“Octo-Heist in Progress” by Rich Larson
Reviewed by Geoff Houghton
The November issue of Clarkesworld contains four original short stories and three reprints. The first piece of original fiction is “Octo-Heist in Progress” by Rich Larson. This story is a clever and light-hearted exploration of teen subculture set in a technologically-rich near-future. The protagonist Etta exhibits the typical teenager’s ability to escalate a slightly embarrassing situation into a predicament and a predicament into a calamity. Having stolen her sister’s expensive super-modern shoes for a party she becomes drunk and high on designer drugs, throws up dramatically and flees the scene, deserting the shoes under the host’s bed. Rather than face up to the awkwardness of asking for them back she recruits a shady near-criminal character to recover them. She then has to pay him by helping him to steal the remainder of the stash of designer drugs used at the party. Etta’s increasingly outrageous actions are described in a very believable laconic teen-argot that somehow draws the reader to empathise with her in spite of the frankly criminal nature of her undertaking. The actual means of burglary is so original that it must be left to the reader to discover it for themselves rather than introducing it here as a spoiler. There is also a very satisfactorily moral ending when Etta’s petty self-centeredness is finally banished in an act of reparation and contrition that justifies any sympathy that the reader may have had for Etta in the earlier part of the tale.
The second offering is “What the South Wind Whispers” by H. Pueyo. This story is set entirely in Ushuaia Station, Patagonia in the near future. This is a ‘Shield Station’, one of many that protect the Earth against a storm of cometary bombardment that began suddenly and has continued for years.
There is no serious consideration of the scientific reasons for the comet storm or the mechanism by which the Shield Stations protect their regions. Instead this short story is an exploration of the inner workings of the troubled mind of Elias, the human operator of the station. Elias has undergone a chemically-mediated sex-change and is clearly and severely autistic. His only ‘companion’ on Ushuaia Station when he begins his first person dialogue is the main frame computer’s AI Personality, whom he has named Heloise. His settled life on the station is changed when he accepts the posting of a young female engineer, Lola, to ‘his’ station. Lola is also autistic and their relationship develops slowly and erratically until the computer AI deliberately attempts to sabotage the fragile trust between them. The stress of the AI’s lies persuades Elias to attempt to deactivate the shield to allow a major cometary strike to destroy the station and much of the Earth. No-one can stop him and only Lola, the human engineer, and Heloise, the AI, even know what he is doing. In the end, Elias must decide whether to rely on and believe in the comforting and familiar computer personality or to risk fully trusting another human being for the first time in his life.
Elias’ autistic state is sympathetically and realistically written but there are two major plot flaws in this story for those who care about such things. Firstly the ‘motive’ of the AI is entirely unclear, unless something is to be read into the insistence that the computer is a British model and this is an echo of an old war that many Argentinians and nearly all British people have long since put from their minds. Secondly, it is difficult to conceive of the management of this vital programme ever entrusting the safety of the entire planet to the sole discretion of such an unstable and unbalanced individual.
The third tale is “Ghost Island” by E. E. King. This is a fantasy story rather than SF, but set in a realistic post-apocalyptic future. A city clings barely to survival upon a ravaged planet, surrounded by contaminated earth, toxic seas and poisoned air. We learn a little of the workings of the City, which has a distinctly utilitarian feel with directed labour, children raised in communal nurseries and adult accommodation in efficient but cold barracks. Thereafter the action moves to a satellite structure, Yurei Island. The island is a vital production centre for the struggling city, but is also known as Ghost Island, the place of hungry spirits.
Sergeant Riku, who has been posted to the island with his comrades, observes the strangeness of that island at first hand when he is haunted by memories of a woman not of his world and time. Other members of the team succumb to these same haunting memories and have to be killed by the leadership as a menace to themselves and their comrades. Finally Riku entirely loses touch with the reality of his world in favour of memories of passionate love and the joys of raising a family in an earlier clean and vibrant world. There is no villain or evil intent in this story and the long-vanished world of dream memories is demonstrably our own world of here and now, which only adds to the poignancy of this tale.
Fourth is “The Gift of Angels: An Introduction” by Nina Allan. This is a complex novelette-length piece of work that mixes reality with the musings of the fictional protagonist, Vincent. He is a middle-aged SF writer whose mother had been an astronaut lost on an early manned mission to Mars. It is almost entirely set in Paris in a future time that is near enough to today that many of the sights and sounds of Paris that are described by Vincent are easily recognisable to anyone who knows that city. The novelette is less pure SF than it is an autobiography of the principle character Vincent as he muses on his past and comes to terms with the events of his life. If you value slow-moving, deeply drawn characterisation over action then this novelette may be for you, but be prepared for the fact that this is an almost real-time following of Vincent’s journey through his memories and his musings on historic SF-related films.
Geoff Houghton lives in a leafy village in rural England. He is a retired Healthcare Professional with a love of SF and a jackdaw-like appetite for gibbets of medical, scientific and historical knowledge.