Tangent Online

  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size
the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Oceans of the Mind, #13, Fall 2004, "Mysteries"

E-mail Print
"Idol" by Russell Blackford
"Resurrection and Life" by Paul Marlowe
"The End of the Event Horizon" by Charlene Brusso
"Time Tracker" by G. Miki Hayden
"Lag Phase" by Ian Sanders
"Best in Show" by Ian Creasey
"The Text" by Kurt R.A. Giambastiani
"Parakeets and PBJs" by Greg Beatty

I like very much the fact that the editor of Oceans of the Mind has put together an issue called "Mysteries" with only one story that is a classic "whodunit."  The theme that I thought ran through the issue, more strongly than mysteries, is paranoia and the threats to the self caused by certain cultures in certain times.  From the dwindling colonial population of "Lag Phase," through the theocratic police state of the "The Text," to the subversive computer-managed thought control of "Parakeets and PBJs," the stories show us how people in extreme situations react in extreme ways—whether they are in power or are subject to its whims.  The over-arching mystery element in these stories, perhaps, is something more along the lines of "How is it that people can do such terrible things to each other?" 

"Idol" by Russell Blackford
The lead story is one that plays strongly on the "homo homini lupus" idea.  Gene-enhanced humans have been created—smarter, prettier, and longer-lived.  From adoration to suspicion to persecution, Blackford's story follows the descent into moral wilderness of a society faced with such perfect mirrors in which they can see what they do not have themselves.

The story is told from the point of view of one of these more-than-humans, a corporate troubleshooter who is out to save one of her enhanced friends from a judicial witch-hunt.  The story is strong on ideas and on their integration into the landscape; I enjoyed the setting and the sense of inevitability in the downward spiral of the status of the "gene cheats."  What added a nice depth to the story was the unexpected vulnerability from a heroine who seems—and views herself as—indestructible, even though she has never really had to prove it.  The protagonist, who believes she is a superman, feels like a superman, and has always been told she is a superman, is suddenly forced to wake up and act like one. 

Blackford's tale reminded me quite strongly of Nancy Kress's "Beggars in Spain;" in much the same way a group of "better" humans ends up vilified and hunted by those of us who are not.  Additionally, even though it is a sort of mystery, it is much more like Robert Parker's Spenser novels:  more a "howshegonnadoit" than a "whodunit."  Like other stories in this issue I thought it suffered from a conclusion that was too pat and happy. However, it raised some interesting questions in the course of exploring the tribulations of a nicely three-dimensional main character.

"Resurrection and Life" by Paul Marlowe
I thought this story, while richly detailed, suffered from having too many interesting ideas, cultures, and characters that are too lightly played upon.  In a positive sense this density reminds me of some of the great old Clifford D. Simak shorts where ideas kept coming at you thick and fast, or perhaps Gibson's works where characters are shown as a series of cultural fragments.  However, the ideas seemed to be too MacGuffin-y, serving as gimmicks to simplify the plot and give the protagonists convenient ways to solve their problems. 

Elements of the story felt surreal and fantastic (bodies walking around without brains, ravens as messengers, Buddhist police officers), and yet the plot is based on ideas that are technical and scientific.  I found the mix of styles to be intriguing.  However the end was too neat for me—after lots of running around, the bad guys are rounded up quite slickly and everything is put back to "the way it should be."

The overall sense I felt while reading the story was not danger and conflict; for instance, the protagonist gets everything too easily—his job back, the mystery solved, the bad guys put away.  Somehow, I would have enjoyed more of a sense of struggle and would have liked to see some of the conflicts explored in greater depth. 

"The End of the Event Horizon" by Charlene Brusso
The beginning of this tale had me cringing in my seat.  "Oh no," I was thinking, "not another tough-gal-with-a-mysterious-past-hiding-out-in-a-seedy-spacer-bar story."  But even though it is, actually, another tough-gal-with-a-mysterious-past-hiding-out-in-a-seedy-spacer-bar story, it's a good one.  There are some red herring details that turn out to be annoyingly irrelevant (such as the event horizon itself and the mystery of a vanished ship).  Furthermore there is not really a mystery in the story, other than the fact that the protagonist is trying to figure out the identity of the guy that came to kill her.  The fact that she guesses it long before she tells the reader deflates the impact when she finally lets us in on it. 

So why did I like the story, in spite of the fact that it is told in present tense, which usually strikes me as an artificial ploy to gain literature points?  Well, for a few reasons.  The setting is well presented and contains enough twists on the spacer bar theme to make it interesting.  The characters are well rounded and interesting and have histories and problems.  They fit in the setting, and in many ways the two shape each other—a lot like life.  The on-going mental conversation with an invisible person added a nice depth to the main character, and I found the identity and history of that character as interesting a tale as the main plot.  Brusso manages to take a well-used trope and give it some fresh air, and I found her story to be streamlined and efficient.  The ending may have been a bit too easy and too upbeat, but that doesn't take away from a polished and readable tale.  Hey, how can you dislike a story whose antagonist is named "Balzac?"

