Infinite Matrix, January 2006

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"Appeals Court" (reprint) by Charles Stross & Cory Doctorow
"Why School Buses are Yellow" by James Patrick Kelly

"Appeals Court" (reprint), a novelette by Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow, is an action-filled SF story that chronicles the adventures of Huw and Bonnie. Huw is on the run from Lybia because he has stolen something called "The Ambassador." Bonnie, his companion, a foul-mouthed, kick-ass woman, obtained help from Ade, an AI smuggler, to help Huw escape. And Ade wants his price: he is sending them to America (more precisely, South Carolina), which, since the Geek Rapture, has become a haven for a fundamentalist state. Ade wants Huw and Bonnie to break the embargo the fundamentalists have imposed.
This is clearly a very ambitious story, told in a matter-of-fact tone by a character that, on the face of it, is pretty unlikeable, but that I found myself liking all the same. There are a couple of passages that I really found hilarious, such as:

"Airship Lollipop, y’all welcome to land here, but we’s having trouble argumentating with this-here strategic defense battle computer that thinks y’all are goddless commie-fag euroweasels. I reckon you’se got maybe two minutes to repent before it blows y’all to Jesus."

The background is rich. Too rich, in fact. It was my main problem as I read. I suspect it’s easier if you’re already familiar with the universe Stross and Doctorow developed, and also with the characters.  This story is a sequel to "Jury Duty," which might explain my confusion. I spent a lot of time trying to understand who was who, who was affiliated with whom, why Huw was on the run, what the Ambassador was (it’s explained rather cursorily, and most of the first part I spent wondering why Lybia would be after Huw, and wondering if the Ambassador was not a macguffin—most definitely it’s not, but I would have appreciated a few clarifications earlier).  Near the end, I had to backtrack to check something about a faction, and I’m still not clear on what happened to Huw at that point. Oh, and naming two characters who belong to opposite factions "the Bishop" and having them show up in quick succession only enhanced my confusion.

That said, I like the theme, and the future painted here is all too believable. The idea that part of America might be turning into a fundamentalist state is not new (I am reminded, for instance, of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and of a number of short stories). But here it is used to great comical (and slightly worrying) effect. Beneath the rather breathless action of the tale, there is a quiet prod at fanaticism in all its forms, whether it is that of Lybia and the UN, or that of the fundamentalists proper, that gives it its real flavor.

Worth checking out at least, but it’s probably best if you’ve read other Stross stuff before.

Also on the menu from Infinite Matrix is Rudy Rucker‘s "The Men in the Back Room at the Country Club" (or, for short, mibracc). The mibraccs are the five men who occupy the back room of the golf club, which is in every way the perfect gentlemen’s club: bourbon stashed in lockers, card games, entry forbidden to members of the female persuasion. Tonel and Jack are boys who both work at the country club, carrying clean towels and so on, but they are not allowed in the back room. Only Ragland, a sort of butler for the mibracc, is. But when Tonel says he saw the mibraccs clean Ragland’s backyard, the boys are moved to investigate: what exactly is up with Ragland and the other gentlemen?

This, too, is a story about religion, a very different sort from the previous one. It does features fanatics, or rather a sort of sect in which a man named Albert Chesney, expert virus-unleasher and computer-hacker, is the perfect representative: he sincerely believes Armageddon is coming, and wants to "gird his loins" by sleeping with a girl before facing the Last Battle. Some of the funniest lines of the story are his. But these are gentler fanatics, more like harmless crackpots (even Albert, referred to in the paper as a great criminal, is nothing more than a hacker; he wants to convert people to his sect, but is not bloody-minded).

The story did not go where I expected; I fully anticipated the shift into horror, but the way the plot ended was quite clever (hints were dropped early on, but of course I missed them). The author manages suspense very well and had me on the edge of my seat to know what the mibraccs were up to.  And when that problem was solved, the mere urge to know what would happen to the main characters was enough to keep me going. And although it could be argued that the ending smacks a little of Deus ex machina, the ground was sufficiently laid down that I don’t feel like complaining (and taking it with a good dose of second degree helped, too).

I’m not very familiar with horror tropes, and I can’t go into detail on the nature of the mibraccs for fear I’ll spoil the pleasure of reading this story. What appealed most was its setting, the country club, which is drawn in a very convincing manner. And for once you don’t see it through the eyes of its snobbish members, but rather through those of the workers: a group of teenagers that have trouble making ends meet and who have typical teenage problems (first love, moving away from each other once they get into university, etc.). And the Day Six Synod, the sect Albert belongs to, are priceless. You laugh at them, and by the finish of the story, you feel embarrassed to have mocked them. It’s a very good story that makes me want to apologize to the characters.


The last story of the issue is "Why School Buses are Yellow" by James Patrick Kelly. It’s a whimsical tale, told as an explanation to children (and indeed the title is reminiscent of a question very young children might ask). It starts with "In the beginning, everyone went to school at night" and goes on from there.

It’s a charming little story, much like one you might find in children’s books, and I enjoyed reading it. The voice is pitch-perfect. But ultimately, it didn’t seem to go further than that. It’s very enjoyable while you’re reading it, but it didn’t make a lasting impression otherwise. It doesn’t tackle any particularly new ground.  

From what I understood, this is Infinite Matrix’s parting shot. Given the quality of the stories that are here, it’s a pity we don’t get to see more.