Aeon #8

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"Echo Beach" by Daniel Marcus
"Playing Dice" by Ron Savage
"All of Me" by Liz Holliday
"Palaces of Force" by Martin McGrath
"Foxwoman" by Stephanie Burgis
"Oxy" by Will McIntosh
"Thinking" by Lawrence M. Schoen
In "Echo Beach" by Daniel Marcus, every day is the end of the world, and it’s quite a show.  The narrator tends bar in a time-travelling lounge that invites customers to watch the sun go nova and engulf the Earth, while the establishment itself hovers protected in the midst of it all.  Though each performance draws a different audience, the bartender’s job is one of endless drudgery.  One day, an encounter with a very special customer spurs him to take a leap of faith and change his life.

This story does not get off to an auspicious start.  Almost the whole first half does little more than chronicle a day in the life of a bartender working in an unfunny version of Douglas Adams‘s Milliways.  The narrator comes off as cynical, sarcastic, and fatalistic, but more importantly, he is simply uninteresting.  Throughout the entire scene, he fails to interact with any other character in a meaningful way, and there is barely a hint about the story’s central conflict. The lack of a tight focus encourages the reader’s attention to cast about the scenery, trying to separate important details from window dressing.  The occasional clever turn of phrase offers a little comic relief, but not enough to develop the protagonist into a sympathetic character.

A subsequent flashback explains how he was recruited for his current job.  It is intriguing mostly because it deepens the mystery surrounding the "alien" who is running the show.  Unfortunately, this character’s motivations are never fully explored, to the disappointment of this reader.

The story peaks as the bartender senses salvation in the form of a returning customer.  In the end, though, the resolution is too easy, requiring he risk very little to pursue a potentially large reward.  There’s an interesting twist at the end, but it may leave some readers confused and therefore unsatisfied.  All in all, not a very compelling piece.

"Playing Dice" by Ron Savage tells the story of Albert, who works as a patent office clerk in Bern. He is unhappily married to Mileva and dreams of publishing his theories of physics. But the success, as it turns out, isn’t his; it’s Mileva’s.

I liked the basic idea here, of an alternate universe where Einstein was a failure. Without spoiling the ending, I liked the way Albert’s story concludes. Both he and Mileva are vividly drawn characters, and Savage captures the intimacy of their relationship well in the short space he has. The parallels that are drawn at the end between Albert’s life and Einstein’s successes in our world are moving and set me thinking about the price of success.

In "All of Me" by Liz Holliday, Jemmie works as a waitress in a casino restaurant. One night, an alien comes and sits at a table, and asks her to talk about herself. Jemmie finds herself talking about her childhood and about the trauma she has been dragging behind her for many years.

I found Jemmie’s voice compelling and realistic, and her character was finely drawn. The alien was interesting, and the ending, although by no means unexpected, was moving. I did feel that the story was a tad too long for its content; some of the passages were a bit aimless, and I think "All of Me" could have benefited from being shorter.

"Palaces of Force" by Martin McGrath starts with a meeting between Mohandas Gandhi, his companion (and the narrator) Sanjit Kamath, and Roger Casement on a train to the Universal Exposition of 1889. It then describes the Exposition and its visit by the three men.

McGrath presents an interesting argument about the use of technology and what it would mean for the freedom of the natives in poor countries. However, the trouble is that it’s nothing but the argument. There are vivid descriptions of the Exposition and of nineteen-century Paris that create a realistic atmosphere, but a sense of concreteness was missing. Gandhi and Casement argue about the uses of machines and what it would mean to several countries (India and Africa), but the discussion never rises above an exchange of arguments. It is conducted by completely detached people, without anchor to the plight of Indian or African natives.

"Foxwoman" by Stephanie Burgis tells of a man who is in love with a foxwoman. The narrator, a Viking, has come home to an arranged marriage, but does not foresee that his wife might leave him for the lure of the wood. Then one day he finds her gone and has no choice but to try to call her to him again.

This is a very short piece, and to say anything more about it would spoil the pleasure. Burgis packs a very enjoyable read with beautiful prose and handles the flashbacks (always a pitfall in a taut narrative like this) with ease. I like the subtle hints of a larger world, and the ending was unexpected but fulfilling. Thoroughly recommended.

"Oxy" by Will McIntosh is set in a bizarre and dreary post-apocalyptic future in which oxygen is a luxury.  People who must do without it are plagued by voices in their heads, automatic commands and random nonsense percolating up from layers of the brain developed much earlier in human evolution.  Higher reasoning is not subsumed, but it certainly is distracted.  Clawing his way up from these depths, the narrator discovers there may be a way to quiet the voices without the use of "oxy."

There is much in this story that is confusing—or just doesn’t make any sense.  The "humans" in this world are very different creatures, with their huge jaws and "overskins," but this cannot be a distant future, since the remains of familiar civilization are still fresh.  The idea that a derivative of humanity could survive without oxygen creates some very noisy cognitive dissonance.  The protagonist respires only when he has an oxygen tube up his nose, and yet he’s somehow able to speak normally.  He and his kind subsist on inorganic materials like glass, rock, and metal, unlike anything else in the animal kingdom.  If all this is an attempt at artistic absurdity, it misses the mark somewhat—though occasionally it is (unintentionally?) comical.

It might help to understand the nature of the apocalypse that created this counterintuitive world or how it stripped the Earth of free oxygen.  Perhaps the surviving "humans" are refugees from a genetic engineering experiment.  Unfortunately, we never learn any of this backstory.  First-person narration often limits a reader’s access to "the big picture," but in this case, the mystery wasn’t necessary.

All that aside, the plot and character development are really quite interesting.  The violence of the beginning, along with the story’s harsh profanity and rape references, can be off-putting, but readers should press on.  The protagonist’s slow "re-evolution" is fascinating to observe, and the subtle implications are appealing and affirming.  The satisfying ending makes splendid use of what he learns during the course of the story.

"Thinking" by Lawrence M. Schoen opens and closes with first-person narrator, Jim, engaged in an activity students everywhere dread: test time.  And worse, it’s the acutely pressure-laden college entrance variety:
"This is everything. This test is my board score and what college I get into and what kind of job I end up with and who I’m going to marry and where I’m going to live and whether or not I’ll be able to afford a mistress or a sports car for my midlife crisis."
But rather than math equations, vocabulary words, or logic puzzles, what Jim is subjected to is a psychometric test that will ostensibly evaluate his personality as well as dictate his destiny.   But what begins as open-ended questions—in actuality a trial of wits, wills, and knowledge— delivered by the interactive but dispassionate digital paper sheet reveals something else.  

Schoen writes with a light touch, deftly layering humor and character development in this short piece.  Funny moments abound, both from the test questions and Jim’s answers.  While the author and this reviewer share a background in psychology which probably made some of the humor particularly well targeted, this story is simply a delightfully fun read.  It ends sooner than I liked, with ambiguities unresolved and the future uncertain, but then, sometimes you can’t answer all the questions, and no matter how you score, you can’t foretell the future.

(Reviewed by Aliette de Bodard except for "Echo Beach" by Daniel Marcus and "Oxy" by Will McIntosh, which were reviewed by Brit Marschalk, and "Thinking" by Lawrence M. Schoen, which was reviewed by Eugie Foster.)