Reviewed by Louis West
“The Human Engineer,” by Jessica Brody, is about Rickar Hallix, the inventor of the first successful artificial womb. However, “when Rickar stumbles upon a possible defect in the latest batch of product, he suddenly finds himself thrust into the center of the endless, cut-throat battle between corporate greed and the security of human life.”
Rickar is emotionally flawed (aren’t we all), driven to perfect his technology yet guilty about his dead wife’s objections to it. When life’s burdens get too harsh, Rickar considers escape into death, but relies upon his dead wife’s insistence that he stay his hand for her sake. However, when the debacle around the production flaws in the artificial womb get put back on him, instead of the corporation in charge of actually producing the product, Rickar finally gives into to his wish for total escape. While I can appreciate Rickar’s struggle against his demons and the irony of his pursuit for the perfection of birth versus his desire to die, the story ending seemed like a cowardly way out for me. The greedy corporation wins and the underdog inventor gives up. I much prefer tales where the main character overcomes as opposed to those like this one that are more nihilistic in tenor.
Haralambi Markov’s “The Language of Knives” is about the death rituals on a back-water human settled world where “a strong-willed daughter is guided by her unloved parent in the customs of how to respect the remains of her favorite parent.” This story is written in the second person with virtually all of it in the main character’s head. I’m of the opinion that far more tension can be shown by opposing actions and/or dialog between two characters. Unfortunately, I found little of that here. As a result, I didn’t enjoy this tale as much as I might have if written differently.
The death ritual customs are certainly unique: carefully dissect the dead and make the ingredients into a cake to be baked then offered to the gods as embodied in the Mouth, a huge carnivorous plant. While reading about the death rituals was morbidly compelling, I never got the daughter’s point of view, instead only seeing it as interpreted through the main character. That to me is the key missing ingredient that would have made this an outstanding tale.
“Acrobatic Duality,” by Tamara Vardomskaya, is a powerful tale where “the world’s best pair of acrobats dare not reveal that their athletic brilliance has come at the price of their very identities.” Kim Tang and Alma Watson are how the world knows these two women, exceptional artistic gymnasts that can flawlessly perform feats no other pair can achieve. Yet, these two were once Jennifer Smith, a middling capable gymnast who vanished on the way to the airport one day and awoke some indeterminate time later as one mind in two bodies. This story follows Kim and Alma as they struggle with their duality and begin to realize that they can be two unique individuals, not just appendages of a single identity. More importantly, they begin to understand the price they will have to pay to discover what happened to them, who erased their past and what they now are. Although it requires a careful reading to follow the details of Kim’s and Alma’s experiences as they perform, I definitely recommend this journey of personal self-discovery.
Personal note: I would swear the author has had personal experience as a gymnast based upon the intricate details of her descriptions of Kim and Alma performances. However, according to her SFContario bio, she does not. Therefore, even more kudos to Tamara for making this a strong, believable tale.
Ray Wood’s “Schrödinger’s Gun” is a delightful tale about a detective with a Heisen implant that allows her to peruse all possible universes related to a particular crime. Detective O’Harren has a murder of a Chicago mobster to solve. By using her Heisen device, she teases through similar realities and chooses the one that gives her the most evidence to work with—where the killer dropped the gun under the stairs. She left the gun in place, hoping to lure the killer back, O’Harren then interviews the two most likely suspects: the mobster’s wife, whom the victim was in the process of dumping for a younger woman, and the mobster’s rival gang leader. O’Harren sorts and listens to the hints from other realities to optimize her interview results and to successfully drop hints that the gun is still unrecovered. Then she stakes out the place. However, what she discovers is a fault line between universes and an answer to who killed the mobster that isn’t possible.
I perceive some important strengths and weaknesses in this story. First, by being able to peruse and slip between universes, O’Harren never knows who people really are or even who she is. Because she sees so many possibilities, she’s distanced herself from her husband and daughter leading to their estrangement. Actually knowing related possibilities has got to do a number on one’s senses of self, and those self-doubts show nicely in this tale.
The quantum parodox referred to in this story is that of Schrödinger’s Cat: There’s a cat in a box, except in quantum language, it’s both alive and dead until you open the box. O’Harren seeks to identify the mobster’s killer, obviously a single person since there was one gun and two shots from the same gun. Except there are two other solutions to Schrödinger’s paradox. The cat dies because you leave it in there too long or a binary answer is incorrect and the cat remains both alive and dead when you open the box. Improbable but not impossible. By constantly tinkering with different realities, O’Harren mucks up her own reality. I liked the ending and the dangers of tinkering with realities that it portrays.
However, there’s an important question not addressed by this story. If one of O’Harren’s “mes” can optimize her murder solving results, doesn’t she take away key clues from another of her “mes?” Do her various “mes” then have to tussle with each other for the best facts because they can only acquire them by actually occupying that particular reality? And, by being able to solve the murder, does she then prevent another of her “mes” from doing so? On a macroscopic level across all her “mes,” I would expect a net null improvement in solving murders. Does this lead to war between realities until the strongest “me” prevails? Lots of dilemmas here. Perhaps for another story to address?
Overall, I would recommend this story for its thought provoking ideas and compelling main character.
In “The Hell of It,” by Peter Orullian, “some heroes don’t carry blades or go to war. Some heroes are fathers desperately trying not to fail their sons.” Desperation, or having the recklessness of despair, accurately portrays fisherman Malen Staned. He’s too old to manage the fishing nets and can only scrub decks and do other work aboard ship. He’ll do any work he can to give his ten year-old son a chance to grow up honest and fair, to work hard and follow his heart. Until the League of Civility increases the captain’s taxes and Malen has to be let go. Desperately poor, having lived his entire life in wharf shanties, his only remaining option is to take the last of his wife’s mementos, who died during childbirth, and draw upon old gambling skills to try and change his fortune. For a time, the abandoning gods seem to smile, as he gambles against a riverboat casino’s straw-boss, a man so bored by winning that he only plays “for the value of the thing not to yourself, but to the player who loses it to you.” Stakes run high, including Malen’s memories of the love poems written by his wife. Eventually, the straw-boss wagers against Malen’s son, offering the ten year-old a life without want if Malen loses. Winning, though, is not to be. One of Malen’s down-cards has been switched out by a straw-boss minion during a moment of Malen’s inattention. He’s tossed overboard, met by two disgruntled men seeking to get even with the star-boss and taken in by their theft scheme. Except this too is a wharf-game con, and Malen is made the scapegoat. Facing arrest and imprisonment plus loss of his son to an orphanage, his last hope for his son is unaccountably offered by one of the Leagueman who’d come for his son.
A strong story almost drowned by the flood of harsh despair that rules the very poor. However, this is the only reality Malen knows, and his unrelenting resolve to find a way out spices this tale with just enough hope to keep it compelling. Set on a nameless world with no discernible speculative or fantastical element, the story is nevertheless recommended.