume the approximate decade is possibly around 1915. In this genre anything can happen. You never know what to expect, and that intrigues.

There is a disappointing reliance on common adverbs, such as chewing wetly. I get it, but that could have been so much more effective with a strong verb. If it’s worth mentioning, it’s worth describing well, and that means avoiding cheesy adverbs.  Adverbs are quick and easy – that’s why so many amateurs use them. Adverbs allow the writer to avoid digging for the best, the strongest and most effective word. But I digress . . .

This story develops well as a mystery and I found myself intrigued by the plot, the clues and the protagonist. I liked it well enough to keep reading and not to skim – and that’s something.

The Tunguska Event of 1908 was the sudden destruction of a vast, forested area in Russia. Modern science credits that destruction to a large meteoroid or comet fragment at an altitude of three to six miles above the surface. In this story, the explosion was due to Tesla’s “peace beam” or death ray.  He meant for his beam to put an end to war through intimidation, similar to the atom bomb.  Unlike the atom bomb however, the peace beam is uncontrollable. It cannot be aimed with any accuracy and explodes in unintentional places. That renders it useless as a weapon or as a threat, and is instead disastrous. The government wants it anyway, believing they can discover how to control it.

Peter Terevelyan reads people. He has an eye for body language and an ear for a strained voice. He interviews, collects facts, studies people and builds a case. What keeps the reader sidetracked and distracted in a clever way is the mix of futuristic science and the pre-world war history.  Steampunk – I like it.

I enjoyed the steady tension in this tale. The author captured the fear and dread imposed on a society under a government’s heavy thumb that controls every aspect of daily life.

The terrorists, Tesla and Peter Terevelyan discover they all have a goal in common, but it’s treason. The story ends in a clever way – with a plan.  It is an abrupt ending but a hopeful one. Good story.

“What Happened At Blessing Creek” by Naomi Kritzer

I love it when an author reveals the main idea behind a story early.  In “What Happened At Blessing Creek,” Hattie, her twin sister Adeline, and her pioneer parents are members of a wagon train heading west into Kansas.  Reverend Dawson wants everyone to circle the wagons at night so his prayers can protect everyone. Hattie believes her father when he claims Rev. Dawson uses magic instead of prayer. Sister Adeline disapproves. Adeline warns Hattie about having ‘second sight’ and how using magic is unladylike. Adeline is emotionally fragile and panics at the slightest thing – like Indians, wolves, fevers and dragons. Dragons. Got to love a western with dragons.

Hattie would rather face the dangers of the open prairie and dragons than return to Ohio. Things were bad in Ohio. Hattie knows her future back home is bleak, since Adeline is known as the pretty one.  Hattie’s mother comforts Hattie by telling her she is the clever one. 

While Hattie fetches water from the creek she is startled by a dragon. A second later it isn’t there, and instead of a dragon Hattie sees a tall Indian who speaks English.  He tells her to take a message back to the wagon train. He says the white people must leave because the land belongs to his people.  Hattie relays the message but her father and Rev. Dawson just laugh.  That’s when the dragon comes. At first it’s just a speck high overhead, circling like a hawk, but it changes to a huge creature swooping low and claiming its first victim and carrying him off.

The writing flows at a comfortable pace and the story develops at a similar click, but there are a couple of weak spots, places where the dialogue and action could have moved along faster, and the magic performed by Rev. Dawson and later by Hattie never seems to quite do the trick.  People are dropping like flies.

 This felt like a young adult story, not that there is anything wrong with YA stories. There was a steady dependence on the substandard device, “could see, could feel, could smell, could hear,” etc. 

After Rev. Dawson’s shocking and surprising death, Hattie takes over as the spiritual leader. There is a transfer of magical powers through a bloody ceremony. Hattie succeeds without gagging and feels the power take root inside her. There are decisions made by the elder men of the camp and Hattie is held accountable by the spirits that permeate the land and air. The ending is strong, and isn’t one most readers will anticipate.  But they’ll probably respect it. 

Good story. Interesting characters.

“Second Chances Made of Glass and Wood” by Michael T. Banker

This tale has a beginning that grabbed my attention. Talking dolls.  Dolls with glass eyes that see. Wooden bodies. They used to be real people; at least their spirits were human once.  Their souls were transferred at the moment of their death, into a glass ball that is embedded into a doll. Nattly is a girl doll that has no memory of ever being alive.  She was transferred into her doll’s body at the moment of her birth.  She wonders what it’s like to eat, to feel pain, to see colors and to sleep.  She did sleep, once, but after a terrible nightmare decided not to anymore.

Nattly also wonders what it’s like to die, and if she’ll ever be able to take over transferring souls when “Papa” dies.  Papa is old and frail and in constant pain. Long ago, Papa was forced to make a choice between Mama and Nattly when Nattly was born. 

I enjoyed the ceremony that took place when a transfer happens. It’s clever and a bit scary. Nattly is frightened too, and hates the part where Papa loses himself for a few seconds and then returns shaken and trembling as if he’s seen something horrible.  The latest doll’s name is Havrim and when he wakens inside his doll’s body he kicks and thrashes and discovers his voice box sooner than any other doll ever did.

Can’t give the ending away, but it’s a good one. Tragic. Almost believable. Different. It’s beauty, tragedy and hope combined, but is riddled with lifeless adverbs. Without those it would have been great.  Even so, I enjoyed it. 

“Old Flat Foot” by Ross Willard

The hero is an unnamed robot cop, a member of the Automated Patrol and Protect Units. He is programmed to be honest, dependable, prompt, dutiful and intelligent. The story starts a bit slow, but was clever enough to keep me reading. The robot’s problem is that the automated beat cops are aging and need to be replaced with newer models. Our protagonist knew this would happen at some point so he isn’t surprised.  He doesn’t have human emotions but does think it’s a waste to recycle flat foots that are still operational and reliable, and regrets that he has never done anything to make a noticeable difference in the deteriorating neighborhood he has defended and protected his entire ‘lifetime.’ As a final act of selfless heroism, he goes rogue, making that noticeable difference, piece by piece.

Nice. This is a sweet and gentle story. Recommended.

“The Floating Statue” by David Lubar

Strong first paragraph. No weak-kneed adverbs, just clean prose, thank you.

Written in first person, we never know the protagonist’s name, but we get a strong sense of this spunky fifth-grader as he discovers a small statue in a box of junk in his uncle’s attic. It’s an ugly statue of a buck-toothed man laughing, open-mouthed and squinty-eyed. “Rise With Laughter” is the inscription on its base.  I think that would have made a great title. 

Our protagonist asks his uncle if he can have the statue and ends up taking it home with him. Along the way he discovers the statue’s magical power. If he smiles, chuckles or laughs at anything, he levitates.  The harder he laughs, the higher he floats.  To return to the ground our protagonist releases the statue and he and the statue fall. He wonders how high he’d float if he heard something so funny it was hysterical.  So, he heads toward his friend’s house, a friend infamous for practical jokes and wise cracks.  He finds both his best friends, Arnie and Sheldon sitting on the front porch. 

Their discussion includes jokes, glue, levitation and danger.  It’s funny and clever and has a good ending.  Well written, too.