Abyss & Apex, #20, 4th Quarter 2006

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"Godspeed Inc." by Vincent Miskell

"The Knife" by Jason L. Corner
"Nomad" by Karl Bunker
"The Heaviest Dream" by M. Kate Havas

"A Fool’s Death" by Lawrence M. Schoen
There’s been a lot of discussion recently about whether or not science fiction as a genre is dead.  One side says that SF should turn inwards, accept that its sacred cows will never be made flesh and instead become an examination of how we can live on a planet we’re steadily choking, surrounded by no one but ourselves and with no one else to blame.  The other sings hymns to the glory of the spaceship, eulogizes the pleasure of pulp, and yearns for the days when there was a lightsaber in every home.  I’m somewhere in-between.  And so, it seems, is Vincent Miskell.  In "Godspeed Inc." he tells a story which has its share of widescreen pulp spectacle, coupled with a realistic worldview and some nicely handled characters.

Godspeed Inc. welds the universe back together.  When every ship drive can punch a hole in the universe, and Pluto has been lost down one of these, it’s a vital if unpopular job, and Naomi is only months away from retirement.  That is, until she sees the black hole.  It seems that traffic through the rifts goes both ways; a black hole has come through and is heading directly for the center of the solar system.  Now the only person who can save the planet has to contend with aging hardware, the political concerns of her own employers, and the very real possibility that she won’t be alive to retire after all.

Miskell has a real sense of the visual, and some of the scenes here are breathtaking.  Descriptions of Naomi making her way across the surface of Umbriel towards a ship parked there "just in case" are particularly good, combining the huge scale of the scene with the very small, very real concerns of Naomi.  The story combines casual informality with moments of real tension and humor, with Naomi forced to not only think on her feet but concentrate on the moment at hand.  She’s a great character, hugely sympathetic, and at times reminiscent of Hutch, the heroine of Jack McDevitt‘s excellent Engines of God series.

This is a hugely confident, hugely assured story that manages to blend the fantastic and the real with absolute confidence and absolute ease.  Huge fun, this is a world and an author I hope to see more from soon.

In "The Man Who Was Never Afraid" by Brian Dolton, Yi Qin has seen this all before.  A Man Who Is Never Afraid makes a foolish, alcohol-drenched wager in the presence of a Man Who Is More Than He Seems.  The end result is a blood-soaked certainty, but if that’s the case, then why is Yi Qin sticking around?
Faux Eastern fantasy is a difficult genre to write successfully.  A foot wrong in one direction and it comes off as pastiche.  A foot wrong in the other and it plays like little more than a distillation of the recent revival in martial cinema.  However, Brian Dolton manages to avoid all the pitfalls and turns in a story which feels timeless, shot through with a welcome streak of wry, deadpan humor.

Dolton plays with Yi Qin as both a character and a mouthpiece, using her distance and lack of concern to couch the story in traditional and remarkably effective terms.  Divided into miniature chapters, there’s a distinct hint of the fable to this, as Yi Qin witnesses a battle of wits between The Man Who Was Never Afraid and a surprisingly articulate demon.  That battle, and the fact that its based on intelligence and perception instead of physical strength (although fans of heroic cinema will find a lot to enjoy in the story’s whirlwind closing moments), is what makes the story stand out.  This is a piece of fiction as much about what we think is going on as what’s actually going on.  It is, in short, a piece of delicately engineered close-up magic, carried out right in front of the reader.  A tight, controlled, hugely enjoyable piece of writing, this avoids all the stereotypes of the genre, is worthy of its sources, and is mightily entertaining.

Jason L. Corner‘s "The Knife" shares some thematic similarities with "Godspeed Inc."  Both sit in the middle ground between politically and socially conscious SF and traditional "pulp," and both revolve around the difficulties of rebelling against the establishment.  However, where "Godspeed Inc." is concerned largely with the unusual ecological aftermath of a particular technological breakthrough, "The Knife" follows the sociological impact.

Jennifer Chen and her son live side by side with the Eosfi, a race of tree-dwelling pseudo-octopi.  The two races have been thrown together by the destruction of the gate between their solar systems, and the humans have had to adapt and accept that they no longer have the upper cultural hand.  The story follows Jennifer as her son is about to undergo his ramos, a rite of passage where a group of children are blindfolded in a locked room with a wild animal.  It’s commonplace for the Eosfi and absolutely horrifying for Jennifer.  As she struggles to accept the consequences of denying her son the opportunity to participate, we also discover the truth about the destruction of the gate.

