“The Phantom in the Maze” by Michael Swanwick
Reviewed by Robert L Turner III
The newest of Michael Swanwick’s Mongolian Wizard Stories, “The Phantom in the Maze,” is a detective piece set at an institute of scryers working for the War Ministry. The scryers, using a clever trick, have learned how to pass information down through time, making their efforts indispensable. Ritter, the protagonist, is sent to solve the murder of a new arrival but is faced with temporal paradoxes that complicate the matter.
The story manages some interesting thoughts on fate and foreknowledge while also including an allegory on the cost of war and the reality that expediency often trumps morality. The writing is clear and provides the reader with everything needed to enjoy the story without being heavy handed. The final line is poignant and works on multiple levels.
In “Oral Argument” Kim Stanley Robinson posits oral arguments before a near future version of the US Supreme Court regarding an organic tattoo that provides photosynthetic energy to humans. While the story starts out well, it quickly becomes a by-the-numbers political argument in which he ties a market crash to the Citizens United decision and calls the court “the worst court in the history of the United States.” The story, Robinson’s first stand-alone short story in twenty-five years as Tor.com tells us, is well below the quality expected of such a well established author. It feels like he phoned it in.
In “The Log Goblin” by Brian Staveley a home-owner discovers the reason why his firewood is disappearing. Giving any other details would provide spoilers. This brief story is cute, but forgettable.
Robert Turner is a professor and long term SF reader.