"Time Tracker" by G. Miki Hayden
The title role of the story is Ryder Darvish, a private detective that specializes in tracking miscreants through time.  Rather than worry about the technology and the mathematical complexity, Hayden focuses on the humans that do the tracking.  There is an underlying theme to it all--questions of whether or not we should, or would if we could, go back and change that one little thing... 

Though the chase was fun to read, I found the treatment of time travel so simplistic as to be implausible.  The way in which the detective guesses the time to which his quarry had run, appears in the right place with only a single mishap, finds them, and solves his problem is just too pat.  Hayden sets this up as an uncanny "gift" that the hero has.  Even so, it just feels too easy.  Furthermore, the period in question is the Union Army at Gettysburg on the eve of the famous battle, and there is no feeling at any moment that any of the characters run the least risk of injury or loss.  The way the modern and civil war years blended so effortlessly made the story feel light and untethered to me.

I enjoyed the unexpected coincidences caused in the protagonist's own life that the he creates by trying to solve other people's problems.  I can't escape the feeling, however, that it really couldn't be quite this simple.

"Lag Phase" by Ian Sanders
This was one of the most intense stories in OotM; the pressure was relentless from the beginning to the end.  The story concerns a group of colonists whose planetfall was almost a crash landing.  As a result, they are trying to squeeze by with little food, inimical local life forms, and good old human cussedness.  The title refers to a biological phenomenon occurring after an inoculation; there is a period of time during which stress causes the bacterial population to shrink before it adapts and starts growing again.  In the same way, the group of colonists is struggling with questions of ownership and land rights plus childbirth and fertility on top of rationing and inclement weather.

While the worldbuilding in particular was very impressive, at times I felt that I was being given a guided tour rather than hearing a story.  The mystery, when we discover it, is dealt with rapidly and in fact turns out to be a minor thread in the story.  Because of this I found the plot a bit weak and its resolution unconvincing.  This is too bad as Sanders did a great job in developing the planetary ecology and the way the colonists are trying to learn to deal with it.  On top of that he weaves in tension between Earthborn and Shipborn humans, the difficulty of being single and female on a planet that needs babies to survive... truly a rich and explosive cocktail.  With a tighter plot and a less "deus ex machina" conclusion I would have been blown away.  As it is, I was still quite impressed.

"Best in Show" by Ian Creasey
This story was written as pure hold-on-to-your-hats fun; a mystery in which monsters and the crazed hobbyists that breed them compete in trade fairs with categories like "Best Disembodied Brain" and "Hungriest Flesh-Eating Worms."  The monsters as such are more entertaining freaks than horrors.  Even though there is a murder, you still get a real sense of old Tohei movie monsters and Saturday afternoon B-movie beasts.  One would not have been surprised to see the cinema version of this story on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

This tale is unique in the collection as it is structured as a real mystery story with a set-up, a crime, and a detective out to solve it.  It hearkens back to the Golden Age of science fiction with stories full of cartoonish monsters and scurrilous heroes; it is a fun ride and enjoyable to read.  Kudos to Creasey for pulling in all sorts of B-movie SFnal tropes to this kaleidoscope of a story.  Though it suffered from an occasionally wandering plot, the energy and the manic monsters made this one a lot of fun to read. 

"The Text" by Kurt R.A. Giambastiani
Giambastiani has created a US of the future that lies somewhere between "A Handmaid's Tale" and "1984."  The thought police are religious, and the President has become the head of both the political and the religious institutions of the nation.  Informants called "Watchers" are everywhere, abusing their powers and pursuing witch-hunts guaranteed to give nightmares to anyone who thinks that McCarthyism was maybe a bad idea and perhaps the KGB lacked judicial oversight. 

The story is one of those that embraces the trope—dearly beloved to writers—that in a future world where free thought is outlawed humanity can only hope to redeem itself and find its soul through reading and understanding works of classic literature.  Giambastiani's tale is professionally written and keeps your interest as you follow the plight of a cleaning lady/resistance member who uses all sorts of clever tricks to pass messages to members of the underground. 

Other than these enjoyable twists, for someone who has read widely in the genre the ideas will seem familiar rather than innovative.  Though the story is well written and right in line with the mystery/paranoia feel of the issue, I didn't feel that it told me much that was new.  If, on the other hand, you view the Bush Administration as deserving of its own horror movie franchise, this story will be right up your alley.

"Parakeets and PBJs" by Greg Beatty
If paranoia and conspiracy theories are your thing, have I got a story for you.  Beatty, who also wrote an editorial on mysteries in the genre for this issue, pens a very efficient tale of just what form censorship and the religious hijacking of scientific debate might take.  I almost don't want to say too much about it, because I think that it will have you (as I did) Googling the terms used and checking out the Atlantic Monthly website.  Suffice it to say that Beatty knows how to make his reader worry, and that this brief story is a fitting close to an issue that deals so much with mystery presented as confusion and deceit.  It is a frightening twist on the evolution-creation debate to think that those who are in favor of debate could simply be closed off and channeled to die, evolutionarily "selected" out of existence through the manipulation of on-line communications.  Plug that one in your paranoiometer and then try to sleep at night...