The home of the Eosfi is evocatively drawn, with humans and Eosfi alike living in sections of an immense tree.  Corner has a great eye for detail, and there’s a lot to enjoy here, from the "boats" used to sail between branches to the doughnut-shaped desks that the Eosfi use.  However, what really hits home is the bleakness of the humans’ existence.  Jennifer is completely alone, and her objections to the ramos only make that worse.  Her struggles to cope and what it means for her and her son are elegantly drawn out, and Corner is brave enough to make Jennifer appear less than sympathetic at times.  The ending, while not entirely unexpected, still comes enough out of left field to shock, and as the story finishes, there’s a real sense of transition for both the reader and character.  An unflinching look at the compromises needed to live in a diverse society, this is an initially bleak story which finishes with an act of unusual heroism.  Memorable and recommended.

In "Nomad" by Karl Bunker, Jack Birch is a quiet man, a dedicated, calm scientist whose work is his life.  He’s not socially inept; he’s just shy, content to let his actions speak for him.  Until he meets Madi, a drunken spacer trying to drown the memories of a disaster aboard her last ship, the Iliad.  Madi is brash, outspoken, and utterly broken, barely able to hold it together long enough to get out of the bar.  She’s everything that shy, retiring, calm Jack isn’t, and for no other reason than it being the right thing to do, he decides to help her.

Jack has no desire to see things go further and doesn’t even think about it at first, but when Madi wakes up the next morning to find that Jack has stayed to watch over her, they strike up a friendship.  She slowly reintegrates into life, taking pleasure in being on the ground and with the stoic, compassionate Jack, while he is swept away by her casual physicality and enthusiasm for life.  They’re complete opposites; neither is looking for anything to happen, but of course, it does.  But when Madi is picked for a new crew, Jack has to come to terms not only with losing her, but also with no longer being able to protect her.

It’s difficult to believe this is Karl Bunker’s first sale.  The setting has just enough detail to feel fleshed out while the characters are both utterly realistic and beautifully drawn.  It would have been all too easy to paint Jack as the typical, glasses-wearing, pens-in-pocket geek with no social skills, but he’s something altogether more real—a man comfortable in his own company who isn’t crippled by his shyness.  Similarly, Madi isn’t the typical, brash, foot-to-the-floor crewmember.  Her horrific past experience grounds her in a way few characters of this type can manage.

The dialogue is gentle, unforced and often very funny, the romance has a genuine ring of truth to it, and the conclusion occupies that unique space between tragedy and comedy that so much of real life sits in.  This is the best story in this issue, and I look forward to seeing more of Mr. Bunker’s work.

A writer’s worst enemy looks at them in the mirror every day.  Whether it’s the fear of not succeeding or the fear of succeeding too much, the first battle many writers face is getting over their lack of confidence, procrastinating tendencies, or worse still, an inflated sense of their own talent.  Our dreams are heavy, as M. Kate Havas shows in "The Heaviest Dream."

The best flash fiction tells a lot of story in a modicum of words, and this is among the best flash I’ve read in a long time.  Baku is a celestial who takes the dreams humans don’t want.  But when a little girl asks him to take a nightmare from her, he finds himself aware of not only what he’s done, but of the effect it will have on the little girl’s life.

Short and with a sting you won’t see coming, this is a poignant little story about how sometimes our dreams are too heavy to carry.  Elegant, economic, and affecting, it deserves your attention.

I’ve always liked stories that start in the middle and work outward.  There’s an economy of purpose, an instant momentum that being dropped into the middle (or end) of a story gives you, and a burning desire to find out why things have turned out the way they have.  Lawrence M. Schoen‘s "A Fool’s Death" opens with the wonderful image of a funeral cortege riding an escalator up a volcano.  It soon becomes apparent that someone is to be sacrificed, and equally soon, it becomes apparent that this is a perfectly normal part of life, despite the sacrifice’s slight misgivings.  Schoen offers no explanation, provides no context, just plunks us into the final few minutes of someone’s life in a world where suicide is both strictly controlled and stringently ritualized.  It’s not as easy a story to follow as Havas’s, but it’s just as easy to like.  Intriguing, disturbing, and genuinely unique, this is another strong entry in another strong issue.