Challenging Destiny, #18

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"Benedice Te" by Jay Lake
"The Man Who Mistook Himself for a Superhero" by Karl El-Koura
"Dead Man With a Stick" by Greg Beatty
"The Miller and the Old Hag" by G.C. McRae
"Early Adopters" by L. Blunt Jackson

Challenging Destiny 18 is available as a .pdf file. The format is very clean, nice illustrations (which one can retrieve off the website, saving space on a palmtop), and there is a read-aloud option which I wanted to try, but ended up not having the time to explore. Very well presented.

Though Tangent doesn't go into the other content of zines, I have to mention two features that readers might want to be alerted to: the interview with writer Karen Lowachee, whose Warchild was the second Warner Aspect winner, and a very fine article on the whole Frankenstein phenomenon, beginning with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's work and carrying through the various adaptations since.

There were five stories in this issue, all of them solid. Really the only creeb I would make is that someone at the copy editing end needs to review the difference between lie and lay. Otherwise, I applaud the picks: the stories ranged from steam punk to futuretech, with a side trip into folk tale territory.

Jay Lake opens with "Benedice Te" which is the steampunk offering. The neat thing about steampunk tales, at least for me, is that there but for the vagaries of inventors, investors, and the whipsaw tastes of the publick, go we. Steam-powered guns, zeppelins, steam rams, daguerreographs, and the "latest in transportation mechanology, the Swiss funicular." Sexy steamtech ahoy!

The time is 1961, the place Galvezton, in the Texian Republic, where the British Imperial Crown has a Consul-General established. Algernon Black-Smith just escapes being squashed by a steam ram, which kills a number of people. Just wogs, in both Algernon's eyes and those of Lord Quinnipiac, the Consul-General. It becomes apparent to Algernon that Quinnipiac knew about the steam ram, and possibly that the accident was no accident, as he finds himself assigned to retrieve a missing secret file. He is not even to know what is in it.

He takes the train to San Antonio de Bexar, and soon encounters Istvan Szagy, a fellow old boy from Choate, which obviously was run along the lines of the old imperial-era public schools, complete to floggings and buggery. Szagy seems to have been a blood; he's rather dashing now, and surprisingly sympathetic to the "wogs" of the Republic. Danger, double-crossing diplomats, secret files, and other skullduggery of the imperial era takes place, leading Algernon and Szagy into danger and an ending fraught with possibility. Lake does an excellent job with his characters, in particular Black-Smith, who is believable as an imperialist, but manages to be human enough for us to root for.

In Karl El-Koura's "The Man Who Mistook Himself for a Superhero" a young man wakens in an alley, not knowing who he is, but when he discovers a kid robbing someone at gunpoint, he intervenes. The kid shoots him-and the bullet doesn't penetrate. The young man is convinced he has to be a superhero-he decides his name should be the Defender of the Innocent and Helpless, which may be a tad long–and so he gets up and sets about doing good deeds.

After some very funny, sometimes poignant encounters, we shift out of his point-of-view to find out that his name is Mattew Peber, and we discover why he is able to do what he does. And what happens to guys who think they are superheroes-but aren't. A very appealing story.

Greg Beatty's "Dead Man With a Stick" starts off on an unnamed world with six men being chosen by the priests. Each picks a pebble, and if you get the white one with lines, you are officially dead to the rest of the village, and your family turns away weeping while you are left standing there. Each of the six has to try a different method to find and defeat the powerful sorcerer who is slowly squeezing the life out of the land, making scrabbling for a living increasingly difficult.

Our man, once named Miche, becomes ////// and is given a stick. He is trained to use the stick as offensive and defensive weapon, and then he departs on his quest, practicing and learning along the way. Miche knows he's not the best at anything, but he thinks the gods selected him because he thinks things out-which eventually includes considering the way the world is made, and whether or not those gods really are involved in it or not. Yes, he does finally meet the sorcerer-along with ///////, who catches up–but nothing is predictable. The prose is superb, the ending resonant.

G.C. McRae's "The Miller and the Old Hag" is probably my favorite story in a bunch of good stories. I am a sucker for folk tale formats that incorporate social and emotional truths that transcend historical and contemporary time.

In this story, a Miller is quite unhappy that his three sons do not want to be millers. He decides to sell his ox in order to buy a bigger millstone, but that means pressuring his boys into doing the grunt work of turning the stone. His wife, unhappy at the discord in her family, suggests a plan to the boys, and they carry it out. There is a subtle touch of magic to the story of the Old Hag and her demands of the Miller, after he is robbed of his ox. Her demands, how he meets them, what happens after. . .and a further surprise just when you think you've got it all make for a splendid story.

L. Blunt Jackson's "Early Adopters" is a wild change-of-pace, a sfnal story that focuses in on future biotech. We're all used to the now-standard trope of the jack in the neck, but this story delves with a knowledgeable eye into how it might really come about. Computer engineering, corporate politics, the uneasy borderline between biological experimentation and the rapid advance of technology all get their due here, but Jackson does not lose sight of the human view. His protagonist, Jimmy, Victor Hammond, the crabby boss who eagerly embraces the idea of being a guinea-pig, and Melissa, the young, bright software engineer of the new generation, are believable, their reactions interesting, and there's plenty of humor as well as emotional stakes. A fine close to a worthwhile issue.